Comic-Con 07: Mythic's Lance Robertson on Warhammer Online

By Chris Remo, Jul 28, 2007 10:52am PDT EA Mythic toted along its highly anticipated Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning to this year's Comic-Con International San Diego, and I tracked down producer Lance Robertson for a chat about the game.

Robertson spoke on how the company's experience with Dark Age of Camelot influenced Warhammer's balance between realm versus realm and player versus enemy, why the game will work for both PvP- and PvE-loving players, how Mythic works with licensor Mythic and new owner Electronic Arts, what players can expect in the way of story and quests in the game, why the Warhammer universe is a more compelling than, say, Warcraft's, and more.

Fans of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniatures game and those who have been following Warhammer Online devoutly will be pleased to know that Robertson confirmed the imminent unveiling of the High Elf and Dark Elf races at Leipig, Germany's upcoming Games Convention being held August 23-26.

For the rest, read on.

Shack: Given Mythic's pedigree, one of the big things with Warhammer is the PvP. How do you plan to balance that with the lack of a more traditional endgame that other MMO players might expect? Will there be enough to keep them interested when that's the focus?

Lance Robertson: God yes, very much so. MMOs really shouldn't have an "endgame." The point is to hook people and keep them engaged in activities as long as we can manage, and keep them entertained. The [realm versus realm] system and everything about it plays to that. Those are the long-term players, the players we want.

We learned a lot from Camelot, and its system of give and take--"I hate those Hibernians, I hate the guys from Midgard, it's all about Albion." We found that the realm pride and the bragging rights drive so much about that endgame, and that's really important to us here. We took what we did in Camelot, looked for ways to improve upon it, and what we came to was that Camelot was kind of a segregated system where you had PvE on one side, then you go up to the front tier to battle the enemy.

So there are two things: we decided we want the story to drive everything about the battle, and then we also have RvR in every zone of the game, so it's built in from rank 1 when you start the game all the way to the top of the game. You can level up through PvE, or you can press up through the ranks through RvR equally. We really would encourage people to do kind of a nice blend of the two, but if people aren't interested in killing other players, there are great quests you can get into, and there's stuff I can talk about there.

Shack: What are you doing with quests and NPCs that you see as out of the ordinary?

Lance Robertson: There are all kinds of innovations. It's not just RvR for us, it's the PvE innovations too. We've got public quests, which are great dynamic stories done in groups that are going on in the world, and as you wander the world you come into areas where there are these activities going on, where these stories are happening. It's a collective example of "We're trying to beat this area."

In the game now, there's a giant in the game and you need to convert him to your side, to get him to help you out to beat the Dwarfs. As you come into the area, there are other people killing Squigs because the giant doesn't like Squig, then after that stage it becomes getting beer to get him drunk so he helps your side, then the giant goes and gets a giant bomb that he carries over to the Dwarf gate, and when he blows that open Dwarfs come out.

There are hundreds of these things in the game, where you come into the area and contribute with other people without being grouped. It's not the traditional, "I go to the NPC and put my blinders on." You get rewards for contributing, there are incentives to helping out, it builds community. If you take it to its logical extreme, we're going to have those things in the RvR areas, we're going to have those in the cities, so it's really interesting.

Shack: What kind of measures are you taking to ensure that one side doesn't just dominate the other?

Lance Robertson: You have two main realms, order and destruction. Each of those is made up of three races, and each race is paired off against its ancient enemy, so Dwarfs versus Greenskins for example. But the thing that contributes most heavily to the campaign game--that is, the overall zone capture game--are what we call scenarios, which are instanced, matched fights. That's important so it's not just a population thing. You won't just get bulldozed by the guy who has more people.

Shack: What elements of PvP come into public quests?

Lance Robertson: Well, certainly there are RvR quests where some of your objectives happen to be in RvR areas, but we don't pull the gun to your head and say you have to engage in that if you don't want to. People shouldn't be afraid to try. We want that nice blend from both sides. We'll encourage people to venture into those kinds of quests, but it's not required.

Shack: How do the PvP and PvE zones interact geographically?

