Archive for May 15th, 2007

The SOE is falling!

Last night, someone posted a rumor at Fires of Heaven, a popular fansite for the game Vanguard. The rumor basically stated that most of the employees of Sigil, the company that had been developing and running Vanguard for many years, had been called outside the building and fired on the spot around 4:30 PM yesterday. The rumor concludes by saying that Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) would be taking full control of Vanguard. For those not following this previously, Sigil had been partnering with Microsoft, but when Microsoft yanked its support, SOE stepped in as “publisher” of the game. Originally it was stated that SOE would not do anything more than run servers and distribute game boxes, but now it looks like SOE is going to run the entire game.

This announcement created a massive uproar in the community. Historically, many gamers do not trust (and some even hate with a vengeance) SOE as a company. The reasons for this are legion, but the basic problem is that SOE has a habit of taking games people like and making unpopular changes that cause people to quit the game. The most famous case was the case of the “Combat Upgrade” and “New Game Experience” changes (CU and NGE, repsectively) in Star Wars Galaxies. These changes were unpopular because of what they did to the game, but more so because of how they were implemented. In both cases, SOE sprang a major change on the player base with little warning, almost no testing, and without properly preparing the players for the changes. In both cases they lied to the players quite blatantly (or at the least, willfully mislead them).

For example, when the CU was being prepared for launch, players were told that item stats would be changing but that “the best gun before the CU would remain the best after.” This was a lie — many of the weapons and other items that had been “the best” before the CU were converted to useless garbage upon the application of the patch that “upgraded” the game. Some crafters who had been making “the best” stuff, ended up with crates upon crates of useless material. At the same time, entertainers, worrying over the fact that one of the two reasons for their existence in the game — mind wounds, which only they could heal — had been removed, were very concerned that the last one (battle fatigue, or BF) would also go. The lead developer actually took the unprecedented step (since generally the entertainer forum was completely ignored by SOE’s developers) of posting to the entertainer boards saying in no uncertain terms that BF was not being removed from the game. Less than a month later, it was gone… without the slightest hint of embarrassment from SOE that they had (clearly) openly lied to the entertainers.

I could go on and on with a list of about a thousand more incidents like this, but the king of all SOE deceptions came after the CU, with the so-called New Game Experiences (NGE). This was a complete change to the game that started being designed in secret in approximately April of 2005, just days or weeks after the CU was implemented. All the while, SOE was saying things like “The CU is here to stay” and “we will never do another major change like this again so get used to the new CU system.” They told people they were working on some of the professions that had been completely bugged up by the CU — scouts, rangers, creature handlers, and bio-engineers to name a few. And then they announced a new expansion (“Trials of Obi-wan”, or TOOW) that they said quite plainly in their advertisements would include a fantastic new pet for Creature Handlers. What they didn’t tell people was that the NGE, which they were planning to release right after TOOW, was going to take Creature Handlers (as well as scouts, rangers, and some 24 other professions out of the 36 that had existed up to that point) out of the game. They encouraged people to pre-order the game, especially trying to lure those playing creature handlers. On November 1, 2005, they launched the expansion and charged everyone’s credit cards (for those keeping score, SOE had up to that point always had an “absolutely no refunds for purchases of online games or expansions” policy). The very next day, after everyone’s accounts had been billed, then and only then did they announce the NGE, and the fact that the Creature Handler and all those other professions would be vanishing.

The uproar was unbelievable. By the most conservative estimates SOE lost roughly 1/2 of the 200,000 remaining accounts from SWG over the next 2-3 weeks, and many guess the number was closer to 3/4. The players were, yes, upset over having lost professions, skills, and over the changes, but it was much more than that. They were upset over the deceitful, duplicitous, slimy, smarmy, immoral, unethical behavior exhibited so blatantly by SOE — the attempt to trick everyone, especially players with Creature Handler characters, into buying the expansion before informing us that in just 12 days, the whole game was basically vanishing and being replaced by what could only be described as “SWG 1.5.”

These repeated betrayals of player trust, the repeated lies and deception, the repeated insistence that they are “going to start listening” only to have their behavior remain entirely unchanged (if not get even worse), have caused tens of thousands of players of online games to be wary or distrustful of SOE, if not to downright hate them.

This brings us back to Vanguard. When, about a year ago, it was announced that Microsoft was out and SOE was in as publishers of Vanguard, there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. People were afraid that, once SOE got their mitts on the game, it would become another exercise in lies, deception, and unethical business practices. They were afraid, in short, it would become “another SWG.” The people at Sigil assured everyone not to worry — SOE was just going to house the servers and take care of box distribution and billing. Sigil would retain full creative control and would run the game as they intended. Some people were mollified, but those of us who knew SOE well, just shook our heads at the naivete. I do not understand how, after the abundant record of SOE’s lack of character as a company, anyone would ever find them easy to trust again.

But, trust the players did. And Sigil seemed to keep this promise at first, to keep control. But then, when Vanguard was pushed out the door an admitted 6 months early, people started to worry again. Had SOE forced them to push it out too soon, just like they had pushed SWG out too soon, and EQ II too soon? (SOE has a track record of premature launches and insufficient testing, you see — another reason players don’t like them.) But again everyone was assured, “SOE is just the publisher.”

Then last night, this rumor surfaced, that half or more of Sigil had been fired and that SOE was going to take over the entire company and the entire game. And this afternoon, John Smedley, the president of SOE, confirmed that this had in fact happened — SOE, like a giant internet Borg cube, is going to absorb Sigil and take complete control of Vanguard.

