Much has been written around the MMO blogosphere regarding SOE's Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. From its troubled beginnings as a not-quite-ready-for-launch title, to fledgling Sigil Games Online's financial difficulties, to lead designer Brad McQuaid's well-publicized struggles with management and personal issues, the spiritual successor to EverQuest has always had a bit of a dark cloud hovering over its head.

Happily, a fun game remains despite all the problems, and the title's snake-bit tendencies don't seem to have affected either its community or its customer service.

Fly past the cut (on your rented pegasus) for more.

Trengal Keep group
Welcome to the fifth issue of Massively's Community Detective, our weekly gaze into the world of MMORPG communities and customer service. It's time to set sail for the world of Telon (and, unfortunately, the server of Telon as well). If we'd managed to make it to Vanguard a few weeks earlier, we'd be bringing you our customary samplings of several server communities. Due to the recent merger, however, the game's population is now consolidated on a single remaining shard, which theoretically helps the population in addition to making our job a little easier.

As always, let's begin with a brief detailing of our methodology. Despite the fact that Vanguard's players are now grouped on one server, the game world itself is immense, and the population seems to be fairly spread out. Each of the three major continents features regional chat channels, and we rolled up a few characters to hang out in these chat rooms and poll the community with our newbish questions. It's worth noting that the game also features global help, crafting, diplomacy, and class-based channels, but in our experience, the continental/regional channels were used more often (perhaps due to the fact that players log in to them automatically). We aimed to get a sense of the Vanguard community's friendliness and willingness to interact with new players via the chat channels, and we also engaged in various random tell conversations and pickup groups over the course of several different days and time slots.

Finally, we tested Sony Online Entertainment's customer service support via two help petitions, one each on two separate accounts.

Community case file graphic
We kicked off our community polling with the following question:

Question graphic: Is it better to start on the Isle of Dawn?
Vanguard has a whopping 19 possible character races, many of them with their own unique starting villages and quest lines. To alleviate new-player confusion as well as offer a free-trial setup, SOE implemented the Isle of Dawn in mid-2008. The isle is a self-contained island set apart from the game's three main continents. It offers adventuring, crafting, and diplomacy quests designed to acclimate new players to the world and speed them on their way to level 10 prior to entering the larger game environment. Since players can choose between the Isle or the traditional villages that the game featured at launch (and because the Isle offers excellent gear that isn't available elsewhere), we thought this would be a good way to generate community discussion.

We sampled all three continental chat channels (Thestra, Qalia, and Kojan), as well as the Isle of Dawn regional channel at various points throughout the week including weekday afternoons, evenings, and weekends. Without exception, the Isle, Thestra, and Qalia channels were full of various people giving advice, much of it centered on the desirable nature of the Bracelet of Charms that is only available on the starter island. A few folks dissented and offered commentary on the original quest lines and the general ambiance of the racial starter areas as well. Kojan's channel was hit or miss; this was no big surprise given that most of the continent's content only scales to level 20, making it sparsely populated. Regardless of the time of day or day of the week, the question generated ongoing discussions featuring no less than four players.

We also received several personal tells dispensing advice, two of which turned into lengthy conversations touching on multiple gameplay topics including helpful pointers regarding Vanguard's chat channels and extensive emote system.

For our second community question, we ventured into potentially dangerous territory:

Question graphic: Is this game solo-friendly?
Vanguard has always had a reputation as a group-centric game, and this is fairly well-deserved. Much of the title's charm lies in its huge variety of dungeons, most of which are designed with multiple players in mind. That's not to say that you can't solo the game, as the community helpfully pointed out, but you may miss some of the more unique locales.

As with our previous question, we sampled the four major chat channels to begin with (at our customary weekday, weeknight, and weekend slots), and then branched off into private conversations on multiple occasions. Surprisingly, not a single person told us to "go play WoW" or any other variation on the anti-solo mentality. Advice was quite helpful and often strayed into class discussion territory as people seemed to enjoy debating the soloing pros and cons of their favorite archetypes.

Much of the discussion was to be found on weeknights and weekends; unsurprisingly, the weekday population seemed light, though answers were forthcoming in all tested time slots.

Graphic: analysis
Vanguard's community didn't exactly surprise us, as we've been playing semi-regularly since launch. It may, however, surprise true newbs, as it is hands-down one of the friendliest, most helpful MMORPG communities in existence. Regardless of the time slot, we always found someone willing to talk to us and share their experiences with any number of gameplay facets. Vanguard's population is also top-heavy with level-capped players, many of them currently rolling alts and just as many ready and willing to share their considerable game knowledge with newbs. It's also rare to venture far in the game world without receiving a drive-by buffing commonly administered by random friendly players who happen to cross your path.

The one downside, naturally, is the fact that the game has just come off a server merge (with another occurring earlier in the game's life cycle), and therefore the population is quite small. While SOE doesn't release population figures for any of its titles, Vanguard included, it's far too easy to travel around the game's huge world without seeing other players. For a group-centric game, this can make things difficult (though you can craft and engage in diplomacy alone, for the most part). The good news is that using /autojoin to jump in the global channels will enable new players to pinpoint the social hot-spots as well as find questing partners or guildmates.

