Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vanguard, and Other Failed MMO Launches - Some Insight

Right off the bat I feel like the title of this one is a bit misleading.  For anyone who was a part of the MMO scene in 2007 when Vanguard Launched, I'm sure you're already conjuring images of the absolute insanity that was the launch of this exceptionally high potential MMO.  For those that weren't, allow me to recap:

Vanguard had been publicized for years as generally awesome.  It filled a niche market - somewhere between hardcore gamer and casual MMO enthusiast, and offered multiple paths of character development incorporated with unique racial choices, innovative (for the time) spell and class selections, and unicorns.  What was eventually delivered was a buggy mess, quickly earning the game the nickname of Vanguard:  Saga of Crashes (It's actual title was Vanguard: Saga of Heroes).

As a result of the poorly optimized graphical engine, MANY (probably 95%) of the users experienced problems with their systems and the display of the game.  Most grew frustrated, but being a proud group of people, we played with our settings, downloaded and re-downloaded drivers, and tried to tough it out.  Most of us were unsuccessful in doing so for more then a few weeks.  Other frustrating elements existed, server downtime, odd NPC behavior, quests and crafting not working as intended (or at all), some stats not working, or being reflected.  The list goes on and on.  Murphy's Law states; "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."  With that in mind, I classify Vanguard as having a Murphy's Launch. 

As a result of Murphy's Launch, the game began to hemorrhage players immediately, and in doing so became part of the ever-growing club of video games launched by production companies far earlier then they should have been launched.

One might be asking how this happens so frequently.  Vanguard, while an infamous example, is far from alone in experiencing this.  The market is literally flooded with rushed titles these days - some have SOMEWHAT recovered from their poor launch - Age of Conan comes to mind.  Note the word 'somewhat' before recovered; the game will almost certainly never be what it could have been had they waited 6 months more to release it and actually delivered on what they promised.  Or at least what was printed on the box.

So why do games get released early.  As you can probably imagine - software development has a budget.  Failure to meet that budget usually falls into one of the following categories:

-Failure to correctly obtain a level of effort (time estimate) on how long all the parts of the development process will take.
-Failure to account for the potential (and certain) problems you will encounter during software development.
-Poor Project Management
-Inexperienced personnel attempting to 'be the hero' and take on an extensive task in an unreasonable time period.  This forces them to either learn at a rapid rate and attempt to wing it, or to rush (or both), which generally leads to disaster.
-Inadequate QA throughout the development process, resulting in a lot of people saying "Oh shit" when launch time comes around and there are far more bugs in the software then are feasibly manageable.

So much can go wrong with software development, as the above is really just a small subset of potential mishaps, but I'd generally commit to nearly 100% of the rushed-launch games that we're seeing went over budget as a result of the above and needed to be rushed out the door to compensate.

So where does Vanguard go from here?  A patch with some additional content was announced recently.  It doesn't seem like much - but it shows development effort in a game that hasn't seen a major update since January of 2010.  It's a good sign - pending the community responds accordingly.

You see, while Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) gives us an inch, they take a yard.  Vanguard currently has no way for returning players to hop back into the game unless they pay the monthly fee (~$14 if I remember correctly).  That hurts everyone, especially SOE - but they probably figure that that people that re-subscribe to check out the game will provide more funds then those that'll re-subscribe after a free trial.  I disagree in the long run, but in the end, they run a business, and have to do what's been best for them, historically.

What it really comes down to is the success of this patch.  If the community responds well, they might start sparsely supporting it.  If not, Vanguard will probably be shut down, and or made free to play.  Both are good possibilities.  Free to play might be the best thing for the game - but they've already stated adding an item shop into the game will be very difficult and time consuming.  It's more then likely that if the community remains sparse, and the game stays unpopulated, that we'll see Vanguard shut down by this time next year.

In the end, game publishers care about one thing.  It's not whether you like the game, hate the game, enjoy grinding, enjoy groups, enjoy instancing, PVP, PVE, raiding, or crafting.  It's whether or not you're paying for it.  I can't imagine many people are paying for Vanguard lately (forums more or less confirm that suspicion).  Which leads to my prediction that despite its diehard and loyal community, Vanguard probably won't see another Thanksgiving.  Which is a shame.

Vanguard, despite all it's past faults and a poor launch, is still nothing short of a great game.