Working As Intended: What Star Wars Galaxies got wrong

If you’ve listened to Massively’s staff and readers talk about Star Wars Galaxies a little bit, you might come away with the impression that the now-sunsetted, pre-WoW Star Wars sandbox was perfection in every way — that classic SWG was all fun, all the time, with no bugs and no problems, and that all MMORPGs should aspire to be it in its entirety.

Not so.

The thing about superfans is that no one knows the games better than we do… and no one knows their problems as we do, and in fact we could all probably fill volumes with gripes about our very favorite games. But is there a point to going on at length about design and development errors made in an old dead game? I say there is. Better learn from old mistakes than repeat them, right?

That’s what I’d like to do in this edition of Working As Intended. Star Wars Galaxies is, in my estimation, the best MMORPG ever made, at least so far, but it had some serious problems I’d like the future best MMORPGs ever made to avoid – and I’m not just talking about the low-hanging fruit of the NGE.

swg522

Lore, the Rebellion Era, and the Jedi

Let’s start with the big one: Those damn Jedi. Even the game’s lead creative designer, Raph Koster, has admitted the Jedi were a problem, probably the problem, the catalyst for the game’s early messes and one put in motion the day the game’s setting was locked in. Whether you wanted to personally play a glowstick-wielding uber-warrior or not, Jedi are iconic to the Star Wars IP, and yet the Rebellion Era in which the game was set was meant to be devoid of Jedi unless your last name was Skywalker or you were a small green wizard on a swamp planet not even in the game.

The Jedi system broke Star Wars Galaxies two ways: It treated Star Wars lore like garbage, and it treated player choice like garbage. Once there were Jedi in the game, there was no taking them back out, and when SOE’s NGE added Jedi as a permanent, selectable class, all it did was acknowledge the fact that Jedi were already dueling in front of the Mos Eisley spaceport on the regular anyway. For roleplayers and people who were there for Star Wars as a setting, the addition of playable Jedi actually ruined the Star Wars experience instead of enhanced it as intended. Gamers who were there to build their own character and tell their own stories in that world suddenly felt obligated to wreck beloved characters to rush through a holocron grind to unlock a Jedi slot they didn’t really even want. And the Jedi were added before the NGE, before the CU, even. People like to blame the NGE, but the NGE was just the deathblow, not the core problem.

Lesson: Pick an IP/setting that actually works for the game you want to build. Don’t take a dump on the lore when you decide you want to change direction. Don’t make players break their characters to unlock account perks.

swg530

Character progression, combat, and content

Let’s talk about those professions, shall we? Classic Star Wars Galaxies’ flexible skill tree is still one of the better character development and customization setups out there. You could be a Bounty Hunter by day who moonlighted as a nalargon-player in a cantina by night, and tomorrow you could flush those skills and try something else entirely. It allowed flexible gameplay styles without actually allowing everyone to do everything all at once and shatter the game’s fragile balance.

The skill trees were never the problem; the problem was how you leveled them, especially the combat professions. Gain-through-use systems are tedious enough for crafter and entertainer types, but for combat characters, the game was even more grindy. SWG, like pretty much all MMORPGs before it, did not rely on quests to propel you forward. Oh, it had a few scattered open-world dungeons (called themeparks) and points-of-interest spawns, but for the most part, the best way to level a combat profession was to take missions from mission terminals – generic kill quests that sent you to destroy a lair and its inhabitants, over and over (and over and over).

That was acceptable combat gameplay in MMORPGs prior to 2004, though it was growing slightly stale and was perked up only slightly by the terminals motif. By the time WoW launched, the idea of random quests, camping a spawn, or killing overland critters for cash was just plain outdated. Koster has said that canceling subscribers most often gave “lack of content” as the chief reason for their departure, and it was true. Classic SWG was amazing for non-combat characters but needed more work in the combat department. Post-NGE, SOE put far more emphasis on optional dungeon content, a legendary questline, and factional PvP, creating a more coherent semblance of a sandbox endgame for combat players, but it was still building on an awkward combat system and retrofitting a sandbox for themepark gameplay, so that part of it never quite matched the WoW clones that came after it.

