Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning launches this week, and its outspoken creative director and frontman Paul Barnett is reaching the end of an exhausting, interminable PR tour. We followed up our review (Barnett: "You're very naughty!") with a chat at the Games Workshop Games Day, held last Sunday at Birmingham's NEC Arena.
Eurogamer: You're at the Games Workshop convention in Birmingham today...
Paul Barnett: Yeah, it's sort of like going to the Vatican to hear the Pope giving a talk. Thousands and thousands of the faithful.
Eurogamer: How are the Games Workshop fans responding to the game?
Paul Barnett: Pretty good actually. Warhammer's a bit like Batman. As long as you stay true to the spirit of Batman, then Batman fans don't mind if it's Lego or if it's a cartoon or if it's a film. If you go off-canon, if you show disrespect to the idea, they get a bit funny. We actually went out of our way to try and capture Warhammer as it should be in an MMO.
Eurogamer: We recently interviewed Lord of the Rings Online producer Jeffrey Steefel - he suggested that LOTRO could be the second mass-market MMO after World of Warcraft. Do you think WAR has a shot at that title, too?
Paul Barnett: Oh, crikey. Crikey. Lord of the Rings? Crikey. Well, he's closer to his product than me, so I don't really know.
I think if ever there was a fantasy MMO that had the greatest possibility to proving that there's more to this business than just everyone else and this freak of WOW, it's Warhammer. The time's right, the market's right, WOW's old enough now that it's losing its lustre, more people than ever are online, it's a cool world, it's well realised and we've got new things to offer. Do I think we'll be the second one? Of course I do, in fact I think we'll be the first one; we're just not there yet.
Eurogamer: Do you have a number of players in mind that you'd consider a success?
Paul Barnett: I don't know what the business people have - they have all sorts of crazy numbers, and things to do with shareholders, and things that would probably get me fired. But we're having a staff pool. I put down my bet: a million within the year, and then three million.
Eurogamer: That's a confident bet.
Paul Barnett: But that's just me, personally. That's not Mythic or EA.
I'm very bullish about it because I think the Warhammer world is great, I think the game we've made is great, and I think we've got the best possible chance of catching fire. The momentum is the key thing. You can never launch a game twice.
Eurogamer: Speaking of momentum - how often do you expect to be making major content updates to the game?
Paul Barnett: GOA and Mythic have got a great track record of doing loads of content for free throughout the life of the product, followed by expansions every year or year and a half. WAR definitely is going to follow the same route. We already have a live team, a core team and an expansion team in the studio right now who've been working on all the different elements.
We'll be doing what we've been doing with the beta, which is listening to people, finding out how to improve the fun factor, balancing that with the needs of not breaking the game, and then the obvious crazy stuff that just has to be done to make the game great. People will be very happy. I'm particularly looking forward to some of the new careers.
Eurogamer: What sort of things can players expect to see in the early content updates?
Paul Barnett: I have this document which I've been writing which talks about things we're honour-bound to do, stuff we wanted to do which we either never got to realise properly or decided to put off - so a couple of the careers that looked tasty. if we can get those working, I think they should go in.
And also watching what people do - we get an awful lot of metrics from our game. And often people will say one thing, but actually play another. They'll pour scorn on our system and say they don't like it, and we'll check and find that everyone's doing it, and doing it obsessively. And they demand features, and you put them in and no one bloody uses them.
It's all basic stuff - we're going to be doing more of the socialising, more of the exploring, more of the dungeon-delving and neat, cool things to find - all wrapped around the RVR.
Eurogamer: Even more than many other MMOs, this is a game that's really made by the players, because of its genuinely massively multiplayer, RVR design. Are you nervous about letting go and handing it over to them, and seeing what they do with it?
Paul Barnett: Nah, the player base has basically been playing our game for about two years. What we tried to do is put the massively back into massively multiplayer. The game actively rewards you for grouping, grouping often, grouping with lots of different people, and being in big groups. It's a completely different social experience to some other MMOs, which are really single-player games where every now and then you have to play together to improve your single-player game.
That's the core of our gameplay. So no, we're quite happy about that. What we're looking forward to is people who've been playing other games being able to experience the stuff we're bringing which is either different, new, or - as I like to put it - where we've taken the crap bits and got rid of them.
You know, I quite like the fact that we've don't have item damage, and you won't have to keep spending money to make your sword sharp. That's cool, that is. I like the fact that you don't have to run miles from the graveyard to get back into the action. I like the fact that you don't have to go to someone with a stupid celebrity name to buy a bag to put stuff in. I like the fact that I can move where my map goes and make it different sizes, or just delete it. I think these things are great.
