Thursday, May 17, 2007

Vanguard: The Train Wreck Chronicles

It has been generally acknowledged that the premature release of Vanguard was a train wreck.

I've got no skin in the game, so to speak, because I haven't played it, but that appears to be the general consensus.

I didn't think that was a huge surprise, so I hadn't written about it, but the unfortunate saga has gotten pretty juicy in the last few days. Here are a few links to walk you through what happened, and they are interesting reading.

A little history first.

Brad McQuaid was one of the lead designers of EverQuest (he was also the producer, as well as the lead programmer at one time). I thought EverQuest was a fascinating game until my monk reached level eighteen and I realized that if I played for another hour I would slash my wrists.

But I digress.

EverQuest was incredibly successful (for quite a while), and it turned Brad McQuaid into a superstar. In 2002, he formed Sigil Games with Jeff Butler, and they started working on a new online game called Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. A publishing deal was announced with Microsoft, but in May of last year, Microsoft bailed. Vanguard then became a co-publishing deal between Sigil and Sony Online Entertainment.

The game officially launched on January 30, 2007. Six months too early.

Don't just take my word for it. Take a look at a few excerpts from Metacritic (average review score: 68).
PC Gamer: Sadly, I can't score the game based on what it might become. Right now, Vanguard requires that you turn a blind eye to too many nagging issues to fully enjoy it.

Game Shark: There is clearly an audience for this sort game, and the base design certainly has its share of interesting (and fun) concepts, but it was clearly not ready for public consumption.

Euro Gamer: For now, Vanguard is a game which has plenty to offer a brave adventurer with a stunning PC. Aside from any design or content problems we've identified with the game, potential buyers need to be aware that they're entering a world which, as a prominent WOW character would have it, is not prepared.

GameSpy: There's potential for a very good game here, and we've had our share of both highs and lows with the gameplay, but the sheer number of gameplay bugs, graphical issues, and poor technical performance make it difficult to recommend in its current state.

There's plenty more where that came from, including--surprise--Brad McQuaid:
Had I had the financial resources, ability to place the product later, etc. I would have given us about 3 more months to get more polish in, more high level content in, and to distance ourselves from the WoW expansion.

He says three months, not six, but everyone I've talked to says "six months early--at least."

I've said this before, but as a consumer, no matter how much I like a developer (and I like a lot of them), I don't give a shit about what prevented them from finishing a game before it got released.

Here's an example. I like Ben Brinkman--he's a terrific designer--and MLB2K7 is a buggy mess that STILL doesn't have a patch, nearly three months after it was released. There is no conceivable excuse for that in my world--the world where the people who plunk down sixty dollars for a game live.

Well, unless there's a giant sticker on the game box that says "THIS GAME WAS NOT FINISHED BEFORE SHIPPING"--but I don't think I've ever seen one of those.

So when Brad talks (it's a long, long post) about how the game had to be released, he can talk to the hand. There is an implied good-faith agreement between developers and customers that is terribly abused when a game gets released before it is ready.

That's not why I'm writing about this, though. I'm writing because post-launch, we get to soap opera stage really quickly--outside the game.

On April 30, McQuaid posted about the "future" of Sigil and Vanguard, including a reference to an official statement released by Sony Online Entertainment:
"SOE is in discussions with Sigil regarding the future of Vanguard and Sigil Games in Carlsbad. Talks are going well and first and foremost, our primary concern right now is what's best for Vanguard and its community. We want to ensure that this game and its community have a healthy future. The specifics that we work out over the coming days will all be with that single goal in mind."

Yesterday, SOE announced that they had purchased " the assets of Sigil Games Online, including Vanguard: Saga of Heroes." Coincident with that acquisition, all the Sigil employees were taken out into a parking lot and fired.

Fifty of those Sigil employees are apparently being re-hired by Sony in some capacity to provide continuing support for the game.

Suddenly, though, all kinds of very interesting information is emerging about the brutally difficult development of the game. And it appears that Brad McQuaid had been essentially MIA at Sigil for months.

It's juicy, juicy stuff.

For a fairly detailed description of what was going on at Sigil, has an interview with an ex-Sigil employee here. Here are two excerpts:
What people don't understand, is the game that went out the door was literally created in the last 15 months. Design worked 12-18 hour days for 9+ months. Coding and Art worked insane hours as well, all trying to actually get something playable out the door.

Here's the second excerpt: How was QA treated through the course of development?
Ex-Sigil: QA? QA.
Ex-Sigil: QA was one person up until about November... ONE. What.
Ex-Sigil: 100% serious. What? How? This is an MMOG.
Ex-Sigil: Vanguard had one internal tester for probably 95% of the design cycle.

Like I said, it's juicy and fascinating at the same time.

DQ reader Darren Love has also been covering this (and very well) over at The Common Sense Gamer, and today he has a post from an ex-Sigil employee as well, which you can read here. He also has a thorough analysis of the current state of the game here.

I wrote this post last night, and while I was making one last edit, I saw that now there's a long interview with none other than Brad McQuaid over at It just makes the game outside the game even better, and you can read it here.

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