Perhaps, on reflection, Sigil Games might feel that putting the word "Saga" into the name was asking for trouble. Calling a game a "Saga" of anything, aside from inviting silly jokes about old age pensioners that don't play very well beyond England's shores, also practically guarantees that your development process will indeed become a Saga - a long, drawn out and somewhat painful experience abounding with whispered half-truths and vague generalisations. Still - even given the number of misconceptions and conflicting views which exist on the topic of Vanguard, Sigil's developers can at least count themselves lucky that they avoided the "Forever" pitfall, eh?
Misconception Numero Uno, and possibly the single biggest communications nightmare facing Sigil, is the entirely understandable belief that Vanguard is a hardcore MMORPG, designed for ultra-hardcore MMORPG players - the kind of people who turn up their noses at World of Warcraft for being "too casual", and who are colloquially known as "bottle-pissers" due to an often committed, yet rarely confessed, act of desperation during extremely long MMOG raiding sessions. Hey, it's a lifestyle choice, and if you're happy with that, then good luck to you - at least you're not doing anything genuinely odious, like buying Jimmy Carr DVDs. However tolerant we may pretend to be of the bottle-pissing masses, however, the fact is that if Vanguard was really designed to appeal to that market, the game would crash and burn instantly - there simply aren't enough truly hardcore MMOG fans out there to support an ambitious project like this, after all.
It's easy to see where the misconception came from, though. After all, the CEO of Sigil Games is Brad McQuaid; the president of the company is Jeff Butler. Both men were incredibly influential figures in the development of EverQuest, and McQuaid's name in particular is almost synonymous with the groundbreaking MMOG. And indeed, early on in development of Vanguard (we're talking way back in the mists of 2002, here) Sigil did make a number of statements that seemed designed to appease the EQ playing demographic - comments about how they wouldn't water down the gameplay to give Vanguard a broader appeal, and so forth. Reports from very early betas seemed to confirm that while it may have headline features like the ability to buy houses and other property, or to craft sailing ships and scoot around the oceans on them, or realistic real-time weather effects, this still wasn't a game for the faint of heart. The majority of the right-thinking world, who were quite happy to consider themselves rather too faint of heart for most MMOGs, wrote Vanguard off as a curiosity for the hardcore.
Whole New World
Then Blizzard burst onto the MMOG scene, and World of Warcraft happened. One has to wonder whether it's galling for industry veterans like Brad McQuaid or Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott to witness the success of World of Warcraft, a game which basically took the rule book they had written for the MMOG genre and rewrote entire sections of it, with one fell swoop recasting a genre most commentators believed had a maximum market of half a million people as one where seven and a half million people could get on with just one game. Whether people like McQuaid ever felt a little chafed by WoW's success or not - Sigil's staff are certainly far too polite to ever express anything but the most heartfelt congratulations for Blizzard in interviews - the team behind Vanguard was certainly not too proud to realise that the earth had just moved under their feet. Comments from beta testers - and changes in tune from the firm itself - show a major transition taking place for Vanguard in the wake of WoW's success, and the influence of Blizzard's behemoth is clear in the game as it stands today. Call it homage, call it plagiarism, call it learning - call it what you like, it makes Vanguard a better game.
All of a sudden, with our preconception of Vanguard as a hardcore-only, newbie-unfriendly, bring-an-empty-bottle kind of game utterly smashed, we're interested. Very interested - because Vanguard has always been undeniably ambitious and forward-looking, filled with fascinating ideas and features, but up until now we had assumed that they'd be locked away behind a basic grinding and raiding structure which wouldn't fit in with, you know, jobs and partners and sleeping and eating and cleaning ourselves and so on. Not so.
A little background, then, on Vanguard's world. Sigil has created an incredibly expansive world for the game, which will initially be formed of three enormous continents - each of which plays host to a different set of races. In total, there are something like 17 playable races in the game, most of which conform to a variety of well-established fantasy archetypes - humans, barbarians, various elves (dark elves, wood elves, organic GM-free elves, and so on), goblins, orcs, dwarves, half-giants, etc. There are also three anthropomorphic races, who look in turn like humanoid cats, foxes and wolves - so we sincerely hope that Sigil has the good sense to set aside an isolated server for all the furries to run around yiffing on (if you don't know what that means, just take my word for it that it's horrible, and for the love of GOD don't type "furry yiffing" into Google, especially if you're at work).
(You just did, didn't you? Well, I warned you. It's not my fault that now you're going to have to cut your eyes to drain out the evil.)
Each of the races looks very distinct, so you should see far fewer "clones" in Vanguard than you see in other games - but more importantly, Sigil has opted to provide an astonishingly powerful set of tools to players for character creation. Every element of your character's features can be modified, ranging from height and body mass to tiny details like how close-set the eyes are and how large the hands are in proportion to the rest of the body. The final results can, admittedly, look very bizarre - but with a little tweaking you can make a huge range of attractive, or at least interesting, characters, and the chances of running into a doppelganger are incredibly slim.
