Vanguard - A Review

I like game systems and always have. They fascinate me. It started out with my generation's standard: D&D. I bought my first game manual in 1981 and haven't looked back since. This fascination manifests itself in a masochistic desire to explore new MMOGs when they come out. If a game claims to innovate away from the standard mob-hunt, monster bash level progression, I'm particularly interested.

So when I read that Vanguard has three separate spheres for character advancement and that you didn't need to advance at all in the "Adventure" sphere (i.e. killing stuff) to advance in the others, I was pretty much doomed. Other games have tried this before with tragic results, but Vanguard is a part of the Sony empire so I expect that the game will actually be playable. And I have to say, they did something mildly wonderful with the Craft and Diplomacy spheres. Too bad Sony is run by pointy-headed morons who can only see customers as dollars with legs.

The Good

I explored Crafting first and I have to say, they did some interesting things here. The beginning crafting quests give you everything you need to get a feel for the ropes including some minor crafting equipment. This is where I first discovered one of the best things Sigil created: sphere-specific character inventory. My crafting stuff doesn't clutter up my bags and require complex item switching to maintain, just as my adventuring gear doesn't get in the way when I craft. This is nice, though 9 players in 10 won't even be aware of the pain-that-might-have-been (which is a sign of good design).

One thing that took some getting used to in both the non-killing-stuff spheres is that they incorporate colorful "gamey" abstractions. In Diplomacy, for example, you earn "conversation cards" that you play during a conversation to determine who is "winning" a discussion. The cards interact in certain ways that make diplomacy something of a challenge. While a touch odd at first, I came to admire this solution to making these sphere's attractive. It seems that Sigil remembered what others seem to have forgotten--this is a game. If all you have to do to craft something is push a button, then crafting is going to be boring.

These "gamey" abstractions both give you opportunities for random events and introduce the possibility of failure (to be clear, I'm not actually linking those two--while you can have an awkward run of luck in crafting, success or failure is still in the hands of the player). You choose whether to continue pursuit of an "A" quality item or decide that you've had too many muscle cramps to make that feasible and be happy with a "B". This dynamic means that your brain has to be engaged as you play these spheres, keeping them fun and precluding boredom as you pursue them.

My favorite sphere, by far, was Diplomacy. The "gamey" aspects of it were the most abstract but it also had the best writing. This makes sense, but it's good to see they actually spent the money to get some quality stories. I experimented with a couple of different races and each one had some compelling diplomatic storylines with factional interplay and manipulation that pulled me in. I'm not as big a fan of the "town levers" dynamic (which allow your diplomats to boost certain aspects of towns that then give players there interesting buffs--usually with a one-hour timer). I wish they had done more diplomacy quests, but I can see how there's only so much individually crafted, unique content you can create. They could also improve the availability of information before going into a conversation, but the information is there (you just have to remember who you are talking to and what that means about their conversational proclivities). Don't let these nit picks distract here, though: this is an excellent innovation, fun to play, and others would do well to learn from Vanguard.

Finally, a class I think they did extremely well with is the bard. Vanguard has 15 different classes (which is a little excessive) so I haven't experimented with them all, but I'm always interested in what people do with bards. Bard fighting skills in Vanguard are about what you'd expect (though dual wield is a fun non-common perk), but their songs are fantastically well-done. First, you don't actually get songs as you level--you get movements, rests, embellishments, lyrics, and other pieces of songs that you then put together to craft masterpieces to your liking. This lets you fine-tune your energy expenditure and song effects in a very bard-like manner. Second, Vanguard lets you name your songs. The buff tool-tip on mouse-over actually contains your title, allowing you to be publicly creative in a very bard-like way. Nice touches, both.

The Bad

As innovative as some aspects of Vanguard are, there are aspects of the game that grate. The most obvious is that Sony chose to skimp on quality. The graphics, while nice, aren't anywhere near what you'd expect given the system specs on this thing. In addition, the voice acting is... spotty. Some of it was okay, but mostly it was pretty bare-bones (and some of it was downright cringe-worthy). I don't consider myself a voice guy--I don't normally notice voice acting in games. This was occasionally bad enough to draw my attention.

The thing that drove me to cancel my subscription and head back to World of Warcraft, though, is the stupid insistence on a death penalty. Traveling the world is a dangerous activity what with wild boars and other aggressive bad guys wandering around loose. Also, sometimes you want to go out and exercise your inner barbarian. Even though you can theoretically spend all your time in non-adventuring spheres, it remains your core gameplay and central dynamic. If it sucks, everything else is affected. And make no mistake, ramped up death penalties suck.

I truly don't get how people aren't learning from City of Heroes and World of Warcraft on this. Failure is its own penalty. Adding an XP hit and corpse retrieval is just adding insult to injury. Games put you in the position of playing the extraordinary. Games let you play a risk-taking, tough-talking, potentially swaggering larger-than-life character that takes the world on through brains, brawn, or maybe just persistence. Hitting me hard when a risk turns out badly adds suck to a game that I don't think needs to be there.

An additional suck in Vanguard is also that you run out of quests before you run out of level (even more so if you die at all). That means that some time spent running around killing random stuff is, to an extent, mandatory. Here's a tip to anyone designing games: random killing is only fun for people with a lot of time on their hands and/or psychopathic tendencies. Yeah, that's a good portion of your male teen demographic, but games aren't dominated by that group as much as you think (witness WoW's continuing phenomenal, broad-based popularity).

The death penalty suckage is particularly vivid with a player used to World of Warcraft. In WoW, quests will tend to take you places where a single "add" during a fight, while risky, isn't likely to end badly if you're careful. Hard-core players bemoan the wussification of MMOs brought by World of Warcraft, but that's because they're jerks. Well, okay, that's probably not the case, but heavy death penalties do tend to be championed by people looking to prove that they are better than all the noobs running around who have a mere hour or two a night to play.

