Proclaimed as the prodigal step-son of EverQuest, Vanguard crashed into life, slinked into adolescence, and has now finally taken steps towards maturity as an MMORPG. From being the darling of every Norrath-dweller pre-2001, the fate that this game has suffered was not expected. Assembled by an all star cast and crew, funded by the might of Microsoft, and helmed by the online demigod himself, Brad McQuaid, we are here to sift through fact, fiction, and rumour, and ask "what in the hell happened?"
EverQuest was kind of a big deal. Initially expected to be a smash-and-grab of just 75,000 subscriptions in the short-term, it turned into a 450,000 strong community of virtual second lifers. Creating and riding the crest of that wave was Brad McQuaid and his creative cohort Steve Clover.
Starting out their careers as shareware developers, the two had been with EverQuest since the beginning. Recruited by John Smedley to helm his vision of an online RPG, the three of them put together the team that would design Norrath, and in doing so, help carve their own legends into the annals of MMO history.
But by mid-2001 McQuaid was growing restless. Having risen to position of vice president and chief creative officer of Verant (soon to be Sony Online Entertainment) the day-to-day handling of design was no longer something that he could solely concentrate on. Being an important player in Sony's up-and-coming money spinner meant he was no longer doing the things he wanted to do, and so by October he resigned; leaving behind the game he had spent five years with, its sequel, and taking a handful of staff with him.
In fallout of all of this was the formation, along with artist Jeff Butler, of Sigil Games Online, and the commencement of an as of yet untitled "3rd generation of MMORPG." These became known as the “exciting times."
By 2002, Microsoft had tasted limited success with Asheron's Call, and were to fund further development by Turbine to make a sequel. Seeing that their last effort had reached 120,000 subscribers, and with even more potential within games such as EverQuest, the publisher decided to back McQuaid's latest venture.
With a concept in hand, and a small staff, by April 2002 a deal was announced by Sigil that Microsoft would publish their MMO. Reports estimate that the software giant would sink 30 million dollars into development by 2006.
And now came the ideas. Since the formation of the studio, McQuaid, Butler, and the varied staff had been kicking ideas back and forth. Often referred to as "the vision" by the studio, it was clear that the direction that they were taking was bigger, better, and more, more, more. If EverQuest had ten classes, their new MMO would have twenty; if the world took five hours to navigate, their new MMO would take ten. And so went the formula.
In interviews, McQuaid would excitedly recount his ambitions for what would become Vanguard "[We want] a detailed, immersive seamless world. More exciting combat. Incorporating an exciting and involved crafting system in with a world where adventuring plays an important part as well. Working on advanced encounter systems that remove camping and tedious travelling - bringing back the classic dungeon crawl, and the excitement of exploration." In its entirety, it sounded a lot like a list of refinements for Norrath, and further expansion.
But while everything seemed fine, and with a stellar team behind the product, tell-tale signs were appearing to signal that all wasn't as it seemed. By 2004, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes was officially named, and talk of alpha testing was in free-flow: however, this wasn't the case.
Reports have emerged that while McQuaid was marketing and publicizing the game, Sigil itself was floundering. That triple-A crew wasn't clicking, management wasn't not up to scratch, and the CEO himself was something of a whirling dervish of ideas and innovation - unfortunately without reign and focus. What was a highly ambitious and forward thinking design team was being throttled by a lack of structure.
The picture that emerges between 2002 to 2006 is of a bunch of highly skilled individuals crafting a world separate from each other. While the game was being talked up, the reality was several unconnected parts, constantly being layered with new ideas, and bigger ambitions. The only concerted efforts to bring features together apparently came in the form of shows to Microsoft, which contained fully functioning areas to appease the publishers, and which ultimately wouldn't even make it into the game. If the warning lights weren't flashing amber yet, they would soon skip that stage entirely and go to meltdown red.
By 2006, even Microsoft wasn't being fooled by Sigil's dog and pony show. With World of Warcraft becoming a massive, unfolding success, the publisher couldn't wait any longer. After four years, and millions of dollars spent, they pulled out of the publishing agreement, leaving the studio teetering on the brink. Launch deadlines were missed, and the game was in a poor state. Employees complained of a lack of design tools, and poor decision making by the management. Brad McQuaid at this point was said to have disappeared from the creative process entirely.
At this time, rumours have since run rampant about extramarital affairs, substance abuse, and generally of a studio in turmoil. Whatever the case may be, Sigil was flagging, and they needed a hand out of the mire they found themselves in. Enter stage-left, John Smedley.
Although overseeing EverQuest 2 at the time and the running of Sony Online Entertainment, now one of McQuaid’s genre rivals, Smedley stepped in mid-2006 and gave Vanguard a publishing deal. Contrary to popular belief, the publishers kept their distance, allowed Sigil to take advantage of their testing departments, and contributed a handful of employees to development. If there was any success to be had ultimately from "the vision" SOE clearly wanted in.
By this point, development clearly took off in the right direction. In the absence of McQuaid and Butler, the day-to-day of Sigil was overseen by VP Dave Gilbertson, Bill Fisher, Darrin McPherson, and Ryan Elam. And while it seemed hopeful that this new structure would help the game along, staff have since stated their lack of insight and willing to work with other's opinions as a major shortcoming.
With progress being made, unfortunately Vanguard again ran out of funds by the end of 2006. With SOE refusing to plough more money into the venture, a launch date was finally set, and kept to in January 2007. By hell or high water the MMORPG would finally see the light of day.
Launch & Wilderness (2007-2012)
What came next was an unmitigated disaster. Vanguard wasn't ready for prime time, but had nowhere else to go. Glitches, bugs, and broken mechanics mired the experience, with most players reportedly quitting by level 4. Whatever vision McQuaid originally had was crumbling before Sigil's eyes, and it was about to get a lot worse.
With only 100,000 copies sold, and subscriber retention of that of a particularly haggard sponge, the 100-strong studio was facing difficult times. By mid 2007, the entire staff of Sigil received an email to collect their belongings, and to gather in the parking lot for a "meeting." Minutes later they were told Sony had acquired the company and that they had lost their jobs, with some being retained and transferred to SOE.
What followed in the years to come was patches, fixes, and a dwindling staff. Those that were retained would be moved to different IPs, or left the company entirely. By 2010, the subscription base had forced the game down to just 3 servers, and with just a handful of developers working as a skeleton crew behind the MMO.
And yet, even with such a small number, the developers made amazing strides with the game. Fixing, patching up, and making "the vision" playable. While most had been soured by the experience of that terrible launch, a loyal few that remained found something special amongst the unfinished bits: an immersive and wonderful MMORPG - one that they hoped would find an audience eventually.
Five years on from a disastrous launch, Vanguard was still clinging to life, and the free-to-play model was finally and graciously implemented with the game. Introducing more emphasis on design, and with Brad McQuaid reinstated to the game's development team, it seems that SOE have taken the decision to give the game one more shot at life. Numbers have since shot up, and the world, once sparsely populated, has received a boon of new players flooding back.
Whether or not this conversion will entirely save Vanguard remains to be seen, but for anyone that follows MMORPGs, you can't help but harbour a lingering feeling of hope. For everyone that played EverQuest this was to be the spiritual successor, the adventure that everyone had waited for for five years. Perhaps now, ten years after launch, we will finally get what we waited for.
At this point, I feel it important to note that while Vanguard was a failure in terms of both management and development, this wasn't the desired end result. Brad McQuaid left a high-powered, high-paid position because he wanted to make games. He took with him a number of people who also wanted to make games. Their ambitions, their misadventures along the way account for what Vanguard was to become, but that wasn't their goal, instead an unfortunate result. We often believe that when a game turns out badly, that the people involved are heinous disappointment-breeders - the case is often they are just unlucky, and all they wanted to do was to create something that everyone could enjoy. Let's keep that in mind when we comment and debate the game's failures and successes.