October 2008

This Just In: Blizzard Beats Up Mark Jacobs, Laughs At His NDA, Takes His Lunch Money

Seems like everyone’s talkin’ about Warhammer these days. Including, you know, those wacky guys who work on the most popular MMO ever made. Jeff Kaplan in particular had a few things to say:

Now that “Warhammer Online” has been out for almost a month, I wondered if Kaplan had gotten a chance to try it. Even though he’s been busy working on “Wrath of the Lich King,” he revealed he has spent a little time with it.


“My character is like level 13 right now, and I’m playing Destruction on a server that’s imbalanced,” he said, referring to the factions in the game. He also said leveling his character has been going a bit slowly. “I’m at the point where I’m thinking about quitting because it feels like the best way to level up is in the battlegrounds,” he explained.

Hmm, sounds kind of familiar. And you’d think it would make sense for the Lead Designer of World of Warcraft to keep himself aware of the state of the MMO marketplace, right? However, the interviewer decided to poke Kaplan a bit about Mythic’s somewhat draconian beta/NDA policies:

I asked Kaplan why he thought he and other Blizzard employees weren’t allowed into the “Warhammer” beta. “That’s a great question,” he said. “I’m always fascinated by betas in general and [non-disclosure agreements] and how tight-lipped they tend to be. It’s Blizzard philosophy that if you’re really confident in your game, then you have nothing to worry about. So I guess that would be my big take away from that.”

WELL then. That’s a pretty diplomatic way to say “O SNAP”, I thought. Surprisingly, Mark Jacobs disagreed.

Frankly, what got me steamed is a piece at MTV where the guy talks a bit of smack about WAR, our Beta policy and stuff like that. My reaction to that was, interesting.

You don’t say.

I’ve always said nice things about WoW as I thank Blizzard for expanding the market, bringing more attention to this space, most important MMO of this generation, etc. But for Kaplan to shoot off his mouth about our beta policy, lack of confidence or criticism about WAR is just BS and it’s wrong. And so, I deviated from my long-standing policy of not criticizing other developers, especially on subjective issues. It will be an interesting read.

No, really. You don’t say.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, I remember one interview with Pardo prior to WoW’s launch where he saud that WoW’s PvP system/realm point/honor point/etc. would be, unlike DAoC, useful. Hmm, how many times have they redone that system? Developers should stick to worrying about their own games and companies as none of us are perfect. People who live in glass castles and all that.

No, really. You don’t say.

“I’m disappointed with the decision from a leader in the MMO industry to go down a path which in the past, has been an anathema to them and remains so to just about every other MMORPG company in the industry. I think that not only supporting the sale of in-game characters, items and currency, but also taking a ‘cut’ of those sales, is not only a mistake but one of the worst decisions in the history of the MMORPG industry,” says Jacobs.

I guess “long-standing policies” began in 2005. Hey, it’s a long time in Internet years! Or maybe John Smedley made fun of DAOC. Because, as Mark says, he gets an exemption when those fools be steppin’ up.

They have made billions off WoW and they really don’t need Kaplan dissing, in any way, a competitive product. That’s just wrong, period. I didn’t diss EQ/AC/UO when we were developing DAoC and that’s always been a standing rule of mine. If another developer doesn’t want to play by the same rule, I reserve the right to respond, which I did. In Kaplan’s case, talking about “his issues” with WAR during it’s first 30 days is laughable especially since WoW had plenty of issues of their own at launch and considering that they spent 2x as long working on WoW as we did on WAR, some of their issues were just as bad or worse than ours. And his nonsense about our Beta is even more laughable considering Blizzard runs internal-only (NDAed by employment agreements) alphas at the same point where we would already be inviting thousands of regular people (under NDA) into our game.


I’m not normally a conspiracy kind of guy but within a few days of each other the COO and the Game Director of Blizzard both diss our game (though Paul did damn us with faint praise) does make me wonder.

