With a rumored $100 to $200+ million dollar budget, Warhammer Online (WAR) was expected to give World of Warcraft strong competition. Almost a year later, WAR continues to perform well below expectations. Has Warhammer failed to reach its potential? Most assuredly the answer is a sad "yes."
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Why Warhammer Failed - A detailed look.
Editor's Note: Warhammer has recently announced that it will be closing their game December 18th, 2013. You can read more about the closing here: http://www.warhammeronline.com/article/Warhammer-Update. Or, continue to read this author's opinion of why Warhammer was a failure, originally written July 31, 2009.
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There are many ways to go wrong when making an MMORPG. Failure is easy.
MMORPGs are extremely complicated games. They need enough gameplay variety to entertain hundreds of thousands or millions of different people. They must be amused enough to either maintain a subscription or regularly purchase perks or premium features. This is no easy task, and there are many ways and opportunities to mess it up. Some MMORPGs mess things up worse than others. Warhammer Online messed things up pretty spectacularly. This article will go into detail as to Why Warhammer Failed and What Went Wrong with Warhammer Online.
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Before We Begin... some parts of Warhammer are good and worth playing.
An article that discusses where WAR went wrong is obviously going to evoke a lot of anger from dedicated fans of the game. They will be tempted to accuse the writer of "barely playing the game", "being a noob", "crying about getting rolled", or simply "needing to learn to play." In an attempt to head off such easy, hackneyed accusations, I will say the following.
1) WAR is not a horrible game. It did many things right, and some things extremely right (Public Quests, for example). The problem is, a few critical mistakes can easily overshadow and overpower good things in an MMO.
2) I played WAR extensively. I absolutely loved Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) and I am a fan of the Warhammer franchise. I wanted to love this game. I had four level 40 characters, and I had many characters in both realms and on multiple servers and server types. I believe I experienced most aspects of the game.
3) In general, I am definitely an MMO fanatic. I play tons of MMOs and I like to think I play them pretty well. The fact that I am the Managing Editor of the MMO channel here is no accident. I love MMOs. I make them professionally. I play them with great fervor.
4) When I say WAR failed, I mean it failed to meet expectations or reach its potential. Keep that in mind as you read on.
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The Major Ways Warhammer Online Went Wrong (What killed Warhammer Online)
As already noted, there are many ways for an MMORPG to go wrong. In this article, the mistakes made by Warhammer Online have been broken down into two sections: Major and Minor. Within each of these divisions are additional sections for each of the specific mistakes.
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1) Lack of a Third Realm Doomed Warhammer to Failure
If you were only allowed one reason why WAR failed, this would be it. A number of the subsequent failures hinge on the absolute disaster of a decision to go with only two realms. With two realms, the realm you hate most is always the same. The realm to blame for every unfair or cheap maneuver is always the same. If the other realm has an advantage, there is no recourse. The two weaker realms cannot team up to balance things out.
The net result of this is every player's hatred and disdain is always focused like a laser beam on the same realm, the same classes, and the same players. In a PvP/RvR oriented game, this amplifies misery and guarantees that players never have any relief from it. Social engineering is an important part of managing an MMO community. Allowing players to focus all of their hate in the same direction all the time is not healthy.
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2) Too Much Crowd Control
How did EA/Mythic not learn from their own experiences with DAoC? Did they forget the days of Stungard? I remember it vividly, as I played on Midgard Percival and my wife played a Norse healer. Crowd Control (CC) was a major problem in DAoC, and they eventually had to tone it down and give people abilities to break out of it. At least in DAoC most CC broke on damage (like the most common form of CC, mez/mesmerize).
WAR on the other hand is dominated by forms of CC that not only disables the opponent but also leaves him/her disabled while taking damage. Stuns, disables, disarms,roots, and more fly around the battlefield constantly. It is not uncommon to spend at least a quarter of your time in battle under the effects of some form of CC. In fact, considering how common AoE Disable + AoE spam "bomb groups" are, you might very well spend 100% of your battle time CCed. Why? Because you won't survive the duration of the AoE disable.
Instead of significantly toning down CC, Mythic has instead added more forms of CC as they added new classes and features. With every new form of CC, thousands of players would fill the forums with post after post begging for a reversal. Players of both realms, and nearly all classes repeatedly asked for drastic reductions in CC. Somehow, this universal complaint was largely ignored.
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3) Horrendous Lack of Class Balance
Lack of class balance is bad for any MMORPG and is absolutely ruinous to an MMO based on Player vs. Player combat. If the classes are not balanced, players quickly feel like their own skill does not determine the outcome of battles. Once players feel that way, you have a severe problem on your hands as a developer. At that point, players just give up and quit soon after.
