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Sony launches 'Star Wars' online game

The company quietly releases its long-awaited online game based on the "Star Wars" franchise, amid disappointing debuts for other recent online games.

Sony on Thursday quietly released "Stars Wars Galaxies," the long-awaited online game based on the movie series.

"Galaxies" has been in development for several years by LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment, publisher of the hit online game "EverQuest", and has been widely eyed by the game industry as a test of whether online games can attract a broader audience.

Yet the game went on sale Thursday with nary a press release to mark the occasion, a remarkably quiet launch given the hoopla that has accompanied other online games.

Billy Pidgeon, an analyst for research firm Zelos Group, said Sony appears to have learned from competitors, particularly game giant Electronic Arts, which launched "The Sims Online" last year. That game, a multiplayer online version of the smash PC game "The Sims," was hailed as the first major chance for online gaming to capture a mainstream audience. Yet sales have fallen way below EA's expectations, with the online game attracting only a small fraction of the number of people who are devoted to the offline version.

"The Sims Online' was so heavily hyped before it launched, and the disappointment was palpable when it actually became available," Pidgeon said. "I think people have learned from that. A big launch can be a real headache if you don't have the resources or the story line and other in-game elements to support it."

"Galaxies" will start with a substantial audience, Pidgeon said, thanks to extensive beta tests that snared many fans early, and a loyal "Star Wars" fan base eager to experience the game. Such players will keep the game going for months, while Sony adds content likely to make the game more appealing to less rabid "Star Wars" buffs, Pidgeon said.

"It's a good strategy to build slowly with a persistent-world game, not to raise expectations too highly," Pidgeon said. "Six months from now, there may be some great stories to tell."

Sony announced previously that "Galaxies" will sell for $50, which includes a one-month subscription that allows access to the game's online environment. To continue playing, buyers will have to pay a monthly subscription fee that ranges from $15 for those who choose a month-to-month contract to $12 for those who sign up for a full year.

Despite the low-profile launch, Sony still had trouble keeping up with opening-day traffic. Many potential players complained in online forums of being unable to activate their subscription for the game, with repeated attempts producing nothing but error messages.

Drew Weaver, a network and systems engineer in Columbus, Ohio, said he took Thursday off from work to enjoy the first day of the game but was unable to sign up, despite repeated attempts through the morning. "Technically, this isn't even a problem with the game; it's a problem with subscribing to the game, which almost makes me more angry," Weaver said via e-mail. "You never think, 'Gee if I buy this video game, will I be able to sign up to play it?'"

A representative for Sony Online Entertainment confirmed that the company experienced "hardware problems" early Thursday as the result of thousands of people trying to sign up for the game at once. He said the problems were corrected shortly after noon Pacific time.