Raph Koster’s new MMORPG is called Stars Reach, and yes, it’s basically Star Wars Galaxies 2

Without the Star Wars IP, of course, and with all the modern trappings

    
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It’s June 26th, Star Wars Galaxies’ 21st birthday, and I’m sitting on Google Meet talking to none other than MMORPG founding father (and SWG progenitor) Raph Koster about the new sandbox he’s been working on for five years – and teasing in full force for the last 10 days.

“Is this really Star Wars Galaxies 2?” I ask. “Please say yes.”

“Yeah, in a bunch of ways it is, absolutely,” Koster says, leaning back in his chair with a smirk.

The game is not actually called SWG2, of course, and it’s not Star Wars at all, although it offers a similar sci-fantasy vibe. It’s called Stars Reach, and as envisioned, it’s a sprawling MMORPG sandbox that pretty much ticks every single virtual world design box folks in our genre have been begging for over the last two decades, all in a package that promises to “redefine the landscape of massively multiplayer experiences” with “dynamic world mechanics and innovative player interactions.” In case you haven’t been following the 30 bite-sized teasers over the last week and a half, here’s the formal pitch.

“Playable Worlds has announced its first title, Stars Reach, a fully-simulated, massively multiplayer sandbox game for all to explore. This is a modern MMO set in a smarter, more natural, and more reactive galaxy, thanks to a first-of-its-kind architecture running partly on the cloud. Water flows, generating natural currents. Forests can catch fire. Flora changes as heat and humidity change. Creatures migrate when food sources are depleted. This is a single, global, persistent universe that doesn’t reset at downtime. The actions you take affect the landscape, are visible to all, and are permanent.

“Stars Reach is set in a colorful, optimistic science-fantasy setting that appeals to a wider audience than just the MMORPG faithful – with gameplay that scales from casual to hardcore, from a quick five-minute session to a full on gaming marathon. A lot of MMORPGs will let you build your own home, but Stars Reach lets you build that home on the planet you choose, a subterranean lava mining facility, an underwater domed farm, an orbital starport… even wormgates to reach other solar systems. You’re limited only by your imagination. No classes, and no rails – just a wide-open world of adventure at your fingertips.

“Created by the designer of Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, Stars Reach is an intelligent, living, fully-modifiable universe that offers players a unique opportunity to experience life on distant worlds. The galaxy continually evolves, featuring procedurally-generated planets that are as intriguing as they are varied. Gameplay options are equally diverse, allowing you to engage with the aspects that interest you the most, or to change your focus as often as you like – there is no single best path through this game.”

The features list is equally wild, promising fully evolving planets, exploration, a genuinely dynamic environment, player housing, player-governed planets, a full space game including combat and structures, terraforming, a full player economy, and gobs more, all on a single shard setup. It sounds… ludicrously ambitious, but Koster is dead serious that he’s pulling it off, that the tech has finally caught up with his long-running and well-documented virtual world ideas. In the formal announcement, he says he has “been working towards this game for thirty years,” something he echoed in discussion with me when he said this is really the game he wanted to build after UO – but he couldn’t quite do everything he wanted in SWG because the tech just wasn’t there yet. Now it is.

So what is the key tech? The honing of what Koster calls “cellular automata.” You don’t need a biology degree to understand this; it’s basically the building block of the game world, with each block having a long list of states and stats, working in conjunction to form a massive simulation that literally spans every cubic meter of the galaxy – and makes possible all the environmental interaction and dynamism the press pitch is promising. It’s not quite voxel tech, but it’s in the ballpark (fun fact: Koster hired EverQuest Next’s Dave Georgeson to work on this, and Koster spent time working on this sort of AI at SOE too, so if it’s giving Landmark vibes, that might be why).

“Our world is actually a giant cellular automata simulation,” he told me. “Every cubic meter of the world: We know the humidity. We know the temperature. We know the materials. The materials know their structural integrity. They know how to hold hands with the AI next to them. When you pour water on a hillside and it flows downhill? That is actually a little bunch of water AIs holding hands running down the hill.”

