Mythic boss Mark Jacobs is a busy fellow this week, as Warhammer Online launches globally tomorrow. The last thing he needed to be doing was clarifying sarcastic quips made by Paul Barnett about owner EA and its competency at launching MMOs in Europe, then. Well, not exactly; for Jacobs this is all part of the run up to launch. And, after all, he should know, having been at the helm of arguably the smoothest online world arrival with Dark Age of Camelot nearly seven years ago.
So, in an effort to take up even more of his time, we asked him everything from server stability to Order and Destruction population imbalance, plus how long people will take to level, how long before cities are sacked, and more. Chatty fellow.
Eurogamer: We understand you wanted to clear up comments made by Paul Barnett about EA not knowing how to launch an MMO in Europe?
Mark Jacobs: Well first you've got to understand that Paul is Paul. He's very sarcastic. He tries to be very funny - he usually is. He can be a bit irreverent. And so you need to look at anything he said in the interview from that perspective. Second, in terms of GOA: we had done a deal with GOA before EA bought us. So the idea that we went with GOA because supposedly EA doesn't know anything about doing online games is just not true. There was no EA in the picture. So that was one part of it.
What Paul said about EA not knowing anything about launching MMOs: you know, Paul likes to exaggerate - of course EA knows things about launching MMOs. EA is responsible, certainly, for one of the most important MMOs of all time, and that was Ultima [Online]. And that had people in Europe playing, people in Japan playing - it was really the first MMO to have any success in Japan. And it was the first one to break 100,000 subs.
If you look at the two or three aspects of launching an MMO: the first one is you have to actually develop the damn game, then you've got to be able to sell boxes for the game, and then you've got be able to host and do [customer service] and all that. Well, obviously we know how to do an online game, we've done a number of them before, and certainly Warhammer's off to a wonderful start. The second part - the distribution of the boxes - EA is really good at! That's one of the reasons we went with them; EA wasn't the only company who was looking to acquire us at that time, and we turned down other offers. If you look at North America distribution or European distribution, who's better? EA does that really, really well. The third bit - in terms of hosting and customer service - we do our own, and that's because we've been doing it for a long time.
Eurogamer: How have Warhammer Online's servers been coping, say, compared to other MMO launches?
Mark Jacobs: Compared to the other launches we've had nothing! No downtime, no crashes. Heck, if you want some stats: over the last 48 hours in the United States - I believe it's exactly the same in Europe but I don't have that in front of me - we've had no game crashes, no individual server crashes, and we've only had two zones crash. That's it. Across all servers. That's an incredible amount of stability for the initial two days of a game launch.
Eurogamer: By that we take it you're all ready to go on Thursday, then?
Mark Jacobs: Oh absolutely. Oh my God. We just added more servers. The Europeans, obviously, are doing extremely well. I'm looking at our [US] server populations now and they're just filling up. It's great. They are filling up rapidly and only one server - out of all the ones we have up there right now - has a minor queue on it. And if you played these other games, especially WOW day one, then everything was queued and it took hours to get in. We've got a minor queue maybe maybe 30 minutes [long], on one out of all the servers here in the States.
Eurogamer: Are you expecting them to fill up, and do you have more in reserve if they do?
Mark Jacobs: Oh, we've got plenty. One of the really nice things about working with EA is that we've worked very closely with them to set up the exact number of boxes we want out there to fit the number of servers - and customer service - we have out there. We could sell out every box we have in the United States and have plenty of servers to take care of all that capacity, with a little bit of spare capacity as well. So we're in really, really good shape.
You saw the press release that went out: we're shipping 1.5 million units, so that's a lot of servers! We need a lot to support that kind of volume in both North America and Europe. And we're good to go.
Eurogamer: Excellent. So, er, which side should we join? We were going to be Destruction but everybody seems to be flocking there...
Mark Jacobs: Yeah, there's a lot more going to Destruction, as we knew they would in the beginning. Looking at the Warhammer IP we figured the guys coming in early would be your hardcore guys, the guys that have been following the IP for years, or even decades. We knew they would go to Destruction. But one of the things I've been telling players is, "Look, just wait a bit." My guess is that when we get into the Standard Edition folks, and the folks who don't know as much about Warhammer, then they are going to start to go to the Order side. They have the High Elves and the Dwarfs and the Humans, which for a lot of players are quite comfortable.
