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.