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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.