It's fair to describe EA Mythic's Warhammer as one of the most keenly anticipated massively multiplayer games on the slate right now - so the groans and frustrated harrumphs heard when the company announced a three month delay to its launch schedule earlier today are only to be expected.
Even if it's a bit further away now, though, Warhammer is still a big deal. It's Electronic Arts' first dalliance with MMORPG publishing since Ultima Online all those years ago, for one thing. More interestingly for MMOG players, it's also developer Mythic's next title after the celebrated Dark Age of Camelot, which was much-loved by fans for its large-scale Realm vs Realm battles.
With that in mind, we collared EA Mythic's boss, Mark Jacobs, and shook him about roughly until he spilled the beans on the reasons for the delay - and how the game is taking shape. (Don't worry, no developers were harmed in the making of this feature - it's all done with computer graphics these days.) Firstly, what's going on?
Mark Jacobs: We are extending the development schedule of Warhammer for another quarter, into the second quarter of 2008. We're doing this really for two major reasons.
Number one, to put more polish onto the game - the teams have been working very hard on delivering content, and what we were finding is that they were cutting into the polish time. They were getting things done on a content side - quests, monsters - but they were getting them done a little bit later. When John [Riccitiello, EA supreme overlord] said last night on the conference call that we missed our milestone, that's absolutely correct. We had a choice - either we could continue cutting into the polish time and release in February, or we could extend the schedule.
The other thing that we saw was that during beta, some of our players told us that they didn't like certain aspects. A lot of quests were great, but some of them weren't so great; they loved certain things, but others needed more work. They loved Realm vs Realm play, but missed some of the RvR from Dark Age of Camelot. We looked at that as well, and said okay - we'd better take a little longer on the feature-set.
When you put the two together, between the content polish and the feature-set, we made the obvious, although not easy, call. Take the extra time, get it right, and be sure that when this is released, it is a great game.
Eurogamer: So would you say that the work needed on the RvR play, based on your beta feedback, is a major reason for the delay?
Mark Jacobs: That's mostly true; the RvR has been a factor in the delay, absolutely. The only thing I'd like to add is that polish has also been a major factor for us. I've said this before, but right now, the game that has raised the quality bar higher than anyone else, ever, has to be Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Whether you love the game, hate the game or don't really care either which way, you can't argue that the quality that Blizzard put into that product is outstanding.
They have raised the bar beyond all other games. We had a choice - we could have looked at our game and said, "we're going to be feature complete, we'll have some polish, but not quite enough polish." We said no. We didn't want to do it; EA didn't want us to do it.
They wanted this to be truly a great next-generation MMO, and that includes the feature-set - including, like you said, RvR. Realistically, the single most distinguishing feature about Warhammer, just like Camelot, the feature that is key to our success, is RvR. Between that, and the additional polish, that's the reason for the delay.
Eurogamer: What state is the game in right now?
Mark Jacobs: There are two aspects to that - one is what we call feature and content complete, and the other is polish. What we're hoping to have by the end of the year, or early next year, is the game being content complete. That does not mean polished; that means the first cut, or the second cut, of all the stuff is in the game.
In terms of features, then, we're not that close. We've still got a lot to do - we need to add the open RvR that we spoke about in the announcement, and we need to do a bunch of other things. I don't know what percentage that is, exactly. However, the beauty is that if we accomplish that, meet all our goals and get content complete, you can see how much time we're going to have to polish the game before release.
Eurogamer: How will the beta programme be affected by the decision to push the development out for a few more months? What do you have in mind for ongoing testing, and what are your beta testers going to be seeing down the line?
Mark Jacobs: There's no change of plans at all. Before we announced the delay, we said that beta was going to reopen in December - that has not changed. Our plans are still to have a nice long beta of this game, and frankly to beat it into the ground over the next two quarters.
No game, really, has launched badly from a technical standpoint and ever recovered - right? If you launch badly, it's tough to come back. We want to spend as much time as possible beating on the code, beating on the game, to make sure that it's ready to go at launch. Dark Age of Camelot had, at the time, the best launch of any MMO. We want to do even better with Warhammer.
In terms of what the beta testers are going to be seeing, when we announced the closure of beta for two months, what we told the players was that this was part of the plan. It will continue to be part of the plan, because we had already had closed beta once before, as we go forward.
What we're going to do, especially in the first phase of the next beta, is focus the players on certain aspects of the game - certain new aspects, certain revised aspects - and say, okay guys, for the next week to ten days, you guys get to beat on X. That's all we want you to do, play this until you can't play it any more, and let us know what you think.
Then we'll shut it down, take the feedback and see if we need to make any changes. Then we'll move on to something else. We're going to do that all through the first stage, and after that, we'll go to the Guild beta, where we'll have more content back up, and we'll allow people to play a little more freely. Then we'll take it down, put it back up again, and probably do some more focus testing on new elements of the game.
The point of the beta is, obviously, not to provide free entertainment for people. The point of the beta is to provide free entertainment that helps us to make the game better - and so, we need to get these people focused now. We've gone through a lot of the stuff we wanted to go through before; now we need to get them focused on specific areas of the game, new content like the crafting system, and things like that, so they can really give us the best feedback they can in a very short period of time.
Eurogamer: It seems quite unusual for a company like EA - as big as EA, even - to encourage you to listen to the community feedback to this extent...
Mark Jacobs: You're actually right. One of the things that's been happening over the 15 months that I've been at EA, and you've probably heard other people speak about it, whether it's our CEO or others, is recognition that EA needs to change the way it's making games. We need to have higher quality in our games; we have to be providing games that players really want to play.
