The Idea of Warhammer

While Games Workshop began as a small bedroom company focused on importing American roleplaying games for the British market, their own lineup of tabletop miniature games like Warhammer Fantasy Battle made them a power in their own right. By 1990, Games Workshop employed over 250 people, and by 1994, their shares were floated on the London Stock Exchange. However, while there were many successful Warhammer 40K (Warhammer‘s sci-fi relative) videogames, Warhammer‘s fantasy line struggled to find success in the age of electronic gaming, boasting some obscure PC strategy titles and not much else.

Their online effort, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR) is a star-crossed project. After costs began to rise under Climax Online, WAR‘s original developer, Games Workshop pulled its funding, ultimately killing Climax’s chances to secure a publisher. In the meantime, Mythic Entertainment’s decision to shelve its aggressively-promoted Imperator left the company looking for a new project. One thing led to another, and WAR found its way into Mythic’s Virginia-based development house.

Managing this marriage of American videogame and British tabletop game companies is Design Manager Paul Barnett, more business consultant than misty-eyed visionary. That’s not to say he’s unfamiliar with the industry, as his roots go back before Ultima Online, to the days when text-based dinosaurs ruled the Earth. “I wrote some MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) back in the early `90s,” Paul says, going through his resume. “One, Legends of Terris, went on to become the biggest MUD in Europe. After that, I went into business consultancy working with big business.” While he’d left the gaming industry, the gaming industry hadn’t forgotten about him. “I had stayed away from the computer industry and only went back into it because of two things: Warhammer and Mark Jacobs (Mythic’s CEO and lead designer for WAR). I met Mark years ago when my games were on AOL. He and I hit it off, but it took another decade before we could work together.”

While he’ll mumble about a dark conspiracy to bring him back into computer games, the real story isn’t quite so mysterious – on the record. “Games Workshop had just cancelled their first Warhammer game with Climax. They had decided that they would consider licensing out the project, but only to a company they trusted. As part of my consultancy, I suggested Mark and Mythic.” A remarkable series of coincidences came together, by his telling: “Games Workshop already had a history with Mark. I had introduced them a few years back. Once the magic had happened, both Games Workshop and Mark indicated they wanted me to be part of the project.” Conspiracy? “Quite simply, I was asked,” he says, though the rhythmic pattern of his blinking may just be Morse Code.

Balancing the desires of an old-school British tabletop game company with the urges of Mark Jacobs and the Mythic team can be, he says, “a difficult job. Games Workshop is rightly protective of Warhammer, and Americans are naturally optimistic that they can understand anything.” He serves as a liaison between the two, he says. “I spend most of my time helping both sides get the best out of each other, explaining the needs of Mythic to Games Workshop and vice versa.” When the inevitable culture and game design clashes pop up – “Two countries divided by a common language and different cultures, and all that” – it’s his job to mediate the dispute and get everyone on the same page.

The major challenge for a company taking something with a built-in audience and converting it to a videogame is deciding where to draw the line when it comes to strictly sticking to the existing property. I asked Paul for his thoughts on that, whether they are trying to get a complete, exact replication of the tabletop game, or if they are looking to capture the “spirit” of Warhammer itself. “[That question] has a very long answer that I really can’t do justice to here. But if I had to try and explain it, I would say it’s important to understand that we are not making a game based on the tabletop war game. We are taking the idea of Warhammer – the idea, concept, theories and feeling – and making the best Realm versus Realm MMOG we can.” He adds, “Warhammer is Batman,” meaning no matter what form Batman is in – be it comics, movies or LEGO – there is always a central theme, a sort of spirit of Batman’s character running through it.

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“It’s complicated,” he allows, “[but] trust me. It will be an MMOG that drips Warhammer.” To that end, they use the best resource available, the game system itself. Many designers would envy the extensive background on the Warhammer world, from the sourcebook to the miniatures game to fictional stories. When it comes to building the game, “We look to the eight points of Warhammer.” He starts ticking them off: “Empire, Battle, War, Magic, Monsters, Grudges, Humor and Chaos. These eight points, driven through endless, heroic, perpetual struggle are what our game is all about. As for where we get these points from, we go right to the source – Games Workshop’s Rick Priestly and Alan Merrett.” As the Shadowrun debacle was still fresh in my mind, and as Paul also faced the challenge of adapting an older games style to a new format, I asked him for his thoughts on whether Warhammer had “too much baggage.” “It’s back to the idea of Warhammer,” he answered, capturing both the difficulty of dealing with an established property, and the mindset required to overcome that obstacle. “We have a definitive vision we want to follow, and we get the best out of Warhammer when we stick to its core idea. That way, you don’t get caught up in all the ‘baggage.’ To mangle a quote, we fudge the IP for the gameplay and the gameplay for the IP. But we always aim to make tasty fudge.”

Outside of Warhammer‘s eight points, the Mythic team has three more guiding principles: “We want the game to work through skill, commitment and imagination,” Paul says. “Part of that is to reward players’ skill. We want to ensure that those people who bother to learn the best ways to play, find the best ways to gather information and make the most of their gaming time get a reward. It’s not communist in outlook. It’s about heroes being just that. If you have the commitment, the skill and the imagination, then you damn well deserve the best game experience.”

Since we were talking about game experience, I was curious about his “roots,” as in his likes and dislikes. You can tell a lot about a person by the games he likes. “I cite Bubble Bobble, GoldenEye 64, Civilization, Half-Life, Doom and Elite as some of the greatest games of all time,” he answers, which tells me he has taste. As for his MMOG touchstone, it’s a title that predates Ultima Online: “I think that Gauntlet (the arcade game) is the greatest MMOG of all time,” he says. While it may not suit the massive definition, the focus on small groups and constant combat should be familiar to anyone immersed in the genre.

The old school MUD designer negotiating the relationship between an old guard British company and the Young Turk Americans is the stuff geeky sitcoms should be made of. It will be interesting to see if it works out, especially considering Mythic’s lofty goals for the game. “We want WAR to be to the MMOG model [of] what Half-Life was to Quake – the same, but different; essentially the same tech, but a new experience. We want to move things on and to make a great game in a way that no one could see coming.”

In 1972, Shannon Drake was sent to prison by a military court for a crime he didn’t commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.

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