The Game Archaeologist: Climax’s Warhammer Online

Let’s begin with a little personal history. Back in 2008, I decided to get into the blogging scene by jumping on board the latest MMO hotness — in this case, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. As I was growing increasingly tired of World of Warcraft, WAR seemed to offer a refreshing alternative: a darker world full of brutal PvP and awesome new ideas. So I joined the elite ranks of bloggers (hey, stop laughing so hard) and spent the better part of two years jawing about Mythic’s latest fantasy project.

And while Warhammer Online was, in my opinion, a solid product, it certainly failed to live up to the extremely high expectations held by both the development team and the players. No matter how it turned out, I really enjoyed talking about WAR, especially in the days leading up to its launch.

As with other IP-related MMOs like Star Trek Online and Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online had its roots with another company and another vision. It’s a “what if?” tale that’s tantalizing to consider — an entirely different studio, Climax Online, creating a much darker version of Warhammer.

So what if Climax had brought its version of Warhammer Online to bear? Would it have eclipsed Mythic’s vision or been its own animal? Hit the jump and let’s dive into the pages of ancient history!

An early Climax

Before Mythic ever laid a finger on Warhammer, before Paul Barnett bought those hideously awesome sunglasses, before “War is Everywhere,” there was another company already hard at work on an online Warhammer presence. Its name? Climax Online.

Climax formed in 1988 and began to seriously publish games in the PlayStation era. Today it’s still trucking along with various low-profile titles under the moniker of Climax Group. You may or may not recognize it as the maker of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Overlord: Dark Legend.

As early as 2000, Climax flagged the Warhammer IP as a project worthy of its interest and efforts. Despite having no experience in the burgeoning field of online RPGs, Climax engaged the project fully and built up some buzz through E3 videos and limited press. An early partnership with Microsoft helped to build up the back-end technology.

By 2002, Climax joined to work hand-in-hand with Games Workshop in order to transform one of their most recognizable IPs into a hit MMO, and with SEGA distributing the game, they named the joint venture “Warhammer Online Ltd.”

Paint it black

One of the most notable features of Climax’s Warhammer — and what it will be remembered for — was an intense, unrelentingly dark atmosphere. It was deeply grim, as some described it.

In an interview with GameZone, Climax touted this approach with glee: “Warhammer aims at a grittier realism where the downtrodden peasantry is suitably terrified of the monsters that really do go bump in the night (mainly when they drop the bodies they’ve been carrying).”

Playable races announced included Humans, Elves, Dwarfs, Halflings, and Ogres. Four starting classes were also released: Warrior, Academic, Rogue, and Adventurer. Guilds would be called “Warrior Companies,” and clothing and armor would be independent graphical layers that would go on top of your character’s model in contrast to the standard procedure of “reskinning” a character model.

It was stated that the large game world (set in the Reikland) would take around 12 to 14 hours to walk its seamless 400 kilometers end-to-end. Along the way, players would find three cities, 12 towns, 30 villages, 30 farmsteads, 18 coaching inns, 15 dungeons and other various landmarks to explore. The game world’s look skewed to the more realistic than stylistic, saturated with dark and muted tones. Weather effects were planned along with seasons, including snowfall that would actually accumulate over time and other effects that would affect combat.

This world wouldn’t be predictable, either. Enemies would roam randomly, and if left unchecked, would start to congregate in even greater numbers and potentially build NPC camps.

Major in thievery, minor in basketweaving

Noise was made by Climax about getting away from level-based advancement toward a more skill-based system. The idea here was that you would earn reputation with a certain group and then join them to learn what career skills they could teach (including non-combat abilities). Careers were lumped into various tiers that represented the power and difficulty level of the skills. You could easily learn Career 1 skills, but you had to jump through a lot of hoops to access Career 2, and so on.

Once you accumulated a certain set of skills, you would find yourself fitting into a class of sorts. A Master Assassin required beggar, ruffian, and herbalist skills, among others. The higher you went in the career tiers, the more you became flagged for PvP to members of opposing career sets. As far as I can tell, this type of PvP flagging would not be optional but integrated.

While several locale names — like the city of Altdorf — might be familiar to the WAR crowd, Climax’s game seems almost radically different from what Mythic did. The planned server sizes would be relatively tiny (4,000 to 6,000 players apiece), voice acting non-existent, inventory would consider weight as a factor, trading between various NPC vendors would be a viable way to make a buck, and GMs would stage numerous live events such as invasions. Also, combat was planned to be round-based instead of real-time to compensate for slower internet connections.

