Crispy Gamer

On Call With Warhammer Online

Despite the fact that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning has seen its release date pushed back twice, the development team remains in high spirits, as was evident in our recent conference call with some of the folks at EA Mythic. In fact, they sound downright giddy as feedback continues to pour in from the closed beta test, where select (read: lucky) gamers are hammering away at specific areas of the game -- and they love what they are hearing from the testers. They're also more than a bit mental, so perhaps the giddiness is a result of that; it's hard to tell.

Turns out, the beta test is going well and the feedback has been essential. Senior Producer Jeff Hickman rustled through a stack of papers, looking for a sample of the feedback he received the previous night.

"The terrain is incredible, guys, great work," said an anonymous Level 40 Dark Elf/Witch Elf. "The art looks exactly how I would have expected. RvR is amazing!" We can only assume that the negative bits were not brought to the meeting.

This call served a few purposes. First, it was to dispel any rumors that the game will suffer from another delay, as the entire team emphatically stated (loudly and in unison) that the date was a firm "fall 2008." The second reason was to give the media a general state of the game -- where it is in its development, what has changed, and to reemphasize what will make Warhammer stand out from a bloated MMO landscape.

The Camelot Difference

One of the fears is that the game will be basically a rehash of Dark Age of Camelot, only with Warhammer window dressing. When this was brought up, Creative Director and Town Crier Paul Barnett chimed in. "We know what we're doing! We understand how RvR works!" Laughter ensued.

Senior Producer Jeff Hickman, as usual, offered more detail:

"We learned a lot from Dark Age of Camelot as far as how to balance out realms, how to balance out population, how to balance out classes, what's fun and what's not, what players enjoy doing in short bursts and in long bursts. A lot of the stuff we are doing with Warhammer is derived from what we did with Camelot -- a lot of things we would have liked to do when we were making Camelot, but couldn't. Warhammer really builds upon that great foundation that Camelot put in place for us, but it differs greatly.

"Where Camelot was one frontier, Warhammer is three different battlefronts, battles raging across the world; not only in open-world realm-vs.-realm where you can fight your enemy in unmatched combat, never knowing exactly what you are getting into, but also in 'scenarios,' which are evenly matched instanced combat -- there are over 30 of these in the game. So you have all of these ways to play the RvR game, and it culminates in these great city sieges where you literally can attack your enemy's capital city, ransacking and looting, going for the ultimate prize."

"The Squig Herder was never in Camelot!" yelled Barnett. "The Witch Hunter has never been in Camelot!"

Hickman continued, "We had a very sound design in place for RvR when we started making Warhammer, and we drove for probably two years with that design. As we put it into beta the players really liked it but they wanted more, they were looking back at Dark Age of Camelot and they were saying 'Where are our keeps and where are our sieges?' This is the middle of last year ? We had great open-world warfare and great battlefield objectives in the open world but we didn't have keep siege, and when the players went in they pretty much demanded it, we listened to them. The sieges fit really well with what we are doing, and it's awesome."

The State of the Game

The team just finished testing the game's "mid-level elven content" and they're currently testing the high-level campaign game -- the highest realm-vs.-realm areas -- specifically the areas where the Empire battles the forces of Chaos and where Chaos attempts to put the Empire capital of Altdorf under siege.

During the call, much was made about sieges. It turns out that it isn't just about running full steam ahead at a large city gate, bashing it down, running in, and fighting the forces inside the walls. It plays out like a full-blown, well, siege -- complete with siege equipment (War Machines). There's also a bit of skill involved as Barnett compared it to, of all things, playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour. When using a catapult, for example, you have to worry about the wind effects and you need to time your "shot" so to speak. It's like its own little mini-game.

There are various War Machines available, each with a distinct function and purpose. The battering ram, obviously, destroys gates; cauldrons of boiling oil are used to drop said oil on people at the gates -- presumably the buggers using the battering rams. There are indirect fire machines like the catapult and mortars which are used to target large groups of enemies and more precise, direct fire War Machines like the Elven Bolt Thrower and the Chaos Hellcannon, which aims directly at enemy War Machines. It all sounds like a fairly straightforward process, but one with a lot of moving parts.

