This is the third and final installment in this series.
After E3, Sigil actually started to market Vanguard. There had been a cover story on Computer Gaming World, but now there were trickles at other web sites. Also in 2006, the beta began to grow. At least Sigil tried to grow the beta. I was in beta starting with stage 1.5 (which was right after friends and family) and there were a couple more stages after that. One startling thing was this: Sigil put the number of active players on the front page of the sign-in. Even after thousands of people had been invited to the beta it was very rare to see more than a hundred people signed in. This is when I started to get worried.
Before too long the beta leaks started. I saw them at several different sources. All of them had one thing in common. Beta leak stories were not positive. I’ve been around long enough to know that those types of leaks are not going to come from your happy customers. One thing about the leaks made them hard to ignore. They were right. At this time we (the beta community and the public) didn’t have much of an idea about what was going on behind the scenes. I was starting to get the message, though. I decided not to fund the database development for VC, because it looked like I would be throwing good money after bad. Why did I make that decision?
When you go to visit a company generally you get a good idea about what the environment is like from the look and feel of what is going on there. At this time, however, my visits changed. For the first year plus when I would visit the Sigil offices, I would be invited in, taken to lunch, and I’d sit in the work areas and talk to the guys about the game (and about other stuff. The guys were pretty cool.) About this time though, I was no longer invited inside for casual chat. If I were allowed inside, it felt tense. It’s hard to explain in words but if you have ever been in that situation you know what I mean. I’d make the trip out there, go have a nice lunch with the guys, and I’d be off. I’m sure that kind of “arm’s-length” treatment was on orders from above.
The beta problem (low sign-in and participation) carried on all the way to the later stages of beta. If you are making the Next Great Thing you probably want more than .2% of the invited tester base signing in. During this time, it was well known inside of Sigil that the game wasn’t fun to play. As was documented on the F13 interview with a former Sigil employee that I linked yesterday, change was getting stonewalled at the management level. Frustration was evident in my communications with some of the developers I knew there. There were all kinds of ideas on how to improve the core systems in Vanguard. None of them were getting through. Sigil was on a road to nowhere with the accelerator stuck.
In January of 2007 I had the occasion to IM one of the guys I knew there at Sigil. Off-hand I asked if there was any update to the ship date. I fully expected to be rebuffed. Again. As someone running a fan site or blog, I’ve learned to always ask if it’s not obnoxious to do so. Heck, you might just get an answer. In January the amount of suck in the game was becoming common knowledge. People straight didn’t care if they got their beta revoked since they weren’t playing anyway. I knew that the game was still a good year from being polished and ready for public consumption. I was shocked when the reply came; “It’s shipping in two weeks” I gasped. Do they think it’s going to be ready? “They think they are on top of it.” And they think it’s a good idea to ship vs. the WoW expansion? “Evidently, yes” was the resigned reply.
Vanguard did ship in January. According to published reports they sold about 200k copies in the first few months. Not a bad start, especially given the beta leaks and the bad publicity that the game had received. Some suckers (me included) purchased the collector’s edition. This was a real disappointment, especially compared to the others that have been out recently (most notably the WoW products.) After the first month it was evident that the game was in some trouble. A lot of the people in game were talking about how they weren’t going to resub after the free month. Server populations, never great to begin with, dropped. The game had so many performance, game play, and exploit problems that people just couldn’t play or enjoy the game. Dupes ruined the economy, and Sigil didn’t seem to be able to do anything about it. People figured out how to duplicate items or gold by crashing a zone, for example. It was a mess.
A few months after launch I had the opportunity to visit Sigil again. They knew there was trouble and this was probably my most interesting visit. During lunch outside the office I volunteered that I had bad luck, always visiting on days when Brad wasn’t in the office. The response shocked me. “You’d have a much lesser chance of visiting when Brad WAS in the office.” I asked if he worked from home a lot. “You could say that” was the response. When pressed, the people I was with let me know that Brad hadn’t been in the office since November, except to “pick up Hero Clix from his office to take home and play.” Our Gamer God had checked out 2 months before launch. Launch party? Never happened. Pep talks or moral support? Not forthcoming. I still had a lot of people I consider friends working there, so I didn’t break the story at that time. This was the tip of the mismanagement iceberg, as it turns out.
One year ago, Sigil sold the company and game to SOE. This resulted in the unfortunately cold method of firing the entire staff in the parking lot by Andy Platter, someone many people at Sigil didn’t even know. Brad couldn’t be bothered being there. His explanation? He would have “cried.” All those people, some of whom gave years of their lives to that company and to Brad deserved better than that. Lots of people cried that day. Spouses, parents, even some fans. But not Brad.
I decided to break the story about the abandonment of Sigil at that time. Months later, more information came out from a former producer with the company. There were allegations of drug use by Brad, inappropriate and somewhat open relationships between senior management (whose estranged spouse worked at the company) and another employee, and the pointing out of the amount of nepotism that was happening. None of that stuff brought down Sigil. It just made for a seamy underbelly in a long and disappointing story of What Could Have Been.
In the end, Brad and Jeff Butler had simply bit off more than they could chew. They blasted right through their Peter Principle, and catapulted several others up to theirs.
The game is making a minor comeback. Under the direction of SOE bugs are getting fixed and performance is getting improved. Unfortunately for those of us who had high hopes for the game, the cows are already out of the barn, and the best I think we can hope for is that it achieves the status that EQ2 has achieved; A good game that hardly anyone (relatively) knows about.
The object lesson? Be careful who you put on a pedestal. Don’t buy the hype. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And good people working hard can ALMOST overcome severe mismanagement and lack of direction. This should be a required case study for anyone making an MMO. Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.