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Vanguard, Saga of Confusion: a look back


Perhaps it is all my experience with independent music that grew my patience for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. It might sound like a stretch, but for years I witnessed firsthand the lack of power that a large publisher can bring to the table. My rickety band would show up in our scratched up tour bus, only to open for a label-backed band that also showed up in a scratched up tour bus. Such is the guarantee of the major label: a guarantee of only publishing and/or perhaps distribution. While those promises are no small thing, the fans must come to grips with what that means.

In the end, Vanguard players are just like those fans who cannot fathom why there is not a new album released every year, or why their favorite band pulls up in a Dodge van instead of a tour bus. It's a simple lack of understanding of how these things often work, and can often lead to players who feel left out in the cold, ignored by a publisher that seemingly has bottomless pockets.

I am going to illustrate why I think Vanguard is where it is now, and who might be responsible for the current position it is in.

A confused publisher

Sony Online Entertainment is the co-publisher of Vanguard, with Sigil taking credit for originally producing it. Essentially, SOE agreed to take the game's assets from a company that was in over its head. Initially selling around 200,000 copies, the numbers quickly dropped off for many reasons. Some of the reasons include the broken state of the game, and the hardware requirements needed to run it. One only need look at the success of World of Warcraft to see how hardware accessibility can help to equal success.

I started my time with Vanguard around November of 2007, wide-eyed and excited. While the game did have technical issues, I successfully ran it on a small machine. I remember being swept up into the expanses of the world, exploring to my heart's content and feeling almost overwhelmed by the size of it all. Soon my visits to the official forums would show that the developers were not so sure as to where the game would be going, often bragging about the challenges of Vanguard while toning down death penalties and adding instant travel solutions and holiday-themed flying mounts. However, many of these "easier mode" solutions were in answer to the problem of navigating the great expanses of Telon. While avoiding the funneling effect that linear gameplay can have, the game developed new problems with empty areas and travel times.

"Then, as more new content was released, it quickly became old content. As the hunger grew, so did boredom. Players left to find shiny new worlds and the process started over."

New content rolled out slowly, but it was obvious that the pace of development would not be able to keep up with a hungry, high-level playerbase. Almost as soon as new dungeons like APW were placed in game, guilds had placed them on a repeating schedule. I knew players who literally played in the same dungeon for several hours a night, six nights a week, often repeating the same content. Still, SOE promised more, and did add new content to grind after, but even then the gloss of something new was quickly lost to players who were willing to play as much as humanly possible.

I would like to point out that during this time, hundreds, if not thousands, of bugs were fixed. Unfortunately, the matte finish of a bug fix doesn't do much to satisfy bored players. Of course new bugs were introduced, further straining the increasingly small developer team.

A confused community

Again, the example of the independent band shows us what might have gone wrong in the community of Vanguard. Although I quickly understood that SOE would say only what was necessary and nothing more, the loudest members of the community didn't seem to grasp it. This meekness on the part of developers is a common occurrence in online gaming, being that there are so many factors that can cause unforeseen change, often within a very short time period. Any EULA will let you know that the "online experience may change" because it will. It has to.

Perhaps I gave the community too much credit, but my trip to Fan Faire in 2008 reinforced what I had feared: The community members were concerned only with the areas that effected their personal experience, and not much more. New lore or artwork didn't excite them as much as class balance discussions did. While this is understandable, at some point a community must admit and become comfortable with the fact that a publisher will only do so much. After all, being backed by a large publisher does not guarantee success and does not delete the community's responsibility. If this were the case, there would be no need for street teams and fan-clubs, and small music venues across the world would sell out, even on a weeknight. Word of mouth might be the most powerful form of advertising, but it cannot be created by a company alone.

As the developers continued to "dumb things down," players expressed the need for "hardcore servers." Yet they still used the easier modes of travel, added modifications to the native UI that ran their game with almost with bot-like precision, and farmed dungeons until all content was memorized. A trial island was added to attract new players with a smaller initial download and an all-in-one experience, but older players were not comfortable with the abandonment of original starter areas. This confusing back-and-forth ran throughout the entirety of my time with the game. The players expressed a need for more challenge, but the developers could have interpreted the common use of "easy mode" tools as something entirely different.

Then, as more new content was released, it quickly became old content. As the hunger grew, so did boredom. Players left to find shiny new worlds and the process started over. While this is a problem native to level-based gameplay, the publisher alone cannot be blamed for a player who burns through content at an inhuman rate. At some point the player must acknowledge the pace of development, and must find ways to slow her own progress. Vanguard has always been the victim of promises that could never live up to demand.

So, what now?

As recent server merge announcements would indicate, the game has not grown as much as many of us would have liked. The remaining players are passionate, and still hold out hope that certain fixes will be implemented or that new content will be released. The PvP server will no longer be, and so the issue of PvP balance and fixes will finally be laid to rest. The players will be concentrated, something that might have a very positive effect on the game experience. Even now, however, players are demanding more content and asking for more fixes than SOE will ever be able to handle. I have long understood the publisher simply paid for the game and its servers and limited development, much more than many publishers would have done. For myself, this evidence was always enough to make me shrug, forget about all the things that could have gone better, and enjoy myself.

One only need look at SOE's ability to maintain tiny games to see that Vanguard will more than likely stay open until the last player leaves. Here's hoping that after all this time everyone involved will reach some sort of equilibrium and will finally enjoy the world of Telon in ways it has always deserved to be enjoyed. For me, I will just go back to doing what I have always done: sailing across the world, discovering new people and having long adventures. I will be there until the end!

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