Vanguard – All Sagas Must End

Decades from now it seems likely that Vanguard: Saga of Heroes will be little more than a footnote in the history of the genre.  Facing at best lukewarm reviews and launching into the teeth of World of Warcraft’s expansion The Burning Crusade, some future investigator might not even feel the need to look into the myriad technical problems the game had or the daunting system requirements it took to run it.  As for SOE buying the game at the point when it would have otherwise shut down, I suspect that will be dismissed, along with the purchase of The Matrix Online, as a vain attempt to stay in the big leagues by trying to bulk up its offerings in the face of Blizzard’s Azerothian juggernaut.

Play Vanguard - Ride a Dragon

Play Vanguard – Ride a Dragon?

My theoretical future researcher, reviewing what passes for the Internet Archive in 2080, will probably conclude that the game should have closed down in 2007 because it could not have made enough money for SOE to be worth the diversion of resources from other projects. (Assuming said researcher doesn’t run across references to SOEmote, that EQ voice command thing, or the unified launcher and discover what SOE has a history of doing with its extra development cycles.)

And a more casual investigator might just look at the timeline of the genre and see a game that ran for seven years.  It must have been okay, good but not great, as it outlasted many other titles. While not as good as that Anarchy Online game, it certainly must have been much better than any of those NCsoft offerings that only lasted a couple of years, or even it stablemate Wizardry Online, which didn’t even make it to the two year mark.

Time and distance from events will do that.  Far down the road the timeline from Ultima Online or Meridian 59 out to whatever will be another decade hence will merge into a series of very close dates, which will wring out much of the emotion of the time from the equation.

But back in 2005 and 2006 things were different; they were different than there are now… quite palpably so… and will be practically Bizarro World alien fifty years down the road.

2006 especially was a turning point in the genre.  Before 2006, there was a series of successes, Ultima Online, which was then trumped by EverQuest, which was in turn trumped by World of Warcraft, that seemed to define a pattern.  It seemed like any MMO could make it, even if it suffered from a bad launch, and that subscription growth was a long term organic thing.  The idea of a “three monther” would have been completely foreign.

There also were not that many games.  I bemoan the long slumber of the VirginWorlds MMO podcast, but in a way it feels like perhaps its time has passed.  During its heyday, from early 2006 into late 2008, the MMORPG market what from what I would call a “knowable thing,” where you could keep track of, and develop opinions about, the majority of the titles in the genre.  WoW was big, but it didn’t seem insurmountable, and the idea of a game suffering for not being WoW would have been odd.

The genre was also evolving, in a very Darwinian, natural selection sort of way as it turns out.  Not that we saw it that was at the time.

While the genre seemed to be moving towards WoW at the time, there was a theory that was widely held in certain parts of the fanbase that WoW was but a stepping stone and that all those WoW players would, one day, desire a deeper, more fulfilling, and necessarily more hardcore MMORPG.  WoW was merely the training ground for a mass of “real” players.  If you dig around blogs and forums from the time frame, you will find that theme recurring over and over.

And in the midst of all of that strode Brad McQuaid.  I called his a “name to conjure with” back when he was kicking off Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen.  Back then he was a force to be reckoned with, the keeper of the secret flame, the spirit of what made EverQuest great, and the hope for the salvation of the genre.  Having left SOE in alleged disgust over the direction the company was going with EverQuest and EverQuest II, he struck out with a few like-minded individuals in order to re-imagine the MMORPG genre, steering it back to its more satisfying and hardcore roots.

That sounds like a lot of smoke, but I recall night after night being on Teamspeak with my Knights of the Cataclysm guild mates, a group made up mostly of people from EverQuest or TorilMUD… both training grounds for hardcore purists… and hearing them go on and on with Dorfman-like “this is going to be great!” enthusiasm as to how Brad McQuaid… Brad, who understood us and who rejected easy death penalties and instancing… and his game, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, was going drain players from all of these other pretend, pre-school MMOs.

