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Switched Off Star Wars: The Actual End of a Virtual World

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Switched Off Star Wars: The Actual End of a Virtual World

“For preservation is not simply the saving of old things but the maintaining of a response to those things.” Kevin Lynch, What Time is this Place, 1973.

Star Wars Galaxies closed at 9 p.m. PST on Dec. 15, 2011. Around the same time, the National Defense Authorization Act passed, Christopher Hitchens passed and the United States handed over the control of its last base in Iraq.

That line from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” was thrown around: “This is the way the world ends,” people said, so they could ask if it’s a bang or a whimper. They’re clever.

It’s Dec. 15, 2011, and tonight, Star Wars’ massively multiplayer online (MMO) game Galaxies will close its doors. I log into the Starsider galaxy, which, according to the list, is the most populated of the 13 or so servers online. Each galaxy server contains an identical set of planets from the Star Wars universe. A planet is a contiguous space that could be traversed on foot or by vehicle. Spaceships can take you between planets. Though it wasn’t originally part of the game, space combat has since been added. A few months ago, so was the ability to fly your spaceship on the planets (“atmospheric flight”).

Each planet has areas where, following the movies, players can side with the Rebellion or Imperial factions and battle for control. This Galactic Civil War ended the night before, on Dec. 14. A chart informs me that in most of the Galaxies (including Starsider) the Rebels won.

All new players started on a space-station training area. With seven and a half hours until the world ends I find myself stuck there, dressed like Han Solo and unable to get to a planet. I don’t know how to take screenshots or log things or get a ship. Fortunately MMO players do quite a bit of work on their own, organizing information about their game worlds on websites and wikis, and so with a bit of web sleuthing I figure out how to do all three.

I make it to Mos Eisley, the place you’re immediately sent to after leaving the introductory space station, with seven hours to go. I don’t have time to really learn this world’s rules, to get to know its inhabitants. Seven hours until a world ends and I’m a tourist. I feel ghoulish.

I plan to head to a place called the Great Pit of Carkoon because a loading screen told me that’s where people were socializing. There are battles between the Rebellion and the Empire going on in a few places across the galaxy, but my character is too new, and people there will be too busy fighting to talk. In the future, it will be possible to see how people remember this event, but I want to see how people prepared to remember it. How they would behave knowing this was an historical moment, knowing this was their end. So I trek out of the city and into a ghost town, a relic of a populated past.

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To start with a binary, two perspectives on the digital: It is forever, and it’s incredibly difficult to preserve. It’s always present, until it ceases to exist. It never erodes or fades. It’s accessible until it’s corrupted. It’s there until it’s gone. Tatooine, the planet I’m on, is a desert. But in a few hours, this cactus-less land won’t become a dead land. It will disappear completely. Built of ones and zeroes, the digital does not ruin. Maybe that gives the digital an edge in our minds: no pesky physical form to get in the way of our projections of past and present onto it. And maybe it’s why some video games shout their backstories so loudly: to remind you that yes, indeed, there is a past here.

The pasts of Star Wars Galaxies, like any MMO, are many and convoluted. Individual players, guilds, developers, they all have their own stories to tell. They are in-game and out-of-game. Like so many video games, they go beyond the rulespace. There are online message boards and player-written guides and wikis like the ones that helped me get my bearings. There are requests to developers and archives of past rules changes. There are celebrity designers (Raph Koster) and star players (“Monika T’Sarn,” the game’s first player-controlled Jedi).

The Combat Upgrade (CU) in late April 2005 and the New Game Experience (NGE) that completely changed the game in November of that year are the two events written about the most. The NGE is the larger of the two both in its content and in memory: It’s useful as a cautionary tale for MMO developers and publishers, warning them not to make large changes after the game has been released.

Though it reverses their chronological order and grossly misrepresents early Galaxies, one way to describe it to those who’ve never heard of it is “World of Warcraft, but Star Wars.” That this is an easy description speaks to the importance of WoW and its influence on its predecessor. MMOs are probably closest in their construction to serialized television series: they can be tweaked and modified as they go on. Developers have to blend familiarity and novelty over the course of the work’s life. Galaxies’ two major changes, the CU and the NGE, came about after WoW’s release.

