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Posted by: schild @ 00:25:49 on 5/16/07
After the jump, you're going to read an interview with an ex-Sigil employee given just over 24 hours after being let go. I honestly don't have anything more to say than that.

f13.net: How long, roughly speaking, did you work for Sigil?

Ex-Sigil: A Few.

f13.net: Were you there during the Microsoft years? Or at least, before the split.

Ex-Sigil: Yes.

f13.net: In terms of hands-on involvement, how much did Microsoft make their presence known?

Ex-Sigil: Initially they stayed fairly hands-off, but as things got further along they wanted to see results of their money.

f13.net: Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Ex-Sigil: We gave demos to high-level Microsoft people frequently. These demos were often just dog and pony shows where content was created specifically for the demo. There was no intention that this content ever be used in game. When you spend 30+ million on a project, you want to see results. They became more and more suspect as time went on, and more and more people got involved. Though, they were mostly just oversight. They never sent anyone down here to actually work on the project.

f13.net: Did they set the milestones?

Ex-Sigil: They set monthly milestones. They wanted a succesful MMOG. They had so many false starts with other things that they just wanted a profitable game.

f13.net: They weren't trying to be the next WoW?

Ex-Sigil: Anyone who thinks you can make a WoW killer these days is foolish to try. You need to be your own game. WoW is a juggernaut and really needs to not be the watermark for success. WoW is a tough subject around Sigil too...

f13.net: Why?

Ex-Sigil: There are a lot of people, Brad included who were certain it would be a short-lived game. Some, in fact, including Brad, never played it. WoW should have been the example of 'look at what a good game can do!' when instead it was often spoken of like a bad thing.

f13.net: As WoW grew, did Microsoft expect more results from their new investment? Did the pressure get put on at any point?

Ex-Sigil: No.

f13.net: Then when did Microsoft grow suspicious that they weren't going to get an actual product out of Sigil?

Ex-Sigil: When they started testing it themselves.

f13.net: Or rather, talk about how and when things started going downhill.

Ex-Sigil: Tt's hard to say really, management never communicated stuff like that to us. Often times I feel like they told us more spin and nonsense then they told the public.

f13.net: So management kept everyone in the dark as much as possible?

Ex-Sigil: Completely.

f13.net: What was the rumor mill like at this time? Surely people had friends and spoke to eachother.

Ex-Sigil: Sure. People who had contacts at MS kept getting info that they were really unhappy with things, and at the same time, we had a set-in-stone release date of June/July... 2006. Or rather - that was when Microsoft was going to cut of funding.

f13.net: How long before those summer days did rumors of leaving Microsoft start flying around?

Ex-Sigil: Management told us they were shopping things around and were entertaining outside investors to complete the project. But actually leaving Microsoft as a publisher was never discussed until they told us it was happening and we were co-publishing with SOE.

f13.net: At this time, how far along was the game itself?

Ex-Sigil: Well... if you call what we shipped 100%, I'd put the game at around 65%.

f13.net: What were the terms of the alliance with SOE at this time, if you knew?

Ex-Sigil: Co-publishing, with Sigil retaining all IP rights... is what we were told.

f13.net: What was SOE's involvement from beginning the partnership up until E3 2006?

Ex-Sigil: No hands-on influence from SOE, only leveraging of SOE assets like testing.

f13.net: Let me backtrack a little bit, simply for background - what was the hierarchy like within Sigil?

Ex-Sigil: There was input all around, but at each level, that input was simply discarded by the decision makers. Basically there were a handful of people who made decisions, regardless of input from anyone else.

f13.net: When it came down to actually making game content, how much freedom did designers have?

Ex-Sigil: Quite a bit. The content itself was done almost entirely on their own. The designers on Vanguard did amazing things with the horrific tools and systems in place.

f13.net: What tools were used to make the game?

Ex-Sigil: In-house stuff for the design side... but there was no scripting language for example, even though nearly everyone wanted one except for the people who decided if we got one or not.

f13.net: Because it would cost money to make these tools?

