A few columns ago, I offered an analysis of Vanguard after its sunsetting by Sony Online Entertainment. I presented my case that the game could be considered a success in its presentation of an amazing open world, three “spheres” of gameplay, and a plethora of races and classes. I also touched upon how Vanguard’s bug-ridden launch, lack of features to justify its long-standing subscription, and inconsistent leadership led to its inevitable demise.
I think there are several takeaways from Vanguard’s tumultuous but formative life cycle from which any developer in the MMO and RPGs genres can benefit. The first is about understanding scope. I’ve yet to see an online world that matches the size, seamlessness, and feeling of authenticity of that which could be found in Vanguard. No other game - except for perhaps vanilla World of Warcraft - made me enthusiastic about the prospect of leisurely running from one end of the world to the other, just to take in the sights. The amount of content to be experienced, in terms of quests, Diplomacy, crafting, and character progression, was staggering. You could just as easily spend time advancing your character through Vanguard’s three spheres of gameplay as you could leveling alts in completely different world zones.
Vanguard’s scope was a double-edged sword, however, at least for its original developer Sigil Games Online and later, SOE. The amount of attention and care that was put into the game’s thematic vision and world building was not, unfortunately, dedicated towards its polish and update cadence. Vanguard’s launch was a textbook case in how not to release a game, offering a spectacular glimmer of potential that was widely regarded as unplayable. By the time the developers were able to turn things around, most of the player base had set off for greener pastures, and the game encountered a steep climb to bring users back in. Quite simply, as amazing as Vanguard’s world was in concept, its developers bit off more than they could chew in implementation, and the launch product’s polish suffered because of it.
Related to this issue of scope is the game’s original monetization model, which was commensurate with most MMORPGs at the time with a box price and monthly subscription. Vanguard came on the scene at a crucial time in MMO proliferation, and because of all of its launch issues, just could not compete with other top-tier games on the market. SOE stubbornly clung to the game’s subscription fee for a good long while, whether because it ensured a steady trickle of cash into their coffers or because it required too much development and design power to implement a cash shop. Yet, with no content or feature updates for months (or years?) and very little dev communication with the hardcore player base, there was very little incentive for existing users to keep paying $14.99 per month. Even less so for newbies.
I don’t think that launching Vanguard as a free-to-play product would have solved its content woes. I do think that the adherence to a subscription model created a vicious cycle, wherein the game did not consistently bring in enough new subscribers to warrant more continued development, which in turn did not engender new players to shell out money for what was considered to be a maintenance mode game. Because of this scenario, Vanguard languished for a long time, until SOE reallocated staff to work on the title and relaunch it with a free-to-play model.
The staff restructuring may have proven to be too little, too late for Vanguard, but it did signify an effort on SOE’s part to remedy what was possibly the game’s most glaring issue: a lack of centralized leadership and communication. For too long, no one outside of the company knew who was in charge of Vanguard, what was happening with it, when was going to be the next update, or if the game was going to be shut down. I’d like to think that someone at SOE knew the answers to all of these questions at some point, but the reality is that the game’s community would go for long stretches without so much as a peep from the developers. Other than truly poor game design or blatant dishonesty, I can’t think of a more harmful scenario for a growing and dedicated online community. MMORPGs, like any product that has a life cycle far beyond its release, require someone to steer the ship at all times, and offer at least some degree of transparency and communication with players.
If there are three things that developers can learn from Vanguard, I would categorize them as defining scope, deciding upon monetization, and providing leadership. Create a scope for a game world that has the ability to inspire as Vanguard’s has, but can still be supported and sustained by your budget and staff. Choose a monetization model that will work for you in the long term, and have backup plans in place in the case that the market or your game community changes. Most importantly, establish centralized leadership and communication so that the player base can get used to and appreciate some consistency. Even if they might complain or disagree with your decisions, at the very least they’ll always feel like they’re still in the loop.
Of course, there are a lot of other things that Vanguard could have done better, like having better character models or any real sort of PvP. Likewise, the game had some very cool things like flying mounts and gravelly Vulmane voices. What do you think developers can learn from Vanguard, and what from Vanguard would you like to see in other games?
Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.