Yes, of course the fact that, you know, Warhammer Online launched last month and garnered almost a million subs and people in the MMO industry might have opinons on that is besides the point: BLIZZARD IS GOING TO TAKE MYTHIC DOWN. Oh, if only a corporation with very large pockets stood behind plucky little Mythic.


As Mark clarified to the same MTV reporter (who is apparently hellbent on making MTV A GAMING JOURNALISM FORCE):

Referring to Kaplan’s mention of the 30-45 minute wait times for battlegrounds (called “Scenarios” in “Warhammer Online”), Jacobs said that “World of Warcraft” also had long queues just to get into the servers to play the game when it first launched in 2004.

Well, yes, to a neophyte on online games (like, dare I say, the MTV reporter), sure, that’s a fair cop. Of course, Blizzard’s queue times (which were often far greater than 45 minutes) were the result of half the known world trying to access the game servers, and Mythic’s queue times are the result of, well, half the known world choosing Destruction. Note to Mythic: not buying enough servers is something your Ops team can fix. Making one side have heavy metal Vikings who can turn their arms into battering rams and the other side having poncy elves? Um, that’s not something Ops can fix.

Responding to the user interface similarities, Jacobs said that “World of Warcraft” wasn’t the first game to feature customizable interfaces. While he credited them for polishing it, he also said that it should be pointed out that “World of Warcraft” learned from Sony Online’s “EverQuest” and Mythic’s “Dark Age of Camelot.”

Again, Mark taking advantage of a credulous reporter’s lack of knowledge here. Actual MMO players would know that there is a WORLD of difference between the ability to skin an interface (seen in EQ and DAOC) and the ability to SCRIPT an interface (seen in WoW and Warhammer). Now, if Mark had simply said “Yes, Warcraft’s interface scripting set the standards for user interfaces, much as Everquest set the standards for easy UI skinning and the whole getting 40 friends to kill a dragon thing”, that would have been more accurate. As it is, I have to wonder if he’s been giving debate advice to John McCain.

“If you look at ‘Warhammer,’ there were so many points [where] we consciously made the decision not to be like ‘WoW’ and to try to push the envelope. I think you’ll find that if you’re actually going to compare the two products, I would say ‘WoW’ is certainly a more polished game now than ‘Warhammer is — of course they’ve had four years and billions of dollars — but if you look at the innovations in ‘Warhammer,’ you’d be hard-pressed to find as many in ‘WoW.’”

Billions? BILLIONS of dollars? Um, no. Bobby Kotick said it would TAKE a billion dollars to compete with WoW – which, ironically enough, Mark Jacobs quite correctly called him on. To date, the most expensive video game production has been Grand Theft Auto 4, whose budget is in the $100 million range. But that’s a side tangent – the point is that if World of Warcraft and Warhammer developers are going to get into a slapfight over which team was the most derivative, um… er… I think we’ll all laugh quite a bit. And then both developers can collapse, tired and beaten, into their HUGE VATS FULL OF MONEY.


For more cranky bastard commentary, see the relevant f13.net thread, where I ganked these thread links from (apologies for the inexact direct linking, but, hey, you know, Vault Network.)

(Edited 7:45p Central: added Mark’s comments to MTV, testing KEWL POLLING HYPERTECHNOLOGY)

“We Want Negativity!”: Five Things I Didn’t Like About Warhammer

I swear to god, I got 5 IMs from people last night all saying variations of “Now I REALLY want to see the next part.” You people and your rancid negativity! (I include myself in that statement, of course.)

