Fresh Starts in Vanguard

I’ve been playing Vanguard again on some new characters; apparently sub-10 characters got scrubbed in the last round of server merges when Seradon went away. SOE was restoring these characters on request for a while, but they aren’t able to any more. Nevertheless, such characters are still showing up on VGPlayers and in at least some cases are locking up character names. I’d filed a support ticket to resolve this and got one of those names freed up, so I remade my old character Mukhtar as a Qaliathari Bard and have gotten him up to level 6.

Now, the Bard is one of Vanguard’s gangbuster classes, in my opinion. He’s primarily a buffing and support class as you’d usually see with a Bard in another game, but in Vanguard Bards get new song components as they level up and can compose their own songs, essentially designing their own buffs. You can do buffs that cost basically nothing, buffs that have a cost around what your energy regen rate is (so you can keep them up but they’ll crimp the budget for other energy-using abilities, and you can make awesome buffs that you can only keep up for a short time. It’s a fantastic class, and at level 6 it’s just starting to come into its own.

Another recreated lowbie is Mnembao, a Mordebi Psionicist, who I’ve now played up to level 7. Since the character model revamp he looks slightly less like Chris Rock. It’s another support class, this time focusing mostly on crowd control. At level 10 Psionicists get an ability called Union of Mind II, which, in addition to providing a buff, gives them access to a worldwide, Psionicist-only chat channel. Later on there’s an ability which makes an opponent a temporary pet, one which will eventually break free, much like EQ2’s Coercer pets. There are high-level abilities which allow you to rummage through an opponent’s mind, stealing one of its abilities to use.

Give me this kind of stuff over finely-balanced, samey classes any day. I once wrote a piece condemning Warhammer Online for being soulless, and pointed out that Vanguard was the exact opposite. I’ve never said that Vanguard was a game you should turn to looking for an old-school, pre-WoW experience. But now, with the evolution of the market over the last few years, I’m starting to think that people that played WoW back in its vanilla phase and miss the days when it was less polished but offered more freedom might find a happy home in Vanguard.

Note that I’m playing these new characters in the traditional starting cities rather than in the Isle of Dawn. The Isle is nice, but I think it lacks the aforementioned soul that the rest of the game has in spades. I know there’s a desirable trinket that you get at the end of the Isle chain, but I don’t care; I’m playing for the world of Telon and for a less linear gameplay experience. However, I do have a level 10 Death Knight on the Isle that I leveled last time around and plan to keep him there to help out new lowbies when the switch happens. Meanwhile, He has most of the crafting and diplomacy chains to work through.

You know, I actually think that a lot of people like Vangaurd. More people than you might think. I know that it has a fair number of fans in the blogging and commenting community. But for a lot of us it’s often (or always) been left in the second tier of MMOs that we’re just not willing to pay a subscription for. It’s a game we’d love to dabble in and maybe we occasionally pony up the $15 to return for a little while, but mostly it stays off the table because of the sub. Vanguard as a free to play game is going to literally be a world-shaking shift for that type of player.

An Early Visit to Telon

Model of patience and restraint that I am, I grabbed 30 days of Vanguard yesterday. The download and install happened in a very quick couple of hours, and I was back in Telon for the first time in the better part of a year. I love Vanguard, and even though I get tired or annoyed with it, I always seem to come back. I hadn’t been especially tempted but was spurred to it by the news of the impending free to play conversion, about which I’m seeing the traditional grousing drowned out, for a change, in a shower of support for the move. Let’s face it, you’d have to be kind of an idiot to oppose it in this case.

I’m having a weird account issue where most of my old characters are showing up on VGPlayers but not on the in-game loading screen. I filed a support ticket for that, and meanwhile the game is running like a charm at highest settings on a computer that hadn’t been asked to run it yet. We’ll see, hopefully, how well it holds up for grouping.

The population was pretty light in the low levels at an admittedly odd time, not really different from what I remember. Vanguard’s big open world made dynamic by a much larger pool of players is something I’m very much looking forward to. Open world dungeons are going to be amazing.

I did make a new character, a Thestran Human Necromancer. It’s a class I have never gotten very far with and a race some might find boring, but I like their starting area and I’ve always favored the human-types in Vanguard anyway. Part of the reason for my return is to feel out what race/class combinations I’d like to play over the long haul, so I can spend wisely if anything needs to be unlocked. I have a veritable mountain of Station Cash left over from last year’s triple Station Cash sale, so I’m not at all worried about it.