Instead of giving both sides the same classes, WAR has a concept called "class mirrors." The idea is that both realms have similar classes that fulfill similar roles. They generally share some abilities with their mirror, and a portion of their abilities are unique to their specific class. This seems like it would work in practice, but those few unique abilities end up making all the difference in the world.
Designers of PvP/RvR oriented MMOs take note: if you cannot balance your classes, just give all sides the same classes. Most of the players who complain about this are the types of players who only want varied classes so they can find the overpowered ones. The majority of your players would rather have fair, balanced classes than wildly unique ones that ruin the experience.
A third realm could have partially countered this problem. If one class clearly had overpowered classes, then the other two realms could team up against them. Eventually, the overpowered classes would get sick of constantly being outnumbered and even they would admit to the developers that they needed to be adjusted downwards. But without a third realm, the realm with weaker classes just has to suffer. Well, most people suffer by canceling their subscription.
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Class Balance UPDATE: August 18, 2011:
After years of supposed balance work and tweaks, the lack of class and realm balance continues to plague Warhammer. As one reader added to the comment field of this article:
"Bright Wizards (BW's) are monster overpowered now, as are Warrior Priests (WP's), but don't forget over-ranged Shadow Warriors (SW's) and always 5-level to big Archmages (AM's). Notice a trend? They are all Order toons. Start a new toon today, a Destro toon, and you will see what outnumbered and underpowered really feel like."
You simply cannot have a PvP game where game balance is so out of whack. It absolutely amazes me that 2 more years after the original creation of this article, the Warhammer developers stubbornly refused to do the ONE thing that would have resolved class balance forever:
DIRECTLY MIRROR THE CLASSES.
I understand why they felt it would be cool not to do this. They wanted to make the two sides play and feel different. That's great if you are extremely talented and skilled at balancing. But apparently they are not. You would think 3+ years of balance problems would get the message through that they are not talented enough to balance classes that are so different from each other.
If they ever hope to achieve some modicum of balance, it will have to begin by perfectly mirroring the classes. Bright Wizards and Sorcerers should have identical but differently named powers, for example.
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Bright Wizards and Warrior Priests
I would be remiss if I did not give some specific examples of the terrible class balance in WAR.
Bright Wizards and Warrior Priests are two of the most unbalanced and overpowered classes I have ever experienced in any MMO. There was a time that Witch Elves and Disciples of Khaine were almost equal in overpoweredness, but they were nerfed.
From the very beginning of the game Bright Wizards had a ridiculous combination of damage (greatest in the game), crowd control, utility, and escape abilities. In a game dominated by ranged damage, no class could compete with the Bright Wizard. Whether it was overpowered (and sometimes buggy) DoTs at release, or the ridiculous amounts of AoE that dominated the late game, Bright Wizards have always been a brutal subscription killer for WAR. Putting AoE disable on the same class as the highest AoE damage makes no sense. The common defense is "Sorcerors [the Destruction mirror] can do everything Bright Wizards can do!" This is simply not true, and anyone being honest will admit as much. Bright Wizard talents and morales are far more powerful and result in far more CC, damage, and AoE radius. There is no comparison.
The Warrior Priest would be equivalent to the Disciple of Khaine if not for two major and critical differences: Warrior Priests are the only class in the game with AoE cleanse (curing status effects and debuffs) and for a long time the only side of the mirror with AoE detaunt (take 50% less damage). Those two factors caused the WP to be grossly overpowered compared to every other healer in the game. Warrior Priests were nigh unkillable by less than 4+ heavy DPS.
Some of the balance issues noted here are supposedly being worked on, but the damage is done and hundreds of thousands of former subscribers are unlikely to give the game another chance after suffering horrible class balance for months on end.
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4) Lack of Population Balance
It is hard to understand how EA/Mythic did not see this one coming. The Destruction character models had dramatically superior art, and pretty much all the "cool" looking avatars. Order had terrible looking dwarves, bald Warrior Priests, red-headed-step-child Bright Wizards, and some very limp looking High Elves. Destruction had the incredibly impressive looking Chosen, the amazing looking Orcs, and some of the sexiest dark elves on any MMORPG. It should come as no surprise that at release, most servers were heavily dominated in population by Destruction.
Similar to class balance problems, population imbalance in a PvP/RvR MMO is ruinous. When the other side overwhelms you constantly with numbers, players are overcome with a sense of futility. Once you feel like there is no point behind any action, it is easier to quit than to keep banging your head against a wall.
