Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon MMO: Return of the Prodigal Son

by Wolfshead on February 3, 2014

Pantheon Rise of the Fallen portraitBrad McQuaid is back. Almost 15 years after the release of EverQuest and 7 years after the release of his Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, the prodigal son of the MMO world has returned seeking redemption. This time Brad is pitching a new MMO on Kickstarter called Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen.

Brad has a checkered career in the collective memory of video game industry. Deemed by some to be the brains behind the revolutionary EverQuest — regarded by many as the finest MMORPG ever created — he is also considered an incompetent villain by others who believe him largely responsible for the failure of Vanguard which is estimated by many to be one of the biggest disasters in MMO history.

Before the debacle of Vanguard, I was a big admirer of Brad McQuaid. After all, he was the face of EverQuest and was christened as a “game god” by the media back then and many of us believed the hype. I also think that he received the lion’s share of the credit for EverQuest when in truth it was a team effort. That said, I still have a great respect for him and despite his failings he has dared to come back on the scene to challenge the complacency in the current MMO market.

Meeting Brad

I have met and spoken with Brad on two occasions. The first time was during Sigil Games event for the fans of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes called Fanguard. Most of it was held in the middle of a fiendishly hot Las Vegas summer in a seedy off-the-strip hotel. My wife and I spent a couple of thousand dollars flying from Seattle to attend. At the time, I was writing for a website called GamerGod.com (now defunct).

I met Brad briefly on the last day of the event and managed to ask him a few questions. When I finally got to see Vanguard, I was troubled because the hype that Sigil was disseminating did not match the state of the MMO which they demoed to us — understand that the mere fans were not allowed to play it — we were only allowed to watch. In the end, I tried to salvage what I saw and penned a positive article which I now somewhat regret.

The second time was a couple of years later at E3 in Los Angeles while representing my company as a game designer. I met Brad outside the press only section of the SOE booth — not at the Sigil booth which was in the hidden in the remote basement of the convention center like a crazy uncle. We talked only briefly. He seemed nervous and agitated. By then Microsoft was out of the picture and Sigil had made deal with SOE that Vanguard would be published by SOE. Hence the reason that Vanguard was being displayed as a SOE title at the massive SOE booth.

I don’t want to rehash the gory details of the Vanguard debacle again but I will mention it as needed. Others have chronicled those dark days quite adequately. So let’s take a look at Brad’s new venture and see if it has a chance of succeeding in today’s unforgiving, jaded and highly competitive MMO landscape.

The Party’s Over: It’s Not 1999 Anymore

Brad McQuaid’s first taste of success and fame came about with EverQuest back in 1999. The story of the success and impact of EverQuest has been covered many times by me and others. What happened after the release of EverQuest is where our story begins.

Since the release of World of Warcraft MMO– which dethroned EverQuest and catapulted the player base to dizzying heights –the MMO industry has changed. Seeing the profits that Blizzard was making, company after company tried to imitate the WoW formula but ultimately failed. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the process from Brad McQuaid’s own Vanguard: Saga of Heroes to Star Wars: The Old Republic to Curt Schilling’s colossal 38 Studios disaster. It seems that Blizzard has created a singular phenomenon with WoW which no company has ever been able to duplicate.

Brad McQuaid Kickstarter Pantheon

Given that investing in a MMO is very risky and the buzz about virtual worlds no longer captivates the zeitgeist, the crowd funding mechanism of Kickstarter seems to be the most effective starting point for creating a new MMO. If you can conduct a successful Kickstarter campaign then you have a chance prove to potential investors you have the support of the community and are worthy of serious investment.

My Thoughts on the Pantheon Kickstarter Campaign

Upon examining the initial Pantheon Kickstarter project I was struck at how little originality and innovation there was in the proposal. Where are the new ideas that could be seen as points of differentiation that Visionary Realms could use stand out among the competition?

Kudos to Brad for finding a way to put “the Vision” into the name of his company, but what is visionary about looking to the past? Hindsight as they say is 20/20.

Most of the talking points for Pantheon are about returning to the good old days of EverQuest which I mostly agree with as far as staying true to fundamentals. Of course I would love to see a new authentic version of EverQuest complete with modern technology and updated mechanics but with the same level of challenge, player interdependence and community. But not to have any new ideas or “hooks” is not wise. Eerily enough, Pantheon seems like a rehash of the original Sigil Vanguard feature set which strike me as being a bit unimaginative.

