The Game Archaeologist: Star Wars Galaxies’ NGE

It became one of the most infamous moments in MMO history — and perhaps one of the most misunderstood.

For all that the MMO community references Star Wars Galaxies’ New Game Enhancements (NGE) as a synonym for devs breaking a game with a horrible patch, expansion, or business decision, the actual details of the referenced events have become blurred through time, retellings, and a sort of weird mythology.

It’s been 10 years since the NGE damaged a game’s reputation, embittered players for life, and made the mainstream notice that not all was sunshine and daisies in MMOs. So how did this disaster occur and what was so bad about it?

Well, it happened a long time ago in a studio far, far away…

Disturbances in the Force

To discuss the NGE, one needs to understand the context of the situation, and for pioneering players, the halcyon days of the early SWG era were sometimes anything but. As visionary and creative a product as Star Wars Galaxies was (just ask any veteran to tell you what he or she loved about the game), both players and developers alike wouldn’t argue with any accusations that the title was rushed out the door too soon, buggy beyond belief, and starving for content. Even so, players developed a real fondness for what was there.

“When the game launched, it didn’t actually work,” Raph Koster later wrote. “Like, you couldn’t log in.”

As a half-finished game, Star Wars Galaxies struggled to fulfill its destiny by patching in content, fixing bugs, and expanding to include space combat. Even with the rough ride, SWG rose to around 300,000 subscribers early on, a highly respectable number for the time, but not quite what both SOE and LucasArts had anticipated with the Star Wars label. To make matters worse, the rise of World of Warcraft and its multi-million subscriber count gave the suits a serious case of Blizzard envy.

Controversy seemed to dog Star Wars Galaxies as a fact of life. The “Jedi problem” stirred up problems, both when players were struggling to figure out how to unlock this secret class and after when players had to grind their tails off to use the force. There was also a nasty nerf to group XP in August 2004 that caused a sizable exodus from the population. Designer Raph Koster noted, “This single event doubled the churn rate of the game, and even after it was all put back, it stayed 50% higher than it had been ever after. In fact, it was worse, in percentage terms, than the NGE was.”

The Combat Upgrade (CU) and Trials of Obi-Wan

As SWG headed into its second year of operation, SOE was looking for ways to improve what it saw as a flawed but promising product. Jump to Lightspeed had been a well-received expansion, with plenty of twitch combat that kept the action fun and frantic. Meanwhile, the ground combat experience was suffering, and the dev team prepared a combat upgrade (CU) for late April 2005 to rectify the core issues.

While the CU theoretically made combat faster and addressed some of the problems, the execution of the patch was a minor disaster. Players grumbled about SWG’s slow performance, some professions were adversely affected, and a new batch of bugs sprung up. “Instead of finally providing the player base with a polished game, the CU kept gameplay feeling as if the game was still in beta test,” blogger The Lady Gamer said.

However, then-SOE President John Smedley defended the update: “The Combat Upgrade was [crucial] for the long-term health of the game. In order to make the experience in SWG more diverse and to breathe new life into this game, we felt it was important for us to entirely overhaul the current system and to make sure that it’s balanced properly.”

This quote would prove telling, as SOE had been in deep discussions within both the studio and LucasArts to jazz up SWG’s gameplay and provide a more “Star Warsy” feel to the title.

Gordon Walton recently shared some insider perspective from these talks, arguing that he was at least partially to blame for the NGE. Walton said that the team had been experimenting with a spin-off SWG game that involved twitch combat and planetary conquest, a concept that was rolled into the NGE. “I participated in the early planning for the NGE, and I was told to execute it over my and many others on the SWG teams’ objections,” he said. “I failed as an effective communicator in my attempts to change this course.”

Raph Koster has gone on record as saying that all of the developers and execs involved with these discussions simply wanted the best for Star Wars Galaxies and that they shouldn’t be demonized: “I think everyone had good intentions in trying to make the game more Star Warsy for that audience. They wanted to make the game more fun. This includes the Holocron drops, and the NGE, and CU too.”