The Class Divide
Each of the 17 playable races can choose from a number of character classes - there are 15 in total in the game at present (more will be added after launch, we're assured), but no one race can access all 15 classes, so choosing the right race and class combination is vital (thankfully, the screen where you roll your character is extremely simple and intuitive when it comes to these options - click on a character class, and the races which can play that class are highlighted; click on a race, and the classes it can play are highlighted). These classes range from straightforward "ugh me hit things" guys like the Warrior, through to much more interesting and (somewhat) original classes like the Psionist and the Blood Mage.
Now, at this point you're probably thinking the same thing we were - that having 17 races and 15 classes sounds bloody complicated, and immediately off-putting for the average player. However, Sigil has cunningly decided to actually break down all its character classes into four broad categories - Defensive Fighters, Offensive Fighters, Arcane Casters and Healers. This makes finding the type of character you want to play much easier, and to the developers' credit, each class within the "class grouping" plays very differently. Although I play a Paladin of some description in almost everything (get your booing, hissing and calls for nerfing in now, WoW types!), it's hard not to be attracted by the Blood Mage, who basically forms blood pacts with both those he is healing and those he is dealing damage to, and the Necromancer, who can animate corpses to fight for him. Best of all, each of these classes plays uniquely from the outset - Sigil recognises that all too many games start out casting classes that should be interesting, in theory, by making them stab things with daggers for five to ten levels, so they've ensured that a core skill that demonstrates the unique nature of the class is available to players from the outset.
Of course, having so many classes and races does open up a potential nightmare in balancing - it's going to be astonishingly difficult for Sigil to keep every class useful and unique as the game advances, and the balancing act facing the developer in ensuring that players don't end up with a character they've invested months of time in which is now totally unwanted by all raid groups and guilds is not one we envy. It is, however, a serious concern for players - and it's the first inkling that the factor most likely to trip Vanguard up is its own lofty ambition.
That ambition is clear in a great many aspects of the game, not just in the sheer number of races and classes which it hosts. It's clear in the enormous scope of the world itself, which the gorgeous graphics engine (still somewhat glitch and pop-up prone sadly, but improving with each code update, thankfully - whether that's fast enough improvement to make the game fully polished in time for release is another question) renders as one huge environment. "If you can see it, you can go there," is the team's proud catchphrase for the engine - no load delays, no zoning, just vast horizons that you can happily march towards all day. In fact, the world is so vast that the team has had to introduce the first horses to players at level 10, much earlier than most games - your mounts (there are dozens of animals that can be used as mounts in the game, another ambitious move on the part of the developers, and mounted combat is on the roadmap post-release, we're assured) gradually get faster as you approach level 40, and then you can get one of several types of flying mount. Unlike World of Warcraft's flying mounts, which only work in the new Outland zones of The Burning Crusade expansion pack, Vanguard's flying mounts can bring you anywhere.
Vanguard's list of "headline" features doesn't stop there. You can buy property in the game, build a house on it and furnish it - and as a result, crafting is an enormous part of the game, with the team boasting that there will be 40,000 items to craft, ranging from the usual armour and weapons to things like furniture for houses. However, the crafting system seems to be in a state of flux at present; an earlier system which was very involved and quite unlike anything in any previous MMOG has been toned down seriously, which has some of the long-term beta testers in open revolt. Whether this toning down is a step that makes things more accessible to the average player, or a genuine dumbing down of a previously interesting system, is something that won't really be clear until the dust settles on the whole issue - for now, though, the prospect of a more dynamic and player-driven economy where crafting is a genuine core talent and a fun aspect of the game, rather than just being a sideshow attraction as it is in WoW and most other MMOGs, is a promising one.
Properties can also be turned into businesses, and it's possible to create a shop, set opening hours and so on, and essentially become a trader in the game - another different way to play which Vanguard hopes to offer to players for whom the quest 'n grind approach has grown weary. Like houses, boats, too, can be crafted and purchased - ranging from little one-man skiffs up to enormous Guild-owned vessels. The immediate question on everyone's lips when they see those ships is whether they'll get to play at being pirates; yes, Sigil assures us, naval combat and boarding of other ships will happen, but not until after the launch of the game.
Perhaps the most interesting - and the most difficult to implement, and hence likely to fail - of all of Sigil's ambitious plans for Vanguard is the diplomacy system. Like crafting, this is essentially a progression system which is entirely independent of normal quests and combat; it's got its own NPC quests and its own entirely unique "battle system", which is essentially a card game linked with a set of conversation options which allow you to persuade NPCs to do what you want them to, to look more favourably upon you, and so on. The idea is that by advancing as a diplomat and essentially becoming an important power-broker in the world of Vanguard, you can progress as effectively as you could by swinging a sword.
The reality, of course, is that this will be incredibly hard to implement - although the prospect of quests and tasks which a Guild or raid group may need to accomplish that can only be handled by someone with political influence, rather than by brute strength, is certainly intriguing. As Sigil is keen to point out, in reality any random barbarian with a sword would not be able to walk into the king's throne room to be given a quest by him; this is where the diplomacy game comes into play, with high ranking diplomats being able to gain access to areas which others could not. Will it work in practice? Opinion varies, even among long-term beta testers - it's certainly an interesting game to muck around with at low levels, but reports describing it as little more than a mini-game at high levels are disheartening. Still, it's (relatively) early days yet, and the feature could still turn out to be Vanguard's really major unique point for many players.