For Pantheon to capture the imagination of the gaming public and the gaming press, it really needed to have a few core jaw dropping, fantastic new ideas and principles that would blow people away and give people something to dream about being a part of. Not all big ideas have to be expensive to bring to fruition. I sense some timidity and insecurity in the Kickstarter presentation. It seems the Visionary Realms team is trapped in a box of self-imposed limitations. Brad and his team should have come to play big league ball instead of small ball.

I wish that Brad would have called a summit of the brightest MMO developers, thinkers and commentators and brought them all together for a conference on how to chart a new course for the future. It’s time to broaden the intellectual base of this movement beyond the depleted and stale confines of Irvine and San Diego. Since the state of the current MMO industry is so dire, we need a constitutional convention to turn things around. We really need out of the box thinking here and some new blood to resurrect this anemic genre.

A Confusing Message

Some of the “game tenets” seem generic, unexciting and don’t make sense. For example:

An awareness that content is king.

This is perplexing. A lack of content is not the problem in MMOs today, in fact too much content that is expensive to product and that players consume too quickly is. This tenet seems like a meaningless and trite catch phrase. Upon researching it I found out it was popularized by Bill Gates back in 1996.

Here’s another one:

An expectation that the path of least resistance should also be the most entertaining.

This is confusing. At least to me, following a path of least resistance would be to gain as much as possible by expending the least amount of effort. This is also known as “min-maxing”. If anything, this tenet should be reversed to say the path of greatest resistance (meaning a high level of challenge) should be the most entertaining. We see this in World of Warcraft where there is more entertainment value with high level encounters that have far more scripting and special effects compared to killing generic mobs for simple quests.

Even the lore for Pantheon (which some have remarked is like Trion’s RIFT MMO) is suspect. Brad has chosen Terminus as the name of the world. A very sci-fi sounding name much like Telon which was the name of the Vanguard virtual world.

Why isn’t there any mention of community and social aspect of MMOs in the tenets?

Beyond the stated tenets, the poster for Pantheon actually has a rather good 3 word slogan: Community. Challenge. Conquest.

Pantheon poster

The Kickstarter campaign seems like it was rushed. It feels incomplete and lackluster. I wish they had spent more time in preparation creating more concept art which could have been used to sell the campaign more effectively.

If this Kickstarter fails I really hope that Visionary Realms goes back to the drawing board to refine their game design and talking points. They need to hire a professional writer and marketer to create appealing and exciting promotional copy. There are scores of articles on how to create a successful Kickstarter campaign. There are also successful video game campaigns that they could study and emulate.

Time Out: I wonder what Brad has done all those years where he took a break from the industry. Did he bother to take any college courses in self-improvement, business administration or project management? I think Brad would have a lot more credibility pitching a new MMO if he had done some industry related professional development during his sabbatical. Perhaps he has and he has not publicly mentioned it. I would like to hear from Brad about the hidden years.

Moving beyond the content of the Pantheon Kickstarter campaign, let’s speculate on some possible scenarios. Let’s start by asking some questions:

Scenario 1: If Kickstarter Succeeds

If Kickstarter succeeds, what is the next phase of obtaining more investment dollars to further the goal of making the MMO? Another Kickstarter to build on the first? What is the game plan? Or is the plan to show the success of the campaign to investors or to SOE itself? What is the battle plan?

My Advice to Pantheon Investors

If the Pantheon Kickstarter succeeds and by some miracle they get millions of dollars of investment money it’s going to be an even harder climb to ensure the project is finished and actually successful.