Lesson: Most MMO gamers won’t do rote grinding anymore, and combat-minded players need something slightly more complex than “go make mish money” (or “go kill each other”) to keep them interested in a sandbox. It’s really, truly OK to fill your sandbox with optional directed content and systems for different player types. Every one of them enriches the game.

swg537

Economy, crafting balance, and player cities

One of the first MMO economy-centric blog posts I ever wrote tackled the inflation problems in MMORPGs in 2011, and SWG was not left off the hook. The game launched with a complicated, interdependent harvesting and crafting system along with multiple item and gold sinks, including maintenance, consumption, destruction, and decay. In theory, it was a working economy when it launched, and additions like player cities, vehicles, and starships presented ever more gold sinks to help keep inflation in check.

Initially, the gold sinks imposed upon players were sufficient to keep the pace of inflation very slow, especially during the first two years of the game. Player cities were extremely expensive to maintain in that early era; mission payouts were very low; and costs of housing, skill training, harvester maintenance, and death kept players cycling money out of the game. A balance of item decay, limited resources, and expensive crafting ensured the money already in the economy changed hands frequently.

But SOE didn’t monitor the economy or make any serious course-corrections along the way. In fact, as I argued at the time, some of SOE’s well-meaning decisions — like turning off housing maintenance after Hurricane Katrina, granting all accounts a second character after the NGE, increasing harvester rates, adding salable junk loot as drops, eliminating most decay, granting free character transfers that allowed people to move their piles of cash to a few overloaded servers — actually removed gold sinks and increased the inflation rate, as well as nearly doubled the rate of resources flowing into the game because of the lot system, all while the rate of money flowing out of the game remained stable. Staggering inflation ensued.

Crafters and merchants were in disarray, but I’d say the system most impacted was one of SWG’s most innovative: player cities. Cities that once cost dozens of people a relatively tremendous amount of money to maintain could suddenly be run by a single player with a few mule accounts and an hour or two of missions a month. With a city cap of a few dozen cities, fewer still in desirable locations capable of shuttleports, planets and servers were overrun with such one-man cities and left legitimate city-sized groups constantly on the hunt for a vacant spot. Seemingly empty towns littered the landscape, devastated player hubs, and helped create the pervasive belief among MMORPG players that open-world housing is an inevitable wasteland. It doesn’t have to be.

Lesson: Please, please monitor your game economy. Keep a handle on inflation. Don’t let your desire to be “nice” to players lead you to destroy the economic game they are participating in. Think through the economic impact of every design tweak. Think you have enough gold sinks? You don’t. Add more.

Conclusion

Star Wars Galaxies was a truly great MMORPG, a prime example of sandbox design largely abandoned by AAA developers after World of Warcraft’s blockbuster launch. It’s a fork in the road of MMO design history that many gamers, including me, didn’t appreciate enough at the time. We assumed gaming would go on as it always did, that MMOs of all shapes and sizes would keep rolling out in spite of WoW. And we were wrong. Sandboxes are still being made, but they’re slimmer, smaller, and less ambitious. With luck, and a few lessons like these along the way, they’ll be less foolish too.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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113 Comments on "Working As Intended: What Star Wars Galaxies got wrong"

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knightsword
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knightsword

vicariousfan Jigawatts The EU was well in to full swing by mid 90’s with the Thrawn trilogy, Jedi Academy trilogy, the X-Wing series, many others, and a good chunk of Dark Horse’s comics were all on the shelves. Galaxies didn’t began development until early 2000. So no, that excuse doesn’t hold up.

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Amen. And curse Pvp Arenas for ruining that emergent style of open world pvp

Dvscore
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Dvscore

Oh boy, here we go again. Beating the good ole SWG dead horse. 

SWG was my favorite MMO of all time. I didn’t mind the complexity of the game. I loved the crafting, the economy, corellian corvette, and the bunker. All of these things I feel were awesome and my guild of 260 on Talus loved it. What we hated the most were the mission terminal content got OLD QUICKLY. Oh boy did it get old. If you were into story progression you were waiting a 1000 years for the next story arc/comic to post on SOE’s website. Yeah, I played the game and had 5 accounts. Who didn’t? SWG made you work and that’s what I truly loved about the game. If you wanted to have a shot at crafting late in the games cycle then you had to work hard at it. The PVP was AWESOME. Yeah, there wasn’t any battlefields or anything like that… there was word of mouth. You’d hear that there was a huge battle going on, travel to your destination and BOOM! TEF AWAY!

