Dave's Star Wars Galaxies Saga
The Star Wars Galaxies Saga
A very personal perspective ...
"And you may ask yourself - well...how did I get here?" - The Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"
Where to begin?
I have often been asked my opinion of the Sony Online Entertainment MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) "Star Wars Galaxies."
Oh, what a tale of woe that leads to.
Simply put, SWG began as the most eagerly anticipated licensed online game ever. It traversed (slowly and methodically) through an absolute horror of failures, and ended laying claim to the mark of distinction "Most disappointing MMO ever."
There is no competitor to this title which even comes close. Even the premature abortion of Middle Earth Online could not generate the kind of bilious rage that SWG eventually caused.
Suffice to say, I am no stranger to online gaming. I have, in my time, played "Everquest" (I and II), "Dark Age of Camelot", "Earth and Beyond", "EvE Online", "World of Warcraft", "Auto Assault", and both "City of Heroes" and "City of Villains". My level of play has ranged from "Average" to "Obsessive", and I couldn't even begin to count the number of play hours I've spent in each.
I'm well schooled in what it takes to make a successful MMORPG.
Furthermore, I should point out that I have a very peculiar style of play which makes some games more desirable than others. I am a solo player, almost exclusively. In some cases I have resorted to multiple accounts on multiple machines in order to do all the things I wished to do (the original EverQuest being the prime example), but I have always been a solo'ist. I also do not engage in PvP ... ever. The PvP side of the world is generally a waste for me, in any game.
While it may seem a contradiction that someone who never groups should play MMO's in the first place, rest assured I do get a great deal out of the interactive environment, the cameraderie of chatting with my friends, and yes even the odd raid or group experience with people I know and trust.
It should also be noted that everything I tell herein is true to the best of my memory (and research), but has obviously been colored by my personal opinions. Others may disagree, and are welcome to challenge the facts as stated, but as this is a published work and not a forum for debate, the reader must themselves judge its veracity based on their own experiences.
Believe it or not, my experience with SWG began toward the end of Beta. Through no small effort, I had managed to get accepted in the Beta program about a month before release. I had been looking forward to the release of the game for well over a year, as "Star Wars" was without a doubt my favorite licensed property and a tremendous influence on my childhood.
So, being an avid EQ gamer and with bright hopes, I loaded the game and moved forward.
From the start, I could tell there were problems. Nothing insurmountable, but the game clearly wasn't ready for release. Most of the major issues I was willing to overlook. I could understand that the space game was not part of the initial release. I disagreed with the lack of creature mounts and vehicles, but they were already way past initial release estimates, and I knew they were shaving to get the product out.
In general, the product was reasonably stable. But there were still a host of bugs. Combat instabilities, user interface issues, you name it. As a software developer, my personal guesstimate was that the game was still six months away from being stable, and with a few more delays they would get a few more of the "distinctly Star Wars" features in before it went live as well as the major kinks ironed out.
Surprise, surprise, the game released about a month later.
The game in its release was nearly indistinguishable from the Beta. The vast majority of the problems I had seen in the Beta game were still there in the release. Some of the more fatal crashes had been eliminated, but overall the game's stability was still what I would qualify as "horrid." In short, it felt more like an Alpha release than a Beta.
But it was Star Wars, and the game held high hopes of being the greatest thing since sliced bread.
For one thing, the game looked to be exactly what everyone who saw "A New Hope" at 8-years-old had always dreamed of. You could actually LIVE in the world behind the movies. You could create a character which could eventually reach a level of complexity and status to rival the characters of legend. You couldn't kill the Emperor, but you could darned-sure make a name for yourself in this new galaxy.
Out-of-the-box, it sure seemed like the game was going to deliver. You weren't locked into the same old "class" system that so many MMO's relied upon. You could customize your character in any way you wanted. You could specialize, or you could diversify. Crafting was just as important as combat. The dream was finally going to come true! There was a level of characterization here which was completely unknown in other MMO's.
So, I jumped in headlong.
Character creation was not the worst I had seen ... granted, you had a huge amount of control over the specifics of your character, but ultimately most of them just looked generally the same (a big complaint I had with EQ2, as well.) Humans in particular all looked kinda dopey. But (also like EQ2) some of the different races were actually quite varied, and clothing and accessories were clearly going to be an abundant way to add uniqueness to your 'toon.
In the end, I built my ONE character as a blue-skinned Rodian named "Naemo." He looked distinctive, he looked fun, and I could go anywhere in the galaxy with him. I was highly annoyed at the "only one character per account" philosophy, but it was STILL "Star Wars" and I can live with a lot for that.
I had in mind that he would be a Jack-Of-All-Trades, a wandering ranger of the galactic wilderness, hunting the outskirts for resources and game. I saw him as the Texas Ranger of Star Wars, policing the places that both the Empire and the Rebellion had forgotten. He was to be a self-sufficient sort, being enough of a Weaponsmith to be able to make (and modify) his own guns, and helping to restore order where best he could.
So I dove in and started playing with rifles and scouting and even gathering resources for crafting. I utilized the in-game dynamic mission system repeatedly, and found it a good way to earn credits while I was trying to raise my skills. In the early levels, when I didn't need much money, the missions more than paid for my upgrades and experimentation.
But, I soon learned some very harsh lessons.
First, I learned the true definition of the term "grind." While the game showed a reasonably speedy advancement in its early "general" profession boxes, much of what you were doing was AWFULLY repetetive. Surveying to gather resources, for example, took a LONG time to climb. The Artisan tree went at a reasonable pace, but the second I moved to the Weaponsmithing tree everything slowed to a crawl. The weapon skills were similar, though there was progress to be seen. The relative speed with which I climbed the Scout tree was deceptive in comparison. In short, every path eventually slowed to a crawl, and being able to see character advancement on the short term is something I find critical to my enjoyment of an MMO.
Second, I learned the other fundamental disappointment of the crafting system. If you were less than a Master in your profession, you might as well not even bother. The only things that could really sell were at the top of the boxes, and in order to make something worth selling or using you had to have every scrap of bonus at your disposal. Furthermore, taking enough boxes in crafting to be able to do anything useful would require hobbling your combat abilities to a point where your missions wouldn't keep pace with your leveling.
Simply put, you were either going to be a good combat solo'ist, or you were going to be a good crafter. You were never going to be even remotely useful at both.
