Warhammer Online: Exclusive Interview with Producer, Josh Drescher
One year ago today, Warhammer Online went live and the world of PvP hasn't been the same since. Mythic had been the granddaddy of Realm versus Realm combat for years, but even they had a few missteps along the way with Warhammer's release. Ten Ton Hammer recently had the chance to sit down with Producer, Josh Drescher, and what an interesting interview it was. In a unique twist in the interview world, Josh stepped up to the plate and didn't beat around the bush with any answer. Whether you're a current player, one that has been gone from the game for a time, or someone that is hoping to hop into the frenetic, fast-paced, and brutal in-your-face combat that Warhammer revels in, you owe it to yourself to read this refreshingly straightforward, push-off-no-blame interview. Ten Ton Hammer: The experience and renown curve has varied since the launch of Warhammer Online in terms of open-world RvR, scenario RvR, PvE, etc. Are those kinds of adjustments still in the game, or were they just temporary until something settled out? Josh: Those things are areas that we're always looking at in terms of internal metrics, trying to find areas where we feel like, particularly the experience leveling curve, either tapers off or it drags too much. The polite thing that you were tiptoeing around, and I'll just say it explicitly, Tier 3 dragged like crazy and was terrible.
One year ago today, Warhammer Online went live and the world of PvP hasn't been the same since. Mythic had been the granddaddy of Realm versus Realm combat for years, but even they had a few missteps along the way with Warhammer's release. Ten Ton Hammer recently had the chance to sit down with Producer, Josh Drescher, and what an interesting interview it was. In a unique twist in the interview world, Josh stepped up to the plate and didn't beat around the bush with any answer.
Whether you're a current player, one that has been gone from the game for a time, or someone that is hoping to hop into the frenetic, fast-paced, and brutal in-your-face combat that Warhammer revels in, you owe it to yourself to read this refreshingly straightforward, push-off-no-blame interview.
Ten Ton Hammer:
Players finished up the Wild Hunt this weekend. What kind of turnout did you have for the event? Was it something that was mainly for the gamers already playing or did you have a lot of players re-subscribing to take part in the Wild Hunt?
Philosophically, the live events are intended to cover what you just implied. They're intended to be something new and exciting for existing players. They're intended to be something attractive for people that maybe played in the past that are teetering about whether or not they want to re-subscribe.
Then also, it gives us something to talk about publicly for potential new players. Through the trial, we do have new people coming in every day. So you've got thousands of people coming in every day and trying the game and the live events give us a way to introduce them to special events, trying to give them something that makes them feel attached to the world quickly and so forth.
I would say that primarily, the people that enjoy them are long-term players mainly because the live events kind of represent a history of your character. The items and titles and experiences that you've had there that are sort of unique are things that you can point to with new or returning players and say, "Hey. You weren't here for it, but I got this particular title or this particular time, this particular weapon, or this particular piece of armor from this particular event. Here's what happened," so and so forth.
We're looking forward to some of the events from last year coming back over the course of the next year like the ones that are more directly affiliated with specific holidays. So you'll see Night of Murder, Witching Night, things like that come back annually as we continue to work on the ongoing process that is Warhammer live. The live events are a great way for us to stay connected with our existing players, to constantly add new content to the game and so forth.
The Wild Hunt was near and dear to my heart. It draws from Warhammer iconography, some of the Warhammer mythology, the white stag, etc. But it also gave me an opportunity when doing interviews to talk about Ted Nugent. That was very important to me.
It's kind of like Ted Nugent meets Warhammer. You wander out into the forest, you've got all your weapons, and the red mist sort of descends over your eyes, and you go flying out into the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, you find that you're in a new area because there was a unique dungeon available only during the Wild Hunt.
You're in that area, you're killing lots of stuff, hunting things down, and you wake up a few days later. You're covered in boar and you've got all the things you just earned so you take all these trophies back and show them to your friends so you try to take them back to this mystical hunting ground but it's disappeared. Everyone kind of looks at you and goes, "I don't know, Nuge. This might be another one of those 'madness of the hunt' episodes.
Ten Ton Hammer:
Did you do anything different when developing the Wild Hunt, or was it similar to the other events we've experienced in the past?
