My favourite genre of games, and where some of my fondest gaming memories come from, is Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). I am going to take you down my memory lane as I explore my origins playing MMORPGs from the late 90’s through to today in a multi-part series. In Part 14, I will be getting back on track with the original timeline of MMORPG releases. Next in the line-up is 2007’s Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.
Catch up on previous entries in this series:
Part 1 – Ultima Online 1997
Part 2 – EverQuest 1999
Part 3 – Asheron’s Call 1999
Part 4 – Anarchy Online 2001
Part 5 – Dark Age of Camelot 2001
Part 6 – Star Wars Galaxies 2003
Part 7 – EverQuest II 2004
Part 8.1 – World of Warcraft 2004-05
Part 8.2 – World of Warcraft 2005-06
Part 8.3 – World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade 2007
Part 9 – Wildstar 2014
Part 10 – Guild Wars 2005
Part 11 – Dungeons & Dragons Online 2006
Part 12 – City of Heroes 2004
Part 13 – Matrix Online 2005
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes was a high-fantasy MMORPG that released officially on January 30, 2007 by Sigil Games Online with initial publishers Microsoft Studios. Sigil was founded in 2002 by Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler who both had been working for Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) on 1999’s EverQuest. Development commenced and McQuaid had very ambitious plans for their new MMO. However, before I go further, I need to give some insight into the ‘saga’ that was the development of the game and the effect World of Warcraft had on the thinking of developers and publishers.
Microsoft published Asheron’s Call 2 (AC2) in 2002, Sony published Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) in 2003 and then EverQuest II (EQ2) in 2004. Shortly after EQ2 along came a little something called World of Warcraft (WoW) which took the world and the MMORPG genre by storm. On paper, these companies looked very successful in their own rights so looked promising for Vanguard. However, Microsoft cancelled an unreleased MMO based on norse mythology called Mythica (and were being sued by Dark Age of Camelot’s Mythic Entertainment as the name was too similar) and closed down AC2 after just 3 years at the end of 2005 citing lack of subscribers due to the saturated MMO market. In the same year, SOE made a dramatic change to SWG, completely overhauling the gameplay experience with their ‘New Game Enhancements’ update. This basically changed SWG into a Star Wars WoW clone which pissed off Johnny and I at the time, as well as most of its playerbase. EverQuest II had many of its systems changed as well, so WoW was having a huge impact on the market and many WoW clones would follow.
Sigil Games’ Brad McQuaid and his team had continued developing Vanguard: Saga of Heroes over this time, however, were starting to come to heads with publishers Microsoft. With Microsoft cancelling Mythica, closing Asheron’s Call 2, and losing around 40 key staff, there was pressure on Sigil to get the job done and effectively create another WoW clone. As MMOFallout reported, McQuaid recalls:
“Microsoft funded us to almost $30M, after which there was a regime change at Microsoft and virtually all of the people we had been working with disappeared. The new people didn’t want to make Vanguard… they really didn’t want to make an MMO at all, and if they were, they wanted a Wow-clone-beater.”
Sigil then changed publishers to Sony Online Entertainment in 2006. This meant Vanguard: Saga of Heroes now had access to more funding and boasted a development team made up McQuaid, along with Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley, Bill Trost and Steve Clover, who were all original developers of EverQuest. McQuaid’s grand plans were quickly becoming a reality and he started to believe the press at the time when they were calling the game a ‘WoW killer’.
McQuaid was confident in the product they were developing and created massive hype in the industry at E3 2006. To me as a player, the game looked and sounded like a theoretical EverQuest 3 but with more innovative systems, and this is what made me go back and try EverQuest 2 around this time. Beta testing commenced in November 2006 and it was here that players started to see just how behind schedule the development of the game was with many bugs reported and poor performance. Despite the sheer number of patches being added to the beta tests, the game was officially launched on January 30, 2007. In hindsight, it was released at least 6-12 months too early.
