If I Had a Hammer...
After years in development, the fantasy MMO Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will finally open its worlds for questing on Sept. 18. But its biggest battle won't be against a giant troll army or a pissy dragon; it will be against a monarch. Specifically, The Wrath of the Lich King, the newest expansion for World of Warcraft that's scheduled for release before the end of the year, and is sure to keep some people playing WoW for a while. Well, at least until they get their characters all up to level 80. Once they do, what will be waiting for them in the world of Warhammer? According to Mythic's Paul Barnett, the game's creative director, something that might just make them say, "Wow."
Crispy Gamer: For starters, how does this fit in with other games, computer and otherwise, in the Warhammer series?
Paul Barnett: Warhammer is an idea that is, at its heart, very similar to Batman, in that Batman is a bloke in a cape in Gotham with criminals, but Batman also changes -- sometimes he's dark, sometimes he's comedic, and sometimes he's made of LEGO. So we took the core cauldron of Warhammer and manifested it as a fantasy game.
Crispy Gamer: In terms of MMO gameplay, how does this compare?
Barnett: It's basically the greatest hits of modern MMOs. Eighty percent of what we do is standard MMO fare: We use levels, we have classes, we used the WASD key system, we have quests. Twenty percent is new, push-the-boundaries, crazy thinking. We have Public Quests, the Tome of Knowledge, and our realm-vs.-realm (RvR) system. So it should feel comfortable enough for MMO players, but will still have new features.
Crispy Gamer: What are Public Quests?
Barnett: They're a solution to one of the downfalls of modern MMOs. I want to do something epic, I want to do something cinematic, I want to do something that makes me feel good. But to do that, you have to find a group of people, you have to figure out a time to get them together, and you have to commit to a heavy amount of time to get something done. Public quests are these cinematic moments that are scattered around the land -- we have 300 of them -- that you can join at any time, they take about 15 minutes to complete, they always end with something epic and interesting, and there's always a bit of fat treasure at the end, though the game looks at how much you contributed and gives you the appropriate part of the reward.
Crispy Gamer: So it's kind of like a regular scheduled event? On Monday, November 17, there will be an attack on this castle, and if you're around, you can join in?
Barnett: Yes, except that they happen all the time. They reset every five minutes, so every 20 minutes they're back up. And you can join them at any time.
Crispy Gamer: So an event might start at the top of the hour, end at a quarter past, and then start again at 20 minutes past?
Barnett: Right. And you can join in at any stage.
Crispy Gamer: What is there to stop someone from just doing that one quest over and over?
Barnett: Nothing. Some people do that.
Crispy Gamer: Got it. Now explain the RvR system, please.
Barnett: RvR is Realm vs. Realm. Our game is about lots of people fighting lots of other people, about laying siege to a city, killing the king, and gloating. It's basically a game of gloating. So our RvR system is everywhere. You can play it from the moment you hit the ground, in campaigns, in scenarios, everywhere.
Crispy Gamer: Oh, so you can join in on some big Good versus Evil battles, then? Does what you do in them count as much, or more, than individual quests?
Barnett: It's different. When you fight non-player characters, it contributes to your standard level, or what we called Rank. When you fight other people, it contributes to your RvR Rank, and you can, if you want, play our game without ever fighting another person, or you can play it and only fight other people.
Crispy Gamer: Well, you can do that in other MMOs, too, but usually that means you're just running around, killing wolves and whatnot. I assume that's not what you mean.
Barnett: No, I'm talking about being able to go down into enormous dungeons where you'll kill demons, take on kings, end the careers of champions -- we've created a rich, vibrant world.
Crispy Gamer: Have you set caps for these levels yet?
Barnett: Yeah, the standard Rank cap is 40, and the RvR Rank cap is 80.
Crispy Gamer: I assume each of them have their own rewards?
Crispy Gamer: How many people can be in a battle at the same time?
Barnett: It's 200 vs. 200 when you're outside a city, and 100 vs. 100 when you're inside a city. It would be insane, but you could do it.
Crispy Gamer: Is there a command structure built into these armies, or is it going to be just a free-for-all with no strategy?
Barnett: People form up into battle groups and guilds, and we've found that the most successful versions of them use the chat system to control who goes where.
Crispy Gamer: That's something they do on their own, that's not built into the game, right?
Barnett: Right. In fact, giving that control to the players is the number-one way to ensure that it's done properly. If you impose a command structure, people will pretty much ignore it.
Crispy Gamer: Got it. What is The Tome of Knowledge?
