The Game Archaeologist: Warhammer Online

    
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When it comes to notable years in the MMORPG genre’s history, 2008 stands out as one of the most significant. World of Warcraft’s debut onto the scene in 2004 caused an upheaval in ways far too numerous to go into detail here. Suffice to say that its overwhelming popularity drew the attention of game designers who looked at the staggering numbers of players and found themselves envious of the potential to grab a slice of that money pie.

Many projects went into high gear following WoW’s launch, with plenty of them trying to copy the formula and structure that Blizzard established in the hopes of making it at least partially as big as that game. So-called WoW clones began to pepper the market and there was a sense that gamers were ready to move on from World of Warcraft to the next generation of MMOs. In many players’ minds, this would be either 2008’s Age of Conan or Warhammer Online, two big-budget MMOs with strong IPs that carried a lot of the weight of expectation.

Little did anyone realize that 2008 represented a bubble that was about to burst on the industry and the WoW clones that followed — including Warhammer Online. Today, we’re going to take a look at “bears, bears, bears,” the high hopes of Mythic Entertainment, and how WAR became a casaulty on its own battlefield.

Pre-battle preparations

To do this story justice, we really need to start from two different points. The first is with Mythic Entertainment, a studio that emerged from online game companies of the 1980s. Mark Jacobs, a game designer who had been involved in this growing industry for over a decade, founded Mythic with Rob Denton in 1995. The fledgling studio focused on creating early online titles, leading up to the formation of Mythic’s breakout hit, 2001’s Dark Age of Camelot.

This “realm vs. realm” MMO put Mythic on the map as a serious player in the industry and generated a lot of player goodwill toward the studio as they spent years waging battles back and forth over continents. This focus on RvR was a specialty of the studio and a way for Mythic to distinguish itself from its competitors. It would certainly be a major factor in the studio’s future direction, as Mythic attempted and then gave up on a faction-based sci-fi title called Imperator Online.

It’s here that we need to jump to our other starting point to look at another studio and a different project entirely. Climax Online, a studio founded back in 1988, secured the rights to develop an online title set in Games Workshop’s very popular Warhammer fantasy universe. By 2002, this grim, gritty MMO was under construction and generating a lot of interest among fans.

Obviously, Climax’s Warhammer Online never came to be. Its downfall happened in 2004, when the price tag for the game’s completion was deemed far too high, with a total estimated budget of $30 million. Climax tried to shop around for another publisher with deep pockets, but to no avail. The studio gave up and the rights for Warhammer Online went on the table.

This was fortuitous timing for Mythic Entertainment, which saw the IP as ideal for a RvR-style MMORPG. Mythic secured the license in May 2005 and began work on its own version of the game which ended up being radically different from the vision that Climax had established.

Forming up the ranks

While Mythic had originally hoped to bring Warhammer Online to the public in 2007, the truth was that there was a lot more work to be done to get it ready for prime time. The press got its first look at WAR at E3 2006, and initial impressions were generally favorable. An Xbox 360 version was even rumored to be in production.

For fans of Mythic and WAR, a seismic change happened in June 2006 when EA announced that it had purchased Mythic Entertainment (which started the first of many name changes to the studio). “[This deal] is an opportunity to fulfill my dreams in a way that, frankly, wasn’t possible as an independent,” said Mark Jacobs at the time.

It has to be said that Mythic ran a masterful pre-launch campaign during 2007 and 2008. Hype and expectations were kept high as the devs released regular videos and posts that attempted to sell the vision of the game. In these, players were introduced to the Tome of Knowledge, retroactive kill quests (sparking Paul Barnett’s famous “bears, bears, bears” quote), the cosmetic trophy system, and how WAR’s RvR campaign was designed to function.

Meanwhile, delays in the MMO’s development kept occurring. Mythic pushed back the launch window from 2007 to Q1 2008. This news didn’t stop players from signing up to the beta test, which saw 200,000 hopefuls submit their registrations. By November 2007, Mythic announced another delay, this time to mid-2008. A final delay in early 2008 nudged the MMO to that fall. Even then, features such as several classes and four of the six planned capital cities, were cut from pre-launch development to avoid any more delays.

Eventually a launch date was set in stone, and on September 18th, 2008, Warhammer Online released to the world. Analysts anticipated that it would sell somewhere in the vicinity of 650,000 copies.

Charging into launch

When Warhammer Online left beta and officially launched in fall 2008, it was a massive event in the MMO world. Over a half-million players bought and registered the game in the first week, with many hoping that this would be the next evolution of MMOs. Reviews and responses were favorable, with the Metacritic score settling at 86%. By October 2008, over 750,000 players were logged into the game.

