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Preparing for WAR: Mark Jacobs on Launching Warhammer Online

Warhammer Online is perhaps the most-anticipated MMO debut since World Of Warcraft, and Gamasutra catches up with Mythic GM Mark Jacobs, post-launch, to reveal initial results, comments on the competition, and more.

After over three years of development, Mythic Entertainment last week officially launched its latest MMO, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. The game represents a considerable investment into the Blizzard-dominated MMO space by parent company Electronic Arts -- not to mention a strong vote of confidence in Mythic, which was allowed numerous development delays.

The game was released with few hitches, so few in fact that Mythic believes Warhammer can claim the smoothest MMO launch to date. Of course, far after the launch period has passed, Mythic will still have to contend with the World of Warcraft behemoth, a game to which some MMO players say Warhammer is not distinct enough. But Mythic is confident in its "realm versus realm" mechanic of large-scale player warfare, which it debuted in its 2001 MMO Dark Age of Camelot.

Gamasutra caught up with Mythic co-founder and GM Mark Jacobs the day after launch to discuss the release, the state of the MMO market today, and why he's "not afraid of WoW." Also on tap are amusing anecdotes about the rogue UPS truck that took down Dark Age of Camelot, and the eerie parallels between Mythic and Funcom in 2001 and 2008.

Mythic's claim is that Warhammer Online represents "the smoothest MMO launch to date." How do you back that up tangibly?

Mark Jacobs: You can measure a launch in a number of ways. Usually, the first way people measure a launch is, does the game stay up? Since last Sunday, when we began our "head start," which allowed in up to 60,000 of the collector's editions -- because that's how many we sold -- plus a lot of our older players, to Tuesday, not a single crash. Not a crash of the game, not a crash of any of the servers.

Then we started the second phase of the head start, for our standard edition, and that was a little under 48 hours. No crashes of the game; no crashes of the individual servers. [On Thursday,] we started the official opening for everyone. Again, no crashes of the game; no crashes of an individual server. The only time we took it down was [Friday morning] to put up a server patch, and it was actually back up before schedule.

From that metric, I think it's a really safe assumption that we have the smoothest launch. If you've played any of the other MMOs, if you look at downtime due to crashes or maintenance, there's no comparison.

We launched Dark Age of Camelot back in 2001, and it was regarded as one of the most successful launches of all time. We like to think it was the most successful; the guys at Turbine like to think Asheron's [Call] was. I think we were a little bit better than them. The only problem we had that time was when somebody parked a truck on our internet.

What?

MJ: Uh... A UPS truck. If you go back seven years, we had Mythic Entertainment, an independent company with one month to go before we ran out of money, launching Dark Age of Camelot. Because we had very little money, and because of a certain internet provider who we won't name, they couldn't install a hard line between our customer service and development buildings.

Saying "customer service building" and "development building" is one of the great overstatements of all time, since we had 24 developers in one building, and in CS I think 15. They were townhouse offices.

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Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot

So we couldn't get them to install internet. We were thinking, "This is great. We're a month away from launch, and our CS department can't connect to the game." We came up with -- I don't know if they're still available -- point-to-point satellite internet dishes. You take the two dishes, and you point them at each other, and you share the internet connection. We put one dish in one window, put the other dish in the other building's window, and we did it on a street where you weren't supposed to park.

The game goes up; not a hitch. All day, numbers are going up, and we're starting to get excited: "Okay, we have a shot at this." Around six o'clock, the numbers stop going up. The game doesn't crash, but the numbers aren't going up. Then they start going down. But the game's up. We log in, and the game's looking fine; people are playing, no issue. The numbers keep going down, the game thinks it's fine, and people are playing, so it must be that people can't get back in.

We're trying to figure it out, when one of our guys comes into the office and says, "You need to look out the window." There's a UPS truck parked illegally in front of the CS building, and it parked right on our internet. The internet was bouncing off the UPS truck.

So the CS department couldn't get to the game, the game realized that, and shut down the external login servers. Internally, we could log right in, but the CS app thought, "I better stop people from getting in," so it shut itself down. CS couldn't tell us something was wrong, because to them it just looked like nobody was sending in any [troubleshooting] tickets.

It was bizarre. So bizarre. That's how we lost our internet. That was the only time our game went down. We had to take down the game, and get the UPS guy to move his Goddamn truck, which he did.

So here we are now, almost a week into Warhammer.

No trucks running over your internet.

MJ: No! We have a real building this time. Our servers are nice and safe in one of the most secure facilities in the country. That can't happen. It's hurricane-proof; it's wonderful.