Ultimately, while it would be nice to see a bigger population, the existing playerbase seems to lend credence to the age-old quality-over-quantity debate. Lord of the Rings Online's Landroval server is widely regarded as the current pinnacle of MMORPG communities, but having played extensively on both, we can tell you that its got nothing (barring sheer numbers) on Vanguard's community.

Customer service case file graphic
Vanguard's customer service was largely a positive experience, though there was a fairly lengthy wait time for one of our ticket submissions. Scuttlebutt has it that SOE has assigned a skeleton crew of both developers and customer service support to Vanguard due to its low player population, but you wouldn't know it from the high level of customer service on display.

For our first ticket, we petitioned to have two deleted characters restored to a veteran account. The aforementioned server merge did away with many neglected characters that hadn't been logged in for awhile, and we wanted to give the SOE customer service representatives something to chew on that was a bit meatier than your standard broken quest advancement or stuck character request. We submitted the petition around 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday. Submission is accomplished in-game by typing /petition at the chat prompt. This isn't obvious to newer players (we even had to ask in the region chat since it had been awhile), but once you've figured that part out, the rest is a breeze. The command displays Sony's support website and knowledge base in an in-game browser window, and at that point it's a matter of following the prompts.

We received a confirmation email almost immediately. Approximately two hours later, we received a second mail from support. "I wanted to get back to you in regards to your issue with deleted characters. I would like to inform you that we are looking into the issue, and doing what we can do get your characters restored. The issue has been sent to our DEV team, and you should hear back once we have received word from the DEV team. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you in the mean time. If you have any other concerns, feel free to contact us again," wrote GM Shuuyo.

So, no guarantees that our request will be honored, but SOE does get top marks for both clarity and responsiveness. We didn't hear from them again until the following evening (Friday) at around 7:00 p.m., at which point they asked for the names of the deleted characters and also asked to verify our account credentials. As of press time, we've received a third contact mail letting us know that the request has been forwarded to the design team and will most likely be honored. "We should be able to get them [the characters] restored to you, most likely within the next day or two (since it's the weekend and the design side of the team is not currently in the office)," wrote GM Ceythos.

[Update: SOE did in fact restore both our deleted characters on Monday afternoon.]

Our second ticket was a standard deleted item request. We, ahem, "accidentally" deleted a sword from the inventory of our high-level dread knight. Two hours later, we logged in to find our restored sword after receiving the following message from GM Kotos. "I tried reaching you in-game, however unfortunately you were not online. When you next log in you should find your missing Dune Greatsword back in your main inventory bag and ready for you to wield. Thank you for your patience while we took care of this and please do not hesitate to let us know if we can be of any assistance to you in the future."

Analysis graphic
SOE's customer service was quite good on the second ticket, as they delivered a positive resolution in slighty over two hours total time. The first ticket, though still awaiting an official resolution as of press time, has been a mostly positive experience as well. The previous mails have indicated that they are going to restore the deleted toons, and we're inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt simply because their communication and friendliness have been exemplary throughout. Our one complaint would be the time frame, though we're hesitant to be too hard on them since it is a substantial request.

We'll update the article, and our overall opinion, as soon as we receive the official resolution, but unless something unexpected occurs, we feel good about complimenting SOE's Vanguard customer service.

The PUG Report
This week's PUG Report reads much the same as the earlier community case file entry. Vanguard's community is quite affable towards grouping, and, aside from a few high-level dungeons that require a certain level of gear and experience, it's really quite easy to find yourself a group in the world of Telon.

As with our community polling, we looked for PUGs at various times throughout the week, including weekday afternoons, weeknights, and weekends. As you might expect, weeknights and weekends were the prime PUG-hunting times, and we must admit to having a bit of difficulty getting groups on the weekdays, particularly in Kojan and some parts of Thestra. Evenings were a different story though, as several Trengal Keep, Darghun's Tomb, and Graystone groups were ongoing on multiple days. Qalia featured several Hunter's League parties throughout the week, as well as a few advertisements for Pantheon of the Ancients. Kojan folks weren't left out entirely, as the weekend brought a couple of Magi Hold and Tomb of Lord Tsang groups.

Finally, there was almost always two or three high-level people spamming the regional chats with a listing of their characters, levels, and various dungeons they were looking to run. In the case of PUGs, it seems the latest server merge is working as intended.

Regrettably, that about wraps up our week in Telon. If you're thinking of checking out the game, or you're looking for a high-fantasy MMORPG to occupy your free time, you could do a whole lot worse than Vanguard. Telon is one of those worlds we can never stay away from for very long, and it comes with our highest customer service* and community recommendation.

Vanguard dungeon

*SOE did restore both our deleted characters on Monday afternoon; as this was past our proofing deadline, we were unable to update the following table:

Community and customer service results table

Join Jef Reahard every other week as he goes behind the scenes to file first-hand community and customer service reports from the front lines of your favorite genre titles. From Aion to Zentia, the Community Detective case files are an essential part of any game-hopper's research library. Suggestions welcome, care of jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.