Again, a third realm could have prevented this problem. In DAoC, when a server became dominated in population by one realm, the other two realms would band together to fight it. Players would either reroll new characters in another realm, or new players would join one of the less populated realms. It was self balancing.
It is my belief that this initial, serious population imbalance is one of the reasons why Mythic never took the steps it needed to take to balance classes. I believe they thought the Order class advantage would be a fair counter to the Destruction population balance. Instead, all this accomplished was unhappiness for everyone, and eventually fed up players switched to Order simply so they would not get dominated in scenarios or in equal number fights. The result of this was a class AND population imbalance for Order on many servers, which then led to cancellations and server merges.
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Realm Balance UPDATE: August 18, 2011:
Two years later and the same problems persist.
Instead of adding the skaven as a true third realm, they made them into a useless, crappy "feature" that is only accessible on the RvR battlefields. They took one of the cooler and more enjoyed aspects of Warhammer lore (Skaven) and managed to implement them in a way that everyone hated.
Skaven added nothing to the overall quality of gameplay experience, and did nothing to resolve one of the biggest problems plaguing the game: TWO SIDES ARE NOT ENOUGH FOR LONG DURATION PvP.
You need at least three sides so one side is not always "the loser." Once again, it really is just as simple as that. All the money spent on Skaven and other failed attempts to achieve realm balance would have been far better spent on developing a third realm.
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5) Meaningless PvP that Lacked Emotional Connection
In Dark Age of Camelot, it was untenable if an enemy realm held one of your frontier's keeps. For that matter, just hearing about enemies running around your frontier was enough to elicit your people's version of "Auslander Raus!" Your frontier was connected to your realm's territory or "homeland." It had leveling spots for your realmmates and holding the keeps was important to maintain (or gain) access to the Darkness Falls dungeon. Players patrolled their own frontier with a sense of patriotism and pride.
In WAR, every zone has a small "RvR Lake" area generally in the middle of the map. This small zone generally holds two battlefield objectives and a keep. Since every map is contested, none of them feel like YOURS. The RvR Lakes are a playing field rather than a homeland that needs to be defended.
Furthermore, there was nothing at release like Darkness Falls or the Relics of DAoC. RvR, while fun, felt meaningless. It did not seem to matter to any great extent who held which keeps, objectives, or even zones. This lack of emotional connection to the zones of the game was a major let down compared to DAoC.
Scenarios (like Nordenwatch) provided fun, instant action and were even better than WoW battlegrounds. But class imbalance ruined them, and they still never made you care about your actual realm.
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6) Terrible Server Performance
Warhammer was billed as a game that would support huge, large scale battles where you could assault forts, siege cities, and more. Unfortunately, if you got more than 50 to 100 players in the same location, the lag and server performance made the game almost unplayable.
The WAR developers exacerbated this problem with their attempted "solutions." They put a cap on the number of people who could enter a Fortress zone, and anyone else who tried to enter would get "supply line" teleported back to their warcamp. It is hard to explain how incredibly frustrating it is to try and participate in the supposedly vital end game content and instead spend an hour running up and down the map hoping you can sneak into the zone while someone who died is releasing and running back.
The city sieges themselves, which were supposed to be one of the most epic elements of the RvR content, were instead instanced zones with ~50 people per side. In each instance, the teams competed to accomplish PvE objectives. Horrible.
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Server Performance UPDATE: August 18, 2011:
Server performance is better but only for sad reasons. One of the biggest is the simple, disappointing fact that a lot less people are playing Warhammer.
As for everything else that was epic and exciting but plagued by poor performance? They simply removed it.
Fortress battles? Removed.
The ultimate server performance improvement will probably be when the last Warhammer server is taken offline. Epic battles were supposed to be a huge part of the game and instead of finding a way to fix them, they were simply removed.
What a shame.
I think Warhammer has proved that collision detection (especially FRIENDLY collision detection) is probably not a good idea on any large scale battle game.
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Minor But Important Reasons Warhammer Underperformed
There were a lot of minor things that went wrong with Warhammer as well. Individually, these mistakes could have been ignored. But together, especially when combined with the major mistakes, they become a much bigger problem.
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1) Too Much PvE, Too Much Emphasis on Gear, for a PvP/RvR Oriented Game
Realm vs. Realm combat was always the main draw and USP (Unique Selling Point) for Warhammer. People who want Player vs. Player combat are generally not huge fans of extensive PvE, and they certainly tend to prefer a game to put focus on skill rather than gear.
