This post is about an online fantasy role playing game called Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. It is developed and operated by Mythic, now a division of Electronic Arts. I’ve been playing it for about a month now, on the Iron Rock server, with a bunch of former Dark Age gaming buddies. You would think I am too old to be wasting time on something like that, and, in the end, the point of this essay may be that you’re right. At least, it may be that online role playing games have moved on, and I haven’t. In any case, this isn’t going to be a very positive post, and I’m sorry about that. Mythic got monthly subscription dollars from me for Dark Age of Camelot for years. I wanted Marc Jacobs to succeed with Warhammer Online, and it may well be that he will, but it doesn’t look good from here.
A wee bit of history: I’ve been fascinated by virtual worlds for twenty years; pretty much ever since I knew enough about computers to conceptualize what one is. The notion of creating a world as a mathematical model and then rendering it to some sort of display environment is very compelling to me, and has been ever since I saw a 3D maze game on my Tandy Color Computer in 1980. Add in a good dose of escapist personality traits and you have a natural affinity for computer role playing games, or CRPGs. I never did get into the tabletop RPGs much, but I played all the early computer fantasy games, including the Ultima Series, Might and Magic series, Eye of the Beholder, Krondor, and many others. Probably the series that provided the most virtual world wow factor for me was Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, the latest installment of which is Oblivion.
My first online role playing game was Everquest, which I played for several years with a group of developers at a small software company I co-founded in 1997. We would work on client stuff all day, then at night we would all log in to the Morrel-Thule server and go on quests, explore dungeons, fight monsters, and abuse each other in chat. We formed a guild and spent a lot of time together in that world. It was a blast. The addition of real people to the whole world in a box thing was very cool. I’d messed around with MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) like Diku before, and was familiar with Ultima Online, but EQ was the first true 3D perspective rendered virtual world that was shared among thousands of simultaneous users, and it was amazing.
By today’s standards Everquest would be considered nearly heartless in its design. The world was absolutely huge. It was said to take over eight realtime hours to run across it, though I never tried. There were no in-game maps. If you wanted help you got a map online and printed it out. There were no indicators of a monster’s strength relative to yours; no signals when an NPC (Non-Player Character) had a quest or would converse with you. If you failed to check a monster’s strength, and died, then your corpse and everything on it dropped right where you were, and you respawned nearly naked at your bind point. You then had six realtime days to get back to the corpse and retrieve your stuff, or it was gone. Environmental effects were realistic. For example, when it got dark you couldn’t see very well, and the same went for heavy snow or rain. The behavior of monsters was similarly without pity. If they got near you, and hated you, they attacked you. If someone else was attacked and ran, they would all chase him. And chase in those days meant all the way to the border with the next zone. If he died or escaped, they would attack anyone else they encountered on the way back to where they came from.
These design choices were consistent with the traditions of role playing games up to that time, and they made for a thrilling environment. I remember the first time I logged my High Elf character into the Faydark, and walked out of the city into the woods. It was night, and I could barely see. There were dimly lit trails running off into the darkness, and huge Orcs trotting around and grunting in the shadows. All I knew was that I had been told by an NPC that my next step was to get to the Wood Elf city of Kelethin, and I had no idea where it was. Fortunately an older player led me there. The whole experience was very immersive and frightening. On another occasion I mistepped switching from one ship to another in the midst of the ocean and fell off. I ended up swimming for nearly an hour to find land far to the north of where I had dropped, in the middle of the sea between continents. The water was full of dangerous monsters, and had I died there it would have been almost impossible to retrieve my stuff. The risk and possibility of loss was a big part of what made EQ such a popular world.
After Everquest I played Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot off and on for almost five years, with a group of guys whom I still game with today. While DAoC, as it is known, dumbed down some of Everquest’s tougher rules, it added a new thrill: players were divided into three realms, and the game world contained vast areas of frontier where they could fight one and other. There were keeps and towers that could be sieged and taken, and ultimately if you persisted long enough you could lay siege to one of two central castles for each realm, and sieze sacred relics that gave your realm added benefits and bonuses. You could not enter the other realms’ home territory, talk to them, or trade with them, and when you met them in the field all you could see above their characters was race and class. No names, no guild affiliation. It made the whole thing very dangerous and mysterious. While DAoC took some of Everquest’s edge off (no corpse runs, for example), there were still no in-game maps, the world was huge and easy to get lost in, and when you died in battle with another realm it could take a long while to get back out to the scene. Dark Age was successful for a long time, but dated mechanics and graffics, as well as some questionable design decisions in expansion packs, have pretty much killed it at this point.