Though this stung (I was used to my EQ characters being BOTH combat and crafter), I honestly was willing to let it slide. I didn't want to abandon either aspect of the game, however. The idea of being able to customize a combat template to be very uniquely "me" was incredibly appealing. Furthermore, the crafting system of SWG was proving to be not only rich and complex, but potentially very rewarding. So, since I was limited to only one character per account, I did the next reasonable thing.
This was going to be great, and was going to solve ALL my problems in one fell swoop. "Naena", sister to Naemo, and the craftsman of the family. I immediately began to rearrange my templates so that Naemo could be the "in the field" man, finding and gathering resources, and Naena could be the one at home ... making all the best items, weapons, armor, clothes, droids, buildings, and furniture for Naemo.
She began as mostly an architect (making harvesters, factories, the buildings, etc necessary for crafting.) I could, single-handedly, make quite a lot of things having a dedicated craftsperson, all tailored to exactly what I wanted. Thus it was that the duo set forth, now about a month out from release, to conquer the galaxy.
Over the course of the next two months or so, I played the game incessantly. The game was fantastic. Despite the horrific grinding feel, there was enough diversity that I was really able to feel I was accomplishing things.
I would use the mission computers to get missions which would earn me credits, work up my combat skills, and bring back much needed resources to build all kinds of things.
Rude awakening number two ... other than LOOKING good, nothing I could make was really all that good in the game context. I couldn't really sell my crafted stuff (though I was making a fair amount selling energy on the open market), and the combat engine had SEVERE problems.
The idea of being able to take on mission spawns (usually somewhat large groups) with a ranged Rifleman was completely broken. The "specials" which were intended to let a Rifleman fire and not be seen were completely broken, which inevitably led to entire groups (most often with ranged weapons themselves) turning on me and gunning me down. The Ranger skills which were supposed to help this weren't even completed at this time, and those that were didn't work.
So much for the "stand-off solo'ist" approach.
This really didn't bother me too much, since a ready solution had appeared very shortly on the horizon. The Creature Handler profession was an incredibly strong combat philosophy in the early game. The members of the Rebel and Imperial factions had their own pets (and the Imperial AT-ST was currently stomping on everything in the galaxy), but since I wasn't grouping and generating the mass faction points necessary to buy those, I figured the Creature Handler would work for me.
It didn't necessarily "feel like Star Wars", but it actually fit the character concept. So I embraced it, and was very, very happy for a very, very long time.
Creature Handler wasn't exactly "stable" ... there were horribly frustrating AI bugs (pets would disappear, sometimes in mid-fight, usually leading to a trip to the cloning chamber). It was taking a long time to level the tree (I did not know about the "exploit" of going straight for multiple pets to multiply your experience gain). But throughout it all, I was once again able to do missions, I was able to level my combat skills, fund my crafting, and feel like I was accomplishing something.
Life was glorious. Disappointed with the Rifleman tree, I discovered that the Pistols in the game were precisely as combat-effective (at exactly the same range) as Rifles. I've always loved the pistols in Star Wars, and had gladly abandoned all that Rifle experience in favor of the Pistol trees. Much grinding later, I was well on my way to a marvelously kick-butt Pistoleer/Creature Handler template.
The fact that weapons had no real distinction beyond the broken specials in their skill trees had already become irrelevent. It was just one of many glaring inconsistencies in the game which I'd learned to live with. It's a sad thing when you resign yourself to living with poor design just because "that's how it is", but the devs didn't seem to be doing anything about it, and if things aren't going to change, then you have to adapt instead.
But the game was still, overall, very FUN.
I was positioned as a "double agent" between the Rebellion and the Empire. I would level up my Rebel faction by taking mission after mission, and my rank followed suit. Then, when my Imperial faction was beginning to slide, I'd bring it back up to zero by taking missions on the side of the Empire. After a while, I was a well respected Rebel officer who would secretly moonlight with the Empire to spy on their activities.
But in the background, dark and troubling things were lurking.
Somewhere around October, roughly 5 months after release, a growing murmur of "NERF!" began to surface. Imperial Faction players were complaining that Master Creature Handlers could single-handedly take out their AT-ST's (which were horrendously overpowered to begin with). People were farming Krayt dragons solo for the tissues that would make the only seriously worthwhile pistols in the game.
The combat templates were beginning to collapse in on themselves. As I would later discover, certain template sets were massively overpowered. Master Bounty Hunters and Commandos could take a few specific "non Creature Handler" pets and absolutely devastate anything in PvE (and most things in PvP.) Carbineers and Riflemen had so many broken specials (and a completely imbalanced speed system) that Pistoleers were incredibly common.
Rapidly, it seemed, you were either a Bounty Hunter, a Commando, or a Pistoleer ... and everybody had a pet. Not, it seemed, very reminiscent of the "Star Wars" universe.
As a response to this dilemma, the developers announced that they would be "completely re-vamp'ing the entire Star Wars combat system" in the "near future." To start, they began with a massive, sweeping nerf of the Creature Handlers, severely limiting the types of pets they could tame and nerf'ing the combat abilities of those pets they had left.
Much of this came about because of complaints from the "Melee Subclasses" that they were no longer desirable as tanks. It was a valid concern, why bother looking for another player when your creature pet can hold the attention of the bad guys (and survive longer) than another player could? The nerf'ing of Creatures was coupled with a massive buff in the resistances on Melee players. Without thinking, the developers had made yet another aggregate shift in SWG ... within months, Melee players would become the most popular "uber template", able to easily handle most anything in PvE or PvP. It was an amazing trend, as soon as one group complained, they were turned into gods and another group was ground under heel.
Truthfully, the nerf to creature pets wasn't as bad for me personally. I wasn't solo'ing Krayt dragons or taking down AT-ST's singlehandedly, I was just running missions in the game like any "normal" player would. The pets I was left with were still reasonably good, and I still THOUGHT I had something to look forward to in the combat end-game. Besides, they were going to re-vamp the combat game soon, so what would it matter?
The hopes for the Combat Upgrade were high, and extended way beyond just the combat system itself. All combat professions were supposed to get unique (working) combat roles. Combat as a Rifleman was going to be very, very different from combat as a Pistoleer. Everyone was going to have a role in combat, and they were all going to be useful and exciting. Weaponsmiths were going to have custom-tailored weapons to produce at all levels, which would give them a market with all these new specialized roles. Creature Handlers were even going to still be a viable option, and you could choose to be one or not and not feel you were inferior to the host of other combat strategies.