Ironically, there isn’t that much. Warhammer dodged a lot of possible pitfalls simply because it takes the road heavily travelled. Paul Barnett’s averrals to the contrary, Warhammer takes a lot of cues from its immediate ancestors World of Warcraft and (especially) Dark Age of Camelot. Much of the nuts and bolts of the game design is iterative, not revolutionary. So the parts where it falls down are mostly details of implementation. Like:

Grindgrindgrindgrindgrind. Yeah, this is the big one, and what is going to kill retention for Warhammer if anything not with the initials “WotLK” does. Anecdotal evidence from beta testers all claim that the levelling curve was radically “adjusted” immediately before the game shipped. This was a mistake. If there’s any game that shouldn’t be afraid of their users reaching max level, it’s Warhammer. Yet the last minute holy-crap-we-don’t-have-enough-to-keep-people-busy reaction from a development team seems to be a time-honored tradition of late. One could make a case that with many games, levelling is artifically accelerated in beta, then tuned to the release version just before shipping. That pretty clearly isn’t the case with Warhammer, since after the 2nd “tier” of content… you run out. Note: this is when you make levelling faster, not slower. It’s probably no coincidence that one of the first rewards granted to underpopulated realms has been faster levelling speed. That shouldn’t be a reward – it should be the default.

The Hibernian Protest lives again. It’s painfully obvious the High Elf and Dark Elf content pairings were… well… they’re kind of rushed. Of course the answer here is simple, just take your elf character somewhere else at level 1. But still, Mythic has a history of doing Elves at the last minute for some reason. And given history, I fully expect the first expansion to have the most lavishly rendered goddamn Elf areas this side of Rivendell.

Dude, Where’s My Balance. The game has some pretty clear balancing issues which PvP brings into sharp, immediate focus durning PvP levelling. Ranged DPS is generally king. This is somewhat mitigated by the two primary tanking classes, Black Orc and Ironbreaker, being Concentrated Awesome. Which probably means they’re overpowered. But melee DPS classes fare poorly, because they do about the same damage as ranged DPS (sometimes less) with the drawback of having to close to the target. This does seem to get better as classes gain levels (oh, sorry, RANKS) and gain access to more alpha-strike dump skills, but it makes levelling them pretty painful.  It’s hard to tell what balance will be like at the top end since, well, thanks to the grindgrindgrindgrindgrind hardly anyone knows what that’s like.  But I suspect Squig Herders will still be at the bottom of the food chain!

What do you know, PvE isn’t all that. I hesitate to ding Warhammer on this too much, because I suspect a lot of my fatigue with their PvE is simply my Being. Really. Tired. Of. Being. Told. To. Go. Kill. Six. Things. By. A. Generic. Fantasy. Character. I knew I was in trouble when my character turned a corner, encountered a vista of 5 or 6 NPCs all with the quest available icon over their head, and my first, immediate, unbidden reaction was “Oh God, no.” Generally, when you dread the arrival of more content, this is not a good thing. Of course, you can ditch PvE entirely and just play scenarios until your eyes bleed, but then that becomes yet another grind.

Community Shammunity. You know what Warhammer SHOULD have copied from World of Warcraft? The forums. Yes, I’m going to disagree pretty strongly with my homegirl here, because as a ordinary everyday average player, I don’t feel as though there’s a central zone of news and rumor dissemination. The “War Herald” is workable, but the news isn’t very detailed, and there seem to be a balkanization of forums – the primary forums SEEM to be Warhammer Alliance, but there isn’t a lot of traffic there, at least what you’d expect from 3/4 of a million subscribers. If anything, Warhammer’s convinced me that MMOs need officially sanctioned/operated forums just due to the perception that in the 21st century EVERY company does. (And yes, I am aware that Mythic operates or used to operate private forums, and I HOPE YOU SPECIAL PEOPLE ENJOY THEM VERY MUCH.)

So, yeah, not a whole lot of negativity there. I’m sure you’re all very disappointed! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m told we have magic cookie bars here at the office. Which is somewhat frightening.

Five Things To Do In Altdorf When You’re Dead: What I Like About Warhammer

People might get the cursory impression, from reading my blog, that I like making fun of Mark Jacobs. This is, in fact, true! Duh. I mean, come on, I used to work for the guy. Tell me you wouldn’t mind poking fun of your ex-boss on the Internet when he wears goofy glasses during an interview. There are some temptations man was not meant to pass up. And of course, before that I wrote a lot of pointy things about Paul Barnett. This was mainly because, at a certain point, 87% of my Google Reader headlines were various permutations of “OMG I WANT TO HAVE THE BABIES OF THIS BLOKE THAT TALKS ABOUT SETTING HERETICS ON FIRE WITH A FUNNY ACCENT” and I like to be different.

