Aiming at Vanguard

by on Oct.23, 2006, under games design, mmo, mmorpg, WoW


Quiz. What do these three things have in common?

a) Hockey
b) Artillery
c) MMORPG Design

Give up?

The answer : it’s where you aim your shot.

In the immediacy of hockey, players don’t pass to where their teammate is, but where they’ll be in the next 0.5 seconds. In artillery, shots follow a ballistic trajectory. In sum, the game isn’t won by playing the current game. It’s won by anticipation.

This is no less true in MMORPG design. And as Darniaq so eloquently put it, don’t design based on what’s here. Predict it.

Easy to say, awesomely hard to do. Game development overflows with risk and difficulty. MMORPG’s, even more so. That’s why the expert game creators get the budgets, limousines and caviar : because they’ve got that “magical inductive instinct”. They’re the type that can sustain the fires of consumer entertainment. What’s fun, what’s not. What’s incoming. What’s out.

Depending on your point of view, this is someone like Brad McQuaid.

Everquest co-creator. An industry veteran. He’s proven, he’s eloquent, and knows what he’s talking about in MMORPGs. With the financial support and experience at Sony Online Entertainment, he and his team at Sigil Games could tear up the genre and spit it back out at us without even trying. They’ve got it all.


It pains me to say, but I fear that the “Vanguard : Saga of Heroes” vision is fatally flawed.

Their mistake? Designing for today. From what I’ve heard so far, it’s feature-for-feature an answer to WoW.

“Well,” you may argue, “there are distinct requirements that exist for fantasy-themed MMORPGs”. True. And Vanguard has them in spades. But if you look at their “official feature list”, you’ll see each element as a clear evolutionary successor to other MMORPG favourites. Delving deeper into the Vanguard story, I can tell you it’s even more so.

Yet, I cannot fault them for doing that. It’s what the players want, right?


  • A vast and detailed world…
  • Create and customize your character…
  • Choose your path from 15 classes…
  • Dynamic reactive combat system…

  • Dozens of unique mounts…
  • Talk your way to the top as a diplomat…
  • Interactive tradeskills…
  • Player houses…

Have we seen this stuff before?

They’ve bet their future on the altar of WoW and EQ (and the rest of the Diku gang). Where’s the innovation here? Or is it missing because their “killer edge” is being kept under wraps?


Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s the case. This is not the WoW killer that I had hoped. It seems more like a “WoW alternative”.

From this list, I see :

  • Tiny, incremental steps in the evolution of the MMORPG genre.
  • Tell-tale keywords, “build”, “collect”, and “curry favor”. I detect the vile stench of a hardcore time-axis.
  • No prominent story arc.
  • A laundry-list of MMORPG fantasy fodder, without anything new at all.

This isn’t so bad, if this is indeed the game that people want to play. Having glimpsed some aspects of Vanguard’s beta… I’m a little worried. What is frustrating for me is that it could have been much, much, much more.

So much more.

Vanguard today, from a secret source :

Tradeskills are insane. I mean just mindboggling insane… I kid you not, but just for mining a “shale deposit” you get different mining moves based on your skill, including fricken’ mining combos which have openers, bridgers and finishers, and flanking bonuses if you have a group member on the other side… It’s nuts.


This is the type of incremental thinking that disappoints me. If Sigil were thinking outside the box, they’d allow the player to dig through the dirt (or something) rather than simply implementing a spot-and-click mining feature. Combat-style interaction for mining??

This direction in design is, to put it bluntly, additive. It is squarely aimed at the present. Why not change how the ore is found and harvested? Give us mine carts and shovels, not icons that we have to “fight with”. My fear is that Vanguard is rife with this type of additive thinking.

As another example, we have the auction house. Buy, sell, bid, view. Easy right? Why can’t we do this via the web, too?


This auction house application was built by WoW players. It is maintained… manually. Hint for McQuaid – when you see something like this done by enterprising players, follow suit. Take it one step further, and you’re interacting with it via your mobile phone. WoW can’t do it, and neither Vanguard.

And that’s essentially my point. I want to play this game. The look of it is beautiful, and I like what McQuaid has to say about things.

With the kickass team at Sigil, with someone as smart as Brad Mcquaid at the helm, with artists, money, servers, and oodles of time to create the perfect MMORPG, we get a… hardcore fantasy grinding game. Yes, another one.

Is innovation really this difficult? Please prove me wrong, Sigil.

