Star Wars Fans Flee Net Galaxy

Chris Kohler Email 12.13.05 | 2:00 AM

Players of the massively multiplayer online game Star Wars Galaxies are feeling a bit like the films' besieged rebel army these days. To them, LucasArts is the evil Empire, raining down terror in their alternate universe.

Over the past month, countless longtime Galaxies players have quit playing the popular online take on the ubiquitous film franchise. Their grievance: a controversial, sweeping redesign of the structure of the game that they say has ruined the fun -- and made irrelevant the years of work they have invested into their in-game personas.

"It's now a shoot'em-up game for adolescents, not at all conducive to our play style," says Carolyn Hocke, a web technician for Saint Michael's Hospital in Wisconsin, whose character A'thena was mayor of an in-game city on Tatooine and owner of a bustling shopping mall. "People who we grew to know over the last couple of years are gone. Cities are ghost towns, guilds are gone. My galaxy is gone, my game is gone."

The changes to Star Wars Galaxies, developed by Sony Online Entertainment, are aimed at bringing in new players and keeping them around to pay the $15-a-month gameplay fee. To this end, the so-called New Game Enhancements, or NGE, abandon much of the complexity of the original design, which let players choose from more than 30 different professions, then carve out an economic niche for themselves in the Star Wars universe.

The number of professions under the NGE has been reduced to nine -- one of which is Jedi. In the previous version of the game, only a precious few dedicated, lucky players could hope to attain the use of the Force. Now, any player can choose that path from the game's onset.

Greeting this influx of lightsaber-wielding newbies is a more action-based experience, with a fast-paced, point-and-click battle system that replaces the strategic encounters of the original.

So what's the big deal? It's not merely that Galaxies players -- some of whom have been playing as the same character in the same virtual world since the game's 2003 launch -- liked the old version just fine. It's that the characters they've spent all this time building are gone.

"There is a sense of loss," says network security specialist Brian Orr, who had been playing two characters -- a master bounty hunter named DevNull and a Jedi Padawan named Chewbaccu -- for more than two years. "I attempted to play by the new rules for a few days. However, the gameplay was horrid, and the bugs were intolerable. Needless to say, I canceled my account."

"Most of these games subsist on models of labor investment," says Timothy Burke, associate professor of history at Swarthmore College, who has written academic work on online games and contributes to the MMOG blog Terra Nova.

"You put in a lot of time, your character changes and grows," says Burke, a Galaxies player himself. "So to be told that in two weeks, your labor investment, your year and a half's worth of work, is going to be destroyed, is tough for some people to take."

"The NGE sounded like a cruel hoax," says Hocke.

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