Let's say that you were placed in charge of Warhammer development sometime prior to the game's September launch.
The basic rules are:
- You have foreknowledge, through some combination of thought experiment future vision and/or focus groups/playtesting, of what major problems the game would face when it went live.
- The game's launch cannot be delayed due to harsh financial reality.
- Locking Mark Jacobs in a closet somewhere for a few months so that he can't make promises his game won't be able to deliver on, though potentially satisfying on an emotional level, won't actually solve any problems.
- You can make two types of changes in the game.
The first are things that don't require major coding, such as changing the values of things that were in the game as of September 18th (such as exp rewards), which we'll presume that Mythic could have done freely.
The second are substitutions - new features (or ones that have subsequently been delivered in patches, such as oRVR influence) that require significant programming. These, however, would require reassigning programmers from elsewhere, and therefore cutting a similar sized feature elsewhere in the game.
Is there a single change that could have been made that might have left Warhammer in better shape today?
Two of Warhammer's biggest issues at launch were general client stability, which is presumably too big of a fish to fry for our little experiment, and World of Warcraft (specifically, having hundreds of thousands of bored WoW players slam the servers at launch, forcing the creation of new ones, only to leave those servers deserted when Wrath came out two months later), which is also beyond our fictional control. Cross those off the list, though, and it seems like the largest issue that people were talking about was how everyone was hidden away in instanced scenarios. This meant that no one was out in the non-instanced world to participate in open RVR, or the game's highly touted public quests.
Mythic has since attempted to address the RVR issues with increased incentives for open RVR via world events and a new influence system (though some people have argued that this has led to keep flipping). The public quests have proven a tougher nut to crack, and Mythic ultimately opted to rebalance some Public Quests for smaller groups to allow the smaller than expected outdoor PVE population to cope. However, presuming everything is wrapped up by March, these changes will reach live servers six months after the game's retail launch, and I can't even begin to guess where we could cut six months elsewhere from the development process to have any of them in place back in September.
An imperfect solution?
Those of you who read the subject of the post can figure out what I'm about to suggest here - what if Warhammer's scenarios did not award experience?
The essential issue, which I summed up back in October, is that you can get experience in either outdoor quest content or in instanced scenarios, but you can ONLY get reknown, Warhammer's PVP experience, in PVP content. Reknown doesn't just get you a head start on your RVR level, it ALSO gets you access to Reknown reward gear. This stuff isn't as good as public quest rewards, but there's also no "vegas style loot" roll to see who gets it, and no need to worry about whether there are enough players to beat the boss of the public quest. Just click "queue" and you'll get a group of players and a large chunk of both exp and reknown, win, lose, or draw. Why would you choose PVE for exp and gear when scenarios offered exp, reknown, gear, AND were more fun besides?
(We're ignoring non-instanced RVR for this thought experiment because it was underutilized until Mythic made the changes they made, and I'm not sure what could have been cut to cover it.)
If one imagines that experience from scenarios was reduced or eliminated, it might follow that players would choose to do more non-instanced quests to get levels. These players would then be out in the world in sufficient numbers to complete public quests and attack battlefield objectives. Could this change have made Warhammer less of the scenario grind players complained it became at launch, and more of the balanced game that Mythic had in mind when they created all the non-instanced content that ended up sitting around, underutilized?
For a counterpoint, I'm going to quote myself from last October:
"Meanwhile, they don't want to take an RVR game and force players to spend more time on PVE content (either by nerfing scenario exp or via greatly increasing PQ exp). They're marketing to PVP players who don't want to do PVE content, and, at any rate, boosting exp in PVE content would just encourage players to level to the cap and worry about reknown when they get there (in the process missing the best part of the game in the low-end scenarios).
... The best part of the game are the scenarios, so I don't see why it makes sense to work so hard at getting people to leave them."
Clearly, I would not have liked this change, had it appeared in a patch sometime mid September.
The charge of "forcing PVP players to do PVE" is one that I can't rebut, though the truth is that this may have happened anyway with Warhammer's current system of ward armor. There's also the issue that not having to PVE to PVP was one of the game's talking points in comparison to WoW, and taking away the RVR-only progression path might have encouraged players to compare the two games on solo-PVE content (where WoW generally wins, since that's arguably the game's main focus today).
There's also a secondary issue that many players were already concerned about the experience curve with the game as is, and removing a source of experience would exacerbate that problem. You could kind of attempt to bandage that by guesstimating that the average player gets X% of their experience from scenarios and reducing the experience requirement per level by that amount, but even determining that that number should be might be a more in-depth exercise than our thought experiment would allow us to carry out without cutting something else from the game.
Finally, it's worth noting that Mythic could always have reverted or adjusted this hypothetical change in a subsequent patch once the incentives for the rest of the game were done. "Our latest update delivers a major feature players are asking for, greater experience from scenarios...."
Effects on retention
Last week wasn't the best of times for Warhammer. EA finally released a subscriber number as of the end of the fourth quarter, and it was 300,000. Given that the game had 750,000 accounts by mid-October (and presumably continued to register additional accounts for the subsequent two and a half months, though no one is saying how many), the game's retention rate wasn't great. See a full Book of Grudges roundup for more community details, and /cheer that BOG is back up and writing. ;)
Some of those players were going to leave anyway. Some who stayed might have hated the change I'm suggesting here badly enough that they would have left. Still, the overabundance of incentives for the game's (thoroughly enjoyable) scenarios did not help Mythic showcase the game as it was intended to be during that crucial first month. Perhaps more drastic action might have made a difference.
Does anyone else have a better answer to my little thought experiment?
P.S. This post was inspired by a remark from Snafzg last week, on the game's financial situation:
"I really wish WAR would have delayed for more polish, but given EA’s Q3 losses, their books would have been hit even harder. I wonder if it was worth the trade off from a management point of view. Seems like a catch 22 to me..."