This would make a great MMO! Maybe?

This would make a great MMO! Maybe?

We all want to make a difference, to change the world in some small way.

Which is why the word “innovation” is used so frequently used in business and the arts. We need to “innovate” in order to beat the competition and mark a difference. Innovation will bring customers, revenue and recognition.But does the phrase “innovation can cause death” have merit? Often companies and organisations arrive at a compromise;

“Maybe we can do a little bit of innovation, but mostly do what we know works.”

I’m not an MMO developer – hence the name of this series “Monday’s Expert”. I can only comment after the fact, and from second-hand. Am qualified to do so? No. But I do have experience in working as a senior manager in large organisations, and have frequently managed large IT projects.

Well there’s you have my “IMHO” opener. Now, too business.

Can’t. Tun. Off. Brain.

I play MMOs to relax, and yes escape the humdrum of normal life. But even in game, when running a dungeon with a group or soloing content I can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain. Having played two AAA MMOs extensively (and dabbled in Dark Age of Camelot) I can’t but help compare and contrast both the my experience in both Warhammer (WAR) and World of Warcraft (WoW).

For years players, or more specifically bloggers and commentators have asked developers to be more “innovative”. No more WASD, DikuMUD, fantasy themed games please! Give us something new, fresh! Innovate! But what happens when innovation is attempted? Hence my review of Warhammer Online’s perceived failure.

The promise of innovation: WAR is everywhere?

Players, both current and ex (of which there are sadly too many) will fondly remember the promise of the WAR’s tagline “WAR is everywhere”. It was the promise of massive player versus player battles; the constant struggle for survival against a ruthless enemy. Desperate keep fights. City sieges waged between two massive armies – one representing a flawed good (Order) and the other malevolent evil (Destruction).

It promised to be a gritty, grim battle for survival. The constant flow of information from the developers Mythic was constant, uplifting and tantalising. I admit, I got pulled into the hype. So I bought the box and official game guide the day it was released. And gosh, I was excited.

My initial experiences were extremely positive. I enjoyed the classes I sampled, admired the artwork and got straight into the PvP (or “Realm versus Realm”) side of the game. Right from the get go I was enjoying some great PvP action. WAR was good. I was enjoying myself. And it seemed there many other players enjoying it too. The game had momentum. There was talk of WAR being a series competitor to WoW. In fact, for a few months I toyed with cancelling WoW all together.

I was running two characters simultaneously; a Witch Hunter named Julstinian and and a female Elf Shadow Warrior called Aigeline.

So many alts, so much fun... right?

So many alts, so much fun... right?

I’d never really played a lightly class melee DPS class before, and was keen to do something different. If I was going to try WAR, then I’d experience the game from a completely new perspective. I hung up my plate armour in order to be daring. I got both to 20 pretty quickly. I did lots of PvP, and lead quite a few keep fights.

But my sense of how much fun I was having started to change. Across the board things turned ugly. Players became disgruntled, a backlash developed. Things fell apart.

The question is; why did the collapse happen so fast?

Nerd rage, WoW tourists, server stability problems or player balance issues? All of this. But WAR could have survived all this, after all launching a MMO is no small thing. People expect problems. I’d suggest that most players expected things to be a bit bumpy at first. I sure did and had plenty of patience in reserve. I was prepared to forgive the game and developers a great deal. And yet, the initial game population of an estimated 800,000 has crashed to less than 300,000. A second round of server mergers has just been announced.

WTF happened?

Innovation: PQs, oRvR, ToK, SC’s and some other acronyms.