I have a few days left on my break and plan to make the most of it.

Commentary on F2P Vanguard

The news (mentioned earlier) that Vanguard will at long last be moving to a f2p model could not have been bigger, as far as I’m concerned. Lots of people won’t care, of course, but it matters to me that a game with the virtues of Vanguard survive, and I think going f2p stands the best chance of making that happen.

Of course, as when SOE makes any decision, the cries of “cash grab” began to go out immediately from the standard roster of SOE haters. The idea that somehow a “cash grab” is even possible with a game with numbers as low as Vanguard’s is really pretty freaking stupid on the face of it. Let’s not kid ourselves — Vanguard isn’t going to jump into the top tier of MMOs, or even the middle tier, with this move. I think it does have a shot at developing into a strong niche title, which is reasonably the best that SOE can hope. But even so, if you look at what might happen as a percentage increase over the current number of players Vanguard or amount of revenue that the game is generating, this move has the potential to break records. The number of active players could easily increase by ten or twenty times. Granted, this is an anomaly caused by how low the numbers currently are, but still.

I’m not going to rehash Vanguard’s terrible launch on the assumption that everyone reading will already know the story; if you don’t, just accept that it was legendarily bad, perhaps the worst MMO launch ever. Despite its shaky history, it’s a game that’s improved immeasurably since it launched over five years ago. I do not think that every change had been an improvement, but overall the net effect has been way, way into the positive. And I think it’s a game that has a lot of strengths that are rare in the MMO field these days. If SOE’s newly-recreated development team can focus on those strengths instead of simply trying to make it more friendly to the mass market, I think that players looking for that big open world might flock to it in modest numbers. I don’t think it has anything to do with “hardcore” versus “casual” people, either — plenty of casual people would enjoy a slower progression and time to explore the world of Telon at their leisure, and I think that can be done without watering the game down.

The biggest thing that Vanguard needs is simply a bigger population. It’s a game that would thrive on that; imagine Trengal Keep or any of its glorious open-world dungeons when there are three or four different parties down there at any given time. Even if the change isn’t as pronounced as I think there is reason to expect, this will be a big, big help with that. Plus, the move itself shows that SOE are serious about keeping Vanguard afloat — this kind of thing does cost money after all, and if they were content to let it simply continue its slide into oblivion, we wouldn’t be seeing it.

That aside, I think another motivation is for SOE to transition entirely away from the subscription-only model. With EverQuest Online Adventures sunsetting at the end of this month, and Vanguard going f2p in the summer, the only sub game SOE will have left is Planetside (as Wilhelm points out,) so don’t be shocked to hear an announcement of note there as well. We already know (as in, it’s been announced,) that Planetside 2 will be f2p, and I for one would be stunned if EverQuest Next wasn’t as well. Speaking of which, Vanguard could potentially serve as a testbed for new technological or microtransaction ideas that SOE might have in relation to EQ’s eventual successor. Because the bar for Vanguard is so low, SOE might feel it has more room to experiment than it did with its current flagship title, EQ2, which it pushed very tentatively into the f2p market.

Beyond that, I wouldn’t necessarily expect any hugely new ground to be broken in the f2p realm when details finally start to come out. But SOE did shake things up a little bit with the way they handled DC Universe Online, and that appears to be turning out rather well for them — it went from a game with a middling launch and a fast fade to PC Gamer’s MMO of the Year thanks to the move.

Bearing in mind that we have just about no details right now, if I were in charge of the project, and in the context of how SOE has handled their other f2p packages, here’s what I’d do to set things up. You can take these more as predictions than as “how Ardwulf would prefer to do things.”