Unfortunately, Warhammer has a major gear focus. Higher tier gear sets, purples from raid dungeons, etc. add massive power to a character. Unlike DAoC, there are very few stat caps. As a result, there is a constant treadmill of trying to improve your gear in order to keep up with the competition.
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2) Too Much "WoW Clone"-itis.
When you try to out-WoW WoW, you generally fail. There is already a game like WoW out there, and its called WoW and already has 13 million subscribers.
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3) Too Much Focus on Adding New Content Rather Than Fixing Existing Content
When things started looking grim for Warhammer, and it became clear they were having trouble hanging onto subscribers, someone in upper management decided new content was the way to lure people back. This was a terrible, terrible decision. Adding new classes, dungeons, and content just exacerbated the problems of class balance, population balance, and the PvE/gear grind. Players eventually got fed up with waiting for game breaking bugs to be fixed, and players of weaker, broken classes eventually gave up (could some reader comment: are White Lions and Marauders still waiting on a little attention?).
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4) Terrible Crafting
There are probably a lot of people who believe this belongs in the Major Mistakes category, and they might be right. There are basically two types of crafting in Warhammer: talismans and potions. Talismans are used to fill empty slots on gear, adding some stat boosts. Potions (apothecary skill) are used for long term buffs and standard health/mana regen. While useful, neither type of crafting is terribly interesting. For some reason, there is no armor or weapon crafting in Warhammer.
The crafting systems themselves are not well designed either. There are far too many components to keep track of and the way the crafts skill up are strange at best. Efforts were made in 2009 to improve and simplify crafting, and these efforts were indeed welcome. But there is only so much you can do with a system that is poorly designed from the beginning.
Dark Age of Camelot had a very robust crafting system. One has to wonder why they would choose to take such a giant step backwards on a major feature like this.
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How You Can Tell When an MMORPG Is Doing Poorly
Mark Jacobs himself said the way to tell if Warhammer is doing well is to check a few months after release and see if they are adding servers. He said if they were removing or merging servers, that would mean the game was doing poorly. Since its release, Warhammer has had at least 4 major server merges. ** 63 ** servers have been shut down, leaving WAR with only 9 active servers. Some players are now playing on their 5th server. This is extremely disruptive to the population and culture of each server. On a game based around PvP (RvR), they are forced to merge servers. You can't have PvP/RvR if you don't have enough players around to fight.
Dark Age of Camelot was a very successful MMO in its era (350,000+ subscribers). As a result, fans of the game (and all the friends they bragged to for years) were excited for a spiritual successor. Furthermore, the tabletop game of Warhammer has an enormous following of millions worldwide. Lastly, after years of raid/gear grinding, many WoW players were desperate for something new (especially WoW PvPers). These three groups of people (of which there was some crossover) anxiously awaited the release of Warhammer. There were millions of potential customers who really wanted Warhammer to succeed. Their disappointment is almost immeasurable.
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Can Warhammer Online Turn Things Around?
The next 6 months will tell us a lot about Warhammer's potential future. The change in management may have some effect, though a lot of the problems will be extremely hard to reverse at this point in time. Creating a third realm might be impossible at this point, for example.
According to recent patch notes it appears EA/Mythic is trying at long last to address Crowd Control. This appears to be too little too late. Preliminary feedback indicates that the nerfs to CC are nowhere near enough.
It is very hard for a big budget MMO to recapture the interest of the market. Small, independent MMOs have the luxury of being able to build a userbase slowly. If WAR can maintain a subscriber base in the 200,000 to 300,000 range, it is unlikely that EA will react like NCSoft did when it shut down Tabula Rasa. The level of embarrassment would be enormous and EA already has a graveyard of MMO failures to its credit. But if the subscriber base drops below 200,000 (or even worse, 100,000) it becomes hard to justify the game's existence.
Not much Waaagh and a lot of disappointment. So far, that is the legacy of Warhammer Online.
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UPDATE: August 18, 2011:
Servers continue to be removed.
Expansions get no traction.
Even as WoW usage declines, Warhammer is unable to pick up any of those users.
Much older MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online have been able to recapture users by going free to play, or hybrid free to play, but Warhammer stubbornly sticks with their pure subscription.
One really has to wonder if the whole point of keeping the lights on here is simply to keep EA in the MMO business until they can get Star Wars: The Old Republic released. The delays of SW:TOR have probably been the biggest thing keeping Warhammer from a total server shutdown. It will be very interesting to see what happens to Warhammer once SW:TOR is finally released in December of 2011.