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Massive Wars

Taking on World of Warcraft is a fool's errand.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Published as part of our sister-site' widely-read weekly newsletter, the Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to newsletter subscribers.

What's it going to take to take on World of Warcraft? Six months ago, Gaute Godager looked like he might be the man with the answer. At launch, Funcom's Age of Conan had the most successful opening week we've seen for an MMOG in years. Huge figures were bandied about - 800,000 copies shifted, by one somewhat tall estimate.

This week, Gaute Godager left Funcom. He says he was "dissatisfied" with some aspects of the game. With vast swathes of those boxed copy sales failing to translate into ongoing subscriptions, server populations falling and enormous negativity surrounding online discussions about the game, it's probably fair to characterise Godager's departure as a head being rolled.

Godager, it seemed, didn't have the answer after all - or at least, not the full answer. While there's some hope that Funcom's new game director, Craig Morrison, will improve the game's fortunes (he's widely credited with turning around a disastrous launch for Anarchy Online, which eventually built a niche but dedicated fan following), the heady days when we all wondered if WOW's reign finally had a pretender are over.

Next up to bat, however, is a real heavyweight. Warhammer Online (or WAR to its friends) is developed by Mythic, a studio with a solid MMOG track record, and is based on a fantasy world whose depth (and fanbase) rivals Blizzard's Warcraft. Moreover, it's supported by all of EA's muscle, which certainly guarantees great marketing and retail presence. It looks a bit like WOW. It even plays rather a lot like WOW, albeit with its own unique features to bring to the table.

So is this, at last, the game to take on World of Warcraft? Has the answer, all along, been to emulate World of Warcraft, building in your own unique systems along the way (Mythic's real focus here, it's obvious, is on pitting players against one another in massive battles, which WOW doesn't really do)?

Time will tell, but I'll pin my colours to the mast here and say that while Warhammer Online is going to enjoy some success, it isn't going to signal any kind of mass-exodus from Blizzard's fantasy world. In fact, unless Blizzard seriously messes up its forthcoming expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King - and there's nothing to suggest it will - it seems eminently likely that WOW will continue to grow, largely unaffected by Mythic's newcomer to the market.

Why? Because, simply, this game remains Blizzard's to lose - and until the company sets a foot wrong, it's going to be extremely hard for anyone else to challenge it. Given the terrible post-launch problems experienced by games like Tabula Rasa and Age of Conan, WOW hasn't exactly seen much in the way of serious challenge so far, but even if Warhammer continues to live up to expectations, it's hard to see many players dropping out of WOW to engage with the newcomer.

WOW players, after all, have made an investment. They've invested countless hours into the game, accrued significant knowledge of its mechanisms, built up an armoury of impressive in-game items and a network of friends and rivals on their game server. Playing Warhammer would involve starting from scratch - an experience they're likely to try out for a few weeks, but unless their entire network of friends and guild-mates agrees to move to the new game en masse, they're most likely to return to the comfortable bosom of WOW in short order.