I had not even heard of Vanguard up until then.  In my post-EverQuest “can’t get broadband in the middle of Silicon Valley” era, I had lost touch with the genre, so that first year in EverQuest II included a lot of catching up on what had happened.

Vanguard was going to be it.  The antidote.  The next coming.  The savior.

Of course, all of that talk was based on forum chatter and rosy statements from Sigil about their vision.

Later, when the game was in closed beta, and then in open beta, feelings started to change.

Not that there wasn’t hope.  Not that the vision was seen as wrong or that Sigil had deviated from it.  But it did start to seem like the company might not have the capital to cash all the checks written by their vision.

I first got into Telon, the world of Vanguard, back in open beta, and things were a mess.  Or a relative mess at least.  The 16GB download, quite a chore in early 2007, was just the start.

If it had been 1997… or even 2002… people might have stuck with the game and its myriad of technical problems and huge system requirements.  But by the time it launched at the end of January 2007, the world was proving to be a different place with many options for those who wanted to swing a virtual sword.

Sigil was working hard fixing and polishing the game well into January.  That helped some, but it wasn’t enough.  At the same time SOE decided to jack up the price of its all-you-can-eat Station Access subscription plan, effectively making it more expensive than subscribing to two SOE MMOs directly, which couldn’t have helped.

What looked like a respectable start, with something like 200K players buying a box and joining the game, quickly turned into a route as game issues large and small soured people.  By April Brad was issuing updates about the problems and how they were going to address them and how 2008 Vanguard would be much better than the 2007 version.  But you were still going to need a bigger processor as well as a current graphics card to play the game very well.

The big problem that remains is that you still pretty much need a new system as opposed to, say, simply a new graphics card…

The game is simply not CPU bound, nor just graphics card bound, but rather mostly bound by the data that it needs to constantly move from the CPU to main memory to the graphics card, and then all the way back again.  It’s all about the various bus speeds and caches – moving data around efficiently is arguably more important than processing that data on the CPU or GPU…

-Brad McQuaid, SOE Vanguard forums

Things were clearly not going well.  As April 2007 came to a close, there were rumors and speculation as to what might happen as subscription numbers sagged while technical issues persisted.  SOE started to get mentioned as possibly taking a bigger role with the game.

I came up with my own list of possible future avenues for Vanguard, at least two of which eventually came to pass.

Then came the parking lot layoffs as SOE officially announced it was taking over Sigil and Vanguard.

Then came the SOE years.  They were heroes initially at least, but hard work and hard choices remained.  Servers were merged shortly to try and make the most of Telons dwindling population.  The quiet years began, where SOE spent resources stabilizing the game, fixing the crashes, simplifying the character models, and generally making it run well.  And, as always happens, the march of time and improvements in computer performance washed away many of the woes of 2007.

There was the long, long neglect, as Vanguard sat, barely tended, home to a few dedicated players.  People like Karen at Journeys with Jaye kept the Vanguard spirit alive.  Her blog is home to a wealth of information and images related to the game.

Then, in late 2011, much to everybody’s surprise, SOE suddenly took an interest in Vanguard again.  This led to the game following its SOE stablemates in going free to play in 2012, leaving the original PlanetSide as the only subscription MMO at SOE.

The cash shop in Vanguard sold all sorts of things, especially equipment, that would had raised howls of protest in EverQuest II.  But there wasn’t much protest.  I couldn’t tell if Vanguard players didn’t care, or if there just were not enough of them left for their complaints to be audible.

Free lasted less than two years before the end was announced.  Smed said that the game had not been paying its own way for a few months by then, even after it was put back in benign neglect mode.  Vanguard, along with Free Realms, Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, and Wizardry Online were to be closed in 2014.  The kids games went faster, done by the end of March, while Vanguard and Wizardry Online were left to run until yesterday.

