Managing Fan Expectations - An Interview with Vanguard Founder Brad McQuaid
ItÂs 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 wonÂt 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 theyÂve 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; itÂs 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 thatÂs 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 McQuaidÂs 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 gamerÂs first and
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 heÂd 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 VanguardÂs launch turned out to be a rocky one. SigilÂs 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 Âregime changeÂ 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 SOEÂs lineup just in time for the gaming industryÂs 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 VanguardÂs development continued to chug forward with a dedicated but smaller crew.
Although fans were shaken, many still held fast to McQuaidÂs vision and hoped that Vanguard would deliver the challenging sandbox-style MMO theyÂd been waiting for. Due to what McQuaid dubbed Âfinancial realities,Â SOE rushed Vanguard to launch in January, 2007, and its initial promise fell flat for many fans. Those who werenÂt outraged and disillusioned by the gameÂs 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 thatÂs another article.)
After VanguardÂs 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, bradmcquaid.com.
Did over-hype kill Vanguard? While it was a factor, it certainly wasnÂt the only one. VanguardÂs downfall has been analyzed ad nauseum, so weÂd 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 VanguardÂs 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.
ÂI definitely got caught up in my own hype with Vanguard,Â he admits.
In retrospect he offers this advice to developers: ÂI think itÂs 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.Â
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?
ÂIt depends on how the situation is handled,Â says McQuaid. ÂThe 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 itÂs 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.Â
But how does a developer utilize a hyped fan to his advantage? ÂIf the over-zealous fan has the gameÂs interest at heart, and isnÂt just calling attention to himself, I think the developer should work with him,Â says McQuaid. ÂGive him some exclusive information or making sure he gets into the beta, etc.Â
ItÂs Not Just the Fans...
When it comes to keeping player expectations in line, itÂs not just a gameÂs fans that a dev company has to concern itself with,
EverQuest made Brad McQuaid something of a gaming celebrity.
Although team members working on a game in development are usually just as enthused, if not more so, about it than the people responsible for marketing the game, many dev companies keep most of their teams, with the exception of community managers and PR representatives, off forums to avoid letting anything but PR-approved commentary get out.
ÂI can certainly understand why most developers and publishers keep non-PR people away from the message boards,Â McQuaid commented. ÂThey donÂt want to have to put forth the extra effort of media training a bunch of their people. They also donÂt want any one person identifiable with their product--they want the consumer to think of the company, not, say, the lead designer.Â
But McQuaid and SigilÂs upper management, with a few exceptions like Masten, were not quick to silence their team members during VanguardÂs development, preferring to let them have their say when it came to interacting with the fan community.
ÂMy philosophy has always been to put the extra effort [of media training for staff members] in,Â says McQuaid. ÂI want to see employees earn some name cache. This might not benefit the company directly, but I think it helps the industry overall. Look at movies in our society. I think the public benefits in knowing who produced a film, or who is starring in the film. If we only knew about the film company behind a movie I think that would be a disservice.Â
McQuaidÂs thinking is perhaps a bit outside the norm, however. While fans certainly do seem to appreciate the opportunity to communicate with a gameÂs developers one-on-one, the growing belief among dev companies seems to be that staff should work silently in the trenches. The voices for any given MMOG are often those approved by the gameÂs public relations and marketing team. Written interviews often pass PR approval before being returned to media outlets, and impromptu communication with fans, outside of fan events, is generally hard to come by.
There seems to be a growing cynicism among MMOG fans that most of what they hear about an upcoming game amounts to nothing but PR spin.
ÂPR spin is another form of hype,Â says McQuaid. ÂBut the hype is only bad if you donÂt deliver. So the key is to hype the
"Marketing and PR are important parts of a product launch. Hyping a game is crucial, just as long as your game lives up to the hype. So I think the problem isn't necessarily with getting people excited, it's with not letting them down."
ItÂs a sound philosophy, but it seems a tough one to follow. Fans have grown accustomed to hearing about promised features, or classes, or even races and starting cities, which inevitably donÂt make their way into the game by launch. And despite the reality that a development company only pulls out a promised feature when dire circumstances demand it, these fans can be less than forgiving.
Sales people have a creed: Under-promise and over-deliver. But to disillusioned fans, developers sometimes seem to do the opposite--they over-promise, yet under-deliver, leading to disappointment. Is it possible to prevent this scenario?
ÂI think sales people are often less attached to the project,Â McQuaid insists. ÂAs a developer, you pretty much fall in love with your game. You pour your heart and soul into it. ItÂs very easy to drink your own Kool-aid.Â And again, he insists that the key to avoiding this scenario is to never promise something you canÂt deliver. ÂEasier said than done, of course,Â he adds.
This One Time, On the Official Forums...
In the past couple years, some large MMO titles, including Vanguard and Warhammer, have launched without official forums. Players often criticize this move, claiming that the lack of official forums means developers are refusing to acknowledge the inevitable crash that happens when stratospheric fan expectations meet with the reality of the live game. Is this fan argument valid? Or are there compelling reasons for games to launch without official forums? If discussion forums are a tool for managing player expectations, how do developers keep expectations in line without them?
ÂI think the ÂlogicÂ behind not having official forums is that disgruntled players are more likely to rant and rave on an official site than elsewhere,Â says McQuaid. ÂBut this philosophy is a two edged sword. Having been involved in projects where both philosophies have been adopted, I now think that having an official site does more good than harm.Â
Keeping Hype Under Control
Hype is essential to the success of any MMOG, but building excitement for a game without over-hyping fans is an art few development companies seem able to master. Inevitably, fan expectations soar and the launching game faces the daunting task of living up to them. In the end, is it possible for a developer to keep the hype factor from spinning out of control?
ÂI think we can control it to a degree, but not completely,Â says McQuaid. ÂMarketing and PR are important parts of a product launch. Hyping a game is crucial, just as long as your game lives up to the hype. So I think the problem isnÂt necessarily with getting people excited, rather, itÂs with not letting them down.Â