Destructoid interview: Warhammer Online

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Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is one of the more high-profile MMOs to have surfaced in the post-Warcraft boom. With both the power of Games Workshop and Electronic Arts behind it, developer EA Mythic had one of the best chances to make WAR last in a genre where only the strong survive, and so far things are going very well indeed.

With a successful WAR launch under its belt, EA Mythic very kindly granted Destructoid some time with senior designer Josh Drescher to discuss how the game’s doing so far, what it’s like working with the Warhammer license and why some gamers might find the Witch Hunter overpowered. 

If you’re one of the many Warhammer Online players, then be sure to check it out. Hit the jump for our full interview.

Destructoid: With the game now released, how has the fan reaction been so far? Are you pleased with how the launch went?

Drescher: To be honest, in the storied history of MMO launches, I don’t think it’s overly proud of us to say that this was one of the smoothest MMO launches of all time. Traditionally speaking, when these games come out, you can expect massive server failures on launch day, nobody can log in, nobody can play and it’s generally a tragedy. We had a really great, stable launch. You’re never 100% bug-free, but the types of problems that cropped up for us were very minor, they were things we were able to address fairly quickly, and pretty much everybody that wanted to was playing on launch day, which was a really exciting accomplishment for us.

We’d known for a long time that we had a great game, really the last hurdle that was had was getting it out the door, getting it into the hands of the fans and letting them sink their teeth into the Warhammer experience.

Destructoid: What do you think made it run so smoothly? Was it because other MMOs have come before, did you learn from other launches that did not go so well, or was it just a case of pure luck?

Drescher: Well it definitely wasn’t pure luck. The two things that I would most closely attribute it to would be the fact [firstly] that we’d actually launched a major MMO before. Back in 2001 we launched Dark Age of Camelot during a time where [there were] catastrophic failures on launch day. So the lessons we learned there, the experiences we gathered from that helps to instruct our behavior all throughout development while working on Warhammer.

And the second thing that really helped us was being acquired by EA and being given the resources, the money and the time to really leave the game in beta, in a really diligent test phase for the better part of two years. We had tens of thousands of dedicated testers that were helping us out for months and months and months, helping us to find all the major bugs, all the major technical things that needed to be worked out. As a result, when it came time to set the game live, we’d been in the wilds of a large population of regular players for quite some time.

Those two things were probably major contributing factors. There might have been a little bit of luck in there too. If we’d been hit by a tornado, that would have been terrible.

Destructoid: There are a lot of MMOs on the market, not all of them successful, and quite a lot of them have been canceled. What are you doing to make sure Warhammer stays and holds its own against the big MMOs out there, especially World of Warcraft.

Drescher: I’ll come from that at a slightly different angle — what is it that causes the MMOs that fail to fail, largely before they even get out of development? Part of that has to do with [it being] very easy to look at the MMO genre and go, “this is where all the money is in PC gaming at the moment … obviously the MMO is the only way to go!” So developers that have a pedigree in some other area — maybe they make console games or real-time-strategy games — they look at MMOs and they go, “well we’ll just make one of them,” not realizing just how much more difficult it is to build an MMO than it is to do anything else in the industry.

These are games where you’re not working with a team for a year or eighteen months to develop ten hours of content. You are working with a team of hundreds and hundreds of people, for usually two, three, four or even five years in the case of something like WoW, to build a game that is intended to be played forever. You’re handcrafting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of content. In Warhammer there’s probably around a thousand hours of handcrafted content in the game across the six different races.

That’s a ton of stuff to be building, and so it’s really easy to dive in and go, “yeah we’re gonna make a massively multiplayer game based on football! It’ll be real easy.” The next thing you know, you’re two-and-a-half years in, you don’t know what you’re doing, your server code doesn’t work, you’ve never worked with thousands of players at once instead of ten or fifteen, the engine that you’re working with is designed for first-person-shooters and doesn’t scale when you put fifty models on the screen. There’s just a lot of experience that we had that made it much easier for us to build this kind of game because we’ve been in the industry for a really long time.

Destructoid: You recently said you weren’t afraid of Warcraft. Although you are aiming to offer an alternative rather than compete directly, are you hoping at least to take some of the Warcraft user base for yourself, or are you looking to corner a different demographic altogether?

