Mobhunter: Vanguard, LOTRO, and the Secrets of Faydwer

The circles of massive online gaming grows ever wider. The industry's reaction to the success of World of Warcraft is beginning to pay off as new games are released in a post World of Warcraft industry. Today we will talk about two of newer games; Vanguard and Lord of the Rings Online; as well as discuss Everquest's latest announced expansion, Secrets of Faydwer.

The criers cried loudly over the past few weeks in relation to Vanguard. A few months ago, Sigil announced that Sony Online would manage Vanguard's back-end maintenance including servers and support. Later in a highly publicized and brutal set of articles we learned that Sigil, the company behind Vanguard, brought the entire staff into the parking lot and fired them. While half of the staff ended up getting hired on by SOE, who now controls the entire Vanguard game, not just the back-end maintenance, the other half did not.

I was reminded of an article I read a few years ago when Microsoft shut down a major operation in Japan. In Japan, there is often an unspoken bond between employers and employees. Employment is often for life. When Microsoft's Xbox sales took a dive in Japan, they brought a large number of employees in to a conference room, told them they were fired, and escorted them out the opposite door outside the building. They had no idea how the employees would react and thought it safer than dropping a pink slip into a mail box.

An unofficial and anonymous interview with one of the Sigil casualties circulated as well giving an incredibly detailed, albeit one-sided, accounting of the development of Vanguard. Though clearly biased, this interview gave quite a bit of detail into the lack of solid development, the lack of clear direction, and the importance of saving face to the outside world while inside its a rats nest of office politics and duct-tape coding.

Held within the arms of SOE, Vanguard is likely to exist for a long while. Those few who enjoy the game can likely continue playing it as long as they desire.

If I had to make one clear statement about what caused a game like Vanguard to fail, I would point at system requirements. World of Warcraft made a few points very clear when considering the success of a massive online game:

1. You have to support lower powered systems.

2. You have to support soloing.

3. You have to give clear direction for progression with quests and a rewarding leveling curve.

In another case study, we have Lord of the Rings Online. While I have not played the game myself, I have seen it over my right shoulder on my wife's system. Lord of the Rings learned much from Warcraft in both the interface and the game design. The UI is clean and requires no customization to be effective. The quests are streamlined, well understood, clearly labeled, and polished. Though not as system-friendly as WoW, the game runs well on lower powered systems and flawlessly on current hardware platforms.

One aspect of Lord of the Rings Online has a clear advantage over World of Warcraft: Middle Earth.

Blizzard has done a good job over the past ten years in building a solid fantasy world but it's nothing when compared to the power J.R.R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings has held over the fantasy genre for the past fifty years. Much of the fantasy we enjoy these days comes from the original thoughts of Tolkein. No other story has impacted fantasy as much as Lord of the Rings and, with the recent success of the three films, there is probably no more valuable piece of intellectual property for a game world. Whatever Turbine paid for the rights, it was worth it.

Turbine, the developers of Lord of the Rings Online, or LOTRO to those who walk Middle Earth, learned well from their history. They developed three other massive online games; Asheron's Call, Asheron's Call 2, and Dungeons and Dragons Online. They developed a game that is easy to play, plays well on older hardware, and captures Middle Earth enough that fans of the world feel like they're part of the story. It has all of the makings of a successful MMO and, from initial reports, that success has been initially achieved.

Turbine's history is not flawless, however. The failure of Asheron's Call 2 is well known as one of the largest failures of any massive online game. If MMO producers learn one lesson from history, they would do well to learn it from Turbine's actions with Asheron's Call 2 and SOE's self-declared mistake in naming Everquest 2 as a sequel to Everquest. MMO sequels hurt not only the sequel but also the original. With three active MMOs, it would also do well for Turbine to consolidate the back end maintenance and support of all their games into a single infrastructure as SOE has done. Doing so builds a much more stable environment for the survival of MMOs with lower numbers of subscribers.

Lord of the Rings Online has a lot going for it and I expect it to do very well. It won't dethrone World of Warcraft, but it would not surprise me to hear of subscriptions over one million.

Now we turn our spyglasses to the west where SOE recently announced Secrets of Faydwer, the fourteenth expansion for Everquest due for release in November 2007. This announcement came shortly after Clint Worley's producer's letter which described a new yearly release cycle beginning this November and every November thereafter.

SOE released a few facts with the announcement including a level increase to 80 and the new spells and AAs required with any level increase. The expansion looks to be an overland expansion based in Faydwer with possibly two larger endzones, one the lair of a gnomish necromancer and the other surrounding one of Norrath's most notorious villains, Kerafyrm The Sleeper.

Those adventurers of the old worlds remember Kerafyrm as the devastating force released from the Sleeper's Tomb. Kerafyrm was the only monster to ever walk across zones in Everquest, killing every player and non-playing character in every zone in which it traveled. In a great tale captured in the legends of Everquest, Kerafyrm was actually killed on a single server, Rallos Zek, by over 150 players in a three or four hour period of constant attacking, dying, and resurrecting. Many old time players will enjoy facing off against the most powerful of dragons later this year.

With a year gap between the release of Secrets of Faydwer and the next Everquest expansion, Secrets must contain a lot of events, encounters, zones, and rewards to keep players happy and continuing to play throughout the year. It is unlikely any expansion beyond Planes of Power can contain enough to keep all players happy and playing throughout the year.

As we get closer to November, we will likely hear more of the features contained in Secrets of Faydwer.

Turning our spyglass to Blizzard, we see the release of the World of Warcraft 2.1 patch. We should all recognize the importance of us downloading a 300 meg patch so that the upper .001% of WoW players can have the Black Temple to feast upon. I kid, of course, but as a player who primarily spends his days hunting fel-gazelles in hellish grassy lands that look strangely similar to lands in which I hunted at level 25, I can only watch the most excellent Black Temple trailer and imagine that, if I had 20 extra hours a day, I too could walk those cursed lands and face Illidan himself.

Maybe someday.

Loral Ciriclight
26 May 2007