Interestingly enough, Climax’s Warhammer would have come replete with an in-game journal that would record every quest undertaken, every mob killed, atlases and so forth — a precursor to Mythic’s famous Tome of Knowledge, perhaps?

As the world of Warhammer was deeply suspicious of magic — almost anti-magic, in fact — the magic system in Warhammer Online would be altered from most traditional fantasy MMO models. Each zone would have a certain magical attunement, resulting in varying streams of magical energy that players could draw on for their diabolical spells. What might be easy to cast in one area would be almost impossible in another, depending on the spell in question.

A phoenix dies and is reborn

As the development rounded into its second full year, David Nicholson, president of Climax at the time, was quoted as saying: “We want to assure fans that we won’t be rushed in this, and we won’t release a game that does not meet all the strict quality criteria we place upon ourselves and placed upon us by the guys at Games Workshop.”

The Climax team, which received a nice boost in profile at E3 2003, struggled to show something, anything new at E3 just a year later. Disagreements between Climax and Games Workshop concerning the art and animation were cited as a major holdup. It quickly became obvious that Climax bit off more than it could deliver, and planned features were scaled back or cut altogether.

By June of 2004, Games Workshop took an inventory of the project, which they estimated would take $30 million to finish and launch (in comparison, Star Wars Galaxies took $30 million to fully develop and World of Warcraft $60 million). The company deemed it to be too expensive and stopped funding the project.

This didn’t fully kill Warhammer Online right away, as Climax continued to fund the project out of its own pockets and struggled to find a publishing partner. Unfortunately for them it didn’t happen, and Climax’s Warhammer was officially canceled for good by the end of the year.

Climax’s CEO, Karl Jeffery, expressed regret about the decision: “It was a deeply sad thing for us to have to do after so much hard work and commitment from the entire team.”

Robin Dews, Climax’s general manager, posted this good-bye on the now-defunct Warhammer Online website:

“It is with a great deal of sadness that I inform the community that we have decided to discontinue the development of Warhammer Online and will be closing down this website with immediate effect. This has been a difficult and painful decision but it was taken following a full review of the progress of the game, costs to date and future costs of the project. As a result both Games Workshop and Climax Development Limited, the computer games developer, have agreed to terminate the development project. I would like to say a personal thanks to all of the people who have followed our development over the last few years, your constant support and enthusiasm has meant a great deal to us.”

About five months later, Mythic Entertainment snapped up the license. Instead of building off of Climax’s efforts, the team decided to start over on the entire project, creating their own vision of the Warhammer world. This game would ultimately become Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, releasing in 2008.

It’s hard to say if Climax’s version would’ve been successful, as we don’t have much in the way of player testimonies or in-game footage to analyze. I certainly like some of the ambitions behind the project and the more open-form character development, but Mythic definitely made the better-looking game, and probably the more user-friendly one as well.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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20 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Climax’s Warhammer Online"

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Reselect Name

WAR was a great game. But they released it with the core mechanic of the game, territory capture, not working.

They later fixed it but it was too late by that time.

Reader
Jeff

Lots of Bad memories about WAR

The only upside is Carrie Guskos will never be in charge of a MMO ever again

Reader
rafterman

The Climax version of a Warhammer MMO would have been amazing, but I actually really liked Mythic’s version. In fact, I’d probably be playing it now if it hadn’t gotten canned.

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Kickstarter Donor
zeko_rena

Same, I miss it :(

Reader
Ket Viliano

Given the fate of Warhammer, and World of Darkness games, I just feel that a game studio is much better off with an original, creative “IP” rather than a license which will just get cut off or criticized for not being up to an expectation.

Cadaver
Reader
Cadaver

Climax’s Warhammer was the game I wanted. Really wanted. That video still gives me goosebumps. It looked fantastic. I was gutted when it got canned, and when I saw what Mythic delivered it its place it was hate at first screenshot. I could never bring myself to try AoR and I won’t pretend that I didn’t take some pleasure in its demise, as pointless and unreasonable as that is.

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Loyal Patron
Byórðæįr

so in 2000 there was this issue with draw calls on the pc you did not know what would have to go into memory so draw calls were always from system memory or the hard drive. hard drive calls are really expensive when the parallel ide bus is limited to I think it 12 megabits actually transmission when the memory was much faster to get the data to the cpu and the l2 cache was the same speed. where as the play station console had limits on what assets sizes could be used as all the assets had to be loaded into system memory.

