By Patrick Desjardins
I sat in front of my laptop at work, watching the videos from the previous night. While logically I knew this was Star Wars Galaxies, I recognized nothing on the screen. It was like watching a completely different game. In that video, I saw the end to what could have been an amazing game, and I saw it end with a whimper. It was like a bloated corpse, already long dead and unaware of it. It was depressing.
In summer 2001, I started reading up on the upcoming game. It sounded awesome. We were still a long way from public betas, but I took a real interest in the online community which had already formed. We talked constantly, speculated, made suggestions, argued about how Jedi should work; we were two years from ever even playing and we already had deep and powerful opinions about a game that didn’t exist yet. It was unprecedented. Many of us had already played EQ or UO. We knew what we wanted. We all had a deep love for the source material. We fantasized about force lightning and saber throws. We wanted to fly the Kessel Run with Han Solo and Chewie. We imagined arguing bounties with Jabba, fighting Darth Vader. We wanted it all, and Sony knew it.
I was 21, and had just sold my first business. Flush with cash and ready for my next adventure, I had no idea what it would be.
Spring 2002: The first sandbox alpha builds were being tested. Over the course of spring and summer, they got a little more advanced, and I could see the game starting to take shape. I got into the friends and family alpha tests from my involvement in the online community. I made copious suggestions, everything from combat to social aspects. I complained for a week about how the zabrak horns should look. I got involved, deep.
One day, I inquired as to how the economy would be structured. The answer I got very literally changed my life.
“We haven’t really planned for much of anything. I think the players will structure it organically.”
I was dumbstruck. I didn’t respond and started taking notes. I took a lot of notes — entire composition books sat next to my monitor. In hindsight, 90% of what I noted was useless, but that 10% — that was worth something.
Early 2003: Beta is in full swing. We got our first real look at how things were going to work, and I saw the opening. The giant hole that no one in development saw, or cared about if they did. More so than anything else, this game would be about real estate and ease of use for crafters. Supply a convenient place for everyone to go and they will go there, even if that means paying a premium.
I spent a lot of time in starports, counting players arriving and leaving. Establishing traffic patterns. Corillia, Naboo, Tattooine — the big three. I started running projections: where would I go first? Tat. Surely Tat, but…where would I want to live? Not in the desert. No way. Naboo, lush and green, pretty scenery, Fambas walking in the distance. Yes, this is where I would live. But there is also Coronet, the central hub for travel. If you want to go anywhere, you have to go through Coronet. That’s the meeting place, the staging point; Coronet would be the key to power. If I wanted to hold the cards, I needed to hold Coronet. I started looking at the most efficient way to place buildings outside the c-net starport. I was placing them for hours, plotting the perfect placement to not only have the closest buildings, but also to force other players to build elsewhere.
I started thinking a lot about human nature. I started thinking about exploiting laziness and sloth. I started thinking of this game as a business model and less as a hobby. This was now something to be mastered and exploited. I scoured forum posts for shortcuts, for exploits, for bugs that would most likely make it through to release.
I started thinking about the crafting, and the shortcuts there. I created timetables based on the initial samples we had. How many hours to master this, how many hours to master that. How many supplement accounts would I need to supply myself? If there are only 24 hours in a day, how could I best utilize each one?
I started building extra computers. I spent every spare moment preparing for day one.
On release day I was at EB games, cash in hand for eight copies of SWG, and I was home in a flash. I took a week’s vacation. I had the spare bedroom stocked with food and drink, my computers arrayed in a half moon.
Those first two weeks are a blur. I don’t remember details, I just remember the accomplishments. I remember when I mastered the first handful of professions. I remember screaming in frustration when my math wouldn’t work due to slight changes in crafting between beta and release. I remember my wife growing increasingly concerned.
Slowly, steadily the credits started building. I kept a tally on a whiteboard leaned against the wall. Your first million is the hardest, they say. Bullshit. Your first 100,000 is the hardest. But I kept working, kept pulling 12, 14, 18 hour shifts in front of keyboards and tiny screens.
Little by little, my plan came together. Mistakes buried under accomplishments. Vendors multiplying like rabbits. Small houses, big houses, entire malls and cantinas. Credits piling up, stacks on stacks. Professions mastered, exploited, and dropped to master new ones.
