The Explorer’s Game

A forum discussion the other day sparked some musing on my part about exploration in MMOs. We’re probably all familiar with the Bartle Test, so bearing that in mind, I ask the question: For players who score high as Explorers under the Bartle paradigm, what specific features of MMOs encourage exploration, and what specific extant MMOs highlight those features? What might a hypothetical ideal exploration MMO look like?

The first place I’d be looking is at the setup of the world itself. It ought to be big, not necessarily in terms of actual volume but in terms of explorable content versus time invested. A world that’s vast but largely empty (EVE Online) is suboptimal in this regard. You’d want it to be varied, so a place like LotRO’s Middle-Earth, with its plethora of similar terrain types, is also not ideal. And you would want to see a lot of stuff not necessarily directly linked to the game’s progression structure. This last I’ll get back to.

A game’s systems get to be important as well. How directed is the content, and how possible (or practical) is it to diverge from the developer-scripted path? How relentless is the pressure to reach optimal level or gearing? While these things aren’t mutually exclusive with exploration, they don’t encourage it, and can in fact do the opposite.

As much as I and others like to complain about the lack of big worlds, there’s actually a decent number of games out there that feature them. There’s EVE, of course, which has any other MMO beat cold in terms of volume, but space is mostly featureless, and while there are hidden gems to find, they’re relatively few and far between, and one can only gawk at ringed worlds form orbit so many times (and I have gawked for longer than many.) There’s Fallen Earth, Star Wars Galaxies and Darkfall, none of which I’ve spent all that much time in, but all of which have huge open spaces and stuff to find. And of course, there’s Vanguard, with its vast and beautiful world and flying mounts to explore it with, combined with a slow progression that gives you plenty of time to do it in. Indeed, I deem Vanguard to be the ultimate explorer’s MMO, although in saying that I’m showing the bias of someone who’s spent a fair amount of time in it.

It may be that explorers represent a minority of MMO players. I suspect this to be the case, although I think that it’s probably something of a factor for a lot of folks, whether they realize it or not – and I suspect that many don’t. The same factors that enhance exploration add to the verisimilitude of the virtual space, improving the experience for everybody whether they explore or not.

Then, of course, we must ask how these factors apply to World of Warcraft and its indisputably winning equation. And how has Cataclysm and its reboot of much of the game world affected them?

One is tempted to say that Cataclysm scrubbed much of the exploration value from old Azeroth in favor of linearity and ease of progression. Certainly, these latter factors were an aim of the project, but as I’ve pointed out, linearity doesn’t absolutely exclude exploration, although it may discourage it. And yet, the content model for Cataclysm, Northrend, still contains its share of hidden goodies for the explorer, and not every zone was fully retooled by the reboot. Some zones, like Silithus, are mostly untouched, and one zone (Moonglade) in which there’s little to do but explore, is still there more or less as it was. Mounts encourage exploration, and flying mounts even more so, so how does the ability to fly in the old world factor in? I’m hearing about a number of hidden treats than one might stumble across but that the content per se doesn’t direct one to.

I don’t yet have enough information to render a judgment on this, but World of Warcraft has always been a game pretty strong on exploration. Some of this is almost certainly accidental, like the old Azshara that was simply unfinished, but in which one could find many glimpses of future intentions, and in content that was removed post-launch but which left remnants in the world. This seems sloppy, but for the explorer it can actually be a plus. We have a propensity for assuming that everything in WoW was a calculated inclusion on Blizzard’s part, but both history and the game itself say otherwise. Even so, there are tons of things, obviously willfully placed, that have never tied into any content either extant or planned (to anybody’s knowledge.) One obvious example is Azeroth’s plentiful underwater content… sunken ships, hostile reefs, submerged cities and the like, which is (comparatively) little-used by the game’s questing. How has the Cataclysm affected this?

I dunno, yet. But as somebody who does score pretty high on Bartle’s explorer scale, I fully intend to find out.

Vanguard Abides

Beau over at Massively had a nice piece today about Vanguard, its upcoming 4th anniversary, and its apparent abandonment by SOE. And he notes that, despite that, there are still folks playing and happy in Telon, something that might be missed if you go by the forums.

