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E3 2006 Preview

Laura Genender Posted:
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They're flying under the Sony banner, find out what this means and more

On Wednesday I started my E3 experience by meeting with Brad McQuaid (President and CEO) and Jeff Butler (President and Executive Producer) of Sigil Games. We met in the Sony Online Entertainment booth and I got to see a demo of Vanguard, their upcoming MMO.

Of course, I had to ask McQuaid and Butler about the new co-publishing contract with Sony Online Entertainment. According to McQuaid and Butler, the cancellation of their Microsoft contract was not done out of anger, and Sigil and Microsoft parted on good terms. Microsoft and Sigil simply had different ideas on the progression of Vanguard, and decided it was better off for both companies if they parted ways.

On to the game features. McQuaid and Butler started out by showing me character customization. All humanoids in the game use the same skeleton base, whether they are an Orc or a Halfling or an Elf. This allows the game to render the same skeleton over and over in different ways, allowing many players or NPCs (all humanoid NPCs use the same system) to be on the screen at once. Whole cities can be populated with individual and unique citizens without stressing the system.

Players can choose from all the fantasy races you would expect, from Wood Elves to Humans to Orcs and Halflings – there are 20 races total. And with tons of customization and options, two Wood Elves can look totally different, allowing each player to have their own individual look.

McQuiad and Butler next showed me the player housing system. Each player can own a house (and only one per player), but they are expensive to upkeep and by no means are players entitled to a house from the start.

Like the character creation system, Vanguard’s houses are very customizable. There are many different plots across the three continents of Vanguard. On these plots, players can build houses of varying designs, then decorate them freely using an easy to use and freeform system that lets you place furniture and objects exactly where you want it. Houses are a perfect place to show off trophies earned during battle – Butler showed me a mounted bear’s head in his house that had come, appropriately, from a battle with a bear. Eventually, houses will also be used for storage and crafting stages, and according to McQuaid, player housing also leads in to player run towns and villages.

Your home is not instanced, but exists in the seamless world of Vanguard, and you can keep people out or let them in by opening or closing the door. You can give other people access to open and close the door of your house as well, and let visitors see your house and trophies though not interact with it.

Next up, we talked travel. Some Vanguard fans – especially those who played EverQuest back in the day – have been concerned by McQuaid’s plans to make travel fun. I asked McQuaid and Butler how they intend to do this.

Players will start earning mounts at level 10. Not all mounts are your typical horses – there are horses of many colors, unicorns, giant canine beasts, ships, and even magnificent flying dragons. As you progress through the levels and must travel farther from towns and outposts, you will be able to purchase faster mounts. Butler hopes that the ratio between mount speed and distance to hunting areas will keep travel time at about 20 minutes tops.

Travel will be through the seamless world of Vanguard, with varying landscapes and environments over the three continents: Thestra, which has a Western Europe feel; Qalia, which has an Arabian feel; and the Kajanese Archipelago, a series of islands with an Oriental feel. To navigate this world, players can travel over land and sea or through the air. Butler showed me an impressive ship on the sea and a giant flying dragon that players won’t see until the upper levels. Also in Vanguard are flying NPCs, so don’t think you’re safe just because you’re not on the ground!

I’m still not sure that travel is fun. Not gruesome, maybe, but pretty scenery and mounts don’t necessarily make it amusing. Butler and McQuaid realize this too, though, and keep an open mind; they said that they were ready to add a teleportation system if necessary.

One innovative travel plan that McQuaid and Butler shared with me is the caravan system. Before logging off, players will be able to attach themselves to a caravan leader. When the player next logs on, they are given the choice of returning to their previous position or popping up where their caravan leader logged off. Even if a player has to go eat dinner or take a break, they can rejoin their party right away without traveling to catch up.

Death in Vanguard will be handled a lot like EverQuest, with corpse retrieval. Unlike EverQuest, all players can bind to Outposts scattered across the land, and respawn at these spots with their mounts and whatever items might have been in their saddlebag. Butler and McQuaid told me that it is expected that players will have more than one set of armor, such as sets with different elemental resistances to be used in different areas. Thus, when a player dies, they may wear their secondary set while running to retrieve their corpse and primary armor set. Note also that players won’t have to be right on top of their corpse to retrieve it; there’s a fairly large radius which, coupled with the seamless, zoneless world, makes it easier than EverQuest retrieval.

Another controversial feature of Vanguard is that, in some quests, especially those for larger groups, players may run into a part of the quest that requires a specific profession to proceed. For example, a goblin diplomat may only be willing to speak to a diplomat of the proper faction, or you might need a certain type of crafter to clear away a landslide. If you don’t have what you need, you either need to find someone who does – or abandon the quest. As McQuaid and Butler see it, players are not entitled to access all content. If you are a soloer – and 20% of the game is solo content, with 60% for groups and 20% for raids – you need to accept that you cannot access group content, or join a group.

Butler also showed me a city in Vanguard. According to him, one Vanguard city contains more than every Unreal level ever made in a commercial project. The cities are full of items, shops, and NPCs with which players can earn faction and work politics. Cities are, in essence, the “dungeons for the diplomats.”

Graphics-wise, there were some impressive features of Vanguard such as character creation, the flying mount, and a few city shots, but the game was not as pretty or polished as I expected. There were a lot of flat, featureless spaces, and objects and scenery didn’t really meld together very well.

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Laura Genender