I’ve always had a soft spot for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, which closed its doors last week. Sony Online Entertainment’s traditional high fantasy MMORPG represented to me an online world that had a tremendous amount of potential, but without the modernization and implementation required to compete in today’s saturated market. The game happened to be the subject of my first review on our site, and although it was by no means my first MMO experience, Vanguard helped me to conceptualize the various aspects of online games that resonate with me, along with an understanding of how poor execution can greatly overshadow potentially interesting design choices.
There are many things I liked about Vanguard, but three features especially stand out: the game’s open world, the three “spheres” model of gameplay, and the variety of races and classes. Vanguard’s world, Telon, spanned three diverse continents (not including the later-added newbie Isle of Dawn) and boasted a delightful mélange of locales, from sandswept deserts to lush tropical beaches and decrepit ruins to foreboding castles. The game world was touted as being seamless (although you could expect to see some chunking while moving between regions) and could be traversed on foot, by land and flying mounts, or even on crafted boats. The sheer size and exploration potential represented by Telon has set a gold standard for what can be accomplished in world design, and although the game’s textures looked a bit worse for wear even a few years after release, Vanguard’s vistas could still dazzle the eye now and again.
I can’t say enough about how refreshing was Vanguard’s take on character progression. The game was developed on the core design philosophy of three “spheres” of gameplay, known as Adventuring, Crafting, and Diplomacy. Each sphere was more or less distinct from the others, and had its own mechanics, equipment, outfits, and rewards. Adventuring, which was what we have normatively come to think of as standard MMO character progression, was fine, though based on a now-antiquated style of hotbar combat that didn’t really push the genre forward in any way. Crafting was very intricate, and from what I understand, sometimes imbalanced, although I didn’t spend much time tinkering with it. I did dedicate an inordinate amount of time to Diplomacy, Vanguard’s collectible card game system, which was easy to learn, tough to master, and brutally addictive. While the three spheres were by no means perfect in their implementation, they do indicate an awareness of multi-faceted character progression that leaves most modern MMORPGs wanting.
Vanguard also offered roughly one billion races and classes from which to choose. Hyperbole aside, the game offered a huge amount of variety here, building on its Everquest pedigree with high fantasy-type races like different types of elves and humans, dwarves, halflings, Vulmane wolf-people, Kurashasa cat-people, Raki fox-people, goblins, gnomes, orcs, and giants. For an alt-oholic like yours truly, the class selection offered a plethora of options to try out, including MMO hallmarks like Rogues and Warriors to more niche professions such as Bards, Blood Mages, Psionicists, and Monks. The classes varied in combat effectiveness, which could be frustrating for players intending to play the game solo, but the diversity of options in Vanguard was no mean feat.
To make sure that this retrospective isn’t completely rose-tinted, let me be very clear in stating that in many aspects, Vanguard was a hot mess. It released as an unfinished product rent with bugs and balance issues, some of which persisted for a long time after the game reached a more polished equilibrium. Character models and animations always left a lot to be desired, and made the already-tedious combat feel that much more awkward. PvP was virtually nonexistent, and while a focus on player-vs-player combat isn’t required to make a successful MMO (see LOTRO), it certainly could have helped with Vanguard’s longevity and staying power. Furthermore, SOE inadvertently ostracized a potentially vibrant player base by sticking with a monthly subscription long after interest in the game had subsided, at a crucial time when MMORPG titles had begun to proliferate. When the developers finally switched to a free-to-play model, it proved to be too little, too late, and too restrictive to make any lasting impact on Vanguard’s revenue.
Perhaps most importantly, Vanguard lacked the consistent and centralized game leadership and organization that is required to make an MMORPG launch successful and its post-release schedule sustainable. Its community wallowed for several years without any updates or sense of ownership, and this lack of leadership and support is the most clear lesson that we can gain from Vanguard’s seven-year trajectory. The wonderfully realized game world, manifold character progression, and diversity of race and class options are three features that I’d like to see implemented more widely throughout the MMORPG genre. Yet, I think that Vanguard’s development process as a whole shows us more about how gaps in leadership, organization, and communication can far outweigh the potential inherent in positive design choices.
The inevitable question arises, where do we go from here? For those of us that loved Vanguard, despite its flaws, what game(s) will scratch the same itch? Will it be Everquest Next? Or Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen if it eventually gets funded? Or will we have to sate ourselves on games that marginally share the same fantasy tropes like Elder Scrolls Online?
If you have an answer to this question, by all means, let us know. Until then, I’ll be bugging SOE for Vanguard 2.