I feel weak. I’m playing an MMOG that Wen got me into. I’m giving money to Sony. I’m in a game based on a franchise of movies that I maybe liked for about a week when I was a little kid and was impressed by special effects. I’m probably paying royalties to the man who forced the character of Jar jar Binks on us all. All this is true, and yet somehow, Star Wars Galaxies is a good game.

I remembered a chat with Raph Koster a long time ago (which got blown away when I foolishly destroyed my mailbox) where I could swear he didn’t sound overly thrilled about the design. "Evolutionary, not revolutionary," was one of the key phrases I remembered. Ho hum… to me "evolutionary" in gaming means "Tomb Raider Gold Deluxe Edition Chronicles Part XII: The Secret of Overhyped Sequels." It turns out he was right, yet in this case "evolutionary" means "steal the best parts of a bunch of other games and make them a lot better."

One thing a franchised property has a big advantage in is backstory, even a somewhat cheesy franchise like Star Wars. If you pick up a lousy Star Wars novel from one of those homeless guys who sells remaindered books on the sidewalk in Manhattan, you’re either a moron and/or have watched enough Star Wars to not need a big long exposition telling you who the hell these goofballs in space are, allowing you to get into the hackneyed "plot." SWG has this advantage, if this sort of thing concerns you. Even if you’re not a supergeek who waited overnight on line in costume for the opening of that travesty Episode One, you know the basics. It’s futuristic, people have blasters, there’s an Empire and some rebels, and occasionally you run into very annoying droids. If you’re really into Star Wars, you probably know a lot more about it than I care to, and based on the Lucasarts tradition of being super anal about detail, you’ll probably be okay with the lore. This, to me, is secondary to the other big Lucasarts tradition, which is to not release computer games until they are ready, or in the case of an MMOG (which is never ready), pretty damn ready. We started playing the day or so after release, and in my memory only Asheron’s Call had a smoother release in terms of bugs and server problems. Of course, look where AC is now. I better just shut up about smooth releases.

  • The depth of the game is fairly amazing. This does not mean lore; this means mechanics. The dev team here has accomplished a number of things which are pretty astounding from the point of view of a really good MMOG:
  • You can redesign your character as much as you want, except for sex and race, as long as you play long enough
  • Because of this, they can have one character per server, eliminating mules and the headaches this causes
  • The economy is (A) completely player-driven and (B) actually works
  • The tradeskill and crafting aspect of the game is utterly humongous and interesting, and detailed enough so that two players with exactly the same skills making exactly the same thing can make entirely different products
  • It’s completely possible and rewarding to play a character who never fights, if that’s your thing
  • You don’t have to sit around making guns if that’s your thing; you can be an entertainer, and the game makes you a vital part of the player ecosystem, rather than a useless add-on afterthought
  • There are plenty of cash sinks and item decay factors to keep the economy smooth
  • Everything looks pretty groovy

As far as what got stolen from other games, there were quite a number of things that struck me on the first day:

  • The combat system allows for autoattack or the use of special maneuvers based on skill level, the best part of the DAoC system
  • Most of the interface is made up of mobile gumps, the best part of the UO interface
  • Crafting requires selecting and combining ingredients in sequence, the best part of DAoC crafting (except more complex and better) , and the use of schematics (the best part of the Arcanum system)
  • Becoming a crafter requires you to choose that lifestyle, instead of being a killing machine/crafter, without nerfing you utterly (the best part of the UO/Arcanum craft class systems)
  • Chat is in a multitabbed gump (the best part of the DAoC chat system, except fully customizable and better, except for some chat bugs associated with grouping/ungrouping)
  • NO FREAKING LEVELS (the best part of the UO progression system)
  • A nicely pannable, super far-seeing camera (the best part of the AC visual system)
  • No zoning that I’ve seen yet, using dynamic loading instead (the best part of the AC travel system)
  • Random quest generators (a la DAoC killtasks, except they also include delivery/craft/entertainment missions, thus better)
There are some really good new innovations as well, like the concept of permanent wounding. If you get injured, a lot of your wounds can regenerate with rest, but after a while, you start accumulating a lot of lasting damage, which blacks out part of your status bars. This starts to impinge on your abilities as these wounds accumulate, and you also get battle fatigue, which causes more problems for you. You have to see a doctor for physical damage, and relax with entertainment for mental/fatigue damage, before things get too lousy. Some people have yet to find that "too lousy" line.
There is an area where the game may fall short in, and certainly will for hardcore combatants, which is PvP. PvP is off by default, unless you participate in a consensual duel, or unless you ally yourself with either the Empire or the Rebels, which doesn’t happen for quite a while (when they think you can do some good for them). You’d think that this would mean a larger preponderance of assholes in game, but somehow it doesn’t. the forced interdependency of characters drives home the point of politeness, since otherwise it’s very difficult to get anything done for you. Still, there are exceptions, yet somehow situations still arise when they wind up getting the shit beaten out of them in the back of the cantina.
Of course, there are worse things one can find when going to watch some dancing in the cantina. Far, far worse. Oh yes.

Ultimately, SWG has grabbed my attention and held it for longer than 20 hours, which is pretty good. Most of the games I’ve "liked" actually only manage to hold my attention for about 15 hours, after which I’m running on autopilot. The interdependency system in SWG has given the playing community a subtle kick in the ass to deal with each other in a sociable fashion, or at least a businesslike one, which is more than you really need to do in most other persistent world games. I have to deal with other players, and somehow I don’t completely hate it. This is astounding. Stay tuned.

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