And so the end has come.  At 6pm Pacific Time last night the servers were shut down.  Vanguard has passed into history, joining many other titles in the genre.

In the end, for me, the ending doesn’t mean much.  I never played the game much.  I gave it a shot early on, I actually still have the retail box on my bookshelf, and then again when it went free to play.

Vanguard Box

Vanguard Box

I did not spend much time playing at either point.  I barely took any screen shots, which is odd for me.  In digging through them, I found a couple of characters.

Fomu from 2007

Fomu from 2007

Teresten from 2013

Teresten from 2013

Both look a bit awkward, as character models in Vanguard tended to.  Neither brought back any memories of adventure.

Instead of a game I played, like EverQuest or LOTRO or whatever, Vanguard is more like a signpost in the history of the genre for me.  Its creation was a sign of its times, and its demise a warning to all who would come later.  The dream that WoW players would evolve and seek greater challenges in games that were more hardcore was debunked, and the idea that WoW could be eclipsed started to slip.

Yes, it wasn’t until Star Wars: The Old Republic that the industry as a whole finally agreed that WoW was an outlier rather than the next hurdle to clear to claim success.  But Vanguard was a warning, a sign that in a world with popular choices that work, the “I’m different” card wasn’t enough.

And so it goes.  Vanguard, which was going to bring back the EverQuest vision, look good, and be all things to all people failed to materialize, ending up a small niche game with too much overhead to survive.  And now we’re looking at a series of lean, niche games pursuing the old school MMO feel; Camelot Unchained, Shroud of the Avatar, Project Gorgon, and of course Brad McQuaid’s own Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen.  Small is back, and they are targeting audiences of a size that Blizzard gains or loses between the average quarterly report.

And, in its way, Vanguard was sort of the end of innocence in the genre.  As I said above, before Vanguard the genre seemed small and knowable by a single person.  Since then it has sprawled, with games coming and going at a rapid pace.  The world has changed since we were sitting on TeamSpeak telling ourselves how great the game was going to be.

What an aptly named game, if nothing else.  It was in the vanguard of the genre, in its own failing way, and its tale is certainly a saga.

Other posts remembering Vanguard around the blogesphere:

19 thoughts on “Vanguard – All Sagas Must End

  1. Chris Bickford

    I guess from my point of view the success of EQ wasn’t because it was hardcore or anything like that. It was an actual opportunity to play a MMO with actual avatars and graphics and stuff.

    I described the game as something I’d been waiting to play for 20 years without realizing I’d been waiting for it.

    If someone were to give me the whole ability to play a RPG online in real time with everyone without the stupid bullshit of “The Vision”, I’d jump on it like a shot.

    Which I did when WoW came out, after trying Anarchy Online, DAoC, Shadowbane, just about anything to get away from the Vision.

    When WoW came out Sony doubled down on the vision of the trinity 3 classes and if you picked one of the other 12 classes, well, sucked to be you. We all saw how that worked out.

    I never understood the draw behind Vanguard aside from a sort of pretentiousness. I’m hardcore enough to play, unlike those 7 million scrubs playing WoW. Ok, whatever.


  2. Jenks

    Terrible launch and terrible timing. I was huge into EQ, and played classic EQ again the last few years until EQ Mac closed. I love everything about the concept of virtual world over video game.

    I didn’t play Vanguard at launch. In 2006, everyone was still in love with WoW. Sure, in the blogosphere you’ll find people who liked EQ2 or whatever else in the mid 00s, but in general, everyone loved WoW. Of my hundred or so Everquest friends, every single one enjoyed WoW at some point during the first few years. Vanguard was barely a blip on my radar when it came out, and I was the target audience.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Jenks – WoW ended up as the destination for most people I knew who played EQ, especially raiders. Most of them either jumped straight to WoW or spent 30 days in EQII and then went on to WoW and never looked back.