WAR has some notable features, which are now starting to appear in other MMOs in one form or another (especially in WoW). Some of these innovations include:

  • Tomb of Knowledge (ToK) – recording both your progress in the world of WAR, it also contains information on lore, NPCs and monsters while tracking the progress of your quests, number of mob and player kills. The ToK is stunning, in both conception and execution. I spent a great deal of time simply browsing the content, familiarising myself with the world.
  • Public Quests (PG) – brilliant in both conception and execution. Simply turn up to a public quest area and start killing stuff. Whether or not you where grouped with some one, you all achieved the same result. Each PQ followed a simular model: first stage you kill a bunch of non elite mobs; second stage you kill some elite mobs; third stage kill a boss. At the end of chest would drop with some nice rewards.
  • 100% drop rate – not really an innovation, but a nice touch. When the NPC asks you to collect ten rat tails, you go kill your ten rats and you get them straight away. A minor annoyance in MMOs simply waved away. Especially for those us burnt by Stranglethorn Vale in WoW.
  • Instant PvP – being able to port into instanced PvP battleground (called Scenario’s, or SC’s) in WAR was a great way to get a burst of PvP action. Especially if you only had 15-30 minutes spare and you wanted some fun, not a PvE grind. Simply hit a button to be transported to the SC for some great PvP action.
  • End game city siege – in my mind this sounded the most fascinating, and the part of the game with the most potential. Here was an end game that promised to be epic. Sacking your rivals city and fighting it out in the streets of their capital? Awesome!

And yet despite all this promise, WAR failed. Why? Here’s some thoughts as too why…

Failure one: not using technology to tell the story.

PvE in WAR is often referred to as an afterthought. In my opinion it stands up pretty well compared to WoW’s PvE game. Essentially it’s about killing ten rats and moving stuff from one NPC to another. I expect that. The text in both the Tome of Knowledge and that associated with the quest givers is actually superior to WoW’s. It conveys the gritty feeling of WAR, and helps give you a good sense of the lore. And yet I can’t help but feel WAR’s PvE fails. Why?

The overuse of public quests.

Unarguably the developers greatest innovation is the public quest, and yet by the “second tier” (between levels 10-20) you’re heartily sick of them. By that stage they have lost their magic, as you will find at least half a dozen scattered around the zone. At that point you simply roamed around farming PQ’s with groups. A true grind. Compare this to WoW’s human starter zone, where there is one elite mob you work towards killing: Hogger.

Still opening a "can of woop ass" on noobs to this day...

Still opening a "can of woop ass" on noobs to this day...

Everyone in WoW knows Hogger, the gnoll mini-boss. It’s normally the first hard quest, and it teaches newbie players the value of grouping (you need at least three players to kill him/her/it). Four years after the launch of WoW, Hogger jokes are still funny. He’s part of the lore and our shared gaming experience because he is unique. WARs PQ’s could have been used more sparingly, at best one-or-two per zone. More time should have been put into crafting a unique experience for each rather than the same three tiered approach of mob/elite/boss fight.

Imagine if each PQ experience had been perfectly crafted to tell a story. Wrath of the Lich King’s use of phasing technology is used to tell the story brilliantly. The Wrath Gate experience, whereby you watch the tragedy unfurl before you and that part of the game world is for ever changed for you, is simply magic. There isn’t a WoW player who was not blown away by that.

The technology is an aid, but is used sparingly and judiciously. PQ’s could have been the tool to do that for WAR. Instead they used them as PvE filler.

Failure two: Tome of Knowledge fails to tell other players your story

WoW achievement system is a anaemic compared to WAR’s ToK, and yet it is far more satisfying. Why? When you reach an achievement in WoW it is announced in both the general and your guild channel. More often than not you get a flood of “gratz”. Achievements are all about status. Downing a raid boss in heroic and having that broadcast to your guild mates is a nice touch. The ToK tells me everything I need to know, but does not share this information with other players.

In fact, it becomes nothing more than a Wiki experience. You browse with diminishing interest.

Still impressive to this day

Still impressive to this day

MMO players come to these worlds to interact with other players. Achievements and the like help signal prowess, but also signal shared experiences. Some WoW players complain about “achievement spam”, but honestly, most of us live for the recognition it gives us:

“Gratz”

Such simple recognition from your peers can make all the difference. Achievements are driving players like crazy in WoW.

Failure three; instant PvP

Again a good idea, but in my experience it killed the open world PvP experience. The only place where viable PvP action happened on my server was in scenarios (SC). Yes, they were fun, but SC fights are restricted to small scale battles.