I made a note in this space as recently as last August, when SOE president John Smedley went on record as saying:

We’re thinking about specific next steps for Vanguard, but we’re not shutting it down or anything like that. We want to add more stuff to it. Will we change the business model? That’s the question people keep asking me. Will it go free-to-play? I don’t know – we’ve discussed it. What we’ll decide? I’m not sure yet. We’re going to see where EverQuest II Extended goes. But certainly if we make a decision like that, it won’t be without deciding to add more content to the game.

Since then, we’ve heard… well, nothing. I realize that there’s a lot on SOE’s plate, what with two expansions for EQ and EQ2, the launch of EQ2X, and the build-up and launch of DC Universe Online, and that any news out of Vanguard is inevitably playing second fiddle to that. Add to that the blitz of releases around the holidays, and really, if there were news on Vanguard it’d likely have gotten buried.

Now, I haven’t played Vanguard in probably a year, but reports (that I’m inclined to believe) are that the population on the single remaining server is pretty small, perhaps seeming more so by the sheer size and space of the world. There’s already a working cash shop in the game, which is probably propping revenue up, although I can’t vouch for what’s all in it, since I never availed myself of it when I was playing. It seems to me that if the population is that small, the game’s bottom line might be improved by an order of magnitude – or more – just by making it free-to-play, and relying on a significantly higher population using the existing cash shop.

Note that this is not quite like EQ2X’s gated features model – it’s closer to the free-to-play system we see in Asian games, where everything is basically free but “game-enhancing” (i. e. stat-affecting) stuff is sold through the in-game store. Something similar to EQ2X would presumably require a lot more work down in the game’s infrastructure, locking features out for users with insufficient account levels. Comparatively speaking, the Asian model could basically be implemented tomorrow by flipping a (code) switch in the account management functionality. Not that this would be an ideal way to do it, but you get the point.

I have to think that SOE is looking at moving Vanguard to F2P, even if it’s not high on the priority list. I can understand, with everything going on between August and now, why SOE hasn’t been vocal about it. But you know, Smed, the clock is ticking. There’s competition between F2P games now, and if Vanguard gets in on that action too late, it won’t make as big a difference to the bottom line.

What might a free-to-play Vanguard look like? I’d start with that Asian model, with a beefed-up cash shop. I’d add some kind of in-game currency that you’d get from raids, but that you could also buy in the store, that gets turned in for high-end gear, crafting materials, flying mounts, and the like. Along with a relaunch you’d want new content to lure in lapsed players, much of it at the highest end, but more spread all across the level range as well. If things went as I’d hope, it would open up the possibility of additional new content updates as well, and maybe eventually another level cap increase.

The natural time for lower-tier MMO announcements is going to tend to be in the middle of the year, to stay away from early and late year launches. In this case, such announcements will want some space between them and the Rift launch as well, preferably about two months. So if there’s something in the works, I’d expect to hear something around, say, June, July or August. Which actually does fit the pattern of SOE Vanguard-related stuff in previous years.

An announcement of Vanguard going free-to-play would be an enormous boon to the game. Despite its rocky launch, its biggest flaw these days is a thinly-spread population, and such a move would probably fix that, maybe even in a big enough way to call for the launch of an additional server. But if such a move isn’t made by about September, then I suspect it won’t be made this year – which is likely to mean it won’t be made at all.

This is probably the last opportunity for Vanguard to become relevant again (as relevant as a niche game can be, but it can be a spacious niche,) and the last chance to reinvent it for a broader audience. And it’s SOE’s last chance to demonstrate that they’re interested in doing something more with it than keeping it eking along for another few years. If they are, with the game closing in on a year with no updates or news, it’s hard to see from the ground.

Champions Online Goes Free-to-Play

Story at Massively, matrix of free vs. subscription benefits HERE. And here’s a FAQ.

Can’t say this is a surprise; everyone has suspected Champions of underperforming for a while now. As a lifetime subscriber, I’m not yet sure how to take it. I’m not really losing anything, but I’m not gaining anything – as LotRO lifetime subscribers did when that game went FTP – either.

