Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Vanguard - the Grass Isn't Always Greener

Originally featured on the Warcry Network, February 27th 2007

In my previous article I spoke about the complicated the effects, pro's, and con's of Vanguard's initial release week (give or take) had on the gaming community and Sigil's reactions to their complaints - which at this point still seem to overshadow the praises of Vanguard sung by the few adventurers brave enough to jump off the flaming bandwagon and give credit where credit is due. This week I'd like to get a little more in depth about what exactly all of this means for us: What I think the consequences of Vanguard's premature release might entail, and what we all hopefully have to look forward to.

When one thinks of an MMO release date, one often remembers the disasters of the past: Days of variable server up-time mixed in with constant patches that require some of the most catastrophic patcher techniques known to man. Logging into other websites that merely mirror the original company's patch just so you can spend the next 3 days playing instead of pressing the space bar and enter key when your peer to peer transfer fails, locks up, or randomly disconnects - not to mention my personal favorite, Unable to Log into Server, you must be behind a Firewall.

The history of MMO's has seen its share of smooth releases, and failed launches. I'd have to say that in the area of releasing a game with available servers, minimal patch time, and great connection speed, Vanguard has stood with the best. I've never had a problem patching the game, connecting to a server, or being able find someone to play with because the population was too spread out amongst too many servers. But what does this say overall about the game? Unfortunately, not much. These days, anything going wrong with an MMO causes an almost instantaneous player response in the form of "Now that I'm paying ____", where the blank can be your favorite 4-letter word, maternal insult, or threat to cancel any account(s) you may be currently playing for free on, thanks to the one month trial.
Although premature; I think Sigil has done the best they could, and continues to do so. But now that I've said that, there are some general concerns that I'm sure any gamer would come to a giant question mark about when considering the future of this game. The first, amongst many, is why have there been so few patches?

Truth be told, last week's patch did include a formidable amount of updates: 2 memory leak fixes, a rogue re-vamp of sorts, some quest bugs, some crafting issues, and the lovely 'STUCK!' we now see whenever anything not player-controlled falls into the earth, or gets stuck in geometry. But regardless of the amount of information the 2 major patches - which thankfully only took a few seconds to download (there is a God after all) - its still only two patches of note that have really addressed anything of concern towards the player community. I'd really be interested to find out if I am the only one minding concern towards the future of Vanguard based on the lack of frequent patching - especially with a notoriously prematurely released and buggy game. I'm sure any crafter out there feels my pain. For the record: I'm sorry, but I don't know where your etching tool went either, I'm still looking for mine.

But moving past the crafting catastrophe and the hardware issues which seem to still be plaguing gamers everywhere, I really think that Vanguard is turning into something special. Regardless of how hard it is to 'come back' to an MMO, I find it hard to believe that players will be able to resist the appeal of Vanguard once the bugs have been squashed and the code re-vitalized, thanks to the God of Efficiency.

The community itself is diverse, and to the most part, helpful. You can't but help getting the feeling that people who play Vanguard actually want to be there - and thanks to the newly boosted (boosted is an understatement) quest experience, roping a few of your buddies along to smash through an area's quests now has appeal in the form of almost certain level gains when all is said and done. I think that for once, in boosting an MMO's experience gain by doing quests, someone did it right. Grinding is not only stupid, but petty and worthless. I personally play a Necromancer in the mid-20 range, running around dotting mobs who have no chance to kill me (because they are either too slow or too dead to catch me and do damage) shouldn't be that overly rewarding in terms of experience. Sure, you have the right to the items, but in terms of actual learning, what did you benefit from standing 25 yards away from something, casting three spells, and laughing as it hit's the ground before it gets to you? Probably not much. I realize this isn't nearly the case with all other classes - but I'm trying to make a point. Quest experience being buffed was the best thing that could have been done for the Vanguard community thus far. Not only has it set fourth goals with considerable results for the community to achieve, but its brought fourth a sense of achievement when you finish up a two-hour session and see that you've gained a decent amount of experience towards your next level.

However, I don't think this will last for long. If done right and with a little luck in spawns, a character can breeze through a towns quests early-on in the game and gain a staggering number of levels very quickly doing so, especially if grouped with a friend or two possessing the knowledge of having done the quests already with another character. Now, I'm not shouting "Lower Quest Experience!" by any means. What I'm trying to get at is quest experience should be rewarding - and it most definitely is. But maybe towards the earlier towns, it could be scaled down a bit. To clarify, I'd have to say that quest experience post level 15 or even level 20 is fine, and shouldn't be touched in any way. This will keep the community interested in gaining levels - while not feeling burnt out after only getting one or two levels a week.