My final gripe is that Sony, as a company, seems to be deep into self-destruct mode when it comes to pricing and marketing. In Vanguard, this is manifest through their Station Players site. You can, for $1 a month each of four "services" (or $2.99 a month for all four) have access to a couple of character information pages. Gee, thanks. This is actually a cool feature that I first noticed and loved with Planetside. Being able to check out your stats without having to be logged in opens up new obsessive horizons and gives players opportunities to be involved with your game without drawing down all the resources they would if they were logged in. It's a classic win-win for any company with half a clue. Which is why Sony is trying to extort $3/month for something other, more enlightened, companies are giving away for free.

The Conclusion

As I said above, I canceled my Vanguard subscription. I got as much play from the game as I typically do for your standard single-player releases, so I'm not upset about wasting money. It gave me some good memories and I have to admit that exploring the Diplomacy sphere still has an attraction. Unfortunately, the rest of the game seems to be targeted more for your hard core, death-penalty-loving, noob squashing l33t playaz than for someone like me. Also, a company that seems to be looking for every opportunity to squeeze the last dime from my pocket offends me. Note to Sony: you are not the only game in town and your competitors are generous with their offerings. Extorting an extra 20% a month for something others provide for free is a really bad idea™.

7. March 2007 19:33 by Jacob | Comments (5) | Permalink

Addiction and Self-Interest

Some busy-body is trying to create a new mental disorder of "Game Addiction." Now, there may be those who play games too much. They may even need professional help. but I have a couple of problems with this Dr. Orzack and what she is trying to do.

Obvious Self-Interest

My first issue is the same one I had back in 1998 and 1999 with the wide-spread Y2K hysteria. Talking with experts who have an obvious self-interest in an issue is problematic (at best). The first tip-off that this is a problem in the analysis is her "estimation" that some 40% of World of Warcraft players are addicted. It's hard to figure how she has arrived at this number. She goes from mentioning that WoW has around 6 million subscribers and moves right into the 40% figure. Is it de facto addictive because it is popular? Or is 40% what you'd expect to find for any game? Or just for online games?

I can't help doing the money math here. If there are over a million people with this addiction and she is busy setting herself up as the expert who can cure it, that constitutes a pretty significant bid for patients. It bugs me that the media is so credulous in these things. I mean, in a world where journalists were actually, you know, capable of rational thought, the headline might have read "Psychiatrist seeks millions of new patients". I mean, the interviewer was sharp enough to do the math, but seems to have bypassed considering the implications inherent in such a radical statement.

Further, rational thought would have pointed out the blatant anti-business bias displayed by Dr. Orzack (I find myself fighting the impulse to use scare quotes every time I use her title)--a bias that leads to some really bad claims of intent. What, exactly, does she think that Blizzard gains from having players who are addicted? In other words, why would anybody want to design an online game that is addictive? She doesn't seem to have thought about the fact that MMORPGs are inherently different from other types of games because they carry an incremental increase in cost based on use. Indeed, in my opinion the reason that Blizzard is such a success is because they actively court more casual players. That is certainly a key to my own continued play. It's a classic win-win where the casual players have a game that is fun without needing to be connected 24/7 and Blizzard collects their monthly subscription for an account that uses fewer resources than hard-core players use. If anything, business self-interest would seek content that keeps people interested enough to maintain their subscription, but not so interesting that players feel they have to be logged in all the time or risk missing the good stuff.

In fact, when stated like that you can see ways that Blizzard is taking pains to reduce the need to be logged in. Periodic monthly events (as opposed to random and constantly changing events) for example, encourage you to drop in when you have time. The Auction House is great for selling stuff without having to be logged in--as the in-game email system enables you to transfer money and items to friends without having to be online at the same time. People don't feel that they're missing an opportunity that might otherwise pass them by. Aggregating a number of servers for battlegrounds is another example. If I have a greater chance of getting into a battleground any time I want to, I'm not going to be hanging out during peak hours hoping to find one open.

Online Community

Another difference you have to be careful of in an MMORPG is the "MM". When I was tempting a friend of mine into EverQuest (back in the day), I had had enough experience to give him a simple warning. I'd gone through a couple of guild tantrums so I prepared him by telling him "don't let anybody tell you this is just a game." Yeah, you're playing a game, but never let yourself forget that those are other people on the other end of the connection. The relationships you'll build online will have many of the same characteristics of relationships anywhere else. You'll form emotional ties, good and bad, with those people. And don't forget that your actions will affect other live human beings--which means that there are not insignificant real moral dimensions in your dealings with them as well.

Which is why I don't see the problem when Dr. Orzack says "[one] 18-year-old individual was miserable. He didn't get along with any of his family members and kept withdrawing into the game." An 18-year-old in a painful family situation seeking another community seems like a natural (and possibly healthy depending on the family situation--in this case a divorce and related trauma) thing to me. This privileging of face-to-face community is suspect to me and not just because I'm something of a recluse myself. After all, in-person communities aren't all beneficial. I'd much prefer that a troubled teen find himself mugging murlocks in Hillsbrad Foothills (I hate those things) than some shopper in a parking lot.

By ignoring that playing MMORPGs necessarily means being connected to other people, Dr. Orzack ignores things that contradict her addiction hypothesis. After all, I'm not seeing a huge difference between someone joining a football team and signing up to play World of Warcraft. If the only difference is sweat, injury, and public exhibition, then I fail to see the danger in playing MMORPGs. I don't know, maybe she considers High School sports programs addictive as well. Or maybe she would if she thought she could con credulous parents into forking out her hourly rate to treat it...

 

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9. August 2006 13:59 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

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