On the potential upside, if Cryptic parlays this into a more populated and popular game, then I suppose I’m all for it. I think Champions Online is a very good game that deserves better than it was probably doing. Unless the effort fails to draw in more people, I don’t really see a downside. But I’ll say this – if Cryptic actually wants this to work, they’re going to really need to improve their in-game store.

On the other hand, the market is becoming increasingly filled with high-quality games that are “free to play,” meaning of course that they’re free to try at your own pace, rather than being limited to a set trial period. But this is a big deal for more casual players – the vast majority of the market – who’d balk at a monthly commitment for any number of reasons. Plenty of those people will be happy to toss a in few bucks here and there, as insulting drivel like Farmville amply demonstrates.

This means two things: First, that competition in the minipay market is increasing and will clearly continue to increase. The time will come, though I don’t think we’re there yet, when the conversion of a AAA subscription game to minipay is no longer a guarantee of increased attention from players, much less enhanced revenue.

Secondly, this increased competition doesn’t apply only to other minipay games – these titles will be competing with subscription games as well. As the number of quality games that are free goes up, paying a subscription becomes less and less attractive. If the trend continues (as I and just about everyone else thinks it will,) the current crop of in-development subscription titles (like Rift: Planes of Telara) may be the last we see.

EDIT: This means that a clock is ticking for underperforming subscription games. Wait too long to move to free-to-play, and you may miss the boat, and it’ll be too late to salvage the game. And understand clearly here that by “underperforming subscription games” I mean “Vanguard” and by “you” I mean “SOE.”

For me personally, every game I like (and Champions is one of those, although I had lifetime access for free anyway,) that goes free-to play is a disincentive to pay subscription fees ever again. As it stands today, there’s just about one game I’m willing to pay for a subscription to (EVE Online.) (ADDENDUM: I’d consider AoC as well.)

Champions, from a first glance, will be taking its cues more from the EQ2X model than the LotRO, with the exception (it seems to me) of not leaving existing players feeling particularly shafted. It appears (again, at first glance) to be more a function-limited but not time-limited trial aimed at getting people subscribing. I doubt this will really affect the bottom line much without a robust array of microtransactions to get “free” players spending money too. We’ll have to see what Cryptic has up its sleeve, because right now that’s not there, although the FAQ promises more to come.

The Future of Vanguard

John Smedley, on the next steps for Vanguard, at the recent annual meeting of the Syndicate, a huge multi-game guild (courtesy Ten Ton Hammer.)

We’re thinking about specific next steps for Vanguard, but we’re not shutting it down or anything like that. We want to add more stuff to it. Will we change the business model? That’s the question people keep asking me. Will it go free-to-play? I don’t know – we’ve discussed it. What we’ll decide? I’m not sure yet. We’re going to see where EverQuest II Extended goes. But certainly if we make a decision like that, it won’t be without deciding to add more content to the game.

It’s odd that with the current wave of major titles going to a microtransaction model, this is the first we’ve heard anything substantive (in my hearing, anyway,) about Vanguard doing it. Odd because it’s an obvious move to bolster numbers for a title that isn’t doing very well, and because SOE already has much of the needed infrastructure in place (Vanguard already has a working cash shop with gear and much else.) And because SOE elected to try out free-to-play on EverQuest II first, which has a reasonably healthy player base.

Personally, it’s something I’d like to see – I’d play Vanguard here and there if it were free (and assuming that it wasn’t screwed up by the change to that model,) and I suspect that some lapsed players and new players would find their way back. With the right array of microtransactions, revenue could go up significantly… and there’s a lot of room upstairs of where Vanguard is today. The trick would be not eroding the core concepts of the game in so doing. Which might be tricky, given the nature of the appeal of microtransactions.