The influence of World of Warcraft on Vanguard is most notable in the early game experience, and in the user interface which the game offers its players, and in both cases it's an influence which is definitely a force for good. Most of the well-polished early game areas (some races seem a little unfinished as yet - others frankly seem very unfinished, but this is a beta, after all) offer a number of starting quests which introduce players to the basic controls and quickly lead on to more interesting and involved quest chains that can carry the player through their first few levels, giving them incentive to explore their surroundings and learn a little about the lore of their race and their starting area. In an obvious nod to Blizzard, quests are handed out by characters with yellow glowing shields above their heads, so they're always easy to spot - and while many early quests do see you going out to kill X number of a monster, or whatever, the game throws in enough variety to keep most players hooked through the early stages.
Once you progress to the point where you're dabbling in other aspects of the game, or playing with a party, the thought which has gone into the user interface becomes apparent. While much of the basic interface is influenced by WoW (and again, it's important to emphasise that this is a Good Thing - frankly, for an MMOG not to copy some of WoW's key interface conventions at this stage would simply be foolish), some elements are actually more akin to a few of the more complex and useful mods which have been made for Blizzard's opus. Sigil seems to be down on the idea of allowing extensive user modding of Vanguard, but the team is keen to offer a solid UI that doesn't need modding instead - so, for example, you get an extremely useful panel by default which shows exactly which monsters are currently attacking your team, how powerful they are and which player they're currently targeting, all at a glance. Anyone who has ever played through a tough dungeon or a raid will immediately appreciate how useful that is.
As you play the game, small but astonishingly useful UI features stand out - like the ability to automatically change into your crafting gear or your diplomacy gear when you start doing something in that sphere of gameplay, rather than having to manually change your load-out. Or the appearance of a number of dots beneath each monster you see, which provides another layer of information on top of the traditional "con" colour of the monster's name (for the uninitiated, monsters in MMOGs have different coloured names depending on what level they are relative to you - in general grey means they're way below your level, green and yellow are around your level or slightly above, red is significantly above and purple means RUN RUN FOR THE LOVE OF GOD RUN). The dots indicate how powerful a monster is for its level - anything above three dots is designed to be taken on by a group, and six dots means you shouldn't try it without a raid party.
Other ideas also stand out as feeling as though they come from really great mods, rather than being the kind of feature an MMOG development team would add from scratch. In combat, for example, there are certain chain attacks which you can execute by following up another team member's attack with one of your own; conversely, there are some attacks and spells which directly nullify attacks or spells used by your enemies. In both cases, timing is crucial - and rather than forcing you to work out what to do by trial and error, Vanguard's user interface actually pops up a button when a chain attack is available to you, which you can use to execute the correct attack automatically. Naturally, there's a balance to be struck - click this button every time it appears and you'll end up screwing up because you're not paying attention to other aspects of combat, or are using up all your mana points, or whatever - but it's certainly more fun than the closest equivalent system I can think of in an MMOG, Final Fantasy XI's incredibly arcane and labyrinthine combat skill chaining system.
Throw Away Your Empty Bottles
The more we hear about Vanguard - and in our own initial forays into the world of Telon - the more we can see the fruits of Sigil's attempts to appeal to a wider market. Not only does the game boast headline-grabbing features like accurate real-time weather, with storms, wind, clouds and the like moving across the continents in a realistic fashion (there's even talk of characters with the ability to influence or control weather at some point down the line), but it shows a willingness to rework even the most basic of its systems in order to make for a more enjoyable experience. Take the "corpse run", a staple of EverQuest gameplay which saw freshly resurrected players being forced to run across hostile areas "naked" to recover their equipment from their now-deceased body; while Vanguard initially incorporated this aspect, it now offers players the option, when they die, of paying some gold, taking an XP penalty or, in some cases, doing a short corpse run. The choice of how to pay for your death is the most user-friendly we've seen in any game yet - certainly not the motif of a game designed only for bottle-pissers.
That's, in a sense, exactly the misconception that Sigil must combat - but Vanguard itself also feels like a game which is torn between providing a really superb, polished and user-friendly experience, and providing loads of astonishingly ambitious new game systems that MMOGs have only really dabbled in before. If Sigil can continue to improve the game we're currently seeing in beta at an impressive enough pace before launch, then perhaps the company can actually satisfy both of those goals. If it manages to come within shouting distance of that target, then Vanguard, while perhaps not the so-called "next World of Warcraft", could well stand to pick up the steady stream of WoW players who are looking for something different, or gamers keen on trying an MMOG but unsure about diving into the well established WoW servers. It could, in other words, be the perfect shape to fill a WoW-sized hole.
For more on Vanguard, why not stop by our newly opened Vanguard forum index, where you can keep track of all related threads?