    I went into EQII at launch and did not try WoW until March 2005 and did not make the cut over until the Kingdom of the Sky expansion hit EQ2, at which time the game was having serious stability issues. Most of the TorilMUD crew from EQ2 made the jump to WoW at that time. But I put in a good year and a half of EQ2 before moving to WoW, which is about when I started blogging.

    The myriad problems that EQ2 had is a tale in its own, with many chapters, the first one being, “Let’s make an EQ successor, but steer clear of EQ as much as possible.”


  4. wizardling

    As for me – I went to WoW and later on played Eve Online a while, but am now back in EverQuest classic on the Project 1999 server.

    It has nothing to do with being pretentious, and everything to do with playing in a world that feels huge, vibrant and alive (thanks to having to travel to get places), full of danger (not just ‘opps’ *respawn* back where I was a couple minutes later), and where my achievements actually mean something to myself. I simply don’t get that in WoW or modern EQ1, or pretty much any other modern MMO I’ve played, excepting Eve Online.

    As it happens the only WoW I’ve played since Wrath (I did buy the Cataclysm Box Set, but it gathered dust never having been used, after everything I read and saw in videos about Cataclysm put me right off returning), has been the vanilla Emerald Dream private server.

    Again – it has nothing to do with what anyone else thinks. It has to do with being in a world where I meet others outside hubs, and my achivements mean something to me.

    Sure there’s still difficulty in modern EQ1 and WoW. But it’s the kind of difficulty one experiences in game with a save system able to be taken taken right before any perilous activity, as often as I like, so I’m able to rinse, wash, repeat endlessly, till I get it right. I always preferred games that allowed only saves at the beginning of each level, or perhaps with a mid-way re-start point able to be activated. But still _something_ to make failure a swearing at the screen kinda moment, and success a moment of joy and relief :-) I didn’t get that by Wrath in WoW, or PoP in EQ1.


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  6. bhagpuss

    I’ve played over 100 MMOs in the last decade and a half. If I was to rank them in order of how much I enjoyed them only Everquest would stand ahead of Vanguard. I’m certain that, had it been successful enough to have gone on to have expansions, by now it would have surpassed even EQ in my personal hierarchy.

    I was fortunate in that I was always able to run the game adequately from open beta onwards. It was buggy but completely playable. I played it as my main game for a year or so , then took a break and came back and played it as my main game for about as long again. That gave me two max level characters and not much more to do. After that I returned regularly to potter around with lower level characters and work on my Diplomacy.

    I am not expecting to see another MMO as good as Vanguard. I certainly haven’t seen one yet.

    On the topic of who did and didn’t go from EQ/EQ2 to WoW, my experience was very different. At the time I was playing EQ I was highly socialized and knew a lot of people in-game. WoW barely ever even got mentioned. I’d never played a Blizzard game in my life and barely had any idea who they were and that seemed to be the case with most of my guild and the people I shared various chat channels with.

    My peer group at the time was split clearly between people who planned on going to EQ2 and those who were intending to stay with Everquest. I went to EQ2 in mid-beta. Of the people who came along all had left about 3-4 months after launch. A few of those went back to EQ, one went to Horizons/Istaria and only one went to WoW. He stayed less than three months, got to the 40s and came back saying it was ok but not really for him.

    After six months we went back to EQ because EQ2 was no fun at all and we no longer knew anyone. We had a great run for another 6-12 months there by which time Scott Hartsman was fixing up EQ2 and we went back. We never saw any of our old EQ/EQ2 friends again with the exception of the one who went to WoW and came back (we still play with him now – he’s in our GW2 guild although he only plays on Sundays). He kept in touch with some of the others for a while but within a year or two they’d all stopped playing MMOs. As far as I know none of them ever tried WoW.


  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Some day I want to see the grand list of MMOs you have played as a blog post. Or have you done that already?

    The people I knew in EQ tended to either burn out and leave or become raiders, and WoW catered heavily to the EQ raider demographic during beta. I knew a couple of people in our EQII guild who went back to EQ… we went as a group for a while… and a few more who just went back to TorilMUD. But the eventual destination overall seemed to be WoW.

