A long time ago, in this galaxy right here...
Star Wars: The Old Republic is now free to play. And, if you're anything like me and have an affection for Star Wars that goes back to watching the VHS Special Edition releases so often that you wore the tapes out, you'll want to try it. It's a great, well-balanced MMORPG, collecting everything great about Star Wars and Bioware games and the time of the Old Republic into one rad package. It has some issues – I'm noticing a strong outrage at the F2P model EA has set up – but it tickles all the right fancies.
But I don't want to talk about The Old Republic. Instead, I want to look back, almost a decade ago, to Star Wars Galaxies, that strange, confusing, grindy, sandbox, community run oddity that I admit I spent a year and a half playing.
Roll the clocks back to 2003, if you would. Remember back when the highest-grade MMORPG you could find on the market was a very limiting choice. At the time, I had to choose between just three or four, because the MMORPG market was tiny. Did I want EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot, both games that visually were being left behind in the Stone Age? Maybe Final Fantasy XI, which was visually better than EverQuest but required hours of installs and two service signups? Or maybe EVE Online, which was rapidly being taken over by the forumites of Something Awful? What else was left? Tibia? Maple Story? Choices were few unless I was to go for a browser game.
Enter Star Wars Galaxies. The game bled originality and creativity, and it was a canvas of potential. When it came out, I was the one among my friends lagging behind – it took me months to get into the game, and I had just gotten into Lost Dungeons of Norrath in EverQuest. I could only look longingly as my friends did sweet combat maneuvers and blasted Rebels, gaining experience to become bounty hunters and commandos, or crafting all kinds of weapons, armor and cosmetic clothing.
I'll openly admit, after the spelunking adventures in Lost Dungeons of Norrath – the expansion that first introduced instanced dungeons to EverQuest, and I think the first to adopt them by any big MMORPG – left me disappointed in the substance of Galaxies. The combat was fun, a nice hotbutton hybrid of action and online, with stances and actions granted to you by professions, and blasters and vibroblades replacing bows and swords. The problem was gaining combat and class experience was a chore.
A basic quest in Star Wars Galaxies was to go to your city's hub, find a mission, then wander out into the desert where it was, kill a handful of bad guys, shoot the base, then return to claim your reward. You could do faction missions for the Rebels or Imperials, but that just changed the womp rats to Imperial officers. It's grindy, but at least EQ recognized it was a slog and added some spice. SWG felt like it was several years behind in that way, and it sorely needed more to do. More quests, more story, more dungeons, more pow. Instances would be amazing spice to add to the game.
And yet, all the same, it was incredible fun. The health system had three bars, each of which could be attacked, depending on your build. The versatile skill system was amazing to me – many people rushed combat missions to become Teras'Kasi masters (the martial arts experts) or bounty hunters (which got them access to exclusive weapons like flamethrowers), but I instead wanted to commit almost entirely to becoming a smuggler.
It was all a matter of what you wanted to do in the game. Pistoleering gave me new combat tricks and as a Smuggler, I got to shoot people in the groin (the Cheap Shot ability), fake death, and create spices (ie, drugs). The powergamer friend had grinded out enough to buy a crafted full set of Mandalorian Battle Armor, as well as the ranks in bounty hunter to use it. Meanwhile, I found a stylish set of sunglasses and a black duster coat on the open market, and I pretty much wore them everywhere, even though they offered no stats. I sold drugs and liked to say that, as an Imperial, I was smuggling because, hey, who knew the rules better than a high-regarded friend of the Empire?
The meat of the game was about player interaction, forcing people to work together, even out of combat. If you went through a lot of combat – or died – you'd have injuries that lowered your maximum health bars, and the only way to remove them was to see a doctor character in the medical ward. There was no way to remove injuries without it. Weaponry, armor, suits, fireworks and stat-altering spice had to be crafted by players, and many times the stats from them were both random and dependent on the resources. Those resources had to be mined from harvesters, then sold or crafted with. Stress – your Mind stat's injury – had to be relieved with dancers or musicians. An emote had a core gameplay function, with its own class.
And it was brilliant, because you actually had people hanging out in Cantinas, watching dancers, drinking alcohol, telling jokes, talking about what they did and were going to do, as though it was a real 'hangout' space. And musicians or dancers gained experience from having people listen/watch them. By simply forcing players to coexist for a mutual gain, the players took over the rest. What was planned was big and bright – buildings were already in the game, including my little house where I hid all my spice, but they had more coming. Cities you could build, with mayors. Guilds, shops, more, more.
The world was astonishingly empty, because it was all meant to both a mystery and up to the players. I remember hearing once that mystery is what prompted exploration to be so exciting – well take that, then add in Krayt Dragons on Tattooine, and you'll get an idea of what my first speeder bike journey got me, give or take a few injuries.
In Star Wars, there are always Jedi, and they were a highly guarded secret. Nobody knew how to unlock them in the beginning, because Sony never said how. Which is completely bonkers for an MMORPG, right? Jedi are a staple of Star Wars, and yet Sony hid them from us, because this was during the classic trilogy, and they were a scarcity.
The first time a Jedi slot was unlocked, a massive message shot across the server, announcing Darth Vader had felt a disturbance in the Force. Speculation shot up – how? Who? Why?! As it turns out, your characters had a handful of classes that, if you mastered, you unlocked a Jedi slot, and the only way to find these was to find rare Jedi Holocrons. Before I left, there was maybe three on my own high-population server. SOE endorsed veteran Jedi training newer Jedi who had just unlocked the class, like masters and padawans. How cool is that?
It also has an incredible number of 'you should have been there' stories just built into the framework. Once my guild was hanging out in a Cantina in Mos Eisley, and a Rebel named Eol Skydarkener (groan) ran in and started trash talking us. To which I stood up and challenged him to a duel, but we'd have to step outside to do it. Single pistol in hand, with my suit and sunglasses, I stood across from him, my guild watching, as he strapped on high-class Mandalorian Battle Armor and pulled out a flamethrower.
He sent the duel challenge. I summoned a hard-hitting, nigh-unkillable AT-ST I had grinded Imperial faction to get, accepted the duel, shot him in the crotch, and watched him die from blaster shots bigger than he was. My whole guild exploded in laughter, and a good five minutes later (he had to run from Anchorhead), he was back, furious I had cheated in a duel, and I wouldn't have won without my AT-ST. To which I replied, “No kiddin'?”