Damnation or Redemption?
Sigil and SOE
An Interview with Sigil's
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle and
Kat "LadySirse" Spink
It was the shock felt 'round the gaming
world: on May 5, 2006, the developers of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes,
Sigil Games Online (SGO), severed ties with their publisher, Microsoft
Game Studios, and announced a co-publishing partnership with Sony
Online Entertainment (SOE) in the name of creative freedom. Whether
Sigil sold Vanguard's soul to the devil, or bought it back, is a debate
that rages among Vanguard's fan base and the gaming public at large.
We peppered Sigil's April Jones, senior manager of marketing and public
relations, with hard-hitting questions about the co-publishing
agreement, the decisions behind it, and the direction of Vanguard in
its partnership with SOE.
[Ten Ton Hammer]: When we last spoke at GDC in late March, you
described Microsoft as being "highly supportive." Did something change
between then and when Microsoft sold the publishing rights to Sigil,
who in turn entered a co-publishing deal with SOE? Do the rumors about
Microsoft wanting to put Vanguard exclusively on Vista play into this
[April Jones]: Microsoft is actually still highly supportive of
Vanguard so that statement is still true. The game remains a premier
title for the Windows platform, after all. So their belief in the game
and desire to see it succeed hasn’t changed at all. However, we started
to realize that we had differing opinions about a number of specific
topics ranging from marketing tactics and our presence at E3 to when
our release date should be; nothing related to Vista was an issue in
the decision to part ways. It’s been interesting to see the creative
efforts behind some of the conspiracy theories though. I only wish our
dealings were that exciting and full of intrigue .
[TTH] Sigil representatives
repeatedly say they're excited about the deal - that the move to
co-publish Vanguard: Saga of Heroes will allow Sigil to "take the game
in the direction they want to go with it." Does this imply that
Microsoft was imposing (or sought to impose) creative strictures on the
game's development? Beyond the "direction" statement, what benefits can
you tell us about so that the community can be a part of the excitement?
[AJ]: Stick with me on the example I’m about to give. I’m engaged to be
married and we are going to pay for the wedding ourselves. I’m thrilled
about that because it means that no one else can hold sway with what we
want to do. If my parents were paying a part, would they force me to
have a style of wedding that I wouldn’t want? Probably not. But I love
the fact that no one can say “well, we’re paying for this so I insist
that your Great Aunt Millie and her 5 kids be invited.” Would that be
the end of the world? No, but what if inviting Aunt Millie, whom I’ve
never met, means I can’t invite some college friends I haven’t seen in
a long time. If someone else is paying for the gig, that’s not a big
enough battle to be worth fighting, but I’d probably grit my teeth
every time I saw her there sitting at the table where I would have had
one of my friends.
There are many reasons why Sigil feels more
“free” under the deal with SOE. Microsoft was funding our development
and when that is the case, the group that controls the paycheck
understandably has more control of the product. In the same vein as my
example above, we are now financially independent so that we alone hold
the control of our purse strings. That, by its very nature, means that
we are more free to make our own choices than we were previously. Now
that we are co-publishers with SOE and we are funding our own
development, we stand on equal footing with them. For example, if we
don’t like the direction an ad is taking, our concerns will be taken
into consideration just as much as if Smed voiced the concerns himself.
As supportive as Microsoft was, Sigil was still just “the developer,”
now we are also the publisher. That’s a major change that the community
may not see initially, but it’s a big difference for us and for the
[TTH]: Sigil had such a reputation
for being so up-front and involved with the Vanguard playerbase that
many felt blindsided by the sudden late-on-a-Friday announcement of the
co-publishing move. In your view, Was the way the news was disclosed
the best way to inform the community? Or in retrospect, could steps
have been taken (from a PR standpoint) to soften the blow?
[AJ]: In my 10 years of doing public relations, I can tell you that
trying to plan PR tactics around signing business deals is always a
tricky thing to do. It always takes longer to get everything finalized.
We had a plan to do a more structured announcement but we couldn’t go
public with the news until certain documents were signed. The
negotiations moved as quickly as they could but we had a deadline: E3
was fast approaching. We wanted to be part of SOE’s booth, and they
were planning for us just in case it all happened in time, but we
certainly couldn’t be there without first announcing the deal.
At the same time, we wanted to be sure that we would be able to camp
out on the boards and respond to emails from our community. We knew
there would be a lot of concerns and by Monday, most of the Sigil staff
that was answering these questions had to head up to LA for E3.
So, the documents were signed Friday evening and one hour later, we put
out the news. That gave us the weekend for Brad [Sigil Games Online and
Vanguard executive producer, Brad McQuaid] in particular to answer
every question that came from the community so they would have our full
attention. We certainly wish we could have had a bit more flexibility,
in fact, we wanted to have an IRC chat set up ahead of time along with
a bunch of other things. However, we did a pretty darn good job
considering the time constraints we had.
[TTH]: Why SOE? Were there other
potential co-publishing candidates (NCSoft, for example) whose mere
mention wouldn't nettle longtime Verant fans and others ill-disposed
toward SOE who are such a part of the Vanguard community?
[AJ]: We did talk to several other potential co-publishing candidates
and SOE truly came out on top. Since so many of us used to work there,
myself included, we know better than anyone what their strengths and
weaknesses are. They also know the same about us. We were able to
structure a deal that takes advantage of everyone’s strengths. SOE
certainly knows how to bring an MMO to market. They know how to host a
beta, launch the game, and then keep it running for year after year
after year. That expertise is exactly what we need and that is what SOE
will supply for Vanguard. We feel that we have particular strengths:
community relations, PR, and customer service. Both parties easily
agreed that the game design remains under Sigil’s direction.