Drescher: We’re looking for people that are excited about co-operative, competitive gameplay, looking for a really immersive experience that they can enjoy for years and years to come. If those players come from another game, that’s fine, if they come from a fresh base of users that have never tried an MMO before, that’s fine. When we say we’re not competing with World of Warcraft we really do mean that. I’m going to steal something from our creative director Paul Barnett, so imagine this is coming with a Northern English accent — World of Warcraft is basically The Beatles, and if you set out to try and be The Beatles, you wind up as The Monkees. So, we really do just try and be a different type of product. We’re not trying to beat them, we’re not trying to replace them, we’re not trying to destroy them, we’re trying to be Led Zepellin.

We’re trying to offer you a harder, darker, heavier sort of experience. We’re trying to offer you the kind of music you’d listen to down in your basement with your friends, with a black light on and maybe some illicit substances. We are not trying to be the thing that you all slow dance to at your high school prom. If that means we take a couple of players from World of Warcraft, great, but if it means that we get a group of people that have been waiting for an experience like ours then we’re just as happy with that.

Destructoid: So you’re not competing with World of Warcraft, but what about the Cartoon Network MMO coming out? That’s got to have you worried.

Drescher: There’s a cartoon Network MMO? I hadn’t actually heard of a Cartoon Network MMO. Is it based on Squid Police?

Destructoid: I’m not sure, all I know is that it’s coming out and it’s looking to take your crown. I heard they’ve been saying nasty, terrible things about Warhammer.

Drescher: I would love to be in a feud with the Cartoon Network.

Destructoid: I’d like to see the two converge. Who would win in a fight between The Powerpuff Girls and the forces of Chaos?

Drescher: I would actually like to see a Chaotic version of The Powerpuff Girls.

Destructoid: Other MMO licenses like The Matrix Online or Star Wars Online have failed to hit the ground running. What challenges did you face in crafting a perpetual online world around the venerable Warhammer universe?

Drescher: Anytime you’re working with a licensed product, you run the risk of the license holder being the downfall of your production. I don’t pretend to know what it was like to work with the Star Wars license or The Matrix. That may have been very restrictive, that may have been very open, that’s for those teams to discuss. For us, we got really lucky. Working with Games Workshop is great. These are people that really get what their fans like, they fully understand what has made their IP strong, what has made it attractive for millions of players around the world for over twenty-five years now.

Obviously we’re attracted to the name, we’re attracted to the clout that it brings, but what we’re really after is the creative war chest that it represents — the work that has gone into it before us that has come from the tabletop games, the roleplaying games, the novels, the comics. That represents a creative potential that we can both draw inspiration from and shamelessly steal, that is an invaluable tool for a developer like us.

We’re developing a game with thousands of hours of content, that’s meant to last the player years. If you try and build that world from the ground up, that’s a huge, huge challenge. Being able to look at the work other people have done and go, “alright, we’re going to build this version of their world in our world,” that was really great for us. GW has worked very closely with us, it had total veto power over everything we put in the game — every bit of art, every bit of text, every bit of noise, every piece of music. Every design idea that we’d had, we’d submit to them, and they had the ability to approve it, they had the ability to send it back for revision, they had the ability to offer suggestions for things they’d like to be changed. As a result we’re very confident that we have actually captured the essence of the IP. I think that’s something that the other people have worked with licenses in other MMOs probably didn’t have, that immediate close connection with the original creators.

We had the ability to call up people like Alan Merrit or Rick Priestly, the guys that have really created that entire universe and say, “we’re stuck, we need a solution. Help us find an answer to this that works with the Warhammer sensibilities.” I don’t know how easy it would have been, if you’re working on a Star Wars game, to call up George Lucas. We had that direct conduit to The Vatican of Warhammer, where we could get the Pope on the phone and go, “Your Holiness, we need a solution.”

Destructoid: As already announced, four character classes were cut before release, along with four capital cities which we know are making an eventual comeback. It’s been explained that the classes just “weren’t great enough” to make the grade, but what was it about each one of these classes that failed to meet your standards?

Drescher: There were a number of things that factored into it. How did they look? How did they play? Each of our careers are distinct, have a unique mechanic, visual aesthetic and playstyle that sets them apart from everything else. When you’re developing twenty four of those, getting twenty of them right and having four of them fall down a little bit is still a good average. We would work on them and put them into versions of the game that we’d send out to various testers and would consistently get feedback going. “they’re fine, they’re just not as good as …” and then cite an example of one of the twenty careers that stayed in the game.