One Orc Making a Difference

Sieges are a key part of the game, but one feature that was repeatedly stressed was that every playable component is part of the game's big picture. Everything contributes to the war effort, from the player who lives and dies playing realm-vs.-realm battles to the loner who only wants to play the game solo and not be bothered by other players -- it all ties together.

Player-vs.-environment aides in the effort by allowing zone control of a region -- some specific content will only be available if a group has control of a certain zone so the RvR players will rely on the PvE players to do their thing (and vice versa). If they don't, everyone will miss out on playing certain areas and the benefits therein, so it's going to be important that the side you are on is "winning" the war if you want to get to this otherwise "hidden" content.

Barnett is an avid solo PvE player and had much to say on the subject. "My boy, who is 10 and dead clever, is a finger ninja, which means, whenever he plays his computer games he annihilates his dad, relentlessly ? and laughs and won't ever let me live it down. As a result, I have a complete aversion to player vs. player. I don't want to do it because my 10-year-old boy will kill me a lot. So I like going off and being heroic on my own. What I like about our game is that I can play like that. I am left alone, I have a complete game experience, and I am one of the malcontents who just want to do PvE. But I can level all the way through the game, I can kill giants, I can take on dragons, I can help with the war effort, and when a city does fall, I can go in and do all sorts of crazy quests. Solo is the only way I play because I hate everybody! And I have a great time!"

Crafting will also contribute to the war effort but once again the details are being kept, for the most part, under wraps. Cryptic hints were thrown out like the fact that one of the crafting screens was green and had a plant on it. You may drink things ? and fungus is involved. Oh, and Jeff Hickman's wife loves the crafting system. That's about it. "You can't make sausages -- unless they're poison sausages, I guess. We don't have time for bakers and candlestick makers, but we're OK on butchers," said Barnett.

Guild Wars

One of the more intriguing parts of the call focused on the game's guild system. One of the key things that the team wanted to avoid was using a guild as simply another chat channel or a list of players with whom you are familiar. Like everything else in the game -- there's a bit more to it than that.

Turns out, your guild earns experience in a similar fashion to a regular PC. The team calls it a "living guild" system. Guilds can unlock "banners" and can customize their appearance, which doesn't sound too novel until you learn that you can slam these banners into the ground and use them as an area of effect rallying point during a battle. Guilds can also claim a keep to use as a central HQ. Systems are in place, although no specifics were given, to prevent huge guilds with loads of members from dominating over smaller ones. We'll just have to wait and see how the team handles this.

Senior Designer Josh Drescher went into further detail. "The game is cooperative in that you are playing with other people, and it's competitive in that you are playing against other people. So from a very early stage in the game we try to introduce you to the idea of cooperative social gameplay. Even as you are running through things like the Public Quests, that's a subtle way of teaching you to play well with others, because later on you are going to need to organize more and more to accomplish things in the game.

"Conveniently, the maximum size of an individual group is the minimum size of one of our guilds. So the group that you joined to do a Public Quest may lead you directly into forming a guild. Once you form a guild you can accomplish more and more significant things in the world. Eventually those guilds can get together into larger groups called 'alliances.' We have a lot of structures within the guild system that we'll be touching on the coming months that will make it very easy to do those large group alliance level strategies. We wanted to make sure that it's not going to be a second full-time job participating in a guild -- we want it to make sense, work easily, and get you into the world fighting and killing people instead of scheduling things and doing spreadsheets."

Barnett then yelled, "Put your pants back on!"

It was that kind of conference call.

Odds and Ends

An interesting point was made about the "hardcore" gamer. What is audience is EA Mythic targeting? Is it the mass appeal of the mainstream or the hard-nosed "lifer" gamer?

Hickman took a stab. "We're targeting everybody. It's not about what you can get, it's about how long it takes you to get it. It's about commitment and being skillful at playing the game. The city sieges, for example, are about a lot of people but they are not about big, giant raids. You can literally walk into a city alone because there will be people there to fight alongside. Everything is accessible to everybody."