After DAoC came World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s immensely popular hit that is being played, as you read this, by something like half the population of Canada. Ok, just kidding. It’s more like the population of greater New York City. I played WoW for about a year, with many of the guild members from DAoC. Some of them stayed on for almost three years, but I quit. WoW scored highly on atmosphere, and had a huge and interesting world, but Dark Age had spoiled me for something more intense, and the combat in WoW was pathetic. There was really no death penalty at all. Players killed in battle against monsters or other players would spawn at the closest graveyard, typically with a very short run back to the fight. This made it impossible to really make headway against an enemy force, which constantly reinforced itself with resurrected players. World of Warcraft also began the trend toward making these environments seem a lot more like a theme park than a virtual world. In-game maps pointed out every feature of the world. NPCs who would talk you you had symbols floating over their heads, you could pay a few coins and fly anywhere in the world in a couple of minutes. It was just getting easy, and what is easy is not very thrilling.
Many of us just gave up on online RPGs at that point, and waited for Mythic to release their long-awaited follow-up to Dark Age: Warhammer. Surely the originators of Realm vs. Realm warfare in online role playing games would take everything they had learned and produce a tour de force. If any team could put the thrill back into the virtual world of online gaming, it would be Mythic, right? Sadly, my perspective on Warhammer Online at this point is that it is a step backward in almost every possible sense. If there are thrills to be found in this game world, I haven’t located them yet.
Ah, where to begin. Well, the best place is probably with the design of the world itself. For almost two decades the goal of virtual world designers has been to get to more seamless designs. In Everquest the world was divided into zones, and the game client loaded each zone individually. In Dark Age areas were grouped together with zone boundaries between them. World of Warcraft did away with most zone boundaries, and Vanguard, a recent Sony flop that I played briefly, tried to do away with them completely, making the whole world one entity that could be travelled from end to end. I won’t go into the technical challenges of doing this, but they are considerable. Marc Jacobs, EA-Mythic general manager and lead designer of Warhammer, went completely the other way. The zones in WHO are small, mostly disconnected, and bounded by unclimbable hills. Within the zones content is organized along strictly linear paths. In fact the whole concept of the game is so linear that the land itself is organized into “chapters.” So you scan the map of the zone and see that the nearest warcamp is Dark Elf Chapter 4, and then further down is chapter 5, and so on. Look at the map and you don’t see a world (well, you do in one gratuitous view, but it is meaningless). Instead what you see is something like a Visio flowchart, with individual zones connected by lines showing the way that a character is supposed to progress through the world.
Aside from the remorseless linearity of the content and storyline, the world looks pretty, and has appropriate soundscapes and other cues. It is actually quite nice and competes very well with other games I have played in that department. Unfortunately the design choices make it look small, and feel small. At any given time you are in a place with one road, with the easier content behind you, and the harder content in front. Which is strange, because in this dumbed down simplistic environment the devs apparently still thought the player would need complete information in order to get around. The in-game maps show everything about an area once you’ve been there, including shading in the locations you need to visit for quests, and marking where your groupmates are. There is no challenge in getting around Warhammer’s world, or in figuring out what you need to do when you get where you’re going.
In fact there is no challenge in anything about the world of Warhammer online. There is no death penalty. You can’t drop a quest item. You don’t even need to loot quest items. The crafting system is trivialized and nearly useless. Monsters don’t chase you very far, are loathe to attack if you are higher than them (how does a bear know that?), and won’t help each other ever. Think about that for a minute. You walk up to a camp with a leader whom you need to kill for a quest. Standing around are all his trusted comrades. So naturally you step out into the open and attack him in their midst. He runs up and engages you as the rest of them stand there while he is killed. Yes, it’s gotten that absurd. Of course, there was always something absurd about these games, but at least there was some challenge. Warhammer has been boiled for so long that what results is mushy pablum. I was able to nearly solo my Zealot, one of the weakest characters, through level 31. While many of the game’s faults, such as a lack of dungeons and epic content, strange itemization, broken mechanics, etc., can simply be attributed to it being a young system, the things that remove the thrill from the world are not among them. They are fundamental choices made in an attempt to cater to a broader market of people who, apparently, will only go bowling if they are guaranteed a strike on every frame.