Unbeknownst to us, however, the Jedi were poised to intervene.
From the launch of the game, despite it being an anachronistic element, Sony had promised (on the back of the box) that players would "Be able to play Jedi!" Now I never, EVER cared about playing a Jedi. I'm a Star Wars purist. At this point in the game, there is precisely one Jedi Master remaining, and he's green and hiding out on Dagobah. Luke doesn't yet qualify, and Ben's robe went up with the Death Star.
But there were a HUGE number of people whining, and even I have to admit that there was good reason. Jedi freakin' RULE.
(For the record, "Knights of the Old Republic" is probably the best overall "Star Wars" game ever made, and it really, really exemplifies how much fun it is to play a Jedi. Even though they shouldn't have existed in SWG, I knew that people would want them, badly. It's a difficult choice to turn down hard cash in favor of following storyline, and there never really was a question that SOE would cave.)
So Sony had developed this "super secret" way of unlocking the capability to be a Jedi which thus far nobody had managed to puzzle through. People were angry about it, to be sure, and quietly the developers began to give hints as to how you "might" be able to unlock your Jedi slot.
By November, players had finally caught on and the first Jedi were injected into SWG. Though others would probably argue otherwise, to me it spelled the beginning of the end.
The biggest problem with Jedi would not end up being that they were out of place (they were) ... it would not be that they were frustrating to unlock and level (they were ... the worst grind ever conceived AND a perma-death "reset" if they made the slightest slip-up.) The problem would really not be that they were imbalanced in combat (which they also were.)
No, the trouble was that when the developers SHOULD have been concentrating on fixing the myriad bugs in their system ... when they SHOULD have been analyzing the combat trees and coming up with a viable way to tweak their combat system into balance ... when they SHOULD have been fixing the numerous exploits and credit-dupe bugs that had overinflated the economy, instead they were dealing with Jedi.
This was where the real trouble started.
Now, it should be noted that by this point (November/December 2003), I was reaching the "terminal" phase with my character. I had already spent all of my skill points, and had found that I really didn't have a solid "end game experience" in PvE with the template I had chosen.
"No matter," I thought, "I'm an expert at obsessing over combat templates."
Thus, precisely at the time in which I needed SWG to have a stabilized combat model, combat balance was widely disrupted and Jedi Whining became the "flashfire du jour." The net result was that over the course of 4-6 months, I leveled whole trees, then wiped them away, grinding over and over and over again in an attempt to find a template I liked.
As soon as I would re-grind to a template I liked (Bounty Hunter with non-CH pet, or Master Pistoleer with a few BH trees, or Master CH/Pistoleer, or whatever), a knee-jerk patch would come out that would change the whole model. This led to one of the most frustrating MMO experiences of my lifetime.
For a while, Probot Droids could work as very acceptable substitutes for the (now nerf'd) non-Creature Handler pets ... so I promptly wiped the CH tree and leveled elsewhere and made my crafter a Droid Engineer. This promptly led to Probots being nerf'd.
In retrospect, the problem was really on a grander scale than I had anticipated. I had never expected the "endgame" of SWG to be "solo'ing Krayt dragons" or anything like that, but I had figured there would be a high level PvE game which would still be enjoyable.
That was where I was wrong.
Sony had banked on the idea that the majority of high-end content would actually be provided by the player base. What I had missed out on was that the PvP aspects of the game were really all they had. Once you had seen most of the planets, and done most of the "Theme Parks", there just wasn't anything else. There were some group activities (the Star Destroyers, etc) which I admit I never engaged in, but frankly the game itself just didn't have anything there at the end except PvP.
But, I didn't notice this at the time.
I was slow to realize the incredibly lacking high-end game. It covered all aspects of the game. There wasn't much point in being a Weaponsmith, because a Pistoleer only ever needed one good gun (made with a Krayt tissue ... something I wasn't going to get anyway). Not farming rare high-end group drops, I was never going to be a marketable crafter, no matter how good I was at resource gathering and how well I could work the build templates.
Put simply, there really just wasn't a good solo, non-PvP endgame to be had. I'd looked HARD, and it just wasn't out there.
It should be noted that while this seems like an entirely unamusing downward spiral, there were aspects of this which WERE still fun and enjoyable. I loved the idea of building customized droids. For a long while, since Naemo had some medical skills (for healing himself in the field), building him Med Droids was fun. I shifted from Weapons to Armor and Tailoring and could make good-looking, reasonably useful clothes.
Creature Mounts and Vehicles had come in and FINALLY the last MAJOR missing aspect to the "Star Wars Ground Game" was there. For the intrepid wanderer of the galaxy outback, having a Bantha and a Speeder Bike was a big deal.
The point was, even though I was continually being nerf'd into searching for new templates ... even though I was never anywhere even CLOSE to "uber" ... and even though every step of the way was backed by an interminable XP grind, I still felt like a CHARACTER. I wasn't "just like everyone else" except for the color of my armor. I had flavor, and I felt like I'd EARNED everything I'd gotten. This is the truly insidious nature of MMO's. Once you've invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into a character, you feel you have to stay with the game to get the most enjoyment out of that investment possible. You begin to forgive an awful lot of things when you count up the number of hours it took you to get where you are.
Even the Creatures left in my datapad had been carefully hand-selected. I'd been strung along through countless knee-jerk combat changes, nerfs, etc, but I'd actually been fairly busy the whole time, and had enjoyed the overall game experience.
There were other issues besides gameplay that I had to consider, though. The game itself ran like a slideshow in cities, even with graphics options turned nearly completely down. Every new patch would bring with it a host of new and more frustrating bugs, ranging from UI issues to game crashes. To say that the game was unstable would have been kind ... with every new code release another DIFFERENT major aspect of the game would quit working as intended. The code was much more indicative of an Alpha product ... certainly nowhere near the quality of a "Release."
I can honestly say that I have never seen more, and more consistent bugs creep into a Production release than I did with SWG. Even in the worst days of EverQuest, the instability was not this bad. Other games (City of Heroes and Dark Age of Camelot, for example) were positively bug-free in comparison, and stable as a rock. Finally, around January of 2004, I decided that I'd had enough. I'd done most of what I wanted with my crafter ... the "Jump to Lightspeed" (space expansion) was being pushed further and further off, and the developers had given up on even mentioning the Combat Upgrade.
