Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Non-Player's Perspective on Warhammer Patch 1.2

Certain people apparently feel that the timing of WoW's 3.1 PTR's is an attempt by Blizzard to overshadow the launch of Warhammer's 1.2 patch. I remain skeptical - when Blizzard decides to bury you in hype, it's generally a bit less subtle than having your top guys encourage players to try other games, and it's not like there's anytime in the next four months where Mythic doesn't have something planned - but I suppose it's only fair that I offer the Mythic crew a little publicity just in case.

It's a pretty massive patch, with many quality of life improvements and some big name features. (See Syp's summary if you want the cliff notes.) Wading through the notes, two things really stood out to me.

Closing the book on the cut classes
Last July, Mythic made the tough call to cut 4 of the 6 capitols, and 4 of the 24 classes from the game's launch. Judging from the size of Syp's blogroll that week, it's fair to say that the news made a huge impact on the community. With the new patch, six months after the game's launch, the four classes are back, and I'm not sure that anyone really misses the cities. In some ways, the patch today brings that hard chapter in the game's life to a close.

(At the time, I wrote, "the biggest MMORPG left on the horizon sounds like it's going to have more than six months worth of postponed development work after it launches". You know what they say about a stopped watch being right twice a day....)

In some ways, "these classes suck" might have been less damaging from a PR front than officially cutting the classes, but cutting them was the right call, and I salute Mythic for making it. Even if you don't give extra credit for restoring cut content, restoring the classes has been something concrete for the community to hold onto through the rocky launch months. As an extra bonus, the delay allowed them to come up with some excuse to swap out the under-whelming Hammerereruhruhruhr class out for the popular Dwarven Slayer. (In the lore, Slayers don't want to be revived after they find honorable death in battle, which is a problem for MMORPG characters - I haven't heard if there ever was a good explanation for how that got swept under the rug, but the result is for the best.)

The other thing we can say, in hindsight, is that Mythic having to make such a tough decision several months in advance of the game's release was a red flag in terms of the game's progress. As I pondered at the time, these things got cut precisely because there were other, more pressing problems lurking behind that pesky beta NDA.

Feeling Swindled by Mark Jacobs over Public Quests
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you may have noticed that I actually LIKE group PVE content. What I don't like is the logistics that this content often requires - planning my offline life around being online and uninterrupted for a certain block of time and spending hours of my gaming time in the looking for group channel looking for a group with which to play the game instead of actually playing the game. Warhammer's highly touted Public Quest feature promised to take care of all that stuff for me, so that all I had to do is show up whenever I wanted to, stay for however long I wanted to, and get to take part in the more elaborate content that becomes possible when you presume that a reasonable group is attempting it.

The only catch was, Mythic got the incentives wrong. Scenarios played a major role in this process, though I don't mean to blame them for all of the problems the game had. The bottom line was that they had balanced the public quests around certain assumptions about how many people would be on hand to work on them and those assumptions fell apart on live servers with persistent characters. As a result, Mythic set out to rebalance public quests three months ago, and are finally delivering at least one public quest per zone that's tuned for solo players and small groups in today's patch.

Personally, though, I needed accessible quests for players in the level 12+ range when I hit that level back in September. Looking back, there is a part of me that felt betrayed by that failure. Mark Jacobs talked and talked and talked about how revolutionary this feature was. His words convinced me, so I paid him $50 (off of a gift card I got as a graduation present when I finished my Ph.D.), only to discover that Mark could not deliver the feature that he promised, because there hadn't been enough time left to figure out that they needed content for smaller groups.

The side of me that is an actual player (in addition to a blogger, a role in which I walk away with something to write about whether or not I have a good time), who plays these games because I enjoy them, felt swindled. Something that had been promised simply wasn't delivered, in a way that it's very hard to get away with in any other industry outside of gaming. (Can you imagine hiring a contractor to install a swimming pool, only to have them tell you that they ran out of time, so the pool will only be usable if you have at least half a dozen people in it, but maybe they'll be able to fix that if you keep paying them for six more months?)

In hindsight, it was nothing personal. Mark Jacobs felt that his game's best chance at success was to talk a whole heck of a lot and hope that customers would overlook the portions of the game that weren't ready for prime time. In some ways, my decision not to continue to give him money was equally impersonal - a simple business transaction that I chose not to make because I felt that the product was not worth the price of the subscription at the time. Still, part of me wonders how different my experience with Warhammer would have been had I taken my own advice and waited until now to consider trying the game.

