The European games press congregated in Paris this week to see EA Mythic's forthcoming massively multiplayer fantasy game, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Mythic, respected for its work on Dark Age of Camelot, picked up the Warhammer licence from Games Workshop in 2005 (after Climax had dropped it). The studio was purchased the following year by EA, the super-publisher in search of its first MMO hit.
Although fans were disappointed to learn that the game would suffer a further delay to the end of this year, Mythic offered details of the Collector's Edition as a consolation. It also went into exhaustive detail on several interesting features of Warhammer Online's game design that set it apart from genre bedfellows World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. These include the "Realm versus Realm" (or RVR) system, developed from Dark Age of Camelot's, that pits the game's six races against each other in epic war efforts to sack each other's capital cities; the Tome of Knowledge, a slick combination of character profile, achievements system and in-game wiki; and Public Quests, which are dynamic encounters for large groups of players that anyone can walk into and join at any point.
We sat down with senior producer Jeff Hickman to discuss these features, the reasons for the delay, and life as an EA-owned studio. For more detailed info on the game and hands-on impressions, look out for a full preview in the coming days.
Eurogamer: Warhammer Online seems like it's aimed mostly at Warhammer fans and hardcore MMO players because there are a lot of interesting new mechanics in the game for them. Is that a fair assessment?
Jeff Hickman: I don't know if it's a fair assessment - but I don't necessarily think it's unfair. Let me expand on that a little bit. I think you're right that first and foremost, our market, the people that we're looking at: Warhammer fans. Of course. We want every single person who's ever played Warhammer to come and play our game. All the people who sat down and painted and loved their miniatures, or played the Warhammer fantasy, or read the books, we want them to come and see the world for the first time, to feel what it's like to run around in it.
Next, I think we look at PVP [player versus player] fans. Our PVP is something that sets us apart. RVR is something that is so deep and so detailed that nobody else has done before, and that nobody touches. You go look at some of those other games, especially those other big games, and you look at how many PVP servers they have, there are a lot of PVP players out there. And our game is for them. The way we do RVR is going to blow them away.
But beyond that, there is definitely an accessibility element in our game where it's very solo-friendly, we have a huge PVE game that you can play through and have a great time with, that you can solo all the way through if you really want to. In a lot of places it's quick in and quick out, and public quests are an example of that. On the RVR side, you can enter any scenario as a solo player... In many respects it's probably the most casual-friendly PVP game that's around.
Eurogamer: Where do you stand on the MMO grind? It seems to be a contentious issue - at the moment, developers are falling over themselves to say that players hate it and their games won't feature it. But is that true? A lot of people seem to really love one particular game that features a fair amount of grinding...
Jeff Hickman: That is a very, very difficult question to answer, not because I don't have an answer, but because it's my opinion. And it really is. You will find people within EA and within the Mythic studio who will say everything you just said - "Oh, we're trying to get away from the grind," that kind of stuff.
The way I look at it - I think [Creative Director] Paul Barnett said it best. We think of our games as a hobby, just like any other hobby that you do. Let's just talk about golf for a second. So, as a golfer, the game is about hitting the ball and putting it in the hole. How about walking between the holes? Is that a grind? Isn't it part of the game? Isn't being out on the fairway, walking along, talking to your friends, the stuff between hitting the ball - isn't that part of the game too? Isn't stopping at the ninth hole and getting a beer and a pack of smokes and washing your clubs, and washing the ball and teeing up and all of the stuff that you do as a golfer - isn't that the game?
I look at our game that way. All of the stuff you do in the game is the game. I want to give a lot of choice, I want to give you a lot of things to do, and I want to leave it up to you how you want to play it. Now I think that there is a limit to that. When people say grind to me, it's a consistently repetitive, non-fun activity where you're just doing the same thing over and over and over.
Eurogamer: Sitting in the practice nets, just hitting ball after ball after ball after ball.
Jeff Hickman: Exactly. You're not playing the game at that point, you're just hitting the ball over and over... Does that mean that there's not going to be times that you don't kill the same monster ever? Of course not, and as a matter of fact, some people really like that. That's fine, we wouldn't mind that, if that's how they want to have fun in the game, I don't care.
Eurogamer: But when you present Warhammer, you're quite open about the fact that you want people to be playing it all the time. That is how MMOs work, after all. And in things like the Tome of Knowledge achievements, there is an actual encouragement, an incentive for you to do these massively time-consuming grinds.