My main gripe with SWG was always the CU. It never came. Instead we got NGE. I played it for about a week and canceled my account. For me those were the good old days of MMO gaming besides EQ, AC2 & DAOC.

vicariousfan
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vicariousfan

Rhime umm you realize the SWG devs didn’t have a plan, hence the NGE and CU

vicariousfan
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vicariousfan

Jigawatts actually not really when this was in development that New Republic era EU stuff was just starting.    
So the bulk of people would be unfamiler with it. 
People wanted to play in the time of the height of the empire and rebelion.  They wouldn’t want to be stuck after the Empire lost.

vicariousfan
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vicariousfan

great article

Gylnne
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Gylnne

Nice article Bree, thank you.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Kazara Yeah, the main emu has a lot of crazy rules, but most of them (like the character slots and lots) will be done away with when the final no-wipe server is launched. That does make it a bit hard to play… it’s sort of just playing a beta test right now.

melissaheather
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melissaheather

breetoplay melissaheather i was most definitely a pure cantina RP’r. heh. :)

melissaheather
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melissaheather

Elijah Crow Star Wars differs from Star Trek in that you have way more civilian roles, and way more “nobodies” from out-of-the-way planets that you feel akin to, and sort of bond with.   So I think actually Star Wars is way better suited for a “i’m just a person making my way in the galaxy” kind of game than Star Trek is, although, both need that element to satisfy.   Going “iconic” with the NGE was what ruined people’s lives they’d already carved out for themselves, happily I might add…

Kazara
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Kazara

There was a lot more right with SWG than wrong. For a MMORPG, it was way ahead of its time in 2003. MMOs today are mostly shallow WoW knock-offs that revolve around a cash shop for the most part.
 As far as emulators go (I believe there are around 21), there are many of them that reflect the different rule sets and or versions of SWG and that has resulted in water-downed player populations IMHO. Also, the two emulators I have tried allow 10 characters (100 lots) – – that hardly allows for interdependent economy, especially where resources are concerned.

Jigawatts
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Jigawatts

The game could have been set in the New Republic era, sometime after Luke sets up his new Academy, but before the Vong ever showed up, that would have solved the Jedi issue whilst still preserving the Empire as the primary villains of the game.

Ondrea
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Ondrea

mysecretid Ondrea Yep I was aware of it.  At first I was completely uninterested because it was forced PvP but they changed their mind and supposedly will be adding a PvE server.  Been keeping my eye on this one!

Wakkander
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Wakkander

Rhime “Gamers” don’t determine if a game is niche, market does. If you want to make something that only appeals to a small market your game IS niche. If you want to have broad appeal and not be niche, you cannot design for a small market segment, and that means listening to more than just the people who reinforce your own ideas and listening to the wider audience.

This doesn’t mean niche games are bad, but they will never, ever, be the big success stories like WoW, because they have chosen to limit themselves to a select, niche, market. Likewise they are unlikely to ever get the big budgets either, because the bigger the budget the greater the need to appeal to a wide audience in order to recoup the cost. There is a reason there are a dozen small sandbox open world full pvp games that exist, and there is also a reason none of them are major players in the genre.

That said changing your game post-launch is never a good idea. You either need to be satisfied with what you have, or should have been doing more listening and market research during development.

amkosh
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amkosh

I’m sorry, I don’t agree with much this article says.  The biggest thing SWG got wrong is the biggest reason Bree Royce and many of the other vocal people loved it.  The game was highly excluding to people.  Each server had maybe 200 spots where people could be the “best”.  The rest were pretty much dregs.  The vast majority of people were peons, and while some might like that, most don’t.  Multiply that times the number of servers, you basically had around 10k spots for a game that probably had 4-5 million people play it over its lifetime.  Think about that.  There was less than 1/4 % that *could* enjoy the game to its highest potential.  That sure made that small group happy, but kinda did the opposite to the rest. 