“What the hell?” I sputtered – because this whole thing sounds insane, doesn’t it? Even now, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it; it’s as if Koster has taken the absurdly deep SWG resource system and not just tripled but cubed it until it’s far beyond the level of what games even dreamed of two decades ago.

Let me note here for clarity that when Koster is talking about deploying AI – something Playable Worlds has been open about – he’s not talking about what he correctly demeans as “intelligent autocomplete” devices that slurp pilfered datasets. Instead, Koster suggests his team has the “most advanced proc-gen system on the planet for generating environments.” Essentially, the thousands of planets in the game are developed with a combination of dev-designed parameter input and AI-based procedural generation. These planets begin as a unique entity with a range of resources, seasons, temperature, all tracked and governed by cellular automata, and then players who discover those planets can do as they please to terraform a world into a lush garden, strip-mine it for its special resources, or turn it into a concrete Coruscant – and the environments respond accordingly.

MOP readers will know that when Koster originally announced this game back in 2019, he was simultaneously talking up the idea of a metaverse of games built on a platform. The platform is still absolutely there, though he’s not using the word metaverse anymore as it’s been coopted and tainted, but he wouldn’t rule out future expansion for the platform “someday.” Either way, there are tantalizing implications for Stars Reach in the shorter term. “I’ll give you a hint,” he said. “If you can establish a planetary government and own a planet, you and your guild, I’ll just say maybe some of that tech might let you do some really cool shit with your planet someday.” He wouldn’t confirm whether he meant player mods, but the takeaway here is that MMORPG players are getting their sandbox first before the platform is a reality.

And that matters a lot because MMORPG players are extremely cranky, perhaps rightfully so. I did specifically ask Koster how he aims to address the rampant cynicism-tinged-with-hope in the MMORPG genre, given what has now been more than a decade of failed and malingering MMOs from old-school devs with Kickstarter bids.

“Ultimately, the proof just has to be in the pudding,” he told me, and the team opening up today is meant to help seed some trust with the broader MMO community. “We’ve been very quiet until now, so I get the skepticism. I think there’s some part of me that wants to go, ‘Wait a minute, it isn’t entirely fair.’ But it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, the audience has been burned. I get it. All we can do is say, ‘Hey look, we’re making this game for you. We think it’s really cool. We hope you think so too, and it’s not coming out tomorrow.”

Curiously, for all the fact that Koster’s marketing today uses the word MMORPG approximately a billion times and the game is very obviously a virtual world, the team wasn’t always confident about using the term – a hot topic in the genre right now thanks to New World. He is well aware of some of the negative connotations of the term and points out that gamers associate it with themeparks and predatory monetization – meanwhile, the “bright spots” and cool systems in our genre have been siphoned away and turned into their own subgenre (he jokes pointedly about people referring to MMOs as a “survival sandbox with no PvP”). By rebundling those “bright spots” back into a sandbox that proudly bears the MMORPG label, “maybe we can reclaim some chunk of the term,” he suggests, thereby giving something new to the “hundreds of millions” of people who have at some point played MMOs and would again – but don’t see anything in the genre aimed at them right now.

And he really does want that big tent feel when it comes to the playerbase, a goal best illustrated by the game’s visual style. After I saw the teaser pre-alpha video (which is tucked down at the end of this post), I was actually a bit nervous about the “raw and unfinished” graphics and janky pre-alpha animations, plus the art style is cartoony in that Landmark/WildStar sense, which I like – but not everyone does. Koster isn’t worried, however. He’s well aware the team has a ways to go on the graphics and animations (and especially lighting tech), and moreover, he picked this art style specifically because metrics show hyper-realistic graphics turn off a much bigger chunk of the audience he wants – folks who love Genshin Impact and Breath of the Wild’s eyecandy. “Do to sci-fi what World of Warcraft did to fantasy” was Koster’s directive to his art team.

