Yesterday, EA Games and Mythic Entertainment officially flipped the switch on Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, a massively multiplayer online fantasy role-playing game based on Games Workshop's superbly violent tabletop RPG. Though only a day old, the game already has a nearly decade-long history.
First announced as a collaboration between Games Workshop and Climax Studios in 2000, the online game's beginnings were marked by a struggle to survive. Its original incarnation was dashed after Climax lost control of the project twice, first after Games Workshop pulled the plug on the project and then again when Mythic Entertainment acquired the official license in 2005 after Climax attempted to trudge on without Games Workshop.
Although the game was being handled by a proven developer, having Mythic Entertainment at the helm by no means guaranteed that Warhammer Online would come to fruition. Though Mythic had successfully launched the fantasy-themed Dark Age of Camelot in 2001, the Virginia-based MMOG studio was just that year suffering under the "indefinite postponement" of its sci-fi MMOG Imperator. As Mythic CEO Mark Jacobs put it back in 2005, "while [Imperator] was fun, it was not fun!"
With Mythic behind the wheel, Warhammer Online was given a fresh reboot. And nearly a year later, a modicum of stability arrived for the game when megapublisher Electronic Arts acquired Mythic. Ostensibly, EA's buy was an effort to field a competitor against Blizzard's genre-dominating warhorse World of Warcraft.
To challenge such a behemoth, EA and Mythic needed to come on strong, and Warhammer's next phase was defined by delay after delay. First slated for a late-2007 shipping date after the EA buyout, the game was bumped that April back to the first quarter of 2008. With Q1 2008 quickly closing, Mythic pushed the game back yet one more quarter in November, saying that it would arrive sometime in mid-2008. That date likewise would not do, and Mythic said with conviction in March that Warhammer would arrive this fall, a date later refined to September 18. In a seemingly last-ditch effort to hit this deadline, Mythic revealed in July that it would be trimming a number of cities and classes from the launch product.
Development adversity thus overcome, Warhammer Online's biggest challenge lies before it. The game launches just months after Anarchy Online developer Funcom debuted Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, a game that posted the best MMOG launch numbers since World of Warcraft four years ago. And then, of course, there's WOW's second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, which many expect to leave beta within the next two months.
In the first of a two-part interview, GameSpot sat down with Mythic's Mark Jacobs to get his take on how Warhammer Online stacks up against the competition. He addressed how important timing is in the launch of an MMOG, what would bring EA to ecstasy, and how to keep a game from being a joke in the face of mounting delays.
GameSpot: This is a huge year for MMOGs. You've got Age of Conan, which came out in May and by Funcom's account was the biggest MMOG launch since WOW, and then you've got Warhammer in September and Wrath of the Lich King later this year. What are your thoughts on being sandwiched between Age of Conan and Wrath of the Lich King? Do you see any advantage to being the middle child?
Mark Jacobs: Oh, sure. When we released Dark Age of Camelot back in 2001, we had a nice sweet spot when we came out in October. There wasn't a lot of other competition at that time, and it gave us a little bit of an edge. So if you look at this year, you had Conan coming out much earlier. And I'm not going to say anything bad about the guys, but it's obvious that the game did not continue to sell as well as it did in the beginning, right? You have release after release about how well it was selling. It was top of the charts. Obviously, that's no longer the case.
So in front of us, of course, we have the 800-ton gorilla that is World of Warcraft. It looks like we're coming out at least a month, maybe more, hopefully, before they're coming out, and it allows us to come out at a time where there are no new MMOGs, where we're not really competing in terms of mindshare with another MMOG for new sales, or with a lot of other big RPGs. So it's actually a really good time to release. Now, would I like even more separation between us and Lich King? Well, of course. You know, again, 800-ton gorilla. But look, it is what it is, and we are just doing our best. I'm not the least bit worried about it.
Now, if they announce September, yeah, then obviously we're going to have a different conversation.
GS: Right. Probably too late to worry about that, though.
