Way back in September 2000 we spoke to Climax and Games Workshop about their new joint venture, an online strategy game based on their popular Warhammer universe. Since then their plans have changed drastically though, so we caught up with Warhammer Online general manager Robin Dews to get the latest information on the project...
Falling Off The Table
Warhammer is best known as a table-top wargame, and originally the plan was simply to translate the shuffling of lead figures around a table into a persistent digital world where players could build up their armies and fight battles with each other online. Apparently this turned out to be easier said than done though. "Our very first iteration of this idea pitched the players into the world as military commanders, controlling a garrison of troops and establishing a territory around their base in a kind of 3D Age of Empires resource management and military conquest game. [But] very quickly this concept threw up two major obstacles", Robin explained. "The first is that the Warhammer background is very important to us, and we wanted our game to be faithful to that background. When we fight battles with miniatures on the tabletop, we all accept a bit of fudging in order to create an exciting wargame - most Lizardmen would never lay eyes on a Dwarf, let alone fight a pitched battle against them, for example. But somehow, this fudge didn't seem quite right in a Warhammer world game." "The second problem was one of social rather than software engineering. Our intention is to deliver a game that offers players cooperation and competition in equal measure. The kind of savage player killing that happens on Quake or Unreal servers is fine because everybody is up for it and no-one is actually paying a subscription to be a member of that club. [But in Warhammer Online] it would be a bit like turning up at [a wargames] club and being forced to constantly play against the club power gamer (you know the one!) who simply enjoys beating his opponents by any means. If this happened every time you turned up for a game, you'd quickly find a new club, or a new hobby."
Back To Basics
As a result the original plans for a persistent online strategy game have sadly been ditched in favour of something more like a traditional massively multiplayer role-playing game. Instead of online Warhammer Fantasy Battle, we're effectively getting online Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. "From the outset, Warhammer Online was conceived as a game that would plunge its players into a life of battle and adventure within a grim and gritty realisation of the Warhammer World", according to Robin, although obviously the details of how this will be done have now changed radically. "Set in the Reikland against the turbulent backdrop of Warhammer, players will enter the world as lowly adventurers. In company with hundreds of other players they'll begin to explore the world and through skill, luck and a trusty blade, rise to become a famous hero and the leader of a powerful band of men." That's not to say that Warhammer Online will be just another paint by numbers MMRPG though. For starters it has the benefit of two decades worth of back-story and development, during which time the Warhammer franchise has expanded from table-top wargaming and lead figures into role-playing, magazines and a series of highly successful novels, turning a hobby into a £100m industry. What Robin and the team at Warhammer Online are aiming to do is to bring that world to the internet, "to create a game that brings together the excitement and gameplay of the early pen and paper RPGs, with fantastic graphics and a great social environment - a game that makes the Warthammer World more real than real!"
Get Some Skills
Something else which should set Warhammer Online aside from the massively multiplayer crowd is its flexible career system, more in keeping with the old Warhammer pen and paper role-playing games of the 1980's. "The idea of character classes goes all the way back to the Dungeons and Dragons games of the early 1970's. Although the staple of fantasy games ever since, this seemed to us to have little counterpart in the real world and we wanted to take a rather different approach. In real life, people develop their personalities by acquiring three different types of 'things' - friends, possessions and skills. It seemed to us that this basic truth was instantly transferable to an online game where the 'friends' become the other players in the game and more specifically the group of people who log on at a similar time and have similar game objectives to you. Your 'possessions' become the in-game assets that you've acquired through your efforts and adventures and will range from armour and equipment, to horses, men-at-arms or a building! Your 'skills', as in real life, become the things you've learned to do through hard work, practice and training." "By focusing on gameplay derived from the principle of Warhammer as a real world, we can quickly get to places where the answers to questions like 'will there be player vs player combat' are simply derived from the game system itself. If within our career structure one player goes down the path of a Witch Hunter and another takes a magical path with leanings towards Chaos, then you should absolutely expect these players to come into conflict. Handling PvP in this way means that we can offer a level of protection to new players, whilst at the same time enabling experienced adventurers to take responsibility for their own actions and any attendant consequences!"
