When I penned this week's Soapbox about Star Wars Galaxies and the NGE, I had no idea what was in store for MMO gamers today. In fact, I was so confident that the pre-eminent MMO sandbox was going to be around forever (or at least another eight years) that I reassured commenters that there was no need to fear Star Wars: The Old Republic. The two games might both feature the Star Wars IP, but their goals are so dramatically different -- one being a dialogue-driven themepark, the other being a player-driven sandbox -- that they shouldn't conflict unduly. Surely Star Wars fans could play both indefinitely and enjoy both types of gameplay.

Unfortunately, on Thursday we learned that just won't be so. Sony Online Entertainment has announced that Star Wars Galaxies will be shutting down on December 15th of this year, marking what is in my mind the most significant sunset of a major MMO to date (and a personally painful one for many on the staff at Massively, including me). I know what you're thinking, and no, the impending closure is due neither to the hackings nor to a dwindling playerbase. Past the break, an audibly regretful John Smedley, President of SOE, sits down with us to chat about SWG's sunset, explaining the reasons that led to the decision and offering a new hope for the future.

I started off by asking John about the reason behind the cancellation and whether or not it was a matter of LucasArts choosing not to renew the contract with SOE.

John Smedley: The decision to shut down SWG is first and foremost a business decision mutually agreed upon between SOE and LucasArts. LucasArts has a new game coming out, and the contract would be running out in 2012 anyway, so we feel like it's the right time for the game to end.

Is there anything that SOE or the players could do to change that?

At this point, unfortunately, this is just the way it is happening. We still have a partnership with LucasArts around Clone Wars Adventures. And there's another Star Wars MMO entering the market, and I think it's going to be terrific. It's going to fill a large hole, and we're certainly happy to see Star Wars players be taken care of and get into a game that's going to be great.

Players will wonder whether the recent SOE hackings or SOE layoffs had anything to do with the decision.

The hackings had nothing to do with it, and the layoffs didn't affect the Star Wars team. We have been in talks with LucasArts for a while about this, and we've just been trying to figure out the exact timing for a while now. None of that stuff had anything to do with this.

What about the player population? Some readers will choose to believe that the game is being canceled because it's "dying."

Populations have stayed pretty steady for a long time now. In fact, we recently merged a bunch of servers to help the prime-time population. But gosh, the game's been running for a long time now, and it's been a great run. We're glad to have done it. There are going to be a lot of fans that are going to say, hey can't you give us the source code, or can't we run a server, and the answer is going to be, I'm sorry -- we have to decline that. It's just not possible.

SOE has taken flak for various problems in the game's past -- do you think the company will take a reputation hit for this decision, and are you prepared for that?

There's really nothing we can do about it. We've taken some hard-knocks for SWG in years past with the NGE. We've apologized for it. It was a mistake, and not one we're going to make as a company ever again. But we're really proud of the great work that we've done over the years since then. I'm really proud of the game. It's great. Is it going to bum people out that it's over? Yes. Including us. Maybe even especially us.

How is the staff taking it?

Well, nobody's losing his job or anything. They're going to be transferred onto an undisclosed new project in Austin. And we are super excited about the upcoming months, when we're going to be putting a lot of effort into player activities to make sure that the game goes into the sunset in exactly the right way.

Can you tell us about the content and events that you have planned?

We're going to be announcing the details of that in the very near future. We want to get the announcement out of the way before we talk about all the cool stuff we're doing. We'll have a lot of information out at Fan Faire!

Is there any chance that the game will be going free-to-play in the six months before the sunset?

Effectively, the answer is no, but we're going to be announcing some specifics about that soon. For about the last month or so, we're going to be doing some stuff with billing, but I can't get into that just yet.

How about the future of the TCG (trading card game)?

It's not going to continue on separately. That was something that was part of the contract as well.

Players will be looking for a villain, either you or LucasArts -- it's interesting that the villain seems to be no one, that this is just the natural evolution of things.

That's really what it's come down to. It's been a genuinely good partnership -- we work with LucasArts literally every day on both this and Clone Wars.

This must be affecting you personally as well. If you could do the whole Star Wars experience over again, what would you do?

Here's what I would have done differently. I would have made sure the ground and space games were launched all at once. I would have given the game another year to develop and really polish it quite a bit. I think we created one of the most unique and amazing games ever created in the MMO space. It is the sandbox game. Nothing else even comes close to what we did there. I would have really taken our time and polished combat right so we never had to do the NGE. At some point the only thing to do is acknowledge the mistakes you made. But we can also look and fix them in the future. Since then, the projects that the team has worked on -- like the Chronicles system -- it's pretty amazing. I want to make sure that we really learn from that stuff. And I think we have. We're actually starting to put some of that stuff into our other games.

Like the system in EverQuest II?

Yes, and you're going to see heavy emphasis on that in some of our undisclosed future games.

So you don't think that sandboxes (and sandbox systems) are dead for SOE? Will you ever make a new sandbox with SWG's pioneering features?

The answer is... stay tuned on the subject of sandboxes. We're super excited about the future of sandbox gaming. Let me just leave it at that!

Is there anything you'd like to address directly to the playerbase about this sunset and your thoughts on it? Especially to the folks who stuck with the game through the NGE all the way to now.

I want to say thank you to our fans, first and foremost. I understand the ones who couldn't stay with us, but thank you to the ones who did -- and to anybody who's ever played Star Wars Galaxies. We appreciate their playing our game. And you know -- I think the BioWare Star Wars game is going to be amazing, and I can't wait to play it myself. It's a very different kind of a game, but it's going to be a great experience.

Thank you to John Smedley for chatting with us and allowing Massively this exclusive interview on such an unfortunate subject. We will keep you posted on the plans for the next six months of the game. As of right now, we do have a few details:
  • Those wishing to participate in the sunset events (which culminate on December 15th) will need to be subscribers in good standing prior to September 15th.
  • Long-term subscriptions are being eliminated and pro-rated.
  • TCG packs will no longer be purchasable from today forward, although you can still play the TCG until the sunset of SWG. Redeem your loot cards ASAP!
  • Active SWG subscribers will be granted a chance to play some of SOE's other games for free during the sunset period.
[Update: A new document on the official SWG site outlines some of the upcoming deals and events in more detail. Teesquared has also offered up a June producer's letter that suggests the team still plans to finish the impending GCW space update. And good news for those of you who registered for Fan Faire: On the forums, Brasse has announced that folks who registered for Fan Faire as SWG players will find their passes comped.]

This article was originally published on Massively.