I spent more credits in a day than most people would all year. At first my “competition” didn’t get it, but I paid and they didn’t care.
They were standing on a track and couldn’t see the train. I wasn’t slowing down. If anything, I just went faster.
I clearly remember the day that I realized I had done it. It was maybe two or three months in, and I controlled not only the land around Coronet, but Theed as well. It was mine. People used my vendors because they were closer, and for no other reason. Slowly I increased my prices, 2%, 5%, 10%… and they lined up to buy. People were hologrinding and didn’t care what it cost. It was a full-time gig just keeping the vendors supplied.
Six months in and I realized I had more money than I could ever possibly spend. I needed to off-load it, and I needed help. Enter the Thai.
His name was Tan, and he needed a reliable stream of credits. See, Tan worked for a re-seller and my little enterprise was making his job difficult. He had no problem on other servers, but on those that I was on, his percentages were way down. Why not work together? Why not indeed. After a week of negotiations and arrangements we were set and money was changing hands, with an interesting side-effect.
The same people who were buying my credits from Tan were turning around and using them at my vendors, usually with more of their own credits as well.
I was now making real-world money for making virtual money by making real money. It was amazing, and it worked perfectly. I would transfer 10 mil credits to Tan; he would pay me via bank transfer. He would then sell the fake money for real money at around a 100% mark-up. The player would get his 500k or million, and turn around and buy my merchandise for 1.5mil. This happened across the board, at all levels.
I remember with crystal clarity when I realized I was making more money from this enterprise than I was at my full-time job. I quickly decided to expand and hired four guys in Singapore to play 24/7. I paid them unreasonably well for the time, almost 3x as much as they would for other re-sellers; this bought me loyalty, and in this enterprise, loyalty is everything.
Soon the money was stacking fast and I needed to expand again, and again. At the peak, I employed 12 men and women. I controlled, for the most part, the economy on four servers, and I was bringing in almost a six-figure salary.
My wife went from hating the fact that I was obsessed with the game to helping me run the books and check on the numbers. She made suggestions on rates and agreements, and in turn, I bought her a car, and we bought a house.
After almost two years, I could see that this would not last. Player counts were dropping; the game was being mishandled more and more. When they did away with the holo-grinding, it wrecked a large part of my business model. And again, when the Jedi-village went live, it was the final nail. No one needed to spend vast amounts on anything any more. You could just become a Jedi from a quest chain.
I started shutting down my enterprise. I had bought and sold dozens and dozens of accounts, billions of credits; for the remaining players on my servers, my accounts were fixtures. They were how they functioned, they were how they survived. Most had no clue it was one person pulling all these strings, and in the end, I liked it that way. I stopped “playing” the day I was killed in Theed starport by a fresh new Jedi who didn’t understand how to even play the game.
I couldn’t even bring myself to fight back. I just stood there. I was one of the few true Dark Jedi Masters, and I let him kill me. That very act illustrated perfectly what SOE did wrong. Those of us who had faithfully put in the hours and weeks and months required to earn those lightsabers were spit on and betrayed by the very architects of the game we loved.
Now obviously I did my share of exploiting the game, and your share, and his, and hers. But I put in the work to holo-grind. I put in the work to move my way up endlessly grinding on fambas in Naboo, cats in Corrilea, and rancors on Dathomir. I didn’t buy my personal Jedis; I earned them. I knew the game, I knew the struggle, and I knew what it took to get them.
And in the end? On my last day playing? You could start a new toon who was already a Jedi. I walked away and I never looked back. That moment at my desk, 10 years after it started, I sadly closed the window and went back to work.
Because it wasn’t the game I loved. That game died in 2005 with the NGE/CU. It died when developers turned their backs on the gamers who had spent the effort and instead listened to the lazy, whining voices who wanted it all given to them.
Ironically, those voices were the same people who happily handed Tan money for the credits I provided. Happily handed me stacks of cash for Jedi accounts. Did I help in the demise of SWG? Yes. That is something I accepted long ago. The game that I loved so much, I helped to destroy.
Patrick Desjardins is an American programmer and graphic artist.