The NGE is the story that sticks in people’s minds, becoming the symbol of the death of the game. We don’t have numbers of players lost and gained, but we do know that Galaxies existed three times as long with the New Game Experience as it did without it. The pasts that end with the NGE never ask: Who are the people who stayed? Who came later? Those questions are harder to pin down.

In the ghost town I am exploring, the houses all have names: Maihem’s House, auryona’s House, genasis’s House, My Crib! (P.S. this is soulstaker’s house:P), tony-hawk’s House, Cinna’s House of Pancakes, Eelkee’s house of Happiness. I’m able to enter all I try except for “Enauli’s House do not come in without permission”. That door doesn’t open. The buildings are all empty, unfilled shapes.

Outside a store advertises “Socketed Clothing, Meds, Factory Crates, Invisible Clothing”—though there’s no Emperor in sight. Every now and again the terrain or a giant tree breaks things up.

I don’t realize the giant tree is a house at first. As I make my way toward it, I see a sign out front that reads, “Mr. & Mrs. Watkins Love Shack”. The building, like the others I’ve poked around, is empty. While most of the other houses were one room, this has a large staircase leading to an upper level. Hoping to find a balcony or rooftop, something to give me a slightly different perspective on the city around it, I head upstairs.

As I near the top, it begins to snow.

Furniture and decorations fade into existence. It is fairly spartan (or as spartan as the digitally snowy digital interior of a digital tree on a digital desert planet can be). The first floor has a few posters, some furniture, and directly across from the door, positioned so as to be the first thing you’d see as you entered: a wedding gown.

That’s when I realized all of the other houses probably weren’t empty: I just hadn’t spent enough time inside them for their contents to transfer to my computer and load into the game. Suddenly, the ghost town is a digital Pompeii. Everything is as it was left, but how long have the people been gone? Six minutes or six years?

How do you understand what’s past when there are no markers of time’s passing?

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Galaxies allowed players their own housing, and they took advantage of it. Tatooine’s desert sprawl is like Los Angeles without the streets and the landscaping. Most of Galaxies’s original economy was player driven—individual players could gather resources and turn them into items to sell to the more combat-oriented players. Inspired by the films’ many bar scenes, you could watch other players perform music and dance and tip them. Of course, when your income depends on others, you’re vulnerable to their scams.

In August 2004, SOE banned several hundred accounts for cheating in what players called the Credit Dupe. Players found a way to “dupe,” to create fake in-game credits. From a forum announcement:

“A credit dupe has surfaced. We are aware of it, and have put a solution in place.

We know who did it. We log everyone’s financial transactions, including WHO AND WHERE THE MONEY IS TRANSFERRED TO.

Please be careful of receiving large sums of money from anyone.

We are going to suspend, and then ban anyone who has participated in this dupe, which includes transfer or reception of funds.”

It’s kind of a creepy totalitarian dream: since all interactions go through centralized servers, everything can be logged and monitored. There are no unmarked bills, no nonconsecutive serial numbers to hide the forgeries. And so with a little automation, anyone who’s violated the rules can be dealt with efficiently. Of course, there’s little room for nuance in this kind of a system, and many innocent crafters and entertainers found themselves banned for receiving money they had no idea was counterfeit.

Players on the Intrepid server responded and large groups gathered near the Theed spaceport on Naboo. SOE employees claimed all the centralized player activity was causing server issues and disrupting other players’ gaming. When players refused to disperse of their own accord, SOE used their powers to teleport players randomly around this pre-#Occupy galaxy—in some cases, apparently, players were teleported into space.

Users had to individually appeal their bans with SOE; some were found innocent. An announcement by the company claimed that, all told, 200 players were banned and 550,000,000,000 in-game credits were confiscated.

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There are two ways to get a feel for early Galaxies: To play it or to read about it. Some fans have reverse-engineered servers, allowing players with a copy of the game’s original discs to play using none of SOE’s original code and only assets that are drawn from the discs and therefore not distributed against licensing agreements. It seems the promise of the time machine fulfilled, but it’s not that simple.

How similar can the experience be to the original if the code is not the same? And which versions of the past does one recreate, when patches were regular and things changed? No, looking at that would be too messy, too empty. It’d almost be a lie, to use something now to create the then.