I’m thinking that playing up the RP element of the game in much the same way that City of Heroes and LotRO do might be the best approach – but ramp it up. Have the microtransaction store be almost entirely cosmetic items – garb, weapons, mounts, hats, house items and the like – maybe even new house skins. Drop in multiple costuming slots and a wardrobe, which you’d make exclusive to those who paid Station Cash. And maybe consumable teleport tokens. Telon is already a great world for immersion and RP – there’s just not enough population there. Double or triple the number of players in the world and you’d improve the quality of the play experience tremendously, even if the vast majority of those people never paid a cent. The game becomes more attractive, and draws more still more players until it reaches a nice, comfortable, sustainable plateau.

At least that makes sense on the surface. The issue is likely to be breaking the inertia for what appears to be a game on serious life support.

The Best MMOs on the Market: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

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.

the-plains-of-khal

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-fallen-lyceum

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.

ardwulf-finds-an-impressive-guild-hall

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.

caial-brael

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-open-world

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.

The MMO With No Soul

Keen beat me to it, and stole the very counterexample I was going to use. In today’s post, he talks about Warhammer’s ‘biggest flaw,’ and it’s the same flaw that I see: Warhammer has no soul.

It’s a terrific game, well-designed and mechanically solid. It has a colorful IP, rock-solid art direction, and enough content for players to advance through. It has a wonderful PvP system that’s well-balanced at the group level and provides a reward stream for participating it it. It’s got a ton going for it.

But you know, at level 22, just over halfway through the leveling, I feel like I’ve pretty much explored Warhammer’s world out. I’ve visited the Chaos Wastes and the narrow streets of Praag, and been only modestly inspired. I’ve fought in a dozen different scenarios, all of which play well but none of which are in anyplace particularly interesting. I haven’t seen every zone, but I have no drive to visit those I haven’t, nor to play the Public Quests I’ve missed. The content and questing is good, but I have no desire to try to advance the story, or even read the parts of the story I’ve already unlocked. And even if I was, it’s not my story – it’s somebody at Mythic’s. I feel like I’ve explored it enough to completely understand it. I don’t feel like there’s some surprise or mystery over the horizon.

There is very little sense of community. The game is dominated by big guilds, within which there is interaction, but outside of their own cliques, nobody talks. The open channels are silent. Warhammer makes forming and getting into groups so easy that the grouping, something utterly central to the MMO experience, is utterly meaningless. You can join a group, play for hours, and then log out, never having said a single word to anybody. The Warhammer grouping tools are so good that they eliminate the need to have any kind of social interaction in the game.

The quests are all good – and all paint-by-number. The difficulty goes up, and the number of phases goes up, and the challenge is there, but there’s never anything that’s a departure from the old standards. There are no dungeons worth talking about, and lairs are one-off encounters packed into a world that’s far to small to accommodate that kind of content. There are no Easter Eggs in Warhammer – if it was worth putting in, it became a feature, and everyone knew enough about it from top to bottom on day one to strip it of any mystery or suspense.

Lots of people are playing Warhammer. And they are having fun. But I don’t have a sense that any player feels any love for the game, or the world. I’m not talking about the players who have left, like me – I’m talking about the players who stay. There were passionate players – before the game launched. Four years in, there are still millions of World of Warcraft players who are passionate about the game, who love it despite all of its many flaws and want it to succeed and improve. Such players are invisible in Warhammer less than two months after it released. New classes and new quests and scenarios, even new zones and the arrival of the missing capital cities… none of that will give this game what it’s missing, only more of what it already has.

Warhammer is a work of splendid engineering. Vanguard, and EverQuest, and Age of Conan, and even WoW, are works of craft. They have soul. It’s the difference between a monolithic, Soviet-era apartment block and the Empire State Building, the difference between an award-winning documentary and The Godfather. The former you will watch once, and be entertained or informed; everything it has is lain on the table. In the latter there are layers and subtleties that make it worth experiencing a dozen or a hundred times over. This is what makes repetitive content worth tolerating.

It’s something that the Warhammer development team, skilled and dedicated as it was, managed to miss. Vanguard’s development, catastrophically flawed as only a true debacle can be, got this one thing right, and because of that Vanguard survived the worst launch in the history of MMOs, and is still around – even thriving in a comfortable niche sort of way.

