We all know the story. If I did a series called ‘Most Catastrophic MMO Launches,’ Vanguard: Saga of Heroes would be the first name on the list. But I’m not, and today’s tale is a very different one than that.
Twenty months ago, Vanguard launched with abominable quality, a development house in utter disarray and widespread derision across the hobby. It was the laughingstock of the industry, the one that developers of successful games told jokes about while those of upcoming titles laughed nervously and left the party. It was the example that every title that’s come out since then has striven not to emulate, the debacle that previous MMO launches had only flirted with.
It was no surprise to anybody when, despite modestly decent sales, Sigil Games Online folded in May of 2007 and was essentially bought out in what appeared to be goodwill by Vanguard’s publisher, Sony Online Entertainment, the very company the game’s originator, EverQuest savant Brad McQuaid, had left to form Sigil. Four months after release, Vanguard was still the game people made fun of. The stories that began to trickle out of the smoldering rubble of Sigil were frightening and in many cases barely believable.
But something surprising was happening, even from the first days of Vanguard’s early access. Despite all the problems, despite mismanagement and outright malfeasance by the heads of the project and of Sigil, despite the fact that virtually no progress had been made toward turning the thing into something playable up to that point, and despite the fact that what was delivered didn’t line up all that much with player expectations heading into release. Despite all of that, people believed.
This didn’t have anything much to do with Brad McQuaid or with rooting for the underdog. In the Massive space, everybody’s an underdog except Blizzard, and McQuaid at that point was impossible to defend. The word ‘vision’ came along with a laugh track. People believed in Vanguard and its world, and in the promise it had, even if they didn’t have much reason to. With the SOE takeover, Vanguard gained a direction, and since then, it’s completely turned around in virtually every area. Progress has often been slow – slower than many, including myself, would like – and the work is not yet complete, but it’s been very steady, and the hand at the rudder seems increasingly sure. We no longer need to worry about the game’s very survival, and that alone is quite an achievement.
It’s been eighteen months since SOE saved Vanguard, and righted a swiftly-sinking ship. The game that was barely visible through the detritus of Sigil’s mismanagement and subsequent collapse is here. It was very hard to see, for a long while. But a few people saw it nonetheless, and I’m glad to say I was one of those. I believed when it was unpopular, even ridiculous, to do so.
The feature of Vanguard that made this happen is the world of Telon, unique in being entirely persistent and non-instanced, and also in its sheer scope and breadth – and beauty. It’s not as simple as the world design itself; the detailed mechanics also contribute to a sense of complexity that few other games match, and provide the verisimilitude lacking in those other titles. In a way, Vanguard’s checkered past contributes to this, with the changes in the leadership and design teams each making their own mark on what is a very complex piece of software. The fingerprints of the first coders and developers are still there, yet everything seems to work together to a surprising degree. Vanguard is mostly consistent, but not entirely, and this itself adds to the sense of depth. Telon is huge, like a real world would be. It’s inconsistent, in some places, like the real world is. It is sometimes cruel, and sometimes unfair. But all that gives it a grounding in reality and a sense of place that other worlds lack. I have a sense of freedom in Telon that I lack elsewhere. In Norrath I look at the top of a mountainous ridge and realize that the developers didn’t intend that I go there; in Telon I wonder what’s there, and how difficult it would be to reach.
The vastness of Telon is probably the result of overreach by the developers; there’s plenty to do even just limiting yourself to the questing content, but there is also open space, a rarity in other MMOs. It may be unintentional, but again it contributes to the sense of place; you will not find a quest hub or a bunch of mobs waiting around every corner, and the terrain does not naturally guide you along a specific path – it’s naturalistic, instead, and the quest pointers tell you what direction to head, without necessarily showing you your exact destination or making tasks about just following the directions. There are no artificial walls or impassable barriers. Only in flight, an experience accessible to even moderately advanced characters, can you appreciate the true scope of this. Anything you can see, you can touch and get to. You can enter almost any building. Stormfronts move slowly across the world, and you can climb to the limits of the sky. There is room to explore, and wonders to find, and the means to do so.