In terms of everything else, I'd say that my "OK, PANIC!" sign has safely been tucked away in my desk and I don't plan on taking it out anytime soon. The player-base that has left Vanguard as prematurely as it was released will arrive in a few months to a game diverse in both efficient game play and stunning visuals. I for one am glad that I'm part of the community that stuck it out - and will continue to do so - so when things like Raiding, Fellowships, and maybe even Battlegrounds come into the equation, I'll have the familiarity and experience to be able to enjoy them as a player that was here from the beginning.

Looking out from the world of Vanguard, the grass may be greener - sure, there are better running games out there that look great, have huge communities, and epic battles, but none of them have a question mark on their destination. Those worlds are fixed. This world have so much opportunity that I'll hopefully never be able to say; 'Hey, the grass looks greener over there,' again.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and The Price of Setting Yourself Free

Originally featured on the Warcry Network, February 19th, 2007

It seems setting yourself free is in the world of Vanguard is a little more complicated than Sigil and SOE thought. 

Amongst a premature release and conflicting software, hardware, and the naturally buggy programming every MMO on the market experiences players are still making their way through the code and finding a world of adventure which brings even the most inexperienced players back to a day when things weren't so easy.

Like many of Vanguard's target audience - I was an EverQuest junkie. When I first started playing Vanguard, it all came back to me. Whether I'm using '/who 40 50' to see who the most prominent players with no lives are, or when I check my experience bar and find it has only moved about 2 inches after about an hour of grouping; I'm finding myself in a world which, for once, things don't come to me in - I have to go out and get them.

The main draw to Vanguard for me, and most players, was simple. The hype. I'll be honest, I read little about what the developers and company's released about this game and more about what the beta testers thought, and the hype that they (and the people that hadn't even played the game yet) inevitably generated. Everything from difficulty of gaining a level, to the death penalty, to the unique classes and skills were all major drawing point. Let's face it, the appeal of games like World of Warcraft is, to one extent or another, the ease of progression - I'm sure I'm not the only person who thought that you were either max level, or not enjoying the game. It seemed like level 60 (before the expansion) was more a standard, and to likeminded people - that takes a lot of fun out of the game.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who remembers hell levels, grouping for hours to maybe get 10% of a level, or memorizing only 8 spells at a time - let alone staring at my spell book while I tried to regain mana. But it's something more than that: Vanguard has the appeal to really draw the audience that seeks a challenge in MMO's today. Unlike games which require massive investments of your personal and social life to achieve anything in, Vanguard demands dedication even when grinding and completing the simplest of quests. As I'm sure many of you have figured out, death stings in this game, and venturing too far into a dungeon with a group usually converts the idea of a wipe to a 10% experience loss when you summon your corpse at the altar. A harsh, but true reality.

Moving past the draw of a game, onto a much more broad topic - what isn't working with the game, aside from the mechanics of the program itself. For starters, most of our computers. At this point obvious is an understatement when it comes to discussing the prematurely of the release of Vanguard - but to some of us that can still play, we're ok with that. To the rest of us; it meant upgrading our video cards, buying more ram, and perhaps even throwing out that old machine and buying something a little more up-to-date.

Launch, while going relatively without a hitch, left a community with a massive amount of expectations unable to properly experience a world which they had probably spent months, if not longer, anticipating. While the game was up and running, most of us were doing the same - in a manner of speaking. Up, as in not sitting at our computers, and running to the nearest computer hardware carrier in order to fix, or upgrade problems that MMO players fear more than patch day. The promises of efficiency in the client and memory leak mending are abundant, but if there is one significant difference in the launch of Vanguard versus very other MMO I've experienced (And its almost all of them) it's patches.

Even World of Warcraft didn't patch this infrequently. And while I agree with developers - that they would rather take time now fixing the big bugs rather then patch frequently and fix the small ones - I can side with players too; there is legitimate concern on the side of the consumer as to the drive behind Vanguard's programming force.

While these are all observations and generalizations towards the state of the game - there is one thing I can say with 100% certainty. Vanguard is a game that, while launched probably a little too early, has a tremendous amount of potential. The progression paths are unique, the dedication required is fierce and unwavering, and regardless of whether you have been playing MMO's since the first EverQuest Beta, or just picked up Vanguard on a whim, what is in store for this game rivals the concepts of any other MMO on the market.

For now, like many of you, I'll continue to play with that mindset - who knows exactly what the future holds - but done right, waiting all these complications out will be well worth it.