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Star Wars Galaxies: A Second Generation MMORPG Masterpiece
And You Don't Even Have to Let the Wookie Win.
By - Dave "Fargo" Kosak

A long long time ago, in a small small meeting room in Los Angeles, I sat with about a dozen other members of the gaming press in stunned amazement. On the screen before us we watched the grassy plains of Naboo and deserts of Tatooine come to life. We watched two networked players converse with one another on an alien world, and gawked as a full-scale At-At Walker rumbled slowly by. Not since I'd first seen Empire Strikes Back as a kid had those mechanized monstrosities ever looked so huge and menacing. In short, we were awestruck at how convincingly the Star Wars universe had come to life. "We're all about total immersion," Creative Director Raph Koster explained, introducing us to the shared multiplayer world of Star Wars Galaxies. "We want you to live a life in a galaxy far far away."

And live it we will! LucasArts, Sony Interactive, and Verant are all teaming up to create the first ever massively Multiplayer Star Wars RPG. Yep, you'll recognize Verant as the creators of EverQuest, currently the reigning champ of the online graphical RPG world. With the creative resources of LucasArts and the years of experience Verant brings to the table, Star Wars Galaxies has all the makings of a smash hit. LucasArts Producer Haden Blackman said it more succinctly: "We're making a second-generation online game," he said, referring to their seasoned EverQuest and Ultima Online game design veterans who comprise the team.

The Big Picture

The scope of the game, which is set at the height of the galactic civil war, is awe-inspiring. Multiple game worlds will exist (similar to Ultima Online's Shards or EverQuest's servers), each its own separate galaxy. Within each galaxy will be several planets to visit -- recognizable locations from the films such as Tatooine and Naboo. Koster explained that each planet would be 16 kilometers x 16 kilometers big -- that's 35% bigger than the entire EverQuest universe, and that's just one planet of many!

When the game is released you'll be able to travel almost instantaneously from one planet to another via the spaceports found in major cities. The big news from E3 is the announcement of a space expansion; yes, with the expansion in hand, you'll be able to buy your own starships and actually fly from planet to planet, engaging in combat, smuggling goods, evading Imperial patrols or (if you want) smashing the rebel scum. More on the space expansion below. The real selling point isn't the scope of the game, but the level of detail that brings the universe to life....

Worlds Apart

"Everything has to feel 'Star Wars' for this game to do well," explained Blackman as we got a tour of several environments. While hardcore Trekkers would be loathe to admit it, the Star Wars universe is the single most well-known sci-fi setting in existence. And it offers a little bit of everything; swarmy bounty-hunters, enormous starships, diverse worlds, exotic creatures... bringing this world to life is both the game's biggest challenge as well as its strongest selling point.

To make it happen they've put together a state-of-the-art scalable graphics engine. Cut to: the grasslands of Naboo, familiar to anyone who's seen Phantom Menace. Long stalks of grass covered the hills and waved with the wind. Characters cast shadows as they moved. The rolling terrain stretched on to the horizon, all of it explorable; while it wasn't shown in the demo, the developers promised that the terrain was deformable, meaning you could leave craters with explosions and more. The ground was bump-mapped, and as we moved to the swamps, the water was lit with specular lighting. These weren't movies or demos -- two players were connected to a server exploring the environment in realtime. Ten distinct environments will be explorable on the planet Naboo alone.

But what floored the crowd watching was the deserts of Tatooine. Anyone who loves movies instantly recognizes the barren desert home of Luke Skywalker from the original movie, seen again in Jedi and Phantom Menace. What sucked us in was the atmosphere, the rolling ridges of desert sand, the hut-like buildings with bump-mapped walls so realistic you felt you could run your hand along the rough surface. We walked by a landspeeder like the kind Luke drove in the first movie. The metallic parts glinted in the hot desert sun and you could see every detail -- every control in the interior, every nick in the paint where the desert stones had chipped it mid-flight.

The sense of scale was preserved from the movies. A jawa walked by, and you could see the stitching in his brown hooded cloak and the knatty fabric it was woven from. The Jawa was next to a sandcrawler that dwarfed the player, casting a giant shadow on the landscape and towering above. As we strolled around the sandcrawler the developers showed off the most feared creature of Tatooine, the Krayt Dragon, an enormous horned lizard creature that could crush the Jawa with a single toe. As it walked out from the shadow of the sandcrawler the sunlight slowly crept across every curve of its monstrous body. Truly, if the goal of an online RPG is to take you to another world, Galaxies appears to succeed like no other!

Next: The Economy and Players

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