The Grouchy Gamer

Yeah, I'm cranky. That's kinda the point...

A Vanguard Retrospective, Part Three

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.

20 Comments

  1. Amen.

    The Vanguard ‘fiasco’ really opened a lot of fans eyes to how a games hype does not live up to its production. I know I am very hesitant to buy any MMO now, and to be honest this left a bad taste for all MMOs. I am now much more the pessimist about gaming as a whole.

  2. Great series of posts. With not much else on the horizon (I’m not a Conanite) it may be time to check in on Vanguard 1.x and see where its gotten to.

  3. I just started playing Vanguard a week or two ago and I am enjoying it a lot.

    I was not in the initial hype of it all so I was not expecting much.

    But overall its a good game now:/

    It just sucks that Brad fucked it up : /

  4. It wasn’t just Brad. It’s true that Brad failed in his ultimate leadership role, but there were plenty of others who are culpable in this as well. I feel bad for the people who were there trying to make something great and ended up being saddled with a big loser on their resumes.

    Good people survive bad things though, so I think they will be OK in the long run. Sucked hard at the time, though.

  5. Good summation and read.
    Despite everything, I enjoyed about 6 of my 8 months with the game. I just got tired of waiting for it to ever fulfill its potential.

  6. Excellent article, Genda.

  7. Thanks Steve.

    That means a lot to me coming from you. Always respected your work.

  8. I beta tested Vanguard and it had such potential in the lore but I was sadly dissapointed in how the game played. I tried a goblin monk and some kind of cat monster psionist. Both had great background stories like the psionist having to rescue a slime symbiote which would increase his powers.

    Unfortunately, the game will now never be a major player though SOE has managed to give it a chance to stick around for awhile. I hear it has estimates of 40k subscribers which isn’t too bad. That’s right around the numbers D&D/PotBS/TR are supposed to have so its not all bad.

  9. I was a former dev and it breaks my heart every time to read this stuff. We really wanted things to succeed, but there was no leadership what-so-ever.

    I believe that even though we were on the slow march to failure (no lead designer, no decent code support, no decent tools to implement content), the real problem was that nobody would fire anyone because they were all “friends”. Overpaid, ineffectual and never let go.

    *sigh*

    I miss Sigil :(

  10. @Former

    Sorry, not my intention to dredge up old wounds for you guys. Just want others to know the story.

    Hope all is well with you!

  11. No, I think it’s good to get this stuff out in the open.

    The only we’ll get better as an industry is if this stuff is outed and paid attention to!

  12. I started playing Vanguard in Beta3. I was one of the beta testers who didn’t log in much, but not because the game wasn’t “fun”; my PC, which ran EQ2 just fine then, simply couldn’t cope with VG.

    So, I bought a new PC with VG specifically in mind and began to play regularly from Beta4 onwards. The last two phases of Beta, 4 and 5, were directionless and confusing, but I was having no end of fun. My girlfriend joined me in Beta 5 and we have both been playing ever since.

    I got almost exactly what I expected from Vanguard. Yes it was buggy, but far from unplayable. Yes, some content was unfinished, but then there was a LOT of content. Mostly, right from the moment I made my Raki Disciple on launch day, it was the most fun I had had in any MMO since I first played EQ in 1999.

    Vanguard is more polished now, with SOE’s involvement, but still ragged around the edges. It is massively more stable. The population ebbs and flows – it was positively busy three months ago, whereas now AoC has already made obvious inroads.

    Whether it will ever pick up anything approaching a mainstream audience I very much doubt, but I don’t expect to see a game I like more appear for a very long time.

  13. Some unnamed Sigil employee needs to write “The Vanguard Story”. Would be a great read! And should be required reading for any mmo dev companies employees =)

    I will say Vanguard has made me very bitter (I had unbelievably high hopes for this game) against game hype. Nowadays, I dont care who is behind a game, what cool new gidgets it has, what generation it claims to be, etc. Forget the hype, show me or GTFO.

    I still /mourn Vanguard to this day =(

  14. Doug Cronkhite

    May 21, 2008 at 2:44 AM

    Wow.. it’s hard to believe it’s been a year now. I still look at Vanguard with that “What could have been..” sort of feeling, but I have to hand it to Salim and his current team.. The game has made HUGE progress since he took over. While it likely won’t be the game we all wanted it to be.. at least now it’s a solid game.

