Along with the predictable cavalcade of Viagra ads and missives from prominent Nigerian businessman asking me to help them take care of an unexpected financial windfall, my e-mail today included the following piece of news from Sony Online Entertainment:

Dear Star Wars Galaxies™ Community Member,
We write to you today to inform you that on December 15, 2011, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) and LucasArts will end all services (MMO and Trading Card Game) for Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). The shutdown of SWG is a very difficult decision, but SOE and LucasArts have mutually agreed that the end of 2011 is the appropriate time to end the game.
We are extremely grateful to all of the SWG fans. We have had the rare opportunity to host one of the most dedicated and passionate online gaming communities and we truly appreciate the support we’ve received from each and every one of you over the course of the past eight years.
In recognition of your incredible loyalty, we are extending special Fan Appreciation offers to the current SWG community. We also plan to go out with a bang with a galaxy-ending in-game event in December and hope to see you all there. The details relating to these offers and events as well as the timeline and specifics regarding the discontinuation of the service, are provided below.
Again, we want to extend our heartfelt thanks to our player community for making SWG one of the best online communities in gaming history.
Sincerely,Sony Online Entertainment & LucasArts

Now in some ways I’m not surprised.  I haven’t played Star Wars Galaxies (which first launched in June of 2003) since 2006.  I’ve written in some detail about how much I loved the early version of the game, a love only surpassed by my dislike of the so-called “New Game Enhancements and my disappointment at watching the game turn into a shadow of its former glory.

Yet I am surprised.  I’ve always understood that Sony doesn’t actually kill off any of its games.  It just rolls them into its “all access” package and keeps them around as diversionary activities for the tweens.  I mean, you can still play Everquest for goodness sake!  So this does seem a little odd.

For your amusement you can head over to the SWG forums and watch people engaging in all manner of uninformed speculation.  There are the people trying to calculate how much money the current game is actually making (“Well let’s assume that SWG has 10,000 subscribers. . .that adds up to 1.8 million dollars a year!”).  First of all, if it has 10,000 subscribers that is really, really bad for an MMORPG.  Second, I would be astonished if the game had half that number.  Most players also clearly have no idea just how expensive developing and maintaining a AAA title is nowadays.  Then there are the people engaging in all kinds of speculation about Sony’s financial difficulties (“The Star Wars license must be really expensive.  Let’s assume that the IP costs $5 million. . .”).  Those players who aren’t life-time members of the “pull a random number out of my arse” club are busily speculating that this move has everything to do with the forthcoming The Old Republic.  (Could this in fact be the best guide we’ve had yet to when Bioware’s new title might be launching?).  Plus there are of course the usual adolescent tantrums (“Anyone can see that TOR sucks, no way I’ll be playing that game!”  Yes, it is completely obvious that Bioware’s new game sucks.  The penetrating insight of the gamer mind strikes again.)  Plus there are the usual gamer-generated petitions to Sony, Lucasarts, and/or the Pope, all undertaken with the terrible certainty that if they can just get enough signatures then “they” will listen to “us.”  It is really remarkable how gamers, many who have been playing MMORPGs for years, essentially have learned absolutely nothing about how game design and the game industry actually works. The developers and publishers have been listening to players.  Not enough of you are signing up to play this game.  That speaks volumes.

But you have to feel for the 12 people still playing SWG.  A sustained engagement with an MMORPG involves not simply investing money but more time than we typically devote to many other leisure activities.  You don’t just play in these worlds, you live in them.  Therefore losing one of them can be quite emotionally wrenching.  I still remember the way I felt about the demise of Tabula Rasa.  While I haven’t played SWG for years I still recall scenery and events from that time with all the clarity that I recall things seen and done in the material world.

Yet, while my latest encounter with the brain of Joe Gamer has left me, yet again, reeling away from the forums, dizzy and nauseous, people are on to something in asking questions about why the game is being shut down.   There doesn’t seem any reason on the face of it why there wouldn’t be room for two Star Wars games in the MMORPG universe.  SWG and TOR are set in entirely different time periods and are in fact entirely different in their gameplay.  SWG is by this point clearly a niche (and that is being kind) title, so it wasn’t as if it was representing serious competition.  After all, it isn’t as if when Jedi Knight II came out all copies of Jedi Knight suddenly became irrelevant.

This incident does, however, illustrate one very important point about MMORPGs and it is a lesson that players seem reluctant to learn.  There is a massive gap between the user experience of the online world and the game’s existence in the real world.  With a traditional game, purchased via download or in a box, the player pretty much always has that game to play by themselves or with others (unless the company employs some particularly nasty DRM practices).  Even when official game servers for multiplayer games shut down players are usually able to cobble together their own versions.  With MMORPGs, by contrast, players come to feel an ownership stake in that world, as well they should since they are responsible for creating much of the content and a lot of the basic game experience (single-player raids never end well).  Yet they don’t.  Essentially, they own nothing. Oh sure, you can stare nostalgically at your deluxe edition box set of Tabula Rasa with dog tags and color-coded level maps (to cite an entirely hypothetical example) so clearly you bought something.  But what you now have is a useless box.  The fundamental game has gone.  This is why the demise of an MMORPG produces what may seem to outsiders to be such disproportionate wailing and gnashing of teeth.  In among all the disappointment, it is hard to escape the feeling that you’ve been had.  Quite apart from the money you gave to the company directly (purchasing the game, subscriptions), you helped make the game what it was.  At the end of the day, you have nothing to show for it.  Except the memories.  And your special edition Pirates of the Burning Sea wall chart.  To cite, again, an entirely hypothetical example.  (Because that game hasn’t actually folded).

Yet the oddity of pulling the plug on SWG remains.  Maybe it can all be put down to the fact that Lucasarts has always behaved somewhat strangely (OK, like a bunch of congressional Republicans negotiating a budget deal) about their IPs.  I suspect, however, that as attractive as conspiracy theories are, the real reason may be much more mundane.  The number of people playing this game has simply dropped to unsustainable levels.  As is usual with failing games, Sony won’t release statistics.  But I suspect that while the activity on the game’s forums may generate a false sense of a busy bustling universe the fact that the developers have consolidated servers several times over the past couple of years suggests a player population that can’t support even a skeleton crew developmental effort (and to their credit, the SWG developers were not just sitting on their hands; they produced a constant flow of new content and features over the past few years).

Sadly, this is all more evidence that in the gaming world there are no second chances.  While there will always be the inevitable boom at the launch of a game, and all games will lose subscribers after that, the good games seem to find a sustainable level.  Other games in effect become zombie MMORPGs, alive, but dying a slow death in a linger twilit backwater of the internet.

I’m not gloating here.  This one really hurts.  This game was great.  It could have continued to be great.  This pretty much leaves it up to Guild Wars 2 to try and do anything remotely innovative with the MMORPG genre.  Now I just have to hope that it will be released in my lifetime.