Vanguard's fourth anniversary raises new questions

Vanguard is somewhat of a unique beast among other "AAA" MMOs; it's a forgotten child that still offers great adventure, open-world excitement, and hardcore raiding. While we all have heard of the botched launch and practically dead-in-the-water development cycle of the game, the fact of the matter is that players are still playing it. You can't force a player to enjoy himself, so why are the members of the Vanguard community still playing?

Is it possible that they are having a good time? Or do social ties mean more than great adventure? Could it be that players simply have not found a game that they enjoy more than Vanguard, warts and all? We asked the players on the official forums and received a total of four responses. The thread was immediately pushed down by standard complaint posts. Could it be that the community has been the worst thing for the game, a game that needs, more than anything, positive word-of-mouth?

Click past the cut and we'll look into it.

Instead of talking about the bad launch to end all bad launches, I think it is more important to ask where the game is now. If you have been playing MMOs for almost any amount of time, you have already heard about how rough everything was when the game first showed its face. If you are a brand-new player and find yourself attracted to the game by seeing screenshots, blogs or fan-made trailers, why should you care about a launch that happened several years ago?

The problem is that the game is commonly talked about by players who have not played it, players who currently play the game and sit in misery while development happens in other games, and former players who are still angry at Sony Online Entertainment for any number of reasons. The most important witness isn't saying anything but rather is busy playing the game, raiding, roleplaying or hosting newbie nights. Yes, those things are going on in Vanguard -- it is no different than any other MMO in that regard. Let this article shine some light on the matter, in case you have been interested in checking the game out but have heard nothing but the negative. This anniversary should serve as the straw that breaks your back and forces you to go look for yourself. While there are no guarantees of satisfaction, there are always promises of information.

Here's something that player Voldaar said in response to our call for opinions: "Personally, there are three main things I love about Vanguard. The first one is the community. Compared to other MMOs, it is a very mature and helpful bunch of people. The second thing I love about Vanguard is the fact that you can [make] three different toons, level them to 50 and never do the same thing twice. The third thing is that it is actually fun to level a character; it's not a long boring grind."

Interesting comments, especially when you consider that he did not list which other game communities he is comparing Vanguard to. Still, he seems happy. Vanguard does offer many different "things" to do, yet it still offers a lot of the typical MMO fare. For example, crafting is something we see in most MMOs -- but it is different in Vanguard. It's more of a minigame and a more involved process than just combining items or having an NPC do it for you.

Classes are commonly talked about as being unique enough to stand out in the genre, something that a player named Parmenion told us: "Some classes really feel unique and special -- like Bloodmage or Disciple -- and all the classes you recognise from other games are just done so much better here. Even if you could combine Assassin, Swashbuckler and Brigand from EverQuest II, [there's] still nothing as varied or interesting as the Vanguard Rogue. Normally I don't like Rogue-type classes at all."

Perhaps the game's unique take on the usual classes is enough to keep the current playerbase plugged in? Normally classes in Vanguard do not just specialize in one or two things; instead, they often tout abilities that might normally be associated with other classes. A Ranger, for example, is able to cast a small heal at a certain level. The spell is far from a reliable source, but it is enough to help out in a pinch.

What some might call a design flaw might actually be one of the secrets of Vanguard's lifespan. Variety in the classes might be enough so that players keep rolling new characters, exploring different content, and reaching for new goals. Despite the fact that even the most basic MMO still provides endless varieties of activities just by allowing players to communicate and move around the world, activities often do not count with players unless those activities have some sort of benefit in combat, crafting, or leveling. Even the tiniest of heal has more weight to it than countless roleplay locations, and Vanguard provides a lot of those tiny abilities.

The world is also large and non-instanced. Dungeons are open, allowing outside players to waltz into the middle of a raid or adventure. While many might see this as a bad thing, it obviously casts a pretty unique spell on some. If you see it in Vanguard, you can generally explore it. Exploration has always been important, explains player Parmenion: "Yes, there are the quest hubs, but there are also so many places [where] you are running around and then you [go] a few steps down into a cellar in a ruined building. And then there's this whole underground complex, or that cleft in the rocks turns out to be a huge cave system. Most games are built with a big neon dev signpost saying 'look look we actually built a dungeon for you here!' VG isn't like that; it's a world to explore with hidden gems all over, many without signposts. Exploring has bored me in nearly all other MMOs because there just wasn't any point -- if you weren't sent there, somehow there was never any point in going."

So is it the combination of mixed-up class choices, a massive, open world, and unique systems like the card-based diplomacy that keep players coming back to a game that many agree has been ignored by development? Some of the most vocal critics of the game continue to play it, so how bad can it be?

On this anniversary, it's important to note that Sony Online Entertainment did, in fact, do its part in saving Vanguard from that horrible launch. Over the years, SOE has spent a large sum of money on the development that has taken place, as well as on advertising and campaigns designed to win back old players and welcome new ones. The introduction of the Isle of Dawn, an all-in-one introductory experience designed to streamline the newbie experience, has helped bring in many newer players.

"This was taken by some to mean that Vanguard might be receiving further development in the future. Others felt that it meant that Vanguard was obviously not a top or even middle priority, since Smed was talking about DC Universe Online."

Where is the money and development now, though? It's anyone's guess. SOE is notoriously silent on the matter, but boss John Smedley recently said this in an interview with Eurogamer: "The monthly subscription fee means players can expect a lot of new content from us. And I say a lot -- I really mean that. This is something that we feel obligated to the players, because they are paying a monthly sub fee." This was taken by some to mean that Vanguard might be receiving further development in the future. Others felt that it meant that Vanguard was obviously not a top or even middle priority, since Smed was talking about DC Universe Online, the company's latest game. A glance at the update notes section of the official forums shows the last official Vanguard update to be around spring of 2010.

In the end, the world of Telon has hung in there. It's seen many heroes come and go within its lands. The only thing for sure is that the game has come a long way and still boasts a very passionate playerbase. How long can it last, and how long can SOE keep the game running on fumes? If we knew that, you'd be the first to hear about it. While the possibility and repercussions of going free-to-play are hotly debated, players can already sell their gold, characters and loot through the Live Gamer service. It can be argued that free-to-play is the next step.

In the meanwhile, you can check out the Isle of Dawn free trial at the official site, read up on Krystalle's Choose My Adventure in Telon, or go visit the official forums to meet some of the community members.

This article was originally published on Massively.