How are Warhammer's numbers?

MJ: We should figure it again, but as of [Thursday] night, we had more people playing the game at the same time in North America than we ever had in Dark Age of Camelot. We have the numbers now to back it up -- so it's not just, "Well, you guys had a nice head start."

No -- we now have more than Camelot ever had, by about 50 percent. That's a significant increase. When you also look at our downtime -- only one patch in almost seven days -- that's a pretty tough record to beat when you look at the launches of every other MMO, including WoW. Especially WoW.

Can you give that figure?

MJ: No; publicly-traded company. Wish I could. But I can say it was about 50 percent higher than what we had in Camelot.

So what's the official word on the head start grace period -- the period of time that preorder users have to get a final retail CD key in there? It seems like it's very short now, while some people were expecting more like two weeks --

MJ: No, no, no. First of all, it was never, ever two weeks. Even right now, our most vocal detractors say it was four days. We had a post up on our site which we took down very quickly -- but it was up -- that said the head start would be for four days. We have never, ever said two weeks. So that's first.

Second, during the day I've been announcing modifications for the policy. It's a really complicated issue; we've been reaching out to the retailers and talking to them about certain things.

For example, all Amazon customers won't have to worry about that; we've extended the grace period. All EA Store customers, we've extended the grace period. All Go Gamer, we've extended the grace period. So it certainly is not what some people would make it out to be. The vast majority of our customers right now, from what we see talking to the retailers, will either be getting the grace period, or getting their product on time. If that doesn't turn out to be true, we'll continue talking to the retailers.

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EA Mythic's Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning

What about server queues? Is that just inevitable?

MJ: Well, first of all, there is a certain inevitability. Take WoW; that was pretty bad. Not only was their queueing bad, but they didn't have a solution to it for quite a while before they allowed character transfers. We're talking about WoW itself, not Burning Crusade, because by then they had the technology working I assume. In the beginning, they did not allow server transfers for quite a while.

No matter which game you're using, if you're using the model 99 percent of MMOs use -- the world or shard model, where you support a few thousand per shard -- you're going to hit this problem, unless you just tell people they can't join that server. Which some games have done, except then you can immediately split a guild.

So we came up with what we thought was the best solution, and I'm kind of proud of it. By cloning the servers, any guild now can automatically choose to play on the other server. They don't have to do anything, other than decide, "I'm going to play on this one tonight, or permanently." It's even better than character transfers.

What is that technology exactly?

MJ: Okay, this was a great idea. I like to think I add something to the company every so often, and this is one of them. We take a server -- with all its information for the players, the guilds, the auction house -- and copy it. It's a little more complicated than that, but think of it as a clone. All that information is on server A, and server B at the same time. So when your guild comes on, they can decide which one to play on.

People worried about whether things will transfer -- it's already done, automatically. Nobody in the MMO industry has ever done this for customers, ever. There's no, "We'll allow you to transfers in a few weeks, maybe." No -- it's done. You can play on either, or both.

So at a certain point in time, the entire state of a server was duplicated, and you can pick up where you left off on either one.

MJ: Right. People didn't even lose one second of experience. The server was down, we copied it, we put it back up, and we put the new one up. You don't have to choose where you want your character to be -- keep both if you want.

Was that a technical problem in any way? It sounds basically like backing up your data on your PC.

MJ: Exactly. It was really elegant. It's the kind of thing I like to do -- as a game designer, and obviously as lead designer of Warhammer, I don't have time to do all the design stuff I did ten years ago or even twenty years ago. I just don't have the time anymore. So what I like to do is think about the design of the game, and think of different things to do, or different ways of looking at things. This was just doing what I did with public quests, but I did it on the technical side. I used to be a programmer, so that helped.


Do you think the MMO genre generally is more resistant to change or evolution than most genres?

MJ: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And as the cost of MMOs not only approaches Hollywood but surpasses most Hollywood films, you're going to get the same kind of reaction among publishers that you do in studios. When you're making a $1 million film, you can afford to take chances. When you're making a $100 million film, you don't put Roseanne Barr in as the romantic lead against Brad Pitt in a comedy about teenage lovers.

I'll bear that in mind.

MJ: Yeah, that's not a good idea. Same with MMOs. If you're going to spend that kind of money on an MMO, it is going to be very difficult for the publisher to say, "Sure, I'm willing to take a huge risk on this game." Making an MMO is the hardest creative thing to make if you're looking for an actual return on your investment.

Does that make it more difficult at EA, which is often seen as a conservative publisher, and as you say is publicly-traded?

