Reflection and Redirection

Ardwulf’s Lair began as a blog on a long-defunct site called GAX, a precursor to GameBreaker that never quite took off. Before long (in October of 2007) I migrated here to WordPress, where I have remained since. That was a bit over six years ago. I had begun by blogging about my adventures in Vanguard, and though I soon veered off into many other titles, that’s the game I retain a special affection for to this day.

I have not been blogging much for the last couple of months. Mostly that’s a factor of time; between school, work and family I have had very, very little time to do any video gaming at all, so blogging about it was even lower in priority. But I have been engaged in some other pursuits, including some tabletop gaming and working on some things of my own invention. With Vanguard sunsetting and my own creative urges pulling me in a different direction, it’s probably time to contemplate a change of focus for this blog.

I won’t be going away or anything equally dramatic. In fact it’s likely you’ll see a fair amount of MMORPG content here over the next few months as Vanguard slowly moves toward its sunset. And there will always be video game stuff here. But you’ll also begin to see other kinds of content, in some cases pointers to or reposts from one of my other blogs. So: fair warning.

The Next Best Hope

The latest piece of Elder Scrolls Online promotional fluff is the eight-plus minute trailer embedded below. It’s pulling in raves, largely from folks I would consider outside the hardcore demographic. Which in itself is fine.

Although this trailer is indisputably well-made, as a fan of both Elder Scrolls games and MMORPGs it doesn’t get me excited about ESO. For one, it reminds me of the Warhammer Online and SWTOR cinematic trailers. Which were also well-done and also utterly unrepresentative of the actual game. This one even follows the same narrative arc as those two. It doesn’t highlight any of the things that makes the Elder Scrolls single-player games special. It doesn’t even use the iconic Elder Scrolls theme, a baffling omission. That alone would have stoked me up to buy it.

I haven’t played in the ESO beta, and folks who have are more than welcome to correct me on these points. But what I see is a very conventional game lacking much of the interactibility and dynamic world that made Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim so interesting. The game itself could prove me wrong about this, but unless I get a beta invite I’m very unlikely to drop the $60 it will take to find out. I do expect ESO to sell lots of copies. I doubt its staying power and ability to retain subs beyond the three-month point. I think that MMO players, those most likely to be willing to commit to a subscription, will find ESO uncompelling. Then again, SWTOR seems to have done very well with a modestly big retail splash followed by an agile shift to microtransactions. It’s safe to say that everyone expects ESO to follow the same pattern. Perhaps I will try it then. Meanwhile I hope it does very well, but along with that there’s a hope that it’s a better and more interesting game than I think it is.

Insulation

Looking strictly at the dollars per day it’s taken in so far, the Kickstarter for the new Brad McQuaid project Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen isn’t going to reach its funding goal of $800K. Which wouldn’t neccessarily mean the end of the project, but it would surely be a setback. On the other hand, pledging tends to increase as the end of a well-managed campaign approaches, and Pantheon’s at least pushing out lots of information. Whether the Kickstarter succeeds or not I expect that crowdfunding for the project will continue after it’s over, as is being done with Star Citizen and Shroud of the Avatar. The latter recently hit $3 million in crowdfunding, which seems like chump change compared to many MMO budgets. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Pantheon might pull in a similar amount.

This is the sound of the drum I (and others) have been beating for a long time: nobody needs $100 million to develop a virtual world. All of the classic pre-WoW MMORPGs were developed on budgets at least an order of magnitude less than that, and they brought more innovation and novelty and immersion to the table than any of the sterile commercial properties of the last few years. Developing on $3 million is damned tight, but today there are middleware tools that a team can leverage to vastly streamline the creative process. The big one is the Unity engine: Pantheon, Shroud of the Avatar, Pathfinder Online and Project: Gorgon are all being developed on that platform.

All four are interesting projects and all are MMOs at least by the current overbroad definition. Shroud of the Avatar is the one with the closest kinship with Pantheon and is relatively far along. It and Star Citizen (also fairly far along) are promising something interesting: the ability to host the game yourself. Pantheon is also making noise in this direction; its final stretch goal, which it seems unlikely to hit even if the Kickstarter funds, includes this capability. I’d expect this kind of feature to be rather less functional than running a full-fledged MMO server from your basement workbench. But even if it has limitations more severe than I expect, something very important is brought to the table. Or perhaps more accurately taken off the table: the ability of some faceless suit to take those worlds away, forever, with the flip of a switch. The willingness of these three projects to offer that, even potentially, is very brave.