Admist a sea of "Jedi -vs- Bounty Hunter" screaming matches, I quietly cancelled both of my accounts. I left a note saying, "talk to me when your game reaches Beta" and closed the door behind me.
I should have known better.
Around May of 2004, word had been floating that "Jump to Lightspeed" was tentatively slated for a June or July release. Now, even though the Combat Upgrade still hadn't even been contemplated, I figured I'd start looking into the prospect of a return.
Frankly, the space game had been extremely highly anticipated from the start. Though I was willing to accept that it would be delayed, I wanted it ... BADLY. I'd been weaned on "X-Wing -vs- Tie Fighter" and was dying for a space-fighting simulator in this universe.
I also wanted to make my mark on the crafting side of things. I had no idea to what level starships were going to be customizable, but I SERIOUSLY wanted Naena to be putting her brand on whatever fighter Naemo was going to be jockeying.
Knowing the layout of the SWG ground game, however, I knew I was going to have to do some prep work ahead of time.
I fully expected that I would have to have a lot of energy and harvester resources going beforehand. I also had a lot of work left to do filling out Naena's tree and trying to decide on a "final" combat template for Naemo. Creatures were still nerf'd, and I didn't really figure I'd get too heavily involved.
In the meantime, though, I'd heard that they had COMPLETELY re-worked the way that you become a Jedi. "Well," I figured, "if they can't fix the combat engine, at least they've done SOMETHING while I was gone." (It was immediately clear what the developers had actually been spending their time on.) The new system was actually a pretty clever one. You could gain "Force Sensitivity" and begin working on additional skill trees which would boost the OTHER things you did in combat (improve your accuracy, or your vehicle speed, or whatever.)
It was an incredibly slow system, and painfully difficult (especially solo), and I knew there was no way I would ever have the patience to fully unlock the Jedi slot. But I LOVED the idea that I could do "some" of it and be at least a little "in tune" with the Force. It was such a great character concept.
Plus, starting down the road was relatively interesting in itself ... you had to finish Theme Parks (buggy, but I'd enjoyed them the first time). You had to get exploration badges. ALL of it was within my happy, solo'ing Rodian reach. I had a new dream before me, one of being a roving Galactic bounty hunter whose attunement with the Force and custom-crafted starfighter would make him a worthy opponent in space. All the work I had done on the ground was finally going to pay off.
So I went back to the game with gusto.
It should also be noted that I discovered another thing to occupy a lot of my time at this stage. While Creature Handler pets had been nerf'd to mediocrity, I learned of another profession out there which still had tremendous potential to make me a "reasonably powerful" ground combatant ... the Bio-Engineer.
Bio-Engineers could wander the galaxy taking DNA samples of various creatures, then apply them to their own templates to make custom monstrosities of their own. It was fantastic. You could research and experiement with "recipes" from all manner of creatures, tailoring the finalized product to have certain resistances, a certain combat level, special attacks, whatever. Plus, you could make them into your favorite beasties, so your final product could fit your character image perfectly.
I felt like I had found the final, perfect complement to my character. I could take a limited Creature Handler template, combined with some Bounty Hunter skills and Master Pistoleer, and I was actually FORMIDABLE in combat. I could hunt things which were high-end difficult, yet still reasonable!
The only problem was, I was still limited to one character per account and frankly I didn't want to give up my crafter ...
So, at this point I'm really kicking myself for being so completely stupid. I'm up to my THIRD account now, paying for three of them every month. All this to really just play ONE CHARACTER.
But to my credit, there were a lot of good reasons to have a Bio-Engineer on tap. For one thing, they could make enhancements that Naena could put into the clothing and armor, which were a nice little bonus to have. They could make significantly improved medpacks and medical support items. They could even make the medpacks to heal my pets when they were in combat!
Plus, the prospect of custom-tailored pets was really just too much of a draw.
So for three months, I proceeded to finish Naemo's combat template, round out Naena's crafting grind, and jump headlong into sampling creatures with my new Wookie bio-engineer (the family's adopted brother.)
Grinding, grinding, grinding ... enough to drive one to drink. The grind was always tempered with fun, exciting things to do, but for every "death-defying search on Dathomir" for a rare spawn's DNA, there were hours of sitting around grinding and destroying recipes.
Still, when it was ALL DONE, I had pretty much accomplished what I'd set out to do. I had a stable of really kickin' pets. I had good, solid combat skills. I could hunt Force Sensitives on Dantooine. I could even start to hunt things that dropped the lowest level boosters to my crafted items.
But all this had really been in preparation for "Jump to Lightspeed" coming out, remember ... and it kept getting pushed further and further back.
Now, in the time between when I had last quit and when I first came back, I had noticed another annoying trend leap its way into the ruination of SWG. From the initial SWG release, Doctors had been something of a red-headed stepchild in the game. Their "buffing" abilities were simple and lacking, and they didn't really have an extensive place in combat operations.
But the lesson of SWG was that if you whined enough, nearly anybody could get changed.
Doctors (who, it was said, had not really been "done" when SWG launched) were given a series of buffs which were so good and lasted so long, that they would single-handedly imbalance the entire combat game.
Simply put, if a Doctor buffed all your attributes, any "mediocre" combat template would become "uber." Encounters which were "dangerous" without buffs were "trivial" with them. Encounters which were "impossible" became "routine." Doctor buffs made an order of magnitude difference on the players who received them.
They also lasted forever (hours at a time), meaning you could be buffed at the start of a night, and solo the entire night without needing to be re-buffed.
When I had first left the game, this was really just starting to become an annoyance. By the time I came back, Doctors would regularly park themselves in a Starport and spend hours doing nothing but buffing players (for a price.) Doctors could easily make several million credits in an hour. Gamebreaking as it was, you were stupid NOT to do it ... it could easily mean the difference between a successful night's hunting and a trip to the Cloning Chamber.
In general, I avoided this like the plague. It just didn't FEEL right to me. Besides, I resented any reliance on other players ... I AVOID people in MMO's whenever possible. It was a horrendous handicap (especially while I was doing mission after mission trying to climb the Force Sensitive trees), but for the most part I stuck to my guns.