Given Brad’s history in MMO development, here are a some recommendations to potential investors that might prevent future problems:

  1. Pay Brad McQuaid a salary of $1 per year. I’m sure he still has millions left over from his deal selling Vanguard to SOE. When Pantheon actually ships only then he should be compensated.
  2. Hire a real CEO with real business experience who has a passion for MMORPGs, not some guy that rides motorcycles with Brad on the weekends.
  3. Insist that competent and experienced managers and producers be hired to ensure accountability and the smooth and timely flow of production of the MMO.
  4. Full and timely public disclosure and transparency on all facets of production including milestones should be made to the public. This is common practice on most Kickstarter funded projects.
  5. Install a horizontal or flat company organization where everyone can have a say and where nepotism and cronyism are not tolerated. Valve is apparently doing this with success.
  6. Require that every employee must submit to monthly and random drug tests.
  7. As is done in major motion picture industry where hundreds of millions of dollars are routinely at stake, a full-time representative from the investment team should be hired by the investors to be at the Visionary Realms Studios every day to monitor and report back to the investment company what is going on. They should be given full and unhindered access to every facet of the accounting, management and production of the MMO.
  8. Remove all doors from inside the office building except the restrooms. Every office should be completely open for anyone to monitor what is going on.
  9. Significant fines should be levied against the management when milestones are not reached and when the executive team take unscheduled days and months off.

Scenario 2: If Kickstarter Fails

A website called Kicktraq makes looks at Kickstarter projects and analyzes the data and makes projections. Right now, if the trends continue, Pantheon will be about $200k short of its original goal.

Therefore it is not unreasonable to ask: what if this campaign fails? What then?

On the Reddit AMA Brad revealed that he will probably attempt another Kickstarter. As much as I dislike what MMO developer Goblin Works did with their Pathfinder Technology Demo Kickstarter, that approach might be the best way to go as their first Kickstarter was an easy to reach a $50k goal. They built upon that success and launched another $1 million goal Kickstarter for the actual MMO which succeeded as well. It remains to be seen if they can actually make a MMO for only a million dollars.

Scenario 3: If Pantheon Fails After Kickstarter Succeeds

Let’s imagine that the Pantheon Kickstarter — by some miracle — succeeds. What happens if Brad, Salim and the team burn through all the money and then fail? What is failure exactly? Since there is no way on earth they or anyone else can create a MMO for $800K the inability to raise further funds would define failure.

The problem with Brad’s Kickstarter proposition is that he is asking us to “help” him make a MMO; notice he is not saying that $800K will make a shipped MMO. Many Kickstarter campaigns promise delivery of something once the goals are reached within a reasonable amount of time, but in the case of Pantheon the goods promised can only be delivered if the MMO ships which is not guaranteed if they reach their Kickstarter goal.

In truth, the reality of a shipped MMO cannot be reached for the mere sum of $800K even though the goal of “helping” them create a MMO is technically satisfied. Although, they do give a time frame of 2017 when they estimate the MMO to ship, there are many funding goals between a successful Kickstarter campaign and a shipped MMO which would have to be achieved.

Having the nightmare scenario of Brad and company failing after a successful Kickstarter would be much worse than failing to reach the $800k goal because all those loyal backers would lose their money. I can only imagine the feelings of despondency, anger and betrayal that would result from the hardcore MMO community if this happened. Brad’s reputation would be ruined forever. It would be a fiasco of major proportions and would cast a pall upon future Kickstarter MMO projects and quite possibly Kickstarter itself.

Kickstarter is a very real gamble and all who back those projects should do so with extreme caution.

The Kickstarter Problem

I suppose I’m just not sold on Kickstarter as a concept. I find it hard to commit to Kickstarter projects because I have burned before by them. I feel many of the video game projects leave me with a “take the money and run” feeling. Add to that, most video game projects on Kickstarter apparently fail.

Kickstarter needs to evolve.

People that contribute on Kickstarter should be treated like they are shareholders in a project. We should be able to have a more of a say in decisions that are made by the company they are funding.  We are the true supporters and early investors, not the slimy Shark Tank corporate suits who swoop in for the kill.

People should also be able to contribute in more ways than just providing funding. How about contributing time and expertise? I would love to contribute to a company like Visionary Realms even though I live in Seattle. Any future company that can facilitate and harness that kind of non-monetary passion from fans/supporter/investors will be golden.

You Can’t Rally the Troops Without Passion

If you want to start a revolution you need to inspire people. The ability to inspire, motivate and persuade is also critical to succeed in the game of Kickstarter. I’m not sure if it’s a west coast thing but Brad seems really low key in the interviews he’s done. I’d like to see some fire in the belly from Brad in his future video interviews.