GS: How much do you think timing plays in the success of MMOGs? You had DAOC, which came out about two years after EverQuest, and most critics saw it as a superior to EverQuest, but it wasn't until WOW came out that the whole MMO landscape changed. Now you've got Warhammer four years after WOW. Do you think there's going to be any correlation there?
MJ: I think that's a great question. Timing plays a role from two perspectives. First, when MMOGs come out, it's interesting--it really doesn't matter in terms of the time of year as much as other games. If you look at the history of MMOG releases, you've had some great successes in the fall, and you've had some great successes in the spring, and you had some OK successes in the summer. So that's the first interesting thing about timing.
The second is that when a game--and this is really true for 99 percent of the MMOGs--when an MMOG hits its third year, from then on usually in terms of peak concurrent users, it begins its decline. Now, some MMOGs can cover that by continually high sales. Or, in the case of [CCP's] EVE, which is probably the best success story for when you want to look at something that did not do well in the beginning and now three years or four years later, whatever it is in their case, they're doing better than they did at first, which is just amazing. But WOW, EverQuest, Camelot, by three years out they were really all--they really are in WOW's case--losing a lot of users. The difference is Blizzard has been able to keep the sales strong even now for WOW to make up for that loss.
So if you're looking at the perfect time to come out for a new MMOG, it would certainly be when the competition is three or four years out. And it really doesn't matter who the developer is because people are people, and they get bored with any game. You can't do almost any activity every single day, or even three, four times a week, for three or four years without getting a little bit tired of it, or very tired of it.
So, in our case, coming out with WOW hitting its second expansion pack is a lovely thing. It really is. And when you look at the competition from the other games, every other major game is a lot older than that. Certainly, Camelot is much older than that if you want to look at competing realm-versus-realm. Or, you would look at Final Fantasy in terms of player-versus-environment and strong numbers. Same with EverQuest 2.
So I look at it being a really good time to release Warhammer.
GS: You mentioned that Blizzard has done a very good job of maintaining interest in its MMOG. Have there been any lessons that you guys have taken away from them that you plan on implementing with Warhammer?
MJ: Well, they've done a really good job from two perspectives. The first perspective is expanding the market, and that's really where they've done the best job. It's really easy to say, "Wow, look at Blizzard's numbers..." Let's forget Asia because Asia numbers are always screwy. They always are, because in Asia you have so many different payment models, while in North America and Europe, it's only realistically monthly subscriptions. When you look at North America and Europe numbers, when a developer says, "Look, we have 6 million paying monthly subscribers," you know what that means. But when you look at the Asian numbers and they say, "We have 11 million or 10 million worldwide subscribers," well, most of the Asian countries are not on monthly payment plans. They're on all different payment plans.
So, if you look at North America and Europe, what Blizzard has done is take the market--which was large, or at least we thought it was large--and continue to expand it. And that's the number-one secret to success. Not only have they kept their players for a fairly long time, just as, frankly, we did with Camelot, but they keep bringing new people into the genre because their sales numbers are still strong year after year. And the only way they could continue to have those sales numbers is if they were bringing more people in who had never played these MMOGs before.
So the other thing that they've done well is they continue giving people more and more stuff to do. And it doesn't matter what it is because it could be new armor sets, new items to get, new dungeons to explore. They have done that very well. We did it very well with Camelot, but they've done it even better.
So I think those are the two key things. One, hopefully Warhammer will expand the market, and I think we will. Second, keep giving the players new stuff. And we've planned on giving them a ton of new things to do over the lifetime of the game, but especially over the first year.
GS: You also mentioned the state of Age of Conan, and how it appears that they are having problems hanging on to subscribers. A lot of that has been attributed to their bumpy launch. And this seems like a question that comes up every single time an MMOG launches, and no one has really cracked the nut yet, and maybe you have a different perspective with this being your second major one. Why is it that so many MMOGs launch riddled with bugs?