SWG’s third expansion, Trials of Obi-Wan, was announced in August 2005, giving fans something to anticipate. Included in the expansion features were promised updates to many suffering professions. Players pre-ordered the expansion and gradually got over sore feelings from the CU.

Thermal Detonation

On November 1st, 2005, Trials of Obi-Wan launched with the new planet of Mustafar.

A day or so later, as players were getting settled in to the expansion content, SOE dropped a game-changing bombshell. In two weeks, the studio announced, it would be implementing “New Game Enhancements” to streamline the game’s professions and make combat twitch-based. The NGE would be a top-to-bottom revamp of much of SWG two years into the live game and negate many of the profession changes that the expansion 24 hours earlier included.

Producer Julio Torres defended the timing of the announcement by saying, “There were several other announcements related to the Star Wars franchise going on at the time, so we wanted to make sure that something this big didn’t get lost in the shuffle.”

“Enhancements to a live game are never easy to introduce or implement,” SOE posted in the NGE FAQ. “We have received feedback over the years through research, focus groups, community forums and anecdotal encounters that our game was very complex — many people never made it past the early levels. For that reason, we embarked on this significant redesign of our beginning game to make it more fun and more of a true Star Wars adventure. Once those changes were completed the results were so startlingly positive, in terms of the game play experience that we wanted to bring this level of fun to the rest of the game.”

Publish 25 went live on November 15th, forever separating Star Wars Galaxies into two eras: pre-NGE and post-NGE. Players logged in to find that the professions had been condensed into nine classes, combat had been changed to adapt a twitch-based first-person shooter style, and WoW-like levels had supplanted the old character system. Some of the old professions, like Creature Handler, had simply vanished with no new class substitute to take their place.

To rub salt into the wounds of mourning players, the NGE caused all sorts of new performance and gameplay issues, much like what happened with launch and the CU. Some players even complained of motion sickness from the new style of combat.

“In essence, the NGE removed the ‘virtual world’ portion of the game,” blog Terra Nova bemoaned, “the one continuing virtue that the old design still had, the one asset or accomplishment of SWG that drew what was left of its player base.”

Fallout

The community was stirred up something fierce, and SOE hit the press circuit to do damage control. On November 16th, Smedley apologized for the timing of the NGE announcement but not the patch itself. “We feel very, very strongly that our current players are going to enjoy the enhancements to the game,” he said in a Q&A session. “The content in Trials of Obi-Wan is even more fun with the new game experience.” Smedley went on to explain that it was too difficult for the team to try to balance the 34 professions and that nine would be much more managable.

Torres went on G4TV and delivered a tone-deaf interview in which he brushed aside serious concerns by players and the disastrous implementation of the patch. “A lot of [players] come back after they feel like, OK, they’ve vented their concerns,” he predicted. In another interview, Torres claimed that SOE did not mean to mislead players but would continue to make changes as the studio saw fit: “We will continue to improve the game in areas wherever it is deemed needed to make the game fun and enjoyable for all players.”

Senior Director Nancy MacIntyre threw more fuel on the fire by apparently throwing SWG’s sandbox nature under the bus: “There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves.”

If Torres, Smedley, and MacIntyre thought that the NGE would blow over, they were wrong. The outcry from from the community was so great that it caught the attention of several mainstream press outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, which gave affected players a stage to share how the NGE impacted them. “We just feel violated,” player Carolyn Hocke told the Times.

“The customer losses were significant, and the blow to both the SWG and SOE brands was noticeable,” developer Gordon Walton said. Subscriber numbers fell from 250,000 to just above 100,000 by mid-2006, and while refunds for the Trials of Obi-Wan expansion were eventually given to those who asked, paid game time was not reimbursed.

As if this wasn’t enough of a PR nightmare, one member of SWG’s team took a vocal stance against the NGE. Community Manager Diane “Tiggs” Migliaccio posted an epic rant against the patch on the forums, saying, “Thinking about all of this it seems to me that in SOE’s rush to get product to market in the first place they dropped the ball bad, and instead of making things better, they constantly seem to make the wrong decisions. Stop f’ing around with focus groups, and fire the marketing suits and hire some good, competent developers and people with vision.”