Even with Wrath of the Lich King arriving later that fall, Mythic was banking on players’ weariness of older MMORPGs and their eagerness to experience a new type of online game. “WoW, EverQuest, Camelot, by three years out they were really all — they really are in WoW’s case — losing a lot of users,” said Jacobs in a post-launch interview. “So if you’re looking at the perfect time to come out for a new MMO, it would certainly be when the competition is three or four years out.”

To many players, Warhammer Online looked and functioned like a more advanced and gritty version of World of Warcraft. While it contained many of the features that MMO players had grown accustomed to seeing, the worldwide PvP focus, the public quests, the achievement system, and the overall aesthetic set it apart from a mere WoW clone.

At its heart, however, WAR was a PvP game at its core. Mythic decided that many players who were frightened off by PvP might be trained to come over from PvE if done just right. This is why WAR’s maps were lopsided in favor of PvE in early zones while introducing limited PvP mechanics, then progressed to a heavier PvP focus until realm-vs.-realm conflict took up most of the Tier 4 maps and capital cities. Speaking of which, it was a major proposed feature of the game that players could put enemy capitals under siege (which worked in a fashion).

Some of the cut classes were reintroduced post-launch. Players got to try out the Dark Elf Black Guard, the Empire Knight of the Blazing Sun, the Chaos Chosen, the Greenskin Choppa, the Dwarven Ironbreaker, and the Dwarven Slayer in the months to follow.

Mythic also forged ahead with a major update (which bordered on an expansion) in spring of 2009. Land of the Dead introduced a zone that looked like a horror-themed Egypt. The studio billed it as a spiritual successor to its Darkness Falls content in DAoC (as well as the Darkness Falls MUD that it ran back in the ’90s).

In 2009, Mythic announced that it was bringing Warhammer Online to Macs. According to the press release, “WAR for the Mac was made possible using the Cider Portability Engine from TransGaming that acted as a ‘wrapper’ around the game software, enabling it to run seamlessly on Intel-based Macs. TransGaming’s Cider technology allowed Mythic Entertainment to rapidly enable and deploy WAR for the Mac.”

When it lost me.

An inglorious death

Although it had an incredibly strong start, Warhammer Online didn’t prove to have the staying power that Mythic anticipated. Staff cuts happened in February 2009, with a loss of many QA and customer support personnel. The population started to slip, and by March 2009, Mythic reduced the number of servers from 126 down to 63, with around 300,000 players still romping around in this virtual playground.

Executive Producer Jeff Hickman gave a talk at GDC a year after WAR’s launch in which he idetified three major mistakes that Mythic made with the title. These were, in his view, overly easy PvE in the early game, a lack of socialization, and a weak in-game economy.

Less than a year after WAR’s launch, Mark Jacobs was let go from Mythic by EA. Mythic was then folded into EA BioWare’s RPG division and overseen by Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk. It wasn’t a good sign. In July 2010, Mythic and BioWare merged completely to become BioWare Mythic while WAR limped on with a vastly reduced development team.

Seeing the warning signs and taking a cue from the newly popular MOBA genre, Mythic’s devs fashioned a MOBA of their own out of Warhammer Online’s assets. Wrath of Heroes used many of the same classes and maps but in a MOBA format. It was an ambitious plan — but ultimately went nowhere, as the title never made it out of beta.

While it enjoyed a huge first half-year, the remainder of Warhammer Online’s four-and-a-half-years was plagued with doubt and falling subscription numbers. While a move to a free-to-play model could have done wonders to prop up the RvR MMO, no such business model shift ever occurred.

Five years after its launch, EA announced that Warhammer Online would be closing its doors on December 18th, 2013. “Both Games Workshop and Mythic agreed to part ways, despite how hard it is emotionally on us to let the game go,” said Producer Carrie Gouskos.

The studio itself didn’t outlast WAR for very long. After a couple of attempts to keep the Mythic alive with mobile titles, EA announced that it was shuttering the studio in May 2014. At least there was a silver lining to this cloud, with Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online continuing to thrive under the guidance of Broadsword Studios and Mark Jacobs bringing a new vision of RvR MMO to fruition with Camelot Unchained.

Related reading:

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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Alex Malone

I got into this game during beta, but only stuck with it for 6 months after launch plus another 2 month stretch after land of the dead came out.

The game was indeed a lot of fun. There was some great world building and playing as a black orc I really appreciated the humour in the dwarf v orc zones. In group PvP the game’s combat mechanics really came alive too and it was great to see what certain combinations of classes could achieve. Some of the scenarios were amazing and I still remember laughing so much during my first Gates of Ekrund during beta.

But, the game was deeply flawed.