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14 Comments for this entry

  • covert.c.

    Funny you should ask, as I think someone sorta broached this topic in the forums. I'm keen on NWN2, Dark Messiah and Age of Conan...some of them are MMORPGs and some not.

    If b1alpha isn't into swords and sorcery, dont' hesitate to get into Splinter Cell. I'm a huge fan of the series and intend on picking this up too. And it's got multiplayer.
  • Uno

    Dont forget b1Alpha it must be Multiplayer.Basicly me n B1 have gotten bored of DoW DarkCrusade. He dont want to play no more sword n sorcery games so he refuses to buy NWN2....a quandary
  • b1alpha

    This is kind of unrelated, but I have a question since you are doing a review of a game I may have perchased, had the review been more positive. If you could recomend a game right now, which one would it be?
  • covert.c.

    @Uno : Do you mean the forums login? Unfortunately, that has to stay as-is, lest I spend the rest of my life deleting spam.

    @digi :

    Wise words, indeed.

    The way I see it is that Quake -> Unreal -> HalfLife (and so on) each represent the major inflection points of the FPS genre. The remaining dozens are the clones. These games are proof that refinement and adjustment have their place, without necessitating the need for growing a new foot. And that's basically what I'm saying here. WoW is an inflection point for MMORPGs, much like Merdian59, Ultima Online and EverQuest before it. Great strides, swift polish, surprising.

    Innovation is a surprising blend of novelty and competence. Vanguard has these things, yes, but there's little about it that could push it from 'clone' and into 'inflection'. It's painful to witness because it *could have*.

    I guess we'll see in '07.
  • digi

    You forgot: d) Makin' babies!

    But seriously, I've never really seen spectacular answers to games that set the bar so damn high. WoW is the Quake of the day. After Quake came out, there were many alternatives based on it's engine and a lot of them had neat updates and features. But really I don't see the same kind of evolution each generation happening that you're pushing for. Is it not typical in the video game world since it's inception that things kind of roll along for a while and then every once-in-a-while a fish grows feet and it's a new day?

    It's kinda harsh to say but this neurotic itch for perpetual BIGGER BETTER FASTER is real sign of the times. You mention Hockey. Hockey is a game from a previous generation and there's pretty much only a couple of flavours of it - grass and ice. It's been around for a long long time and it's still really fun! I wonder, is it that GenX can't accept what we're given or is it more simply the complexity of they systems we're playing? This aint exactly "put the puck in the net". Or is it?

    If you want to invent something new, invent something new. But not a new Hockey. These guys are totally rolling on a killer high at the moment and I don't see revolutionary steps for some time.
  • UNO

    Developers are retarded the community must empower itself to create fun games without the aid of huge corporations that design by committee.

    You would get more posts if you didnt have such a tedious log in system.
  • covert.c.

    @Nazgum : sorry, I had to free your comment from the evil clutches of Akismet. 🙂

    Bartle also returns to that point in his excellent book, "Designing Virtual Worlds". He reiterates what you've observed here, that inheriting the features of your predecessors is a given, even if those features are bad.

    You rightly make this point about Vanguard. They have to satisfy the cravings of WoW players. I definitely see that, but I also believe that there are smarter things to do than just merely layering complexity atop systems popularized by WoW. The mining example struck me as particularly exemplary of their entire approach. It's ludicrous to have that level of interaction with a harvesting feature - it just doesn't make any sense. If you're going to have a feature that "answers" your predecessor (and keeps ex-patriates happy), change the interaction that makes more "world sense", versus just dumping a fighting mini-game on top of it. It reeks of me-too'ness, in my estimation, and is surprising to think of it coming from Brad McQuaid.
  • covert.c.

    @TG : there's been some consensus "out there" that WoW has killed the monolithic MMORPG forever. The lo-fi alternatives may indeed come fast and furious out of that realisation. I'm not sure I fully agree with it, but if there "will never be another WoW" then perhaps we should kill the pervasive shadow that is D&D/Diku as well and move on to more interesting gaming possibilities. Now that I can agree with.