The promise open world PvP was never delivered.

oRvR can be fun, if you can find the people...

oRvR can be fun, if you can find the people...

Which brings me to my next point: there was nothing like the  experience of two armies fighting it out in the open field.

Failure four: I’m a grunt, not a general!

Warhammer, as a table top game, is about marshalling the fight between two armies. It has an epic feel: regiments line up to charge, cannons roar, dragons swoop to attack. And yet, WAR online is about pushing your tiny, individual avatar around PvE content. Table top WAR is about being a general. WAR online is about being one of those expendable grunts. There is a disconnect between the two.

For me, this is WAR has really failed.

Sure, leading a Warband (twenty five man player group) could be described as a “command experience”, but really, Warbands where zerg’s far too hard to command with any finesse.

I lead quite a few, and found the whole thing frustrating in the end. And it took time to get a Warband up and running. Individual members would come and go, so it’s composition was always in flux. It wasn’t like herding cats. It was more like herding an army of angry lemmings with their suicidal tendencies in overdrive:

“Lets keep running against the wall of Destruction players and getting pwned!!!! Weeeeeeeeee!”

Running a 10 man Naxx with your WoW group can take a great deal of co-ordination and hard work. Organising twenty five random strangers to take multiple keeps across zones?

Oi vey!

Now imagine if WAR had allowed you to control a unit? Perhaps multiple units like a good strategy game. You could bring archers, foot soldiers, mounted troops or seige engineers. Heck, now that would have been *fun*.

Let players fight against other players for control of strategic points – keeps, resources or points like bridges, roads and towns. It could have been a strategy MMO. Letting players control units at the tactical level would have been fun. But I imagine this would be regarded as a niche product, and would not have given the developers and Sony Entertainment Online anything like WoW’s numbers.

Warhammer has such a rich, deep reservoir of lore to draw from. Turing it into a traditional single player MMO may have been where they may have made their first mistake. I wonder if anyone at Mythic or the owners of WAR’s original IP thought:

“Say, let’s give players the chance to battalian a unit of Chaos Knights!” No?

Failure five: complex meta-game that opened end game content.

In order to get to the city siege fight, your “side” had to capture and “lock” zone, keeps and battle objectives. It required a good understanding of the end game process. But for a casual player at level ten, months and months away from end game it was all meaningless. So what if Destruction controlled my zone? Could I still PvE? Yes. Could I still pop into a SC? Yes. Did it stop progression of my character, or dealt out any other penalties that impacted me? No. Did I care? Not really. In fact, seeing my zone flip to was depressing.

“Oh look, we’re losing. Again.”

Says Destruction:

“Wez are in your capital city pwning yr king”

For the casual player, who WAR desperately needed to capture, the meta-game that underpinned the end-game was far to complex and daunting. I don’t have a full day to spend locking zones to get into the end game.

This is why WoW raid-centric end game works for casuals such as myself. I know what I need to do in order to perform better in a raid. Sure, downing a boss does not change the game world. But so what?

Lets put it into context: I’ve got two hours on a Wednesday night and I want to have some fun. I’ll get on vent, raid with my guild and have some fun. Next week we go back to clean up Naxx. Each time we get better.

It’s about the entertainment experience.

Imagine if WoW raiding depended on one side capturing the whole of Northrend, holding it and so players could the get into Ulduar. Imagine if I had to spend hours taking control of Dragonblight in order to have a shot at entering Naxxramas.

Argh! By all that is holy, Blizzard please don’t copy this feature of WAR!

Note: yes, I know you have to capture the Wintergrasp zone in order to do the dungeons in that instance (Vault of Archavon, or VoA). But VoA is in addition to Naxxramas, Ulduar and the other normal and heroic instances.

For casual players such as myself, WAR’s endgame seemed far to daunting to enter. Blizzard is creating an end game experience that is becoming more open to casual players such as myself. Raiding in both Vanilla WoW and Burning Crusdae was outside the reach of most players.