The Verdict on Vanguard

It’s probably about time to offer up an overall opinion on the state of Vanguard, as I promised some time ago to do.  I’ve only been re-evaluating the game for a couple of weeks, but those weeks included a lot of playtime. So I feel comfortable at this time in offering a final opinion and a recommendation for people to try the game, or not.

Vanguard is unquestionably in far, far better shape than it was at launch. Despite that, it still has some distance to go, and I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that 2008 will be a year of great improvement, and in being disappointed with the progress made in 2007. But the game is playable now – highly playable, in fact, and despite the fact that there are still some prominent bugs and troublesome content issues, I think it’s a very good game.

A Tower in the Distance

Diplomacy still needs to be fully fleshed out and better integrated into the world content. Crafting needs to be tweaked heavily and streamlined a little bit, but the bones of it are pretty solid. Various dungeons need to be fleshed out and new dungeons and overland encounters need to be added. The world needs to be more populated with content in general, the travel system needs some work, and aerial and aquatic content needs to be introduced. Kojan needs to be finished. Housing and ship-building both need to be greatly expanded, and ship-based encounters, quests and content need to make an appearance. The quest journal needs a major overhaul, and the character models are in dire need of improvement. And performance is still not where it should be.

But none of these are game-busting, and all of those systems and elements are working adequately well now taken as a group. For anyone with a particular concern for a small number of them, I suspect that Vanguard will not yet measure up. But the largest issues, poor performance to the point of unplayability even on high-end systems and wretched client stability, have improved remarkably as of right now, and the other critical problem, the lack of high-level content, is getting fixed as well. There are still bugs and broken quests, but as I’ve pointed out before, both WoW and EQ2 (in my opinion the best and most polished MMO available right now,) have both of those things, and even EQ2 was in better shape than Vanguard at launch. And both have had over three years in release to address their issues. It’s possible (not certain, but possible,) that in three years Vanguard could be an amazing experience. That will require a dedicated and capable team, and strong, competent leadership from the heads of development, which SOE has the experience and resources to provide.

Outside Bordinar’s Cleft

And yeah, I know about SWG, the NGE and the CU. Mistakes constitute experience as much as successes do, as long as you learn from them, and Smedley is on record as admitting those were big mistakes several times, implying that SOE has done so. So I think there’s reason to be positive about the outlook for Vanguard moving forward. That doesn’t mean that I think turning Vanguard into the unequivocally terrific game I think it can be will be easy or that such is inevitable – it’ll take a lot of correct decisions on the developers’ part to make that happen, and that’s far from certain. But there’s plenty of hope to go around, and meanwhile we have a pretty decent game that’s a lot of fun to play and boasts a number of characteristics that make it distinct from other MMOs.

Overlooking Khal From the Cliffs of Ghelgad

 

Now, Vanguard is not a genre-redefining game, and never has been. Anyone who comes into it with that expectation is doing themselves and the game a disservice.  It’s a game firmly in the fantasy MMO tradition dating back to EverQuest, without sharing the problems and frustrations found in that game, and incoporating many of the innovations that have been developed since then. If you’re happy with your current fantasy MMO, whether that’s WoW or EQ2 or EVE or whatever, it’d ring a little hollow for me to say that you’re better off switching to Vanguard. But Vanguard is innovative in a number of important respects, and what it promised to be and could become is the ultimate evolution of the current generation of MMOs, with its seamless, instance-less organic world, variety of content and multiple detailed spheres and areas in which to advance a character. If those things appeal to you, give Vanguard a shot some time over the next few months – you can score a copy of the game cheap on eBay (less than $10 in some cases.) It’s worth playing.

As for me… well, I’ll see you in Telon.

A Big Ding, and Exploring Other Spheres

This afternoon, Ardwulf ran a couple of minor quests in the Renton Keep area and hit 20th level. By my (admittedly unorthodox) calculations, this is as far as I’ve gotten a single character in any MMO. So it’s something of a double milestone. It’s also nine levels in about a week, which is startlingly fast, and creditable to having a flying mount, as well as the bonus XP that you get in Vanguard right now – and to a very large amount of play time, almost certainly more than I’ve spent in any other single week (11 straight days off during the holidays is one of the perks of my job.)