  • My priorities for fixes would be the broken leveling rate (it needs to be slowed down to match the quest progression again) and itemization.
  • Primary world fixes would be addressing any remaining broken quests and polishing up the older starting areas, which in my opinion give players a much better feel for the game than the Isle of Dawn does. I wouldn’t redo them completely, but I’d tweak quests and quest rewards and maybe add a few quests where gaps exist, particularly for Diplomacy and Crafting.
  • There would be no restrictions regarding content for free players. Restricting access to chat channels would be hugely problematic in a game as group-centered as Vanguard, so you’d need some way around that, either with some kind of Silver upgrade that drops those restrictions or by just not having them in the first place.
  • The priority for substantial new content would be at the high end, where it’s needed insanely badly.
  • The Cleric, Fighter, Sorcerer and Rogue would be the free classes.
  • I’d make two or three races from each continent free. This probably means the Thestran, Kojani, Qaliathari and Mordebi humans, and probably the Half Elf (from Kojan) and Dwarf, High Elf or Halfling from Thestra.
  • Free players limited to two bag slots. Later SOE additions to the game junked up inventory substantially, but I don’t consider SOE’s bag slot purchases to be terribly onerous.
  • One or two character slots for free players. If there’s a Silver option, add two more and probably an extra bag slot.
  • Get rid of Randolph, or at least take away his flight ability. Its presence is an artifact from an earlier era, breaks the game in some important ways, and it at odds with the atmosphere of Telon. If he cold only fly during the holiday event, I’d be okay with that.

Vanguard Going Free to Play At Last

The news that some of us have long waited for has arrived. This summer, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is going free to play. Story at Massively, FAQ at the Vanguard forums.

The last firm thing we’d heard about this was that f2p was apparently off the table for Vanguard; it was such a tiny game that the required investment was seen as not worth the trouble. Now SOE, with big successes in converting DC Universe Online and EverQuest II (and recently EverQuest,) have changed their tune. Most likely, this is the end of the line for SOE games on the old subscription-only model.

Details are thin on the ground at this time, but what we know so far is that there will be a larger development team, more frequent updates. I would expect we’ll see something not dissimilar to SOE’s other f2p models, although they do have more room to experiment in this case; it’s not as though they can drive the player numbers down.

For me, and I realize I’m stating a minority interest here, this is the biggest possible news to hit in months, amid all the press for high-profile games like SWTOR and GW2. It is, for me, the final death knell for subscriptions.

Vanguard, Skyrim and EVE

Ad astra per aspera, I said in the last posts comments, so it’s fitting that we now move the discussion from fantasy sandboxes to the stars – from Vanguard, considered by many a failure as a game, a sandbox and an MMO, to MMO gaming’s most successful sandbox, EVE Online.

Every fantasy MMO is based on Dungeons and Dragons or some other game that was in turn influenced by D&D, including Ultima Online, a title lambasted for its problems in its heyday but now held up as a suspicuouly rosy sandbox icon. Like Vanguard, EVE is a game I love but have deep issues with, and unlike Vanguard has a history of growth and prosperity despite a rocky beginning. But EVE, too, has its lessons to be learned from Skyrim.

That EVE is the most successful sandbox in the virtual world space cannot be disputed; it has true emergent gameplay and a near-infinite variety of ways one can approach its gameplay. But it does have its failures, both in the banal nature of much of the gameplay and in its failure to provide immersive elements.

By that, do not misunderstand me; EVE is very immersive as MMOs go and more so that most. But the universe of EVE is only minimally interactable: asteroids are depleted and wormholes are closed by player action, and the market is shaped almost entirely by in-game activities, but it’s only in this last aspect that it truly fulfills the potential of the virtual world. NPCs are static photos that never change or move. Stations are great monolithic that are only destroyed in videos that don’t reflect gameplay. Players can build and destroy structures, but is that alone such a huge step up from copper nodes in Elwynn Forest that despawn when you deplete them?

Tabletop games have a unique asset that video games lack: a human gamemaster to administer the universe and react to events. Computers aren’t there yet, but a game like Skyrim shows me that a convincing simulated environment isn’t so far away as many of us think; Skyrim has its glitches but it’s pretty freaking close. It’s something few MMOs even attempt anymore.

The developers of EVE had the notion that you should be able to get out of your ship and interact with more stuff. In practice that turned out to be fairly half-baked, to be honest, and longtime EVE players rallied against it when it seemed to be competing for developer time against the core gameplay. EVE is balanced around that core gameplay, and taking too many players out of a vast space much of which is already empty would be very, very dangerous. So the solution was to minimize the appeal of off-ship activity and shunt the more exciting stuff off to a different game, Dust 514. The goal of integrating EVE and Dust is pretty audacious, but more ambitious still would be a game with a smaller space but more room for characters to operate within it. And you can’t subtract space; EVE players would throw a justified fit.

