Managing Fan Expectations - An Interview with Vanguard Founder Brad McQuaid

Updated Mon, Nov 02, 2009 by Shayalyn

It’s inevitable--as any MMOG nears launch, excitement builds to a fever pitch and forums, from official forums to fansites to network communities like Ten Ton Hammer, buzz with activity. Fans who have not had the fortune to experience beta hang on every word of those who have. Opinions abound: the game is fantastic; the game sucks; the game has potential, but likely won’t realize it until the first live update or two. Those with critical opinions are branded haters; those with positive opinions are branded fanboys. Players who calmly withhold judgment until they’ve had a chance to get their hands on the game are few and far between.

And even the even-keeled player who is withholding judgment has one thing in common with the others: expectations. While the degree to which we hold expectations may vary, we all have them; it’s impossible not to. But sometimes the collective expectations of fans anticipating a certain game grow out of proportion to what the game can and will deliver, and that’s when disappointment sets in.

Every developer is tasked with the challenge of generating excitement for a game without creating so much hype that expectations for the game exceed the reality of it. Late in 2006, Brad McQuaid, co-creator of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and CEO of the now defunct Sigil Games Online, was working to meet that challenge. Whether or not he and his team, and later Sony Online Entertainment, who signed on as publisher and later acquired the rights to Vanguard, succeeded is a matter of opinion. We talked with Brad McQuaid on the topic of managing expectations and tried to gain his own perspective.

The Man Behind Vanguard

Before we get into Brad McQuaid’s opinions on managing player expectations, we should tell you a bit more about who he is. McQuaid is not only the man behind Vanguard, but also the original producer and co-designer of many a gamer’s first and

Brad McQuaid

best-loved MMOG, EverQuest. He managed the development team from EQ’s inception until its launch, at which point he took on the role of executive producer for the game’s first few expansions. At the time, EQ was developed by Verant Interactive, of which McQuaid was vice president. After Sony Online Entertainment, EQ’s publisher, acquired Verant, McQuaid assumed the role of vice president of premium games responsible for EverQuest, EverQuest 2, EverQuest Online Adventures, PlanetSide, and Star Wars: Galaxies.

Brad left SOE in October, 2001 and decided to take a brief break from game development. But, after a while, he was eager to work on another MMOG (he often stated to the Vanguard community that he’d dearly missed the creative, idea-generating part of the development process), and he founded Sigil Games Online with former EQ cohort, Jeff Butler.

The road to Vanguard’s launch turned out to be a rocky one. Sigil’s first publishing deal with Microsoft was dissolved, and the word from Sigil was that the two parted on good terms. In his recent blog, McQuaid states that the problem arose when a “regime change” within Microsoft interfered with a verbal agreement between the two that Sigil would have the funding and support necessary to make a top-tier MMOG.

The Sigil team continued work on Vanguard, but in order to meet payroll and pay the mounting bills, they needed a publisher. They cut a deal with Sony Online Entertainment, which managed to get them into SOE’s lineup just in time for the gaming industry’s biggest tradeshow at the time--E3 2006.

Sigil continued to struggle financially, and eventually sold the rights to Vanguard to SOE. In mid-May 2007 over half of the original Sigil staff were herded to the Sigil parking lot and summarily fired. McQuaid was not in the office when the firings occurred. The rumor mill churned out stories and accusations, some of which McQuaid either debunked or verified, and Vanguard’s development continued to chug forward with a dedicated but smaller crew.

Although fans were shaken, many still held fast to McQuaid’s vision and hoped that Vanguard would deliver the challenging sandbox-style MMO they’d been waiting for. Due to what McQuaid dubbed “financial realities,” SOE rushed Vanguard to launch in January, 2007, and its initial promise fell flat for many fans. Those who weren’t outraged and disillusioned by the game’s performance issues and lack of polish noted that Vanguard had great potential, and hoped that in time, and through various patches and updates, the game would deliver. (It has, but that’s another article.)

After Vanguard’s launch, although McQuaid was said to have taken on an advisory role with SOE, he vanished from the public eye and resurfaced only recently with his website and blog,

Did over-hype kill Vanguard? While it was a factor, it certainly wasn’t the only one. Vanguard’s downfall has been analyzed ad nauseum, so we’d like to focus instead on what 15 plus years of MMOG-building experience has taught the man behind the game, Brad McQuaid, about reining in hype.

Hop on the Hype Machine

When it comes to building excitement about a MMOG, Brad McQuaid has certainly done his share. He was a well known personality during his EverQuest heyday, and during Vanguard’s development, he was eager to discuss the game on its official forum as well as on community and fansites. But was he able to contain that excitement to avoid over-hyping Vanguard and

The box art for Vanguard was created by acclaimed fantasy artist Keith Parkinson, who passed away shortly before Vanguard launched.

generating higher expectations than the game could meet?

“I definitely got caught up in my own hype with Vanguard,” he admits.

In retrospect he offers this advice to developers: “I think it’s very important to hype only features that you are positive will make it into the game. As development progresses one becomes surer of what will and will not make it into the released game. So, over time, you can reveal more and more about the game with confidence. That said, I think a certain degree of fan-generated over-hype is inevitable.”

And fan over-hype can indeed be a problem. With any MMO, there are certain well-informed fans who emerge as evangelists for the game, talking it up and defending it on official and other discussion forums. Do these evangelists, who think the game and its developers can do no wrong, affect the perception of other fans, making it more difficult for developers to keep expectations in line?

“It depends on how the situation is handled,” says McQuaid.  “The developer can help manage expectations not only by not over-hyping themselves, but they can also reach out to these zealous and high-visibility fans and work with them.  If the zealous fan is really working hard to be visible, and to hype your game, then I think it’s well worth it to reach out to them on a personal level, shaping the relationship such that he or she is indeed a boon and not a detriment.”

But how does a developer utilize a hyped fan to his advantage? “If the over-zealous fan has the game’s interest at heart, and isn’t just calling attention to himself, I think the developer should work with him,” says McQuaid. “Give him some exclusive information or making sure he gets into the beta, etc.”

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