That being said, people might also think I was turning into some sort of bitter detractor on the Internet of all things Mythic in general and Warhammer in specific who does nothing but posting bitchy notes about how your online game of choice turns you stabby and full of hatred. You could call such a collection of vitriol a… hm… maybe a “rant site”? That could work. And I’m sure they are out there! But I don’t really have experience with writing one of those, so in the meantime, I’m going to point out things I actually like about Warhammer and why.

And yes, there is another, darker, harsher list – but ironically, it’s shorter. Today we are THIMKIN POSITIVELY.

So: my list, of all things great and small, what other MMOs should take away from Warhammer.

Instant PVP. You can do the PvP thing immediately following character creation, and what’s more, not completely suck.  Thanks to upranking you can sort-of kind-of contribute from level 1. Which is appropriate – the game still gives you a reason to level upward. The same applies to equipment – you gain access to a baseline of equipment through “renown gear” unlocked through PvP, but you’ll want to supplement it.  And entering a “scenario” (instanced PvP battle) is as easy as clicking a big helpful logo button. No fuss, no muss, no running somewhere, you get teleported to a battle, then teleported back. Makes no sense from a fantasy immersion standpoint, but then again, neither do instanced battles, so whatever!

And most importantly, you can advance your character this way as well. You gain experience and money through simply competing in scenarios, and level-appropriate gear can drop from other players as well.

So in short, you’re not waiting on the “endgame” for the fun. The fun’s right there. This is HUGE. This is your takeaway. Get players into the fun bits quickly and they can see whether or not it’s for them. And if it is, they’ll stay. This is Warhammer’s greatest triumph – in a class/level/combat-centric MMO, the “you must be this high to enjoy yourself” signs have been removed from the amusement park.

Open groups. A lot of people (including at Mythic) talk about Public Quests as Warhammer’s big innovation. I’m going to disagree – as implemented, from what I can see, they aren’t that different from other quests, and have issues of scale when no one else is around to help in completing them.

However, it does leverage Warhammer’s grouping paradigm — where most games default to “closed groups” where you invite other people to your party, in Warhammer the default is for all groups to be open admittance, and you can just decide which party to crash. The game’s interface shows open parties in your area, and critically, how far away they are and what they are doing (be it public quest or open-world PvP). Click a group, and you’re in it.  That simple.

Other games have had open groups, but critically, I think, Warhammer’s had them from day 1, built into the interface, so the game’s community has adopted them. The hit most designers make against open groups is that you are just a faceless mob, and this is for the most part true of groups that I’ve joined, but it isn’t always the case. I spent the better part of an evening on an RP server as an irritated Black Orc in an open group looking to kill as many people as I needed to to get a new choppa. (Because, hey, what else do Orcs look for in life?) This worked, partially because I was on an RP server where everyone believes themselves an actor, and it’s on the Greenskin side where all you have to do to be in character is talk like a British soccer hooligan.

Open groups encourage socialization, and in the long term draw people into guilds. And being part of the core game from the start instead of the result of various reactionary patches (such as WoW has seen) ensures community adoption.

I’m busy, and also, I’m dumb. No, really, I am. I don’t want to spend hours to figure out where something is. Warhammer understands this. I can pop open my map and it’ll tell me where I need to go to finish a quest. There are addons for WoW that do this – in Warhammer it’s inherently part of the game. It saves me the step of looking up online where I need to go to do something, which everyone does anyway, so acknowledging this is a good thing. No really, we can’t do everything. Have at it. Speaking of addons, Warhammer also has opened up their client scripting interface, and quite a few useful things have already been crafted up. This really needs to be a requirement from every game going forward – the client is how we interface with the game, and everyone tends to have different preferences with how all that information flows from server to eyeballs and fingertips.