As with Vanguard this is a failure in fundamental design, one that probably cannot be addressed with ad hoc later development. You’d have to design the game around a mixture of starship and off-board operations from the get go. And no, Star Trek Online, a game that incredibly fails in more places than EVE and Vanguard combined, did not succeed in doing that, and in my opinion didn’t try very hard to.

This is ironic because EVE is one of the few games not defined by its adherence to the D&D paradigm that conventional MMOs almost invariably follow fairly closely through a long lineage of adaptations onto silicon. EVE descends from Elite and thence from Traveller, a game designed by people who didn’t know all that much about D&D but were well-schooled in the possibilities of science fiction, and who had been blown away by Star Wars a year earlier.

The irony cuts deep because Traveller is very much a sandbox game from thirty years before that term was ever applied to video games. Instead of D&D’s structured, linear adventures and campaigns you had tools to develop a universe and set the characters loose in it. You could run a sandbox using D&D, but that was never the expectation. In Traveller, even the adventures forced you into a sandbox.

EVE – Traveller‘s descendant in the modern realm of online virtual worlds – got a good chunk about what Traveller was all bout right, but it left out two-thirds of the possibilities. The Traveller party would never spend all their time in their ship; it was a home base and a huge asset but also a source of tribulations and difficulties. It’s hard to imagine how an EVE where you might lose a ship and be stranded doing odd jobs on some backwater planet and have to work your way back up to one might even work – in Traveller it was a common adventure hook, and getting a ship and the freedom to roam the stars – or plunder them – that came with it was a major goal.

It might be tempting to think of such an MMO as two discreet games bolted roughly together, as Star Trek Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea are, although one would hope that one of the faces wouldn’t be quite so gallingly weak. But even two games in one that were equally good would be a failure to really reach for the stars. No, you’d want seamless integration between the two in a setting specifically designed to encourage it – one much like the rough implied Imperium presented in the Little Black Books in 1977.

Making such a setting truly interactable would be a huge challenge. It would be a setting with all the possibilities of an EVE combined with the possibilities of the other two-thirds that never saw development. Vast planets, although not necessarily a vast volume of space with thousands of stars that would spread players too thin. A single subsector, eight by ten parsecs, would be enough to start, and you could accommodate thousands of players in all the nooks and crannies of its worlds and asteroid belts and starport dives. You’d have to be clever about populating it with NPCs, alien critters and AI starships, since the simulation cannot be even close to perfect, and you’d have to be very careful the let both the player and NPC parts of the universe evolve on their own, organically and synergistically with as little manual moderation as possible. But clever design can hide a lot of soft underbelly, and Skyrim makes me think it’s possible.

As much as I talk about fantasy MMOs, that there is my dream title. Traveller Online, and a lot of the guts that you would need are already there in 34 years of lovingly developed tabletop product; algorithms for procedurally generating worlds and stars and ships and guns and freaky alien stuff. Sure the science in it was stale as hell even in 1977, but popular science fiction (as opposed to SF in the written word) hasn’t really evolved that much since the days of Flash and Buck.

It could be done. To the stars, my friends, along a rough road.

Vanguard and Skyrim

There are a lot of ways in which being a fan of Vanguard is frustrating. The dreadful launch and swift collapse, the major bugs, glitches and performance issues that weren’t fully addressed until a year and a half after the game’s debut, and the lack of development afterward stand out. But most dissatifying of all, in a way, is that shadow of the game that could have been, still visible in the game today out of the corner of your eye. A little of that would surely have been realized had the game been a bigger hit, but much else was never envisioned or was designed out at some point during development.

In many respects, Telon comes closer to my ideal of what a fantasy MMO setting ought to be than any other virtual space. It has its deficiencies in art design, but it’s huge, epic and interesting, it has great lore and an almost pure high fantasy backbone. Aberrant elements like steampunk Gnomes (of which I am very tired,) while they are present, have minimal impact on the setting’s flavor as a whole. It has, at least for me, the strongest sense of place of any MMO setting, and I think that’s very important.

Too, Vanguard has a unique Diplomacy system that makes the world more interactable and strengthens player’s ties to the world and its characters, and a very strong crafting functionality that could easily form the backbone of a robust player-driven economy. That would require two things, though: support from the rest of the game mechanics and a significantly more robust player population. Neither of those things is likely to happen now, despite SOE’s recent overtures toward applying some long-needed development to the title.