SWG was one of the first games that sucked in casuals.  This was mostly due to marketing, not b/c SoE designed it to do so.  It failed to keep those people.  I knew people who played it, tried out some features and were like Yuck.  I knew someone who tried a player city and said that they didn’t want to repeat their homeowners association in a game.  

The moral of the story is to pick an audience that is sustainable from the revenue stream you can get.  So if you want to create a sandbox, don’t market it as a AAA game.  Market it as a sandbox, and get the people that like it in there. If you don’t, then you *might* make some happy, and those peeps may be vocal, but you will drive off more, and while those might be quieter, you’ll lose more in the long run.

amkosh
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amkosh

Devs gotta eat too. If the people dont like it, then why would they pay for it? Ask Wildstar how that super hardcore raiding focus went.
You may not like it and get all judgemental about it, but its a simple fact of economics.
And before you point to SWG as lasting even when peeps stopped playing it, the only reason the game lasted was the marketing association that having the Star Wars name gave Sony.

distaste
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distaste

Budukahn The character limit is what drove the community into being as awesome as it was. It forced you into depending on others. As a bio/chef I needed a resource harvester and a ranger so I could do my profession. Weaponsmiths required loot drops that combat professions could get and they needed a slicer for top stats. Combat professions needed doc buffs, dancer buffs, food, armor, and weapons. You had to meet new people, forge relationships, and that was easily one of the best parts of the game. Wouldn’t call shelling out $40+ $15 a month an “easy” way around the character limitation. It was far easier to just find someone to whatever it was you needed done. If you want to truly see what happens to SWG with more character slots then check out SWGemu. For testing they give you 10 slots and it has severely hurt the community. Everyone does everything themselves. The PvPers are all rolling the same classes because they can specialize due to having more characters. It truly does ruin the game.

SWG has easily hands down had the best community of any MMO to date. I STILL hangout with my SWG friends and even joined a guild for SWTOR made up of people from the SWG server I was on. I cannot say the same about any other MMO and I’ve played most of them.

Ket_Viliano
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Ket_Viliano

Elijah Crow  /salute

You, Sir, are my MMO Hero!

Tethyss
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Tethyss

DisgruntledGoat This and the clunky character animations.  Also, why doesn’t massively let SWG go already?  It seems like once a month they have to drag the poor SWG horse-corpse out of its grave and take a few wacks.  Let the game die already and move on the new offerings or start backing one of the spiritual successors — or make your own.

Budukahn
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Budukahn

Personally, I think the games biggest mistake was the concious decision to limit accounts to one character per server.   I remember spending ages levelling my master weaponsmith/smuggler chap only to realize that now that I was capped, I couldn’t actually use any of the shiny guns I could now make.  I wanted to move on to new things and see the combat side of the game, but this meant throwing away all the work I’d already put into the character.  
It was truly a stupid limitation because it was easy to get around if it bothered you enough.  Buying a second account meant I could for a time play with two accounts.  But this additional expense made the game even easier to put down when the new shiny genre of convenience MMO’s arrived with Warcraft.  More character slots would’ve been the easier solution but another one would’ve been, for example, to split combat and trade jobs into separate roles which, ironically other MMO’s like Warcraft did where I could go do my dungeons as a priest then come back and work on my craft as an Alchemist. 
Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that I moved on to other games…

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Samsies. Most players are vehemently against it though. I remember a device from Middle Earth online, when that was still a potential thing, mentioned one time that Wizards and one other race/class were extremely rare in Tolkien’s world and they aimed to represent in game by making them somehow restricted.
Lotta folks raised hell.