We need more General Patton and P.T. Barnum from Brad and less Zen master. I’d like to see some outrage and indignation from him at how a company like Blizzard took the EverQuest concept and dumbed it down to the point of being unrecognizable. I’d like to see him call out some of the rock star developers at Blizzard for their part in the current woeful state of the MMORPG industry.  There’s an audience of 13 million players around the world that have played WoW who have over the years have been shortchanged by expedient design decisions. Blizzard took the majesty of EverQuest and turned it into something banal with WoW. Brad needs to speak out about it.

I urge Brad to start speaking at game development conferences and start evangelizing the cause of returning to classic MMO design principles and niche markets. Unlike Curt Schilling who had zero knowledge of game development who over leveraged his celebrity status by attending numerous game conferences, Brad McQuaid is someone who actually created a successful and legendary MMORPG and people would actually would listen to him. Sadly the Game Developers Conference (GDC) is going to be held in San Francisco in March 17-21, too late to make a difference for the Pantheon Kickstarter campaign but it may be useful after the campaign is over.

At this point he’s got nothing to lose, so why not go all out, go for broke, shake things up and make some headlines.

Reality Check: expecting public honesty from a game developer about their competitors is like expecting a politician to tell the truth. Too often game developers are afraid of attacking a competitor because they know they may be unemployed at some point in the future and looking to apply for a job at that very same company. Instead go to Glassdoor to learn the truth about a company.

Can we Trust Brad McQuaid?

When I started to research this article, I admit that I was very positive about Pantheon. Everything that Brad and company was saying about Pantheon on the Kickstarter page and in subsequent updates and interviews is music to my ears. Come to think of it, everything I have heard about Pantheon is almost exactly what I wanted to hear about SOE’s proposed EverQuest Next at SOE Live in Vegas in 2013 but never heard. SOE’s cavalier disregard for the legacy of EverQuest and how it used those fans as a captive audience to announce EverQuest Next is very disappointing. SOE, will you ever get it right?

The EverQuest experience was a very powerful drug that many of us would like to sample again in some incarnation. So I can understand the passion and enthusiasm that backers of this Kickstarter have. I get it. I remember feeling exactly the same about Sigil’s Vanguard all those years ago. That passion needs to be tempered with the reality of the history of the Pantheon team members.

It was only after going back and reading what happened to Vanguard that I got a sobering reality check about Brad McQuaid’s past. The heartbreaking story of what happened at Sigil was a black mark for the MMO industry and all those involved. I am not sure if Brad has ever apologized or asked for forgiveness for what happened under his watch. I really believe he needs to come clean if he is ever to rehabilitate his reputation and have a chance at making another successful MMO.

During the writing of this article, it came to my attention that Brad did an  AMA talk on Reddit and that he has at least admitted to some of his problems:

Brad McQuaid: I know myself so much better now and how to handle stress. I let the issues with Vanguard towards the end of the project really get to me — I was in a dark place. But I’ve learned a lot about myself and will do better with Pantheon.

I’m glad he’s found the humility to admit some shortcomings — that’s a start — but it doesn’t begin to explain why so many unethical things were alleged to have happened at Sigil under his watch. Even Boogie brings up the issue of Brad’s past skeletons in an amazingly emotional video interview and asked Brad why people should trust him:

Of course failure is a part of life. Failure due to the whims of the marketplace is one thing; failure because of a lack of character and work ethic is quite another. I think everyone would like to hear Brad frankly admit to his failures. People respect honesty and humility. What did he learn? What would he do different this time? Does he understand the current MMO market? What lessons has Brad learned to prevent similar problems from happening?

It all boils down to this: will the public trust Brad McQuaid?

Not only must Brad sell the public that he can design an amazing MMORPG, he has to convince them that he has the personal integrity, character and ability to execute it. All the ducks have to be in a row for Pantheon to succeed.

Even if this Kickstarter or a future one succeeds, they will need investors as MMOs don’t come cheap. Any potential investor will certainly do due diligence and research what happened in the past before they decide to risk their money. Even if the Kickstarter campaign is successful, I predict it’s going to be tough for Brad and company to succeed in a difficult market amidst a sea of legitimate skepticism.

