Fanguard Beta Report: Keepers of the Flame

VanguardFor the past few years something has been amiss in the world of fantasy online gaming. Like Galadriel of the Lord of the Rings, we can sense the world has changed and a golden age of greatness has passed. Some say the magic is gone. Some claim the challenge has left. Some decry the lack of community. Others blame the influence of money.

Many of us feel like Diogenes the ancient Greek of legend who searched in vain for an honest man. Yet our search is for an honest game. We go from world to world never feeling quite satisfied, never feeling truly content, yet still we trudge on as if searching for a lost love of youth.

For many of us our first love was a fantasy multi-player online game called EverQuest released in 1999. It was a social and gaming phenomenon that forever changed the lives of those gamers who were proud to call it home. It set the standard for excellence in online gaming and virtual worlds that has yet to be matched since. Without a doubt the success of EverQuest can largely be attributed to the genius and stewardship of its creator Brad McQuaid. He and many of his talented colleagues from EverQuest have since formed their own company called Sigil Games Online.

Brad and company enjoy a superstar status among serious MMORPG players who view them as keepers of the flame in a gaming industry that has long since abandoned integrity as a bedrock principle. It is for this reason that over 150 plus hardcore fans made a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to get a sneak peak of his new company’s first fantasy online gaming project called Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

The 2 day event called is called: Fanguard Beta — coincidentally enough as the game has just entered its beta zero phase. We got a chance to meet the Sigil team and the fans at the party held at Friday evening at Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas Strip. What struck me almost immediately was the family atmosphere of the Sigil people. Many of them have been working together for years and you could sense the passion and pride coming through as they spoke about their work on the game. One interesting tidbit of info I learned almost immediately was that everyone at Sigil are actively encouraged to be playing MMORPG’s in their spare time in order to be keep connected to the genre and stay competitive.

Some in the Vanguard fan community have had some concerns about Microsoft’s involvement with respect to dictating how things will run at Sigil seeing that the folks in Redmond have never produced a successful MMORPG to date. Sigil’s enigmatic Director of Business Development Zack Karlsson addressed this concern by assuring me that Microsoft is giving Sigil complete creative control over the project and is being very supportive and instrumental in the success of Vanguard.

In fact expect some amazing technology to be integrated into Vanguard given the fact they are developing the game to be compatible with the new Windows Vista operating system which is due to be released in 2006. After speaking to Zack and other Sigil employees throughout the two day event (many former Microsoft people) I became completely convinced that the partnership with Microsoft Game Studios will be a boon to Vanguard.

One of the hottest topics in online gaming today came up in my conversation with Zack: the subject of companies that sell in game items/currency for real life cash. He made it abundantly clear that Sigil will aggressively monitor the farming problem and prosecute offenders if necessary. Zack also emphatically stated that Sigil was very concerned about impacting honest players with the same brush when implementing anti-farmer measures. In speaking to Zack, I was very impressed with Sigil’s commitment to protecting the integrity of their virtual world with respect to their stance on real money transactions intruding upon the sanctity of Telon’s virtual world economy.

One of the highlights of my trip to Las Vegas was the chance to sit down and talk with charismatic Sigil President Jeff Butler. Unlike most presidents of gaming companies, Jeff is truly a gamer in every sense of the word. He spoke passionately about his characters in various uber guilds in games like EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, Word of Warcraft and others. Jeff dazzled me with his wealth of knowledge of fantasy literature, the origins of Dungeons & Dragons, and fantasy role-playing gaming in general. He clearly has a keen understanding of where we have been and where we are going in this genre.

During our conversation Jeff acknowledged the success of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. He related to me how after a few short weeks he had reached level 60 on his main character and currently has a number of level 60 alts. Jeff marveled at the artistry and polish of WoW yet lamented at the fact that the leveling was much too fast leaving many players with nothing to do at the level cap.

We discussed our mutual game play experiences conquering beautifully crafted outdoor areas like Desolace in WoW in a day or two. Content like this would have occupied a player for weeks if not months in EverQuest. He vowed that Sigil will not make the same mistake. Most Sigil employees and players I met at Fanguard had similar stories about exhausting content in WoW and other popular online games. Jeff also expressed concern regarding the trend in some recent online games to have an overabundance of loot. He felt that items such as rare weapons should be sought after and treasured by players instead of being discarded after reaching the next level.

Probably the most important issue that came up all evening was the reverence that Jeff has for the concept of community. He realizes that to be successful in online gaming you need to ensure your game is community driven and has ways for people to group and communicate with their friends. Jeff discussed at length how he’s noticed a trend that groups of friends tend to migrate to online worlds by word of mouth. The success of the original EverQuest can be analyzed in much the same way as it had barely any advertising or promotion resources allocated upon release.