This was a pretty unique event because we had access to a limited-time dungeon. We've done specific scenarios that were available during individual live events, but this was really the first time we offered a large-scale piece of PvE dungeon content for players. We were pretty excited about that. It was kind of an extension of some of the content sensibilities that we had from Land of the Dead.
We tried to introduce kind of more like a platform style of gaming to try and break away from that traditional MMO feel that while yes, I am in the world and it does have geometry and so forth, it always feels like the content is always taking place on one continuous flat surface. Amplifying the feel a little bit more, like a blade that's swinging back and forth in front of me in the Land of the Dead in some of the dungeon areas that I need to be careful around as I'm moving through that or like tricks and traps. Players responded really positively to that because it's coherent and it makes sense with the way that they play other types of games. I think as MMO's become more mainstream you're going to have a lot more of that quality of implementation being expected especially with PvE content.
So, yeah. Time limited dungeon, something that we've done for the first time, keeping that sort of platform game style that we first introduced with Land of the Dead. It's part of the never-ending process of expanding the Warhammer Online experience.
Ten Ton Hammer:
So the final three events are happening over the next three weekends. What can you tell us about the scenarios? Are they new for this event?
We're bringing back some scenarios that we've introduced with previous live events. We're also making an effort to make this more accessible to people from various tiers of play. The game is a year old at this point, so we do have by and large a fairly mature population with people that tend to be in the third and fourth tier and in the past, we've tended to just focus a lot of the content on them. But since we've launched the free trial, we also have a substantial number of new players coming in regularly so we want to be sure that during the live events, or the anniversary events, and so forth, that if you're coming back and rolling a new character or coming in the for the first time that you're not feeling excluded from these events that are taking place.
That's actually a goal we have moving forward for all future live events and for Warhammer overall, to make the game more accessible all the way from the beginning to the end, trying not to focus new content or anything else exclusively on one section or another. There are obviously going to be exceptions like, 1.32. We're introducing a new user experience and that's obviously far more useful to a new player than it is to someone that may be re-rolling or is already in a higher tier. Generally speaking for content though, we're going to try and make things as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.
Ten Ton Hammer:
Can you talk about 1.32 a little bit?
Everything is subject to change until the day that we actually launch the patch, but philosophically, some of the types of things we're trying to target are ongoing premier balance is probably job one. Trying to make sure that some of the imbalances that we've seen with some of the careers are worked out. We're looking at (sort of broadly) trying to normalize abilities across both realms.
We've kind of noticed over the past few months that there has been an up tick in dissatisfaction with some of the abilities that exist in one realm, but not the other. They don't have a direct correspondent on either side. So one of the things we're looking at in 1.32 is trying to normalize that and make sure that functionally, you're not at a disadvantage simply because of the realm that you've chosen.
And then sort of on a per career basis, just making sure that everybody is as close to balanced as you can ever get in an MMO. Sort of tied to that, we're going to continue our struggle with crowd control, trying to make sure that is not a particularly frustrating experience. You know, we've had some pretty obvious issues that we've already started to address. We're not totally happy with the state of things at the moment, but it's certainly better than it was a month or two ago. Really trying to make sure that players feel like the utility of a crowd control ability is still there but it's not so overwhelming that you feel like you're holding still half the time in a fight.
In addition to sort of premier stuff, we're looking closely at the high-end RvR experience. This is something that Executive Producer, Jeff Skalski, made some announcements a couple of months ago our willingness to take rather bold steps to improve what we feel is sort of the core of the game which is the RvR experience. We looked at particularly the campaign system. We felt like there were a couple of really glaring places that needed improvement.
One of those was sort of a bottleneck in the campaign taking place at the fortress level where you needed to take two of the three fortresses for the enemy realm before you could lay siege to a capital city. One, we were unhappy with the frequency with which that was actually succeeding. Two, we just didn't feel the performance of that experience was up to par. At the moment, the client does not respond as nimbly as we would like it to when you get the types of numbers that we were seeing in fortress attacks on screen at once. At the end of the day, while yes it would be awesome to support a thousand people on either side, you have to look at it and go, realistically, we can't do that in a satisfying way.