In this case, it was Barnett who made the specific point. "There is an obsession with designers to build (their games) for the top 10 percent because they are very loud and they are very successful ... and that actually leads you to doom and destruction. When you build, say, a golf course, you could build a course so only Tiger Woods can play on it, but that would be madness. Instead, you build a good golf course and if Tiger Woods decides to play on it ... he's going to score huge, but everyone else is going to have a damn good game. It's the same sort of logic. We build our endgame so that it's fun and compelling and attractive ? and a great hobby. If you're in the 10 percent ... one of those people who are just incredibly clever and quick-thinking and obsessive and brilliant, then you are probably going to excel at it, but that's OK because everyone will treat it as a jolly good time."

The Public Quests

If you have followed the development of Warhammer Online you know all about the Public Quest system. Basically, it's a way for people in the same area to band together to complete multi-tiered objectives, earn cool loot, and help the war effort.

A few more tidbits were given during the call. There are over 300 of these quests in the game -- so many that even the producers haven't seen them all and find new ones from time to time. They are the keys to telling the story of each specific zone and they run the gamut from simply fighting the undead to more political missions all the way to the standard "save the princess" missions -- but if you're on the side of Chaos, you get to do the kidnapping.

Jeff Hickman described an example quest to us all. "I went into a Public Quest that I hadn't seen yet. We were playing in Tier 3 Empire vs. Chaos and I was playing a Witch Hunter. I came upon a quest, and it was this Chaos ruins, and there were a bunch of Chaos Zealots there gathering up these stones of power. So the people in the Public Quest area, friends and people who I didn't even know, we had to first kill all of the Zealots that were there and then we had to pick up all of the stones; after we did that, the quest stepped into the next phase.

"We got rewards for doing the first phase, and then in the next phase these Chaos Sorcerers emerge and start summoning all these demons, so you have to kill them as fast as you can before they summon too many of them. At the same time this is happening, this Chaos Magus on a Chaos Disc of Tzeentch all of a sudden comes flying over your head and starts to hover above you. After you kill all of the Sorcerers, the Magus starts summoning all of these Flamers of Tzeentch. After you kill them, he comes down for the final battle. I did the quest four of five times. Each public quest is something like this."

Game Balance

In a realm-vs.-realm game, balance is always a potential issue. If one side continues to dominate the other, it can lead to high levels of frustration for the losing faction. If the orcs are continually being beaten down by the dwarfs, that has the potential to throw the entire balance off-kilter.

Adam Gershowitz, the "careers lead" on the game, addressed this. "One of the things we're doing is that you get rewards for winning, but the longer a zone is under the control of the winning side we start doing little things to bring the 'losers' up to par. Things like slowly expanding the number of guards that they have, slowly taking the winning side's advantage away. We're not trying to punish you for being successful; we're trying to make sure you get the feeling that the competition is always lively and interesting, and there are things we'll do to try and encourage population and class balance."

Barnett offered up more on the class balance. "People always say, 'What if everyone decides to play one side?' In every trial we've done, it's balanced out. It's frightening. It's almost as though we have made all of the sides compelling and interesting and we have made the combat and RvR so good and so balanced that people have said it doesn't really matter ? I'll just go slaughter people, kill a king, get a new hat, get a pig hat! Ride around on my wolf! [everyone howls] Which is awesome! Then we send all of these reams of data to Adam and say it's not balanced, and he rebalances it."

That Big Picture

Finally, Jeff Hickman ended the call. "Since we are focusing on certain areas, it is very rare that anyone sees the entirety of our game. People don't understand the real depth of what we're doing. There are so many layers of things to do, places to see, rewards, advancement? People often ask us, 'Well, you level from 1 to 40 and then what?' And I just laugh. Our game is not about leveling from 1 to 40. It's about leveling up your guild, going through the campaign, getting one of 20-plus armor sets ? it's a total hobby experience."

"It's very difficult to try to explain because we talk about things like guilds, and people say, 'Yeah we have guilds,' and I say no, no you don't understand, you can level up your guild, assign standard bearers, claim keeps, and we have many other special things we haven't even talked about, yet. There is just so much depth, I wish everybody could see all of the great stuff that we're doing."

Well, Mr. Hickman, we'll all get a chance to see it soon enough -- in fact, in the fall of 2008.