Opening up the end game to millons of paying customers such as myself: not such a bad thing innit?

Failure six: allowing PvE servers as an option

The servers still thriving in WAR seems to be those offering open world PvP.

PvP is what attracted many new players, including myself. However I made the mistake of registering on a more safe, traditional PvE server with PvP “lakes” (restricted zones where PvP could happen). I’m sure many other players made the same mistake and found themselves confronted with a limited PvE experience and no true PvP going on.

Hence, the promise of “WAR is everywhere” was never delivered upon. It had less to due with balance issues, and more to do with diluting the promise of open world PvP.

Perhaps Mythic should have made the gamble and allowed only open world PvP servers. Sure those PvE minded players migrating from WoW might have had a rougher time. But really, I like many where looking for the challenge. WAR promised to take players such as myself in a new direction. Maybe not quite hadcore as a Darkfall, but at least more challenging than WoW.

And yet, players such as myself landed smack bang into a typical PvE game experience, imagining something different. We never got the challenge we wanted.

Of those 800,000 who initially registered, I imagine most were MMO veterens of some sort. Players like this new what we were getting ourselves into. And that was why so many felt underwhelmed:

“I thought this going to be harder!”

Most of us have done the PvE grind fest. For me, and many others WAR promised a different path.

Failure seven: innovation was restricted to PvE aspects of WAR

Here’s the crunch: the most innovate aspects of the game – PQ’s and ToK – facilitate the PvE side of the game.

If WAR was still going to follow the traditional route of a fantasy themed, third person point of view (PoV) MMO then the focus should have been on the PvE experience. If you going to go head-to-head with WoW, and yes Mythic and owners Sony wanted too, then your PvE has to be better than WoW.

Not as good, better.

PQ’s could have helped build story, not act as content filler. Imagine having only one PQ each zone, with even harder boss to kill. Like WoW’s dungeons they could have been a focal point for grouping, of getting random groups of strangers together. Bonds would have formed, guilds would regularly go out to tackle them.

Instead, you found the same-same- boring PQ’s scattered like leafs across the zones.

The ToK could have been used even more effectively to tell a grand narrative: down a boss, and a really special reward or chapter detailing your role could have been created.

There was such potential there to tell a story. PvE means it’s the developers responsibility. PvP is “user created” content. Perhaps you can’t really do both. Or if you going to do both, both your PvP and PvE experience has to be exceptional. However from a development perspective, it takes translates into time and money. Where to make the investment is a hard choice in any project.

Final verdict: did innovation kill WAR?

Did Warhammer innovate?

Yes. It sure did. On paper it’s sound great.

Did innovation kill Warhammer?

A qualified yes.

It takes millions – an estimated $70m in WAR’s case – to get a AAA MMO up and running. You need to pull in some big subscriber numbers to get your ROI. So appealing to the broadest spectrum of the MMO market sounded like a great idea.

Yet trying to have a broad based appeal and innovate is a tricky proposition.

IMHO the developers tried to do too much: WAR as chock full of innovation, but famously lacked the polish of WoW or other MMOs. This lack of polish hurt them badly. Server stability, client crashes and too many bugs damaged the games reputation.

At the same time in trying to capture the PvE and PvP crowd, Mythic diluted their efforts across the board. Perhaps they should have either gone for full PvE (WoW clone strategy) or niche, hardcore PvP (EVE, Darkfall).

Perhaps they did not innovate enough. Knowing what to leave out is just as innovative as putting new, unique features into a game. However with aspirations to be the second biggest kid on the block after WoW, while also innovating, Mythic dropped the ball.

Saying you’re going to be the next WoW sounds so much better than stating your going to be the next EVE. EVE is considered a niche MMO, and for investors and Mythic alike that simply wasn’t grand enough. However with 300,000 subscribers and a player base that have grown over the years, EVE is looking far more mainstream than WAR. Nor is it tainted with the stigma of failure WAR now has.

Indeed, I’d hazard a guess and say EVE has more active players than WAR currently does.

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