Ex-Sigil: No... because the people in charge just didn't want one

f13.net: How much do you think the lack of reasonable tools hurt the project?

Ex-Sigil: Immeasurably. You can't expect people to create interesting content, and then not give them the means to do it.

f13.net: Do you remember when the game was first shown publically? Surely it was while Microsoft was involved.

Ex-Sigil: I'm pretty sure the first time the game was seen in public, if I recall, was E3 2005. People were shown very small pieces (I was told a dungeon was shown over and over and over). Apparently, those pieces were specifically chosen to not show the glaring flaws. Now.. honestly, everyone does that. Nobody is going to parade around their problems. But the fact is, those problems were shoved under the carpet and ignored instead of being fixed before development moved forward.

f13.net: Was this a forced appearance?

Ex-Sigil: Yes.

f13.net: By Microsoft or Brad?

Ex-Sigil: Both I'd imagine... and that trend continued though for another year. What people don't understand, is the game that went out the door was literally created in the last 15 months. Design worked 12-18 hour days for 9+ months. Coding and Art worked insane hours as well, all trying to actually get something playable out the door.

f13.net: How deep did SOE's hands get into it? What was the progression like?

Ex-Sigil: They were hands-off all the way up til today

f13.net: ... are you serious?

Ex-Sigil: SOE lent a few devs to us in the final days, but it was nothing like people think. I think design had 3 people, art 2, and programming 1 from SOE. They let us use their testing dept too somewhat. We felt somewhat reborn I guess, but with a sense of reservation. When the merger happened SOE embraced us, and spent a LOT of money on us right away. It felt really good.

f13.net: Do you know why they were willing to do that? Surely they saw the lack of... product within the project at that time.

Ex-Sigil: I don't know that they did really. They got the same show that MS did to some degree. I'll say this about Brad.. he's one hell of a salesman. He's VERY passionate about his projects, even so much as to be blinded from seeing reality.

f13.net: SOE knew Brad's game though. Smedley has been around through McQuaid Part 1 & 2 now.

Ex-Sigil: I know.. and I can't explain that part.

f13.net: Surely people around the office knew part of the history. What was the rumor mill like at this time?

Ex-Sigil: Some people were confused. Why would SOE buy a game that's a direct competitor to EQ2? There was always talk, but people who were working on the game continued to put their souls into it in hopes that we could somehow get it all together in the end.

f13.net: Without a scripting language or proper tools, it sounds like some of the people actually on the project were pretty amazing.

Ex-Sigil: The level of creativity to make things work where there were no methods to do so was incredible.

f13.net: What happened in the short time between E3 2006 and Beta?

Ex-Sigil: The dev staff knew the game wasn't ready. Brad set the beta start I think and was completely clueless as to the actual state of the game... not listening to anyone telling him it wasn't ready

f13.net: How hands off was he by this time?

Ex-Sigil: He was playing a lot right through about Beta 2 but then he vanished.

f13.net: As in, just outright disappeared?

Ex-Sigil: Yep.

f13.net: Why? He was still posting on forums during this time...

Ex-Sigil: Well, he showed up to make mandates about game systems and design decisions.

f13.net: Was he there to see that stuff get implemented?

Ex-Sigil: The management knows I'm sure, but I don't have a clue. I just know he disappeared.

f13.net: What was the mood in the office by this time?

Ex-Sigil: People were still trying to stay upbeat, but certain people continually shooting down other's ideas started to take its toll. At least 2 people quit the team due to the heavy handed inflexible people on the class design team. When something isn't fun, except for the people who designed it, and others try to help, they'd get shot down... eventually people stop trying to help.

f13.net: How was QA treated through the course of development?

Ex-Sigil: QA?

f13.net: QA.

Ex-Sigil: QA was one person up until about November... ONE.

f13.net: What.

Ex-Sigil: 100% serious.

f13.net: What? How? This is an MMOG.

Ex-Sigil: Vanguard had one internal tester for probably 95% of the design cycle.

f13.net: Doesn't the complete and utter failure, in hindsight, seem like a self-fulfilled prophecy though with only one QA member?