This has prompted many people to make “The Sky is Falling” (or should we say, “The SOE is falling”?) posts. They are understandably afraid that the doom that befell SWG, is going to befall Vanguard now. They are not unreasonable to worry about this. Brad McQuaid, the lead developer for Sigil until, well, today I suppose, has already talked about how they intend some time this fall or winter to “re-launch” Vanguard — which sounds suspiciously like another “NGE”, for Vanguard this time (people are already referring to it as the NVGE or VNGE… *snicker*). And there is the worry that with SOE at the helm, the track record of lies, deception, dissembling, refusal to listen, is all going to re-assert itself in Vanguard.

Now, as one can easily tell from what I have written, I have no love for SOE. I regard them as the worst sort of company — one that does not care about its customers and only cares about its bottom line. I am sure it could be argued that “all companies” are like this, and to a degree they all must be (a company that doesn’t worry about its bottom line is going to go bankrupt soon enough). But there are companies that care about the bottom line along with other things like customer satisfaction and quality service, and then there are companies that only care about their damn bottom line. And SOE is clearly in this latter category, which (rightly, in my opinion) earns them my deepest derision.

On the other hand, so far as I can tell, SOE hasn’t really done anything to Vanguard yet. I am more than willing to blame them if the shoe fits, but I don’t see how they can be blamed for the mess in which Vanguard finds itself. Most of the key decisions that have mired Vanguard in mediocrity as a game were made long ago, when Microsoft was still the publisher and SOE was a competitor, not the owner. For example, the decision to go with the Unreal 2 engine was probably a stupid one, given how badly that engine works on the most basic level in-game, but that was made 4 or 5 years ago, long before SOE came along. The decision to make travel take forever and make the game “hardcore” was in from the early design stages, and was never tweaked despite the much greater success of the “soft core” games like World of Warcraft. The lead designers at Sigil refused to see the handwriting on the wall for years — that the type of game they were building was already out of fashion before it was launched, and that players were looking for a different sort of play style. Only after launching to mediocre sales and rapidly dropping subscriptions did Brad McQuaid finally start telling people they should not think of Vanguard as “hard core” and should think of it as “core” (not quite “soft core” either, but somewhere in between hard and soft). He says now that it is what they “always” intended but a cursory glance at the archived posts he made for years before the launch, shows he is lying.

Vanguard is in trouble, as a game — I don’t think anyone with any sense would see it otherwise. They didn’t sell as many copies as they had hoped. The ones they did sell led to far too many canceled subscriptions for them to be comfortable. They were not able to recoup the massive $30 million cost of building the game. And so they ended up needing help from SOE, and finally SOE just absorbed them. I’m more than willing to be wary of SOE, and rest assured I will watch them like a hawk, and jump ship at the first sign of them lying to me yet again. However, to this point, I think whatever problems Vanguard has so far endured have been the fault of Brad and his Sigil cronies, and not the fault of SOE.

And so, I will be patient, and watchful. If SOE lies to me again, about even the smallest thing, I am done… I will not pay to be lied to. But so far I have not seen any lies from them — the lies have come from Brad and company. So for now, instead of screaming that “the sky is falling” I am going to wait and see what happens.

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A fresh start

Today, I begin a fresh start on this, a new blog here at WordPress. Now, I am not completely new to the internet, nor to blogging. I have spent many years playing online games and reading their forums, and making long, opinionated, blog-like posts at such places as the City of Heroes forums, the SWG forums, and so forth. I have also run a website dedicated to roleplaying games (RPGs) and that site has a “blog” section where I have written many rants, raves, etc.

However, every site of which I am a member has some sort of a “theme” to it — roleplaying games in general, or some individual game in particular, or something along those lines. As a result, I haven’t really had the freedom to blog about whatever I darn well please at any of those sites (doing so would violate the rules of the site). Even at the gaming site I run, the rules (which I wrote myself, and thus it would be hypocritical to violate) clearly state that the subject matter of all content must relate, at least indirectly, to roleplaying games.

And so, I decided it was time to get my own “blogging” site. There are a few of these around, but I and I initially tried starting this up at blogger.com (you can see this post and a few others here). But after puttering around with Blogger, LiveJournal, and WordPress, I’ve decided that I like the WordPress features the best. I also really like a few of the themes here, much better than the ones I have found at those other sites. (Yes, I know I could make my own theme but I’d rather write my blog entries than spend hours on CSS).

Now that I have my own blog site, I am going to use it to continue commenting on the things of interest to me, but this time I can make the topic about whatever I choose. Today it might be an online roleplaying game; tomorrow it might be on an environmental issue.

One decision I had to make right away of course, was to come up with a name, so I will explain a little bit about that here. I wanted a name that would be unique, and would describe me in a few short letters. I am, by profession, a biologist, and by hobby, an RPG gamer. I thus combined elements of the two things (Biology + an RPG wizard, or mage) and came up with “BioMage.” The picture is of Shogun Suzerain, a character I played for a while in City of Villains (he was a Ninja Mastermind). It’s a fictional character and so, of course, looks absolutely nothing like me.

That’s all I’m going to post for now… Later on today or in the days ahead, I will use this spot to post my thoughts on a wide variety of topics, including games of all sorts (both computer and non-computer, roleplaying and non-roleplaying), entertainment (movies, books, TV shows, etc), photography (another hobby of mine), science, the environment, politics, you name it.

I welcome comments and feedback about whatever my thoughts are. For now I will let just anyone post comments and I will not moderate. As long as comments remain civil, post away. However, I will moderate any comments that contain anything I consider offensive. Since this is my blog I won’t bother to define it in detail. If there are any problems I will restrict comments in a more aggressive manner but I trust (and hope) that I won’t have to do this.

And with that… welcome to my blog. Enjoy!

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