MJ: So it's really funny, OK. And this is just unbelievably bizarre if you think about it. Go back to 2001, and in 2001, at E3 that year, there were three MMOGs that everyone was talking about. Well, actually two. Star Wars Galaxies and Anarchy Online. We were an afterthought. If you go back and look at who won what, you'll see that we didn't win much. Anarchy and Star Wars, they took most of the awards. And if you look at a comparison between what people were saying about Anarchy and Camelot and Age of Conan and Warhammer, it's fascinating because it's almost identical.
Back in 2001, people were looking at Anarchy and going, "Wow, what a beautiful game. Great graphics. Oh my god, this is the sci-fi game we've been waiting for, and it looks beautiful." Camelot, they were going, "Yeah, you know, this realm-versus-realm thing kind of looks interesting, but boy, the graphics aren't quite as good as either Anarchy or Star Wars," blah-blah-blah.
And what I had said in interviews was that we focused on stability. We had a very small budget, and we were out of money by October. But we said we had to spend what we had on a stable game because that for us was what was going to make us successful. We couldn't compete with Sony back in the day in terms of what they could spend, right? Obviously not. So what we had to do was focus on two things. One is RVR, because that was a differentiating factor between us and every other MMO on the market at the time, and two was stability.
And so now it's seven years later, and if you go back and look at what people were saying about Age of Conan for months and months, "Oh my god, it's so beautiful. It's so much prettier than Warhammer. Look at the graphics. Look at the models," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I was saying the same thing that I said then. "Guys, focus on what you can do in our game. RVR and the stability of the product, even in beta. Look at how we're doing already, because that's what's important to us." In the end, what is going to make or break a game is not the pretty pictures. It just isn't. It's gameplay and stability, because if you don't have stability, you can't enjoy gameplay. And if there's not great gameplay, it doesn't matter what it looks like.
So for us--and certainly our beta has shown it--we are more stable in beta than most MMOGs are at release. Not all MMOGs, but most MMOGs. I'll give you a great statistic from beta so far. In this last phase, we've had one crash of the game. Just one. And that one was caused only by our CS guys when somebody was trying to do something they shouldn't have and sent a command to the servers and the servers went, "I don't know what you want me to do, but I give up." Boom. But that's it. That's been our one crash of the servers in this latest phase. And this is open beta.
So are we perfect? Oh god, no. No MMOG is ever finished until it's finished, and when it's finished my use of that word means they're out of business. Because I've been doing these games forever. I've never seen an MMO launch without bugs, and I never will, frankly. Especially at this scale. And I've never seen one that is finished while it's still doing well. Because especially when you're doing a game like Warhammer where RVR is the key, the balance becomes so crucial that you're always tweaking and fixing and sometimes breaking the things that players care about.
But the key thing, and I don't know how many times I've said this, and I just get laughed at a lot, is that the thing that matters most in today's market is the stability of the game. Because when we were back in the early days of MMOGs, people were so thrilled with the product they didn't care if it crashed as much. They just didn't, right? Because it wasn't like there was any other competition. Or, it was so new and novel and, "Oh my god, this is great. Yeah, yeah, yeah, so it crashes a little, but nobody's ever done this before." "Yeah, but it crashed." "Yeah, but who cares? We're having so much fun."
It's now a decade--more than a decade--since the first true MMOG went online. And so people are more jaded. They're more experienced. They have higher expectations. And the focus I think, going forward, for more teams should be on the absolute technical prowess, not what they can do in terms of pushing pixels to make something look better. Because players won't put up with it as much as they would have, I think, 5 years ago or 10 years ago, because they know what a good game should be like.
As we have now gone through multiple generations of MMOGs, players have gotten used to them. They expect certain things that maybe they wouldn't have expected 10 years ago or 5 years ago. And so if you don't launch well and if you don't continue--even if you have some issues, if you don't continue to fix those issues--if you don't continue to put the effort into the game to do what the players want you to do, they'll go, "You know what? I can go somewhere else. I'll go back to WOW, or I'll go back to Camelot, or I'll play some other game, and then in six months when you get things sorted out, maybe I'll come back."