Vanguard really fails in the face of its potential in a couple of places. For one, sandbox ideas and a setting eminently suitable for them lie atop the mechanical foundation of a themepark in an unsatisfying way. I maintain that there’s nothing about the sandbox that necessarily precludes the themepark and vice versa, but where the mechanics of progression are strictly molded by the latter approach, there’s little incentive for development to extend sandbox functionality or for players to explore those elements.

There’s a considerable audience out looking for a sandbox game – big enough to have made Vanguard a much larger success than it has been – had this been understood during development. While there is a lot of sandbox flavor to the game there isn’t as much mechanical support as is needed to reveal much more sandbox play than folks got out of vanilla-era WoW. As fine and worthwhile a game as Vanguard is (and I continue to believe that the only two MMOs worth paying a subscription fee for are Vanguard and EVE Online,) it’s left its potential behind. What I really want, and will never get as such, is Vanguard II, something from an entirely different group of developers that see Vanguard, what it did wrong and what it did right, and integrate its successes with successes from elsewhere, both inside and outside of the limited sphere of MMOs, where tunnel vision is so common.

That prospect is unlikely, but wishing for a game with the spirit of Vanguard but none of its impediments (that of its reputation as an unplayable mess most of all,) is not entirely pie-in-the-sky. Indeed, I can see some of the same ideals that peek their noses out in Telon in Skyrim – latest in a series that lacks the tortured history of Vanguard. It’s true to say that Skyrim would not be effective as an MMO, but would it not have been splendid to see Vanguard with more of the virtues that the two games share?

Comparing the two – both wondrous virtual worlds, one thunderously successful and the other mocked and ignored for its failures – is something I think you could get a surprising amount of discussion out of, because even though the two games are very different, with widely variant goals and gameplay, there is a large amount of kinship in the strengths of both. Is it all down to the execution, I wonder? Or did Sigil simply (and ironically) misjudge what players want out of a virtual world, falling into the same trap as so many others in following the market leader’s example of gameplay?

New Lands

Despite not getting lots of rest or having much leisure time over the “long” weekend, I did manage to squeeze in a little bit of gaming, maybe an hour or three. That time was spent in Vanguard; Saga of Heroes. I started two new characters and played a little on my long-neglected main.

Vanguard does not feel like a dead game, even though the population is low. I saw people other playing both on the Isle of Dawn and in one of the traditional starter areas. At higher levels, there were players in Trengal Keep and the Wardship of the Sleeping Moon. I joined a guild, Twighlyte Song, which had 30 people on at 2 PM, spread all across the level range, had a robust chat happening, and was putting together multiple dungeon groups.

Ardwulf did some exploring, and ventured into the exterior areas of Falgarholm for the first time. I started a new character, a Kurashasa Blood Mage, in his native starting area, which is really weird – it’s an area I never finished before, and it’s cool to see. Another new character, an Orc Dread Knight, started on the Isle of Dawn, which I have also never finished; I mean to do both this time.

Oh, and you might check out Massively’s One Shot for the day, starring Yours Truly. I finally got my login issue there sorted out, too.

Honey? I’m Home.

I hemmed and hawed over it. It’d been installed for like a week. My finger hovered over the mouse button, cursor poised over the “Launch Game” button in the Station Launcher. The cursor drifted away back to Firefox and did some browsing, but the Launcher stayed open, all blue and tempting. Off goes the cursor again, and pauses… click.

The trigger pulled, today I was back in Vanguard. I hesitated for two reasons. One, because time is short right now and will be for the next two weeks, after which is my week-long “summer break” (I’m taking a class over the summer,) for part of which I will be out of town at an SCA event. I wanted to get as much as I could out of those 45 days, and maybe it would have been better to wait.

The second reason is more personal. Vanguard wasn’t my first MMO – that was EVE Online. But I started playing Vanguard very early on in my years in the MMO hobby. Lots of people had a formative experience in a certain game. For many, that was EverQuest, and for even more it was World of Warcraft. For me it was Vanguard. I may not have started playing MMOs with it, but I started blogging because of it, and that is still going strong now, more than four years and eight hundred posts later.

Even “Ardwulf” was the name of my Vanguard character. I’ve resisted the temptation that some fall prey to, of giving their characters the same name across every MMO. Ardwulf is and always has been in Telon. And today, he was again, for the first time in a long, long while.