Better to read things, then. Things that acknowledge even as they were written a distance from the actual experience. The forums and blogs and strategy guides: the work of players. Figuring out their priorities and how they make sense of their relationship to the world.

It seems simple from an outside perspective: Players pay a subscription fee, companies provide the world. Consumer/producer. Except that’s not quite so. T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds and Celia Pearce’s Communities of Play are two scholarly looks at how specific MMO player communities interact among themselves and with the corporate entities that literally shape their worlds.

Players are invested; they give it meaning through their use of it. They extend it beyond its boundaries into conversation spaces on the web and into the real world. The wiki I consulted to figure out how to play the game was not created or maintained by SOE; it was the work of players. They created these information repositories, maintained them.

That’s a common practice with many games, and especially MMOs. But Galaxies, with its ample player housing and (though diminished post-NGE) non-combat options, afforded another kind of information service. Players built in-game museums, as I discover after leaving Mr. & Mrs. Watkins Love Shack. A building at the edge of a nearby pit is called “Brator Revan’s House and Museum”. I enter without trouble and take the elevator down a few floors, waiting for things to load in.

It takes longer than I expected, but when it finally does it’s disorienting. Every room is packed full of items: One is lined with suits of armor and robes. Models of weapons and ships glow; tiny animated alien creatures run around the floor. Automated avatars greet me every time I walk by them; I pass a few multiple times as I try to get my bearings (my mental map of the empty structure is all but useless in this chaos). I realize I don’t know enough about Galaxies to determine whether it is chaos, or if there’s some order to it.

There must be some: Brator Revan had to build or buy or earn everything in this space, and the room with the rows of armor suggests that things weren’t placed willy-nilly. What I do see is memorabilia from a combination of worlds. I assume most of the items had an in-game explanation, but what about that Empire Strikes Back poster? Or the Death Troopers book cover art hanging on the wall?

Using the web I’ve found a lot of records of player-curated museums in Galaxies. MoyaWookiee posted a guide on the official forums with tips for creating these spaces. He presents a blend of curatorial and collection development issues that will be familiar to anyone in the cultural preservation history (MoyaWookiee claims to have a real-life background in museums). He touches upon theme and interpretation and ethics, an especially interesting area because the cultural objects placed in a digital museum don’t have long political histories attached to them.

It’s also Galaxies-specific: he gives instructions on how to use the game commands to set up the museum, display the items, and write the labels. His Wookiee Cultural Center also has a web presence, which is an interesting little bit of world-building outside of Galaxies. Unlike many of the wikis and guides that you find outside the gamespace, the WCC site is written entirely in character.

On the Ahaski server’s version of planet Lok, a player named Eeklo created a museum that collected primarily pre-CU and pre-NGE items, some gathered and some donated by members of the community. We build museums to house things we think need to be housed; to collect and present. That the players who stuck around after the CU and NGE felt the need to create and donate to this kind of space shows how big of a change those patches were within the world.

In Brator Revan’s basement I find the Emperor’s throne in front of a dinner table. I can sit in the chair but I can’t eat anything on the table. Clicking on any of the items tells me, “You do not have permission to access that container.”

Brator Revan’s museum is like a Wunderkammer, the Renaissance European cabinet of curiosities that collected all manner of things to show the breadth and variety of the world. In fact, every one of these player houses is like a Wunderkammer in miniature: that they’re called “houses” is misleading. They’re not lived in, not in the way our world’s houses are. There’s no plumbing. The beds don’t have a use; the couches don’t have a use; the kitchens don’t have a use; everything is what it means to the player and to the other people who see it.

I head back out of the building into a sandstorm that won’t erode anything and head west to the Great Pit of Carkoon, where I’ll spend the end of the world.

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On June 23, 2011 SOE announced that Galaxies would close on Dec. 15. A few weeks later, the Galaxies developer Q&A at SOE Fan Faire, a yearly player convention, ended up being a kind of last hurrah. They announced new content that would be released even though the game had less than six months left. On entering the room, everyone was given raffle tickets (I turned them down; as a tourist, what right did I have to participate in this raffle?). Some prizes were raffled, some were awarded for correctly answering trivia questions. People got concept art and limited editions of the game (and some other SOE games). The final prize was the team’s Best Online Game award that they won from Gamespy’s Best of E3 2001 awards.

