Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Fans Strike Back

Once upon a time, a company released a game that was unlike other games. It was complex, sometimes convoluted, but drew inspiration from novels and movies that inspired and excited generations of youngsters with dreams of experiencing those tales firsthand. The game delivered that in spades. But after awhile, the company decided that they might increase the popularity of the game by changing it, making it so it was no longer the unique, challenging game it was, but instead an poor imitation other popular pastimes they saw themselves competing with. They revamped the game, in many cases making it nearly unrecognizable from the one that the original players enjoyed. With those changes, the players who loved the original version, those who enjoyed its challenges and complexities, and the thinking those challenges required, drifted away. But a small group decided that, even though the game the loved was dead, there was no reason to stop playing it. Using a legal loophole, they recreated the original game and found that there were others of the same mind who jumped at the chance to play it once again. A small, but vibrant, community resulted, one that’s still growing and regularly revisiting the old game they have a fond affection for.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, that story sounds pretty familiar, but here’s the rub: The company and game I’m referring to isn’t WotC and D&D, but Sony Online Entertainment and Star Wars Galaxies.

Those of you who follow me on Goggle+ or talked with me at Gary Con know I’m on a Star Wars kick right now, spurred on by the fact my oldest nephew is just discovering the Star Wars universe for the first time. His four year-old excitement is pretty contagious and I’ve found myself looking back on a franchise that, like many forty-somethings, I have a love/hate relationship with. I still have a fondness for the classic films despite the disappointments I’ve experience in the last two decades with Star Wars. I imprinted early on Han Solo and never quite outgrew my love for scoundrels with hearts of gold. So when the Star War Galaxies MMO went live on June 26, 2003, I was there for the launch, with dreams of smuggling and blasting Stormtroopers. This was during my dry period of roleplaying, the era when I had almost completely fallen away from the hobby, but still enjoyed the vicarious experience of playing someone else in an imaginary world. I met a lot of good people playing SWG, some of whom became a second family who’d occasionally meet at the Slaughtered Lamb Pub in Manhattan to share drinks, swap stories, and provide real-life camaraderie and support.

"I think this blaster's not shooting straight."

I played SWG through two revisions of the original game. The first was a minor series of fixes called the “Combat Upgrade” which corrected a few exploits. The second was the infamous “New Game Experience” which completely altered the game and removed what I and others considered its strongest elements to appease those players that wanted a simpler, more Jedi-heavy experience. The NGE basically turned the game into a poorly enacted, first-person shooter and implemented level-based class advancement. Previously, a player could swap professions without penalty, allowing them to master different occupations and, when they wanted to try something different, could do so. The NGE locked you into a profession and if you wanted to change professions and thereby your game experience, you had to create a new character from scratch. It also removed a lot of the “fiddly bits” that required planning, study, and creativity to master.

Sony Online Entertainment finally pulled the plug on SWG on December 25, 2011, a causality of dwindling numbers and, quite frankly, poor management. After all, how bad do you have to mismanage something to ruin Star Wars, one of the best known brands in the history of popular entertainment? (That’s a rhetorical question, folks. I know it can be done.)

Back when I was still playing, I heard rumors of a fan-based initiative dedicated to creating an emulator that allowed those who loved the pre-NGE version of the game to play the original game on private servers. At that time, I figured such a project had a wampa’s chance on Tatooine of surviving. Sony Online Entertainment or Lucasfilm was bound to come down on these “pirate” servers like an AT-AT on a crashed snowspeeder. But recently, with my interest in things Star Wars waxing, I decided to see if anything ever became of those projects.

I was delighted to find that, while there had been a few false starts by a number of different groups, at least two have come to fruition. There’s the SWGEmu, which is the classic, pre-CU version of the game (the one I loved the most) and Project SWG, whose aim is to allow those who enjoyed the NGE to continue to do so after the game closed. Both are quite a ways down the road to resurrecting the game and players can revisit the version they loved with varying degrees of success. Intrigued by this, I did a little digging into why these emulators are still up and running and haven’t been taken down by SOE or Lucasfilm. What I discovered seems very familiar.

The emulator projects survive using a legal means to allow those who love the game to play their own, purchased versions of SWG on a private server. From what I understand (and correct me if I’m wrong and you know better), MMOs operate sort of as a web-browser. The copy of the game you buy contains all the software, graphics, commands, etc. needed to play the game. When you connect to a server using your copy, the server merely parses the commands you send when playing the game using server-side programming to interpret and respond to your actions.

What the emulators do is reconstruct the server-side code from scratch, meaning its non-proprietary and therefore doesn’t impinge on the intellectual property of SOE. This code is written by the fans working on the project for free, and the servers and other miscellaneous expenses are covered by donations, ensuring the emulators aren’t a profit-making endeavor. It’s simply fans recreating the means to play the game they love from the ground up and treading carefully to not step across any legal boundaries. That’s something that sound awfully damned familiar!

The only caveat is that you must own a copy of SWG to play. Because of the possibility of legal prosecution if that gray area suddenly turns black with pirated software, the emulators are very heavy-handed on cracking down on people playing with illicit copies of the game. Any version other than the trial will get you going. Just install it and visit one of the links above for the launcher to update you installed copy to work with the emulators. The upside is that you can pick up a copy of SWG pretty cheap on eBay these day, since the “official” severs are all closed.

The emulators are still working out some bugs, but I’ve been playing on SWEmu for the last two days and only encountered one glitched mission, which was easily deleted and replaced. Unfortunately, the game is still lacking the space expansion, “Jump to Lightspeed,” as the goal is to get the basic, ground-based game running bug-free before the emulators make the next step. There’s still plenty to do on the ground though.

I’ve often said that gamers are predominately a creative and intelligent breed, and it’s nice to see that this inclination extends beyond those of us who throw dice on a tabletop. I fully support these hard-working fans who volunteer their time and talent to allow other fans a means to revisit a game they love. Since I’m no programmer, I figured I use my modicum of fame and influence to help spread the word.

"Help me OSR! You're my only hope (of not getting eaten by womp rats)!"
If you remember the good old days of SWG and still have your disks stashed somewhere, I implore you to give the emulators a try, no matter what flavor you enjoyed. SWGEmu is my emulator of choice and you can find me on the Basilisk server. Just look for “Maximillian Haze” hanging out in the cantina on Mos Eisley, recovering from battle fatigue or wandering the desert, skinning womp rats. Send me /tell and say “Hi!” I’m always looking for people to group up with (those womp rats are kicking my ass!).

And, as a somewhat private aside, if you’re reading this and you’re a former member of the Coalition of Lost Smugglers, drop me an email at the addy listed over there to the right. This is LT Zweigg reporting in. I miss you guys. The first batch of Neutron Pixie’s on me.

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