MJ: No, not really. It's easier in some ways. Let's look at MMO history over the last eleven years. When Ultima Online went up, let's say that because it had 100,000 subscribers, it was the first really successful MMO. That's usually the metric people use. I used it even when I wasn't part of EA. In those last eleven years, there have been literally hundreds of MMOs that have gone into development. Only two handfuls of them have succeeded.

If you think back to all the games that have been even moderate successes in the MMO industry -- either in terms of total paying subs or return on investment -- you'd be hard-pressed in the triple-AAA space to name more than ten. This is a really tough industry, if all you get in eleven years are ten moderately successful games, and only a handful of very successful games, and only one very, very successful game -- which of course is WoW.

If Hollywood had that same track record for making expensive films, how many expensive films would ever get greenlit? Probably almost none. And the percentage of them that would actually be daring or cutting-edge would be absolutely none.

At EA, at least, we're a big company with deep pockets, people all over the world, our own distribution system. For us to make a big bet on an MMO is a heck of a lot easier than a smaller developer or a small publisher who has to think, "Boy, if we're wrong on this, we're out of business." One bad game doesn't put EA out of business. Not even one bad MMO would put EA out of business. But if you look at the history of publisher in the game industry, as well as some studios, the really bad bets have put some of them out of business. So I think it is actually easier for us to greenlight something like that than it is other companies.

Now, of course there is the other side of it. Being part of a publicly-traded company, and being a large company, new ideas can always be harder to greenlight. That's one of the things that [CEO] John Riccitiello said when he came in. He saw EA was just doing a lot of derivative and licensed works. He put out a call to action for the company to do more original IP and more risky IP. He's re-emphasized this time and time again.

So I think it's not all wonderful; there are always issues. But it's certainly not the opposite. In our case, we were given multiple delays to make the game better and better. Would that have happened at a small studio or an independent?

It does seem like a big MMO killer is simply running out of money and having to launch in whatever state the game was in when the money ran out.

MJ: Absolutely.


So in terms of WoW, which you identified as the "one very, very successful game," it does seem like you guys more than most have been fairly aggressive in terms of going after it, or staking out your claim to challenge it.

MJ: Two things on the subject. Number one, we're not looking to get more subscribers than WoW. We've been very clear from the day we announced that WoW is a great game with great numbers. It was an industry-shaping game. Those don't come around very often.

I'm amused when I hear other developers talk about WoW or even games in the standalone space, saying, "We can top these guys, that's easy." Yeah, that hasn't worked out for just about any of them. So I'm not going to sit here and say, "Well, with EA behind us, we're going to beat WoW." I don't say that, never said it, won't say that today.

On the other hand, we're not afraid of WoW. If you look at what we did back in 2001 with Dark Age, we were facing a similar situation, and it's even more amusing because of the Funcom connection. The big guy on the block was of course EverQuest. Ultima was of course doing very well, as was Asheron's -- not as well as Ultima and certainly EverQuest, but it was a competitive game. It had over 100,000 players.

People were saying to us, "How can you take on EverQuest? They've got Sony behind them. And Ultima has -- hah! -- EA behind them. And Turbine has Microsoft behind them. And you're independent, Mythic. You got nobody behind you except your creditors." But we said, "Okay, fine. We'll do the best game that we can." We had a hook -- that hook was [realm versus realm combat], and we staked our entire company on it. Obviously, we did quite well. We didn't beat them; we never said we would. But if you look at our numbers, we did really, really well.

It's the same thing we hope will happen with WoW versus WAR. We're not saying we're going to beat them, but we're not afraid of them. We have our own hook; that's RvR, and we're pushing it and we're pushing it, just as we're pushing other innovations in the game. Blizzard is number one; we don't mind being number two, especially if it's a competitive number two. I can't worry about that.

The other thing is, we have a choice. If I'm going to go in this space, I better go in hard. What's the point going into something as competitive as the fantasy genre with WoW in it unless you're prepared for a fight, unless you're prepared to take on number one at some level? You don't have to say you're better than it; you don't have to be better in everything. We just want to be competitive, do a great game, and leave it up to the player to see which they like more. Or both.

jacobs_warshot2.jpg

What do you mean when you say, "the Funcom connection"?

MJ: Oh -- well, if you go back to the summer of 2001, there were three new MMOs being shown. Number one was Star Wars: Galaxies, number two was Anarchy Online, and number three was us. During [E3], and even after the show, reviewers liked Anarchy better: "Oh, look at the pretty graphics. Look at that different gameplay. This looks like the game to beat." They saw our game and went, "Eh, RvR is pretty cool, but people are going to be scared about it. It's PvP, nobody's going to play it unless you're hardcore. The graphics are okay, but they're not as good as Anarchy's."