I can’t give you specific examples because because that is a propriety thing and we have not indefinitely canceled them, they’re something that we would love to bring back in the future if it works for the game. If we feel we can implement them in a way that is fun and engaging, and there was a reason why players would be excited to play them, and more importantly, that they’re not detracting from the live game, we would love to add those back in. We will only add things to the game that make the game great.

Destructoid: When can we expect to see the first DLC arrive? Any idea on a time frame for the returning cities?

Drescher: That’s all stuff that’s completely on the table for us. We have those discussions internally but no decisions have been made. There isn’t a time frame that we’re going to be announcing. If we do decide to put things in, we will only announce that once we are totally confident that we can hit those marks. I realize that’s not the answer that players are hoping for, everybody obviously wants to know as much as they can, but we’re playing that one close to the chest at the moment.  

Destructoid: Several players from the Destructoid guild (they’re on the Monolith server, playing Destruction, for interested readers) have been complaining about having to agree to the EULA and Code of Conduct every time they start a session. What prompted the decision to have players repeat this step each time, and are you planning to do anything to make it less irritating for the gamers who aren’t happy with it?

Drescher: The first thing I’ll say is that we’ve already reduced the amount of stuff that you have to do to click through the EULA. There’s only one screen now that you have to click through instead of two. I can tell you it’s not going away — it’s there for a very specific legal reason that I can’t discuss. We have corporate reasons for why it has to be there and why it has to be on a session-by-session basis. People say, “that’s not how you used to do it with Dark Age of Camelot.” We were a different studio then, we were in a different environment and the required protections were different. So in terms of the reason behind it, it’s not a capricious choice, it’s not a situation where we’re trying to be mean to people. It’s something we feel we have to do from a legal standpoint.

We understand that it’s frustrating for players. I wish we lived in a world where we didn’t need that type of stuff, where we could all just be nice to each other and agree not to abuse one another or try and break each others’ game and steal things and so forth. But we don’t live in that world, we live in an international community that’s filled with all sorts of different legal challenges. Sometimes the price of participation in different online communities are the minor inconveniences like this. We absolutely understand why the players don’t like it, we sympathize completely but it’s not something we can change.

Destructoid: One of our readers in particular who was playing the game noted some balance issues with a few characters classes. In particular, some players seem to agree that a few Order classes such as the Bright Wizard and Witch Hunter are a little overpowered. Is this something you were aware of, and on a broader note, how are you working to make sure everything remains as balanced as possible?

Drescher: So this is always one of those delicate things with MMOs, where you have to be careful about how you process player feedback when it comes to game balance issues. We actually have a core group of players external from the studio. They don’t work for us, we don’t pay them, they are volunteers and as a result they are largely neutral. [They have] proven themselves over the last eighteen months to be excellent providers of critical, concise feedback and they also turned to act as our ears on the ground when it comes to large balance issues that seem to crop up from time to time.

When players are in these games, any time they are consistently beaten by one type of character class, there’s a tendency among certain players to go, “well that’s clearly indicative of an imbalance issue.” It’s never easy to explain to them that in some cases that’s working as intended. We definitely have instances in the game where we expect — say, if a Witch Hunter attacks a Sorceress, and the Sorceress is surprised by the Witch Hunter, if he comes up behind her, we expect that Witch Hunter to win nine times out of ten. That’s not an issue of the Witch Hunter being overpowered. As a Sorceress, one of your jobs is supposed to be to keep melee damage dealers at a ranged distance. That type of interaction is not imbalance, that’s the dynamic of the game.

Other things that people need to remember is that the game is balanced on a realm versus realm basis. As I said, there are specific interactions where, one-on-one, we expect one career to lose to another career, pretty much all the time, but on a realm-versus-realm basis, where you have an army that is made up of a mixture of the various careers and you put that up against a comparable army from the other realm, we expect that to be a very balanced fight. That’s what we’re seeing with our metrics internally, that on a one-on-one basis we’re seeing the win/loss ratios that we’re expecting and on a realm-versus-realm basis, we’re seeing the type of parity that we were shooting for when we were originally designing the game.

That does not mean that we’re sitting here going, “there are no problems in the game and we’re not patching anything.” We are always keeping an eye on long term metrics, the performance of each individual career, we’re keeping an eye on that very closely. If there are any problems, we will test them rigorously with our internal and external trusted testers and we will patch the game as rapidly as we feel is responsible, and we will always communicate that to the community. You will always know if we are making a chance to your character. We’re not going to have you just log in one day and all of a sudden your sword is ten times more powerful. You’re going to know that’s coming.

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