The Soapbox: The curious case of Vanguard

Vanguard - magic hour duo
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

"Yaaay!"

"FU-- yeah!"

"Finally."

"WOW! This is the best MMO news I have heard in a long time!"

These are just a few of the comments that greeted our recent announcement of Vanguard's upcoming free-to-play conversion. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive, and Sony Online Entertainment's open-world fantasy themepark was lavished with praise by a wide cross-section of Massively readers. This makes me wonder where all these folks have been since the game's launch in early 2007. It's not like Vanguard shut down and is being resurrected, you know? More importantly, I wonder whether free-to-play can actually save the game from the scrap heap of shuttered SOE MMOs.

Vanguard - Kojani house
If that sounds overly harsh, let me back up for a minute. I love Vanguard; in fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's the second most enjoyable themepark I've ever played (the top dog being EverQuest II, which we'll get to in a minute). Why does a class-based, loot-drop, bind-on-equip, quest-heavy game like Vanguard appeal to this particular sandbox fan? Primarily because so much of it flies in the face of what has come to be the standard themepark design after World of Warcraft.

The world is absolutely huge; it's free of instancing and relatively seamless (although anyone who has ever stuttered across a "chunk" line may roll their eyes at that assertion). It's got meaningful crafting, a unique diplomacy aspect, and kick-ass classes like the Disciple. The list goes on and on.

And apparently I'm not alone in these sentiments, judging by our comments, which seems strange since Vanguard was basically abandoned by SOE due to an abysmally low population.

If an MMO newb were to glance over that thread I linked earlier, he'd likely think that Vanguard was one of the greatest things to ever happen to the genre. And yet, every time I've logged in over the past five years, that massive open world is mostly empty of players, and finding a group -- in what is unabashedly a group-centric game -- is usually quite time-consuming.

Why is that?

I can't say for sure, but it can't be the sub fee, can it? Surely 15 bucks a month isn't too much to ask for a game that so many people say is incredibly awesome. There must be other reasons that people have avoided the world of Telon in droves.

Vanguard - house construction
Why the low pop?

For one thing, there was Vanguard's launch. Sigil Games decided to release its opus at the same time that Blizzard unleashed WoW's first expansion pack. Going head-to-head with Burning Crusade basically guaranteed Vanguard a sort of also-ran status, and that was before people logged in to find a massive list of bugs, incomplete systems, and half-baked features that represented one of the worst MMO launches since Anarchy Online.

Gamers have long memories when it comes to that sort of stuff, and despite the fact that SOE stepped in and eventually righted the ship, "Vanguard sucks" fan rhetoric persists to this day (as do some of those bugs). There's also the fact that the game initially featured modern-day no-nos like corpse runs, a lack of instant travel, and other old-school elements. Even though these factors have since been updated to reflect the casual sea-change in MMO design, Vanguard has struggled to shed its 2007-era reputation.

It also didn't help the game when SOE basically reassigned its entire dev team and put the world of Telon on autopilot for years at a time. The fact that a smattering of players continued to support Vanguard despite the lack of any updates (let alone new content) speaks to both the appeal of the game's basic concepts and the tenacity of certain hardcore fans.

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The EverQuest factor

I mentioned EQII earlier, and it's worth talking about in a discussion centered around Vanguard's future. When SOE saved Vanguard from Sigil's ineptitude shortly after launch, some in the fan community voiced concerns that the company did so primarily to prevent Vanguard from morphing into a direct competitor to its flagship franchise.

This theory had a certain tinfoil hat stench about it, but it's also interesting to think on because of the many similarities between Vanguard and the EverQuest titles. Vanguard was viewed by its pre-release community as the true sequel to the original EverQuest, primarily because Brad McQuaid was instrumental in both games and did nothing to dispel comparisons. Vanguard is also much more of a hardcore MMO experience than EverQuest II due to the fact that the former features relatively slow progression and requires groups more often than not.

Conceptually, though, the games are very much alike. They're both high-fantasy themeparks that feature a large and varied class roster, deep crafting, plenty of non-combat activities, and an endgame built around raiding. While I don't really buy into the conspiracy theories, I do wonder about SOE's motivation to operate three similar themeparks concurrently. Clearly Vanguard generates more profit than loss, elsewise it would have gone the way of The Matrix Online a long time ago.

With EverQuest Next coming, though, and with both EverQuest and EverQuest II receiving substantial and fairly frequent content updates, how many resources is SOE realistically going to commit to Vanguard over the long haul?

Vanguard - griffin wingmen
The future is now

Currently the firm is spending some money on Telon. Active developers are returning to both polish existing content and produce new stuff. Engineers, accountants, and PR types are presumably working hard on the new business model and its various monetization options. We haven't seen much of a marketing push yet, but I expect a good amount of Vanguard-centric gaming press coverage whenever SOE gets around to announcing its F2P matrix and launch date.

And all that said, I still wonder how sustainable it is in light of the company's other efforts and in light of how intolerant of time-consuming mechanics the current crop of MMO consumers has become.

In any event, Vanguard's immediate future should be interesting to watch, and the bottom line in all of this is that we're witnessing a pretty rare occurrence as a niche game gets a second shot at the big-time. I hope to see a lot of you in Telon both now and in the future. And hey, if you really do love Vanguard, support it before it goes free-to-play. Fifteen bucks is a tiny price to pay for such a content-rich game, and it could sure use your help.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

This article was originally published on Massively.