  15. Doug: It’s not. Unfortunately.

  16. Sorry to necro this, but I’m enjoying reading through this site and everything in it.

    I too was in Beta 3. The 1st few days I rather enjoyed it because it was “something new” but… wow. I stopped logging in before Beta 4 started, and never bothered to get the game for launch or anything either.

    I heard a lot of good word of mouth about their update number 6 with their new starting zone for “everyone” I decided to see if it’s any different than I remembered, and since I’m on SOE’s station pass which makes it “free” for me anyway, I downloaded it to give it a go.

    New things I’ve run into:

    A lowbie dungeon near Leth Nurae that has every monster drop at least 2 pieces of green loot, with blue being not terribly uncommon, and I’ve seen 3 yellows in there as well in about 2 hours of “farm time.”

    The riftways allowing cheap teleportation.

    Leveling is quite a bit faster than I remembered it.

    Paladins seem overpowered, at least up until level 11 where I am so far.

    Monks seem to suck even worse than before. And yet I love the animations, so I stuck with it up until level 10.

    Sorcerors don’t get fireball at level 4 anymore. Shocking grasp has a 25 meter range and isn’t PBAOE.

    There seems to be a little more money flow in the earlier levels.

    And . . . . . that’s about it. Still pretty slow paced. Quests in Tanvu and Leth Nurae are all the same. The noob island where I’ve got the sorceror has some decent quest lines. Crafting seems the same. Diplomacy has actual levels and xp instead of your skill just going up as you use it, so I suppose that’s different. And the music when playing a card IS better than the “Charlie Brown teacher mumble.”

    But… same game as in beta, as far as I can tell. I’ll probably leave it installed and play it a time or 2 a month for a change of pace, but it certainly won’t ever be a “primary” for me.

    An I have to wonder, with the estimate of 40K subs for it I saw someone mention in the comments — I can’t help but wonder how many of those are Station Passes like me who don’t even have the software installed and as such are just padding the numbers?

  17. I played last beta and purchased the game, but stopped after 2 months, because of bugs and performance. I started to hear how small fixes where comming out and people where slowely coming back and trying it. I logged back in before gu3 and was surprised at how much the game had improved. Now after gu6 I’m looking forward to raiding and expansions in the future. There are new people everyday it seems joining my guild who are trying it for the first time, or returning and loving it. I am a cleric and of course do not have a hard time finding groups. Sure I would like to see more people and the way it is going I think there will. I would not dismiss Vanguard yet. If SOE remarkets after it’s first expansion, I think it could surpass EQ2.

  18. Just found the website and love the stories. I also had Vanguard on the radar and had high hopes for it. I never got into beta though, and I don’t usually buy games for a few months after release to let the bugs get worked out. I read about the problems so stayed away until I heard about the free trial just recently. Just last week I signed up and got hooked. So much to do and what a huge world. I am still only level 16, but I am taking my time doing diplomacy and adventuring. It really seems to have depth to it but I get the hint of how it could be so much more. The community is helpful albeit small. I look forward to joining a guild and doing some raiding eventually. You don’t even have to buy the game now. Just sign up for the free trial and then activate a subscription. They really should advertise this aspect and maybe get even more people interested. I also play Lotro but find Vanguard to be so much more deep and fulfilling. Thanks for listening!

  19. I played the last stage of beta and suffered through launch. After a few weeks, I gave up – the game was just way too buggy and incomplete.

    I got curious and wanted to have an alternative to the game I’m playing now (WAR) that offered more depth, so I thought I’d poke my nose into Vanguard after almost a year and a half…

    Wow – the game is MUCH different now. It’s fun, mostly bug free, and still the best looking game out there. If it had launched like this, it’d be a hit. I’m disappointed to see that there are only 4 servers left, but apparently there’s been some trials going out and the lower levels are not as sparsely populated as I had expected them to be.

    It’s a good game now.

  20. RIP Vanguard. I remember the hoopla and issues and we still tried the game………… it had so much potential but was fatally flawed. SoE ran it at a loss for years, but the powers that be at Sony said ENOUGH, and along with 3 other titles it’s going down the can.

    I saw that Brad’s doing a Kickstarter project now and has already raised 300k or so. There’s a sucker born every minute……

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