Barnett: The Tome of Knowledge is a book that records what you've done, how you did it, and how quickly you did it. As you progress through the game, it unlocks story elements and background elements, it unfolds the world to you, and you can do things in the Tome of Knowledge.
Crispy Gamer: Does it work like Achievements on the Xbox 360?
Barnett: They're like Achievements, only much, much deeper because they unlock abilities, they give you items, and they give new things to do.
Crispy Gamer: So if you kill a dozen goblins, you'll unlock the ability to wield a goblin sword?
Crispy Gamer: All of this makes this sound like it's more of an action hack-and-slash game. How deep are the role-playing elements?
Barnett: Well, the skill-set customization is insanely large. There are three core paths to every career. You have your core career, then you have your three specialties, and each specialty comes with its own abilities, morale and tactics. So, for example, a Bright Wizards will have three different ways he can cast spells: He can be hit lots of things, he can one thing really hard, or he can hit things that are further away. I think someone ran the numbers, and you'd have to play the same career eight times, all the way through, before you've played every possible permutation.
Crispy Gamer: There are three armies on the good side (Dwarves, Humans and High Elves), and three on the bad side (Orcs and Goblins, Chaos, and Dark Elves). But are the two sides just opposites or mirror images of each other? Like are Dark Elves just High Elves who are jerks?
Barnett: They're not mirrors. There are 20 careers, which are based on four core jobs: hitting things from a distance, supporting people, fighting up close, and pets and things like that. But each of the careers has its own unique, distinct flavor. There's none where you'd go, "Oh, this is like that other career, just with different colors." To fully experience our game, you'd have to play all 20 careers.
Crispy Gamer: Now this is not your first MMO, you did Dark Age of Camelot, which came out in 2001. Has there been anything that you learned, maintaining Camelot over the years, that really informed things in Warhammer Online?
Barnett: There is a wisdom gained from building, launching, and supporting a game that you just can't get from talking to people or reading a book. Knowing how to keep a game live and active, what makes your customers stickier and what makes them leave -- these are hard-learned lessons, and Dark Age of Camelot has been a tremendous learning ground for us.
Crispy Gamer: How, in terms of the fantasy elements, do you think Warhammer is different from other fantasy MMOs?
Barnett: Well, the Warhammer world is rich, diverse and crazy. It's like fantasy worlds with the boring bits taken out. We took out things like item damage, running back to your dead body, and endless amounts of dull crafting.
Crispy Gamer: Any MMO is obviously going to be compared to World Of Warcraft, but do you actually think Warhammer should be compared to Warcraft or do you think it's actually closer to another MMO?
Barnett: If you make music, you'll eventually be compared to The Beatles. WoW changed the face of MMOs in terms of earnings, ease of use, and just the amount of people who played it. We're trying to be the next generation. So we're not trying to be The Beatles, we're trying to be Led Zeppelin.
Crispy Gamer: One of the criticisms of Warcraft is that it's a very basic MMO. Are you following a similar path in hopes of reaching a wide audience, or are you going for a more hardcore MMO crowd?
Barnett: I think you can play an awful lot of our game without being hardcore, but you can only play our top game? It's kind of like golf: Anyone can pick up a club and knock the ball around, but if you want to be Tiger Woods, you're going to have to be hardcore. If you want to excel at our game, you have to be hardcore, there's no easy answer. But if you just want to go and play, you can do that.
Crispy Gamer: What do you think your game does better than WoW?
Barnett: We look better, we do player-vs.-player better, we have the next generation of general game design, and we've got a really deep game world.
Crispy Gamer: "South Park" won an Emmy for their World of Warcraft episode?
Barnett: I was on "The Tonight Show"!
Crispy Gamer: You were?
Barnett: Yeah! Jay Leno did his monologue as one of our goblins.
Crispy Gamer: I didn't know that. Well, I was going to ask, if you could have any show do a Warhammer joke?
Barnett: We did it! We were on The Tonight Show! It was awesome.
Crispy Gamer: Okay, calm down. So, has there been any talk of doing a version for consoles?
Crispy Gamer: How about on Macs?
Barnett: We have no comment on that at the moment.
Crispy Gamer: Ah, man, no one ever makes cool games for the Mac.
Barnett: No, no, you didn't listen to what I said: We have no announcement to make on that at the moment.
Crispy Gamer: Hmmm?. Finally, I have to ask: how often have the marketing people suggested you call the game World of Warhammer?
Barnett: Ha! Never, although there is a wonderful book called "World of Warhammer" that came out about three years before World of Warcraft. It's interesting reading if you're a Warcraft fan.