People expecting action and combat will find those in Telon, but maybe not as much as they might want. Vanguard is not an action game, and combat is not the only thing to do. Vanguard’s crafting systems are detailed and comprehensive; some find the process tedious and overly fussy, but there are hundreds of thousands of different items you can make, and the useful ones start to be found not all that far up the advancement tree. You can even, essentially, design your own items, including specific components in the process to grant the bonuses you’re looking for, a highly underappreciated feature. You can build your own ships, and your own housing with a persistent place in the world, and if EQ2′s Guild halls are impressive places, Vanguard’s were there first. Similarly, Vanguard’s Diplomacy, although it is not as yet a fully mature feature, provides an additional dimension not explored at all by other games, and is an engaging minigame in its own right, with its own gear, its own rewards, and sprawling questlines to follow. In comparison to the preconfigured flight paths of WoW and EQ2, in Vanguard you rent a flying mount and go where you want. Vanguard is all about the freedom to explore and create your own stories.
That’s an important distinction; Vanguard does not revolve around a single storyline, a set of related storylines, or even a few predefined plots that the developers put signs on saying ‘IMPORTANT’. Instead, there are hundreds of individual threads of story to be picked up all over the world. Some of the stories are small and some of them are big, but the stories that are important are the ones that you want to follow. There is a sense of a history not fully explored, and of a development team discovering rather than inventing it. The stories you make in Telon are yours, not those of some unknown designer sitting in a cubicle in California.
Some quarters of the Vanguard community like to make a fuss using words like ‘purity,’ ‘vision’ and ‘hardcore,’ but they’re a minority voice. Travel, for example, is a great deal easier than it was in the game’s early days, and thus less pure than some grognards think they want. But the interesting thing is that this doesn’t much matter – Telon is big enough that even with Riftway teleportation, summons, cheap flying mounts, and horses as early as level 10, you still have the sense of traveling great distances, because you do, even if it’s potentially quicker than it was. And amid all this, there is the most visually stunning environment in MMOs to gawk at. Static screenshots don’t do it justice; in the game the world is alive with movement, as trees and grass sway in the wind, and rivers flow in an actual direction, carrying swimmers with them.
If Vanguard has not achieved all it ever could have – and it hasn’t – it has at least given us this: a living world, inhabited by real people who are passionate about it, with one of the best and most mature communities in the hobby. In a market crowded by cookie-cutter clones of WoW and EQ, Vanguard represents something more… or maybe the same things, taken to a different level and looked at in a slightly different and less limiting way. If something like Warhammer Online is mostly game, Vanguard is its antithesis – an experience. There is nothing wrong with the former, but the latter is harder to find and is, I think, the key component that WAR is missing but can be found in World of Warcraft – and even more so, in Vanguard. The detail and persistence of Telon gives players the luxury of never needing to step out of it while playing.
The troubled past out of which Vanguard has matured is part of why the game today is what it is. Like a person, Vanguard was shaped by its experiences, both good and bad, and like people do in the best case, it’s taken its failures to heart and learned from them. Yet in many respects, although a substantial amount of content has been added and many things have been tweaked, refined and polished, major changes to the game have been remarkably few. Maybe this is due to an SOE gun-shy over repeating the mistakes of Star Wars Galaxies, but if so, it’s yet another piece of the synergy. In Telon there is more magic than in most other games, more soul. It is true that the Vanguard experience isn’t a good fit for absolutely everybody, but at this point it’s very difficult to mount an argument that it’s not a compelling and successful game on its own terms.
In January of 2007 Vanguard was a punchline. But the game we have today is a fully mature and feature-rich game that’s defied expectations merely by surviving to grow out of its problems. That history makes Vanguard one of the most compelling success stories in the history of the hobby, surpassed in this respect only by EVE Online. It’s come a long, long way, and that it’s taken less than two years to get there makes it all the more remarkable. In November of 2008, Vanguard is one of the Best MMOs on the Market.