Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Anatomy of failure

Brad McQuaid has recently made one of his intermittent blog posts, which brought me back to thinking about Vanguard.

On paper, this "WOW killer" had everything going for it:

  • Backing from Microsoft (you aren't going to find many pockets deeper than theirs).
  • A lead designer who was one of the leading lights of EQ, with many years experience behind him and a team of former EQ developers with a good understanding of the pitfalls of MMO design.
  • A clear vision of what kind of game it was trying to be, with the emphasis on rich, complex gameplay and social interaction.
  • Innovative game mechanics such as Diplomacy.
  • An art style guided by the well-know fantasy artist Keith Parkinson.
  • An innovative chunking mechanism intended to remove the barriers between different regions. There were to be no instances in Vanguard, just one giant world.
  • Wonderful class design (I dream of WOW having classes as interesting as the Disciple, Psionicist or Blood Mage).
  • Detailed in-game player and guild housing.
  • Based on an established game engine (Unreal Engine), thus de-risking the issues associated with graphics and game mechanics.
Reading through this list, it seems like Sigil had addressed most of the concerns of discontented WOW players. What could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything as it turned out.
  • Microsoft withdrew their support.
  • The game launched riddled with bugs that the developers knew were there (they had been repeatedly reported in beta). Major features were simply absent from the game at launch.
  • Even high end machines, well above the recommended spec, could barely run the game.
  • The game launched to generally poor reviews.
  • The respectable initial 240K initial box sales dropped to 40k subscriptions after a few months.
  • Sigil folded in controversial circumstances and the remnants of the game were eventually taken over by SOE.
  • The original fourteen servers were eventually merged down to four.
How did such promising ingredients turn into such a mess? Well, I'd argue that it wasn't a failure of game design, but of project management. As MMO players, we tend to think about games in terms of how they feel to us. Do we like the features or the play style? How does it look? How does the game work socially? Vanguard aimed to tick all the boxes, yet the reality is that it failed, despite a huge investment. Whilst these are all important factors, they aren't all that is needed for a successful game. They are, in the language of mathematicians and logicians, "necessary, but not sufficient".

I was involved in the beta testing of Vanguard and the beta forums were a fascinating place. Leaving aside all the WOW-hate that seems mandatory in fans of such games, there were some valuable discussions about the general principles of game design, with Brad McQuaid a frequent participant. At the time, I thought this was great: "Wow, the lead designer is actually answering my questions about why the game has been made in this way!" Detailed answers, too, not just canned corporate responses - the things people love about Ghostcrawler in the WOW forums. Gradually, it started to dawn on me that this was a problem. Brad was supposed to be running the company and making sure the game got out the door in a good state, yet there he was spending time on the forum debating game design theory.

This is a common issue with highly creative people. They may be perfectly capable managers, but the truth is that they find such a role boring and they generally only take it on to give them freedom from "the suits", who they see as constraining their creative vision. As a result, they tend to drift back towards the aspects of the job they enjoy and neglect the parts they find tedious.

Focussing on time and cost may seem dull, as it doesn't add to the feature list of a game. Indeed it often leads to treasured features being cut in order to make the delivery date with a robust product. But it's essential if you're going to turn those dreams into reality.

In fact that might be seen as Blizzard's true secret weapon. Their pragmatic approach means that the game gets launched in a solid state and makes a good profit, whereas companies that try to "live the dream" and refuse to compromise fail.

1 comment:

  1. There are so many games that are being released and I never hear of any of them, uncluding this one. The only other game I have tried in recent times is Aion, which I think you can guess how that might of turned out. The game was beautiful, the zone music memorable, and character customization beyond anything I have witnessed before. Its unfortunate that some key features were not implemented (character transfers, swimming) and some features were not as we expected (can only fly in a handful of places).

    At this point, I do not see any company other than Blizzard producing a "WoW-Killer". There other companies, you think they would see how Blizzards approach has served them well, and perhaps gravitate towards that, but who knows. I suppose, when it comes down to it, investors demand results and that might be what is holding them back. But I'm not all that educated in these types of things, so I could be wrong.

    Anyway, good read, glad I followed the link from your comment.