Migliaccio was subsequently fired and escorted from the building. “Her abrupt departure made her a martyr among a playerbase whose already high hostility had just been turned up to 11,” blogger That Chip Guy noted. “Forum moderators from other SOE games had to be called in to help manage the message boards.”

Recovery

Eventually SOE went from defending the patch to repeatedly apologizing for it. In 2007, Smedley issued a clear mea culpa: “With the NGE, I’m sorry about the mistake we made. We screwed up and didn’t listen to the fans when we should have, and it’s not a mistake we’re going to make again.”

The anger and distrust of SOE had sunk in so deep that such words couldn’t pacify some players. Even developers were targets years later. Designer Dan Rubenfield wrote a post in 2008 admitting that the NGE was “a huge mistake” but still defending parts of it. His drubbing by the community showed that not all was forgiven. Linda Carlson said that even in 2013 — two years after SWG had shut down — SOE was still taking hate mail for the patch.

“It was a stunning lesson in how not to do things,” said Linda Carlson. “It was too much change. It was brought in all at once. Even after the event there was an idea that it would blow over, but it didn’t. There was so much anger. You cannot hide from these events.”

The NGE wasn’t the end for Star Wars Galaxies, of course. While the game did take a subscriber hit, gradual improvements and perseverance helped to marry some of the best of the old features with the new ones introduced with the NGE. The game actually got good and cultivated a strong community until its premature demise in 2011.

“If it was a failure or a success, it was a glorious, ramshackle, bumbling stumbling mess of one,” Koster wrote this year. While the NGE was an unqualified failure, SWG proved to be robust enough to weather it in the long run.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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128 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Star Wars Galaxies’ NGE"

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ceman
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ceman

DanMurrow you on basilisk? you should check out swgreborn if youre not too opposed to nge. personally the only thing i miss about precu was the profession system. i never liked playing jedi that much. on live i did level a force sensitive then eventually had a ‘sithlike’ as i could get but i always preferred bounty hunter and architect/trader-structures in precu and nge respectively. but swgreborn even though nge has working jtl. almost master pilot for RSF in theed.

JosephWalden
Guest
JosephWalden

Actually NGE  & the following Expertise system rocked if you didn’t bail and abandon the greatest ground and space PvP/MMO of all time.

Zashara
Guest
Zashara

melissaheather

I’m still trying to figure out why dev’s think everyone wants to wear the same looking clothes and do repeated questions to save the same person. This is why a lot of times in games I’ll pick the weakest class, just so I can be a bit different if only for a second.

KorryHarris
Guest
KorryHarris

melissaheather This exactly. It’s why I feel most MMOs fail in story today. In current MMO’s (most of them) you ARE the hero…. except everyone else is also THE hero. So you have a server of heroes that is the servers only hope….. anyone else see the problem here?
SWG had that magic of being a hero, but not a hero at the same time. You where just another body in the universe that was above average. You didn’t stand out among the main heros of SW, but you could be one of those that stood with them. This is what made the game so great. No one running up to you going “help me, help me, you need to save me from X. Even though 1000s of others already have”.

Observer98
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Observer98

melissaheather 
+100 for this post.

jeremy2020
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jeremy2020

Zashara jeremy2020 melissaheather I think that is a tough statement to back up.

Zashara
Guest
Zashara

jeremy2020 melissaheather
He did say more. I don’t really like Marvel Heroes. Just ruins the lore of the characters as well.

Technohic
Guest
Technohic

This reminded me of Tiggs.  Long live Tiggs for keeping it real at all costs and having the courage to stand up.  If only the entire team that said they tried to stop it had done the same…

Humble48
Guest
Humble48

xsorus Totally true. And it’s not they should have been trying to balance the ranger with the droid engineer.

