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GDC Austin: Mythic's Hickman Shares  Warhammer Online 's Biggest Mistakes
GDC Austin: Mythic's Hickman Shares Warhammer Online's Biggest Mistakes
September 16, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

September 16, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

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."

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Mike Siciliano
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I really hope digital distribution doesn't take over. I want to actually own my games; to be able to take them over to a friend's house and to know that I am actually in possession of the game, not simply using a "license" to play it.

I used to play World of Warcraft, but after a while boredom with the title set in. I also got tired of being addicted to the game. One of my biggest complaints with MMOs though, is that you do not in any way own the game. You don't own your character or his gear. It can disappear at any time despite your lengthy investment, and you have no guarantees anything will be restored. Gear-driven game play is also problematic. The game keeps you coming back because your character becomes outdated and you have to play catch-up.

I would like to see a developer fix these problems.

Michael Kowalski
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I enjoyed beta and my first month playing WAR, but the one major issue I had was that it spread its players way too thin too soon. What I mean is that I love the first tier of the game when every race had a single zone and the player population was close knit. It was easy to find a group and join in the localized RvR.

After I hit tier 2 I had two choices of content zones to go to in my race specific world, or I could go off and do some other races' tier 2 content. This instantly split the player population and made finding a group and enjoying each zone's RvR impossible as there just wasn't that many local populations. I spent the majority of my time wandering from zone to zone looking for a big keep siege. The world was filled with empty lots of these empty castles.

By tier 3 they only split it up again, almost giving players too much choice and room to play. I suppose this splitting of the player population would look alot like a pyramid scheme...

World of Warcraft had a perfect balance of zones and content with Blizzard leading their players by the nose. At the most a player in WoW would have to choose between 2 different zones and could easily burn thru all the content in both before they would level up too high.

Robert Milstein
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I have played the game since launch and I have to say it was a wonderful idea. There were so many things that were more fun than most games particulary the pvp.

The real problem with it was Mythic/ EA did not listen to their customers. They fixed things that no one cared about and never put in the end game they promised. They nerfed classes that were underpowered and gave more to op classes. Most of the people that left, went because their class was no longer any fun to play because they were worthless in battle. The game went from 900,000 at launch to under 70,000 now because they did patches that made terrible imbalances in the game.

There are two different sides, order and destruction. The classes are not mirrored, they are different on each side. The developers only play order and order is op.

People were dismayed that, destuction had five of its classes nerfed so hard there were only a few people playing, them. The people that were frustrated and dissappointed left and took their friends with them.

It had the most promise and biggest launch of any game and was a no brainer to become great.

steve roger
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Mike, I agree that is the one thing I miss with the advent of DD. Taking a disc over to a buddy and throwing down after install for some lan play. Now you have to be all prepared ahead of time. No more trips to the EBgames with a friend and jumping right in.

Bob Dole
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where do you get 70,000 subscribers from?

Hillwins Lee
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Boxed version will live long as there's a demand.

Say, a kid go inside a candy store, and a kid browsing the supermarket online order, the feel is different, and I bet the kid will enjoy going into the candy store way more than ordering them online and have it delivered.

While digital distribution will become more popular, I dont see it to replace boxed version any time soon. I live in Hong Kong and digital distribution enabled me to play Champions Online, now that doesn't mean I dont want to own a physical copy of the boxed version of the game, I just dont have the means as no game shop shelved this title nor I have the patience to wait for amazon shipping it here. And this sales figure will appears to the dev/pub that digital distribution is going mainstream, see how many ppl going to get it instead of the boxed version, but in fact, in my case, digital distribution was chosen because I can't get the game on launch day otherwise.

Personally, I always enjoyed walking into a video game shop and browse through games that I may otherwise not interested in. Just kinda like a kid in candy store.

Jason Muffenbier
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"The game went from 900,000 at launch to under 70,000 now because they did patches that made terrible imbalances in the game."

Try 270,000.

Makes it more successful than DAOC or UO. Right there with EVE Online. Hell back in the day top dog EQ only hit around 550,000

Robert Milstein
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The 70,000 number has been discussed all over the Warhammer Online Forums for months. I believed it to be reliable, the developers appear to read the posts and lock or delete any they do not approve of.