If there is no challenge there is certainly frustration. If only that were a desirable trait in a game Warhammer would do fine. The worst thing from my perspective is the distribution of NPCs and MOBs (mean old bastards, a gamer word for monsters). Perhaps sensing that their world was too easy to conquer, Mythic attempted to adjust for this by essentially scattering aggressive MOBs over every square foot of most zones. The re-spawn rate is insane throughout the whole game, and it becomes very difficult to move through the world from one point to another without being attacked, unless you stick strictly to the road. But wait, aren’t I contradicting myself? On the one hand I want a challenging game, but on the other I don’t want to be attacked? Well, not really. I do enjoy the challenge. I like it when monsters help each other, chase me down if I do something bad to them, etc. But there is no danger to dying in Warhammer, and so spreading the mobs out the way they have just seems like an exercise in silliness. Standing on a hilltop and looking out over a field where some aggro monster is standing every four feet does nothing to heighten the immersion or suspension of disbelief. It just looks stupid. In addition to challenging combat I also like to explore and enjoy the worlds that the artists create, and that’s a little difficult to do when you can’t put your foot down without stepping on some monster.
So, if the world isn’t all that sensible or thrilling, at least the realm vs. realm warfare must be, right? After all, the players are human, and they can always go out and have fun regardless of Mythic’s choices in the rest of the world, can’t they? Well, sorta. The players have to play within the mechanics that Mythic set up. And for the most part those aren’t bad. The classes work pretty well, although there are the usual balance issues and loud complaints about them. There are plenty of spells and weapons and potions and other tools. And yet, the realm war feels as flat as a two-dimensional space. This is due to several factors. The first is that the races are mixed up in each zone, rather than being from far countries reachable only across a vast frontier. This removes the air of mystery and danger that attended encountering them in DAoC. Second, the zones themselves participate in a complicated “locking mechanism” that relies on “victory points.” Gain enough of these and you lock the zone and can progress to attack in the next zone, hopefully continuing all the way to the enemy’s home city and their King.
Unfortunately nobody seems to fully understand how victory points accumulate, other than that it isn’t enough to take keeps and towers and move forward that way. You also have to complete quests, and fight in what the game calls scenarios. These are tiny instanced combat maps that operate like the fantasy version of a fragfest, and against all common sense and tradition in RPG design, they are currently the fastest way to gain experience and level your character. As a result the game has many, many players who do nothing more than log in, park at a warcamp, and queue up for scenarios over and over. There are entire stretches of pretty cool RVR content in the “Tier 4” zones, that are for the most part empty of players. If you don’t fulfill the questing and scenario requirements then you can take all the keeps in a zone and still not “control it.” Conversely you can control a zone to the point of locking it, and still not control most of the keeps and objectives in that zone. It’s a nonsensical system that bleeds off any incentive to fight, because once you get enough people together and start succeeding on the battlefield you run into a little “lock” icon in the upper right corner of the UI that says “You can’t go any further until you go run some quests or scenarios.” I was in a warband once that dropped all the objectives in Reikland, and then ran into the lock issue. Within twenty minutes most of the warband had quit and were back to running scenarios.
For me Warhammer represents the evolution of really bad game design. Sid Meier, the designer of Civilization and many other successful games, has long been my favorite example of a person who knows what good design is. His games combine just enough challenge and reward to keep the player immersed. Marc Jacobs didn’t design Dark Age of Camelot, as far as I know, but he advertised himself as lead designer of Warhammer, and I simply don’t think he has done a good job. It’s too bad, because as I said before I wanted him to succeed with it. The parts that need to be simple and enticing are too complicated. The parts that need to be hard are too easy. There are no vast and dangerous territories to cross, few epic dungeons to explore, and little reason to engage enemy players in the frontiers other than for points, which can be had faster and more reliably in scenario play. I think the problem he ultimately has is there is no reason to play his game. The people who came from WoW are already drifting back there, while the people who last played DAoC are either going back to it or just quitting altogether.
For now I am having fun just because I haven’t played with this group of people for a couple of years, but that will wear off soon, and then I will likely be in the second category. I don’t think we’ll ever again see a game that delivers thrills the way EQ and DAoC did, if only for the reason that WoW has now set the standard for success at millions of subscribers, and apparently there aren’t millions of people who want to play a hard game. Hamburgers sell better in the mass market than chicken vindaloo, and so it is natural to expect game developers to cook a lot of burgers. It would be nice if someone, somewhere, would make a game like EQ + DAoC on a modern platform and be happy with a couple of hundred thousand subscriptions, because I think they would get them. But sadly I don’t see the fantasy RPG world’s Eve Online coming down the pipe, and that’s too bad.