    The last time I peeked in, there was still one of the TorilMUD players logging into EQII regularly. But most other guilds where I have a character tend to shows people haven’t logged in for ages. (Revelry & Honor is still very lively.)


  8. bhagpuss

    If you remember I did Part One of the list back in February. I got as far as the Gs and said I’d give it a few days before I posted the rest of the alphabet. Then other stuff happened and I never got around to it. I’ll see if I can’t find the time to do part 2 in the next week or two. There were 102 MMOs on the list back then – probably a couple more to add by now.


  9. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – I was doing my time entry today and I couldn’t remember which day of this week I spent five hours in a conference room reviewing feature requests and bug reports. Things that happened in February are a blur.

    However, now that you have reminded me, yes I do recall.


  10. Shintar

    Posts like these are some of my favourites on this blog, since you offer the perspective of someone who was actually there and blogged about it, so you have more accurate recollections that just mere fuzzy memories.


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  12. NetherLands

    Vanguard (and Telon) had a lot going for it, but the excecution was less than ideal, with too much freezing and disconnecting and lagging, odd mapping (Quest targets got flagged at the minimap but city maps with icons for mailboxes etc. nope) and some graphical oddities that took time to get used to (like seeing the inside of your character’s head everytime you entered a building).

    Add in the lack of/wobbly direction of the game (imo after the move to Freemium it should have squarely aimed itself at ‘the Journey’ as that was – and is – what is generally lacking in the MMOverse; serious or flying rainbow whales?) and it was in so many ways wasted potential.

    Still, it’s the one MMORPG I really felt ‘at home’ in and I would have wanted to have played it much more. If ever a ‘Vanguard 2’ set in Telon and with the logical direction (it’s astounding how many levelling dungeons there were vs Raids for example) made with the system polish of a Blizz game came, it would pretty much be a sandpark-dream come true.

    On a side-note, on Doomsday it was a tad annoying to be thrown from the server half an hour early, only to find my characters wiped when I logged back. As predicted, they also managed to crash Khal multiple times with boat-overload, which perhaps was rather fitting.


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  14. SynCaine

    About the “WoW players grow up” thing: It happened. EVE kept growing, and there has been and continues to be solid demand for virtual worlds ‘deeper’ than WoW.

    The problem was never the theory, it was the scope. 12m+ players wasn’t a realistic scope. 12m+ was the ‘pop culture’ population of WoW, not the ‘MMO fan’ population. The MMO fan population likely numbers in 1-3m, and they are now spread across countless MMOs. That’s why aiming for 50-100k subs for a niche MMO was/is realistic, while trying to be a ‘WoW Killer’ was never going to happen.

    Going to make a blog post about the above actually, pingback coming ‘soon’.


  15. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – Hrmm, maybe. You would have to convince me that the 1-3 million to which you refer isn’t largely made up of people were were hard core MMO players to start with, people who ran through EQ or UO or DAoC or AO or some MMO before WoW. At the time of Vanguard, one of Brad’s statements was that over 2 million people had played EQ, though the subscriber base was only about 300K at the time and never broke the 600K mark.

    Plus, for purposes of this discussion, Asia doesn’t really count, which lops off something like 6-7 million of the 12 million WoW players there were at the peak. They don’t impact our market because we hate most everything that comes our way from them.

    Anyway, certainly some people who started with WoW moved on, but the theory being espoused at the time is that the WoW babies would grow up and go play hardcore MMOs and that the person who timed it right would end up with a large and eager population. That clearly never came to pass.

    And I am beginning to think that EVE is as much an outlier as WoW in its own way. It simply delivers such a different experience than other MMOs I have played, that I am not sure anything prepared you for it.


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  17. Hemvar

    I feel bad because I had this downloaded on my computer and forgot about until a week after the game was shut down.


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