Another exciting development he told me is that Sigil is considering setting up an online registry to help players locate old friends they may have played with in previous games. You’d set up an account and you could list your characters and the servers they played on over the years. This will be a free service to Vanguard subscribers. What a terrific idea! Sigil also plans on introducing extensive guild management tools and other features to enhance the community aspect of adventuring in the world of Telon.

Jeff ButlerAnother topic that came up during my talk with Jeff was his respect for the fans. He realizes that passionate players who may complain on the boards and various forums do so because they care deeply about the world they choose to spend their time in. This respect for passion was echoed by every Sigil employee I spoke with. It’s very refreshing to see an online gaming company that truly appreciates the opinions of the fans. That being said according to Nick “Glip the Gnome” Parkinson, Sigil will be seriously moderating the Vanguard boards once the game goes live. No official class discussion boards are planned in the hopes that affiliated fan sites will fill in the gap leaving the various communities to represent and police themselves.

On Saturday we finally got a chance to see Vanguard in action in the demo room. We entered a shadowy room from a back entrance in a nearby shopping mall just a few feet from the motel. It reminded me of a scene from the Las Vegas inspired movie Casino. Here we all were huddled in the dark by 4 computer monitors getting a sneak peak of the future of online gaming unbeknownst to the general public who were just a scant few feet away. The stalwart Sigil staff were there from 10 am to 4 pm doing rotating shifts demonstrating the game with computers hooked up to a wireless internet feed. One of the major accomplishments I’m pleased to report is that is that the game is in fact playable with a regular internet connection.

Much of the demo was done on the northern European inspired continent of Thestra in the area in and around Brennan’s Stead traveling to various mini-dungeons such as Exiles Cavern. My impression of the outdoor vistas is they exhibited a more organic, authentic feel then the fantasy landscapes of current online offerings like WoW. The grass, trees, water and sky were all exceptional. I did notice that the outdoors seemed to be a bit under-populated with mobs and critters. Expect these things to be added in the future. It was also very fortuitous that Sigil has chosen to implement serious day and night cycles which are quite noticeable and has a decided impact on the mood of the game play. The chat windows and text looked and functioned very similar to EverQuest. The Sigil staff explained the user interface will be getting a complete overhaul before release.

The player character avatars themselves were probably the only weak area and that was largely due to the fact that animations are presently still in the preliminary stages. I found the male characters were a bit scrawny and could probably use more time working out at the local village forge. The faces of all of the avatars looked quite good and I complimented talented artist Den Beauvais on this later in the day. One thing I noticed is that characters are running with swords equipped. Hopefully they will be able to give players the option to have them sheathed when running and sitting for more realism. The question of particle weapons came up and the Sigil staff indicated that they will be available at some point as players advance.

During the demo the Sigil low level characters approached the Exiles Cavern while flickering torch light emanated suggestively from within, tempting adventurers and unwary travelers with promises of treasure and riches. Top marks for the lighting in the game when it can help to induce excitement like this! I found the combat to be slower and more thoughtful then the fast paced fare of WoW. It was good to see some of the battles in the cave actually giving the participants a challenge despite being in a so-called newbie area. We got to see an actual corpse run too. Sigil has indicated they will be having a silvery-cord that helps the player find his corpse. However I did not see the cord visible in the demo.

Vanguard is indeed a thinking person’s game with many combat strategies available to each class. One such option is the ability to queue up various attack moves in advance. Players will also be able to attack mobs at various locations on their bodies as well as take damage themselves in much the same way.

Another inspired feature is that players can learn more exotic combat and spell skills using a skill called tactic recognition. Players can do this finding and fighting various mobs. Skills can also be learned just by grouping with other players. For example a Thestrian warrior could learn a skill uniquely Qalian combat move just by grouping with Qalian warrior. Expect group sizes of at least up to 6 players. Associate Designer Doug Cronkhite explained that players will be able to group with higher level characters and obtain adventure experience as long as their level is at least 5/8ths of the highest player in the party. Therefore a level 25 player would be awarded experience grouping with a level 40 player.

During the demo I got a chance to speak with Associate Designer Vincent Napoli about diplomacy, quests and interacting with NPC’s. I was very excited to hear him talk about some new 3rd generation features for Vanguard. He told me that each village will have taskmasters that give out quests for adventuring and crafting.

Another proposed feature that Sigil is contemplating is the rumor system. You’ll need to hang out at your local inn to listen in on gossip from innkeepers and patrons in order to get rumors that direct you to other quest NPC’s. There will be no question marks or exclamation marks over NPC’s head as in WoW but there will be a personal quest log where players can keep track of their progress in the world of Telon. Players will have to actively listen to NPC’s conversations and interact with them using the new diplomacy system.