Humble48
Guest
Humble48

Such a sad tale. Still to this day, my friends and I talk about SWG and how it used to be. It was a great sandbox game that really had tremendous freedom to it. It was also great that not everyone could be a jedi. It was stupid that people could just choose it. When I saw one pre-CU, I respected them. After the change, that was all gone. Furthermore, I didn’t find anything wrong with the combat. Yeah, it was more of a queue system but that’s what made it unique. If anything, they just needed to add more dungeon type content to give people a reason to come together other than PVP battles.

Ugg..just thinking about it makes me sad all over again. :(

raphkoster
Guest
raphkoster

Halaegus You mean, for not reverting the NGE? Commitment fallacy, the complex balance of making big changes with a licensor and all the discussions that entails, difficulty of reversion, a desire to see it through because they truly thought it would work… all of that, I think.

Halaegus
Guest
Halaegus

So ultimately then, what was the reason for keeping the ship sinking anchored after they fucked up?

jeremy2020
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jeremy2020

melissaheather Marvel Heroes is pretty beloved.

raphkoster
Guest
raphkoster

melissaheather Actually, lots of the people involved have apologized publicly for the NGE. Remember, most of the quotes in the article are quite old. Shortly after I left SOE, I did an interview where I said “I’ll make an exception for
the NGE. I don’t think you can or should change a game that radically
out from under a user base. You dance with the ones that brung ya,
whether they are the market of your dreams or not. They have invested
their passion and built expectations about where they want the game to
go. Changing things out from under them isn’t fair in my mind.” (I had made the same argument internally, but did not succeed with it).

melissaheather
Guest
melissaheather

The problem with this article is that these people still seem to think they were doing the right thing, and just didn’t “communicate” it well (i.e. convince us that they were right all along).
I get the feeling none of them can even really say, “you know what?  it was a bad idea, simply because nobody liked it, and their opinions define good or bad here.  We thought we were right, but we were wrong.” 
And that’s just depressing for the future.

melissaheather
Guest
melissaheather

“We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. ”  That, in a nutshell, is entirely why the NGE sucked.   We don’t all want to be somebody famous.    That’s why City of Heroes is way more beloved than Marvel Heroes.    And it is why LOTRO is great.   You are NOT someone famous, but you can become powerful if you put in the time and work.   If you choose, you can rub shoulders with major characters in the epic quests.   Or not.   You decide.   That’s how SWG used to be, and how the NGE ruined it, although the ruination went much deeper than just that.

CistaCista
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CistaCista

breetoplay CistaCista SallyBowls1 c71clark Right, what I meant was that there was no graphical representation of the resources in the landscape. Like, trees, flowers, rocks, veins that you would seek out for for the specific resources. That’s just me, that hunt is what I enjoy in a (graphical) MMO as the prerequisite for crafting. I seek out games that have that. Most modern games have it, starting with the flowers in Asheron’s Call and with WoW bringing the full palette.

Bangkok
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Bangkok

tilles87 Bangkok You are correct. It was just wishful thinking.

Halaegus
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Halaegus

I miss my shitty SWG TCG.

tilles87
Guest
tilles87

Bangkok You still can’t kickstart any projects with copyrights you don’t own.

Bangkok
Guest
Bangkok

tilles87 Bangkok The EMU servers run. Kickstarter money is basically a donation. I am sure there are ways.

tilles87
Guest
tilles87

Bangkok That would have a lot of copyright issues.

Bangkok
Guest
Bangkok

There was nothing like cruising thru the desolation of Lok on my speeder while listening to John Williams. SWG was once magical.
The depth of the game was unparalleled. 

SOE pushing out NGE right after they pushed out the ToOW preorders was nothing but pure greed.

How the hell do you screw up a Star Wars Title???

Well, you know what would be nice?

A kickstarter for a remake of pre cu SWG should be made but with up to date graphics of course.

Rhime
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Rhime

Craywulf Frostington Meh, anyone who never bothered to give the game a chance doesn’t deserve to comment here. Your point would be lost to those who did play.

