As of Wednesday last week, Warhammer Online is no more. I was one of the first 800,000 players who fought my way across the lands of Warhammer in 2008, and while I didn’t invest as much time as some of my friends (I never even reached max level, for example), I think that my placement in one of the top-ranking guilds from the game launch puts me in a good position to comment on its progression and ultimate fall.
The game captured what should certainly be considered a decent amount of the subscription gamer market share. Being developed by MMOG veterans Mythic, and funded by the deep coffers of Electronic Arts, it was well-equipped with infrastructure to handle its launch. The game was technically sound, had many intriguing design elements, and indeed it lasted a total of five years — a respectable amount of time in a competitive marketplace.
Its demise, I can only guess, comes from the fact that it began bleeding subscribers almost immediately after launch. From the very beginning, there was never a time when servers were not being consolidated in order to keep population high.
Why did the players leave? I have a few thoughts, unsubstantiated by any evidence, which may still be worthwhile for other game designers to consider:
- Until recently, nobody has ever left World of Warcraft for another game. The evidence of this is seen time and again by examining WoW subscriber numbers following expansion launches. A certain amount of (perhaps justifiable) hubris follows any MMORPG which presumes to challenge the reigning king while employing the same subscription model. I highly doubt the majority of the market share can sustain two or more game subscriptions simultaneously for the long term.
- The game design was under-serviced by the developer, who did not correct core design issues in a timely fashion (and frustratingly, they didn’t even bother to correct the simple ones first, which were nonetheless highly visible to the players). I believe that this is because the maintenance team was gutted shortly after the product launched, and I suspect that they were told to focus on free content updates rather than fixing issues that made certain class specializations nonviable, or fixing balance issues in PVP.
- There was less design discipline and testing applied to the end game than to the early game. After everything was said and done, the end game devolved into a very punishing and repetitive grind towards new equipment. Even the gameplay itself comes into question: the skirmish play was excellent, but the the fortress sieges were long and not particularly fun to play.
- The game had certain elements of an economy (crafting, an auction house), but in the end there was really nothing worth buying or making. Some of the consumables looked useful, but did not justify the effort taken to acquire the ingredients or craft.
- The loss of subscribers served to compound the issue itself. Much of the PVP experience (and even the Public Quests through which much of the story and world flavour was delivered) required a relatively large number of players to work, and a constant injection of new players into the lower tiers. It was a sort of subscriber Pyramid Scheme, where as soon as the population growth became net-negative, the entire game began to suffer.
The above observations can be contrasted for other games, such as Dungeons & Dragons online, Lord of the Rings Online, or even Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, which persist even today. You will find on close examination that they have each embraced alternative revenue streams, have vibrant (if in some cases small) development teams who maintain a long-term vision for the product, have rewarding endgames, and scale well in terms of population size for solo play.
But for this, Warhammer Online is still the more gone. The failure is quite tragic if you consider the amount of time and money it takes to build a game of such a scope. Call me thrifty, but I can barely imagine putting a couple hundred thousand dollars into a game engine which will be used for a single project and thrown away, much less one hundred million dollars on a game which will only last marginally longer.
Furthermore, when I think back on all of the excellent craftsmanship that was exercised in hundreds of characters, quests, and areas in Warhammer Online, I’m staggered by the loss. Losing games like Warhammer Online is to the game industry as losing early film is to the film industry. We will never again enjoy them, or have the examples to draw from to inspire our future work.