Clubbed To Death
Indeed, Warhammer Online is a fairly logical extension of the offline world that the Games Workshop has developed around Warhammer, with clubs, shops and magazines all helping to build up a huge community surrounding the world's most popular table-top battle system. "One of the features of massively multiplayer online games that interested us in the first place is that they are barely computer games at all. Sure they rely upon a computer and the Internet to deliver the game to the player, to interpret the player's intention and calculate the results of their actions, but in a very literal sense they are a completely new form of entertainment. The high levels of social interaction mean they owe far more to the role-playing and play-by-mail fantasy games of the 80s and early 90s than the recent spate of computer role-playing games. It was this community aspect to the gameplay and the fact that we could begin to build a virtual model of the Warhammer World that attracted us to this area in the first place." "Operating a successful [online] game has more than a little in common with running a wargames club or any kind of activity group. Some people come along and simply fight one-off battles, other club members might be building terrain, painting miniatures and just chatting. Another group will be preparing for a tournament or demonstration game, and so on. What they all have in common is that they enjoy being part of a social group that offers opportunities for co-operation and friendly competition in equal measure. In essence, that is the kind of environment we feel we should be offering our players - opportunities for co-operation and competition set against the real world background of Warhammer."
The Really Real
That "real world background" now stretches across an entire continent which has been detailed in endless stories, articles, campaign books and rule sets over the years. Obviously this is "far too big to actually recreate in a computer game", as Robin was quick to admit, and so the world of Warhammer Online will start off on a somewhat smaller scale. "All designers of online games have to make an abstraction of time, geography or detail in order to create the illusion of a 'real world'. We decided to focus our attention on a small section of what is in fact a whole world. We will, of course, still have to make compromises in the interests of gameplay, but one of our rules of thumb is to keep these to a minimum and try and solve most problems by asking the question - 'what would happen in the 'real' Warhammer world?'" "As a result, the landscape for the first episode of Warhammer Online is the area of the Empire between the River Reik and the Grey Mountains, stretching from Marienburg in the north to the foothills of the Black Mountains in the south. This is a landscape that is well known to Warhammer players, be they tabletop gamers, role-players or simply fans of Games Workshop's comic books and fiction. This 'seeding' approach means that we'll be able to cover a single area in great detail before expanding out to other regions on the map. As our player base grows, we can then keep exploring the world to provide them with ever more dangerous challenges and opportunities for fame, fortune or death."
While Reikland is only a tiny part of the larger world of Warhammer, it still offers a vast area to explore. Robin expects that it will take "a determined player" around eighteen hours to walk down the length of the river Reik from the Black Mountains to the city of Marienburg. And there should be plenty to keep you occupied as you roam this region. "The Warhammer World is an unpleasant place, where most people's lives are solitary, brutish and short", Robin pointed out. "In keeping with this background, we've reserved the 'evil' races of the world for the game system and the GMs. This was a tricky decision, as we knew that many Warhammer fans would love to play an Orc or the leader of a Skaven clan. But on balance, we feel that reserving these races for the game itself would allow us to offer the players a more vivid and challenging world experience." "Players will be able to pick their character from a number of races - Human, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Ogre, but whether they play them as 'good' or 'evil' is really up to them. However, they should be aware that within the Reikland, the forces of law and order are strong and players who choose the path of a bandit or outlaw could well find themselves hunted into the wilderness, or strung up on a gibbet at a bleak crossroads or crowded market square."
If everything goes to plan this will just be the start for the world of Warhammer Online. "As the number of players grows then so will the world, to include new lands, new horrors and new challenges. Over the coming years we'll be expanding and developing the game to encompass more and more of the world, in line with the ambitions and wishes of our players." The bad news is that players won't get a chance to explore this vast richly imagined fantasy world online until some time in 2004, but with a captive audience of hundreds of thousands of gamers around the world already hooked on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40k universes, hopes are obviously high for the game.