WAR is almost upon us. This Thursday one of the most anticipated MMORPGs ever will be released - Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. And to celebrate this momentous occasion we caught up with creative director Paul Barnett to get the low down on a game that developer Mythic hopes will prize players away from the behemoth that is World of Warcraft. Will the launch of the game go smoothly? Will there be a console version? Will it be better than WoW? Read on to find out...
VideoGamer.com: Your fans are loyal but also vociferous in their comments. How have you gone about tackling how vocal they really can be?
Paul Barnett: We've been in beta for a long long long time. We do targeted beta where we open up very particular parts of the game and get feedback from it. We get feedback from the forums and we also get feedback in the game. We also take a load of statistical data so we can tell the difference between anecdotal evidence and actual proof. People say things like 'we don't like the dungeon in chapter three'. Then you check and find out that actually it's always populated, there's always people in it, it's got a huge turnover. So we're able to counterbalance what they say with what we've actually proved.
What we then do is we're brave enough and smart enough to go 'players really don't like that, we should change that'. So we've been changing the whole thing, and tweaking and testing and cutting and ditching things throughout the entirety of the beta to try and make it better or worse. We try and put all the information on the Herald. We try and put really cool patch notes in that explain what we're doing. We try to do interviews like this. Examples of new stuff that we've been doing is we've improved our AI pathing. When we improved it we totally broke it so it was crap. And then it was up in beta, quite rightly people said 'what's wrong with the AI pathing? It's gone crap'. So we quite rightly fixed it again. We went 'oh sorry about that'. We changed the way RvR rewards were put into the game because people were saying they didn't like them and as soon as we changed it everyone said 'oh no bring the old one back'. We try to moderate everything with fairness and fun factor.
VideoGamer.com: What's the most important lesson you've learnt from the beta testing of the game?
PB: Tell people what you're doing. Tell them often. Admit when you've done stuff that's stupid. If you're going to allow people to talk to you then prove that you're listening and give them feedback. That's the lesson with the community. With the actual game, keep soft launching the game so you can bang out all the crazy bugs.
VideoGamer.com: European players have experienced some difficulties regarding getting into the open beta...
PB: Very generous of you to use the word difficulties.
VideoGamer.com: And there are some concerns that there may be similar difficulties when the game officially launches this Thursday. Is there anything you can say to reassure fans that everything will work?
PB: Are you talking about things like the signing up validation issues?
PB: That was one of those things where you go 'it's definitely going to work, everything on paper says it's going to work, oh my God it's melted!'. It's better that it happened in the sign up beta period than it happened live. What it did do was make a lot of humble pie, and a lot of knuckles got wrapped and a lot of people were told to make sure it never ever happens again. So thank the lords, the Lords of Chaos, that it didn't happen on live live, it only happened on pretend live. Everyone's working really hard, and if it happens again we're going to feed people to sharks. Probably German sharks because they would be very efficient. We're very unhappy that it was bumpy. We're happy that we've punished people and tried really hard to do it better.
VideoGamer.com: With Age of Conan there was somewhat of a miracle patch when the game was finally released. Is that something that Warhammer Online needs?
PB: The nature of these games is they're always getting tweaked and changed and altered and mixed around with. There will almost definitely be a patch on launch day. It's not like a normal game. In a normal game you go gold and then you go bye game, bye players, we'll never see you again. What happens with our game is you have to go gold because you've got to make a product but actually you never stop working on the game. There won't be a miracle patch because the game is actually all right. What there will be is tons and tons of the usual free content, update stuff and there will be one on launch day I have no doubt.
VideoGamer.com: We've seen the first reviews filtering through online. I've seen an 8/10. Are you pleased with that?
PB: No. You can't review a game before it's out, giving it 8/10 is peculiar. I would prefer people to do a preview, out of the box, buy the game, we think it's this, and then do a review later on where they go 'if you're expecting to pay money for this for the rest of your life we rate it as blah blah'. You've got to have a launch which has got to go well. You've got that huge spike where you get too many users in the areas and it doesn't really feel very good. You get server queues, it doesn't matter who you are. And the proof of the pudding of a long term subscription is whether or not they kept their promises. Is there enough of the game built? Are they doing updates? Do they actually give a damn? Do they actually hang together properly? These are the things that really matter if you're going to take up these hobbies. So I'd prefer the reviews to wait a little bit. That's where I am on that one.
