BioWare Mythic GM Eugene Evans has been involved with the studio since 1996, and lots has changed about the online game space since the surprising popularity of Dark Age of Camelot back in 2001.
"We completely blew through Vivendi's projections from the game," Evans recalls of the classic MMORPG. "Their lifetime projection was something like 70,000 units and we exceeded that day one -- which today doesn't sound like a big number, but back then, it was huge."
Ten years later, the Electronic Arts-owned studio is getting ready to launch its first free to play title, Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes. "We often got asked about taking our old games free-to-play, and in the case of Warhammer, we felt there was a different way of doing it," he tells Gamasutra.
While a number of older MMOs have gone free-to-play in recent years, Evans says, "there's a whole community that doesn't want that. We decided that there's a lot of things you have to get right about a free-to-play game for it to be successful, everything from the size of the download to the accessibility that lets you quickly get to the fun of the game, and we really wanted to rethink our offering with Wrath of Heroes."
The game is designed with a focus on "very short-session" instanced scenarios that have been popular in Warhammer in the past, distilled out into their own standalone experience. "We carved out scenarios, and we're letting people play with iconic characters from Warhammer that you don't have to level up," Evans explains.
Players join a game and pick from a selection of heroes for three-way combat among teams of six, and sessions last about 15 minutes. "This is a huge change we put in," he continues. "It's now three sides, drawing on what was great about Dark Age of Camelot... it still retains that sense of shifting alliances."
Players aren't bound to a single type of hero during their playtime, either -- each time they die, they can return to the match as a different type of character, which makes the balance of power in combat extremely dynamic, Evans says.
The team developed Wrath of Heroes after closely watching fans of team or squad-based play and the ways they engaged with titles like Valve's Team Fortress or Riot's League of Legends. "The three-way combat, the ability to switch heroes, and the emergent strategies that are going to come out of that, we think is going to be incredibly compelling," Evans says.
Scheduled for a formal launch this season, the game has been in closed beta for about six weeks, and is undergoing the process of live refinement and audience feedback incorporation that has fast become essential to the development of online games, particularly precarious and challenging for free-to-play games.
"We continue to refine the game, and we continue to refine our thinking around the monetization model, and we continue to let more and more people into the game to understand what's working, what they like and don't like. It's a highly iterative process that's very different than creating a big MMO where you're going to be in development for perhaps three-plus years," Evans says. "Here, we're able to move very quickly."
Amid the free-to-play boom, is that traditional MMO development model relevant any longer? "I think there's room for a number of models," opines Evans. "I think we're dealing with a global audience now for online games, and what works in North America might not work in Brazil; what works in Asia might not work in Poland."
Publisher Electronic Arts has made strides in diversifying its online game portfolio and its global reach with Battlefield Heroes, Need For Speed World and even Facebook games like Dragon Age: Legends. "These are new audiences worldwide that might not go out and buy a packaged-goods game," suggests Evans. "But they're playing online, and ... [there are] emerging markets we haven't necessarily reached before."
"We're all still figuring out what free-to-play means, what the best way to monetize is, and how to run it as a business and engage players in ways they're prepared to accept," he adds.
Since becoming part of BioWare, Mythic has gotten to benefit from a number of learning opportunities, including working with BioWare on Star Wars: The Old Republic. "What we've learned from them is... we've been talking about how you get to quality, and polishing the product, and that's certainly been one thing."
Another benefit to joining the BioWare family? "What it takes to make an emotional connection with your players, and what that means. We've worked together to understand what that means for an MMO, and what that means for a free-to-play game," Evans says.