Last year, when Ultima Online turned 25 years old, I did a piece reminiscing on those early days and marveling that so much of what we consider standard in MMOs was done first in a game from 1997 that most MMO players have never even tried. Star Wars Galaxies has an even more outsized place in my life, and in a lot of ways it was the real spiritual successor to UO, having been developed by the same designer, so you know I had to revisit the idea for its 20th trip around the sun, this game I consider the greatest MMORPG ever built.
So where do I begin? It’s hard for me to explain how important Star Wars itself was for me as a little girl, even though the movie came out before I was born. I mean, I was the weird “Star Wars girl,” mocked in school but so stubborn I kept at it. I had the toys (mom worked for Kenner), the comics, the ol’ West End RPGs, the amateur ‘zines, a Star Wars penpal (sup, Ian from Hackensack, hope you’re still alive!), the trading cards, and the Leia hairdo every Halloween (and kind of a lot of the rest of the time too).
All of this is to say that when Star Wars Galaxies was announced, it was a no-brainer that I’d play it.
But SWG wasn’t even close to being my first MMORPG. By SWG’s launch in 2003, I had been playing MMOs and running guilds for six years already. It really puts the lie to the “our first MMO is our favorite” adage. And those six years of MMOs had ground me down with unending theatrics and backstabbing and toxicity: I ran with hardcore PvPers, led hardcore raiders, built massive alliances, and dealt with genuinely insane drama like guildie divorce spectacles and one kid faking his death – you name it, I saw it. The tragedy of 9/11 was my first turning point, as we finally left EverQuest for DAOC and I passed leadership to a friend to let me to recuperate from the stress of, well, gamers.
SWG was my second turning point. The game came out in June 2003, the same month I quit a job I despised and moved across the country from the midwest to the real west. I suddenly had plenty of free time on my hands, so I had the chance to really throw myself into guild leadership again.
Of course, my guildies had been anticipating the release ahead of all that. We participated in the betas, gathered recon, designed a new guild to match Star Wars lore, wrote elaborate backstories, even commissioned musical themes. In those early days, it quickly became obvious that we were not in EQ or DAOC anymore: We were in a UO-style sandbox again, and I was elated because UO had already taught me that’s where I belonged. We built a guild base in the swamps of Moenia, murdered Imperials, and lived in the cantinas roleplaying. I had a couple of accounts and characters, including a dedicated chef and a smuggler type whose skills usually waffled between pistols, fencing, smuggling, dancing, and music. When cities entered the game, we built one of those too – the best on the server for crafters and RP, if I do say so myself.
A year into the game, increasing drama out of the roleplaying community and growing group boredom with the slow pace of development (we still had no space content at that point, astonishingly) drove my guild out, and a few months later, we ended up in World of Warcraft anyhow. In fact, I wasn’t even paying much attention to SWG when the NGE finally hit in 2005, but once it did and was making headlines, we trekked back to check it out because how could we not?
Now, the early NGE was at once not as bad as and also much worse than what you’ve probably heard. It wasn’t just that it was “different”; it’s that the NGE hastily erected a shitty WoW clone where once an amazing sandbox stood, and since whole archetypes were stricken from the game – including creature handlers, who lost their in-game buddies too – player identity vanished along with the ground beneath their virtual feet. My husband’s Teras Kasi master? Gone. My bio-engineer? Trashed. My pirate queen with her pistol, saber, and mandoviol? Not possible. Even my chef was crippled since her goods required bio-engineered items no longer craftable. Camping was gone, entertainers were pointless, and the combat went from “2003 levels of barely tolerable” to “uh, is this a joke?”
We did our best to muddle through it, putting down roots in a new city, but I distinctly remember feeling like zombies shambling through the remains of a shattered world we once loved but knew wasn’t the same. And the people around us, those folks who loved Star Wars too much to leave even after SOE and LucasArts torched the game, they had that same dead-eyed, hopeless look. We just didn’t last.
But time kept marching on, and so did SOE. Every year or so, I would go back to the game and poke around, and eventually, it started… getting better? As I later chronicled for Original Flavor Massively in a piece called The Uncle Owen Paradox, SOE basically rebuilt the game and added back most of what the NGE had deleted, like beast mastery and camps, moving on to new systems like cybernetics and Chronicles and a truly impressive array of new houses and vehicles and wearables and PvE content. Realizing SOE hadn’t given up – realizing the sandbox I fell in love with was still there buried under all the rubble deposited by the irritating class system – brought me back to the game. It brought my guild back to the game, and if it hadn’t been for the launches of Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, they might have stayed.
But I was obsessed all over again. We built another city, we ported our toons from dead servers to Starsider, I rolled another chef, and my second SWG crafting empire was far bigger than my first ever was. The game as it existed by 2011 was basically nothing like the NGE of 2005 – and a big improvement over the 2003 version, even if the community wasn’t as robust.
I picked 2011 on purpose: Just a day or two after The Uncle Owen Paradox came out, I was sitting in my car, eight months pregnant, coming home from a doc appointment, when I got a weird call from a nice lady at SOE. She told me that she was sorry to inform me that SOE would be sunsetting Star Wars Galaxies with the SWTOR launch and that John Smedley saw the other piece and wanted Massively to be the ones to break the news to the world. I remember sitting in the car bawling (again, very pregnant), and then we did the interview and released the devastating news to the community – easily the biggest MMORPG sunset that had ever happened at the time. The whole situation sucked, and for me personally, it was the just start of a bad year when four of the games I actively played, including my top two favorites, were shuttered.
By the time of the actual sunset, the emulator scene for Star Wars Galaxies had already been humming for years, but I couldn’t really bring myself to spend long there, in spite of being an emu player (and builder) for other MMOs. I didn’t really want to go back to the 2003 pre-space version of the game that the emu-runners were cultivating; I left that on purpose. So for years, I just tried to move on. I had my hands full with other games, a growing family, a third cross-country move, and a newly indie MMO website, after all.
But of course, my hiatus didn’t last. MOP readers started nudging me toward a newer NGE-based rogue server called SWG Legends, and in the summer of 2018, I finally gave in and tried it. If you’re still reading this, you probably know how that ended: I’ve been playing it as one of my core MMORPGs now for five years. It’s my comfort MMO, and it isn’t stuck in the past at all; the player developers (not officially sanctioned but nevertheless backed by the likes of Jett Lucas) have continued adding content, systems, and even whole planets, so it feels like the live game just kept on rolling. I live on a small farm (yes, it has farming now) on Dantooine, with a workshop and a teahouse where I sell crafted goods and food, some of the same food I was selling all the way back in 2003.
The real shock of Star Wars Galaxies now in 2023 isn’t that it’s still around to play; it’s that nothing out there has surpassed it. I’m a Star Wars fan, sure, but the reason I kept going back was more about the depth of the sandbox and crafting and roleplaying than about the Star Wars link itself (which is messy and not for purists). There simply is no MMORPG or sandbox in existence that does what SWG does as well as it does. You can’t find it. I’ve looked. I’ll never stop looking.
“A dead 2003 MMORPG is the sandbox to beat!” I wrote in 2018. “It’s absurd that I am typing this, but here we are.” And it’s still true. It’s been true for 20 years. Here’s to another 20!