(For the discussion that follows, you might want to glance at the Pre-CU Character Builder over at Galaxies Reborn. It's an interactive tool that shows you exactly how the professions and their skills were organized.)
Instead of the current nine "iconic classes," of which you can have one and only one, there were some 34 professions. Each profession consisted of 18 "skillboxes" -- four trees of four skillboxes each, plus a Novice and a Master skillbox.
Everybody had 250 "skill points," which could be spent on individual skillboxes. The Novice skillbox in the six starting professions (seven, once player cities were enabled and the Politician profession was added) required 15 skill points, and all the other skillboxes required 2, 3, 4, 5, or (for the Master skillbox) 6 points. (The costs were different for an elite or hybrid profession -- more on them in a few moments.) So if you mastered an entire starting profession, you'd be out 77 skill points.
And that meant that if you wanted to, you could completely master three entirely unrelated starting professions plus learn some skills from another profession. With so many professions to choose from, if you imagine that this meant that players could create nearly-unique characters, you'd be correct.
There were actually several requirements to gain a new skillbox:
- sufficient skill points (out of the 250)
- sufficient XP of the right type
- all of the required prerequisite skillboxes or professions
(In the early days of SWG, teaching other players new skills was rewarded with Apprentice XP, which was a special form of XP that was required to purchase any Master skillbox. Although intended to promote social interaction, this was one of the earliest features of the character skill system to get the axe. Once the game was mostly veteran players, they started having too much trouble finding other players to teach skills to.)
The last important point about skills in SWG was that in addition to the starting professions, there were elite and hybrid professions. These required learning all of one tree within a profession, or in some cases, actually mastering an entire starting profession plus other skills.
- To open up the Merchant elite profession required learning all four skillboxes in the Business tree (of four vertical skillboxes) in the Artisan starting profession.
- To open up the Bio-Engineer hybrid profession required learning all four skillboxes in the Hunting tree in the Scout starting profession plus all four skillboxes in the Organic Chemistry tree in the Medic starting profession.
- To open up the Doctor elite profession required mastering the Medic starting profession.
- To open up the Bounty Hunter hybrid/elite profession required mastering the Marksman starting profession plus learning all four skillboxes in the Exploration tree in the Scout starting profession.
What this meant was that if you wanted, you could master a few professions and be really, really good at a couple of things. Or, if you preferred, you could master one profession (or none!) and be reasonably effective at a very wide variety of things.
I actually chose the latter path. For a long time I was a Master Artisan and Master Merchant, and had multiple skills in Medic, Scout, Pistoleer, and Creature Handler. The downside of this variety of abilities was that I could never enjoy the elite content -- I never saw the inside of the Corellian Corvette or the Deathwatch Bunker; I never got to do the Hero Quest on Tatooine. On the other hand, I could go pretty much anywhere and do all kinds of things that a specialist couldn't. In other words, in addition to being especially good at making and selling vehicles (Artisan + Merchant), I was a jack-of-all-trades, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
All this probably sounds complicated, but it didn't feel that way once you used the system. Even so, there were complaints that having such an amazing amount of flexibility made it hard to figure out roles when grouping for combat. Who was the tank? Who did the most DPS?
Eventually these complaints led to the Combat Upgrade, and thence to the New Game Experience. To satisfy the desires of some combat-oriented players for their characters to fit neatly into simple-to-understand combat roles, everybody (including the many players who only wanted a few combat skills) had their uniquely varied skills eliminated in favor of the hardcoded set of skills that were deemed appropriate for their new iconic class.
I hope this gives readers an idea of why the NGE, years later, still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of gamers who liked the original SWG.