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Sigil Games Online
- Game That Destroyed Them: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
- Studio Launch Date: January 2002
- Studio Closure Date: May 15, 2007, when Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) took over and people were fired in the Sigil car park
- Invested In By: Microsoft and SOE
- Estimated Money Blown: Haven’t been able to find a formal statement, just a lot of rumours in the US$30m – US$35m range
- Cause of Death: Falling short, costing too much, switching masters, failing to deliver on past glories, bad development tools, incredible organisational dysfunction
Everquest was a huge risk. Its team was mostly unproven, the idea that large groups of people would want to play together on the information superhighway wasn’t certain and the title required a 3D graphics card in an era when that was still a novelty. But Everquest succeeded and succeeded BIG. Two figures that loomed large in Everquest’s success was Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler, so it was genuinely interesting news when they broke away from Everquest / Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) and started a new game development studio – Sigil Games – that had its first title backed by Microsoft.
Sigil certainly expected to succeed. McQuaid spoke long and loud about Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and how it would be “the ‘next big thing'”, that it would “one-up” Everquest and that with all their experience, plus seeing what had happened in the market with World of Warcraft (not launched at that point, but well publicised) and Star Wars Galaxies put them in a great position. On top of McQuaid and Butler other experienced MMO developers came on board with Sigil. And let’s not forget that Microsoft at the time looked like they wanted a MMO to compete with SOE’s success in that arena, so were putting some strong financial muscle behind Sigil.
A lot of hype was generated around Vanguard, often by McQuaid himself and often on MMO forums where he posted as Aradune Mithra. According to him, Vanguard was going to be the game that SOE had stopped Everquest from becoming. WoW was for the casual gamer who wouldn’t hang around, while Vanguard was for the hardcore ‘real’ gamer who was willing to put in the time to ‘earn’ in-game rewards.
Development continued on Vanguard (and Microsoft had enough faith in them at one point to tap them to start work on a Marvel MMO as well) but at least two key things changed in 2004 / 05 – World of Warcraft launched to record sales while changes in Microsoft management saw the focus shift away from PC MMOs and towards the Xbox 360. Microsoft wanted Vanguard to launch in 2006.
This wasn’t going to happen and the beta was getting a poor reaction from testers. Microsoft was going to cut all funding in June / July 2006, but in a move that stunned even those working at Sigil, SOE rode in on a white horse and funded the final development phases of Vanguard. Vanguard was going to be an SOE title, alongside very similarly-themed stable mates Everquest and Everquest 2.
SOE pushed Sigil to launch Vanguard in January 2007, despite it being recognised internally that the game wasn’t ready and that it was going to ship head-to-head with WoW’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Vanguard launched, shifted something like 200k copies (The Burning Crusade sold 2.4m in a day) and was mired in the bad press that had dogged it since beta. Performance problems, bugs, exploits and broken game systems saw server populations drop. Vanguard cratered. McQuaid blamed rabid Vanguard players for telling potential players the wrong message.
Within 4 months of Vanguard’s launch, Sigil’s employees were told to meet in the parking lot where they were unceremoniously fired so that about half the team (50 people) could be rehired by SOE as it took full control of Vanguard. McQuaid wasn’t in attendance, saying later that he couldn’t go because he would have “broken down in tears”.
Exactly how dysfunctional Sigil was emerged in later stories by ex-employees and those with ties to the company:
- Of McQuaid not being in the office for months, not being available to employees and only turning up to pick up his HeroClix collection from his desk.
- Of inexperienced junior people being put in senior positions and having to make do.
- Of not having the right toolsets built so that development could progress on Vanguard.
- Of time being spent working on demos to fool Microsoft into believing progress was being made.
- Of management being secretive and of constant in-fighting.
- Of McQuaid’s alleged drug addiction and in-office affairs.
- Of staff being lied to about raises so that they’d stay.
- Of Sigil having exactly one Quality Assurance employee in-house and of SOE only providing bare minimum support on the way to launch.
- That despite Vanguard having been worked on since 2002, the version that was released was created in a bit over the last year, with developers working ridiculous and continuous crunch hours.
With Sigil dismantled and Vanguard part of SOE, most of the key Sigil players disappeared from view. McQuaid did pop up briefly in mid-2009 to blame Microsoft for not sticking with the game (he’s since removed his blog entries) but has generally remained under the radar.
SOE kept Vanguard going on pretty much maintenance mode for a long time – there were questions if after 2010 Vanguard had any active development at all – but re-started adding content in late 2011 and announced Vanguard as a free-to-play (F2P) title in early 2012. It’s been theorised that when Star Wars Galaxies closed in late 2011, SOE shifted at least part of those development resources (or their equivalent) over to Vanguard, hoping to see it revived under the F2P model in the same way that Everquest and Everquest 2 have benefited from the same shift.
Coincidently, SOE announced Vanguard’s F2P program yesterday.
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes was certainly a saga in development, but I doubt anyone involved in in felt pretty heroic by the end of their time at Sigil.