Friday, October 19, 2018

Pictures At An Exhibition: Vanguard

Back around the end of August I happened to spot this short item on Massively OP.  It was a piece about a survey being run by West Virginia University on "Players and Their Avatars".

Over the couple of decades I've been playing MMORPGs I've participated in a few such academic data-gathering exercises, the best-known probably being NIck Yee's long-running series, which eventually evolved into The Quantic Foundry. I've always found filling out surveys both interesting and enjoyable, particularly so when the questions relate to something I find intriguing, making me a naturally self-selecting resource for such research.

I duly followed the links from MassivelyOP and completed the questionnaire. The initial part was an "online survey, where you'll be asked questions about your favorite videogame avatar, your thoughts about it, and your favorite memory of it."

The very premise gave me pause for thought. Over the years I've created and played so many characters. How was I supposed to choose just one?

I could have gone for my first long-running EverQuest character, a female human druid, whose personality was possibly the clsest to my own of any I've ever played. The EQ Gnome Cleric, who I took over at level 12 from Mrs Bhagpuss and played for several years, all the way to the level cap through the Velious and Gates of Discord eras, could have been another.

Then there was my Iksar Necromancer from EQ2. I played her for five years, mostly in a duo with Mrs Bhagpuss; or I could have chosen my Ratonga Bruiser from the same period. Currently my two most-played and most closely felt characters would be my Ratonga Berserker in EQ2 and my Asura Elementalist (well, one of my Asura Elementalists...) in Guild Wars 2.

Even my Templar in The Secret World was in with a shout but in the end I was surprised how easy it was to decide on my all-time "favorite".The very first character that came to my mind as soon as I began to think about it was Korky, my Raki Disciple from Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.

I've written many times about my love for Vanguard. Had the game been more successful commercially and received the attention and development commercial success would have brought, there's a very good chance I would now think of it as my favorite MMORPG of them all.

Even as it stands, with the official servers long gone dark and the game, when live, having never received a single expansion, Vanguard retains an unshakeable spot in my all-time top five MMORPGs. A good deal of that enduring affection rests with the characters I made and played there. He'd have to stand on a box to do it, but towering head and shoulders above all of them is Korky.

So, I filled out the survey and when it came to the bit where it asked for a short anecdote that illustrated why I'd chosen the particular avatar as my favorite I recounted the familiar story of a bug that recurred in the early days. It seemed entirely appropriate, given Vanguard's reputation as the buggiest triple-A MMORPG ever released.

This particular glitch used to have Mrs Bhagpuss and I in fits of laughter. It also helped establish the personalities of the two characters we played for the life of the game - her Varanjar shaman and my Raki Disciple.

All good shamans have pets. In this case the pet was a wolf named Smiffy. Whether it was some form of lupine/vulpine rivalry or just an overdeveloped protective drive, that bloody wolf hated Korky. There was absolutely nothing in the game's lore or its intended code to support it but every chance it got the wolf would try to sink its fangs into the seat of Korky's leather pants.

In the early days when we didn't have mounts, playing Vanguard involved a lot of running across country. Most of it was accompanied by the snarls and growls of a wolf and the increasingly harried and desperate pleas of a small foxlike fellow to "Call him off!"

The blasted wolf would even sometimes change target in combat and start attacking me instead of the enemy. I can't recall if he did me any damage - Vanguard had no PvP but it did allow dueling so I guess it's possible - but boy, was it distracting.

Eventually that bug, like most of them, got squashed. We rather missed it. By then, though, the relationship between the two characters was well-established. Korky, small, innocent, put-upon, long-suffering; his shaman companion large, bluff, sarcastic, ever-amused at her companion's discomfort.

Having completed the survey for WVU I thought no more about it. I knew there was a potential follow-up, where "100 players will be selected and invited to complete a second online survey in which they'll be asked to tell a more detailed version of their favorite gameplay memory with the avatar, and submit an additional screen-capture of the avatar" but I didn't expect to be called.

In September, however, I received an email asking me if I'd like to participate in part two. Well, of course! I answered the supplementary questions, expanded the anecdote with more detail and appended several pictures of Korky from my not very extensive archives of the period.

I was lucky to find a group shot of Korky, Mrs Bhagpuss's shaman and her wolf. I also included a picture of Korky doing one of his very favorite things - sailing his sloop along the Qa river in Qalia.

In due time, this should all end up as part of an online resource "curated and hosted through the WVU Library web site". According to Dr. Jaime Banks, one of the two academics co-ordinating the process, this is somewhere around half-finished now. I very much look forward to being able to browse that archive and I'll be sure to link it here when it becomes available.

Before that, however, there is a physical exhibition - "a curated collection of multimedia stories to be displayed in print in the WVU Library as part of its Art in the Libraries program". That's in place now and Korky made the cut for the sixteen images included!

Dr. Banks was kind enough to send me an image of the framed version, hanging in the exhibit, of the screenshot showing Korky at the helm of his boat. The exhibition runs until the end of December if anyone's in the area and cares to check it out.

When the closure of Vanguard was announced more than four years ago it seemed not just that the sun was just going down on one of the best MMOs ever made. It felt as if a great work of art was being destroyed and I was losing a cherished friend.

The magnificent work of the Vanguard Emulator team has preserved the art and now the WVU archive ensures my imaginary friend lives on, too. He'll be oblivious to it all, as he always was. Just a little fox trying to do his best in difficult circumstances.

Thanks to Drs Banks and Bowman for giving Korky his little moment in the sun. And to the EMU team for giving him a new home.


  1. That's fantastic. Great for you that your character got featured and interesting work by the researchers/organisers!

  2. I love this post! Great read.

    Funny when I think back on my own journey it still goes to my EQ characters. I can't really just pick one outright as there are so many things to balance and think about. Fisdib (yay name generator) was my Magician through Beta and my Mino-axe farming and frantic, low level run (and boat ride) to sell them to the human suckers at Qeynos gates. Heck, they were just excited to see Gnomes back then. (And Steamfont remains my favorite EQ zone...)

    New MMOs can't replicate that first feeling of being an online pioneer and doing things before websites spoiled all the fun.

    I beta tested Vanguard but didn't go live at launch. Shame too, now that I think of it.

    1. I got into Beta 3 for Vanguard, by which time I believe it had been running for something like a year already and had changed radically several times. My PC would barely run it at all so I hardly played in beta. I saw enough, however, to know it was going to be my next MMORPG, so I bought new PCs for myself and Mrs Bhagpuss with the specific intention that they would be able to run Vanguard as smoothly as possible. I did a fair bit of reading on the forums to that end and the result was a couple of mid-end machines that had less problems handling V:SoH than most top-end PCs. We couldn't avoid the gameplay bugs but we managed to dodge most of the graphical and performance issues that made the game unplayable for so many. It's been my experience in many MMOs, both live and in beta, that the better your PC is, the more problems you get.

  3. What a cool exhibit. I’d be honored as well. Congratulations.

  4. That's awesome, I'm happy for you.

    Regarding the question of which character to choose I'd be in the same boat. Quite a few come to mind, but in the end it's an easy call.

    I'd choose my first Star Wars Galaxies character, a male Zabrak who was a Teras Kasi Artist combined with Entertainer and Musician. Basically a mash-up between Bruce Lee and Eddie van Halen. :-)


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