And it is just such an overlooked aspect for some teams, and it's a shame. I mean, I'll give you a great little anecdote. Part of my role at EA since they bought Mythic has been to look at other developers for them.
So I sat in a meeting with a developer, and I won't mention their name because it's really embarrassing, and I asked them, I said, "You're supposed to launch this month. When are you guys going to do open beta and a real good stress test?" The CEO said, "We're not." I looked at him and I said, "What do you mean you're not?" "Oh, we don't need to." "What do you mean you don't need to do a stress test?" "Oh, the way we've designed it, it's going to work at launch." And I was like, "You've got to be kidding me, right? You're not going to put this through a stress test and open beta?" He says, "No. This is how we've engineered it, and we know it's going to work." "OK. Hey, thanks. Check please."
And that was it truly for that developer, as far as I was concerned. The man just totally did not get it. I said, "Look, you can't work with somebody who has this level of arrogance," because nobody is that good. Nobody is that smart. And we've done two of these, or three if you want to count Imperator [placed on indefinite hold as of 2005], and we still make mistakes, and we know that we're going to do something wrong at times. If you go into this space with that much hubris, I guarantee you something bad will happen, because nobody, and I mean nobody, is that good. And the history of MMOGs proves it.
Sorry for the very long answer.
GS: No, that's OK. So this is shifting gears a bit, but EA has said in the past that their marker for success is about 2 million copies sold of a game.
GS: What's your marker for success?
MJ: I'm not going to tell you that [laughs]. But what I can say is that where I want to be at the end of the day with Warhammer is I want to be the number-two MMOG of all time. That is my marker. Each game that's been successful has sort of always raised that cap. Certainly EverQuest was the all-time leader, and then Final Fantasy [XI] had some really, really good numbers and beat them, I believe, worldwide. And we were number-one in Europe, for example, until WOW came out. And so, I would like to be well above number two--well above Final Fantasy. That would make me very happy.
Now, you're absolutely right about the 2 million units being a marker for success for a stand-alone game. The nice thing about an MMOG is that every quarter that we keep a user, essentially we're selling a new box because of the monthly subscription price. And so if we sold 2 million copies of Warhammer and had a good retention rate, equivalent to whatever the [rate of] other leaders in this space is, I think EA would be absolutely ecstatic. Unbelievably ecstatic. Because for an MMOG, that is the key to success. It's not the number of boxes you sell. It's how many players do you have at peak, and how long do you stay at that number? Because if you just do some back-of-the-envelope calculations, let's say you have half a million subs, and let's say just to make the math easy it's $12 a sub, and so that's $6 million--sorry--yeah, $6 million a month, $72 million a year. Obviously, not too shabby.
And then if you look at that in comparison to box sales, so if you sold 2 million units--obviously I can't say what EA keeps--but even at retail, that's only somewhere between if it's a PC title maybe $100 million. So, if we have 500,000, 600,000, or more, EA will be very happy, and that would make us number two.
Now, would I like more than that? Of course. We've worked very hard on this game. We've worked over three years, and certainly we would love to have more than that number. But our bar for success when EA bought us--that's what it was. We told them, "We want to be number two." You can't plan on being number one. And it's not that I don't know how to beat WOW or get close to those numbers, but it would take the same kind of commitment that Blizzard had. Blizzard didn't do that game in three years. They did it in, like, six years. And a lot higher spend than I had.
What I told EA was like, "Look, let's do a great game. Let's do it with the RVR focus. Let's set a lower bar and go, 'This is good.'" And so they did, and we're all very happy with where we are right now. And we're going to have some news hopefully going out next week about what our preorders are and what our projected sales are, and I think it's going to be a very good number. We're well received by our fans. The number is excellent. Quite, quite excellent.
GS: Right. You picked this game up in 2005. Warhammer Online itself was first announced in 2000, being developed by Climax Studios. Does the game as it is now resemble what that initial thought of what Warhammer Online would be? How has it evolved since your initial impression?
