Kill Darth Vader You May Not

Times Staff Writer

Can the virtual flutter of a mynock’s wings change the course of history in a galaxy far, far away?

Kurt Goetzinger knows the answer is no, but that won’t stop him from trying anyway.

Like thousands of “Star Wars” fans, Goetzinger has spent the quarter-century since George Lucas’ science fiction legend premiered trying to re-create a slice of that galaxy in everyday life -- such as the “well over $1,000" he says it took to make his own suit of Imperial storm trooper armor.

This summer, Goetzinger will get the chance to work, play and fight in a virtual galaxy created just for fans like him. “Star Wars Galaxies,” the first multi-player online computer game set amid Lucas’ mythical star systems, will let fans work the vapor farms of Tatooine, tend the cantinas of Mos Eisley and even skirmish with Imperial troops.


What it won’t allow them to do, though, is vanquish Darth Vader, destroy the Death Star or marry Princess Leia Organa. Or anything else that might somehow knock off course the scrupulously controlled story of the Skywalker bloodline.

Multi-player online games have flourished in recent years because they allow players to create their own legends as they slay dragons and conquer evil. But in “Galaxies,” the legends already have been written in indelible ink.

That doesn’t deter Goetzinger, who relishes even a bit part in Lucas’ grand drama.

“Some people believe their fate is always determined,” said Goetzinger, a 35-year-old executive at a Nebraska nonprofit. “So why try? Why not just chill and play games? But we do try.”


From the outset three years ago, the programmers and designers assigned to “Galaxies” knew that setting an online game against the backdrop of “Star Wars” would be both a blessing and a curse. And as one of the most recognizable stories in popular culture, “Star Wars” would attract players.

But that story is so guarded by Lucas that every creature and relationship in “Star Wars” -- from the butterfly-like mynocks to the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia -- is canonized in the company’s official 12,000-entry database to ensure consistency in the ever-expanding body of movies, novels, comic books and video games.

“Video games have to allow for multiple outcomes,” said Howard Rothman, president of Lucas Licensing Ltd. “There’s no way to make a game with a predetermined outcome because it would be boring. So how do you open it up to create a fun and rich experience and still hold true to the universe?”

With earlier Lucas games set in the “Star Wars” universe, designers simply wrote the story and players followed it. For instance, if the game called for players to attack an Imperial base, they either succeeded or failed. And they could play over and over until they won.


Multi-player online games are different. In games such as “EverQuest,” which does not have to fit within the confines of an existing story, more than 400,000 players from around the world pay $10 a month to create virtual communities. If someone wants to be a warrior, the games include plenty of quests on which to embark. But if a player wants to be a merchant and just trade goods, he or she can do that too.

The attraction is the interaction between players and the ability to create history, even if it all unfolds on the silicon of a computer server. That’s possible in a fantasy role-playing game such as “EverQuest,” which started with a clean slate.

Lucas executives, though, feared the chaos unfettered “Star Wars” fans could unleash. What if players decided to create a Wookiee boy band that sings stupid tunes? What if players staged plays that depict Yoda as a drug dealer? What if they started a religious sect that preaches Han Solo is a coward?

Most game proposals are 25 pages long. Not so for “Galaxies.” The proposal lead producer Haden Blackman used in October 2000 to pitch the game to Rothman and other executives was a hefty 308 pages.


In its 2-inch-thick white binder, the initial proposal is rife with detail on the characters: what players would be able to do, how they would move around the world, even how they’d dress.

“I was pretty blown away,” said Rothman, who had worked for George Lucas for 23 years.

“It made me aware of the possibility, the idea of being able to walk into the ‘Star Wars’ world and interact with all the creatures,” he said.

Still, Rothman had questions. Were there rules to prevent absurd outcomes, such as Princess Leia killing Chewbacca, her hairy Wookiee ally?


Would players be allowed to play characters from the movies? Could anyone be a Jedi, the knights imbued with the power of the Force? Would the game catch up to events in the second movie?