As it happens, Microsoft agreed as well. As we came closer to
launch, Microsoft saw our strengths and weaknesses and looked at their
own internal situation and found that what we really needed was someone
with more MMO specific publishing experience. So this was a decision
that really came out of a collective desire to do the right thing for
Vanguard and for all the companies involved.
The other huge benefit that I don’t think many people thought about
beforehand is that we know each other. It has seriously been a painless
transition because we know exactly who to call. We were actually at SOE
last week to capture footage for a new video (yes, another video is on
the way!) and our brand manager (marketing lead) was out getting his
wisdom teeth removed. Since I used to work there, I know the AV guys. A
couple people from the marketing team dropped by to say hi, but they
essentially let us do our thing. That wouldn’t have happened if it was
a company where the relationship was brand new. Many of our tech people
used to work at SOE, so they know who to call about transition
questions. It’s honestly just so easy; and with any other company, it
could have been a nightmare since we’re already deep into beta testing.
[TTH]: The deal might be
structured to limit SOE to support functions such as marketing and
installation support, but many can't fathom that SOE would ante up
without some level of creative stake in the game.
What is your response to those
that feel that Sigil's repeated explanation that SOE will not be
involved in the development of the game is just so much lip-service?
Can you win these folks back prior to launch, or is your strategy to
let Vanguard speak for itself at release?
[AJ]: I don’t like to speak for SOE, but I would imagine that they saw
a good opportunity with an experienced team and a game that is nearing
launch and sought to capitalize on it. They’re not looking to
tamper with a good thing any more than we are looking to dictate how
they run their servers. As I said above, we are both interested
in taking advantage of each others’ strengths. And while Brad has
done everything he can to reassure folks that what he’s saying is true,
at this point, if people are still skeptical I would humbly ask them to
wait until launch and see what they think – I think they’ll be pleased.
[TTH]: Many long time fans and
followers of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes are not so concerned with the
short term ramifications of this deal with SOE. They are looking
further down the road, two or three years, and worry that a repeat of
the Verant sell out to SOE will occur. What reassurance can you offer
the community that this is different, that even if key players move to
work on a new title or retire, that Sigil Games Online will remain in
possession of Vanguard?
[AJ]: The Verant/SOE situation has many more layers than what a lot of
people realize. The idea for EverQuest was initiated by John Smedley at
a company called Sony Interactive Studios (SIS). Brad McQuaid and Steve
Clover were brought in to SIS as the first staff to craft a design. So,
both John Smedley and Sony were key factors in getting it off the
ground. Then Verant spun off into its own company, and later an offer
was made for them to work under a new division of Sony Pictures--Sony
Online Entertainment. There was a lot of back and forth between various
Sony divisions and different names, including 989 Studios, and so the
full story is quite lengthy and I’d need to put a venn diagram together
to fully explain it all. I’m merely poi
nting it out because it wasn’t Verant’s game
to start with, and that seems to be a common misunderstanding. Verant
spun off from the Sony company that started EverQuest and then ended up
being re-purchased by another Sony company later on.
However, Sigil was started because Brad missed having hands on
involvement with the games. He became part of upper management at SOE,
overseeing many games, and he lost that feeling of creating a game
day-to-day. He loves that here at Sigil and, since he’s seen the
alternative, I don’t see him changing his mind. We are also working on
other game ideas so Vanguard will not be our only MMO. The current SOE
deal is only for Vanguard. For any new projects it might make sense to
include SOE in the pool of candidates for a publishing partner, but
there is nothing in this deal that requires us to do so.
[TTH]: Does handling the PR end of
this situation bear any similarity to the disasterous Anarchy Online
launch (the PR fallout of which you handled so well) back in 2002?
[AJ]: Wow--what a question! The short answer is that the two situations
aren’t even close. (For those of you who don’t know, I was the PR
manager for Funcom during the Anarchy Online launch so I had quite a
lot on my plate there.) With AO, Funcom management admittedly made some
poor decisions and frankly messed up the launch of a highly anticipated
game. Trying to recover from a failed launch was a huge undertaking and
the only reason it bounced back was because the team worked their tails
off to fix everything. It was tough dealing with all of the complaints
because they were valid. It was tough getting slammed in the press
because it was valid. We screwed up and that wasn’t easy to take from a
PR front. We just buckled down and tried to make it right.
Sigil teaming up with SOE is certainly a topic that we approached with
caution but it was a deal made for the better of the game. So, the two
topics aren’t even close! We knew how the Vanguard community would
react and we had to make sure that we were able to honestly answer
every concern that they had. If we didn’t believe ourselves that this
was a good deal for Vanguard, we wouldn’t have been able to convince
anyone else. So, in that sense it was easy. As soon as I saw what SOE
was responsible for, I realized it was all of the things they are
really good at. I think we’ve been able to point that out and because
we’ve been honest and open our community is sticking with us. When your
company is doing the right thing, it’s easy to be the PR manager.
So, let’s see: explaining how a deal is good for a game versus
answering stacks of Better Business Bureau complaints by hand and
answering hundreds of emails – every day – calling me every name in the
book. Hmmm. No comparison, but thanks for opening that old wound! ;)
[TTH]: Aside from responding
directly to the furor that the deal caused, is there anything you'd
like to say to the community about the future of the deal?
[AJ]:: Well, there really isn’t much else to tell about the deal, to be
honest. SOE is working on finding a European publisher (we’ll get the
low-down on their marketing plans later this week); we’re working hard
to get all of our transition stuff lined up; and everyone is looking
forward to launching a great game.
I do want to thank any of our community members who may be reading this
though. We know that for many of you this was tough news to hear. We
truly thank you all for listening and for sticking by us. We won’t let