Eurogamer: What's the part of the game that's hardest to predict how it will work out once it's out in the wild?
Paul Barnett: The flip-flopping on the campaign. We do a lot of controlling of our population, hard-capping, and we do it in lots of different ways to prevent the servers becoming unbalanced. But even if we get a perfectly balanced server, we're still not fully sure how the players are going to manipulate the campaign system. So we've done an awful, awful lot of data-tracking on that.
What we're going to do is - Hickman [Geoff, producer] always calls it the fun factor - is find the best way of doing it. Not the most numerical, design-led way of doing it, but the most fun way of doing it.
That will be the hardest thing to predict. Along with the number of subscribers we're going to get. I've said 3 million - if I win the office pool, that's almost 27 dollars!
Eurogamer: What aspect of the game are you proudest of?
Paul Barnett: The Warhammer world being realised well. It would have been easier to just put a coat of paint on it, and actually, that's the temptation. But if you love Warhammer, then it's got the gags, it's got the philosophy, it's got the style, it's got the flavour, it's riddled in the text and the sound effects and the music and the graphics and the interface and the loading screen, and it looks really, really good. A lot of other games with a licence can find themselves submerged in the necessity of making it feel like something else.
It's lucky - or some would say, factual - that Warhammer has a very similar look to World of Warcraft. That's just fluke. It's not our fault it has the same look. We would have realised the game the way we did even if WOW didn't exist.
Also, I'm pleased that the Warhammer world didn't corrupt the solid game design. So probably fusing those two together was the best thing we did. Oh, and the endless fart gags.
What's your favourite bit?
Eurogamer: Public Quests. I think they'll be the single most copied element of MMO design over the next couple of years.
Paul Barnett: They pass my genius test. If you see something, and the first time you see it you end up slapping your forehead and going yeah of course, it's obvious, whatever it was is probably genius. It's the reason the iPod is genius. As soon as you see it you go, yeah of course, stupid! Why wasn't it always like this?
Eurogamer: One commonly recognised reason for WOW's success is that Blizzard built its own strong operations to run it in Europe and Asia. How come you're having another company [European publisher GOA] run the game in Europe?
Paul Barnett: Because if you look at Europe, you realise that WOW took months and months and months to get there. It's really really hard to find a company that understands how to put servers in, get bandwidth, speak loads of languages, co-ordinate with all the different countries, realise that the Italians don't like the Germans who are suspicious of the French who don't talk to the English who don't really like the Dutch who don't understand the Spanish.
GOA did it with Dark Age of Camelot and they've done it really well. They've done it in a very European way, but they've done it very well, and it's more of the same. EA couldn't have done it, what the hell would EA know about it? They know nothing about launching MMOs in Europe, unless it's spending lots of money closing them down I suppose.
You might as well give it to a company that you've got a history with, that you respect and understand. Sometimes, like any good relationship, it goes really well and sometimes it has ups and downs. It was unfortunate with the validation of the open beta, we could have done without that nonsense. But on the other hand, you know, the servers are up, they work, they whole of Europe knows the game's coming, it's for sale and it feels great.
Eurogamer: I'm a WOW player, Lich King's around the corner and I'm excited about it. Convince me to play your game instead.
Paul Barnett: I really like Blackpool, it's marvellous. Got a tower, you know. They sell fish and chips and it's got a golden mile, a whole mile of things to do. But you know what, I went on holiday to Blackpool 17 years in a row. Sometimes you just want to go to Vegas.
We're the greatest hits of MMOs with all the crap bits taken out. No item damage - that's really good for WOW heads. No graveyard running. You can level in PVP. You get loot from PVP. Public Quests are a joy. It's funnier than WOW. It's easier to play, but all the dragons are still left to slay: in WOW, there really isn't that much to do, not any more. You can wait for two years and get another ten levels, but you've probably seen it and done it.
Eurogamer: I hate WOW, and I think your game looks like more of the same. Convince me to try it out.
Paul Barnett: Well, bear in mind, we're not a game, we're a hobby. We're designed around the three things all hobbies require: skill, because if anybody else can do it, then who cares; commitment, because if you can do it without really trying it's not a hobby; and imagination, it makes you think.
If you really, really don't like MMOs, you don't like the subscription model, then I'd say stay away, mate. Don't be a hater.
If on the other hand you missed the boat, wasn't sure whether to do it, weren't really online, didn't really understand this new-fangled stuff, we are the easiest to get into, the easiest to understand, the quickest to have the most fun, the most modern, coolest MMO on the planet, and therefore that's why you should give it a shot.