The most egregious flaw was the ridiculous power gaps. Whether the gap came from level/skill disparity in tiers 1-3, or from the stupid vertical progression of gear in tier 4, power gaps were just everywhere and ruined so much of the game. It shouldn’t have been possible for a high ranked clothie to have more armour than a mid-ranked tank! Yet, that was an every day occurrence. This resulted in vets just being vastly overpowered compared to newbies, creating a terrible experience. This then cut off the life blood of the game by scaring away newbies, resulting in a rapid population decline.

Beyond that, yeh, bugs were rampant and the game wasn’t finished. The territory control mechanics never quite worked right, looting was purely RNG which just made it an exercise in frustration. The PvE had it’s moments but group PvE was almost all just tank+spank.

Finally, Paul Barnett and Jeff Hickman……..man, those guys sucked! Paul was irritating, but Jeff seemed to cause actual harm to the game by being a moron. When I found out Jeff was working on SW:TOR I was worried, turns out with good reason: he’s an idiot and screwed up TOR too.

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Joe Pacinelli

WAR had the best class ever, Black Orc! Every game had a WoW identity crisis, but WAR at least delivered some of the most amusing game play within the greenskin classes. I mean an ability called “Kick em in da Jibblies” beats the hell outta “Kick”. The orcs and goblins were geniously executed.

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John Bagnoli

I went to the Warhammer convention in Baltimore on the promise that kiosks were there to play tests the game. Screaming “WAAAGH!”, looking around at all the awesome miniature painting and battlefields and generally enjoying myself. Played the game, liked what I saw, went to the room with the developers talking about the game. Cannot remember who on the team was there now, though.

I enjoyed WAR a great deal. I honestly don’t see eye to eye on a lot of the criticisms people are talking about. I remember coming out of the starter dwarf area, cresting a hill of white to the burnt brown of the first little PvP area where orc and dwarf areas met. It was one of those public quest thingies where the sides had to compete and it was chaos. And fun, so much fun.

The game had problems, sure. Balancing caused continuing fights in the player base. But I joined a small but friendly guild and we had fun. It was the first time I developed real enmity with other random people. Who knows who they were, but I sure as hell recognized their names on the battlefield and hated them. It really felt like WAR. As time went on, some of the more friendly evil people would gather with us in coordinated duals, small scale skirmishes, tactic discussions, advice… next thing ya know all those people I hated turned out to be nice people looking to have fun in an MMO. Who’d thunk it?

Anyway, as the numbers dwindled and friends left it was harder to log in. WAR was the most fun I ever had in an MMO.

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David Harrison

I didn’t have to read the article because I lived it. I bought the collector’s edition of both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, and both games sucked balls in many ways.

Warhammer Online was buggy as hell, and lacked good PvE content to get people to the level to enjoy the PvP. The PvE content was horribad and boring to the nth degree.

The PvP was really pretty cool, but lacked structure to keep the sides fighting each other. Instead, they just avoided one another, and raced to the next objective for an easy win of that location.

Then there was Age of Conan. OMG… what an amazingly fun PvP experience that failed due to a lack of depth. The game just didn’t have enough to keep people playing, but there was nothing more exciting than pulling off a killing (pun intended) finishing move against someone in PvP.

Sadly the world felt small and linear in Age of Conan, and much like Warhammer Online, it was riddled with bugs as well.

I truly believe that the ultimate reason that the majority of WoW clones failed was because they were WoW clones instead of Everquest clones. If they would have focused on solid PvE content and character development first rather than focusing on the end game over all else, they could have become something much more than they became; a distant memory.

That’s the problem with WoW clones, the designers don’t put enough focus on the leveling up part of the game and character development. Instead, they focus on the end game. They make getting to the end game irrelevant, unrewarding, and ultimately forgettable.

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IronSalamander8 .

This one I had high hopes for as a then longtime WFB tabletop player. I was a Magus main so one of the worst classes despite my love of her look with the disc and what have you. The game had so many issues from balance to crafting design to the lack of cities and just general weird problems like my gear as a magus having parry in large amounts(?).

We had quit and then went back bringing a friend along and it was actually worse, so much so that he asked us a bit testily in Vent: “Why did you want me to play this game?” When we came back and ran into dreaded ‘bright wizard posses’ which didn’t even exist at launch, I knew something was wrong. Such great potential so wasted.

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John Mynard

Several lessons here. The first of which is never trust an EA exec with anything. EVER.

Secondly, the balance issues could’ve been solved with a class cap. I’ve always thought it was weird that an army, which supposedly was mainly foot soldiers, manages to field whole squads of assassins and battle-hardened wizards. It would’ve been interesting to see the lakes have had caps on the more esoteric, and thus powerful, characters. It would get you into a situation where you had a single Bright Wizard or Archmage vs multiple of weaker soldier types which would balance their power.