Somewhere around July, with "Jump to Lightspeed" still nowhere in sight, I started to get soft. Rapidly wanting SOMEWHERE else to go in the endgame ... SOME kind of power boost, I began to think, "You know, my Bio-Engineer can make ALL those Doctor buff packs. And I could just leave my Doctor parked at the Starport on whatever plant I was hunting." Yup, you guessed it ...
Granted, I was kinda bored, but still desperately wanting to salvage something out of this game. I also found the basic game for $20. And, to my credit, I did NOT pay for the account past the 30-day trial period.
But alas, at the same time I was doing all these other Bio-Engineer things, I was also leveling a Doctor. I was macro-healing with him on a second box while I did ANYTHING else on the primary. It really wasn't that tough to do, but it was annoying.
Somewhere in there, though, I came to my senses. When they still weren't giving a release date for JTL in mid-July, I decided that (once again) enough was enough. With the Doctor still incomplete, but all my other characters at a good "stable" place, I decided I was going to quit for good.
"The only thing that will bring me back," I said, "is Space."
When October rolled around, and SOE announced that JTL would FINALLY be releasing at the end of the month, I figured I'd give the game one more chance. "Fool me twice" and all.
But I wasn't going to FULLY jump back in, not just yet. I reactivated my primary account so I could see just what kind of a job they were going to do with the space game. When JTL came out, I bought ONE copy, for Naemo to start flying the unfriendly skies.
For the most part, my initial response to JTL was positive. It WAS a very pretty game, and the combat model seemed worthwhile. While twitch-based, it was appropriate for a combat flight sim, rather than a ground-based MMO. Having had dissatisfied experiences with the "not really twitch" combat model in "Earth and Beyond", I was good with the decision.
But, it didn't take long before the paint started to chip on my shiny new starfighter.
My first crushing realization came on the crafting side. While I hadn't immediately upgraded my Naena account, I had fully intended to make her a starship builder, whatever the cost. What I discovered was that where previously a crafting profession might have taken 1,000,000 resource units to reach Master (something I could acquire in something less than a month on my own) ... starship Mastery was going to require 10-100 TIMES that amount.
Even working tirelessly on the ground placing and running harvesters (and running missions to pay the rent) it was a near impossibility that I would see the Master box filled for even a YEAR. The Guild-supported craftsmen would be there within the month, where the small independent might as well not even bother. Plus, the mechanics of the crafting system had not changed one iota since release ... mid-level crafted items were still mostly worthless, and anything of real value had to come from a Master.
Sure enough, in no time flat it was trivially easy to acquire advanced starships from the open market. So much for my "branding".
Still, the space game was fun for a few weeks ... climbing the boxes (grind, grind, grind), and running the missions. I decided to go ahead and upgrade the Naena account, just to confirm that the pace of leveling a starship crafter was what I had expected (it was.) This had the added benefit of allowing me to try and "work with" the salvage from starship kills. Maybe if I couldn't build my own starfighter, I could at least customize it.
But quickly enough, the flaws became apparent. Mid-level starfighters (the Y-Wing in particular) had hard caps on their maneuverability such that boosted loot items ended up making little difference. Your choices were "so wimpy that missions were hard/imposible" to "hey, look, I made it up to mediocre!"
Oh, and all that time I spent building my Force Sensitivity tree to augment my abilities in space? Worthless. Force abilities had no effect on anything in the space game. Instantly my last lingering dream of an Imperial pilot trying to follow my starfighter and saying to himself, "The Force is strong with this one!" were dashed. I was just as normal as every other SWG character built from Day #1.
The interface to the Space game was a difficulty as well. I am no stranger to combat simulators. As I mentioned, "X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter" was a staple of mine. I've played WWI, WWII, and modern air combat simulators for years. Plus, I was no newbie to the Star Wars Galaxies environment. Yet somehow, SOE managed to create an interface that was completely unintuitive. Even simple actions required clunky interactions with the mouse and baffling key commands that did not come naturally. Even now, it's difficult to describe why the game was so difficult to get used to, but it was.
The final nail in the coffin came with the realization that there was really very little reason to become a Master Starfighter. Other than a few specific (and admittedly special, i.e. "Millenium Falcon") ships, you just didn't get much out of advancing except for moderately harder missions.
Worst of all, once you gained the Master box, you were PERMANENTLY flagged for PvP. If you'll scroll to the top of this diatribe, you'll be reminded that I DO NOT PvP. Once again, SOE had made it clear that their "endgame" for SWG was 100% PvP, just what I DIDN'T need in my life.
So, without further ado, I cancelled both accounts again with the intention of never going back.
Gods, I must be the biggest freakin' idiot on the planet.
I really should NOT have been tempted. In March, when I got the e-mails saying, "The Combat Upgrade is COMING!" I should have just deleted them from my inbox and let it be. But as I say, I'm the biggest freakin' idiot on the planet.
I figured, the Combat Upgrade was over 15 months overdue, they HAD to have finally figured out what they were doing, right? They HAD to have finally built the combat model that we had been promised. Maybe this game was FINALLY going to be worth playing, right?
So, I reactivated. Idiot me. Only one account, though ... not that it makes me less of an idiot, I just like saying it so that I feel better.
I returned to an SWG ground game that was chaos. Bio-Engineers had basically been castrated. With a host of recipes that created creatures "outside their intended ability range" they had completely bungled Bio-Engineering across the board. Pet recipes now created pets which were sub-par, even by the nerf'd Creature Handler standard.
Legacy pets in people's datapads were "rescaled" when brought out, turning them into completely worthless lumps of meat. The once mighty stable of Naemo's pets weren't even worth taking against things half his combat level, let along anything he could have confronted in the past.
The advent of the Combat Level system made every template pre-Combat Upgrade worthless. Guns could suddenly no longer be crafted that were even remotely worthwhile. Old guns were still viable, but combat specials were so flaky that nobody dared to rely on their old templates.
Faced with the prospect of replacing all my pets, and grinding for months on end to try out "yet another possible template", knowing that in the end I'd be significantly weaker than I had started, I cancelled my account within the week.
I had held out the tiniest bit of hope that the Combat Upgrade would save this game which had now captured my attention for YEARS ... to see the utter travesty that had come instead was just too much. This game was dead to me. Utterly dead.
I was perfectly content to watch the "Rise of the Wookies" go by without comment. Though I love Wookies, and would have loved for Naewarrak to visit his birthworld, there was no way I was going to go through all that again. I certainly was not going to give SOE another dime after I had wasted so much on this fool endeavour already.
