A Great Idea and $4 Will Buy You a Latte

This is going to get a little link-crazy, so pay attention.

Over in a thread on FoH about Scott Hartsman leaving Ohai, Illucide referenced an old post from Furor on his visit to Sigil when Vanguard was still in its very early stages.

tml;dc (too many links, didn’t click) – Furor pretty much posted that Vanguard was going to kick ass. I quote:

“This game was fleshed out and built from the ground UP. These guys put so much work into getting the game built that it would be impossible to put everything in this update; and also illegal. Thousands and thousands of pages of gameplay design and documentation – I’m talking massive BOOKS, full of lore, maps, class descriptions, races, monsters, everything. You won’t see any MOONS popping up out of nowhere in this game. Expansions, additions, extensions, all thoughtfully planned out…. The folks at Sigil already have a quality product on their hands and I cannot wait until they release some information to the public so all of you can have the pleasure of getting a glimpse of what I got to see during my visit.”

Many of those who tried Vanguard would suggest that the aforementioned quality was noticeably lacking in the final product. So what’s up? Was Furor lying, or at the very least stretching the truth so that he could stay in the good graces of some old friends?

I don’t think so. I think what happened on his visit was that Furor was presented with stories and visions, plans and ideas. And they sounded good. They had heart behind them. When coupled with some fancy artwork and a workable tech demo, Furor drank the Kool-Aid: he bought into the notion of What Could Be. Needless to say, he wasn’t alone–the Sigil forums were dominated for years by those who believed that Vanguard would be The One Game which would rule all others, and were willing to poke anyone who disagreed in the virtual eyeball.

It’s very easy for fans to hear a passionate developer talk about ideas and begin to believe that they will be brought to life just as described. It can even happen to the very people working on a game! Developers can get so caught up in the game playing in their heads that they lose sight of the reality of the game that actually exists on their hard drives.

What is the ultimate root of this mass delusion? The simple fact that ideas are cheap. Even great ones.

You’ve got a great idea for an MMO. So what? It means nothing unless you can pull it off. That means you must have both the skills necessary to implement it (writing, scripting, populating, coding, modeling, etc.) and the means to put it in game (stable, usable tools). If either your skills or your ability to implement falls short, your great idea will die a death of futility. The Graveyard of Ideas is full of great ones that simply couldn’t be pulled off.

Once again, it comes down to a simple truism: It’s all about execution. Do you have the skills to do it? Do you have the means to make it happen? And, if the answer to both those things is yes, do you possess the determination to polish your work to immaculate perfection as well as the strength of will to scrap it entirely if it doesn’t serve the fundamental pillars of your game?

I don’t mean to pick on poor Vanguard. Any number of failed games (MMOs and non-MMOs alike) could have been used to illustrate my point. Books, movies, music, TV shows… the same thing happens in every medium. Millions of dollars get thrown around every day on the strength of what someone believes to be a great idea. It’s not the idea that’s the gamble; it’s the ability for the investee to be able to execute it as well as they can talk about it.

By doing a bit of extrapolation, you begin to see why making a great MMO is so damn hard. You can make a successful console game if you execute one truly great idea extremely well. To make a great MMO, you need dozens of interconnected systems all based on great ideas executed extremely well, supported by thousands of iterations of quests, items, appearances, and locations executed to the highest degree of polish and care. All it takes is one major flaw to bring down all your great ideas like a house of cards. On top of that, if you have mediocre people implementing great ideas, those great ideas will end up looking mediocre.

It’s almost like you can’t win! Maybe all of us in this business are gluttons for punishment. Or perhaps, for some of us, the possibility of pulling it off is too intoxicating to resist.

It’s not (always) idiocy or incompetence that makes high-profile MMOs fail. It’s more that a whole bunch of interconnected things all need to go exceptionally right for one of  these games to come together. More often than not, it’s a few specific weaknesses in crucial areas that cause certain games to be considered a disappointment in the eyes of players.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

17 thoughts on “A Great Idea and $4 Will Buy You a Latte”

  1. I think you’re putting too much weight on your shoulders and the shoulders of other developers. Players can also be to blame for the success of any game or MMO. That argument rages on in the community all the time. It’s a tough pill for devs to swallow because you could have the greatest game ever, but ultimately you stay alive at the will of the players.

    My motto, which was developed by a number of high school basketball teammates, is “It’s not the game that sucks…it’s you.” As harsh as it is, we’d say that to one another to get us out of slumps and in the right frame of mind.

    Sure…there are terrible games. Don’t get me wrong. But there are terrible players, too. A LOT of terrible players. I know that’s not much consolation because they can have as much to do with your failure as piss poor execution.

    I think a lot of the problem stems from game hype myself, which you’re talking about here. Vanguard was hyped beyond belief. A lot of people were led to believe it would be the end all. Do you think Vanguard would have done better if it hadn’t been so hyped? I’m not sure myself.

    I think devs need to be honest about their product and try to forgo the hype. Most of the time, you’re going to help players form that grand image of what your game is going to be like. And 9 times out of 10, the real game is going to be nothing like the game that players have formed in their heads.