Ex-Sigil: The reasons for failure are too numerous to list, but can all be summed up by a lack of management. Brad, for all his faults at least made decisions. So did Jeff. Right or wrong, they took a shot. The people in charge now were so afraid to make the wrong decision that they made no decision at all.

f13.net: Surely members of the team that weren't decision makers read forums and knew Sigil was doomed. Did people just blissfully ignore this stuff? I mean, comeon, the writing was on the wall.

Ex-Sigil: Oh, people knew. The only people that didn't know seemed to be the people capable of making the decisions to change it.

f13.net: Who are these people who took over after Brad and Jeff disappeared. Who can we pin the tail on?

Ex-Sigil: Dave Gilbertson, Bill Fisher, and Darrin McPherson... Ryan Elam too, but he spread himself thin by trying to do too much.

f13.net: Can you talk about them a bit? As, for most people, those names mean nothing.

Ex-Sigil: Dave was the VP. Bill is now lead designer, and Darrin heads up the class team and is responsible for class balance.

f13.net: Going down the list, what was each persons contribution to the eventual... failure?

Ex-Sigil: Let's just say they refused to listen to anyone on how to fix what was broken.

f13.net: Did they work as one unit, or are they each responsible in their own way for driving the project into the ground?

Ex-Sigil: Well, they were so pig-headed and arrogant that they believed we were all wrong and they were right.

f13.net: Did anyone have the experience out of those people to actually live in that sort of ivory tower?

Ex-Sigil: No. Dave was a modeler on the project and somehow became VP. Bill left SOE having shipped only Velious and some stuff in Luclin. Darrin left Westwood after Earth and Beyond tanked. Bill and Darrin worked together on this project through release - they were also arrogant and refused to listen to anyone else. To be fair, I don't think Dave did any of this intentionally, he was just in WAY over his head.

f13.net: Would you say, honestly, that they are directly responsible for the unfortunate conclusion?

Ex-Sigil: A part of it. You can't leave out the insane hype machine, the process failures, and the poor design decision making at the very highest levels.

f13.net: I can't speak for the hype machine outside of f13.net. But by this time, we knew the client broke the 20GB barrier and the game was, well, in a word - terrible. So, what do you mean by hype machine? The official forums? The posi... was there any real positive press? I remember reading some, how did it even come about?

Ex-Sigil: Good salesmanship. Brad and Jeff are very passionate about things, and that passion can overwhelm people.

f13.net: But Jeff and Brad weren't even on the scene at this time, were they?

Ex-Sigil: Jeff was to some degree. Brad was gone. Jeff was at least present and tried to be involved.

f13.net: Was it futile at this point? Had these other 3 guys pretty much taken everything over?

Ex-Sigil: Yeah.

f13.net: And what was the attitude by the team towards Brad and Jeff by now? Surely Brad's disappearance absolutely wrecked morale.

Ex-Sigil: Not really. When he was at work he was more an obstacle than a help. A lot of people wanted brad to just go away.

f13.net: That conflicts with a lot of the stories I heard about people leaving companies to join Sigil because of Brad...

Ex-Sigil: People did... a lot of people.

f13.net: What do people think of Brad now? Let's be real here, is he even fit to work in the industry?

Ex-Sigil: I think Brad's situation is an odd one. He's got tons of crazy ideas but he really shouldn't be in charge of anything. He is great as a theorycrafter so long as he was tempered by people who could determine what was possible or not.

f13.net: How much did Microsoft sink into Vanguard?

Ex-Sigil: We always heard numbers like 30 million.

f13.net: And how much did SOE pay Microsoft for it?

Ex-Sigil: I doubt they paid much.

f13.net: Moving on - Beta 2 to Release. How did that go?

Ex-Sigil: Things got a lot better.

f13.net: Who set the release date?

Ex-Sigil: The release date was set as a result of SOE not wanting to fund the project any deeper without SOME revenue coming in...

f13.net: Surely no one thought this was ready for primetime. And what about the giant patches that appeared nearly daily?