Lance Robertson: There are areas that--well, I don't want to say outright boundaries, but it's very obvious where you're going to cross, and you'll get warned about it. People don't tend to blunder into them. It's no fun to trip into an area and get jumped. But, we also want those areas out there and on display, so you can look out there and see cool battles going on and think, "I want to get in on that." That's another thing we learned from Camelot too, where we had the frontiers where the front was elsewhere. This is much more of a local fight--we're in our own zones fighting the enemy. It's right there. You can see it going on.

Shack: For the players who do want to stick entirely for PvE, what do you have for the endgame there?

Lance Robertson: There are plenty of things to do that benefit your realm that don't always involve killing other players. It will contribute to the campaign, there will be things that make your city more worthwhile for the enemy to take, things that make it more difficult for the enemy to take your city, all that involve PvE. And there are things that will become available for PvE that are triggered specifically by things in RvR. So there's going to be plenty of stuff. You'll want your side to do well, so you have more stuff to do in PvE and RvR.

Turn the page for responses on Mythic's relationship with Warhammer creator Games Workshop and new owner EA, integration of story in Warhammer online, thoughts on item sales, and more.

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Shack: What are you doing in the way of integrated community features like guilds?

Lance Robertson: Not specifically. I can say that the guild system is going to be very impressive. They're very important to us. You saw that in Dark Age of Camelot, and that system only scratches the surface of what we're going to do in this game. It's going to be elaborate, it's going to be very easy to use, and it's going to be very welcoming to new players. You're going to want to keep your guild vibrant, and you will benefit from doing so, and that's all I can say.

Shack: With RvR gameplay, did you try to draw at all from the existing Warhammer games, or did you feel that doesn't really apply to a real-time video game and instead stick mainly to your Dark Age of Camelot experience?

Lance Robertson: Well, if you're familiar with Warhammer Fantasy Battles, the cycles are turn-based and obviously that doesn't make sense for our game, so we had to turn it into a proper MMO in that regard. A lot of the guts under the hood though are inspired by Warhammer Fantasy Battles in a lot of ways, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as well. You'll see [traditional Warhammer stats] Wounds, and Toughness, and all that kind of stuff that play in from that. The scenarios themselves were inspired by the point-based battles in the Fantasy Battles system.

Games Workshop's been real, real good about working with us about where we need to diverge. They're very savvy about doing what will make a great MMO. They have not said, "Thou shalt do it this way, because that's what we believe." They say, "You're the MMO experts, so do what you need."

Shack: Have you worked at all with their writers?

Lance Robertson: Yeah, absolutely. There's good give and take there. They'll use some of our stuff to maybe influence future stuff for them, and they certainly give us ideas. We travel back and forth to Nottingham, and they send people to us. We've been very impressed with them, and very happy with how close we've gotten with those guys. They've been really savvy about how they can trust us. They've seen what we've done in Camelot, so they know what they can expect from us. Mark forged a great relationship with those guys, and we've carried it on. Erik Mogensen is one of their chief IP guys, and he's going to be in the office next week. We'll be looking over elf stuff with him. But I can't talk about that! [laughs] That's a big announcement for [Games Convention in] Leipzig. You'll get the scoop on Elf races there.

Shack: How do you plan to communicate story?

Lance Robertson: It will be communicated via every mechanism we have. We have quests, public quests, the Tome of Knowledge. That's another key differentiator for us. It's very much a collectible sticker book, a "This is Your Life" book, and it's also an encyclopedia. As you progress through the world, you unlock story elements, you unlock achievements, you get experience, you get additional information that will help you in your battles, you get titles, you'll get new abilities, quests will come out of the tome that are surprising. Just a lot of really fun elements. It's a meta-game that floats on top of the game, and we feel that's going to drive a lot of exploration, achievements, and it gets the story across as well.

But the game itself, in the way the zones are set up and the story and quests are doled out, very much enforces the "war is everywhere" mantra that we hammer home to everybody. The key for us is that feeling of "We're in a big effort together with me and my race, and we're going to go kick the crap out of the enemy on their own turf."

Shack: I've heard you guys are doing interesting things with player death. Can you elaborate on that?

Lance Robertson: I can't talk about that right now. Suffice it to say, it's not going to be the mundane--well, it's certainly not what you see in beta right now, so don't make any judgments based on that. We like to have fun. The game's meant to be entertaining. We don't want it to be, "Oh gosh, I died, now I feel like I ought to just quit."

Shack: Have you figured out how you're going to handle post-launch content, in terms of breadth of content in updates, or what will be done for expansions?

Lance Robertson: That I can talk about, no, not really, but you can kind of connect the dots if you want to when it comes to Warhammer races. There are plenty left to be had there.

Shack: As a company or with this game in particular, do you have an official stance on item or gold sales?

Lance Robertson: Yes... [Company founder] Mark [Jacobs] has very definitive views on that. We don't want to encourage that kind of thing. We're certainly not going to engage in it ourselves. Certain aspects of it may not be issues, but we don't want to have a system rampant with gold farmers. That's no fun with people. We make judgments based on how it impacts our good paying customers and how it keeps them happy. We don't want a situation where people have to deal with all that spam, so we're going to do all we can to create a good environment for our real players.

Shack: Speaking of the economy, are there any interesting points about how the economic system or item systems work? Is it fairly standard?

Lance Robertson: I can't talk about that, but there's going to be a great crafting system, there are going to be great ways to sell what you make, and the item system itself is going to be really compelling. We are going to have armor sets. A lot of people are interested in the item collection game, and we'll have that in spades--we'll have armor sets top to bottom, so you'll always have cool carrots of items to go after, things to further emphasize that "I'm more of a badass than you" mentality. We're into bragging rights when it comes down to it. You'll see that in the visuals too. We really want to cater not just to "My stats make me a badass" but also to "I'm going to damn well look like one on the battlefield, and you'll know exactly what role I am and how good I am just by looking at me."

Shack: How have your development process or dynamics changed since the EA acquisition?

Lance Robertson: [Not] other than to get more resources. We just go to them and say, "Hey, we need this to make a better game," and they're like, "Okay, how can we help you get that?" They've been really, really helpful. Some people would probably fear that we would change, but we are very much the same, and all the right people that were in place for Camelot are on our team. We're using those experiences. They haven't come in and run roughshod over the design. They've been really happy with what they've seen out of us. It's been really good. I've been impressed.

Shack: Mythic has done a lot of grassroots marketing with community site interviews, regular team video releases, and so on. Are you attempting to make a deep push into the established MMO community and perhaps try to catch the eye of established players of other games like World of Warcraft?

Lance Robertson: Well, we hope to be visible across all the communities if we can manage it. If you think about it, we've got in some ways a built in audience of Warhammer fans, and there are millions and millions of them--people who do the miniatures now, and the fans who roleplay now, versus those who used to do it in the past and are looking for an easy entry back into that universe. But in terms of other MMOs, sure. Everybody else is always expanding the market space and the player base, so there's some potential there. Maybe there will be some people from World of Warcraft, or Age of Camelot, or wherever.

Shack: Paul Barnett has sort of become Mythic's spokesperson for Warhammer.

Lance Robertson: He's the face of the game. [laughs]

Shack: How did that come about?

Lance Robertson: He's made for that. He's great--a very engaging guy, very passionate. He's our creative director, so he has a lot of energy around the creative project. We just love to use him for that because it comes across. I'm not as good as saying it as he is, but we all feel that energy where he can get the message across in effective ways that are very entertaining. The rest of us, we do our best and try to just sit back and make the game. [laughs]

Shack: Is there anything you'd like to say to those gamers who might accuse Warhammer of ripping off a certain other MMO?

Lance Robertson: [laughs] Well, that's an obvious comparison, but the Warhammer universe has been around for 25 years, so you can draw your lines there for how that all worked out. We just like the IP because it's so deep, and you'll see that from our game. It's a lot deeper than some people might appreciate.

There are some surface similarities, but there's a lot more to be had in, say, our Greenskins than the orcs in other games. Once you see the Elves, you play the Chaos guys and the Empire guys, it's not the same as other games. People will see that. We want people to just jump in there and try it out. I mean the gameplay is already so different that even if you stripped out all the art, the gameplay is going to be tremendous. People are going to love it. I'm very confident about that.

Shack: Thanks for talking with us.

Lance Robertson: Sure!

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