Conclusion

This has not been an easy article to write. I want to be 100% supportive about Pantheon but the past has shown that it’s wise to be cautious about proposed MMOs. Still, there is something compelling about seeing Brad doing interview after interview in order to make this MMO happen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Brad work so hard and be out of his comfort zone. It’s almost like he’s fighting for his life. It’s inspiring.

Another thing that has impressed me is that people are excited about the kind of MMORPG that Brad and the team want to produce; I haven’t seen this kind of enthusiasm in years. The passion and excitement for MMOs seemed to have died over the years. Many MMO bloggers just stopped caring and stop blogging. The Pantheon supporters remind me of the ents in the Fangorn Forest in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings classic. It’s like all the people who played vanilla EverQuest have awoken from a slumber and are prepared to fight for something worth saving.

The enthusiasm is contagious and I feel a rekindled desire to start caring about virtual worlds again. If I may be so bold, I believe it’s time to take the training wheels off our MMOs. It’s time to end the tyranny of the theme park and trust the players to create emergent game play. It’s time to stop giving players rewards for just showing up. It’s time to bring back the concept of risk versus reward. It’s time to make a MMO where players actually talk to each other again. It’s time to make MMOs for adults again.

I want to see a MMO for serious players that immerses and bonds adventurers together in a harsh and unforgiving world. I want to once again experience the pulse pounding fear of venturing into the unknown. I want to see a MMO where each class brings its talents to the table and creates a sum greater than the parts synergy to face impossible challenges. I want to see a virtual world where anyone can create a character and rise to the pinnacle of greatness or the depths of villainy. That, my friends is the kind of fantasy virtual world I want to be a part of again. If even if for an hour a day, it would be a great privilege.

Love him or hate him, I doubt there is anybody today with more institutional knowledge and first-hand experience of the MMORPG genre then Brad McQuaid. The rookie game designers of today weaned on a steady diet of console games and Disneyfied MMOs like World of Warcraft, probably don’t even know what a MUD is, have never played the classics like Ultima, Wizardry, the Bard’s Tale, or EverQuest. If it takes someone with the audacity of Brad McQuaid to bring back that sacred EverQuest experience again, then all the more power to him.

We’ve been with Brad through the highs and the lows. I believe in forgiveness and redemption. I also believe that people can change and that everyone deserves another chance. If Brad can put the past behind him, be the creative force and let others handle the business and production part, I think Pantheon may just have a chance.

-Wolfshead

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dullahan February 5, 2014 at 7:36 am

All in all, good article. Harsh and possibly inadvertently biased, but good.

As someone that played EQ from beta on and followed Vanguard from the day it was announced over a decade ago, I’ve never seen the need to vilify Brad McQuaid for the failure of VG. He went in with an amazing idea, built the foundation for the greatest MMO ever, got in over his head, made mistakes, got the carpet pulled out from under him with Microsoft, and witnessed his world collapse around him with nothing he could do about it. I don’t care if he smoked crack in an alley behind a Starbucks for 3 years, none of the negative publicity surrounding him over the years has been justified, but rather its been conspiratorial, inflammatory, insensitive and unjust (and yes I’ve read EVERY article on the matter and what happened).

I’m glad he is back at work, because frankly no one else in the industry seems to have a clue what it takes to make an amazing virtual world the likes of Norrath or Telon. I also agree that at this point, he should be more aggressive about his position regarding game design and the problems with modern games and the ideology used in creating games like WoW. All that aside, have to say I’m also slightly disappointed that, aside from all the very good constructive criticism about Brad, Pantheon and the development process, you seem to stand in doubt of him as a person as well as the project due to the gossip and complaints of a very vocal and anonymous minority who clearly had no idea what was really going on behind closed doors or the personal grief he felt over his failure and how it affected others. People should watch the Boogie video and decide for themselves, and save the gossiping for the girls in the schoolyard.

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Curtis February 6, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Hey Wolf nice to see another great article from you.:)

LOL amazes me how a closing down Vanguard thread leads to Pantheon kickstarter to finding your name in a Pantheon thread over at reroll.org.:)

My opinion is everyone should be given another chance. Mark Jacobs got one with kickstarter Camelot Unchained being a success and I hope for the best for Brad and Pantheon.

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