Ex-Sigil: We couldn't control that. From what I was told by some on the design team, the sweeping changes were par for the course.

f13.net: At this point, why were you all getting decent press? Did Brad do most of the marketing for that (even though he wasn't in the office)?

Ex-Sigil: Yes. We got press because I think people wanted to believe Brad. They wanted it to be great and they got caught up in his passion.

f13.net: How many copies of Vanguard sell between say, release and today?

Ex-Sigil: Around 200k, I think.

f13.net: How many people stayed after the "free" month?

Ex-Sigil: Numbers I heard yesterday were 90k. But I can't be sure. Actual subscription numbers were something management was very reluctant to tell us.

f13.net: Alright, I apologize for digging up a fresh corpse - but when did you all get the feeling bad things were going to happen?

Ex-Sigil: Three weeks ago. We knew for 3 weeks that layoffs were likely, but nobody said what, when, or how many. So that cloud was over our heads for nearly a month.

f13.net: Can you go into detail about how the final month progressed? How did events unfold?

Ex-Sigil: We kept getting told that the deal was 'in the works' but there were no details to be had. This went on for 2 weeks. Then fairly quickly people started figuring out things were imminent. Then yesterday we were told to grab our things we'd need for the rest of the day and head outside for a company meeting.

f13.net: Was an email sent out, IM sent out, who told you to go outside?

Ex-Sigil: Email. The email said literally to check in any work we were working on, grab anything we'd need for the evening (keys, wallet, purse, whatever) and meet out back for a short company meeting.

f13.net: Who sent the email?

Ex-Sigil: Andy Platter. Director of Production, though nobody at the company knew if he did anything.

f13.net: Go on.

Ex-Sigil: We met in the parking lot. Worse still... though Dave was supposedly in charge all this time, Andy is the one who delivered the 'you're all fired' speech, while Dave never said a single word.

f13.net: Who was standing at the front with Andy?

Ex-Sigil: Dave Gilbertson, Ryan Elam, and Donna Parkinson (the office manager).

f13.net: What was the speech you got?

Ex-Sigil: it was very emotionless. Very callous. "The deal is done, and basically you're all fired so some of you can be re-hired by SOE." Bill was there and actually made comments about how he was likely buying a house thanks to his stock.

f13.net: Wait, what? Did non-stock holders get severance?

Ex-Sigil: There was severance, yes... and they did say they'd help out any way they could with our job search.

f13.net: What was the fallout like?

Ex-Sigil: Well, worst of all.. at the end of Sigil, Brad wasn't even there to look us in the eye and apologize.

f13.net: Why do you think SOE kept him?

Ex-Sigil: His name? I heard he's being paid a minor pittance to have his name associated with the game still... but he won't actually be doing anything. I shouldn't say pittance.. since he's likely being paid more than many of the people who were let go. He got his initial investment back, I think, in the buyout and that's about it. But that's pretty much rumor. Only those involved know for real. For all I know, he could have made plenty. Or he could have not gotten a dime, but I seriously doubt that.

f13.net: Is there anything you want to add?

Ex-Sigil: It's hard. I really wanted Vanguard to be a great game, but it seemed like we were blocked by stupid decision making at nearly every step. Good people busted their ass, only to be shown the door because they weren't a 'culture fit' moving forward. I don't believe Brad is a bad guy like some people are painting him on the various forums right now. I DO think however, that he believed people wanted to play a game that HE liked, regardless of the masses of people telling him they didn't like his ideas. He ignored the opinions of people who worked for him, and busted their ass for him, and it cost him dearly, at least in reputation. So many of us jumped at the chance to work with Brad, only to find out he was a paper leader. You can only fool me once. I never want to work for Brad or Dave ever again. There was so much good in the team, so much effort wasted. None of the people listed above should ever work in any position of leadership. Though, Jeff might have a chance. He learned lessons from this, I think. The others did not. The whole ordeal has been rough. I know I'm exhausted.

f13.net: Thank you.
[discuss]
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