MJ: Sure. So let's start with the Climax thing. First of all, no connection with the Climax game. Totally different. When we got the license, certainly Games Workshop, which owned all the IPs, said, "Is there anything you want from there?" And we went, "Uh, no. This is our game, this is our engine. We're going to design it with you our way. We want this to be a different game. We saw what you guys were doing. That's not the game we want to make." And so we sat down and did the design.
Now, in terms of how close it is to the original design, in some areas, really close. Some areas, not so close. Obviously, we cut some of the cities out. I really wanted them in there, but when we looked at it, we went, "You know what? It just doesn't make sense. We need to cut them." So we did. In terms of classes, I'm quite happy with 20, so losing a few doesn't really bother me. We hope to put them back in, but it wasn't as big of a cut from my perspective as the cities were.
In other ways, it's exceeded my expectations. When I first came up with the Tomb of Knowledge, it was a great idea. It's been made into a better idea even over the last year. They've gone in some wonderful directions with it. Public quests are absolutely living up to my design for them.
So, I think that, like any MMOG, things change over time, but in our case, for the most part really it was only to make them better. And I think if you look at where we are now as a game compared to where we were when we delayed it the last time... One of the things I told the users was, "Look, we need more time to polish. It's not that we're fixing systems. You know, we're not retooling the whole game. We want some additional time to polish and iterate." There were other things we had to do of course at the same time, but I said, "Look, we need this time. We want to be sure we can compete, frankly, with WOW and potentially with Conan."
And EA said yes, and if you look at the difference between the game then and the game now, there is no comparison from a polished perspective and an iteration perspective. I mean, we've really done an incredible amount to take this to the next level. And our users are saying, "My god, you guys were right. You really did use that time to polish the heck out of the game." And is it perfect? No. Again, no MMOG is ever perfect. But it's a h*** of a lot more polished, and we've got so many little things in the game. Not just big things. Just little things. Convenience things for the players. Sometimes you don't notice them. That we wouldn't have been able to do months and months ago.
GS: Getting back to the player community, what I've noticed about a lot of your interactions with players on the message boards are that they seem to have the undertone of "You folks just need to calm down a little bit." How would you describe your relationship with the community, and do you think developer interaction is necessary for a game's success? Or what role do you think it serves?
MJ: So what's my relationship? Honest, straightforward--at times I am there absolutely to soothe them, at times I'm to excite them, at other times I need to set them straight, other times they need to set me straight. I've been doing these games for 20 years now. I did one of the first MUDs. I did stuff on the GEnie Network. All this stuff from the old days. So, I've been dealing with the community as a community manager before there were ever community managers. Before there was ever a term called "community manger."
I always thought it was important to engage the players for a number of reasons. One, obviously, because you want them to be excited about your game, because if they're excited about your game, they're going to play your game. Two, because they're going to come up with a bunch of good ideas that you may not have thought of. Any developer who thinks only they can come up with good ideas, epic fail right there. Because you can't. Again, nobody's that smart. Another reason is because they can tell us when we mess up. They can help keep us, if not humble, honest.
And so that's why I go out to the community, and that's why I do stuff on our own forums--even my own blog--to get this kind of feedback. To talk to the players.
And if you look at over the last few years when there's been a crisis in the player's mind, whether it was a delay or the cutting of the classes, I was the guy there. I didn't send my community manager team out there. I didn't send my spin team out there. I went out there myself to talk to people openly and honestly. So I think that helped keep--and certainly the feedback I get from people absolutely justifies it--I think that helped keep the lid on things and kept things in perspective.
When you see a company delay a game time and time again and there is no developer interaction, the game becomes a joke among the community. You know, it becomes a joke among the press. But when you have a developer who goes out and goes, "Guys, here's why we're doing this. OK? We're sorry, but here's why," it doesn't become a joke. As a player, you're going to be unhappy no matter what, but you see that the developer is serious and you understand the reasoning more behind it.