VideoGamer.com: From our point of view reviewing MMOs is problematic because the interest is during launch week, but it's hard to judge it before the players have bedded in. Can you understand these difficulties?
PB: Oh absolutely. I've got a ton of sympathy - your readers are expecting information, they're expecting it early, you're a point of reference, you're a part of their moral code of conduct, you're an influence into their purchase habits, there's a lot of trust and faith gone into you and a lot of people don't want to wait, they want it here, now, what you think. I think it's really really difficult. I think if you judge our game as a launch game then I would say certain things are true. One, it's very stable for a launched MMO. Two, we have a track record in our beta of doing a lot of updates, a lot of improvement. Three, we've got a good track record of listening to people and applying fun factor changes rather than bizarre designer changes. Four, if you already play these games and it feels comfortable, there's a lot of user friendly stuff that you expect from other games, like that Woah game I keep hearing about. Five, if you're already a Woah player then I would say our game at launch versus their game at launch, we're a better game at launch than they were. Our game at launch compared to their game now? Well, it's a little unfair. We've got a little more running to do, but we have brought lots of cool innovation.
So the sort of stuff I would expect reviews to pump out would be stuff like 'if you're a WoW player why would you change? There's no item damage, because that's dull. There's no running back from graveyards, because that's dull. Your inventory bags get bigger as you fill it so you don't have to go buy one from some pretend plastic famous person. That's quite cool. Our PvP is actually very jolly. You can customise our interface. You don't want a map up there then move it or delete it. We've got mods obviously'. Stuff like that. I think that's basically all you could really review right now. Oh and public quests because they're new and cool.
VideoGamer.com: So you would prefer reviews to come out after a month or so?
PB: I think that people need to say here is our experience of beta, or our experience of how are they as a developer, how are they as a company who give a damn about their game. Here is our experience about launch. It was bumpy, it was smooth, the servers were up, the servers were down. And then the third part is if you ever thought of migrating, now the game's up and playing, here's what we think about it.
VideoGamer.com: Now that the open beta is coming to an end, how many people applied across the world?
PB: We had over a million people who signed up for it. I don't know the exact number. That's one of the irritatingly not at my fingertips numbers.
VideoGamer.com: But over a million is an amazing amount. You must be thrilled.
PB: Oh yeah. We're actually really really pleased with loads of stuff. We're pleased with the length of time beta players are playing our game. We're pleased with the amount of people who have logged in who have then subsequently logged in over 10 times in a week, showing that they're returning. We're very pleased with the sticky factor - people who log in and play over four hours are on the whole playing for tens of hours to hundreds of hours. We're pleased with the longevity of the careers. People are taking just a little longer to level in our game than people are used to and combat is a little bit more tactical than people are used to. And that's because quite a few of the modern games that are out are very mature. If you have a mature game you effectively need to speed build characters. WoW's latest one allows you to get to level 70 in something absurd like two days. But that's because they're trying to get you to their end game. When you're actually playing a proper MMO that's new, there is a longer period of time it takes to level because you're supposed to be playing it and enjoying it. We're pleased with the fairness we've been getting off reviews. No complaints there.
VideoGamer.com: Were you expecting over a million people to apply to the open beta or did the number exceed your expectations?
PB: Oh wow! As a creative director, I have a completely different view of the game to almost anyone else. I believe that it will take us to the moon, solve climate change and probably cure every form of cancer known to man. So I'm not surprised. Businessey people, I think they're just very happy. EA shareholders will hopefully be very happy as well. As long as we can convert them into sales and then convert them into long term hobbyists, I'm happy.
VideoGamer.com: What's the conversion rate from people who buy to people who subscribe you're expecting?
PB: I believe Camelot worked on 70 per cent. I would hope that we would do at least that well or improve on it.
VideoGamer.com: So you're looking at a fairly healthy amount of paying subscribers then.
PB: Millions and millions if I have my way!
VideoGamer.com: What's your immediate post-launch plans?
PB: There are two different answers. We have three teams at the company, we have a core team whose job it is to make the servers work better, make the plan work better, put new features in. We have a live team, which is the team that works on the game that's live, fixing bugs, adding new content, making it a better extended hobby. We have an expansion team. They're busy working on the next expansion for the game. All three teams exist right now. All three teams have existed for quite a long time. The expansion team has been working on expansions for ages. The live team is already up and running and core tech are already on the core systems. That's how you protect these games when they get out of the door.