Jeff Hickman: Absolutely. It's part of the game. But when we looked at the Tome of Knowledge initially, we had the exact same discussion. We said, woah, we're showing you how many monsters you kill, and then we're giving you rewards for killing certain numbers. At first we had ten Tome Unlocks, and they were like: kill ten of this, kill a hundred of this, kill a thousand of this, kill ten thousand of this, kill a hundred thousand of this, kill a million of this.
So we took a half step back from that. Now about half of those ten are kill unlocks, the other half are discovery unlocks. It becomes a little more varied. But just like I said, are we providing a game for the player that wants to go out and get those achievements? Absolutely we are, why not? But what we're not doing is making it an integral part of the game, a necessity of the game.
Eurogamer: Would you consider integrating the Tome of Knowledge with the kind of things that are usually catered for by fan-created databases and wikis and so on?
Jeff Hickman: Yes. We would consider that. How much of that are we going to do? Not sure. We talk about it a lot. There's something to be said for letting the community grow outside of your game, and how important that is. Letting those fan-sites be an important part of your community, and keeping people in the game the right amount. So we're trying to judge where that line is. But I can guarantee some of that stuff's going to be on our own site, or within the game.
Eurogamer: You said yesterday that you would release in fall. The last announced date was Q2. Why the delay of six months or so?
Jeff Hickman: Say "or so" - I know the actual dates and it's not six months. Let's call it three to six months. Why the extra time? It is just what Mark Jacobs, our GM, has always talked about, and just what's been reinforced, especially recently, by EA. We are really, really pushing for quality in our games. We believe very strongly, and John Riccitiello the CEO at EA has really pushed hard on this in the last year since he came online, that getting games out the door quickly, making the quick buck, is not what EA needs to be about. We need to be about quality games, games that build big franchises, games that have future and longevity.
Now, we've always known that. You look at Mythic and we talk that talk. The problem is, as an independent studio, it's very hard to do that. EA came along and they've give us the ability to. They've given us the time and the money and any help that we want, while at the same time leaving us alone.
So we get to the point, really in the past couple of months, where we're looking at our game and it's like, man, it's really coming together, things are looking good, we're feeling good about all the little pieces that we have in place. But: is it as good as it needs to be? Or as good as we want it to be? That's really the key.
And we all feel like we need a little more time. We need more time to polish it. Like, all the content's done. The game is fully playable. Technically, I could launch the game today.
Instead of doing that, we literally are going back through the game - we've actually been through probably the first half of the game already. We're going through every single public quest, making sure it feels just right, making sure it's got the right voice overs, making sure it's got the right polish, making sure that it feels as good as we can possibly make it. We're looking at every quest in the game, we're looking at how the land is set up, all of the content. Everything. And making sure that it feels the way that it needs to feel, and that we want it to feel, so that we can have a slam dunk success when we launch the game.
Eurogamer: Feel is something I was going to bring up - because you have a lot of big picture ideas, but fundamentally the MMO experience is about what happens minute to minute.
Jeff Hickman: Absolutely. It's super important. The moment you step in the game, how does it look, what does the UI look like? What happens when I start to move? What's the most used action in the game? Swinging your sword, casting your spell, those combat type actions. Man, that had better be hot s***. Like, it's got to feel great. And so those are all the pieces that we're just tweaking and polishing and making sure that they're just exactly how we want them to feel. That's what this extra time is about.
Eurogamer: EA's been talking a lot recently about how its attitude has changed to managing studios it has bought. Do you believe there's been a genuine cultural change there?
Jeff Hickman: Absolutely. 100 per cent, and they don't pay me to say this, believe it or not. When we got acquired two years ago we heard the same stuff. Everybody hears the same things. They came in and said, "Look, that's not how we work, we're good people and a good company, we do good things". And that is exactly what we've seen.
The extra resources that they have given us far out-shadows any, you know... anything else that impacts us from them. Marketing and publishing resources especially, plus the resources to take the time we need to make the greatest game ever. So it's good, I absolutely back those statements up. You should see the messages from John Riccitiello. He is hardcore about making great games.
Eurogamer: How big is the team working on Warhammer Online?
Jeff Hickman: Around 200 people work for me.
Eurogamer: Do you expect that to fluctuate after launch? I suppose it depends how well the game does...
Jeff Hickman: I am absolutely convinced that the game is going to do great. What "great" means - I'm not going to talk about the numbers that we expect it to have, but we have very reasonable expectations for our numbers. We don't expect to dominate the MMO space against the biggest game out there. We have very very sound expectations for our game, I think we're going to meet those expectations, and I think EA is going to go, "oh my Lord, we finally have an MMO". And they're going to be happy as hell.