I occasionally checked out the Forums, the Web, various postings. I saw everything I expected. The furor against the Combat Upgrade was nearly unanimous. It hadn't worked. At best the new combat system was just a failed interpretation of the old flawed system in which EVERYONE was nerf'd and all the same old problems just had a fresh coat of paint. At worst, it completely ruined the game experience for everyone involved.
November was approaching, and of course the next expansion was to be "The Trials of Obi-Wan." More catering to the Jedi-Whiners (Frankly I can't blame them for whining ... they were promised a game with Jedi, and that's what they feel was owed to them. I felt I had been promised a game with a reasonably balanced combat engine and a PvE endgame. We were both lied to.)
I still had no desire to reactivate ANY of my accounts.
Then a peculiar thing happened. I say peculiar since, from my detached viewpoint, it really had no effect on me. For the current, core player base it was a travesty (and particularly rude, given its lack of announcement and proximity to the previous release.)
Seemingly from out of nowhere, less than two weeks after people had paid good money for the "Trials of Obi-Wan" ... Star Wars Galaxies was no longer Star Wars Galaxies. Only the names hadn't been changed.
The "New Game Experience" was dropped, nearly untested, onto Production servers on November 15th, 2005. It totally rebuilt the game. Not just a "revamp", we're talking a complete rebuild. No more 32 skill trees ... now you had 9 potential "classes." No variety in your template, you got what the Star Wars universe decided it wanted you to have. Now the game was all about "twitch" combat on the ground ... point and shoot with your mouse ... WHEEEEEEEEEE!
In short, the game had been turned from a sophisticated, complex game with nuance and strategy into a console-game wannabee catering to the 8-to-13-year-old demographic.
I started reading. MAYBE, if the game was actually still FUN, it might be worth trying out. What had they realistically done? Well, there were no longer a few "overwhelming combat templates", since they couldn't manage to ever "balance" the skill trees, they just decided to do away with them all. Now combatants would be one of the few old templates that had survived.
There was the secret answer to the question of balance ... make EVERYONE "Uber", then make "Uber" into "Mediocre." Maybe this works for balance, but in the end you're left with nothing but stale, 2-dimensional caricatures. You're left with all the character uniqueness of "Halo."
Gone, it seemed, was the entire concept of the Creature Handler and Bio-Engineer. Not a surprise, really, as it seemed they had been trying to get rid of them since they were first released.
But I read further ... had they fixed crafting? Sortof. Half of the things you crafted before were still useful (buildings, furniture, harvesters, etc) ... all the former "very useful" crafted stuff you could still craft, but it was all now basically worthless. Equivalent gear dropped with good frequency, and there was nothing even remotely special about the stuff you could make.
They still didn't seem to have made an endgame ... all I could see were people talking about how PvP was the final solution, both on ground and in space. In fact, content-wise they didn't seem to have added much of ANYTHING, except in support of the items that were already there. The patch notes were still incredibly long, indicating bug fixes for features that I couldn't believe would even be broken.
Clearly, they hadn't really stabilized the code throughout all these changes, they just kept dropping more and more spackle over the cracks, in the hopes that nobody would notice.
But still, I couldn't really tell if the new game was FUN. So when Sony sent me an e-mail telling me that I could activate a FREE demo account, I figured ... well, once more unto the breach dear friends.
Yes, I actually bothered to try the NGE, knowing from experience that it was going to suck.
I played it for exactly a week before I gave up, having decided that they had managed to finally MURDER what little excitement the game had originally held. Even the space game seemed pointless (they had never managed to change the clunky, non-intuitive feel of the controls and UI anyway, so it was really a blessing in disguise.) There really was TRULY nothing there to excite me.
The game was a pale imitation of its predecessor. Combat and advancement were trivial, and try as I might my character never felt like more than a 2-dimensional cardboard cutout. I hadn't gotten into this universe to be a "clone of my favorite Star Wars character", I'd gotten into it to make my OWN mark on the galaxy. This wasn't the answer to SWG's problems. Sony had turned a game with tremendous, market changing potential into something cheap and taudry.
I'd explored the planets. I'd seen every mess Sony could make. I was absolutely sick of it all.
Ultimately, I guess if you were looking for a brainless, "sit down and just shoot things" Star Wars game, then the NGE was probably fine. In a way it turned into a free-roaming first-person-shooter without any of the puzzlement and a lot more repetion in the combat and no compelling "storyline". But it still had the complexities of the universe behind it, for what that was worth. There were now just lots of "n00b J3d1" running around.
I'm sure there are people that like that. I'm also sure that Sony will continue to make money off the product, by churning through the countless Star Wars junkie console gamers for whom the NGE caters. I came from the MMO market, though, and I always expected more of my games. It's particularly disheartening to see a game actually DELIVER on so many promises, only to be regressed a to infancy in the end.
The final incarnation of SWG (now over 3 years old, with the NGE being a full year of that) is what it is, and to all appearances will never be what it was. Was this the right financial decision? Perhaps. Is it also the unforgivable slaugter of a franchise? Definitely.
They still continue to expand the game. Smugglers finally got their "new Smuggling system" in September of 2006 (a game item which had been promised since Beta, 3 years late.) Somebody out there must still be playing the game, the Forums have posts and the game is still active.
It may seem silly, but I still get the occasional "twinge" to play. Thus far, I have yet to prove myself to be THAT big of an idiot.
But with several "server merges" being required because Galaxy populations were getting too low, one can't help but wonder if even this "second generation" isn't dwindling as bad as the first.
In the end, as far as I'm concerned, it's nothing more than a tragic tale of "Fool me FOUR times."
The single greatest disappointment in MMO history.
Yes, I really am that stupid.
After three years of managing to avoid this train wreck of an MMORPG, I came back. Yes, I really should have known better ... I re-read my own rant on the subject every other month like clockwork.
But some things just have to be done.
Roughly ten months ago, my regular, periodic investigation of the status of SWG resurfaced. This has been happening consistently ever since I left the game - when I hear news of something being added or some new expansion it inevitably led to searching the forums in a misguided attempt to determine if the game was even moderately playable.
Throughout all this, I had avoided being silly enough to actually re-activate my account. However, after seeing enough posts claiming that "the SWG community is strong and populous!" and that the gameplay was "fresh" and that "there is a huge amount of new content!" I figured, "Well ... what the heck. There's only one surefire way to know."
