Q&A: EA Mythic chief demystifies Warhammer Online delay

General manager Mark Jacobs discusses the recently announced delay of the long-in-the-making massively multiplayer game.

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As announced earlier today, the launch of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning has been delayed until the middle of 2008. The upcoming massively multiplayer game is in development at Virginia-based studio EA Mythic, and takes place in a dark fantasy world originally created by UK tabletop game studio Games Workshop. The highly anticipated game will feature "realm-versus-realm" competitive gameplay that lets players play as a high-fantasy character and participate in large-scale online battles.

Today's delay is the latest chapter in Warhammer Online's long trek to launch. It was first unveiled in 2000 by developer Climax and Microsoft, only to be briefly canceled four years later. Then, after Climax developed the game solo for a few months, independent developer Mythic Entertainment picked up the license in 2005. In 2006, Electronic Arts bought Mythic and renamed it EA Mythic.

What does the delay mean for Warhammer Online's future? GameSpot spoke with EA Mythic general manager Mark Jacobs to find out.

GameSpot: So, Mark. You have an announcement you'd like to discuss.

Mark Jacobs: As announced in my State of the Game address, and also by [EA CEO] John Riccitiello in our earnings call, we are pushing back the release of Warhammer until the first half of EA's 2008 fiscal year, which runs from April to September.

GS: Obviously, the next question is: Why?

MJ: Easy. The short answer would be that it's hard to make this kind of game. Now, for a more detailed answer. It really boils down to this: Our game is going to live and die by two things. One is realm-versus-realm (RvR) gameplay. The second is overall quality. This is not 1999, 1997, or even 2001. This is 2007. We have to be able to release a game that, in terms of quality--without even going into game systems or RvR--is top-notch. We've seen too many games in this industry, and in this space, release without that, and we're not going to do that.

In terms of RvR, the game's motto has always been "war is everywhere," so this game has always been focused on that aspect of gaming. One of the things that we found during beta was that certain aspects of our RvR system weren't everything that we wanted them to be. So we added open-field RvR. We've been looking at certain rule sets for different RvR servers. And that takes time.

The other thing is, and it really encompasses the entire game's development, is what the team's been doing--and doing a tremendous job with, by the way--is meeting all their milestones in terms of the amount of material to add to the game, whether it's content, quests, or systems. What they didn't meet in the milestones was the date. So, they'd get everything in, but it took a little longer, and as it took a little longer, we were faced with two obvious choices: We cut some polish, or we cut some features. And we made the decision, backed by EA, to make sure that all that polish is in there, and all those features are in there. And that's it.

GS: The first early warning for this development seemed to be when the beta shut down. What were the telltale signs did you see in beta that might have led to this?

MJ: Oh, that's easy. We have tons of metrics for this game. Unlike Dark Age of Camelot, where our tools were nonexistent, for measuring user satisfaction with surveys, taking the pulse of the beta, we came back with things like, "We want open-field RvR." "Some of the quests are really great, some aren't so great." And we took all that and said, "Well, we need more time." We need that polish time. One of the things I've been talking about is the difference between a game being feature-complete and content-complete. We were supposed to be at that stage at a certain point, and after that, we were going to have many, many months to polish.

Coming out of beta, we saw that we weren't going to have those months to polish, and you know, look, if the beta feedback had been "Hey, everything's fantastic, you guys rock," this delay wouldn't have happened. But we came out of beta saying, "Look, we need some time to polish, we need some time to iterate on things like RvR," and so, we took the action. That's the whole point of beta, right?

GS: So, in terms of making sure the game was up to snuff in terms of quality, and offered enough to be interesting to players in the current massively multiplayer landscape, in your opinion, what does a modern game of this sort have to offer?

MJ: The quality level, in my estimation, has to be better than Dark Age of Camelot, has to be better than EverQuest, better than EverQuest II. You need that kind of quality. I think it's very safe to say, and I know I've said this before publicly, that World of Warcraft set a bar for quality that surpassed any other MMO in the industry. Love the game, hate the game; I don't think there are very many people who can argue about the quality of that one.

So, we have to try to match that. We can't go back to rely on what we did in Camelot or what other games have done in the past. We have to try to meet or exceed that quality bar that Blizzard has set.

GS: But quality aside, is it even relevant to still try to create the kind of "be-all, end-all" sort of game that features player-versus-player (PvP) gameplay, and also player-versus-environment gameplay, and also crafting, and also guilds and in-depth community features, plus all the other things that the all-in-one games of yesteryear tried to offer?

MJ: I think that's really up to the companies. If they want to spend the time and money to build up a team that can pull it off, like Blizzard did, they're certainly free to do it. I don't think there's any bar that can't be overcome, or any level you can't beat, and it doesn't matter whether you're talking about Blizzard, or BioWare, or really, any company. Any time a game is great, somebody can always do better, and somebody usually comes along and does do better. So, I think it's really up to the company as to whether they want to try to reach that bar.

In our case, our focus, again, is RvR. It's the hobby of Warhammer. What we're trying to do is deliver a really great game focused heavily on RvR. That's going to be one of our "hooks." If the RvR in our game isn't great, everything we hope it will be, then it isn't going to be a great game. So, are we trying to put in absolutely everything that Blizzard has, especially now with Burning Crusade on the market? No, I think that would be a mistake. Are we looking to focus on the things we know we can do well, and throw in some new innovations and twists that we hope players will enjoy? Absolutely.

GS: In your opinion, what is it about the competitive RvR experience that gets people excited?

MJ: Well, we can't talk about some things, obviously, but some of the things we have talked about is the sacking of the cities. We think that the fun that people will have and the rewards they'll earn, and the challenges that are involved in sacking a city, are unlike any other RvR or PvP game that we know of...in the West. [Laughs.] I can't swear that's true for games in Asia as well, but I do know that in North America and Europe, on the MMO side, our RvR experience is going to set a new standard for fun. And we hope that will encourage players to keep coming back for more.