Tome of Knowledge = Concentrated Awesome. What happens when you keep a quest journal in the basement, feed it the blood of pixies and write in it with the ink drawn from the tears of Nobel laureates? You get something much like the ToK, which effortlessly unlocks tons of backstory for wherever you are at any given moment, but in a very passive behind the scenes way so it isn’t just WALL OF TEXT IN YOUR FACE when you’re trying to play. It also steals very smartly from Xbox Achievements, giving you the Pavlovian ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED dialogues whenever you do… well, anything.

And yes, I spent half an hour on a character doing swan dives off a cliff, just so I could have AAAAAAHHHHH show up as a title under my name. Because it’s always key to get things exactly right.

Age of Conan Talks About Future, Insists They Have One

Jørgen Tharaldsen, Product Director at Funcom, talks to MTV about long term prospects for the game not World of Warcraft or Warhammer:

I think it’s okay to say that we simply didn’t deliver as good as we should have on all the launch features. That said, I do think we went out the gate with some extremely strong ones too (i.e. combat, graphics, presentation, audio, maturity, story and quests, Tortage etc.), which made us a giga-hit in retail and gave us some great reviews. But on other features we just didn’t polish it well enough, including our items, tradeskills, system performance and PvP.

Oh, and nerfing anyone with breasts. But that’s better now!

I also think the question is symptomatic of some of the word of mouth issues we have. There is no denying that we launched “Age of Conan” with initial issues, but the memory and word of mouth of what we once were compared to what we have done to the game since launch, and where we are going, doesn’t necessarily match up.

This just in: launching a polished product MAY be important. But it’s OK, because, well, the fantasy MMO market just isn’t that crowded!

I think we can also see, pretty clearly, the competitive landscape for fantasy MMO’s well into 2011 or so. For the fantasy genre there are some five plus western majors which are live (”WoW,” “WAR,” “Lord of the Rings Online,” “Guild Wars,” “Conan” and “EverQuest,” with dark horses here and there), and only a few major ones (that I know of) which are coming up in the next couple of years. That means we have a solid chance of remaining a key contender in the fantasy space for many years to come, with strengths the others won’t match.

We won’t ever be #1 like “WoW,” but we will for sure fight for the space below them.

Hopefully without slower combat animations.

I’m Not Your Viral Marketer

In the past three days I’ve gotten four seperate appeals to hype their thinly-related-to-gaming product. I just now got one from an ad agency representing a national TV network, hyping a flash game. 

Clearly, my role has shifted, from “ranter” to “analyst” to “game developer” to that oh-so-trendy term – blogger.  And thanks to my doing this for, god, way too long now, I apparently am at the top of everyone’s marketing email spam lists.

Some of which are good. I like Paradox games. Paradox sends me press releases and the occasional beta (Hearts of Iron III, k? thx). I don’t mind hyping them, because they make niche products that in the main, I really like. This is a positive example of symbiotic viral marketing. I like insanely complex strategy games, you the blog reader probably know this about me, so when I talk about them, you might find them of interest and buy them yourself, and Paradox makes more money and makes… well, games I don’t like much. But anyway, USUALLY it works!

But a lot of the appeals I get now are from products that have only the vaguest connection to what I write about, and some of them are… well… from pretty skeevy characters. You see, I debated internally for a few minutes whether to even post that link – not because the core concept (paying street people with a few dollars worth of snack food to hold your signs while mocking them) is offensive, but because it’s also really clear which product is being advertising. And by linking you to them, even indirectly, the guerilla marketing worked. Which is precisely, you know, why it was mailed to me in the first place, with the full knowledge that I would work up a righteous fury over the concept of exploiting the homeless. So, if you follow that link, please assume they’re actually advertising jewel-encrusted Sarah Palin-branded iPods instead. Thanks. 

And quit sending me unsolicited appeals to flog your product. Either it’s related to the gaming industry (in which case I’m at worst a direct competitor and at best aware enough of my surroundings to note it anyway) or it’s just some scheme to milk the Intertubes of money, and, well, again I’m a direct competitor, k?