  2. Vanguard whipping…

    I’ve made my opinion about Vanguard public. It’s a great game. Lots of lore. Great fun to be had, even today. The game is great.


    1. There are not enough low level players. And with no mentor application in place, it’s not the easiest to buddy around with your friends.
    2. You can go from level 1 to level 50 jumping from portal to portal, and never explore the world. Have no idea how it all links together.
    3. The things that made Vanguard different have been removed and diluted.
    a. Faction… Pretty much gone, no KOS anymore. Stupid faction added in after the fact… never should have been changed.
    b. Item specialization. In the original Vanguard, you could blow all your item specialization to wear that Ungodly Breastplate even though you wouldn’t grow into it fully for another 10 levels, but as you grew into it, you could slowly upgrade your armor. Making all armor useful in one way or another.
    c. Travel. You had to travel on foot first, then you could use the fast travel. This was considered too hard and removed.
    d. Isle of trial… Bad move, should have allowed trial accounts able to explore the whole world and only able to go beyond level 10 when they got the game. The Isle was a waste of time and resources.

    Vanguard has so much unused area that it can expand over and over and over again without having to add a moon or anything. Have an unexplored area, or a valley that you can’t get into currently because the level 100 guardians 1 shot even the best players.
    Yes it had great potential. It still has potential and pulls in some new players, but will never be the monster game that WOW is.
    It has people that enjoy quests and stories because level 1 to 50 did them right. They are fun, varied and interesting.
    Take a week and play a character up to level 30

    Visit Thestra, learn about Veskal, see how messed up some “hero’s” are in the United Races of Thestra quest line. Go to Themwars Dam next to Renton Keep and visit the gypsy on the hill, and the the Warewolf quest line and learn about the curse of a family, and save one of their members while freeing the others. Join the Hunters League in Qalia and get their cool armor. Go to Cotarie Infinium and fight some bandits. Go to Silver Lake and discover the Unicorns and save them as you get a new mount to ride. And thats just some of the main quest lines you can do from level 1 to 30.

    Take what they did right, story telling and making you the hero of the story.

    Bash the game, yes. Bash the bad decisions made after release. Dumbing down the options. Giving less choice, and making things easier for some while making thousands of items useless.

    But don’t bash the story. It’s there, fleshed out and alive even today. Play before you speak.

    Then make honest and knowledgeable statements.

  3. Some hype is necessary, though, because you need to inspire people to want your game. They’ll in turn inspire others to check it out and hopefully everyone will have a good time.

    It ends up being like internet dating…you have to believe that the other person is what they say they are, but you also have to believe that they may have added height, subtracted weight and filled in their hairline some. If you accept completely that they are what they say they are, you are often going to be disappointed. :)

  4. But don’t bash the story. It’s there, fleshed out and alive even today. Play before you speak.

    Where did I bash the game’s story?

    I mean I could have, but I don’t think I did.

  5. Sorry Moorgard, you’re right, you did not bash Vanguard. I read the comment about Kool-aid drinking and thought… Here they go again, bashing the failed game…

    After re-reading what you wrote (twice now… geesh I need glasses or something), I can’t really fault anything in the points you make. It’s weird how I did read your article the first time, but got so focused on the one point that is shaded everything else you said.

    And as I’ve always said, I truly am hopeful that you, Curt and the gang can pull off the impossible mission, “Make an MMO that is fun and ALIVE.” Hmmm, well thats what I’ve been hoping the IP you’re working on will become at least.

  6. I currently play Vanguard, and think its the best game out on the market today. It has an appeal to the “EQ crowd”, which (even though I haven’t played EQ for real since 2004) I still consider myself to be part of.

    I think the only reason VG failed was because of poor business decisions, namely the early release date after a switch in publisher late in production. I strongly believe that if it were released a year later the game would have retained most of its huge initial sub base…but, its all just conjecture.

    In general, I agree with MG. I was swept up for years before I got into the Beta for VG. Reading every minor paragraph of information that was released, or clamoring to see snippets of game play footage that leaked out, etc…in fact, it somewhat reminds of what I’ve been doing lately for the Copernicus project…

    It’s disappointing to hear from an insider that there are so many things that have to line up to succeed in MMO production that it is virtually impossible to hit a homeroom.

    Well….good luck at bat Moorgard!


  7. It’s weird how I did read your article the first time, but got so focused on the one point that is shaded everything else you said.

    No problem. :) Does this phenomenon have a name? Because it’s the cause for about half the fights that happen on message boards.

    I have no issue with anyone who feels Vanguard is the best MMO for them. Like I mentioned in a previous post, I realized while working in record stores that any album you pick up is somebody’s favorite record–it’s all about what resonates with the individual.

    @Snebli – One of the reasons we’ve been so careful about releasing information is that we don’t want to create a community obsessing about small details too early. It just gets unhealthy if you say too much before you can actually show what your product actually is.