Truth be told, it was the announcement that Creature Handling and Bio-Engineering had been re-implemented in the game which truly drew me back. It's a sad, sad life I lead.
To be fair, part of me had always been looking for a good, final sense of closure on this experience. KotOR Online was "officially" announced, so there was hope for a decent Star Wars franchise. I figured it would be nice to put a "final nail" in the coffin of Star Wars Galaxies and take one last look.
Though I went into the experience with some harsh criteria and a history of being burned, I honestly did my best to keep an open mind during the assessment. It turned out not to help.
In the final estimation, it wasn't quite as bad as I'd expected.
There was more of a game there than when I'd left. Not much more, and what was there had some serious and fundamentally critical problems, but generally speaking some of their previous issues had been addressed and there were at least a few more things to do in the SWG universe.
In some ways, the game seemed to have re-captured at least a bit of the ambiance of the original. Parts of the game did feel more like "Star Wars", and the Galactic Civil War had a bit more structure and meaning (albeit a very tiny "bit".)
The combat system was, for the most part, stabilized. Combat level had some actual relevence and seemed to be a good gauge of a character's combat capabilities. It was clear that PvP and class balance were still askew, but little worse than in most other popular MMOs.
There was new PvE content to be found. Several new quest lines and instanced content. Though most of it was tailored toward groups and high-end raids, there were at least a few quest lines for the casual solo'ist with decent rewards and moderately interesting content.
The pace of leveling for the ground game felt much less like a grind than it once had, especially with the COMPNET experience bonuses and improved XP payout from missions. For the casual player, leveling to 90 required a sense of dedication but didn't take an overwhelmingly ponderous amount of effort to see progress.
The crafting system remained largely untouched, though there did seem to be a better correlation between crafter's skill and usefulness of their product. Crafted items also seemed to have returned to their former status of being "in demand", especially with the advent of Reverse Engineered bonus items.
Some of these improvements were to flaws which had been in the game since Beta, others had been introduced as a result of the changes of the Combat Upgrade and the NGE. Mostly, the game seemed to have returned to a pre-CU level of playability.
But not everything was an improvement.
Though I will admit that there were significant improvements since the NGE was forced upon the galaxy far, far away - the bottom line was, if someone were to ask me whether SWG was worth spending their time and effort on, I would still have to say, "No."
Frankly, the user interface and combat playability were flaky before the Combat Upgrade. The CU made a massive mess out of a system with already severe problems of balance and abuse. The only thing that could have been worse from an interface perspective was to try and shoehorn the existing interface into a twitch-based system. Thank you NGE.
The ground combat game, while less abysmally annoying than it was at the advent of the CU and the NGE, still wasn't even remotely ready for prime time. Network lag, mistimed animations, clunky targeting capabilities, and a lack of coherent feedback during the combat process made for engagements which were often hugely frustrating.
Combat animations were too complex for the frequency in which they fired. They often didn't animate at all, or indeed show any indication of their success or failure beyond watching the health bar of the target. Similar problems existed when animations actually did fire, with NPCs falling dead long after the shot which killed them (and several subsequent specials and animations.) Put simply, game response was a nightmare.
Such problems are not absolutely critical to the gameplay, and indeed after a while you somewhat get used to them being there. But frankly, they were there from the launch of the game, and were made drastically worse with the changeover to the NGE combat system. To have had three years to correct such issues and to have done nothing was utterly unacceptable.
Indeed, game lag was still omnipresent, despite a drastic reduction in server populations. Even at the most heavily populated times, in the most heavily populated places, the remaining SWG player base was 1/100th the size it used to be. That's not to say that it was impossible to find something to do, but the game had nowhere near the support and community that it once did. Yet upon stepping into a player domicile it still took almost a minute to bring up the house's contents. Fewer people, more lag. Somehow that just didn't seem right.
There was a strange oddity that arose from the Exodus of players. Server populations were clearly a fraction of what they had previously been. Yet, in spite of this, nearly every inch of every planet was covered with player bulidings and cities. This near-permanent urban sprawl was filling up every corner of the Galaxy which could be built upon. Trying to find "your little place in the sand" was difficult at best on remote worlds like Dantooine or Dathomir, and next to impossible on planets like Corellia and Tatooine.
In placing so much emphasis on the player-driven content and player city development, they had driven away the last vestiges of epic scale the ground game once retained. What was worse was that the auto-withdrawal of maintenance funds from massively overinflated bank accounts (stuffed to the gills with millions from years of farming, grinding, and duping credits) meant that these ghost towns would effectively never disappear within the game's lifetime.
I should note that a few months after returning, I received an e-mail from SOE saying they were going to bulldoze buildings belonging to inactive accounts. By doing this, the whole situation may now be corrected. I would be curious to see how many buildings and cities survived the wipe of inactivity, but I'm certainly not going to give SOE another month's subscription fee to find out.
Other aspects of the game, particularly the space game, remained comparitively fun and well designed. In my opinion, the space game was really the only "fun" part of the game left. Once you burned your way through the minimal ground game content, the only reasonably engaging perpetual activity was fighter combat. But even this could seem repetitive and limited after a very short while.
But the space game still had an abysmally slow leveling pace, very reminiscent of the grind of the original pre-NGE game. Since early levels of gameplay could be almost as enjoyable as the later ones, the "necessity to level" wasn't quite as limiting, but there were other issues.
Many of the new quests in the ground game had steps which required completing certain missions in space. This was actually fun, nice and immersive, except for one small problem ... the quests built for the ground game assumed your space abilities were on par with your ground advancement. This was a generic problem throughout the game, in that nothing dynamically adjusted to the combat level of the person running it (to even the slightest degree ... enemy spawns were a static and fixed level in all cases.)
This meant that often a quest series on the ground would be stalled because the space portion was too difficult for the ground combatant to finish (even with help in many cases.) The opposite was also a problem, that whole sections of quests became trivial because they were so much lower than the player performing them. It's a design flaw that nearly all MMOs face, but most at least tailor the range of content around the recipient, or provide a steady content path in PvE that keeps the player within their performance range.