And Blackman had answers. Players couldn’t be main characters from the movies. The game would let them train to become Jedi, but at the time in which the story is set, Jedi had been decimated by a Darth Vader purge. So having thousands of Jedi in the game would be ludicrous.

Blackman proposed a compromise: Players could undergo Jedi training, but few would succeed.

Fans such as Jerry Buote seem not to mind the limitations. The 36-year-old information technology manager from Gloucester, Mass., has been playing a pre-release version of the game to help Lucas work out bugs. He said that because the game occurs between the original movie and its sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” players have a chance to help fill in the story of what happened in between.


“That’s what really makes it unique,” Buote said. “You’re not forced to commit to any path, one way or another. You can choose your own path within that gap.”

Buote and other gamers noted that if the game creates a rich enough world, players’ imaginations will take over.

“That’s all part of the role-playing,” said Susanne Murphy, a 35-year-old labor union administrator from Everett, Wash.

“As the character, you can even pretend you don’t know the outcome,” she said.


Although the game will be widely available this summer, “Star Wars” acolytes already have been skirmishing with Blackman and his troops. Taking advantage of the company’s interactive fan-outreach effort, they have dueled with developers over the look of characters in the game, languages they speak and what they would be allowed to do.

LucasArts Entertainment Co. built a Web site in late 2000 so fans could follow the game’s progress. They posted portions of their designs on the site -- a practice unheard of in the gaming industry -- and solicited feedback. This they got in spades.

“Star Wars” fans are an ardent lot. Some border on religious. Blackman got a taste of this when a German fan was outraged that the cockpit dimensions of an X-wing star fighter varied from those in the movies. Blackman looked into it and found that the game’s version was indeed off -- by 6 centimeters.

Blackman spends much of his time worrying about such details. He has to know how many moons there are on Naboo (three) and whether the female Mon Calimari species have breasts (they don’t).


“Fans were often more fundamentalist, so to speak, than the company,” said Raph Koster, creative director for Sony Online Entertainment, the developer LucasArts chose to create “Galaxies.”

Fans worked up a frenzy over the subject of Wookiees, one of eight species in the game. In the earlier movies, few can understand Wookiee language. So fans insisted Wookiees should converse only among themselves. To others, Wookiee talk should sound like barking seals.

“We’re still struggling with this one,” Blackman said with a straight face, “because it would essentially mean that one-eighth of our player base couldn’t communicate easily with everyone else.”

Then there was the storm trooper debate. Because storm troopers are clones of one character, people won’t be allowed to play them.


A group of more than 200 wannabe storm troopers, who call themselves the 501st Legion, learned of the restriction and threatened to demonstrate in front of Sony Online’s offices in Austin.

LucasArts mollified the role players by permitting them to don storm trooper armor in the game, as they do in real life, but ruled that they will not be considered “official Imperial storm troopers.”

Another dispute erupted around the issue of non-humans joining the Empire. Hard-core fans argued that only humans could be members of the Empire; other species had to join the Rebel Alliance or be neutrals. LucasArts compromised, ruling that aliens could be Imperialists but would have to work twice as hard as humans to rise within the ranks of the Empire.

No detail escaped the true “Star Wars” fan. When LucasArts posted a picture of a bantha, a beast that makes minor appearances in the movies, fans jeered. The LucasArts bantha looked wrong, and fans submitted their own drawings. The company redrew the banthas to be more “bantha-like.”


Fans have a good deal of say in the design of the game, but there are limits. Cities cannot be taken over. Naboo will never be controlled by the Rebel Alliance.

“I don’t think the game will give them as much freedom as they think,” said Rich Vogel, Sony Online’s director of development.

“They’re in our sandbox. They can build things, develop reputations, sell items. That’s what they can control. It’s like Lego. We give them the pieces. But they’re all made to LucasArts’ specifications.”

But that’s plenty for Kurt Stangl, a 36-year-old fan from Buffalo, N.Y., who works at an ad agency.


“It’s a game, but it’s not a linear game where you’re a mouse running through a maze getting cheese,” Stangl said.