Another breakthrough feature is called demeanor. Each player will have to evaluate the demeanor of each NPC they come in contact with and apply their diplomacy skill to get the desired result. Vincent also stated that each class will be able to utilize different strategies for getting the same results. A rogue may choose to steal something from an NPC to complete a quest. A warrior may choose to use diplomacy to achieve the same ends. Also the “hail” command will be back and each NPC will have something to say depending on your diplomacy level and their demeanor towards you.

Brad McQuaidThe graphics team has done a great job on the buildings in the rustic village of Brennan’s Stead in the demo. I found the interiors very warm and inviting. It’s nice to see functional doors in a major online game making a reappearance. Villages will have certain plots of land available to characters to purchase and build houses once they reach a certain level. Player made villages will be possible near more dangerous areas but will require that the player be of commensurate level to build and defend the house. As you improve your home expect the upkeep costs to rise.

Available housing plots will use a socket system that will only be visible and unlockable by players who have sufficient technical skill. Characters will be able to move objects and decorate their homes. Houses will be subject to attack by aggressive NPC’s and can be defended by both players and friendly NPC’s. One very cool concept is that houses will have a corpse like state after being demolished by a successful attack. Expect a destroyed house to be a smoldering burned out ruin

Crafting will also play a major part of daily life in villages and cities. Crafting NPC’s will actively seek out skilled player crafters in a kind of partnership and offer them assignments and entice them with free resources such as wood to help maintain the prosperity of the village. Players will have a vested interest in the keeping the towns and cities safe in order to protect their investments.

Crafting facilities will be available to qualified players so that they can set up their workshops. As the crafter progresses he will eventually outgrow the village and need to move on to a more advanced town to learn more skills. This will have the effect of opening up his workshop slot to junior crafters. A crafter can pass on the location to a fellow guild member or friend. Each village will have a finite amount of crafting slots available. Also many advanced crafting recipes will only be found in dungeons.

Jeff Butler mentioned at the demo that downtime will be making somewhat of a comeback as it’s an important factor in socialization and community building. Players will have mental and physical stamina that they will need to replenish but it will be reasonable for lower level characters. Another interesting comeback feature is bind points. Players will be able to bind at various interest points such as campfires, outposts and settlements. Sigil also wants to make sure that modes of transportation such as mounts are available to players at earlier levels then is customary in games like WoW. It was also explained at the demo that it would take a player 45 minutes to walk the full length of the continent of Thestra. It is important to note that some of the features discussed in this article are tentative and are subject to change as the beta testing process continues.

Later that evening after viewing the live demo of Vanguard and having a good visit with the concept art team at the Emerald Suites we ventured down to Gameworks on the Las Vegas Strip for a final chance to relax and have fun with the Sigil team. Video cards from ATI were awarded to lucky ticket holders and 10 fortunate attendees won highly sought after beta 1 slots. Then Brad McQuaid in a surprise announcement told the crowd that everyone who attended Fanguard would be getting into Vanguard beta 2. Needless to say that news was greeted with hearty applause and cheers.

Gameworks partyAs the two day gathering came to a close I was determined to finally meet with online gaming luminary Sigil CEO Brad McQuaid and get him to answer some questions about Vanguard. I asked him point blank to tell the Gamergod readers what Vanguard was all about in a few sentences. He replied that Vanguard is all about bringing back the challenge to online gaming with a return to the days of danger and excitement.

Brad spoke eloquently about restoring the balance of risk versus reward in virtual worlds. He reminisced fondly of the memorable times and shared experiences that resulted when players would completely wipe during an encounter then return and triumph over impossible odds. It was important to Brad that Vanguard brings back a sense of accomplishment to players by providing a world where players can succeed by employing skill and tactics. He echoed what other Sigil staff had told me by stressing that Vanguard was about letting players make their own stories with more of an emphasis on open ended non-linear game play.

As the event ended and we drove off into the Nevada desert leaving the neon haze of Las Vegas behind any skepticism I had about Vanguard had long since vanished. After speaking with Jeff Butler, Brad McQuaid and the talented Sigil team during the two day event I was overwhelmed by the sense of pride, commitment and passion they demonstrated for Vanguard and the world of Telon. I came to Fanguard with some serious concerns and left believing that something special is about to enter the world of online gaming. The 3rd generation of MMORPGs is indeed in good hands with Sigil. Expect Vanguard: Saga of Heroes to be available in 2006.

–Wolfshead

(note: this article orginally published at Gamergod.com)

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