I have heard that 700,000 left the game when they realized there wasnt an end game or stage 2 for the city seige. I understand it was also around the same time WoW came out with Wrath of the Lich King. There were tons of servers at launch and there is only a handfull now. There were many server merges as the population dropped and the buisest servers now seem to have less players than ever.

When Aion starts next week, almost everyone I have spoken to in Warhammer will be leaving. It is a moot point how many are currently playing because the number will be vastly different by November.

I am sure that there would be an interest in the game if there was anyone at Mythic that was more interested or willing to listen to their customers. The players do not want more pve. They want to be able to have fun playing the class they spent a year getting renown points for. Nate has some good ideas about making the classes fun to play again someday, maybe they will, who knows?

The game had incredible potential.

Bob Dole
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So you have no actual source for the 70,000?

Just wait and see at this point everything is pure speculation. You would have a better chance predicting the stock market then telling how a MMO will do.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Leah Raeder
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The reason WAR failed is because guys like Hickman are painfully clueless about games, period.

The PvE was too easy? What? No one complained about tier 1, and few about tier 2--those were the MOST FUN tiers of the game for many players, and part of the reason WAR sold so many copies at release, even though it came out of open beta riddled with bugs.

The economy? Peripheral. 700k people didn't quit because of the economy.

The socialization issues were definitely a problem, at least. And numerous solutions and suggestions were offered by the community. The main social problem at launch was the division of chat channels into absurd numbers of sub-regional zones, which made it impossible to communicate publically with others in the same zone, unless you happened to be in the same sub-region of that zone.

No idea if this last aspect was ever addressed--I and the majority of my friends and guildmates quit within 1-2 months of launch. The reason? A combination of devastating class balance issues, along with PvP funneled into instanced scenarios, along with populations spread too thin across too many zones on too many servers, along with the underlying shoddy game engine, its awkward and buggy animations, and basic combat mechanic bugs that made the game nigh-unplayable. Those who stuck it out through these issues were treated to an endgame that consisted of flipping keeps, where it was more efficient to avoid PvP than to engage in it.

These issues were all well-known throughout closed and open betas, launch, and beyond. The playerbase reported them dutifully and repeatedly to Mythic. Mythic did not address them, instead adding new classes to the game, new PvE content, etc. A year later, when WAR is effectively considered a "failed" MMORPG in the eyes of online gamers, folks like Hickman come around and talk about WAR's failures as being due to PvE easiness, or its economy.

One need look no further than this willful delusion for the answers as to why WAR failed.

Raphael Santos
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I have played WAR at launch for some months

the games problem was definitely its PVP, i can talk for myself and my friends that no one cared enough about PVE or economy,

the real problem is that while PVPing in War could provide an awesome experience, most of the time the game experience was hurt by faction imbalances (mainly), class imbalances, keep flipping, badly designed keeps.. hitting doors or fighting on the stairs was cool for some time...

WAR's PVP definitely had a great potential, but i felt there was no focus, no feeling of accomplishment, it was pure grinding, except for very few random engagements which were somewhat balanced

R Nicolace
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This article does a good job of showing why WAR failed. I don't mean what Jeff Hickman actually listed here, I mean the fact that he chose these things and not any of the very obvious things wrong with WAR. Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but in this case, it seems that EA/Mythic doesn't even have enough of a grasp on their own game to realize where they went wrong.

I played this game a LOT, and I'm going to nail out the big issues.

1) Action Responsiveness + Latency: Instant cast abilities took nearly a full second to actually fire off under normal conditions, worse when the client and server were experiencing heavier load. This even applied to abilities that required a cast time. "Mythic Seconds" were invented to redefine the length of a second to try to make up for the gap. Character animations did not sync properly with inputted player actions. The Action Bar UI element was also bug ridden and sluggish; abilities that never fired due to lag would show as being on cooldown despite not actually being on cooldown. This occurred frequently in RvR situations. Add all of these issues together and you create a frustrating disconnect for the player. The sense of being in control of the character is lost, all skill is removed from the game due to lack of reactive response, and having fun basically becomes impossible.

2) Performance: This requires far less explanation. WAR was advertised as a mass combat game. Core abilities were designed around a mass combat game. Both the client and server could not handle anything close to massive combat.

