At GDC Austin, Mythic Entertainment executive producer Jeff Hickman delivered a talk in which he spoke frankly about mistakes the company has made, particularly in the last "interesting year" since the launch of Warhammer Online.
Speaking passionately about the future of the MMO space, Hickman began by saying "a variation on this has been heard by EA people and Mythic people quite a bit." He began by acknowledging the difficulties Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, for which he was executive producer, has faced: "It's been an interesting year for Warhammer."
His general premises of the market were not atypical, but his adamance about them was notable. Says Hickman of the future of games, "If you're not online, you're not going to be here. In the future, gaming is about social applications: Facebook, MySpace, and about bringing people together in a lot of different ways."
Hickman sees digital distribution as the inevitable future of games, even in the console space (though probably not this generation.) "The era of boxed products is ending. I'm not saying you won't see boxes on the shelf in the future. I think they'll be around for a long time to come. But it'll not be the primary way to do things, it'll be the 'other' way."
Players also don't want long downloads, but instant interaction. "Digital distribution is absolutely profitable," he notes.
There are other advantages than instant delivery, of course. Says Hickman, "being able to track your customers online is so essential to our future." He recognizes that developers will meet resistance from publishers and other developers on projects, but it must be resisted. "As it happens, we need to push towards the future, push towards the new way."
Warhammer's Three Major Mistakes
Despite having a successful MMO in the form of Dark Age of Camelot, Hickman says there were "mistakes we made with Warhammer that we should not have made." He described them as "three things have haunted us for a year with Warhammer," and later acknowledged a lot of effort has been put into dealing with them in patches -- sometimes subtly, as they're fundamental and systemic.
Challenge of play was a problem for Warhammer that the team is still untangling, says Hickman. "There's a big difference between easy play and ease of use. And one of the lessons that we thought we learned from ourselves and other games, was that it's important to have ease of use, and it's also important to hit the right balance between easy gameplay, challenging gameplay, and too difficult. We thought we hit that, but Warhammer, in PVE, in the beginning, is too easy. It doesn't make you thrilled to do it."
What effect has this had? Says Hickman, "The game has suffered immensely for it."
When asked if feedback from beta players could have helped head off this problem before the game launched, Hickman said that player feedback isn't always reliable or easy to interpret. "We did get feedback from players -- it was very mixed. We got feedback from people saying, 'Hey, great, I can solo; I don't have to group!' so that hit one of our checkboxes. We got a small subset who said it was too easy. I think it was one of the insidious things. I'm not sure how many of our players would say it's too easy; it's not something they think about. There are a lot of things they point at and say are the problems, but [actually] it's that."
The social nature of online games can confound even experienced developers, Hickman argues. The team built "social tools" but the game gave players "little reason to socialize." Says Hickman, "We all talk about online gaming as 'social'. It's a thing we'd call probably foundationally the most important thing about these games. It's fun to play these games with friends."
However, he says, "We had great ideas for all of these really cool social tools, and we built them into the game. But the game doesn't require friends. Part of it is that it's too easy." You can design in the need for players to have to work together, but Hickman warns that "you shouldn't force friendship, but it's important, and there's a balance there. You can do so many things solo, that friendship, at least in the beginning levels, is not necessary, and it's super dangerous for your games."
Economic models are its third biggest problem, which Hickman acknowledged are going steady overhauls to make them more relevant. "Our economy... we just missed the mark. If you look at the reasoning behind the economy, you'll see things like, 'Hey, we're not going to let gold farmers in our game.' 'We're going to try to make sure we have controlled inflation.' We had all the best reasons in our game, but what it caused us to do was build a game where economy is not important enough. Economy brings people together."
Hickman later acknowledged that fixing the game economy is essential to the game's upcoming South Korean launch and that these fixes will propagate globally. When entering that market, "We want to identify the big things that are important and change them. Economy specifically -- it's one of our weaknesses, and it has to be a big strength when we hit Korea. And it's a focus that pours over into North America."