  8. Execution is just a requirement, not easily solved and very hard even when everyone knows what to do.

    Bad ideas with execution sell and still make a profit. Good ideas without execution do not sell.

  9. It’s just like any game, even console ones (although they do have less depth), when designing you can have something that seems good on paper, but three years later does it all add up to something that is fun?

    I think there are only a few ways to know, one would be the Blizzard way where you take what works with competitiors games and simply refine it, and the other is to be able to have the time once everything is together to iterate over it to find how things work together best.

    So Snebli is correct in saying that given another full year, Vanguard probably could have been more successful.

    Of course sometimes even that is not enough, as ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ are subjective and it all depends on the designers point of view.

  10. @Kendricke – I know it’s not a popular viewpoint. I just tend to try and look at all sides of the problem. But I would not, of course, blame everything on the customer, just like I wouldn’t blame everything on the developers. Why would I? There is plenty of blame to go around :) But yes…players are to blame for certain failures of games. That’s because in MMOs players are a integral part of the game. It’s not really the first time I’ve advocated this viewpoint.

    To be honest, players have ruined many games for me. So have design elements. Sometimes design elements have been created or modified to deal with certain players…griefers for example. If I’m wrong, I’m sure Moorgard will say something…but at some point in development the team looks at a component or feature and says, “Now…how can asshats ruin this?” “Will asshats ruin this feature for other players?” And that’s too bad. It’s a reality of design, but still too bad. But changes are made. That’s just a quick example, but there are definitely ways that the “customer” shares in some of the blame.

    @Owlchick – LOL. Getting people excited about your game and leading them on are two different things. On the Mortal Online site they state – “…you and your allies will be able to rule an entire nation.” Well, we damn well better be able to. But we were told this before when we were told we could capture and sack our enemy’s city. But Mortal Online does have a decent explanation of what you can expect in the game. None of this…”Choose from thousands of skills to be the ultimate adventurer ever!!!” kind of crap. Of course, hype is subjective. I try to go into games with an open mind. Many do not. Message boards are filled with posts like “I thought it would be like this…”, “If they just…”, “The devs said…”, and the ever popular “I’ve redesigned your combat system for you…”

  11. “More often than not, it’s a few specific weaknesses in crucial areas that cause certain games to be considered a disappointment in the eyes of players.”

    Beautifully summed up. Games like AoC and WAR, IMO, suffered because of a few small weaknesses rather than any single huge gapping flaw.

  12. Nice article! I agree that good ideas are cheap, the devil is in the details — implementation and execution are paramount.

    It’s interesting to see in retrospect how wrong Furor was. Lucky for him that he got hired at Blizzard to be a part of WoW.

    I find it also interesting that Brad McQuaid when he learned that Furor landed a job at Blizzard, once made the comment that he would have hired Furor on the spot if he knew he was looking for a job in the MMO industry.

    Given what happened to Sigil and Vanguard, chances are that Furor would probably now be designing quests for Free Realms or some other SOE product. Lucky for him he chose Blizzard over Sigil. :)

  13. Vanguard at release was amazing despite all the bugs. IMHO what killed it was insanely high sys reqs and bugs. The initial gameplay was great…… I did finally leave after a year or so as I saw the game getting dumbed down and even a year in saw how much SOE was cutting their resources. Hell, 1-50 it is still a great game if only there were the people to support the level curve all the way thru. Had they just fixed bugs and optimized code for the first year, I would probly still be playing VG. Instead they changed core game systems right and left, with sometimes seemingly little overall direction. it still is a great game, the racial newbie areas are all awesome to play but it has become so easy that one gets bored easily :)

    I totally agree with you about making it all jell :) I do have have some hope with you guys tho….. As close mouthed as you’ve been about Copernicus, it’s obvious you have a very focused team :)

  14. Agreed Amsra Lytebringer,
    They are being closed mouthed which makes the mystery seem even better.
    That and I’ve always respected the major names associated with this project.

  15. So you’re saying all my wonderful insight isn’t worth anything? My world is shattered! In all seriousness though you’re absolutely correct. Ideas, even good ones, are all over the place. Execution is a problem not unique to the MMO industry. I’ve seen plenty of projects in my career go really wrong really quickly because of poor follow through.

    I don’t subscribe to the “blame the player” slant myself. Players do have some unreasonable expectations now but they’ve also been disappointed over and over again. It is a vicious cycle for sure. I can’t blame some folks for being cynical though.

    It would, in my mind, be better to get a few things completely right at launch. Players would accept this as long as developers communicated clearly what their plan was for the long term and executed in a timely fashion. The patch cycle has gotten so long these days it is almost laughable when you see the pay off. Who hasn’t heard “We waited 3+ months for this?!” I know I hear it all the time.

    Do things right when you can and make sure your players know what your goal is. I see communication as the biggest issue in the industry these days. If development was a little more transparent we’d be happier players. The whole argument of “if we say anything everyone expects exactly that and tries to hold us to some notion” is tiresome. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver and grow a thicker skin if you end up falling short!

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