Best Wishes for Warhammer's second launch
You don't really ever get a second chance to make a first impression, but, in many ways, today is Warhammer's second launch. In addition to the two biggies I mentioned above, the game has added "chain" repeatable quests that send players to objectives in the game's open RVR areas, a "zone domination" system that allows large armies that are actually dominating a zone to gain control of it, and the option for low level characters to teleport to outdoor skirmishes in progress. (One wonders whether high level players will miss that feature when they level past it.)

Looking to the future, the game seems to have addressed the major nagging issues from launch, and is now free to focus on new and different things, including their upcoming RVR-focused dungeon. I certainly won't fault them for choosing not to work on reinstating the cut cities just yet - why add in more of the same when you've already got two perfectly good capitols and other, more interesting ideas for what to add next?

Though I suppose my own experience with Mythic's PR machine has left me with high hopes but low expectations, there's no reason why there shouldn't be good things ahead for this title. As Scott Jennings points out amidst his Darkfall coverage, the industry could really use a hit that isn't made by Blizzard, and one would like to think that it isn't too late for Warhammer to fill those shoes.


Stabs said...

I deliberately didn't try Warhammer at launch but had it in mind to try after I get bored of WoW. I'm also quite drawn to Darkfall.

I have some ongoing passion for WoW which I will play through but if an when I get bored of WoW then I will definitely pick my next game with the view that most of these products are just horrible on release and the time to play is at least 6 months down the line.

I think Age of Conan and Vanguard also support this view.

It seems there's an industry standard now for launching unstable and badly tuned games then tuning and optimising after release.

I can understand this - after all how do you understand your own game's incentives structure until you see players actually start abusing it?

In this context your blog serves an absolutely vital role and should be part of the required coursework of any game design student. Incentives are so key to the success of these games and so badly understood that your work here in analyzing and raising awareness is absolutely invaluable.

Many thanks for a great blog.

Green Armadillo said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Part of the industry standard is harsh economic reality. As Scott Jennings points out, it takes a huge budget to be able to hold games until they're actually done. Still, players might not expect so much of games if the PR people would be more reasonable in what they say about their products.

I've been meaning to take a look at the problem of test server motivation for a while now - both Blizzard and Mythic have been blindsided by how much harder players will work to exploit any loopholes in the system for their own persistent characters, compared to temporary beta characters. Only thing is, I'm not sure what to say about it, other than that it's a problem. Some games do have persistent test servers, but even that is a self-selecting subset of the community.

Skar said...

Some of the more interesting things that are happening, is the guild related stuff. Crafter merchants providing appropiate level materials. Slightly faster mounts. All when your guild reaches certain mile stones.

One of Warhammers stronger points, is it relentless live event schedule. Which I think is a definite tick in the MMO check list.

All they need to do is put some decent dungeons under Altdwarf.

I do agree that todays/yesterdays release is a very strong patch and if it doesn't tempt a person back , then ultimately nothing will. I know my guild is very hopeful about the domination mode for the opportunity for smaller fights, with less zerging.

Dallanna said...

So, would this post be a somewhat reluctant recommendation for Warhammer Online?

I've been curious about it, since I keep hearing that the Warrior Priest class has been what the WoW paladin class shoulda been, but considering I only got time for one MMO, I stuck with wow since it's been around longer.

Green Armadillo said...

Dallanna: If I hear the news right, Warhammer now has an actually free trial. (Previously, you had to get a referral from an existing player - if you can't find the free trial, click through one of the several links to Syp's blog in my post, I'm pretty sure he's still handing em out.) In your shoes, I'd recommend the free trial without reservation, as all it would cost you to try the game would be a night or two.

I didn't try the Warrior Priest personally, but people do seem to like it. It's a healer with something that sounds a lot like a Rage bar, and people seem to think that they're pretty durable.

In general, I didn't have a bad time with the game when I played it, I just felt like it was messing a bit of depth because people were not using either public quests or the open RVR "lakes". It sounds like both of these issues are a lot better, though now players are complaining that the endgame is a bunch of repetitive instance runs or keep sieges. Your mileage may vary depending on how fast you get to rank 40 and how much you enjoy running the content independent of the chase for random loot. Personally, I'm somewhat in your situation, I'm enjoying the two games I'm already juggling, so there simply isn't time for me to consider going back to Warhammer at the moment.