My guess is climax had a great idea but was limited by trying to figure out how to keep all the elements they wanted in memory at the same time while only have 512 MB of ram for every asset on screen at the same time. It was great idea but likely when they went to implement

Playable races announced included Humans, Elves, Dwarfs, Halflings, and Ogres. Four starting classes were also released: Warrior, Academic, Rogue, and Adventurer. Guilds would be called “Warrior Companies,” and clothing and armor would be independent graphical layers that would go on top of your character’s model in contrast to the standard procedure of “reskinning” a character model.

They ran into a wall for lack of better phrase. That is five different male and female assets for every piece of gear, unless using blend shapes, but unless you simply scale it bigger or smaller it takes up space in system memory. Companies are doing that now, black desert online is good example of how nice it looks but they still run into memory issues on low end rigs with the system. Several other games have tried it but they were all after the 2 gigabyte hard drive size was surpassed then the x64 opened up memory addressing to one terrabyte with linux then unix then windows server 2003. By the time windows seven came around the failure of climax likely scared producers into pushing the unimesh concept for every thing on the character that we have kinda stagnated in the design until I think it was a batman game or superman game tried pushing the envelope again.

That said warhammer online might not have had the grim feeling it nailed the humor perfectly. So games workshop might have gotten annoyed at climax for not including the grave humor. So it might have felt more like the black death game than warhammer, you would have to find someone at games workshop that knew what the art issues were. My guess is that it was that the computers were not up the challenge with 512MB of ram back then. I have 32 Gigabytes of system ram and 12 Gigabtyes of videoram. Back then you had to stay under the 32 bit system limit of 2 Gigabytes of system memory, so I think I had 768MB of system memory and guilmont gefore 256 DDR2 of video memory. By 2003 I had worked for ten different staffing agencies on jobs while going to school so I had a socket a cpu and four gigabytes because when I swapped the os drive with a 32 bit drive I had to take two sticks out. So it likely was more hard ware limitations than ability to create the game.

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Michael18

based on the videos this version of Warhammer Online would have had a world building style closer to that of the older MMOs: vast open landscapes that truly feel like a virual world. If every square meter of a world is dedicated to a particular quest or other purpose and everything is equally distributed across the world, it feels more like an amusement park than a world.
The landscapes shown in the video looked great and if they released that today I’d totally play it.

Reader
Nater

I won’t lie. I tried the emulator relatively recently and while it didn’t keep me, it did remind me of how fun the game could be. I realize it wasn’t making money with Mythic in the end, but I can also appreciate the vision Climax had. I can only imagine what would have come out of Climax and old school Mythic putting their heads together on this one! Might still be going strong today.

miol
Reader
miol

Great read!

I got curious and tried to find some footage of the mentioned turn-based combat, but at least I found this presentation of the game with Barnett being Barnett ;P

Reader
TheDonDude

Looks interesting but I gotta say, it doesn’t sound very Warhammery. WAR on the other hand captured the feel of the models and characters spot on.

Reader
Dakar Wazzar

You would be wrong. The first warhammer online was based on the pen and paper rpg warhammer fantasy and the game seemed to be bold enough to capture it’s essence and atmosphere. The career(class) system is extremely cool and interesting.

War as you call it was based on warhammer fantasy BATTLE(the tabletop game) was a fairly faithful interpretation. Except the absurd factions.

I was devastated when the climax version got cancelled. I was deep into pen and paper warhammer at that time, and almost all my childhood and it looked so damn fantastic. Even today the atmosphere is mind blowing, and the ideas sound very promising.

Would it have caught on with the masses? Hard to say at that time, when mmorpgs where quite a different beast than today. Would it please people familiar with warhammer fantasy? I am almost certain it would.

Reader
Dread Quixadhal

Yep, I still have my book. :)

WFRP_cover.jpg
Reader
Dakar Wazzar

Beautiful good sir.

Reader
Ryan

I was so hyped for WAR. Bought my first collector box. They could have had a huge success, it really is such a shame. I did have a lot of fun in the rvr zones but I’l never buy another collector box because of this game and I still feel lied to :)

Reader
Threevo V

This article isnt talking about the WAR that you are..

Reader
Ryan

Actually at the end it does mention WAR.. and that is what I replied about. I guess i wrote the end improperly. I will fix it. Never mind I guess edit has a timer on it.

Reader
draugris

Interesting read, i breathed the Mythic version of WAR for a few years and also played in the closed beta. What would i give if some company has the guts to make a Warhammer SWG version with multiple playable races of the old world, they would have my money for sure.

Reader
Nater

I can’t believe someone’s trying to make a 40K MMO version. It just seems like Old World would be the direction to go, but what do I know?!

Reader
draugris

bad memories of promises and the reality of eternal crusade come to my mind….

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