So now it’s time to make a decision. Not whether to stick with the game or not – I’ve already made the call to just stick with a StationPass and have access to both Vanguard and EQ2. But I am tempted at this time to stick my toes back into the waters of Crafting and Diplomacy. I blame Stargrace for putting the bug in my ear in her recent post.

Mnembao in the Crafter’s Forum of Khal

So to that end, I jumped in with Mnembao, my Mordebi Psionicist, finished up a couple of minor quests in the Cliffs of Ghalgad, and ran him to Khal to get trained in Harvesting and Crafting. I am debating not following traditional Adventuring questlines at all with this character, but we’ll see.

For those who don’t know, Vanguard crafting is very detailed, more so than in any other MMO I’ve played (although I wasn’t around for the early days of EQ2, which had, I’m told, pretty intricate crafting as well.) I’ve gotten Ardwulf to 6th level, and Mukhtar (my Varanthari Warrior) to 3rd, but beyond that I haven’t fooled much with it at all. In fact, I haven’t done anything beyond the crafting tutorials and some work orders. So I’m going to do some work with Mnembao, see what I can make and whether or not I’d like to seriously pursue the sphere. I’ll be digging in tonight, so expect a summary some time tomorrow.

Exploring the Economy

I finished two more URT questlines tonight to complete the armor set, and finished play on the high end of nineteenth level. Some of the URT quests are rather grisly, to say the least. I also ran into (or rather, was sent a tell by) Stargrace, and we chatted very pleasantly for a bit while I was killing birdmen in Shoreline Ruins.

Sadly, one of the URT questlines is apparently broken at the moment – the quest collectibles simply don’t drop from the appropriate mobs. Which is too bad, as the weapon that you get from completing the chain is about twice as good, DPS-wise, as what I’m using now – after I upgraded at the broker. A broken quest is something I could get all indignant about, but I won’t, for three reasons. First, I’ve run quite a few quests since coming back – probably as many as I completed in my previous time with Vanguard – and this is the first one I’ve come across that’s outright broken. Some others could maybe use some tweaking, but are fine aside from taking maybe a little too long when you’re trying to get kills or item in competition with other players.

Adrdwulf in Leth Nurae, in URT Kit

Secondly, it’s generally understood that Vanguard is still in need of improvement. I knew this coming back, so it’d be rather inappropriate for me to get all worked up over mnor problems as long as the overall game experience is satisfying – and so far, it has been. Third, this kind of thing – broken quests – crops up in even mature, polished games with a couple of years of post-launch development behind them. Both WoW and EQ2 have broken quests, and as far as I’m concerned EQ2 is the best fantasy MMO on the market right now.

So all in all, no biggie. I’ve picked up a couple other quests in Shoreline Ruins to do in the meantime – hopefully the URT quests will get fixed soon – if not, I’ll come back to them.

I’m also fooling with Vanguard’s broker/auction system, selling some of my loot and picking up odds and ends. Basic functionality seems pretty good, although I haven’t sold anything yet. I’m not sure that having three separate auction pools is such a great idea, but I’ve heard that (like the bank) this may be changing. I do wish there were brokers in more settlements – I’ve been going down to Leth Nurae to do it, which wouldn’t be all that practical without a flying mount.

Ardwulf Flying Against the Sunset

Last time I checked out the broker (back in October,) prices seemed astronomically high for anything, probably due to a plat duping exploit that was in circulation some time back. That’s been fixed, but it took some time for the in-game economy to settle down; prices for basic stuff (bags, for example) were much more reasonable this time around. I was able to get a set of 16-slot bags for about 1.4 gold total, replacing the nigh-worthless 4-slot vendor junk bags.

Tonorrow (again, assuming I get to play,) I’ll start working on Shoreline Ruins quests. I’m within a few percent of 20th level, so I should be able to hit that milestone.

Three Down, Four to Go

We got a bit less done toward packing for the move than we planned today. But the good news is I got to spend a solid 5 hours in Vanguard – with no crashes, although the World Server did go down once. I logged back in and everything was fine.