3) Not learning from past success. DAoC was a popular game in it's day, competing respectfully with Everquest, the juggernaut of the day. The market for MMOs was smaller then, and yet it still performed well in that market. Yet, for some strange reason, EA/Mythic decided to scrap everything that was good about DAoC's design, everything that made it a decent game, and start from scratch with a WoW clone with slightly more PvP. Gone was the 3 realm RvR design that had been integral to the dynamism of DAoC's RvR. It was replaced with a glacially slow paced tug-of-war mechanic for zone control that was not transparent, not interesting and not fun. DAoC was THE industry example of how non-instanced PvP could still be accessible and enjoyable, and yet they through it away to make a heavily instanced PvP game and neglected actually making interesting mechanics for non-instanced RvR.

Number 1 is solely on the shoulders of the programmers, and 3 is completely on the game designers. Number 2 is a combination of both, good game design could have spread players out and mitigated the heavy performance hits on the client and server.

michael meginley
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I played WAR since beta and up until Land of the Dead launched (epic failure that was). My whole hardcore PVP clan quit after LoTD and are now waiting on the next MMO. I was on 4 servers total, none were my choice. We had to leave dead server after dead server, Mythic would keep merging us into new servers. The game was laggy and it had nothing to do with the PCs. I have a high end PC and so did my clan and they all got lag problems in large scale PVP. Large scale PVP is what WAR is about. But not when it runs like crap and you get 1 spell off every 10 seconds in fortresses. They had to scale back forts and put a population cap on them. Nothing like "yay time to take a fort" and getting kicked back to your warcamp, 10 minutes away from the fort.

Too many crowd control abilities, tanks felt worthless. Too many class imbalances. City sieges were boring and all about stupid PQs. PQs sucked while leveling because no one did them. You can't have a Public Quest without the public! Low populations, adding new scenarios or dungeons for a week then taking them out of game again. Too many stupid Live Events...i'll stop there. I had high hopes for WAR and spent lots of money on it in subscription fees. But we gave up, it was too little too late and LoTD was horrible.

michael meginley
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So Hickman is clueless about what hurt the game and what didn't. Economy? LOL

And where is source from? You can't say his source is wrong then point to a site that provides no source for its number either. For all we know, that 270k number is from the earnings call from 6 months ago. And regardless, losing 600k+ subs is still horrible. So 900k to less then 300k or 900k to 70k. Still bad, any what you look at it.

Joe Random
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All this article tells me is that Hickman doesn't have a clue why Warhammer failed.

It failed because it was (and continues to be) buggy - even basic things like player movement is not fluid and responsive, class balance is TERRIBLE, eg: I played both a sorc and BW to level 40 and the difference in their power level is absurd, game and world design was bad - keep and zone control had no real appeal to players, unlike DAOC where it was *your* realm and control of Darkness Falls was well worth sieging for. The other major thing was performance. Keep sieges didn't scale to even moderate levels and lag was horrible.

In short, they should have made the game more sandboxy and much more like DAOC and less like a half-baked themepark WOW clone with PVP minigames on the side.

War was the screwup of the century in the MMO space.

Robert Milstein
profile image go to servers, active 40 stats. I believe this uses an rss or xml feed from the website to see who has gained renown to get the info and there are less than 7,000 active players that are level 40 on all the servers together.

Its too bad. It seemed fantastic in what it promised. It may have been that they just wanted to sell boxes and had no intention of finishing the game at all. It is published by EA and EA bought Mythic. Now that Bioware is in charge of Mythic, I can only hope that they do a better job with Star Wars next year but I am not expecting much considering their lack of interest in maintaining the game for hardcore players. They made a game that was fun to play at first, much like Age of Conan did and both promised end games and made a ton of cash because it took people a while to give up on the companys continuing promises to fix the game and make the end game as promised.

I hope this is not going to become a trend in MMO's. I believe people that are promised something, such as the end game being in the game at the start, should have an end game. The developers and publishers should understand that people that spend a year creating a character for fighting an end game battle are going to be upset if it is a lie and it never comes to fruition. I sense the MMO player is not a child that will buy a game with their favorite cartoon character on the box or be fooled by a company that treats its customers like they were idiots.