So what happens? Anarchy launches that summer, has a very troubled launch. They did huge numbers day one, went down way fast after that because of technical problems. You couldn't play their game for hours and hours and hours at a time. Truly, one of the roughest launches of any MMO. We come out in October to one of the smoothest launches, and do very well.

Who would have thought that seven years later, those same two companies would be releasing their first new [MMO] in seven years, and both were coming out in the exact same timeframe that their previous MMOs launched in 2001? They came out during the summer, we're coming out again in the fall. How bizarre is that?

What do you think about Age of Conan's prospects? They just had the news about their director leaving.

MJ: Same thing I said about them before. I don't want to see any developer -- well, almost any developer -- fail, especially in the MMO space. We need to expand the market. I wanted Age of Conan to do well because it's an M-rated game. I thought, "Fabulous. If they can do well, and expand the market to M-rated products, we can get even more users into this space." It was Conan, it could have been cool, I thought when it was announced.

The [Funcom] guys I've met, they're good guys. I didn't want them to fail. Their prospects? They have a tough road. Just like when Anarchy launched, they have their issues. What they absolutely deserve a lot of credit for, was that they turned that around -- certainly, Anarchy Online two years after launch was a much better game. They could certainly try to do the same with Conan.

The difference is that in 2001, there was less competition. We were competitive, but they were the only game in the sci-fi space until Galaxies came out. The difference now is they're in the fantasy space, and the fantasy space has Blizzard, and Blizzard is going to keep working on their product. They're not going to do [Wrath of the] Lich King and say, "Okay guys, we're done now." And EA didn't invest this much money into buying Mythic to say the same thing. We're not going to say, "Okay, we're done now. Let's do another MMO." No. We're committed to Warhammer. We're going to spend a lot of time and money making this game better and better and better.

So, just from those two games, it's a different space than it was back in 2001. Then, you also have the other games that are in development, some of which look like they might actually come out.


What are you looking at there, going forward?

MJ: Stargate: Worlds looks like it may launch. Perfect World, the Asian game that's done so well over there, looks like it'll be launching here soon; I think they just went into beta. And there are other games in development that will be coming out in the next couple years. It's a much more competitive space. They're going to have a much tougher road than they have.

The other things that really differentiates the time, is that back in 2001, you didn't have to spend anywhere near the amount of money you do on an MMO now. Look at what we spent on Camelot: $2.5 million developing it, $650,000 in marketing it. You couldn't spend that on a triple-A MMO now if your life depended on it! You just couldn't! It would get you nothing in terms of content.

So Funcom has to not only try to improve their game, but do it with a lot of cash, and that's one of the things that makes it so much harder on them or anybody else. On Camelot, we didn't have any cash until the game launched, and once we were successful, we had money, so we could keep investing.

It's harder for the Funcom guys now, because they have to keep spending a lot of money, and unless their numbers go up, they're not going to be taking in as much as these other companies could spend on just making a game. So, boy. That's a much tougher dynamic.

It's amazing how many MMOs are still pitched and developed given what a sink-or-swim environment it is, with so many studios and games shutting down.

MJ: It really is. That's an excellent way of putting it. Back then, you had time -- not to sit back and do nothing, but you didn't have to immediately succeed. Now, unless you have very deep pockets, it's very difficult just to stay and improve the game hoping for success.

Blizzard has also upped the ante in terms of sheer volume of content, after having been out for a few years. Is that intimidating?

MJ: For a lot of developers, absolutely. It is very, very hard to compete in this space against the big guys. I don't say that because we're one of the big guys, because we're not yet. We're one of the big companies, but until Warhammer's a success, we're not one of the big guys. WoW is one of the big guys. Hopefully we'll be one of the big guys.

When we were looking at the landscape when we were doing Camelot, we said, "We don't have the same money these other guys do, but I think we can be competitive, because we have our hook." Now, because these games are so much more complicated than the games we did seven years ago, that young developer who wants to break into this space can't simply go, "Well, we've got an interesting hook, so we don't need to spend what they do." It's a very different dynamic.

The general sense I get from people's early impressions of Warhammer is that once you've put some hours into it and you're into the double-digit levels, the unique characteristics really shine, but when you first jump in, people get a strong WoW deja vu, in terms of what you're doing at the lower levels, and the game's visual style.

