Saturday, February 03, 2007

Vanguard: Example of why modern MMOs need an IP?

Vanguard launched last week much to chagrin of its beta testers who have repeatedly been on record as saying the game was not yet ready. Reviews for Vanguard invariably mention its empty locations and half implemented combat/diplomacy systems. Its not that the vision behind Vanguard was bad just that it was never really defined well enough for Sigil to deliver on. The constant rehauling of its design is what chased away its original investor and forced the company to come back to SOE, who they didn't really leave on good turns with. Now, despite being in development for five years the game still has an unfinished feel to it. Well as Tommy Boy would say "A lot of MMO's are in development for five years." And as Richard would responded "Yeah, They're called World of Warcraft."

All joking aside my horribly butchered movie quote puts a big glowing arrow directly on Vanguard's major dysfunction. It has spent way too much time in development for what they have to show. Other fantasy based MMORPGs have produced a much more polished product for far less money and in far shorter time then Vanguard. This by itself wouldn't hurt Vanguard's chances at getting fixed in production except that most of these other fantasy MMORPGs are coming out this year! As a result Vanguard's chances of pulling a Everquest 2 and slowing fixing itself in patches becomes highly unlikely. Sigil most likely won't get enough initial subscriptions and cash to fix things fast enough before the average player quits.

But why does Vanguard need so much fixing and content addition? Well to answer that question you need to know about the evolution of modern MMO games. The first generation ones that came out right after the Multi-User-Dungeons of the early nineties were unique fantasy worlds based on their own mythos. Both Ultima Online and Everquest lore were originally written as the games were being built from the ground up. Game designers had to depend on their own imaginations and what they could successful steal from D&D to create a framework for a virtual world. The art and storyline could sometimes be harder to create then the actually game mechanics.

Eventually game developers realized that buying the rights to publish an existing IP as a MMO was fairly cheap for the benefit it provided. Movies, books, and even existing console games were all turned into MMOs with varying degrees of success. Despite having different financial results these games all tended to go through production much quicker then the ones created from scratch. Only in a few cases where the developer didn't have creative control was the IP a liability rather then an asset. If you look at the line up for MMO releases this year you can see the point I am trying to make.

The Burning Crusade: Video Game IP
Vanguard: Original IP
Lord of the Rings Online: Book IP
Age of Conan: Book IP
Warhammer Online: Game IP

Vanguard is one of the few MMO releases this year not to be based on a pre-existing IP and I'm sure this has slowed down their development. Admittedly Vanguard had other factors which affected the amount of money and time they spent developing their game. However, for a game with a nebulous vision which was not well defined an IP could have provided some well needed direction. Now just because a game is based on a IP doesn't mean it will be as good as its parent. However, to be truthful game designers aren't always the best storytellers as seen in the overuse of the kill ten rat quests. Yet to hire professional writers and artists and create a virtual world from scratch costs a lot of money and time. In fact I would guess that probably the first two years of Vanguard development was spent on this process.

The only other MMO release I can come up with off the top of my head which is also a original virtual world is Tabula Rasa which shares some eerie similarities with Vanguard. Its also being headed by a lead developer of a first generation MMO and being plagued with a long development cycle. However, in the case of Tabula Rasa the funding is probably secured until the end of time due to the financial muscle EA is providing to Richard Garriott. Still one has to wonder if in the future all modern MMOs will have to either be based on a pre-existing IP or backed by an overly wealthy benefactor.