As I mentioned yesterday, I have been pursuing the United Races of Thestra quest arcs, of which there appear to be at least seven, each granting a weapon or piece of armor. The armor is skinned just like the equivalent vendor-bought stuff (although it’s a different color,) but the stats are much better – far better than the armor Ardwulf has been wearing. For this reason these quests are very much worth pursuing, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to group with another Ranger of similar level, at a similar place in the quest progression. As an added bonus, I think they’re lots of fun.

The Fallen Lyceum

As I’ve discussed previously on my blog over on the old GAX site, I’m not so much a fan of instancing and zoning; I think they both detract from immersion and verisimilitude for various reasons which I may go into again at some point in the future. Vanguard’s lack of these is a part of its appeal for me. But as we all probably know, complete persistence has its drawbacks as well, and these have come up several times over the course of the URT quests, which seem to be fairly popular among Thestran adventurers in a certain level range.

In other words, in various places one has to compete for mobs or collectable quest items with other players gathering the same things. I did not find, to the level that I’ve experienced it in Vanguard, that this detracted from the game experience, although I can see that if you’re trying to camp a mob that only spawns, say, once every twenty minutes, this would get frustrating pretty quickly. But the mobs I’ve seen so far spawn pretty quickly, so even though there’s plenty of kill and pickup stealing going on, it doesn’t represent much of an increase in time or frustration. In fact, I felt it increased the sense of rivalry with the other folks going after the kills, and the sense of camaraderie with my group, both of which I think are healthy in an MMO, the point of which is, after all, that you’re sharing the world with a (hopefully) large number of other players.

A Mysterious Site in Kojan

Which brings up a brief digression – population. Some months back, when I first tried the game, the population was pretty small, to the point that not only was it difficult to find people to group with, but you’d hardly ever even see other players at all. The server adjustment back in August merged thirteen servers into five, and the effect was immediately noticeable. And the population now seems very healthy, especially considering the vast scale of the Vanguard world, although at least some of that has got to be due to the holiday promotion. Hopefully a decent number of those old players will stick with Vanguard for a while longer now, keeping the player numbers up, which’ll make for a healthier game environment for players, and a healthier financial situation for Vanguard as a whole.

At any rate, I’ve now completed three of the URT questlines, all of which I’ve found highly enjoyable, and which have pushed Ardwulf to 18th level, a key achievement for a Ranger (here you get your first access to true roots, heals and temporary combat pets.) In one of the niftier points in one of the questlines, you have to kill some rock elemental-type things, which drop some particular stones that you need for the quest. But after you kill them, you can also mine their remains for harvestable stone. I wonder if this is true if you’re killing, say, treants or iron golems as well? (Not that I’ve seen any iron golems. But I have seen treants in a couple of places, including around the Tree of Life.) At any rate this enabled Ardwulf to hugely boots his Quarrying skill

Inside Bordinar’s Cleft

I’m not an “RP” type of player per se, although I do like to throw out in-character bits of dialogue from time to time. I do, however, need to have a grasp on the character I’m playing; I need to be able to picture him (or her) in my head and find a fundamental appeal in that. Without this, any MMO (or tabletop RPG, for that matter) doesn’t seem to hang together quite right, and if I can’t find a character that really appeals to me in a game, I’ll end up abandoning it sooner rather than later. (I frittered about with WoW for several weeks before finally settling down on an Orc Hunter.)

Ardwulf has this basic appeal for me, more so in fact than any other MMO character I’ve played. But in retrospect I might have been better off making him a Warrior instead of a Ranger. Not because the Warrior is a better soloist (I have no idea whether that’s true or not,) but because the set of abilities that the Warrior gets seem to fit better with that mental picture that I have. Perhaps as a result, I tend to play Ardwulf as much more melee-centered than I imagine most Vanguard Rangers are. Not that there’s a problem with this, although Ardwulf has sometimes felt a bit fragile in certain types of encounters. But this is why I’d be pursuing the URT quests, even if I didn’t find them fun in their own right.

Hopefully I’ll get some playtime in tomorrow. If so, it’ll be time for Ardwulf to save Silverlake… and get his next shiny armor piece.