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Ease of Access - Case Studies in Accessibility and Popularity of MMOGs - Page 2

Updated Mon, Oct 05, 2009 by Sardu

A Case Study in Inaccessibility: Where Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Went Wrong

by Karen "Shayalyn" Hertzberg

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes traveled a bumpy road to its launch in late January, 2007. A year prior to launch, many fans viewed Vanguard as their sandbox-style MMO savior--the predecessor to EverQuest, if not in name, then at least in spirit. But by the middle of February that year, and perhaps even sooner, Vanguard’s status had been downgraded from savior to bitter disappointment as the game bled subscribers. What happened to Vanguard, and why?

Could I play Vanguard?

For a large number of gamers eagerly awaiting Vanguard’s launch, the answer to this question ended up a disappointing no. Vanguard’s system specs, for their time, were quite high. [source] Although Brad McQuaid, co-founder and former CEO of Sigil Games Online, Vanguard’s original developers, often claimed that by the time Vanguard was launched technology would “catch up” and the hardware needed to run the game effectively would be less expensive, this theory didn’t necessarily prove true. McQuaid himself says it best in his blog, utilized mainly as a Vanguard post-mortem:

“Although almost 200,000 people signed up right away, the vast majority of players quit the game by level 2 or 3. This leads me to believe that most peoples’ issue was performance. Yes there were bugs, and yes there were too many servers at launch, making it difficult to find other people and to successfully group. But the biggest issue was that the game simply ran horribly slow.”

Even players with solid PC specs found running Vanguard a challenge. Rushed to release for, according to Sigil and SOE, “financial reasons,” the game was not well optimized and ran poorly even on a well turned out machine. Players fiddled with the game’s graphics options and sites, including Ten Ton Hammer, created fine-tuning guides to help players do some client side optimization of their own, but to little avail.

Could gamers play Vanguard? Many of them, even those who upgraded their PCs in order to run the game, couldn’t; they experienced game-breaking lag and hitching. Vanguards stands today as a case study on how games must be fully optimized, with accessible min specs, at launch…or suffer lost subscribers as a consequence. Although the game is well tuned and playable now, its launch ship has sailed and few players remain to enjoy what its vast seamless worlds have to offer.

Was Vanguard fun?

Was Vanguard easy and enjoyable to play? It depends who you ask. Vanguard offered, and still does offer, a lot to love: its world was beautiful, diverse, and immense; its combat was fun and engaging; and quest lines and lore were compelling enough. There was no shortage of things to do or places to see. Quests were so plentiful that players would often delete some from their logs because there simply wasn’t enough time to get through them all before out-leveling the areas or mobs involved.

But at launch Vanguard’s large seamless world was challenging to explore. Its developers had long supported the idea of “meaningful travel.” Players were supposed to experience lengthy, yet adventure-filled, journeys on horseback or by boat across the vast lands of Telon to get from one locale to the other. But travel turned out to be less-than-meaningful to most players, who found spending precious play time running from point A to point B in order to complete a quest or meet up with a group tedious. Some time later, a “riftway” system was implemented, making travel much easier. But, again, the efforts proved to be too little, too late.

Although aimed at a more hardcore (Sigil liked to use the word “core”) audience, Vanguard wasn’t particularly difficult to play. What it lacked in polish--guild, grouping and even item broker tools seemed rather archaic, even compared to older games like EverQuest 2--it made up for in sheer content. But few players were willing to stumble through the polish and travel roadblocks to reach the end game.

Was Vanguard worth it?

What lay waiting for gamers who did reach Vanguard’s end game? Was high level raiding experience worth the journey to the level cap? While most MMOGs lack a significant amount of end-game content at launch, Vanguard was lacking more so than most. It was more than 6 months after launch that the game saw the implementation of its first raid zone, a 12-man instance called the Ancient Port Warehouse.

Based on forum chatter, players who did see Vanguard through to the end game seemed impressed with the Ancient Port Warehouse (APW), and reviews of the content were largely positive, despite the long wait for its arrival. But once again, the end game focus proved too late to impress most players. By the time the APW arrived, many raiding guilds had given up on Vanguard and either moved back to existing games, or were looking forward to new ones.

Today, Vanguard’s development crew is small, and its updates rather sparse as SOE has pointed most of its development efforts elsewhere. Given the size of the world of Telon, player population on Vanguard’s remaining servers (merged later in 2007 to account for the sharp decline in subscriptions) remains thin, but not non-existent. Players still download the game’s free trial, a zone called the Isle of Dawn, reminiscent of EverQuest II’s Trial of the Isle, which leads them through 10+ levels of quest-driven content.

One might consider Vanguard’s downfall a series of unfortunate circumstances. High minimum spec requirements proved a barrier to entry for many gamers, and those who upgraded their boxes in preparation for Vanguard met with bitter disappointment when they still encountered lag and hitching at release. Although the game had the potential for fun, travel hassles, clunky interfaces and systems, and a general lack of polish put many players off. And end game content was nowhere to be found for power gamers until many months after the Vanguard’s release. Add these things up, and the game that could have been the king of sandbox MMOs ended up a lowly pauper that most gamers now overlook, despite its inherent charm and many improvements.

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