For those that have been following this series, you’ll have noticed that this release date is just two weeks after the first major expansion for World of Warcraft, Burning Crusade – couldn’t have been worse timing for them. On the first day of Burning Crusade’s release in Europe and North America, Blizzard had sold a whopping 2.4 million copies, making it the fastest selling PC game of its time. This figure climbed to 3.5 million after the first month and WoW’s active subscriptions were around 10 million players. In contrast, it was reported that sales of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes were around 240,000 copies at release, and active subscriptions had dropped under 100,000 after the free 30-day period had concluded. I know all this information now, however at the time, John and I were just two eager gamers itching to play the newest MMORPG on the market and WoW was getting a little tedious.
We had pre-ordered the game so were given four days early access to login before the rest of the world. We called each other in the week prior to launch, talking about how excited we were to play and what characters we were going to make first. Prior to this game, we had never managed to be able to login early enough to create characters with our favourite nicknames because the Americans always got in first. We therefore planned to set our alarms and wake up for the launch of the game so we could try and claim Inferno and SnakeEyez first and witness the launch of this MMORPG.
We woke up at 2:45am on the morning of January 27, 2007 and I called John on my mobile so that we were ready for the server launch at 3am. Man we were tired, but we were so bloody excited! Once 3am hit we launched the game and we were in! We got our char names and parked a few others for friends who were too soft to wake up this early. At release there were 19 races and 15 classes to choose from, so there was plenty of variety between characters. One great aspect about this game is that you can change your character’s appearance after creating it initially. In previous games you were stuck with the choices you made initially and maybe a game has a barber or some way to change your appearance. This game allows you to do so as many times as you like in this character selection screen.
We loaded up our characters and entered the world of Telon. There’s something amazing about being amongst the first players to login to a new MMORPG and seeing so many new players running around learning how to play. It’s all very exciting as you start to learn how to play the game and explore the world. We played for about an hour but then went back to bed, knowing we would wake up in a few hours and spend the rest of the day playing.
The graphics in the game looked beautiful. It was probably the best-looking MMORPG I had played to date, but it was stretching our systems. We had a few crashes on that first day, particularly when there were lots of players and monsters around. There was also issues with zone borders. The game was a persistent world which meant we had no load screens when we stepped into a new zone, however it felt like there was a physical line in the sand because the game would lag as you crossed it causing rubber banding. Not only that, if you were fighting a monster right on the border and you stepped back into the other zone, the monster wouldn’t follow and get ‘stuck’ on the zone border. You fixed this by running back into the other zone but then you’d lag as you loaded the textures of that new zone and then die from the monster killing you while you load. It was frustrating but we persisted and learned not to fight on zone borders.
The user interface was very polished, and the quests were easy to obtain and complete and we were getting the hang of our characters. For this game, I broke my tradition of making a Paladin and instead rolled a Wood Elf Ranger. I would use a ‘ranged attack’ skill which would fire my bow at the enemy. It would start running towards me and my character would then automatically switch to my sword and starting fighting using melee skills. In previous games you would have had to manually switch from the bow to the sword, but this game does it automatically which was awesome.
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes has three types of gameplay within it, called spheres. These spheres are adventuring, crafting and civic diplomacy. Adventuring is your standard MMO gameplay and you gain xp by killing monsters and completing quests. Crafting is also common in MMOs. It was more complicated in this game; however, the rewards were worth good money and xp so was worth investing in. The third sphere was civic diplomacy and was one of the most engaging gameplay elements I’ve seen in an MMO.
You would gain adventuring levels quite easily in the lower levels. I have revisited the game for this article via an emulator called VGOEmu and created a Dwarf Paladin. It took me about 2-3 hours to get to level 10 but I did die a lot playing solo. Each class has some unique qualities about it, and some are more suited to solo play whilst others will benefit with a group. My paladin has no form of self-heals, so I had to keep eating berries after each fight to replenish my health. Once I ran out of berries, I had to sit and wait for my health to regen very slowly which was a pain.
Some classes have skills that can heal themselves so these would be favoured if you were primarily soloing the content. I did reach a mini dungeon at level 10 that I just couldn’t solo as the monsters patrolled in groups and respawned too quickly while I was waiting for my health to regen. You can see that as you got higher in level, the more group oriented the game became. In saying that, if you could duo with a mate who had healing abilities like John and I did back in the day then that was ideal.
