Vanguard: GDC 2007: Vanguard Look Forward

At GDC 2007, Vanguard WarCry Site Manager Sean Bulger and WarCry Senior Editor Dana Massey met with Jeff Butler (President and Exec. Producer), April Jones (Senior Manager of Marketing and PR) and Ryan Elam (Director of Technology) from Sigil Games Online to discuss the recently launched Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. The launch itself was relatively smooth, but the game has faced some big hurdles since launch. We found out how they’re addressing them.

GDC 2007: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Look Forward
Based on interview with Jeff Butler, April Jones and Ryan Elam
Article by Sean “Arrakiv” Bulger

imageAt this year’s Game Developers Conference, WarCry was able to meet up with Jeff Butler, April Jones, and Ryan Elam – the President and Executive Producer, Senior Manager of Marketing and PR, and the Director of Technology respectively – of Sigil Games Online. With the release of Vanguard only a month and a half ago, WarCry learned about how they felt regarding the release of Vanguard, the problems they’ve had, how they are working to resolve them and how the player base has reacted to the release.

With the release of the first major update to the game, Sigil has been working on settling Vanguard into the market. Sigil had specific ideas as to how fast the players should be advancing, how the in-game economy works, and how fast players can find each other to group together. Due to this, there will be a number of adjustments on gameplay systems such as the experience rewards, and Sigil will be looking to incorporating some minor teleportation. This teleportation system will allow two players to summon a third to their location. Jeff Butler mentioned that this particular system would be implemented as it currently was taking far too long for players to group together, and it would still allow for the world to seem vast and large.

Along with the move to implement some form of teleportation, Sigil will be looking to increase the experience rewards in the game, as well as reduce the experience penalty upon death. Players are currently behind the intended curve of advancement, moving slower than Sigil intended. According to Jeff Butler, there is a fine line between making a game that is not challenging and one that is too challenging

Yet, players being behind the curve was not fully unintentional. They mentioned that the experience curve was set back a bit to make up for players using exploits in the system and it was considered better to speed players up after release, as opposed to slowing them down. In short, they intentionally left themselves wiggle-room.

imageWhile there are changes being made to Adventuring, the other aspects of the game seem to have been well received. According to April Jones, the Diplomacy system has been very popular with the player-base, even more so amongst RPGers. Crafting has also been well received and Vanguard has already seen numerous guilds dedicated to just crafting. Players may notice advancing in the Crafting and Diplomacy spheres moving slower than Adventuring, however Sigil stated this was largely because those spheres are primarily solo at this time.

So, how has Sigil been able to know how they need to adjust their advancement rates, along with numerous other parts of the game? Director of Technology, Ryan Elam was able to shed a bit of light on this question. The way the databases are set up in Vanguard allow them to quickly and easily review information such as this. By easily being able to access how much experience players are receiving, along with other data, Sigil is able to align their systems to what they want more easily than they could have otherwise.

While there are a few problems that Sigil is working to overcome, they are pleased with the release of the game overall. Players are taking to all three spheres well and while some players held off on Diplomacy initially, even this new experimental gameplay system is doing well. They were also pleased by the launch day that was filled with relatively fewer crashes than other MMOs have experienced. They stated that Vanguard was in the top three best major MMO releases in history, along with EverQuest 2 and Asheron’s Call (no mention of the infamously smooth Dark Age of Camelot launch). They were also proud to state that they even managed that with a larger world and with more players on each server than just about every other preceding game on the market.

Of course, even with a relatively smooth release, Vanguard has suffered from a few complaints by players. One of the main reasons is the performance of the game. Sigil did admit that they had a lot to fix and optimize, in part due to the sheer size of the game, which is up to around 20GB on the hard drive. Yet, they speculate that a lot of the performance problems are not due to any single issue, but rather a lot of small problems that a few people are experiencing. As an example of that, Sigil mentioned the problem with the new GeForce 8800 series of graphics cards, which has been having issues with Vanguard due to the drivers. Jeff Butler made mention that they were working closely with Nvidia, and probably abusing their ability to do so more than any other company, to get that problem fixed.

imageAt the same time, Vanguard was built for the future. They did not expect people to be playing on the highest settings for another three years (so people playing on those settings may be experiencing poorer performance due to that as well). Yet, with the release of some of the new technology on the market, there have been a few holes in that plan as some people have been playing on the upper end graphics, and thus a few people had been experiencing problems. At the same time, it seems as though most of the user-base is not suffering from any serious problems. Yet, as Vanguard is also a game that is based around grouping, the performance issues have been highlighted due to individuals in groups having problems, which can slow down the entire group, making the problem seem worse than it actually is.

This has also been a challenge for the programmers in Sigil. Since the performance issues have come up due to these small problems, the programmers have been having a difficult time reproducing the issues experienced by players, which has made them that much more difficult to fix.

Yet, while those performance issues are there and many of the most damning reviews of Vanguard have been from the graphics-to-performance ratio, Sigil has been working on fixing those issues. They noted that they had been doing a lot to fix problems with hitching in the game – brining in as an aside, that there was more geometry in a single house than there was in an entire zone of EverQuest. With the huge clip plain in Vanguard (four kilometers), as players approach cities and other heavily populated areas, they experience hitching problems as their graphics card has to render so many new objects. To solve this, Vanguard has been working to use more common objects, as well as more extensive use of multi-threaded loading to reduce the load time and make the gameplay experience smoother. Jeff Butler made mention that, on his laptop, the game used to run rather poorly, but after some of the recent changes, it plays much better with almost no hitching.

Some people have questioned Sigil for using such advanced graphics in their game, which many point out to be the cause of the performance issues. Yet, the purpose behind using such advanced graphics was more than to make the game look pretty, but it served a very real purpose as well. Jeff Butler, rather passionately, explained the purpose behind the graphics in Vanguard:

Sigil wanted to create a game that was astonishing to behold, something that was breathtaking. When players first began playing MMOs back in the days of EverQuest, exploration truly meant something. Entering into dangerous and spectacular areas was an amazing thing, as it was something gamers had never done before on a computer before. Sigil designed Vanguard to capture the feeling of exploration from EverQuest, something that many games have tried to do before and failed. Sigil wanted to ensure that from the very beginning of the game, players were able to move around in a world that felt immense and spectacular, even from level one-and getting more so as they increased in level.

imageWhen trying to find something that would capture that feeling of wonder from the original EverQuest, in the very early stages of development, Sigil worked with the unmodified Unreal 2.5 engine. As that engine allowed for a 12 kilometer box for objects to be placed in, Sigil created a huge mountain, reaching up to that height, and on that mountain they created a winding road and placed several chunks of New Targonor, one of the largest cities in Vanguard, and then viewed it from 12 kilometers away. They looked out across an ocean to see a mountain with several huge, full-sized medieval towns on it. Their own reaction to this sight was similar to what they felt when developing the original EverQuest and first experiencing it themselves. This is when they knew they were on the right track.

And while the current clip plain in Vanguard is four kilometers, as opposed to the original test distance of six, Sigil noted that they would be working to push that view out further and further as time went on.

While Vanguard is experiencing its share of issues during this early period after release, Sigil seems dedicated to fixing those problems so that players will better be able to enjoy the world that they have created.

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