Managing Fan Expectations - An Interview with Vanguard Founder Brad McQuaid
Its 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 wont 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 theyve 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; its 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 thats 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
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 McQuaids 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 gamers first and
He managed the development team from EQs
inception until its launch, at which point he took on the role of
executive producer for the games first few expansions. At the time, EQ
was developed by Verant Interactive, of which McQuaid was vice
president. After Sony Online Entertainment, EQs 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 hed 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 Vanguards launch turned out to be a rocky one. Sigils
first publishing deal with Microsoft was dissolved, and the word from
Sigil was that the two parted on good terms. In his href="http://bradmcquaid.com/Brad_McQuaid/Blog/Entries/2009/6/29_Vanguard__Post-mortem_Part_1.html">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
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 SOEs
lineup just in time for the gaming industrys biggest tradeshow at the
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 href="http://f13.net/index.php?itemid=562">debunked or
verified, and Vanguards
development continued to chug forward with a dedicated but smaller
Although fans were shaken, many still held fast to McQuaids vision and
hoped that Vanguard would deliver the challenging sandbox-style MMO
theyd 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 werent outraged and
disillusioned by the games 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
After Vanguards 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, href="http://www.bradmcquaid.com">bradmcquaid.com.
Did over-hype kill Vanguard? While it was a factor, it certainly wasnt
the only one. Vanguards downfall has been analyzed style="font-style: italic;">ad nauseum, so wed
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
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 Vanguards 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
I definitely got caught up in my own hype with Vanguard, he admits.
In retrospect he offers this advice to developers: I think its 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 its 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
But how does a developer utilize a hyped fan to his advantage? If the
over-zealous fan has the games interest at heart, and isnt 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.
Its Not Just the Fans...
When it comes to keeping player expectations in line, its not just a
games fans that a dev company has to concern itself with,
made Brad McQuaid something of a gaming celebrity.
companys own team. Todd Nino Masten, the man behind the
oft-acclaimed music in Vanguard, was notoriously vocal about the game
on the Fires of Heaven guild forum, to the point where href="http://www.fohguild.org/forums/692931-post2254.html">he
admitted, I've been strongly encouraged to stop posting here
likely get lectured or have disciplinary action taken against me for
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.
I can certainly understand why most developers and publishers keep
non-PR people away from the message boards, McQuaid commented. They
dont want to have to put forth the extra effort of media training a
bunch of their people. They also dont want any one person identifiable
with their product--they want the consumer to think of the company,
not, say, the lead designer.
But McQuaid and Sigils upper management, with a few exceptions like
Masten, were not quick to silence their team members during Vanguards
development, preferring to let them have their say when it came to
interacting with the fan community.
My philosophy has always been to put the extra effort [of media
training for staff members] in, says McQuaid. I 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.
McQuaids thinking is perhaps a bit outside the norm, however. While
fans certainly do seem to appreciate the opportunity to communicate
with a games 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 games
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
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.
PR spin is another form of hype, says McQuaid. But the hype is only
bad if you dont deliver. So the key is to hype the
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
features of the
game that you are confident you're going to deliver on.
Its 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 dont 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?
I think sales people are often less attached to the project, McQuaid
insists. As a developer, you pretty much fall in love with your game.
You pour your heart and soul into it. Its very easy to drink your own
Kool-aid. And again, he insists that the key to avoiding this scenario
is to never promise something you cant deliver. Easier said than
done, of course, 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?
I think the logic behind not having official forums is that
disgruntled players are more likely to rant and rave on an official
site than elsewhere, says McQuaid. But 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
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?
I think we can control it to a degree, but not completely, says
McQuaid. 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 isnt necessarily with getting people
excited, rather, its with not letting them down.
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Game Page.