Of course, paying for a WoW-tier MMORPG requires a hell of a lot of money in 2024, and thus far, the game has been entirely investor-funded – and it sounds as if it will stay that way. “We don’t have any plans to do a Kickstarter,” he told me. “We will need more funding to get the game all the way out the door, right? Launching is expensive. That’s just how it is. Having an audience that is interested is a key step along the way to that.”

As for Stars Reach’s launch business model, Playable Worlds is set on free-to-play with optional subscriptions with a stipend and a cosmetic cash shop – no pay-to-win. I know how business models work, and I know devs gotta pay the rent, but I was still a little bummed to hear about the cosmetic shop, as shops just don’t play well with a player-run economy where gamers make everything, but Koster is confident that “there are ways to blend things that you could obtain from a shop like that and the kinds of things that you obtain entirely within the game and have them coexist without competing.” So at least he has a plan there.

And while we’re on that topic, it bears repeating: “This game does not use NFTs,” he says, tiredly, when I asked him to put it on the record again. “This game does not use crypto.”

So when is it coming out? That I don’t know. Koster couldn’t really give me hard timelines, though he does say a small pre-alpha is on the way over the summer, and then it’ll expand from there. Either way, it’s happening, and it’ll be happening with a lot more transparency marching forward so players not only know what’s going on but can get involved in the fandom side of development.

I’ve got plenty more fun bits about mechanics and my own personal curiosity gleaned from our conversation! To wit:

  • Koster says Stars Reach is more accessible and casual-friendly than SWG, which is sort of like saying it’s slightly less hot than the sun, but he means it: This is a universe built explicitly for a wide range of time-investment levels. “I think of it as the spiritual successor to both UO and SWG,” he says, but he adds that he doesn’t want to just repeat those old games; he wants to build something modern that takes logical steps forward with fresh tech and ideas.
  • For a good example of balancing casuals and hardcores, look no further than how Playable Worlds is handling the key mechanic of traveling in this truly huge galaxy. Koster has a “people fast, goods slow” philosophy, so while it’ll suit casuals who need to quickly teleport a version of themselves to join their friends (the five-minute play session thing), you can’t take a ton of stuff with you – meaning, you can use the system to team with friends but can’t use it to disrupt the more realistic trading economy. And there is very much a trade economy! Koster assures me that yes, we can play space trucker in this game.
  • If you’re hoping for a SWG-style resource system, however, don’t get too excited. Resources will be different on each planet, but they won’t be constantly shifting. Of course, it’ll still be possible to strip a planet (and therefore the whole galaxy) of a resource if you don’t tend the planet properly. The studio doesn’t lay out biomes, but we can definitely terraform everything, and when we go to harvest resources, we aren’t dropping machines and digging up generic mats. We’re harvesting specific trees that we can grow ourselves.
  • The game does not offer classes; it’s a skill-based design. Koster wouldn’t give me a whole list of skills, but the current build has around 40, on par with SWG (and he hinted several times that the types of skills are comparable too). Players will be able to learn and level up all of the skills, but they’ll have to set a specific five-skill loadout before heading off on an adventure, choosing to let others “fall out of practice,” though players can still easily revive their old skills too. Skills have different methods for leveling; some of them are attached to collecting, while others (like crafting) even increase as other people use the crafted stuff you make. (Koster wanted to do this specifically in SWG but couldn’t. Now he can!)
  • Among the skills are xenobiology (sounds like WildStar again) and cartography. Well, technically he didn’t confirm cartography, but he grinned really big, and it just makes sense because charting the galaxy will be a big deal for explorer types, and it won’t be easily circumvented with wikis, as everything about the planets, from their biomes to their exports, will change according to the players’ decisions.
  • You can catch a glimpse of the current stage of combat development in the video; Koster calls is arcadey, and it looks a bit like a hybrid system to me. Everyone gets rez, and it’s super easy to rez people who die.
  • The player customization system sounds massive. Koster seems to have buckets of distaste for things like gender-locking and weak customization, so that’s exciting. He also mentioned that players will be able to genetically engineer species-changes; just note that all of the character models are humanish, which is an intentional design choice to keep down the development costs of flooding the game with wearables.
  • Koster says the team is still debating how many characters we can have per account. My SWG friendos will know that it was limited to one per account, so I did wonder. He is clearly well aware of all of the reasons for and against it in the modern genre (he rattled them off super fast before I could), but they’re still working it out.
  • Yes, there is PvP in the game, but the studio wants to get PvE done first. The devs are still debating PvP mechanics like a SWG-style TEF (temporary enemy flag) system and faction-based PvP for uncontrolled, wild planets and space. However, the fact that players can band together and form governments to take over planets means they’ll be able to set rules for PvP within those jurisdictions, so it’ll be totally possible that players create their own FFA planetary zones with their own unique rulesets.
  • Intriguingly, Playable Worlds is actually more focused on the potential for griefing unrelated to PvP. For example, he points out that if the designers aren’t careful, a player could grief by damming up a river that players nearby use for irrigating their crops, all thanks to the fact that the environment is so manipulable. The team aims to solve those “edge cases” before addressing consensual PvP, but it is definitely happening.
  • The studio is adamant about offering meaningful peaceful non-combat roles in the game for players who aren’t into murderhoboing. It really, really sounds as if the devs are borrowing specific templates from SWG. I’ll be shocked if we’re not getting entertainers at the least. I asked about poets and gardeners, but he didn’t directly confirm. Either way, everyone and every skill will be needed in the game’s ecosystem.
  • Koster assured me that it will not be possible for a single person to take over an entire planet. That content is aimed at large groups. He couldn’t go into too much detail here yet, so I don’t know how many people we’re looking at here. Fun fact: Planets have their very own health bar.
  • SWG’s economic interdependence philosophies will return in Stars Reach when it comes to crafting, and there will indeed be asynchronous interdependence for trade. Yes, he confirmed player vendors! However, there won’t be a galaxy-wide auction hall; the devs want players physically moving goods. I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me whether a galaxy-spanning search system is in play.
  • I asked about dungeons and raids and quests – all things even a sandbox will want. The quest construction mechanics sound less like Cryptic’s Foundry and more like a vehicle for players to essentially pay each other to transport goods, target bounties, and collect resources, but both the developers and players can use it. As for dungeons and raids, there’s nothing like the sort of structured instanced dungeons you’d find in a linear themepark, obviously, but there are certainly group challenges all over the galaxy; the dungeons are just going to look more like open-world dungeons with lots of people crawling over them – more like old-school dungeon in Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call than World of Warcraft.
  • Sandboxes aren’t usually known for their lore and storytelling, but this game most definitely has “extensive” plans for both, and it’s not just “the player is the story” stuff common in so many empty sandboxes. The extremely brief version is that this galaxy has been abandoned by its gods, and players are tasked with finding out why as they explore, restore, or pillage the ruins of the galaxy, aka The Garden, under the “guidance” of robot intermediaries. Koster’s loremasters have apparently peppered the storyline with nods to the likes of Isaac Asmiov, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. LeGuin, Leigh Brackett, and Becky Chambers. Hopepunk is the specific word Koster used. “Ultimately this game is a climate change metaphor,” he says. “You’re leaving the homeworlds because you ruined them.” Will we ruin the rest of the galaxy too?

Unfortunately, I had just an hour to sift through Koster’s brain about the game, which was still not nearly enough time to get through the nine (yes) pages of questions I brought with me, so there’s plenty more on the table to talk about – but it sounds as if we also have lots of time until the game is actually ready for us to try to break it. And break it we will.

“This is an experiment, and you know we’re all going to spell F-U-C-K on your bridge. You know that, right?” I said ruefully toward the end of our discussion, referring back to the old UO canard about teaching a man to fish in the game only to see him use his catches to trollishly deface the landscape.

Koster leaned forward again, amused but intent. “That’s the point!” he laughed. “Bree, it’s not my bridge! It’s your bridge.”

Want even more backstory? Here’s just a smattering of the posts we’ve done on Koster and the development of this game to date – he really has been telling people what he was making, right out in the open, this whole time:

More coverage of Koster's writing and games
The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join MassivelyOP 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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