Sadness in 'Star Wars' World

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, February 2, 2006

There was a great disturbance in the Force this past holiday season, when gamemaker Sony Online Entertainment Inc. tried to kick sales of its online "Star Wars" game into hyperspace with a makeover that infuriated some of the game's longtime fans.

Sony's Star Wars Galaxies, an online virtual world based on the movies, was launched in the summer of 2003. Since then, a few hundred thousand players -- Sony won't say exactly how many -- have paid about $15 a month to take roles in the game, which replicates planets, creatures and cities seen in the epic sci-fi series. Nobody ever really wins or loses; players just keep building up their characters and interacting with other players as they gather virtual wealth, powers, and cool tools or weapons.

The old version of the game was designed to appeal to players who didn't necessarily care for shoot-em-ups, but that version is gone. In its place is one designed to move in a faster, action-game style that Sony is betting will expand the game's following into a more lucrative mainstream audience. To spread the word, Sony has launched a television ad campaign pitching the new, "easy-to-play" Star Wars Galaxies.

For years, companies were happy to run online realms devoted to relatively small, hard-core audiences. But then came hits such as the sword-and-sorcery game World of Warcraft, which attracted 5 million subscribers, to suggest that there's a bigger market out there.

Such success, by a rival that doesn't carry the sort of hefty tie-in magic that "Star Wars" does, has got to hurt Sony. The "Star Wars" series is still one of the most successful franchises in the video-game world: Four of the five top-selling Hollywood-licensed games of 2005 in North America were "Star Wars" tie-ins, according to research firm NPD Group Inc.

So the company made over its game. John Blakely, the vice president of development at Sony Online Entertainment's game studio, said in a phone interview that the changes were made to make the game feel more "Star Wars-y" to new players, who sometimes found the original version of the game confusing and impenetrable.

Where spotting iconic characters like Han Solo was once akin to a celebrity sighting in the world of Star Wars Galaxies, that character is now front and center as new players launch their virtual lives on Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine. Where the previous game let players take on nonviolent career paths as, say, cooks or hairdressers, the number of career paths has been vastly reduced to an action-happy few, such as Jedi or smuggler.

Longtime Galaxies fan Jenny Steberl, who once played the game as a "creature handler," canceled her account when her profession was removed from the game; she says she won't buy any more "Star Wars" merchandise for herself or for her two sons and called Sony's recent moves a "greedy grab for cash."

Blakely acknowledged that such reaction by some of the game's veterans was not a surprise and said the switch was made for the long-term success of the game as a business. "It was a tough decision we had to make," he said. "We knew we were going to sacrifice some players . . . [but] as a 'Star Wars' license, we should do a lot better than we have been doing."

If Star Wars Galaxies hasn't been a hit, it's not for a lack of Star Wars-y locations. In an hour-long conference call with folks at Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts Entertainment Co. this week, a character I created got to ride shotgun in a landspeeder for a virtual tour of the various planets in the Star Wars Galaxies universe -- game levels on planets that players would normally have to play for weeks or months to reach. The settings ranged from Mustafar -- the fiery, volcanic world where Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi fought it out -- to those woodsy planets that the Wookies and Ewoks called home.

So enormous is the Galaxies game world that my escorts, represented by an avatar in the game named "Sanford," got lost more than once along our safari.

Blakely said that the changes have already won over a fresh supply of players, though longtime observers of the game say they see a lot less traffic on the game's servers when they log on to play. Meanwhile, for old-school fans of the game who are letting their subscriptions run out, the loss of the old Star Wars Galaxies will forever remain one of those dark days, like when Imperial governor Grand Moff Tarkin blew Alderaan off the map.

One player wrote in an e-mail to me this week: "The game for me probably will be a lost love. Sort of like seeing your spouse with Alzheimer's. Outwardly, everything appears the same as it always has, but you know that beneath the surface, things will never be the same."

Yoda once mentioned that anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. What does quiet resignation lead to?

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