And we've already seen that. We tracked it on the servers and they've started with a much larger percentage playing Destruction and then it's already started to ease out on day two, and we expect it to ease out even more on day three, and by launch it will ease out even more.
Eurogamer: What happens if Destruction does become over-populated? Have you got some balancing tricks up your sleeve?
Mark Jacobs: Oh absolutely. The first thing you want to do is not overreact, right? If you react too quickly then you just make matters worse. And the second thing is, even though Destruction outnumbers Order by 10 per cent - and that's all we're talking - it doesn't mean they're going to win. If we see two things happening then we'll start to put in measures. Those two things being balance and that side winning constantly. If Destruction is always kicking Order's butt and they have a population imbalance then we're going to try to change things.
We're going to do things like give people bonuses for playing Order. We're not going to immediately go, "Thou shall have the Sword of Slaying!" That's just bad, right? That's just dumb. On the other hand, what you do say to Order people is, "Hey, if you come in and play Order you get this bonus to [Realm Points], or this bonus to experience." If that doesn't work, then we can look at doing: "OK, you now get your damage bumped up, or you get your Body bumped up." And so we know to do a number of things if necessary. But not in the first few days. No, you sit back, you watch what's going on in the first few days - the first week - you get all the statistics; just because it looks bad doesn't necessarily mean it is.
One of the advantages of being on a side that's a little bit smaller is it's a lot easier to get into Scenarios. So a slight imbalance - obviously you never want it to be two-to-one because that would be horrible, but a 10 per cent difference means when you're trying to queue up for Scenarios you're going to get in faster. I think I ran about six in a row without stopping.
Eurogamer: What sort of stuff can we expect in the future?
Mark Jacobs: What we're doing is two things really - well, three. I keep doing that. Number one is looking at what we didn't do right with the game: what did we miss? The first thing we need to do is look at everything that's in the game and ask what did we not do right? What can we change?
Number two is looking at what we didn't have time to put in, because look, we didn't want to do this game in six years like WOW. What else could we get in in the short term? That might be new Scenarios or little things to make people's lives easier: new UI improvements, that sort of stuff. Then there's the bigger things, things like the classes that we cut, or maybe the cities - look at what we can do there and when we can do it. And with bugs being part of number one, that's going to keep us busy short-term.
We're already getting lots of good feedback. Here's another good statistic: the first 24 hours that the game launched - I just love this number - we had 0.5 tickets [requests for help] per hour per server. That's Crazyville! No one's got anything like that on the day of the launch. My customer service team were playing WAR more than they were answering tickets, because nobody was complaining and saying, "Hey, I'm stuck," or, "Hey, I lost my stuff," or any of the things you expect to happen in an MMO.
Eurogamer: How long before someone gets to the top level, or are they there already?
Mark Jacobs: No! God no! Boy if that happened I would be really kind of upset. No, it will be a bit. We'll see; there's always a race to the top, and we'll just see how long the guys take.
We've given the players so many ways to level up their character and get the loot that they want that I think they're going to find it... Not necessarily quicker than other games, but that it will feel less grindy. You don't have to stop and run to that other town or search forever for quest guys. There are so many things around you that the downtime you have in so many other games is not there. Players are going to find that a really refreshing experience. So I think they're going to level a little quicker than they're expecting, which is going to be great.
Eurogamer: Happy days!
Mark Jacobs: Yeah, happy days! And then you're all set to sack a city and push the front so you can get to the real end game. I can't wait until that happens.
Eurogamer: How long do you think before someone attacks a city?
Mark Jacobs: It should be weeks unless we really messed up. We've laid everything out in a manner that your side has to accomplish a lot, so it's going to take time. We've seen the other games out there where people can do things late at night while nobody else is on, but it doesn't work that way in WAR. It's impossible. You can take your guild and entire realm but you still can't sack a city in one night. So I think it'll be weeks, which is great. We want it to be Epic and something that's exciting, that's challenging, and when you finally get to do it, it's like, "Yes, this was worthwhile."
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will be released Thursday 18th September.