GS: Aside from the fact that the massively multiplayer audience has matured, and now there is a sizeable population of veterans who might look for a hardcore competitive experience, how will Warhammer Online appeal to beginners and get them to buy into competitive RvR play, beyond the usual experience of getting yelled at by hyperactive 12-year-olds who play competitive games day and night?

MJ: [Laughs.] We've done it right before, and we might, as you say, be seen as a hardcore company that makes hardcore games like Dark Age of Camelot, though of course, for the true hardcore players, we were seen as "Care Bears" compared to the Shadowbanes of the world. On the other hand, our game worked.

What we're hoping to do with the RvR experience, through the multiple ways you can get into RvR, or even the competitive PvE aspects of the game, is get people in from the beginning. Now, this won't be the equivalent of Dark Age of Camelot's open RvR system, where in that game, a 10th-level player who ventured into the frontiers would get his butt kicked time after time by the "gank squads." No, you're not going to have that.

We're going to get players into RvR much more safely in more evenly matched situations where they will not be up against guys who can take advantage of them time and time again. That's something we need, especially in what we're calling the "core RvR rule set." That's what a lot of players want. There is no "one type" of player, as you know. Some like really hardcore PvP environments where you can kill anyone, others like PvP for "realm pride," where you're just fighting for Hibernia or the Empire, or Midgard or the Greenskins, you want to believe in your side and fight for your side. So, we're going to have that as well.

And then there are the players who are scared of RvR because, as you say very astutely, [laughs] sometimes it is the hyperactive 12-year-olds who form these gank squads, or have just played the game constantly so they know every trick, so a lot of these players won't even venture in. What we're trying to do is make it a bit fairer at times to get them in. And then, when they go to true open RvR, or the sacking of cities, they'll have the experience, and I hope they'll lose some of the fear, of RvR. But it's important to keep in mind that Warhammer is being designed [for] even if you don't want to RvR. We've said from the beginning, if you want to PvE your way up from the ground up, you can. There will not be as much content as in RvR, because RvR is a never-ending thing, but there will be plenty. The directive from me in the design from the beginning has always been that any player playing any character class, of any race, should be able to PvE their way up to the top of the system, even if they don't want to engage in RvR. But, we encourage them to. We reward them for it. We give them an environment that's conducive to RvR. And we think that'll go over very well with the entire community.

GS: What can you tell us about the development schedule of the game from here on out? Will we have another beta before launch?

MJ: I can tell you everything. Just as we said when we closed the beta, we had always planned to close beta. We've closed betas before. We'll close it again when we start the next process. We didn't close it because we got all this bad feedback--not at all. We got tremendously positive feedback on certain things.

The reason we closed is because, if you've seen our beta-forum discussion boards, and you see our guys responding and reading, we were starting to chase our tails a little bit. Guys would say, "Oh no, this is important. Or, this is important." We had to go back over all the feedback and metrics we got and take a deep, hard look at the game and figure out what to do next.

In terms of moving forward, we're still on track. This delay announcement has absolutely no effect on our reopening of beta we have planned for December. When we shut it down, we said December. Now with the delay, we're still saying December. These are absolutely unconnected events.

I can tell you that for the first month of beta, we're going to focus on certain aspects of the game. What we wanted to do was test out some key things, and test the stability of the game, which just like Dark Age of Camelot, came through with flying colors other than one bad night. [Laughs.] Other than that, the game was stable, the systems worked really nicely.

Now is the time to give players certain new aspects of the game, and say, "OK guys, beat up on this for a week or two." Then we shut it down for a few days, or a week. Then bring them something new. Then shut it down again. Then we'll reopen for the guild beta. Once we let the guilds in, we may shut down as well, because sometimes with a game like this, we get so much information that we just have to stop and say, "OK, let's take a deep breath, and let's talk about it."

GS: Aside from all that, this game has always seemed like a bit of a juggling act, since it's not just working with a new publisher, but also, with someone else's well-known, well-established intellectual property. Can you give us an update on where Games Workshop stands with the delay?

MJ: First, the relationship with Games Workshop is fantastic. These guys have been my friends for years, even before we did this deal. It's hard to say that we have the "perfect" relationship, because no relationship is ever perfect, but man, let me tell you, it is as close as you can get. We are in touch with everybody, up to the CEO and chairman of the board, and we talk to them. We're friends with them. They come stay at the house! It's all good.

So, in terms of the delay, they basically asked me, "Let's see if we have this right. You're going to invest more money, and more time, to make us a better game." And I said, "Yup!" And they said, "Great. Don't see a problem with it." That was the entire conversation regarding the delay. They couldn't be happier with us, because not only are they in touch on a corporate basis in terms of approvals and marketing and things like that--it's also on a personal basis for them. They're fully briefed and prepped for anything we do, and they're playing the game and loving it. They're continually astounded by our ability to bring to life things that they might not have been able to because they aren't computer gamers. So when they go in and see Altdorf, or the Inevitable City, which some of these guys have only seen in their dreams, and they get to walk around and play in it--oh my god, they're happy!

GS: Anything else to add about the game?

MJ: Nobody likes news of a delay. We're not happy with it. Nobody is. But when the delay is used so that we can build a better game, a more glorious game, a game that will give players what they want, then I think we have to look at this as a very good thing. Especially in light of other games that have launched because they didn't have the time, or the backing from their corporate parents, and the games--really, everything--suffered as a result of that. We have the support of EA, we have the support of our CEO, and thanks to all that, and thanks to the hard work of all the guys at Mythic, we're going to deliver something great.

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