The rise of Vanguard
Brad McQuaid, a longtime MUD player and designer, was brought on board with Verant Interactive
(later SOE) to work on EverQuest
in the mid-1990s. He was best-known for his alias Aradune Mithara, a name which McQuaid clings to even today, and being part of a famous EverQuest
guild called Fires of Heaven.
McQuaid worked his way up to the position of lead designer of EverQuest
, where he enforced his capital-V Vision for the popular new MMO. His star was so on the rise, in fact, that a 2000 issue of PC Gamer listed him as one of "the new game gods
" alongside American McGee and Stevie Case.
After becoming one of the top executives at SOE, McQuaid and fellow EverQuest alum Jeff Butler
left in 2002 to found their own studio and make their own MMO. The studio would become Sigil Games
, and the MMO was, of course, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
In 2003, McQuaid announced to the public
that he had assembled a "dream team" to make an incredible MMO that would top his previous project: "Well, really, it's going to be the next big thing. We have EverQuest
behind us, the most popular MMO in North America, and we have to at minimum one-up ourselves. Honestly, nobody in the all-star team that is Sigil would or could be satisfied with anything less."
The Vision that drove McQuaid's design decisions at EverQuest
found a new home in this project. He had grand plans for the type of game Vanguard
would become: an MMO that went back to MUD roots
while learning from the current crop of games, had truly massive crafting and open-world housing systems, a dynamic weather system, a huge world, public dungeons, an innovative diplomacy system, and somewhat of a hardcore attitude. The team figured that there was a large segment of gamers that were dissatisfied with the increasingly casual-pandering environment in MMOs and wanted to go back to an era when time, effort, and consequences had meaning.
Sigil signed on with Microsoft
in 2002 to be a co-publisher, although later McQuaid said it was a mistake not to get all of the details of the agreement regarding the project between the two companies in writing. Microsoft went on to fund Vanguard to the tune of $30 to $40M
, a considerable sum for an MMO even today.
Microsoft became increasingly skittish about the development of Vanguard following a "regime change" in 2004
, requesting more demos and milestones as time went by. Over the next couple of years, the two companies bickered, pointed fingers, made demands, and sowed sour grapes as competing (small-v) visions for the game became too different.
It also certainly didn't help that McQuaid and other Vanguard
devs ignored the rising threat of World of Warcraft
, dismissing it in conversations and never playing it in person. Other red flags started to pop up, such as the leadership refusing to allow the team to create scripting language and other necessary tools for the game.
By 2006's E3
, Sigil Games had a strong following and a salivating press corps giving wind to the hype surrounding Vanguard
. The team talked up how it had seven years of content already planned for the game, leading some publications to speculate whether the game might be "a true threat
" to the behemoth of World of Warcraft
The fall of Vanguard
Meanwhile, tensions came to a boiling point between Sigil and Microsoft. According to McQuaid
, the latter was losing a desire to create an MMO at all, especially one that wasn't a clear carbon copy of World of Warcraft
, and Sigil started to look elsewhere for funding the home stretch of development. In May 2006, Sigil switched publishers from Microsoft to SOE. That was considered a blessing for the Sigil team, which enjoyed more freedom (and additional funds) under SOE than it had received from the demanding suits from Microsoft.
Following E3 2006, Sigil pushed to get the game into beta. While it was obvious to both Sigil employees and beta testers
was far from ready for prime time, the devs ignored the criticism. Matters were worse than most assumed: There was only a single member of quality assurance
working on the game through November 2006, McQuaid stopped coming into the office
by the time Vanguard
was in the second phase of its beta testing, and Jeff Butler disappeared as well, leaving a leadership void during a critical time.
launched on January 30th, 2007, which was by admission of McQuaid and others on the team at least six months too early. But SOE needed to start turning a profit on what had been an expensive money sink, so out the door it went. Unfortunately, Vanguard
had numerous bugs, hitching, lag, duping problems, and technical issues right out of the gate -- and the public wasn't willing to wait for the team to patch up the cracks.