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Schmidt.Capela

I see it as a game that grossly misread what made WoW popular, made by devs that thought the main market to please were the hardcore gamers. Not a bad game for its intended audience, but misguided, as will always be the case when devs think hardcore can achieve mainstream popularity.

I never played it, of course; from the start I was aware it wouldn’t be a good game for someone that wants complete control over when to engage in PvP.

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Alexander Smith

I got into this game way to late but it was the first game where I truly loved PvP because even at a low level you felt like you were part of something.

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Danny Smith

I genuinely loved this game, flawed though it was. It had lots of issues but in terms of WoW clones from the era it really felt like its own thing. Granted the 30 years of lore and worldbuilding helped that compared to things like Rift or Aeon but also the nature of pvp being a part of the world and not some compartmentalised minigame like WoW helped. I have fond memories of killing things to get more lore in a bestiary and cresting a hill to find for forces of order and chaos waging a huge war and taking part to get decorations to wear on my gear and having a huge battle summoning daemons of tzeench to try and stop the bright wizard murderball. We never could of course but that wasn’t really the point. It was a constant back and forth in a way Dreanors Trashran failed to achieve.

Flawed but man if it started up again i’d resub. Who knows maybe we’ll get one for Age of Sigmar or something someday.

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Jack Kerras

You have some Googling to do.

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John Mclain

Yeah it failed for a multitude of reasons, I recall I hated the game for the SERIOUS class imbalances in the game, ones the devs knew about and protected them because the devs themselves played them. (And they openly admitted it.) Mark Jacobs himself openly admitted to preventing the godlike brightwizard from being nerfed down to planet earth because it was his favorite class to play. To this day, the bright wizard is the most overpowered class to ever exist in a mmo, it was like owning a class where a “instant kill” kill skill could be assigned to every ability slot on your bar.

Of course there were several other broken classes, the warrior priest was basically immortal, while the most popular class the chosen (because it looked incredible) was nerfed into OBLIVION to offset how popular it was for it’s appearance alone.

Honestly I was overjoyed when they canned Mark Jacobs. (To this date the only good thing EA has ever done.) He’s a terrible game developer. It’s just a shame they did it too late to save WAR. :(

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Bruno Brito

Interesting…given that while strong, the Bright Wizard is nowhere near OP in the RoR setting. Even with the custom balances, not everything was broken.

Chosen nerfed lol.

Your bias is showing, your entire post comes across a anedoctal rant.

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John Mclain

And you offered nothing to contradict it, making yours even less relevant than a rant. But then your here just to troll and argue, so to be expected. Back under your bridge.

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Kevin McCaughey

He’s a top guy – I am really surprised that you took such a dislike to a really likeable person. He is extremely transparent and honest as a developer (not least on these forums) and has come up with some great ideas. If he is not prevented for legal reasons, I would be surprised if he does not come on here to say hello at this article :)

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John Mclain

It wasn’t his personality I disliked, he had a great personality and I enjoyed watching all his promotional videos for the game. What I disliked was his mis-management of the game itself. The direction the game design took, and how imbalanced the game was for the entirety of the game’s lifespan. (Bright wizards are just part of that, but they were the easiest one to point out, because only the dumbest people on earth would try and argue that they were balanced.)

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Jack Kerras

Playing with Fire definitely needed the nerf a lot, although I feel that the Bright Wizard and Sorcerer were very different and had a lot of similarly-good stuff. The Sorc relied a lot more on DoT bombs and such, which could functionally be coordinated into an insane one-shot on a tank if you played your cards and timed your bombs just right; it was a very sneaky way to suddenly detonate a person ten seconds out, and REALLY hard for healers to deal with unless they were extremely careful of their compatriots’ debuffs. Many aren’t. It worked great.

Also, the inclusion of cross-guarding and AoE skills with more-or-less unlimited targets were a big part of why BWs were so nuts at the start; a couple of Ironbreakers guarding a Bright Wizard pretty well ensured that the BW’d be healable even by a sledgehammer-healer’s damage-based healing (and definitely, once Righteous Fury regen went on books, by a one-handed Sigmarite’s healspams).

Lotsa Choppin’ (and the dwarven equivalent, when Slayers and Choppas came out) was immensely powerful in part because it did not recalculate targets after a single hit, which it definitely should have done. There were a lot of minor tweaks that could have made things MUCH more effective, and I believe that some extra designwork on the RvR systems to make them rely less on PQ completion et al. could have been a big deal, as well as encouraging zergs to -hit each other- instead of cycling around and flipping keeps.

Also, y’know… an extra faction would have helped a lot. A two-faction system makes dominance really easy to assert and maintain, especially when one is all pansy elves with kitties and one is massive 9′ doom-tank twisting machines that have pestilence and power rolling off them in big horrifying waves.

…I loved WAR. >_>;