SOE to snap up Sigil?

Rumors to that effect have been swirling madly about the interweb last week, and today Brad McQuaid, in his usual brief style, discussed everything within, but not including, a 5-foot radius of those rumors.

The money paragaph, and probably taken from Sigil’s pitch to SOE verbatim:

I think it’s safe to say that both Sigil and SOE see the potential of a mind blowing game by the end of the year. What’s needed, bottom line, is some time, and how to get that time is what’s being worked out. And so I still see a 500k+ game, I was just off by a year for a variety of reasons, some under my control, many not. And I think SOE sees this as well. To pull it off however, requires a funded and supported Sigil and a well marketed Vanguard with these different target audiences identified and solid plan on how to reach them all, and then a solid execution of said plan, hitting them hard, pushing these ‘WoW everywhere’ point of purchase materials from the front to the very back.. In the meantime, the Vanguard that was launched in early 2007 continues to move forward, with much of what I’ve talked about patched in over time, and the rest in the first expansion (or re-launch, or whatever we all agree upon in terms of product and service placement).

McQuaid analyzes the current market landscape hopefully (Hey, Burning Crusade has a silly raid progression, so casuals will come… try Vanguard! Lord of the Rings may not have a meaningful endgame so raiders may come… try Vanguard!) and sees a possible opening for a retooled Vanguard to take the world by storm. Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult. Why?

You can’t make games for next year’s PCs. A good portion of McQuaid’s essay deals with the hope that gamers will, en masse, upgrade their systems to Vista, and in so doing have a machine that can, well, run Vanguard. Except that… gamers aren’t buying Vista. No one seems to be, actually. I just spent an evening yanking it off my machine.

World of Warcraft is successful for about 500 reasons. One of them is that anyone can run it. Its system requirements are low. It’s one of the few games I can comfortably run on my laptop. This is not insignificant. And it was very intentional (as Rob Pardo explained during his AGC keynote address) – to really have market penetration, you have to have as few roadblocks as possible. And an engine that requires… well, as McQuaid describes it:

Vanguard needs not only a fast graphics card, but also a system with pci-express, fast memory, a fast FSB, etc. With EQ, you just needed to buy a Voodoo 1 or Voodoo 2 – the rest of your system is fine. With Vanguard, however, just plugging the fastest AGP card into your 2-3 year old system doesn’t cut it. In fact, Vanguard runs pretty well on a 2 GB system with a decent pci-express video card and fast memory in a 2.6 GHz Pentium; conversely, run the game on an older AGP system, the fastest AGP card you can buy, and a 3.2 GHz CPU and you’ll have framerate issues. The game is simply not CPU bound, nor just graphics card bound, but rather mostly bound by the data that it needs to constantly move from the CPU to main memory to the graphics card, and then all the way back again. It’s all about the various bus speeds and caches – moving data around efficiently is arguably more important than processing that data on the CPU or GPU.

That’s not a roadblock. That’s a barricade manned by surly Somali gunmen in technicals, demanding all your RAM and motherboard bandwidth so they can trade it to IGE for qat leaves. And it sounds suspiciously like blaming your users’ purchasing and upgrade habits for your engine coding.

The market isn’t going to stand still. Sure, Vanguard launched against Burning Crusade. Then soon thereafter, Lord of the Rings launched. McQuaid describes this market as though these are where all his potential users have strayed, soon to return once they’re bored. Except that assumes that by that point, there won’t be Warhammer, and Conan, and WoW’s 2nd expansion, and any number of other new and shiny games. You can’t assume that you’ll have a chance once the new shiny wears off. The new shiny will always be with us. Which leads into:

You only get one chance. Sounds brutal. Is true.

Why? Because once your game no longer is that new shiny, you’re wrestling for users amongst the pool of churn, those players that hop from game to game and the occasional new convert achieved through word of mouth or web site ad or what have you. The problem is that finding those players is exponentially more expensive than just picking up the curious at first launch. When you first launch, you have no expectations (save those holes your marketing department or logorrheic message board posters dig for you). There’s a critical mass of new players, out of which social groupings can form among each other.

But afterwards, you have to deal with the fact that most players will be trickling in, and interacting with what community already exists. And if your launch didn’t go well? That community is ANGRY. Bad launches kill games.

Vanguard can, in a year, be the second coming of Robot Telon Jesus, and it won’t matter, without a concerted rebuilding effort. It’s not easy. As far as I know, there are only two games who have managed this: Eve Online and Anarchy Online. And neither have the mass market numbers McQuaid still expects. If Sigil/SOE does manage to turn the ship of Telon around, it will be a “world first”. They’ll have to significantly retool the client – not just expect users to upgrade to its level. They’ll have to have a clear path of content for users to explore, and a friendly community to embrace new users as they begin. (Anarchy Online has player volunteers that literally warp in and offer to help new players as they start, for example.) And even then… with all that… will Vanguard reach McQuaid’s oft-quoted and again-restated goal of 500,000 customers?

A better goal is a game that is slowly growing, self-sustaining, and with an active community. No one playing Eve really cares if they have 50k or 500k users – they have a fun game and they know it’s not going anywhere. That’s an example worth emulating.