Oh, and now since I’m an officially trendy blogger, I demand the political elite start listening to my wants and needs. You can start with toning down the Nuremburg rallies.

Does This Mean We Get Some Of That Sweet Sweet Bailout Money?

Alex Pham of the Los Angeles Times on how no, the gaming industry is not in fact immune to the meltdown of our global financial system.

The video game sector dropped much more sharply than the Nasdaq. Activision Blizzard Inc. saw more than $4 billion in market value vanish this week, close to a quarter of the Santa Monica company’s value. Electronic Arts Inc. lost more than $2 billion.

Theories abound about why game companies are suffering worse than the broader market, calling into question the notion that the sector is recession-proof because it provides more entertainment bang for the buck.

How To Interview (As) A Game Designer

A pretty good article on the subject here.

Look for signs of a deep interest in gaming. The resume should indicate gaming as a way of life, not just a job. Modding experience is especially a key sign. Anyone who wants to be a game designer has an extensive record of making games in their spare time, for free: making levels for favorite games, modding, writing game material, creating board games, RPG background, story writing, etc.

This is almost a stereotype now, but it’s there for a reason. Having something – anything – in your portfolio shows that You Mean Business and have something tangible you can point to that shows:

  • Your writing skills (and yes, spelling and grammar count)
  • Your ability to stay with a project to completion (if we’re going to invest in training you in our tools and procedures, this is kind of a big deal)
  • Your knowledge of what makes something fun

Another important trait, which the article somewhat hints at but not enough, is passionate opinion. For those who read MMO message boards, it may be a surprise that this can be difficult to find sometimes. For those who read this blog, it may even be more of a surprise that *I* had the problem of not expressing a strong opinion in interviews when I started interviewing as a designer. Luckily, someone pointed out that, you know, based on the past 10 years of my writing, they really did expect me to have an opinion or 12. It was OK.

In my last position, I interviewed a lot of designers. The ones we hired were ones that had something to show in many cases – but also the ones that had opinions and passion. My favorite question was, when asking someone what MMO they were currently playing (it was always World of Warcraft) to ask them what was their least favorite zone and why. The ones that shrugged and said “eh, I kinda liked them all” sent up danger flares. The ones that could explain passionately why they hated the CRAP out of Stranglethorn Vale passed. The one that said no, he actually couldn’t stand Nagrand, and listed off some very good reasons why, got to be our lead world builder. And I liked Nagrand.

Of course, you also have to do the other usual job interview stuff. Be personable, approachable, don’t check your watch 15 times during the interview (several did this) and above all, when we ask you what you did at your last job, don’t say “I was pretty burned out, so I did nothing but run BGs with my shadow priest all day” (yes, someone did this).

Then, for reasons I’m sure everyone’s pretty well aware of by now (hi2u, exploding Austin dev community!) I got to swallow my pride and do the interview circuit my own bad self. Strongly expressed opinions told while smiling? Check. Humility laced with self-assertiveness? Check. Prior body of work? Che… oh wait, we didn’t actually SHIP anything at NCsoft, and my sole design contribution to DAOC was an /autoloot command 2 weeks before I left. Guess I’d better wave my arms a lot for dramatic effect! It helped that I could wax eloquently on this point:

No design survives first contact with code: Ask them to describe an example of a feature change/cut and how they adapted to it. If they worked on a game, they should be able to describe at least one feature in the original design that was cut (for whatever reason), and describe why they chose that feature and how it impacted the rest of the game.

Oh BOY could I wax eloquently on that point. Dealing with this makes you an experienced designer/bitter, jaded old man. Some of the engineers came with me to John Galt from our project at NC, and they STILL taunt me about the long and painful process we went through. “So how doable do you think [random very reasonable design spec] is?” “You’ll never see it, and two years from now you’ll be drinking heavily and cursing my name.” “Right. Carry on.”