MJ: Well, you know where the visuals come from. The visuals come from Games Workshop, and if there's any similarity to the WoW visuals, you need to ask Blizzard where they got their visuals come from. (laughs) We can trace our visuals directly to the Games Workshop IP, which came about before Blizzard was even a company. Just go back and look at the old Games Workshop books.

jacobs_warshot3.jpg

Yeah, I'm actually extremely familiar with Warhammer, going back some fifteen years.

MJ: Right -- well, as a matter of fact, you could even buy a book called World of Warhammer. Remember that one?

I do, actually.

MJ: Yeah. I mean, what's the copyright? 1997? And it's called..."World of Warhammer"? Hmmm.

So, for the people who look at this and say, "Boy, some of these things are similar," also keep in mind that we've been making MMOs since before Blizzard ever did. A lot of the things in the game, be they RvR or other things, come from Camelot.

But even having said that, knowing that full well, games -- MMOs or not -- have a tendency to be somewhat derivative of each other. We need to make it as easy as possible for the people who come into our game to enjoy our game, especially for those who have never done RvR. For those who have done RvR, it's a hoot. You can't wait to get into it. You can actually start RvRing from the moment you get into our game -- you don't have to do a single quest, a single PvE quest. You don't have to do any of that if you don't want to.

On the other hand, since we know that most people have never played Dark Age of Camelot, we wanted to make it as easy as possible to get into the game, and we wanted to make the game attractive to people who do like PvE, and don't like PvP. So we also follow the kind of formula that we've used in Camelot, and that other games have used before ours and after ours: you have quest givers, you have quests, you do things. We try to take that to the next level with the tome of knowledge, or public quests -- which I think is going to be one of the most borrowed concepts from our game. So that's what I say to them.


In terms of basic interface, and the code-like chat commands, do you think there's room for MMOs to get more streamlined and friendly? Facebook and other social services are becoming so prevalent, I think people would respond well to a smoother social experience in-game.

MJ: Absolutely. I think we've done some of that, and I think there's going to be more. The MMO genre is relatively new, compared to the game industry. People have been making computer games for decades and decades -- even PC computer games started in the late 70s or early 80s. You've got 30 years of PC computer games, but you only have true MMOs for 11. Online games were well before that, of course -- I made my first online game over 20 years ago, but true MMOs have been 11 or 12 years.

We've got a long way to go before we even catch up. I think there's a heck of a lot of ways we can streamline the process more, making it more intuitive, and I think we've done some of that. We've tried to do things, like the tome of knowledge, to make the whole game come alive -- everywhere you go, everything you do is recorded, and you unlock things constantly. That's a very different dynamic.

The other thing we've tried to do, and this requires taking a holistic approach to the entire game -- if you look at MMOs historically, there's always been a lot of downtime. You want people to stay a subscriber, so there's lot of downtime, and they can't spend all their time leveling. You can see it in every MMO. If you look as a designer, they're putting this in as a timesink, and that's another timesink, and that's another timesink. We've tried to streamline that and strip it down to the bare minimum.

I mean, we don't want people to die in an instance and then immediately pop back up where they died. But the way we've designed it, as a first-level player, you're surrounded by things to do. And even as an RvR player, if you don't want to wait until you can get into open RvR, you can right there start doing PvP things. We don't make you travel half the world to join in; it's right there for you. Your PvP is right there; your RvR is right there. All the areas have public quests. We're trying to take the serious downtime out of the equation. We don't want you sitting on your butt.

Doesn't that start creating difficult amounts of necessary content?

MJ: Yes, which is why we've spent so much time and money on creating so much content and so many classes. But also, our endgame is RvR. When your endgame is PvE, when you're done, you're done. "I've done all the quests, now what?" Well, you can play another class -- fair enough. We have 20 other classes. Most other games don't have that many.

But in an RvR game, you level to the top, and you can still do RvR, and you can still get rewards. And since it's RvR, it's different every night. When you're playing against a monster, you know darn well that even if the AI code is really clever, it will react the exact same way. Players are different every time.

You could go into RvR with your same group, and have a different result -- not because the designer said there's a 99% chance you won't get this thing, and you have to do it a thousand times before you get the item. It doesn't work that way. You could fight a group as good as you are -- or maybe better, or worse. It's like football -- on any given Sunday, any team could beat any other team.

Obviously, if you're level 1s, and you're going up against a bunch of level 40s, you're not going to win. But when you're close, or even, guess what? All sorts of interesting things can happen. And not because we've dictated it, but a lot of it is going to be skill and tactics. That's what makes it challenging, and that's what makes it compelling long-term, just like it was in Dark Age of Camelot.

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