My memories of Vanguard are very fond ones, but my last visit to Telon was frustrating, for reasons I don’t even remember clearly, but probably because I was trying to do stuff that was too difficult in the Wardship of the Sleeping Moon. Ardwulf never reached the level cap, or the end game. He never got around to buying a house or staying in a guild for long, or achieving his goal of building his own ship on which he could sail the seas of Telon. Even so, Vanguard was and remains something of a special home for me.

At the same time, Ardwulf the MMO gamer is a different fellow in 2011 than he was back in 2007. Real old-timers will roll their eyes at this, but back then everything was new and shiny and I wanted to see it all, so I did. I spent time in WoW, in EVE, in City of Heroes, in the EverQuests and in Star Wars Galaxies, and later in Age of Conan and Warhammer and Rift. By 2010 I’d tried a lot – about everything I’d wanted to try, so I started to settle in when I picked a game, which for a long while was WoW, which is a faily comfortable place to be – not too demanding and easy on the brain. But it seldom felt like a home. Telon was that home, and my fear in coming back was that I’d see the frustration and sourness instead and thereby taint the happy memory.

I didn’t. In fact, Vanguard is probably more appealing to Ardwulf 2011 than it was to Ardwulf 2007-8. I have a clearer idea of what I want out of an MMO than I did back then. Imperfect as it may be, Vanguard still comes closest to that ideal.

I said before that I was planning to log in and would “see how it went.” It went well. Well enough that, “main game” or not, you’re going to be seeing more Vanguard from me. I’m still thinking about what, and what I plan to do about the stuff I talked about yesterday, but there’s more to come.

Vanguard: A Swan Song or a Call to Arms?

I’ve always been a supporter of not frequenting a game’s dedicated forums. MMO gamers tend to be a negative lot, and, as here, I try to focus on the fun rather than on endless bitching. The one long-term exception has been the LotRO forums, which I’ve been peeking into and occasionally posting on since the game went free to play. It’s nice there, generally, and there’s a lot less tears and rage than on… oh, pretty much the forum for any other MMO you care to name.

Of late, however, I’ve been frequenting the forums at MMORPG.com, one of the better MMO hubs out there. Those forums are imperfect but not all that rotten, at least for the games I’m reading about there, which is pretty much Age of Conan and Vanguard. Interestingly, both have seen a spike of activity there in recent weeks; that of Vanguard is perhaps not wholly unexpected, since there’s free time available right now.

This again gives rise to the hope that Vanguard might be salvageable. I wonder what it would take for SOE to resume some level of active development of the game. Right now nobody can verify that Vanguard has a development team at all; Vanguard hasn’t seen an update in about a year and a half, and anything resembling new content is older than that. But holiday events continue to occur and minor stuff like the welcome back XP and faction buffs show up from time to time, which (it seems to me) must require some level of hands-on management.

I don’t think that an MMO needs a very large team to keep things moving; plenty of games get by on a dev team numbering in the single digits, and manage to push regular updates out. Some of them probably have paying populations comparable to Vanguard’s.

At the same time, Vanguard, while still imperfect, is in very good shape as a game, as I discussed long ago at length. Its primary liabilities are the frighteningly low population, and its lack of momentum in both the marketplace and in the consciousness of the pool of potential players. Nobody’s talking about Vanguard anymore.

So what would it take? At this point, I think that merely going free-to-play wouldn’t really solve Vanguard’s population problem, since such shifts are now old hat – AoC’s recent announcement is getting as much buzz at it is because it’s part of a larger surge and because it’s a much higher-profile game. Such a change might have made a bigger splash a year ago, but not today, when SOE should have moved Vanguard to free-to-play instead of EQ2. A much smaller game (as Vanguard is) would get a much smaller boost, but the current numbers are so low that even additional population number in the hundreds would look very dramatic to those currently playing. What’s really needed, though, is for those players to stick around and provide enough of a long-term boost that SOE would resume development. What would be needed in this kind of transition is for SOE to take some leadership in the free-to-play space, developing new ways to attack that market, rather than ineffectually aping the Turbine model as it did with EQ2X.

