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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: