In the hoopla around the announcement of their Collector’s Edition and a slew of previews of Realm vs. Realm, EA Mythic also revealed that they had decided to delay the launch of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning from Q2 until the fall of this year. General Manager Mark Jacobs took some time to talk to WarCry about the delay, the reason for it and what it means to the future of WAR.
“At each stage we look at what’s good what’s bad what’s not so great,” explained Jacobs. “Luckily all our key drivers, all have gone over extremely well.”
Jacobs explained that during the Beta, while nothing was perfect, there were no features that simply had to be tossed out, completely rethought or rebuilt. Many areas need work, but he feels that the test process has validated the game’s core design. “On the not so plus side, everything is taking a bit longer than we had hoped,” he added.
So if the systems were all holding up to the scrutiny of players, why then did they opt to delay?
“If we had tried to force the game out in the 2nd Quarter, as we had originally planned to release it,” said Jacobs. “We could have but it would have meant pretty much no time for polishing the game. The decision was to continue to iterate and reserve polish time.”
The main area that requires further attention, according to Jacobs, is class balance. He explained how the classes of Warhammer Online do not necessarily fall into specific boxes as they do in many MMOs. Most classes are multi-faceted hybrids of several traditional RPG classes and this means they need to rethink some of the conventions of MMO balance. “If you don’t release it right from the beginning with classes at least pretty much balanced, where they’re all fun, you’re not going to be in good shape in an [Realm vs. Realm] game.”
Realm vs. Realm (RvR) is the other reason that this process is so vital. WAR is competitive and players won’t have fun unless they’re on a even playing field. With their experience in Dark Age of Camelot, the only other major RvR game – a term they have literally trademarked – they of all people should be aware of the precarious nature of competitive MMO balance.
Jacobs insists that the delay is purely about polish, balance and fun and not stability. He admits the game’s client could be more stable and is – as yet – not heavily optimized. However, he believes that the core servers behind the game are definitely well on their way.
“It’s not as stable as Camelot it is, but it isn’t that far behind,” he said.
This is their advantage, having chosen to build on the platform of their previous MMO. Jacobs noted that they will pour more resources into client optimization over the next few months and then again heavily just prior to release, as was always the plan.
This is not the first delay for Warhammer Online and given the checkered history of Electronic Arts with MMOs, one wonders whether their owners were growing impatient.
“EA’s behind us and not being us with pitch forks, thank god,” Jacobs said. He explained how he believes that Mythic and EA as a whole have had a good open line of communication throughout the process. They have been sure to have EA people in the Beta so they can see the progress and know that when Jacobs asks for a delay, he’s doing it because the game really needs it.
Jacobs also noted that since the change in hierarchy over at EA, new CEO John Riccitiello has been a huge proponent of increased polish on all their games, or “raising the Metacritic”, as Jacobs called it. As such, when a game says they need time to achieve that polish, they have been supportive.
“They’re not happy, we’re not happy, no one here is happy that we’re not going to make our initial date, but they understand why.”
Cynically, one could argue that the game’s delay is actually more of a marketing decision. Fall is industry code for Christmas and Q2 is code for just before summer, when most people go on vacation. Jacobs admitted that could help them, but said that was just the way the months fell and not part of any nefarious plan to ship more units.
“On the plus side, you do have a fall where people are going to be looking for new games and we’re going to spend money,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s more competition. We cannot get really caught up [in marketing release dates].”
He pointed out that while they had previously been scheduled to launch along side Funcom’s Age of Conan, the delay might put them right up against Blizzard’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion for World of Warcraft. Ultimately, they can only worry about their own dates and let the rest take care of itself.
“I don’t believe anyone’s release date until the game goes gold,” he added. “Dates for any MMO are set in mud, never stone.” He doesn’t believe a release date – not even his own, he admitted – until he hears the words “gold master” and even then he cited a game (not an MMO) that managed to delay even after that fateful press release.
So, if release dates are so hard to predict for MMOs, why even announce a new one and should anyone in the community believe him?
“I told them not to believe it last time,” he laughed. “I always laugh when a developer says we’re absolutely going to make it; not unless you’re running out of money and cannot go on.”
In a few months time, they’ll come to the same crossroads they just arrived at. They’ll look at the Beta, they’re tracking, their feedback and the stability of the game. Then, they’ll decide whether or not its ready for retail. If it is, WAR will be waged. If it isn’t, they’ll delay again. It’s as simple as that for Jacobs.
“You’re going to find out things from your Beta that you cannot possibly imagine from your Beta. Anyone who says differently is either on crack or lying,” he added with his usual blunt style.
Over the next few months, EA Mythic plans to concentrate primarily on class balance and fun, then with a few months to go before launch, if they decide they’re ready, they’ll move on to a period of polish and iteration to make sure that the game is completely ready to stand up and achieve Jacobs’ long stated goal of becoming the second largest MMO, behind only WoW, on the market.
The delay does not mean players should expect them to pack in a round of glamorous new features. He said they do hope to put in more touches, especially art and other tweaks, but he doesn’t anticipate any big things.
“We might be able to pull one or two things in that are small that we were not planning to, but don’t count on it,” he said.
The changes to expect are things like new armor sets, additional effects and some additional cycles dedicated to the expansion of their crafting system.
Over the next few months, they plan to continue their Beta test and gather feedback through their community and robust tracking tools – Jacobs was especially proud of how they have been able to find and eliminate choke points in content through increased use of tracking and metrics – to smooth out the rough edges and hopefully make their fall launch target.