    @Uno : WoW is definitely digital cocaine, but it follows a tradition set by its predecessors (EverCrack comes to mind). Academics are all over the Skinner Box analogies that permeate Warcraft (although this could be applied to videogames on the whole). But a blind adherence to formulaic feedback mechanisms based on random rewards is quickly becoming tired. What will it take to wean the developer/publisher community away from this mentality?
  • Uno

    The Genesis of a game can take years and millions of dollars and yet so few strike a ballance between what is good and what is bad, a very simple goal make fun games. So rarely accomplished and why? Is there some corporate tycoon looking to invent a digital cocain that will keep players hooked and paying that monthly fee? Electronic crack is not grinding or fat loots it is enjoyment.
  • Nazgum

    Interesting article.

    On the point of innovation, an admin at posted an old article from Richard Bartle, the creator of the first MUD, discussing MMORPGs and innovation.

    One of his main points in the article is that moreso than other games MMORPGs seem to embrace poor game mechanics introduced in previous MMORPGs, which too many new players aren't aware they dislike.

    While reading about upcoming MMORPGs on user forums this becomes very apparent; as an example on the Warhammer Alliance Forums discussing upcoming Warhammer Online, players whose only online MMORPG was World of Warcraft were very against world PVP and very for instanced PVP. Despite battlegrounds being a horrid failure in WoW many still strongly wanted this feature. Why?

    One of his main arguments for this is that MMORPGs need to attract new players, and players want to relive their first online fantasy world, which to some extent is definately true, and because of that innovation is difficult.

    Sadly, a feature-for-feature answer to WoW may be what is required for many upcoming MMORPGs such as Vanguard, because for many many players WoW was their first MMORPG and their next will be compared feature-for-feature against it.
  • thinking games

    Spot on mr Covert. It is probable that the next wave of MMORPG releases will all be WoW-clones to some degree. The MUD style gameplay mechanics polished up by Blizzard are going to be the starting point for most developers, who will tweak rulesets and add features, rather than revolutionise. Perhaps its due to the huge financial cost of MMORPG design/implementation that devs are looking to play it safe. Its hard to see how the smaller innovative indie teams can get a peice of the pie, but Im sure there will be some valiant non-blockbuster attempts.

    Eve gives me hope with its Icelandic devs and their subtly clever skillset design. A Tale in the Desert suggests that non-violent community MMORPGS could have an audience. I also suspect some looming collisions between Second Life type worlds and more traditional 'gamey' mechanics. Selling innovative leaps to both the publishers and the public is usually the sticking point, but I hope devs stop aping the early 90s D&D/MUD ruleset and check out some of the crazy MOO stuff that went on at the same time.
  • covert.c.

    I believe that people will grow weary of games that stretch themselves axially across time. There is so much that can be done in the genre beyond dumping complexity onto existing systems, or channeling play into ensuring longterm subscriptions.

    I'm a firm believer in 'easy wins'.

    You're right when it comes to risk, the big question is who is going to step up? I would have thought that someone like McQuaid would exert some ownership over the genre and give us something that "makes sense" and innovates in cool ways. What I see so far does not give me much to get excited about. I hope I'm wrong.
  • Justin

    I suspect that the only interesting innovation in MMORPGs over the next few years will be theme-based innovation. There's not a lot of game mechanics innovation that can be done easily, without massive risk. Where the whole MMO market is still blatantly lacking is non-fantasy based games (which in part dictate the same game mechanics of mine/guild raid/auction armor and weapons). Eve Online is the only significant one I can think of off the top of my head (having written off Star Wars).


    What's coming up is interesting, though: Pirates of the Burning Sea, an age-of-sail based MMO with real-time ship combat. Same basic economic structure--quite similar, it seems to Eve--but a whole world of the 17th century Carribean to explore. What's worrisome about it is the late addition of personal combat: When you board a ship, you can go in swinging your sword, which looks more and more like a late addition to appease the fantasy RPGers who can't imagine enjoying a game that isn't an FPS with experience levels tacked on. As a late addition, a lot of players are sceptical that it'll fit in well with the overall game--that it'll even function correctly.


    Still, it broadens the possible range of gameplay--tactical sailing ship combat is something few will really have experienced in any game, and I'm sure it will find it's core of players, just like Eve found enough to sustain it for a long growth curve. And ultimately, that's really what's needed: more plausible gameplay options that broaden the range of risky choices that are reasonably justifiable to VCs.
  • b1alpha

    That is a good critique of game design, I hope there is a secret cutting edge principle to this game. I can imagin it now, console interoperability with the pc and multiversion expansions into different universe with weapon upgrades every day, and new monsters that are created by existing monsters breeding with eachother in AI. or something..  

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