Crafting in Vanguard was a multi-phase process with refining (preparing raw materials), finishing (creating an item or component) and assembly (putting the components together to make the final item). You needed specific tools, raw materials (metal, stone, wood) and utility materials (lubricants, solvents and cleansers. With all these items being a requirement, thankfully you were given a separate crafting bag space which was very useful. There were four grades for the quality of items you created. Generally, you wanted to aim for 100% Grade A items to maximise your experience from crafting an item and selling for a good amount. However, various crafting quests set a minimum grade required to advance the quest. This meant crafting wasn’t a mindless grind like in other games.
The items you create could be sold to merchants, but you’d make more money selling to other players. There was a separate gear tab on your character sheet for crafting clothing which gave you bonuses to your crafting profession. You could also complete work orders for npcs which would yield you treasure and bonus crafting xp. A character’s crafting level is independent of its adventuring level. It is therefore possible to level exclusively in crafting without ever engaging in adventuring combat. The only other game to do this was Star Wars Galaxies and is a great way to handle crafting in an MMO in my opinion.
The third and final sphere in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes was civic diplomacy and it was like a collectible card game but very strategic and rewarding. You would start with a basic deck and be able to parley with npcs near the starting towns. Like crafting, diplomacy as its own separate levels and separate clothing/items that will give benefits to diplomacy. It often was very challenging the further I got into the game and it would take a while to learn the npc opponent’s deck’s weaknesses, then play around with your deck and items to eventually defeat them.
I remember a few times where there would be a bunch of all trying to defeat this one npc in diplomacy. It took me a while, but I finally beat the bugger and did a fist bump. Then I private messaged each player to give them tips about how I defeated the npc. Sometimes it also came down to the order that you played your cards, as opposed to having better items. The best thing about diplomacy though was, if you were able to defeat all opponents in a city, your faction would then be rewarded with a city-wide buff that benefited everyone. Teamwork was great here, and even better if you join a guild. John and I signed up to an Australian guild called Aurora Australis.
The fact that you had these three spheres of character progression available to you gave you a diverse way of playing the game. If you got bored of adventuring, you had crafting or diplomacy to work on. I know I spent a heck of a lot of time doing diplomacy as I found it challenging and addicting, and so cool to finally beat a difficult npc. I got into crafting a bit but as I got higher in crafting level, the ingredients required started getting a bit too complex.
Vanguard’s development, or rather endless bug fixing with very little new content for hardcore players, suffered a blow on May 14, 2007 when all staff received an email. One of the ex-Sigil employees gave a tell-all interview with f13.net which can be read here.
“The email said literally to check in any work we were working on, grab anything we’d need for the evening (keys, wallet, purse, whatever) and meet out back for a short company meeting. We met in the parking lot. Worse still… though Dave [Gilberston, Vice President] was supposedly in charge all this time, Andy [Platter, Director of Production] is the one who delivered the ‘you’re all fired’ speech, while Dave never said a single word.”
“It was very emotionless. Very callous. ‘The deal is done, and basically you’re all fired so some of you can be re-hired by SOE.’ Bill [Fischer, Senior Game Designer] was there and actually made comments about how he was likely buying a house thanks to his stock.”
Once the dust settled from this drastic and public change to the development team, one of the first things the developers announced was that servers would begin to be merged. When you see an MMORPG start merging servers, you know they are having issues with player populations. To have these issues just four months from initial release was a real worry. A year later in July 2008, finally there were some major contents updates coming for players including a new player starting location called Isle of Dawn, more end-game content and player character revamps. For a lot of us though, we had move on either back to WoW or onto new games that came out in that time, such as Lord of the Rings Online (2007), Age of Conan and Warhammer Online (2008).
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes eventually went free-to-play and was added to Steam in 2012. I did go back and play it again to see how much it had changed. I did like the changes, but it was old news and there were many other better options of MMORPG’s to play. Ultimately though, on January 24, 2014 SOE announced that the game would be shut down on July 31, 2014. The only way to revisit this game is to play it via the VGO Emulator. For the nostalgia buffs, I recorded 20-minutes of gameplay as I started a new Wood Elf Ranger for this article.
If you have memories of playing Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, I’d love to hear about them! Join the Game on AUS – God Mode Facebook group where you’ll be welcomed, and we can reminisce the old days.