In what was one of the worst scheduling decisions of video game history, Vanguard
launched just a couple of weeks after World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
came out roaring with several million copies sold on the very first day. To say Vanguard
got steamrolled is an epic understatement; it got squashed like a very small insect under the efforts of some of McQuaid's former EverQuest
co-workers. After its initial month was up, Vanguard
had retained only 90,000 subscribers out of 200,000 copies sold at that point -- hardly the sign of "the next big thing."
The next several months were a grueling marathon of frantic fixes by the members of Sigil Games. McQuaid spent the time pointing fingers at the community
as to why the game hadn't succeeded and predicted that Vanguard would soon pick up players bored with The Burning Crusade
. But while employees saw the writing on the wall, few could have predicted what happened next.
On the afternoon of May 14th, the entire company was instructed to meet in the Sigil Games parking lot. It was here that Director of Production Andy Platter informed the staff that the game was tanking, Sigil was basically out of money, Vanguard
was being sold to SOE, and everyone in the studio was fired.
One employee who was there recalled the now-infamous event
: "The email said literally to check in any work we were working on, grab anything we'd need for the evening and meet out back for a short company meeting. We met in the parking lot. Worse still, though Dave [Gilbertson] was supposedly in charge all this time, Andy is the one who delivered the 'you're all fired' speech, while Dave never said a single word. It was very emotionless. Very callous. 'The deal is done, and basically you're all fired so some of you can be re-hired by SOE.' Bill [Fisher] was there and actually made comments about how he was likely buying a house thanks to his stock."
Brad McQuaid was nowhere to be seen on May 14th, allegedly too distraught
to be there to see the end of Sigil and the termination of its staff.
The rescue of Vanguard
From my observations, Vanguard
was rescued twice.
The first was the day after the parking lot firing. SOE announced that it had acquired key assets to Sigil, keeping the doors opened while it hired back 50 to 75 of the 150 people fired the day before. McQuaid, surprisingly enough, wasn't let go, but he was demoted to the position of creative consultant.
SOE's move to reassure worried Vanguard
players everywhere that the MMO would continue to operate under the guidance of a portion of its former team kept the community from scattering to the hills. While it crashed at launch and burned during the firings, Vanguard
somehow survived to limp on as a complex, niche MMO that garnered a small but loyal playerbase.
Of course, it wasn't as though Vanguard
was redeemed at that point; it was only saved. SOE eventually dissolved Sigil entirely and brought Vanguard
entirely in-house. With a reduced development team and a missed opportunity for a strong launch, the game's fate seemed resigned to lingering in the shadows while being an example of "what could have been."
However, SOE rescued Vanguard for a second time
several years later. In mid-2012, the studio announced that Vanguard
would not be shuttered (as had been expected, along the lines of EverQuest Online Adventures
) but would undergo the free-to-play conversion that other SOE titles had received. On top of that, Vanguard
was given its first proper dev team in years. With a rejuvenated playerbase, F2P access, and actual content being developed after being in perpetual maintenance mode, Vanguard
was able to walk tall after being hunched over in shame for so long.
Last week we got the news that Vanguard will indeed end its journey this year
. Perhaps it's not the ending of a movie where the underdog wins it all, but I maintain that it's far better than a game prematurely canceled due to hubris, mismanagement, and a lack of understanding just where the industry was going.
As for McQuaid, he semi-quietly returned to SOE to take positions on both the EverQuest
team, prompting a lot of raised eyebrows in the community. Life back at SOE must not have suited him, for he eventually left to create his own company and launch a campaign to fund Pantheon
. It's anyone's guess whether McQuaid has learned from the lessons of Vanguard
or whether he's trying his very hardest to reclaim a lost dream -- a lost Vision -- from so long ago.
For another take on the Vanguard
saga, be sure to read Jef's Soapbox on the subject
and MJ's farewell to the title
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.