This isn’t something Pathfinder Online is promising. Which is interesting, because one of the people behind it is Ryan Dancey. In addition to a stint with CCP Dancey was the guy behind the Open Game License, which did something similar to D&D: it insulated the game from the decisions of any one corporate entity. The fruits of that are evident now; in most areas D&D’s 4th edition is considered a misfire by most and Pathfinder, essentially a refitted D&D3.5, has surpassed it in sales and visibility. Once released into the wild, the game mechanics can never be caged again, and some have taken advatage of that to use the tools provided under the PGL to build emulators of older versions of D&D. In a very real way the D&D rules are now the property of the community rather than of the company the published them.

Of course, if D&D were to go away as a living product line it would be harmful to the hobby but the immediate impact might not be much felt by individual gaming groups. Their adventures and manuals would not suddenly dissolve into dust beucaes the publisher went under or decided to cancel the line. Their campaigns might go on for years, even decades, with no new official materials. There are examples of RPGs whose communities have done exactly that.

MMORPGs are not like that. Once the provider shuts them down, that’s it — barring a laborious player effort to reverse engineer enough serverside code to run a private server of questionable legality. This has occasionally yielded something playable, but in the case of Vanguard I doubt it will happen (I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.)

Time to Celebrate

When writing yesterday’s article I noticed a tendency to write about Vanguard in the past tense, as something that’s already gone. But it isn’t, yet. Since launch there have been people predicting Vanguard’s death within six months, and here we are, just under seven years later. And we have six more months. Some MMOs have lived and died in less time. This kind of game lives fast; the oldest one still around is 17 and is now a dinosaur. Six months is a long time in MMO years… itself more time than Vanguard would have had without SOE stepping in to take over the game.

Vanguard isn’t gone yet. Some MMOs are born and die in a period shorter than that. Six months to log some quality time in a game still rich with possibilities for progression and exploration. I’ve had relatively little time to game lately, but what I have I’ll be spending in Vanguard. As much as I’ve played it there are sights yet unseen and deeds left undone, a great world to explore and some of the best dungeons ever to delve.

There will be a time to mourn. But not yet, not yet.

A Requiem for Vanguard… But Not Yet the End

At one time it seemed plausible that MMORPGs that weathered the perils of development and the initial storm of launch would stick around for a while. Perhaps even indefinitely; on the subscription model even a meager few thousand players seemed sufficient to support server costs and an administrator or two, even if it wasn’t pulling in enough to fund a development team. A lot of games eked on like that for years; a few still do. Once MMORPGs became big business and the creatives became subservient to the accountants this idea was revealed as naïve. It’s not even sufficient for a product to be profitable in an absolute sense; in the business’ view it must be the most profitable employment of the resources allocated to it, or it’s a bad use of capital. This is why MMORPGs get shut down… sometimes even ones that are making money, like City of Heroes.

I believe Smed when he says that SOE had been losing money on Vanguard for a while now; back when there was no development that would have seemed questionable, but there’s an actual team that’s been working on the game for a while now, with a new raid launched mere weeks ago. The player base seems too small to support this. But it doesn’t even matter; if those developers would be better used on EQN or SOE’s mystery successor to SWG, that’s where they should be. The principles of good business demand it.

That I can see the business case for closing Vanguard and four other games doesn’t mean I am ambivalent about its impending sunset. It does, however, make it easier to blame the environment in which MMOs operate rather than the people who made the decision. This environment is simply not one that’s advantageous to the game playing public; business policy mandates that Vanguard be taken away, even though there is no technical reason that it couldn’t continue to operate in perpetuity. I’m guessing that if the opportunity were offered someone in the community would step up to be support for the game.

Many MMORPG development decisions seemed to make good business sense but turned out to be bad for the virtual world… and perhaps even bad for business. Witness the erosion of what was once a very robust virtual space in World of Warcraft and the attendant decline in that game’s subscription numbers as it changed from a game about exploring and leveling in a shared persistent environment to a game about running the same instanced content over and over at the level cap. Correlation isn’t causation, of course, but I’m not ready to write this off as mere coincidence.

I think virtual worlds need to break away from corporate control altogether and become open platforms that can be customized by players and run independently. Worlds that can’t be taken away by arbitrary business decisions. I don’t know if this will ever happen, but I’d like it to. Bad creative decisions will still happen, but in an open environment they could also be undone.

I think that the closure of Vanguard will be a loss for virtual worlds. For all its failures and problems it is a beautiful and ambitious game with love evident in every leaf and tree. It’s the only MMO that makes me feel like I am visiting a world rather than playing a game, every time I log in. Maybe that worked against it in the long run. Seven years is a pretty good run, though, and SOE is giving us six more months, more than I think we had reason to expect.

The wonderful video is from Kaozz, hopefully not her last. Set to Vanguard’s wonderful music, it’s a collage of the sights of Telon. These will live on in the memories of the gamers who loved it, and for me in thousands of screenshots, 130+ tracks of Todd Masten’s music and a fair bit of video. And I am not quite done with Vanguard yet.