SWG had the best of all things before it got destroyed. The housing was the best. The vehicles and mounts were awesome and the crafting system unrivaled in it’s complexity and fun. These are just some points and there are tons more. Not “Star Warsey” enough? Bullshit..everywhere you looked there was Star Wars.
The funny thing is that it was the “I want to be a Jedi right now” criers that started the whole NGE mess to begin with. Players who wouldn’t even give the game a shot. That’s the shitty part.
All you had to do was use some imagination and a little effort and the game was your oyster.
Sad to say, none of these things have been reproduced in any other game I have played since and there have been a few.
RiP Star League.

Craywulf
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Craywulf

Frostington Thanks for clarifying my thoughts to Rhime.

blizofoz
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blizofoz

Even as a Star Wars fan and a MMO player I never tried this game until they were practically giving it away after the NGE. 

Why?  System requirements.  My comp was good enough to handle Everquest and it’s expansions/graphical updates but definitely not SWG.

WoW launched a few months later and ran just fine on my system.

That one miscalculation alone hurt SWG more than anything else.

Lyrion
Guest
Lyrion

I put the blame at Lucas Arts’ door, wanting more money, wanting WoW
money. SWG Playerbase? Fuck them, change the game, bring in the WoW
casuals so we can have 5 million subs!
Meanwhile SOE kept
EQ I & II going. Why? I believe because of the loyal players. Also,
look at the attention to detail that went into SWG, I haven’t
experienced another game with so much heart from the developers before.
Design and passion, a true love for the game being put together before
thinking about the money. Then pushed into changing to the NGE. I think the CU was probably SEO based on the constant forum whines.
Then they were pushed into closing it when the shiny new EA game came along. Just look at the SEO/LA partnership and compare to the Bioware/LA partnership. I play SWTOR sometimes but not for long periods, my brain requires more stimulation. SWG I played for years.
 
Look what Lucas Arts do to draw in the money and look at
what SEO did. Which one churns out their products until you throw up? Why keep EQ and not SWG? LA, no other reason.
IMO

xsorus
Guest
xsorus

lol…34 professions is hard to balance, Meanwhile Mythic was like “Lets add more”

Remianen
Guest
Remianen

AlexanderDeLarge Yes, that’s the answer! Accept mediocrity! We don’t need GOOD games to play. We should just be grateful we have ANY games to play and stick with the ones we have. Stop asking for porterhouse and be content with the porridge in front of you.

Yeah, people who were paying to play a sandbox type game should’ve just STFU and accepted that the game they were paying for had been turned into a (really poor) themepark game, two weeks after buying an expansion that supported the sandbox model.

Feel free to do that yourself, in all areas of life. Never ask for a raise at work and you’ll never lose your job, right?!? Asking for or demanding better has never gotten us anywhere, amirite?

Frostington
Guest
Frostington

Rhime Craywulf That players weren’t impressed enough to even give it a try is kind of relevant… I mean that might even be the main reason for most of the mistakes listed in this post. I was the same as Craywulf, even had a few friends that played (briefly) but I looked into it and decided it was not for me. I think it was like that for a lot of potentially players: It just didn’t look that fun to play.

So I kind of understand the reasoning the studio had behind why big changes to gameplay had to be made. You can’t keep people in if they don’t even enter the room. Too bad it went down as it did though.

Rhime
Guest
Rhime

Craywulf Then how in the fuck can you possibly formulate an opinion on the game or why your thought is even relevant here? Take a hike dude…

Sorenthaz
Guest
Sorenthaz

MinionDave Sorenthaz  But it’s not the first game LA has essentially rushed a game out before it was ready.  KOTOR 2 is another example, which suffered for it and didn’t really redeem itself until fans banded together to get the Restored Content Mod made that put in all the cut content to make the game feel much deeper and more complete.