So we're not removing the fortresses, but we have some cool stuff in mind that I can't talk about just yet for how we're going to re-purpose them in the future. They'll remain in the game, they'll remain siegable, they'll remain holdable, and so forth. We just have decoupled them from the city siege campaign so you'll no longer need to take the two fortresses in order to assault an enemy's capital city.
Ten Ton Hammer:
So all you have to do is have faction control essentially?
Correct. All the zone control stuff remains the same. Literally, the only change is you don't need to take the fortress at the end of that zone to control. In addition to trying to improve the sense of competition and so forth in open world RvR, we had some concerns about keep sieges in general being too difficult. We previously had an issue where people didn't feel there was any incentive to defend, and as a result they would just hop the side of the wall and run away any time they got attacked.
So we've improved the arguments for defending but we felt that it was actually too difficult to successfully take a keep. Even if you were strategically planning your assault and you had the right type of numbers, having that choke point as only one ramp up to the keep made it very, very difficult for people to successfully attack keeps. We added a second ramp to each of the open world RvR keeps that effectively allows you to split your forces going up, but more importantly, it forces the defenders to disperse more broadly throughout that keep in order to successfully defend it. Part of that is just an ongoing desire for the RvR experience to be far more frenetic; to feel like it's a constant back and forth rather than a thing of once you've got control of some keeps it's actually a very easy thing for a limited number of people to get control and keep control of it. So there's a fair amount of RvR stuff in 1.32.
We're laying the ground work down for some stuff in 1.32 that I can't talk about yet but that will basically be the next as-of-yet unannounced live event, so people will start seeing some of the initial elements of that starting to trickle in.
From there, it's really all patch note things that will wind up in the eventual version of that gets announced publicly. But sort of broadly, our goal is very much focused on quality of service, improving the way that the game plays. We'll be introducing the new user experience which is intended to make it easier for people to understand what's going on in WAR, to make some of the existing support features that were in there more obvious.
Most people don't even realize there is a tutorial system in the game so we're trying to make that more transparent. In our effort to not have it be annoying, it actually became effectively invisible, so we're trying to make it still not annoying, but more obvious and apparent to a new player.
Ten Ton Hammer:
Are you making some UI changes with that new user experience?
Obviously, anything you try and do to make those extra things more visible involves adjusting the UI. We're trying to make those adjustments in a way that is not disruptive to existing players that don't need help, so like I said, nothing is finalized until the patch notes come out, but the goal would be it's much more obvious how things behave, it's much more obvious how you're supposed to be playing the game, it's much more obvious how to interact with the different parts of the world and to have that be in a way that is comfortable to players that are either coming from other MMO's or, more importantly, that have never played an MMO before.
We all have a tendency to say, "Well of course you've played EverQuest, Dark Ages of Camelot, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, etc. So we have these presuppositions of things we assume players already know. While actually, if you're coming from outside of MMO's, they're very daunting and that's one of the areas we've recognized over the last year that we needed some improvement on.
Ten Ton Hammer:
The experience and renown curve has varied since the launch of Warhammer Online in terms of open-world RvR, scenario RvR, PvE, etc. Are those kinds of adjustments still in the game, or were they just temporary until something settled out?
Those things are areas that we're always looking at in terms of internal metrics, trying to find areas where we feel like, particularly the experience leveling curve, either tapers off or it drags too much. The polite thing that you were tiptoeing around, and I'll just say it explicitly, Tier 3 dragged like crazy and was terrible.
Ten Ton Hammer:
Haha. Yes it did. Yes it was.
Yeah. You'd get through Tier 2 pretty quickly and then you'd hit Tier 3 like a brick wall. In my mind, we were very aggressive in the way that we addressed that and I think it was appropriate to basically go in there and say really ramp up the way that players travel through this section of the game. Because by that point, you've actually moved through the first half of the game. You're pretty much committed to, you know, "I actually like what this game has to offer." You've had a number of audit points to pass through and you've decided to keep playing and now you've got your eye on the prize. And then we just sit there and make it so you're barely moving through Tier 3. So players that were maybe with us early on and left as a result of that type of frustration, if you come back today, you'll find that the Tier 3 experience, it flies by in comparison.