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

*slow clap*

Rhime
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Rhime

Part of the ongoing issues with games(including SWG) is the fucking whiney, quick-level, Gamer ADD, instant gratification, low intelligence, (add what you want here) “Gamer” making it impossible for developers and companies to stick with their gameplan. Any time a game comes out with any depth or mechanic like item decay or thoughtful crafting system gets labelled as a “niche” game and gets chucked under the bus by the “gamers” listed above.
The kids want “it” all now or the gaming execs (who wouldn’t know what gaming was to save their families) want the game to be released half-baked so to recoup the “losses” incurred by the game’s creation in as little as time as possible.
  Keep your ideas going devs, keep making that awesome game you want to make, keep eyes and ears out on your players playing your game to make the small course corrections needed, but for fuck sakes, don’t cave to the whims of players who will be gone in 6 months or less because they don’t like your game as is..they’ll move on to their mobile gaming platforms or whatever soother or rattle toy they can grasp on to and we’ll be playing (and paying for) your great game. RIP SWG.

morphyroc
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morphyroc

As a player, I’m actually ok with having a rare overpowered class in my mmo such as the Jedi… keyword being ‘rare’.

BillMcD
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BillMcD

c71clark schmidtcapela  Yes but that is counter-intuitive and goes well beyond the normal learning curve of a game. UI API knowledge is generally not a required skill in MMOs, and when it becomes one, you start bleeding a lot of players.

RolanStorm
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RolanStorm

*after reading all coments* Yeah… There is revision of history about SWG and some points well-made, but most of them correct for any MMO.

‘Lesson: Pick an IP/setting that actually works for the game you want to build.’

It worked alright, until management decided that Jedi should appear. I remember what development said about of someone becoming Jedi when asked: ‘somewhere around 2011’. Enter management: ‘we want it now’.

‘Lesson: Most MMO gamers won’t do rote grinding anymore…’

*chuckles* Well, this is pretty much every MMORPG back then and a lot these days. There are developers that understand it doesn’t work anymore. Im my case it was making game more action-based (‘Destiny’). So while it is not only SWG, I wholeheartedly agree. Please, ‘stop grind’. ‘Free skooma’. :)

‘Lesson: Please, please monitor your game economy.’

Again, every more or less complex MMORPG out there.

Still one of the best games (not just MMORPGs) I ever played. Yeah, was quite glitchy and messy overall. Mostly because management tried to make it more successfull, pushing devs for changes design did not intend. Good thing these days some developers get to do their own thing without brass breathing over their shoulder.

Mid9usn
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Mid9usn

Loved SWG and still remember the excitement meeting Vader for the first time in some remote base and raiding rebel bases with fellow Imperials. Good times.

I’d enjoy the game more if not for the tons of bugs. 

Still got the nice black CE box carefully stored some where.

blizofoz
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blizofoz

Between John Smedley and Brad McQuaid’s disastrous track record it’s amazing that Everquest accomplished what it did.

captainzor
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captainzor

So, I’ve been (finally) watching Star Wars Rebels.  The “answer to the Jedi question” should have been Inquisitors!  Ah, hindsight.  Seriously though, the fact and logic is you can’t have a Star Wars game without at least Force sensitives.  If you have a mythos such as the Force, then you have to assume it has and always will be present, despite what Vader tried to do.  There would have been countless Force sensitive people during all timelines in the Star Wars universe even if they were known at large or seen on screen.  As Rebels now shows, there were (of course) other “Jedi” still out there–as well as new ones being born.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

stjerneodd rottenrotny I consider that one of the best parts of SWG. It scaled exceptionally well from the casual to the hardcore. Everyone in the same game. It can be done! :D

Denngar
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Denngar

The economy part is dead on. It’s what made it hard for me to get into the game in the last year of it’s life when I finally picked it up. It was fun enough, but more than the stagnated community, I simply didn’t have money to buy, well, anything, and the products I could make, even when I could make some fairly high quality things, didn’t sell because people had better or similar items from years ago.

Arthwyndar
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Arthwyndar

breetoplay Karl_Hungus Arthwyndar But wasn’t that what the Repopulation was supposed to be?

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

breetoplay Karl_Hungus Arthwyndar  Can I agree with both of you?

A rebirth if SWG would be grand. 

OTOH, When I see SWG mentions, especially in KS campaigns, I regard that as far more about making more money from nostalgia. A real SWG-like system would be great; a couple of similar features without the supporting structure, not so much.