BryanCo
Guest
BryanCo

Hikikomicklori  My quitting point came when I got a holocron advising me to become a Master Image Designer.  There was absolutely no way I was going to spend that much time hanging around cities begging people to let me give them makeovers.  The saddest thing about that is that as long as the path to jedi-hood was an unknown I was perfectly happy running around as a Bothan Commando.

mysecretid
Guest
mysecretid

As someone who was there for the ride, you’ve heard me say this before — in my opinion, Star Wars Galaxies was a great sandbox game, but it wasn’t always a very good Star Wars game.

As the article notes, it was the power of the franchise, and the love of the fans, which carried that game through to the end.

KorryHarris
Guest
KorryHarris

MinionDave KorryHarris Though the read is interesting, it’s kinda already known. Though we may not have known the exact person or where the NGE idea came from originally (now we do). But it doesn’t take away from the fact that 1-2 years after NGE hit it was leaked that they devs didn’t want to release it (which at that point was mainly SOE) and LA forced the issue (since they originally where in on development till I think 2-3 months after release).

breetoplay
Guest
breetoplay

Lateris Yep. Late term NGE really built over the mess and restored so much of classic and then some.

breetoplay
Guest
breetoplay

CistaCista SallyBowls1 c71clark There was definitely a graphical in-world representation. Thousands of animated harvester structures, a surveying skill, etc.

breetoplay
Guest
breetoplay

McGuffn Oh yeah, it was horrible.
Interesting sidenote: One of the absolute most expensive things that existed in the game in the last few years before its shutdown was bioengineered Mustafarian creatures that could only be created in that tiny window of time after the expansion hit but before the NGE nuked the profession a few weeks later. By the time bioengineers would readded to the game years later, the spawns had changed, and those datapad critters that still existed were insanely rare and valuable.
Second only, iirc, to posters originally given out on the Japanese servers. Anyone recall differently?

Armsbend
Guest
Armsbend

Evwald The same could be said, with evidence, of Lucas Arts past the year 2000.

MinionDave
Guest
MinionDave

KorryHarris If you look at the article above there is a link to a post from Gordon Walton , a really interesting read , if he doesn’t know what happened I guess nobody does .

KorryHarris
Guest
KorryHarris

MinionDave Sorenthaz I’m going off of memory on this, but if I’m remembering correctly there was an article written a long time ago on how it was mainly LA that was forcing the NGE. The SOE Devs kept telling everyone to stop and not do it. But with LA having control still they forced SOE to do it and bailed after it bombed leaving SOE to deal with the aftermath.

Radfist
Guest
Radfist

Jalek MrSlow  To be fair though, the EQ2 one was needed and an improvement.  EQ2 was broken as hell during the first year.

CistaCista
Guest
CistaCista

SallyBowls1 c71clark As far as I heard, the resource system was extremely tedious though. Wasn’t it just a mining minigame with no graphic world representation? Correct me if I am wrong.

CistaCista
Guest
CistaCista

Great read!

NomadMorlock
Guest
NomadMorlock

As a pre pub 9 Jedi, I have to say the era of the CU was the best. The developers spent the remaining years after the NGE trying to put back what they had pulled out during the NGE and it was always a pale shadow if it’s former self.

c71clark
Guest
c71clark

SallyBowls1 If “A Tale in the Desert” would update their freaking graphics, I would have a new home. Circa 2000 video tech is a no go in 2015, no matter how cool the game is.

c71clark
Guest
c71clark

DennisSmith2 Ahh, cool. Easy to find. You need the original SWG installation media (can find it on torrent I think) to get it set up. Was a lot of fun riding around the game taking screenshots I never thought to take when the game was live.

Ernost
Guest
Ernost

I think the biggest casualty of the whole SWG mess was not SWG, but rather the sandbox genre itself. Never again would we see another sandbox game like that. And no I do not consider PVP Gankboxes to be sandbox games.

Craywulf
Guest
Craywulf

I actually never played the game, and I’m a huge Star Wars fan. From the outside looking in, I was not impressed with the game pre NGE or later.

Evwald
Guest
Evwald

Armsbend McSleaz

wpDiscuz