So I think it's really important for developers. Now, the trouble is a lot of developers don't have thick skins and don't have the patience. This is not something you can just jump into. You have to spend the time, and you have to get the scars, frankly, from doing dumb things occasionally or just from the heat and slings and arrows that will be thrown your way. And if you can't handle that, don't talk to the community. Stay away. Because you'll just piss them off more.
And one of the things you'll see in all my posts. I try desperately hard not to be condescending to them, and do the, "Oh, you just don't understand how hard it is to make a game with good graphics," or, "You just don't know how hard it is to do client-server stuff." I try to talk to them as people and explain things to them. And then hear again what they have to say.
Back in 2001 or back in 1999, we were pretty much given zero chance of success when we first announced Camelot. Who the hell is Mythic? Oh yeah, they've done some other online games but blah-blah-blah. And let me tell you, I had to endure so many jokes about, "Oh yeah, you just want to be able to sing something from the show, right? Ha ha." You know. I had people quoting lyrics from Camelot and making jokes about Lancelot and "if ever I should leave you." All this stuff. I mean, I just heard that to no end, OK?
And I went to the community and just talked to them during the entire development process and kept talking to them and went on different fan sites and did all the things I'm doing now. We had no money, frankly, to do anything else. And so that started building a buzz. Now, that's what's now called, of course, viral marketing. If you're going to go back and look at Camelot and try to figure out why it succeeded, well, it certainly wasn't because we spent a lot on advertising. Our total advertising and marketing budget was $660,000. We spent about $250,000 of that on E3. So that's not a lot of money to push a game, right? And that's everything. I mean, that's paying for the marketing people and everything. So it's not like we had a big budget.
So one of the things that I think helped make it successful was the work we did in the community to get people talking, to get people sharing information with other friends of theirs, with other guilds they were in. You know, do all that sort of thing to help build a foundation for success. And Venti, who we were partners with at the time, did their own analysis and told me, "Mark, I think it's a good game, but don't expect to sell a lot." "OK. What do you think?" "Boy, I think we'll do 40,000 units the first quarter, and then you'll slowly build." We tripled that in the first month.
So, it had to be for something that their marketing and sales people didn't understand. It certainly wasn't anything conventional, and so I'm left to believe that a lot of the reason we succeeded was because we had engaged the community, not just with me but with other people as well, to get them interested in our game.
And so you move forward to 2005, and we signed Warhammer, and we heard some of the same stuff. "Warhammer? That's a 25-year-old IP." Or, "Warhammer? Oh my god, isn't that the game that is based on WOW?" You wouldn't believe how many times I heard that, including from journalists, which was just really amusing. Or, then I heard, "Well, OK, yeah, fine. So Warhammer was there first, but how can you compete with WOW?" Or, so many of those things.
So I did the same thing I did with Camelot. We went to message boards. We have Paul [Barnett] and Jeff [Hickman] and Josh [Drescher] going out and doing podcasts and doing all this community stuff. Look at where we are now. It's not because Warhammer has a history of great computer games based on it, Warhammer Fantasy. None of the fantasy games were really successful. 40K has been just a wonderfully successful product for THQ, but it's a slightly different market.
So we did the exact same thing. We went out to the fans. We went out to the community and talked and talked and talked to them some more. And here we are today. We're going to have a tremendous announcement, a couple of announcements, over the next week regarding how well we're selling already.
And so all of that is an indication that the policy--it's more than a policy in our case; it's our lifeblood of talking to the community, of being a part of it and giving them part of it from the beginning, including giving them our beta test incredibly early--works, if you have the right product and the right team. And I'm fortunate that I have guys like Paul and Jeff and Josh, who not only love Warhammer but who can go and talk with the same kind of passion that I have for it and a love for the IP and who are also very honest guys. And I have no doubt, truly zero, that that all helped play a large role to get us to where we are today.
Check back later this week to hear Jacob's thoughts on what needs to be done to capture mass-market adoption in the MMOG genre, why twitch-based combat wouldn't work in a game like Warhammer Online, and what developers can do to avoid the fate of Age of Empires developers Ensemble Studios.