Part of that is changing how we make them. On this level, we have been talking to the community, getting their feedback, being involved. This is going to sound somewhat conceited, but I don't think any MMO or any game developer spends as much time talking to the players as we do. It doesn't matter whether it's Warhammer, or Camelot, or the other games we've done in the past, we've always believed in the importance of community relations, the importance of listening and hearing what your players say.
You don't always agree with them - but you have to listen to them. We've shown to EA how important that is, and John Riccitiello wants us, whether it's Mythic, Bioware and Pandemic, or the other studios within EA, to make great games. This is just a part of it.
Eurogamer: Although EA is being supportive at this point, did you find that there was a lot of education you had to do with the company's management to get them to understand massively multiplayer gaming?
Mark Jacobs: Yes and no. Here's the thing; a lot of people in EA really understand MMOs. Frank Gibeau, who is my boss, used to play Camelot a lot. Bing Gordon used to play Camelot a lot. These guys play WoW as well, and other MMOs - so there are a lot of people within EA who really get MMOs.
John Riccitiello, as you know, when he was founder of Elevation, bought Bioware and Pandemic - and they're working on an MMO, so he really gets MMOs.
Then there are other people at EA who don't get MMOs, and yes, they need to be educated on that. On the other hand, though, we need to be educated at times - on things like worldwide publishing. We've done it before, but not in the same way that EA can do it. So it's a pretty good relationship. They've been very helpful to us, and I think we've been very helpful to them as well.
Eurogamer: Speaking of relationships, how is your relationship with Games Workshop? What's their exact involvement with the game?
Mark Jacobs: Our relationship with Games Workshop couldn't be better. I've known these guys for about five years as friends, as well as, now, as licensor and licensee. During the development of Climax' Warhammer game, they visited our studio a couple of times and we showed them the stuff we were doing so that they could use it as a yardstick to figure out what they wanted to put in their game.
We showed them our customer service tools, we showed them other things we do here - and we built the friendship from that. Then back at the start of 2005 it became quite professional as well. We have, without a doubt, the best relationship with a licensor that I've ever had - and I've been making games for 20 years, and had some wonderful relationships with partners and licensors over the years.
The Games Workshop guys are both our partners and our friends. They come over here, they stay at my house - I go over there... It's a really great relationship. As far as the development goes, they're very involved. We keep them appraised of everything we're doing - they throw ideas at us, we throw ideas at them.
Sometimes we go to them and go, hey, we need a solution to this within the IP - what can you do? Do you have any ideas for us? They're happy to oblige. We also send them things that we're doing here, which they're going to use in the Warhammer hobby, as opposed to the Warhammer computer game. I think you'd be really hard pressed to find a relationship between a licensor and licensee that's better than the one we have with games workshop.
Eurogamer: Will there be a direct correlation between the characters in the tabletop game and those in the online game?
Mark Jacobs: That really ties in with our whole relationship with Games Workshop. When we were talking about this deal two years ago, one of the things that I needed to make sure of was that GW wanted us to create the best MMO version of Warhammer we could. Not necessarily the best implementation of the tabletop game - they had to know the difference.
They not only knew the difference from the beginning, they were really supportive of it. We have an awful lot of freedom; I mean, we're creating a whole new age, the Age of Reckoning, which does not exist in their IP! They've given us the freedom to do with the IP, what we need to do to make a great game.
Now, there are times when they say to us, sorry, this is too big of a departure for our IP - we can't do it. On the other hand, those times have been so few and far between that I can even count them on one hand.
Will what you see in the game be exactly the same as the characters' rendition in the tabletop game? Absolutely not. It can't be - because if you look at the tabletop game, it is not designed to be an MMO. What we've done is, we've taken characters from the Warhammer tabletop game, tried to take everything that makes them unique to that world, tried to take the abilities and the things that make them special within the world, and then fit them into our world.
Eurogamer: Are you going to provide post-launch content for free, or will you do expansion packs?
Mark Jacobs: We're going to do what we did with Camelot, which is both. Back in the day, back in 2001, we started with a two-pronged approach.
Prong number one was free, or subscription-based, updates to the players - so as long as you're a subscriber, you get new things that we put into the game for you. We put in new areas, we put in new items, we put in all sorts of fun stuff. Then we also have a big expansion every year.
We intend to follow the same model; give the players lots of new things during their subscription, and at the same time, prep big expansion packs.
Eurogamer: Finally, there's been some reporting in the media recently of lay-offs from EA Mythic; is that related to the announcement of the delay, or is the timing simply coincidental?
Mark Jacobs: It's absolutely unrelated. This is a question that's asked all the time, and I understand why - but in any course of development, there are going to be times when you let some people go. That's just what happens. The timing was unfortunate. We had some changes to make both within the UO team and the Warhammer team, at the same time that EA was also preparing layoffs.
It came out as a much bigger deal than it is in terms of numbers. EA Mythic, don't forget, includes our development team on Warhammer, development team on Camelot, development of UO, customer service, IT, everything... So even when you look at the lay-offs across the entire studio, the numbers were really small. It had no effect on the Warhammer schedule. Those lay-offs had been talked about for quite a while within the studio, and really it just came up at the same time that EA was doing its lay-offs.
Something that I haven't talked about much, but maybe it'll help to clear things up a little bit, is that this is the first time that Mythic has ever had a team this large on one game. The Warhammer team is huge for us; when we did Camelot, we started with 13, and launched with some number in the twenties! Even when we were doing Warhammer ourselves, last year, we weren't as big as we are today.
As we went along in the development of Warhammer, we found that you can't always add people and expect to have great results. We looked at that and went, okay, we need to make some changes - that's all.
Warhammer Online will be out in the second quarter of next year - which is sometime between April and June, for those of you who aren't good at fractions.