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Warhammer Online was pimped as the first convincing World of Warcraft competitor. It promised to create an experience that completely overhauled the tired MMO experience, with glorious Guild Vs Guild combat, Open Quests, proper Realm Vs Realm combat and a raft of other features. But it seems that WAR was generally unsuccessful at poaching the lucrative, and restless, “shifting voters” of Blizzard’s behemoth.
But why? Did Warhammer promise too much and not deliver? Or was it doomed to fail before it even opened the first retail server? On the anniversary of the first year since WAR hit the MMORPG landscape, I’ll explore why WAR fell from grace and joined the many other contenders before it to relative obscurity.
Warhammer Online was released on September 18, 2008, to an excited and rousing reception. Things were looking promising: the beta period was successful, players were spreading the word of a new kind of MMO, focused on delivering a great story and finding new ways to involve players in the active world, rather then continually funneling them into instances for gameplay.
Retail shipped, and the problems began. WAR had a less than stellar launch. With the record for the highest number of pre-orders for any brand new MMO IP, over a million players were unsuccessfully not logging on to the servers. Unfortunately, the retail version of WAR had shipped with a faulty executable, generating mass confusion and a relatively bad informed fix. It seemed to be the first of a few launch issues.
Servers, in the beginning, had huge problems with over population, lag, and a host of bugs and glitches. It could take, in some cases, over 40 minutes to an hour to connect, and when you did, you were stung by terrible ping times, and the many bugs, balance problems and such that, Mythic was forced to release a significant number of patches in the early days to fix all of the reported problems.
In the end though, it didn’t really matter. WAR *was* fun. The Open Quest system was fantastic, being able to just deviate into an active world event and work with strangers to complete goals for loot was a breath of fresh air. Joining other players to defend keeps, where teamwork was not only recommended, it was essential to repel invaders. One of the best moment’s I’ve ever had was a frantic two hour battle to defend a keep against wave after wave of player characters.
But issues with the core WAR play style began to hit home hard and hit home quickly. WAR was designed from the ground up to require significant amounts of active players to maintain realm balance. This then stemmed to every single feature in the game; from the very heavy PVP component (instanced battlegrounds, open world pvp, open quests and endgame RVR combat) to even a lot of the tougher PVE quests.
PVE was never really a focus for the title, and the developers had mentioned that while it had a strong PVE component, the meat of the game was in the PVP. Players complained from the beginning about the lack of, and diversity of, quests and instances. While some elements of the questing were unique, most quests were lazy interpretations of the “Get this, go here” mechanic that many other MMOs did better. As a result, most people preferred to grind battlegrounds to level.
It was obvious that the retention rate, essentially, the amount of people staying on past the initial 30-day block, was nothing like the number Mythic had planned for. While the initial active population started around a cool million, it quickly took a tumble month after month. At the end of October, less than a month later, the base had dropped to less then 750,000, over 250,000 less than launch. The next quarter was even more devastating for WAR, with the player base halving to barely over 300,000.
This had a catastrophic effect on play. In fact, even trying to play on a balanced PVP battleground was next to impossible a month after release. Mythic noticed the dwindling player base and made an active effort to condense it, closing servers (including the much lauded local Oceanic server) and providing incentives to players for joining other Realms. Even so, the player base was still spread like thin jam across far too many servers, making it difficult to complete a lot of the gameplay objectives.
It was then that the flaws in the cogwork were exposed for all to see. While other MMOs are likely to start with a strong PVE contingent as a fallback, WAR decided to put all of its eggs in a single basket and bank on a huge and constant population. But it was quickly obvious that most of the elements didn’t work. Open Quests weren’t compulsory to complete, so most people didn’t bother to do them. It was easier (and more fun) to level in the battlegrounds instead. Everything else relied on servers being full, people leveling steadily.
People have thought up all sorts of reasons why the player base dropped so significantly and so quickly after the game’s release. Some say that the game didn’t emulate WoW, and it failed to provide a gateway in the way a lot of other MMOs are doing (such as Aion) to make the early game similar then introduce new tactics and systems later as players get used to playing. Others think the very heavy emphasis on PVP scared off many PVE stalwarts back to the safe grounds of the worlds they knew and loved.
What’s key in all of this is that the MMO marketplaces has been developed, and WoW owns the mainstream. If you are going to develop a game that requires a WoW size (or even 1/6 of the player base) to operate, you need to be able to poach and sustain that base. MMOs like Eve Online are successful with smaller player bases due to significantly different gameplay and a much tighter community (one server).
WAR was ambitious and, sadly for its demise, very fun to play. But without a better PVE contingent and a larger population to sustain all of the PVP/PVPVE based activity, it was doomed to obscurity from the beginning. That said, it’s current player base on a few specific servers is high enough to still provide the full experience if you are willing to give it a go. But as a WoW killer, or even a contender?
I don’t think Blizzard’s worried any more.