There are additional improvements we're hoping to make to that in the future to have it be stuff that you want to be doing and hand off the rewards quickly enough that you feel like you're progressing at a sane rate. Other areas that we look at, we really do have three or four different progression systems in the game that can actually be independent of one another depending on how you choose to play. We have, obviously, the experience system for just sort of base leveling, we have the renown system for RvR competition, we have the influence system for public quests and PvE progression.
We started making adjustments to, particularly, the influence system pretty early on. The players can earn influence through RvR competition. Part of that was if I'm in middle of a public quest and I've been trying to move my influence along to earn some specific piece of armor or an item or reward of some kind and there's a battle going on in open-world RvR, I don't want to be de-incentivized from jumping into the fight. So giving you the ability to earn influence by fighting in open RvR in the area where you're gaining PvE influence meant that you were able to choose from whatever felt like it was the most significant thing to be doing at that time.
Those types of adjustments are things that we continue to make over time. We continue to look at level progression, renown progression, and try to make sure there aren't bizarre points where there's a spike in difficulty or where you slow down unnecessarily. We want players to always feel like they're always progressing in a meaningful way but that is always an ongoing challenge.
Ten Ton Hammer:
So switching gears a little bit, why did you decide to push Warhammer to the Mac? There's only a handful of MMO's that have really taken that step. That's not really a big player base, is it?
Well what's interesting is the idea that it's not a huge player base is actually predicated upon bad math. People have a tendency to look at the infamous statistic, and depending on who you look at it, it will vary anywhere from ten to fifteen percent. What percentage of the market does Mac currently "own"? Wow, they only have ten percent, fifteen percent, sixteen percent, or some small number. Then Windows... sheesh. It's just dominant. There are more computers running Windows, but those numbers are on a pure OS basis and they count everything from ATM's that are running Windows slim client to servers that don't even have keyboards attached to them, to desktop PC's and so forth.
If you actually take PC's that are used for gaming, and Mac computers (and I would argue that the majority of Mac users are in the demographic of those that would play games if they were available) and put those head to head, it's much, much more competitive. I think that that's been something that the gaming industry has missed over the past, probably ten years. Since the return of Steve Jobs and the continued sort of ascendancy as kind of a preferred platform for young, up and coming folks in the world. We’ve had a tendency to look at consoles and PC's and ignore Macs. About 18 months ago EA made a pretty strong decision internally to try and support Mac platforms much more aggressively.
Ten Ton Hammer:
So looking to the future, should we expect anything in terms of a boxed expansion coming anytime soon?
If you actually look back through the past 10 years of Mythic's history, with Dark Age of Camelot, we released stuff in retail expansions and we released some live expansions. Philosophically, we look at our products and go, if we're coming back to the well so to speak, and asking for another $50 every 18 months, that becomes a burden on the players that I think, and we've always felt, is somewhat inappropriate. Certainly, a retail expansion is something that is on the table. It's a thing that we could do if we feel that it's appropriate.
At this point in time we're very happy with the live event, live expansion system, giving us the ability to drive new content and significant new content to our players. We've added four new careers, we've added an entirely new geographical region to the game, we've added new scenarios, we've added new dungeons, we've added new systems - all without asking anything above and beyond the initial cost to purchase the game and a subscription. Personally, if I thought we could do that indefinitely, that's the way I would rather move forward anyway.
Curiously, you mentioned a boxed retail expansion and I think if you start to look ahead 5 years from now, the dominance of boxed products at all for this industry is going to have significantly tapered off. People are starting to wise up already that the games we are delivering are actually not products; they are services, and like cable television or internet access, or electricity, water, gas, whatever, that is actually much more attractive to the consumer to not be expected to pay a ton of money up front in order to access what you have to offer and to instead, annuitize that over time by subscriptions or micro transactions, or some other payment model that's a little easier on the consumer and doesn't require them to take a risk by spending $50 on a game they're not sure they're going to like long-term.
I would say that five years from now you won't see retail expansions at all. You'll service expansions and live expansions and you'll see the kinds of things that we're doing now and I'm happy to be at the forefront of that. But yeah. A retail expansion is always a possibility, but for now, we're very happy with the way that we've delivered content to people for the last year.
Ten Ton Hammer:
It was great talking to you again, Josh. Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us!