To be clear, I am not saying your love of SWG is mere nostalgia; just that I regard SWG in modern marketing campaigns as more about profiting from than fulfilling the fond memories.

stjerneodd
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stjerneodd

rottenrotny  Me neither, however I do remember if you grouped up we could run, I think, 10 or 12 missions and so there was a lot of chatter running between locations mixed in with the grind which helped.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

c71clark Karl_Hungus Nordavind 
Not sure if it is/was official outside the game, but in the KotOR games, well-made melee weapons were made of some kind of cortosis alloy in order to be able to parry lightsabers without being cut in half.

TimothyTierless
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TimothyTierless

You say SWG article, I say here I am.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

Ondrea  Re “Still baffles me that nothing has come out since then with just some of its best features.”  I had asked this before. 

Raph actually addressed this.
“But when people ask why SWG crafting hasn’t been replicated, this is why.

… (several points)
I get asked this question all the time. In fact, now that I do consultancy from time to time, it’s not unusual for a company to come to me and say “can you put in crafting like SWG? Our players say it was the best ever!” Usually, they have actually, you know, designed their game already, or even built it. And I have to tell them, “No. You build your game around it, not the other way around.””

The premise is that you can’t use some of the best features.  It was holistic, interdepndent features.  You can’t just cherry pick a few so you can’t retrofit into a game and to date, unfortunately, nobody has a priori designed anything close into their game.  (A different rant is when they start down the path, it is in a murder simulating gankbox.)

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Perhaps my mind has revised history for me, but I swear there was a few months where no one had a clue. A few people just happened to skill up correctly, but even they weren’t sure what triggered the Jedi slot till a Dev caved to the whining and spilled the beans.

rottenrotny
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rottenrotny

Good points all around, though as a casual in the game I never really noticed any of these apart from the combat class grind, which I didn’t mind for some reason.

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

Elijah Crow Basing it off Star Wars was fine but the problem is that it was intended to be a cash cow from the beginning.   It was never going to be allowed to stay the way it was early on.  Lucas Arts likely would’ve ended the license sooner if they didn’t want to milk it until TOR came in.

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

wjowski Yeah, it sounds like SOE would’ve been fine if they had used something that wasn’t Star Wars.

Durenas
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Durenas

JonBuck Durenas FacelessSavior But you didn’t have to stay a master hairdresser. :) And yeah I seem to recall hairdressing was a PITA.

JonBuck
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JonBuck

Durenas FacelessSavior My holocron said I had to become a Master Hairdresser.

Durenas
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Durenas

FacelessSavior
Except if they hadn’t added the holocrons, then people would just skill up EVERY skill. People found out eventually how to become jedi; holocrons just took out some of the pain.

Kanbe
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Kanbe

At least this makes me feel a tiny bit less guilty that I never played SWG. Could never get my parents to go for a sub/stupid college dorm restrictions on internet that they never mention meant I missed the boat on this.

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Also, for all its faults, SWG crafting is the benchmark from which I measure all other crafting systems, and I’ve yet to see one come close to some of the unique and once in a lifetime items that were created by players there.

Elijah Crow
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Elijah Crow

I did have a bugged droid from a time when Droid Engineer was able to put every type of crafting station and storage all into one droid. The only thing it was missing was the Starship Crafting Station which wasn’t in game yet.

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

I don’t think the inclusion of Jedi hurt the game. More so in my opinion it was the holocrons. If they never succumbed to the whining by telling players exactly how to get a jedi, and later with Holocrons show them exactly which skills they needed to level to do so, Jedi would’ve stayed this rare, mythical being that people heard stories about but rarely saw first hand for more than a glimpse. Early Jedi game play seemed pretty amazing.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Elijah Crow Sliding out of chairs for sure!
The stupid nalargon/omibox targetting that wrecked countless performances. :P
Building placement bugs.
Getting stuck in elevators.
Crafting glitches where you couldn’t use your tool again because the game insisted you still had it open when you didn’t.
Droid storage bugs.
Oh man, this could go on forever.

Damonvile
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Damonvile

Unlike city of heroes which i actually miss and wish i could still play, SWG is a game i enjoy remembering but would never want to go back to.
It did a lot of things right in it’s design but like the point of this article….it was a buggy mess that was so under developed in so many areas.
It was never the perfect game it just had a lot of features that are still better than what most modern sandbox games are trying to do.

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