Two Good Things
Of course, the game is not only flawed: there are major successes too, and also Hickman outlined two "things that we made breakthroughs on."
One was public quests, a system in which players who enter an area can elect to join a large quest in progress -- a system Hickman is now seeing adopted by newer games. "Public quests came about because of a need in the game, and because of the things we learned in the past. When we launched the game, public quests were still rough, but they stand out till this day, as a highlight of what we did with Warhammer. Public quests will probably be in every game we do from now on in some form."
Open grouping, which allows players to slide in and out of groups, was another major system he thinks is important. "One of the things we wanted to do was break down the barrier of people asking to group. We had a discussion after discussion after discussion on building a system where people could just slide into groups without asking permission, and we came up with this open grouping system, and it's been super successful for us." Warhammer's realm versus realm play, which pits factions against factions, makes this system essential, says Hickman. "People want to be with people. There is safety in numbers."
It's A Service -- No, Really
It's been said any number of times that online games must follow an ongoing service model to thrive, but Hickman was adamant about it. Development is just a large fraction of the life of a game, in his view. "I think we do some lip service to each [aspect of the service model] but you have to embrace the fact that your game is not just launching a product. Twenty percent of the work you will do on a game happens before you go live -- the rest will happen after launch."
In his view, customer service needs to be "pushed to the forefront," and community is absolutely essential. But more than that, "You need to be thinking about your service from the very beginning" and build your game integrally to support all service functions. Everything must be considered in perpetuity: "You will forever having a marketing budget that is important for you," he says, pointing to the fact that 12 years on, Ultima Online still has one.
A game's business model "almost doesn't matter" in view of the bigger issue of building a game that can sustain itself in the long term, says Hickman. "The bottom line is that we're all in this to build a service, and if you aren't thinking about how to make it a service from the beginning it won't be a service." However, how your service needs to be structured and run is intrinsically linked to the business model you select, he says.
The Localization Conundrum
"We have a problem in the United States. We like to think about us," says Hickman. When it comes to launching globally, "We'll talk about it, but I don't think we do it very well, and I don't think we learn from it yet. If you have a successful game in North America, you have this tendency to go 'we have a great game.' Don't do that. Learn from the past."
Dark Age of Camelot was a total flop in Korea, says Hickman. "It's a great market, a lot of opportunity there. We translated our game into Korean and we found a partner and we launched it there." Why did it fail? "There were a lot of reasons: whether it was the partner we chose, the game we built or did not build for Korea, but built for us. We're planning to take Warhammer to Korea, it's not just localization but 'culturalization'. We're addressing issues that our partner identifies for their market that will hamper our growth there."
When asked how much content is actually changing for Korea, Hickman found it hard to quantify. "It's hard to say 'how much,' but we're doing a lot of stuff with art, and we're looking at core gameplay elements where our Korean partners are saying 'these don't work for Koreans'," says Hickman. "There's a 78 page document. Most of them are little things but there are some big things. Animations are big."
Of course, changes require an investment. "How do we balance the spend? I don't have an answer for that," he admits. "Very carefully. We only take the changes to a certain amount based on revenue and income, but we also push that knowing that the more changes we make the more revenue can go up." The developers make an effort to not branch the code base; instead, flags can be set in the game so changes can be recognized and made server-side.
Of course, Warhammer is a licensed product, so making changes can be tough. The original creators of the property at Games Workshop are "very passionate about their product," says Hickman. "So are we. We did Warhammer because we love it. We don't want to make changes that don't make sense for that IP. The Games Workshop guys have very strict guidelines but they're pretty broad, so we can work within those guidelines without breaking the property."
Hickman offers a word of warning for those who strive to change too much after a failed launch. "Once your product hits market, if it's a not a good product, making massive changes to it -- that's the shot in the head to most products. Making modifications and doing improvements to your product is super important and one of the core foundations to going online. But if your game is flawed and you have to make massive rebuilds, that's risky."