The developers on the panel and the attendees swapped inside jokes; one developer received a text message from a player named Dalbok who may or may not have been in attendance. One person questioned the team about very specific changes to the missile boat. They passed a poster around and all the attendees signed it — it was almost raffled off as a poster signed by all the devs, but the person who brought it spoke up and everyone had a good laugh. Although I’m not sure where that poster ended up, assuming the team no longer exists after the close of the game.

There was a sense of camaraderie in that room, of “we were all in this together.” There are no mentions of the Theed Protest, of bannings fair or unfair, of what developers owed players or what players owed developers. In this last of (physical) meeting places, people avoided negative speech.

Jabba the Hutt’s end-of-the-world party at the Pit of Carkoon has a similar vibe. The rules are suspended; people gather and shout and it looks not unlike screenshots of the Theed Protest. Except instead of teleporting people into space, SOE employees turn people into Jedi ghosts. You can talk to a dev or Bib Fortuna (basically Jabba’s majordomo) and be assigned a “costume,” changing the player avatar to a well-known Star Wars character or monster. Bib can also change your size, making you tiny or giant.

Developers spawn huge trees in the middle of the Tatooine desert. Player-controlled musicians perform on the stage. A few people take off all of their avatars clothes and run around.

Players shout thanks and insults to the developers and make last-minute requests for items and vehicles they had been unable to acquire during their time with the game. A few ask the developers to play the Ewok celebration music from Return of the Jedi (music that George Lucas removed from that film’s special edition re-release in 1997).

They talk about what the game used to be like, the things that were promised but never materialized (some folks call the developers “liars,” some see these undelivered features as victims of budget cuts). As time goes on, more enemies spawn. Han Solo dances across the floor among the band. That is weird.

Just as the game spun outside of itself in life, so it does in death. Both PC Gamer and Giant Bomb provide a voyeuristic look into the end of the world. These livestreams are many people’s only option for experiencing this event; SOE stopped accepting new subscriptions on Sept. 15, 2011. Any players with active Galaxies accounts at that time were given the last three months’ access free.

It’s hard to say how many players are active across all the planets and Galaxies as the universe ends—I certainly don’t see many. According to my log analyzer, I run across 330 or so players and NPCs in my few hours on the server. Giant Bomb news director Patrick Klepek tells me their live-stream viewers peaked around 7,000 at the end.

The chaos builds. I look at the log and can barely make out anything that happened. Players can damage one another. Wampas run rampant. At some point, I am killed. My smuggler, cosplaying as Han Solo, falls on his back in the digital sand. Occasionally other avatars die on top of me. They disappear; I don’t know if they’re players who’ve respawned or unloaded or NPCs whose bodies are programmed to vanish. Players thank their friends, declare their love for the game, and shout angry spam toward SOE and LucasArts. Some players profess their happiness that even at this late hour, they can still add people to their ignore list. There is at least one bit of shock speech: “GOODBYE AND HEIL HITLER” (in Shyriiwook, the Wookiee language). And then…

A TIE fighter floats motionless in the sky, just behind a giant Hutt. A robed figure looms to the right of my corpse as a giant stormtrooper freezes in their aim mode. And in a light blue oval overlaid center screen, orange text: “Connection to SWG Lost!”.

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And so it ends. A world disappears and we lose the possibilities it afforded. There’s the danger of letting yourself get too close to a virtual world: It’ll break your heart when it closes. You’ll have to come up with your own story why: balance sheets, bad business decisions, failures of marketing or design. We know this story, though: when top-down business and bottom-up social spaces stop aligning, business interests win out every time. They shut down our record stores and our coffee shops and our bars and our clubs.

But we bounce back. We adapt. We find other places—maybe, if we’ve been burned enough, we make our own places. But even when we can’t make our own places, we keep making places our own.

Brian Taylor is a dilettante with reality issues and a distaste for nostalgia stemming from an inability to look anywhere but back. He exists solely on Twitter.

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