VideoGamer.com: The studio lead of Stargate Worlds told us in a recent interview that in order to challenge WoW you need a license. Do you subscribe to that belief?
PB: I would say that it's like Premier League football. If you want to be in the top four then you probably do. But there's nothing stopping a small team coming up from the lower leagues and surprising people. But there's definitely a chasm and to cross that chasm requires several things. Timing, license, tech, luck, presence, force of will and cups of tea.
VideoGamer.com: Are there any licenses you'd fancy having a crack at in terms of an MMO?
PB: Space Hulk. I'd rock if I did that.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think you'll get the chance one day?
PB: Well I don't know I think the license is with THQ (laughs). Not unless I suddenly transfer to THQ, no!
VideoGamer.com: It's a shame. There's a lot of fans who would love that.
PB: Oh I tell you what Space Hulk would tear it up. I wouldn't do 40K straight because it's too complicated. But Space Hulk that's a great start.
VideoGamer.com: Why is a 40K MMO too complicated?
PB: Personally, it's a very very broad license, it's a very very big world. It's an entire galaxy and it's hard to realise something so enormous. So I would realise a part of the 40K world. You'd do Inquisitors, or you'd do, well I'd do Space Hulk, if I could do anything. It would still be 40K, it would still rock, it would still be awesome. But it would be of a scale that I could tackle.
VideoGamer.com: Does Mythic have capacity to try its hand on another MMO at the same time as Warhammer Online?
PB: Oh crikey. I don't put anything past the force of will of Mark Jacobs. If he suddenly decides we're going to do something else then we'll do it. We basically take all our guidance from his volcanic creativity. When he decides we do something we do it.
VideoGamer.com: Has he ever indicated to you a license that he'd like to try next perhaps?
PB: Mark plays all of that pretty close to his chest. He generally doesn't want to talk about something unless he wants to commit. I've talked to him about several ideas he's talked about but nothing that I think he wants to talk about publicly yet.
VideoGamer.com: Are you guys going to do a boxed expansion model like WoW or will you make everything available through downloadable content.
PB: I don't know. Thankfully as creative director I know very little about commerce, profitability, the law. Yeah I'm sure we will do whatever is necessary to maximise shareholder value while increasing content for long term subscriber life cycle. How's that?
VideoGamer.com: That's very good. You mentioned you've got an expansion team. How long before we might see something from them?
PB: Probably in keeping with standard internet MMO logic. WoW said 12 months, it took two-and-a-half years. Other teams do them every couple of months. It will be what fits for purpose, would be the answer.
VideoGamer.com: You guys already have ideas about what's going to be in the expansion?
PB: Well we have more than ideas, we have people working on it. Concept art, areas being built, careers, all sorts of stuff is being done.
VideoGamer.com: What about classes? Is that something that could come in an expansion?
PB: Definitely. There's a whole world of Warhammer out there. I love the Skaven. We haven't gone near Lustria, we've got vampires, Bretonnians, there's all sorts of crazy bonkers madness out there and we intend to dig through all of it.
VideoGamer.com: When am I getting my console version?
PB: We had a good look at the console about two years ago. The position we ended up with was it would have to be a different game. That's basically where we ended up with our thinking. And then Mark basically went 'I don't want to think about it yet. Stop thinking about it'. If Mark wakes up and decides we're going to do a console version then you'll get one as fast as possible. Just write a letter direct to Mark. 'I would very much like a console version. Please please please make one. Make it for this console'. He'll probably write back to you then and let you know. He's very good like that. Read his blog.
VideoGamer.com: I have been. It's been entertaining reading in the last month or so.
PB: He's an entertaining guy!
VideoGamer.com: This close to launch there will still be some people who are still on the fence. What message do you have to those people?
PB: Are they WoW heads?
VideoGamer.com: Not necessarily. They might have played it in the past and might be waiting for the next expansion.
PB: It's easier to get into than ever. They're fun and compelling but they're definitively a hobby. It's a hobby experience. If you've got the time and you've got the inclination then they're great great fun. Give it a try.
VideoGamer.com: And if they're WoW heads?
PB: If they're WoW heads then I would say no item damage, no graveyard running, your bag gets bigger, you can customise your UI, the PvP is awesome, the PvE experience is still really really good, there's lots of cool dungeons, there's lots of grouping, and there's Squig Herders darn it, Squig Herders I say!
VideoGamer.com: That's great Paul thanks for your time.
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is due out for PC this Thursday.