While I could forgive some of these issues, what I could not forgive were the endless bugs that still pervaded the product. All too many quests were bugged and could not be completed (they wouldn't update, or worse they lost all track of where they were with no easy way to regain the trail or enter in the middle of a series of events.) The "i" indicators on quest NPCs were recruited to serve double-duty (used both for for NPCs giving out general information and as an indicator of quest content) and were not sensitive to faction or the actual status of the character, thus becoming incredibly misleading to people hunting for this "massive influx of content."
The end result was a questing experience which was often frustrating, leading most to simply grind their levels using dynamically spawned missions. The result was little better than quest content at the game's release. Disappointing even in a new game ... totally unacceptable for a game this advanced in years.
As for the effect the NGE had on the game, I still stand by my original assertion that turning the game into a twitch-based console-wannabee system robbed it of most of what had made it unique and enjoyable. The new class-based system was workable (and combat relatively balanced with regard to PvE), but the three templates I experimented with were all mediocre at best, and the lack of customization in anything but appearance was just disheartening.
The later auto-target and auto-attack implementations only served to point out that combat had been distilled to only a few simplistic repetitive actions (very reminiscent of the days when combat was "Start auto-attack, spam best special, lather, rinse, repeat.")
Better? More fun? Far from it. Welcome to the World of Bland.
All these things combined to really detract from the experience for a returning veteran, though admittedly a new player might not be so negatively affected. But there were some things which even the new meat would find annoying.
In the end, the most disappointing aspect to returning to SWG wasn't so much what had changed, but rather what had NOT changed.
From the very start, it was clear that the niggling annoyances in the graphics engine were still there, completely unchanged. The static, lifeless posture of stationary characters made every town seem like a wax museum. Active animations were OK, and often pretty well done, but the statue-like poses of every figure were an annoyance which had driven me crazy during Beta ... and yet here, years later, they're still "the norm." The disconnection between server and client which caused a lot of animation issues was worse rather than better, down to the randomizing effect it had on the sound and music engine.
The seemingly worthless effect of terrain on combat was another problem which hadn't changed in the slightest. Bugs with combat on vehicles (if combat starts on a vehicle, the radial menus wouldn't let you enter combat, yet wouldn't let you actually get OFF of the vehicle so you can start combat), bugs with aggro (sometimes things wouldn't aggro when they should, sometimes they would aggro when they shouldn't ... sometimes they did it through a wall or on the other side of a hill), bugs with warping NPCs and rubber-banding when running ... all problems which were there when the game shipped that had gotten drastically worse since the NGE (and had not gotten better with the drop in population.)
And Jedi as a player class? Sorry, but with a server population that seemed to be over 50% Jedi, you're not talking Star Wars, you don't even have a Clone Wars or Knights of the Old Republic kind of game. I had hoped the furor of n00b j3d1 would have died down by now. It hadn't.
(And before you say anything ... yes, I tried a Jedi - because Jedi in most any incarnation absolutely RULE. It merely proved the painfully old "Incredibles" axiom ... that once everyone is "special", then nobody is. I went back to Bounty Hunting.)
Oh, and Creature Handling and Bio-Engineering? The worst joke of all. Bio-Engineering had the most insanely complicated set of requirements of anything I'd seen thus far in the game, with interdependencies tied to ALL the different crafting classes and raw materials both sampled AND dropped from creatures. All this to create creatures which actually REDUCED your overall combat effectiveness. Pointless flavor at a ridiculous cost for a net loss. Even for the roleplay aspect it wasn't worth it. Abysmal implementation and a laughably audacious credit sink. Typical of SWG design philosophy.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't talk a bit more about the user interface.
Even with the combat engine originally shipped in the product, the interface was klunky and difficult to become accustomed to. Key commands were non-intuitive and relying on a "macro" system to replicate behavior which should have been inherent was simply a bad idea.
The game was over-ambitious in its design, and the interface showed it. Though powerful, the macro system was easily abused, and yet became an absolute necessity to get through the long hours of grinding. The thing none of this had really changed. The interface was still klunky, but now it was a square peg which had been hammered into the round hole of the NGE. Simply put, it was terrible, took way too long (with way too much customization) to become comfortable, and in the end required far too many clicks and keystrokes to do things which should be simple and straightforward.
More powerful is not always better, and this interface proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The interface to the space game was still just as confusing and problematic, and in a totally different way from the ground game, using completely different default key commands and a very different style of interaction. Two wrong interfaces definitely did not make a right.
Combine this with the slow, grind-like feel of advancement in Space, and they ruined the only remaining aspect of the game which could (to any serious degree) be called "fun."
Are these nitpicks? Many might say so. One thing I have learned is that SWG players are very much like EVE'nauts in their attitude toward the game. Even with all evidence to the contrary, they will insist that they have a "deep, rich, immersive game with an extensive community."
What I have found instead is a small, deeply fanatic core of die-hards and transients who refuse to let the game wither and die completely. Mostly through sheer willpower, they seem to be able to convince Sony that the game is growing and able to sustain their development efforts. I'm less convinced after seeing how far it's slipped.
The game may survive for a while longer but - excepting the zombie fan-base who refuse to admit the game's inherent flaws - I think it's short-lived. Now that KotOR Online has been announced, it won't take much for the last vestiges of support to drain away.
Is there more to do in SWG? Yes. That much I have to admit. It's a moderately better game than it was at the time of the CU/NGE. But only by a minute amount. Losing a year or two to the drastic changes of the NGE I could almost forgive, but clearly they haven't solved even the most basic of the design problems in that time.
The final assessment is that it might be worth recommending to someone for a quick, short-term (and preferably CHEAP) diversion, but that ultimately it's probably not worth the time. The amount of frustration is far too high for the payoff and even after all the spackle and paint that's been put on the original, nothing is going to carry the game into a new generation.
The changes bring a game with a solid, undeniable "F" up to a barely passable sympathy "D-". Not exactly the best track record for one of the hottest properties in all the gaming world.
I have suspected for some time that Sony elected to roll SWG into the "All Access" pass in an effort to try and hide the dwindling SWG numbers behind their umbrella accounts. I would be very interested to see the real numbers of SWG logins and the churn on SWG-only accounts. The game has completely disappeared off brick-and-mortar shelves. There can be little doubt of its future.
I guess if I had to sum it all up, I'd have to simply say, "After three years, this is the best you can come up with?"
My advice to all Star Wars fans at this point is to wait for KotOR Online. There's at least some hope that it might redeem the franchise.
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This page was last updated on July 2nd, 2010 at 06:40 PM