What might be needed at this point is for an outside developer to take over, a “white knight” scenario in which some dollar guys either buy the rights outright from SOE or work out some arrangement whereby SOE remains as publisher while the new group assumes development duties. This scenario is… well, not impossible, but fantastically unlikely.

In either case there would really need to be a concerted effort at relaunching, probably including a name change to give prospects the impression that the Vanguard equation has changed substantially. There wouldn’t necessarily have to be a lot of code or development work done initially; a retooling of the existing in-game Station Store with a significant overhaul of the items available there would probably be sufficient… but again, we come back to the need for sustained development.

We have no evidence that anything is happening on Vanguard other than it remaining on life support, where it can probably last for another few years. Smedley has carefully dodged the question when directly asked about it, and Vanguard’s numbers are by any measure so low that it’d be hard to blame him if that was indeed the case.

There’s one other scenario, though… and that’s the one that takes the matter at least partially out of the hands of SOE. If the community can unite behind some leadership and evangelize… it could help a lot. Vanguard is an easy game to evangelize in an era of YouTube and blogs and social networking, because even pushing 5 years old it’s still one of the better-looking MMOs out there, and because it really is a game that has a lot to offer a certain type of player, even without SOE’s support.

Note that I’m not volunteering, because I’m not playing Vanguard right now… although I do plan to drop in for an evening, maybe as early as this weekend, and we’ll see how that goes. I’m fully invested in AoC for the foreseeable future, and don’t have the time for anything else; it’s been hard for the last few days just to keep up with the fast-breaking news. But I would love it and applaud wildly if there was some kind of player-driven movement to revitalize Vanguard, which as moribund as it’s become is still someplace I think is pretty special.

It could start with even one person, but it would take more than that to sustain. You’d have to get active guilds to buy in and contribute resources and start progression groups in-game to give new players folks to group with. You’d want to have a web presence, with blogs and YouTube videos and as much positive talk as you can manage on as many MMO forums as you could find. You’d need to get noob guides written and be able to direct people to some good source of information about aspects of the game – multiple wikis exist right now, and it seems like Silky Venom is still be best one.

If successful, it’d be something to see. It would revitalize Vanguard even if it added a few hundred active players, and if it got into the thousands, SOE would have to take notice. It’s exactly this kind of community involvement that made EVE Online one of the biggest success stories in MMOs, and it feeds on itself. While I don’t think that kind of success is even possible for Vanguard, anymore if it ever was, and there’s still some negativity lingering around the game, it seems to me that it’d be worth doing just for the improvement in the quality of the game experience you’d get from bringing even a few handfuls of additional players in.

There is, admittedly, not a lot of hope. But hey, you never know… sometimes all it takes is hope and a little bit of vision.

Welcome Back, SOE

As I’m sure we’ve all heard by now, the Sony debacle is drawing to its conclusion. The Playstation Network is in the process of winding back up, and since some time over the weekend SOE’s MMOs have been back up.

More importantly for MMO gamers, SOE is offering 45 days of free time to anyone who’s ever been subscribed to one of their MMOs, starting when you first long in, which must happen before the end of August.

I’m not sure how this adds in to the free time SOE had already promised to current subscribers – or if it does – the announcement reads to me like it applies the previously announced time to everybody. But it’s kind of a big deal, although I suspect, due to the nature of MMOs, that SOE will suffer less long-term damage than the Playstation side of the business. But the damage to the latter might be catastrophic, while the former, to all appearances, may not have been in all that great a shape to begin with.

Me, I’m not especially tempted to partake. One of SOE’s MMOs I’d tried and decided I just wasn’t into (Pirates of the Burning Sea,) and didn’t go back even when it went free-to-play. Two others (EverQuest and SWG,) I’d sunk a fair amount of time into but feel I am simply done with. EverQuest II I can play for free anyway, and do occasionally, on the EQ2 Extended server. I don’t particularly care for the idea of installing a second instance of EQ2 on my PC.

But two of those games do tempt me a bit. One, Planetside, is something I have never touched, but qualify for due to being a StationPass subscriber at one point. It might be fun to drop a couple of hours on that.

The other, of course, is Vanguard. I haven’t played it in about two years, and my last crack left me not wanting to try again. But it’s been a long time, and for free… well, who knows. There’s a time issue, of course, and I’m pretty fully committed to Age of Conan at this point (which I may talk about more in the next few days.) But I do have a break coming up a few weeks from now. So I am considering it.