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MMO Licensing Part 1: Star Wars

Existing properties have become big business in MMO’s. Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix just to name a few. The thought being these franchises come with an existing fan base to drive players, new and old, to the game. Sometimes this works, sometimes it fails. The real question is why. What makes a good MMO license and is it enough to carry a game? What does it take to make a licensed MMO successful? In part one of this article we’re going to look at the biggest license of them all, Star Wars.

Let’s start with one of the biggest hyped MMO’s in the history of MMO’s, Star Wars Galaxies. We all know Star Wars is one of the most popular properties ever. This one seems like a no brainer. I mean diverse races, cool technology, iconic characters, what’s not to like? Hell, they even had Sony behind them, at the time that was a big deal with Everquest still ruling the roost. Star Wars Galaxies was one of the first games I followed from day one. I mean I was on the forums and active from very early on, I was in the second group of beta testers, I wanted this game to succeed like you would not believe. I’m a huge Star Wars geek, I know more than anyone should about the movies and I’ve read a LOT of the expanded universe stuff. So what went wrong?

I don’t think it’s any secret that Galaxies is considered a failure. The designers of Star Wars galaxies took a lot of risks from day one, they were using this huge license as their ticket to change the way MMO’s worked and think outside the box. I think that was awesome. However, Galaxies was plagued with problems from the very beginning. The beta was very rough, they were getting rushed out the door by Lucasarts and Sony, the game launched with very little polish. While Galaxies was certainly not the first to launch that way, it was one of the first to do it and be counting on a lot of people new to MMO’s. Those of us who had been around a while understand that out the door polish is often lacking. Hell sometimes polish is lacking 4 years into a games run. Though I have to admit even I was frustrated with the problems.

Let me explain a bit about what made Galaxies different. Unlike other games you didn’t just have a level 5 fighter. You didn’t just train in one job and leave it at that. There were professions, each profession had four skill trees. There were a few starting professions that branched out into a very complex profession tree. The thing was that you could progress however you wanted. Professions had requirements that had to be met, but once you met those you could train as little or as much of those professions as you wanted. You were really free to customize your character. On top of that it had a different kind of XP system.

In Galaxies you got different kinds of XP which allowed you to progress different things. For instance there was blaster XP. One of my main characters was a Smuggler, he had a skill tree that required blaster XP. My other main character was a droid engineer, he got XP for creating things that allowed him to move up his career path. You could play Galaxies from day one and never shoot anything. I even had a character on another server who was just a musician. In the beginning other players were required to heal your different stats, one of the ways to heal was to go to a cantina and watch a show. There was an entire entertainer profession which could be leveled up without ever leaving the cities. Same with the medic profession. Now of course there were benefits to leaving the cities, but it allowed you to play how you wanted.

I’ve never seen a system with so much diversity in it before, never seen a system I wanted to succeed so badly but I’ve also never seen a game fail at everything it was trying to do so miserably. As I said earlier, galaxies had problems. The first one being everything felt like a grind. I mean, you want to go level up your blaster skill, you go shoot shit for a couple of hours, the tougher the shit you shot the more XP you got. There weren’t quests as people usually think of quests, there were theme parks and there were terminals which gave you kill tasks. In the end there was a lot of repetitive game play. Some people like that, the casual player new to MMO’s that Galaxies was trying to attract did not like it in general. Secondly there were bugs, there were bugs everywhere. In beta I once got stuck in a small open area on the surface of Corellia. There was nothing there to stop me from going where I wanted to go, but I was stuck. My cousin was running back and forth through the same invisible wall I was stuck at. I was stuck there for a week. This was beta though, it was to be expected. What wasn’t expected was when it happened to several people (myself included) after release. So people were frustrated but stuck it out for a couple of months. Then the level of grind became obvious when we learned how Jedi worked.

You see, from the beginning the biggest debate on the Galaxies forums was Jedi. The game took place between Episode IV and V (Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back). So there should be very very few Jedi through out the galaxy. Keeping them rare was something they worked hard at. What they did is they made it so you had to master several random professions to unlock a Jedi. This meant grinding through many many professions until you stumbled across the right set. Now eventually they gave you a way to find out all but one of the required professions, which made things easier, but that was completely ridiculous and had NOTHING to do with lore or Star Wars in general. It was a dynamic that rewarded the kind of power gaming you don’t see from the casual gamers that should have been the bread and butter of Galaxies.

After a while Galaxies became one big time sink and people started leaving. The system was too complicated and different, it was too hard to advance, the PvP was really bad and combat was just kind of blah. Basically once people did all of the Theme parks they’d seen what the game had to offer the normal fans. Theme parks were the thing the team did most right. Jabba’s palace is the best example I can give. You could go out to Jabba’s palace and work your way up through the ranks of his lackeys. This is the one place we saw actual quests and a fun story and we got to meet people from the movies. Even then some of this stuff was tedious and there was fighting over the guys you needed to kill or talk to to advance the quest. Early on it was especially hard to get a couple of kills you needed because everyone and their brother was after the same guys you were. Now for a few minutes that made it interesting, a couple hours later after ass munches taking the kills out from underneath us, we just got pissed.

Still Theme parks are one of the things that really worked well about Galaxies. They were simple, they pulled you into a story and they let you interact with people from the movies. They are what the designers did best, but they still fucked up possibly the most valuable MMO license ever. Galaxies is still around, everything about it has changed, it’s now a pale imitation of all the other MMO’s out there, the best things about it are gone, there are Jedi everywhere (including Jedi Wookies wearing fucking padawan outfits). They’ve tried to mainstream it to get anyone to play it, anyone at all. They actually really nailed space combat, but that’s not enough to keep me playing the game. There is a new hope for Star Wars to strike back with the return of the license (yes, that hurt me as well) thanks to Bioware.

Recently EA and Bioware announced a new MMO, well they sort of announced it, they let the information slip, twice. Bioware made one of the most popular Star Wars games around, it was called Knights of the Old Republic. It took place about 5,000 years before the Star Wars we all know and love, in a time when Jedi (good and bad) were everywhere. This new MMO based in the time frame I always thought a Star Wars MMO should be based has potential. I worry because Bioware hasn’t made an MMO before, they’re known for RPG’s and while they’re usually fun games, they’re often a bit tedious for my liking. I worry about a possible grind, at the same time however I trust them far more than I ever did the knuckle heads at Sony. There is still life in this license, we’ll just have to see what happens.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about Matrix Online and if there’s enough room, Age of Conan.

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