In 2006, Turbine launched Lord of the Rings Online – The MMORPG that was destined to topple WoW using Tolkein's Intellectual Property (IP). The world was beautiful, the settings were as grand as Tolkein's books, but not all was well in Middle Earth.
Lord of the Rings launched with 7 classes, none of them wielding real magic due to lore restrictions (a mistake Turbine will fix in their next expansion release – Mines of Moria). Turbine was also bound by various laws and prohibitions to keep the original lore of the game, thus hampering the ability a player had to feel really epic and like a unique character in the world.
The game world graphics were stunning, the characters’ abilities were realistic (there's no hit points, just morale that can be replenished by the Minstrel who would sing songs to strengthen your spirit for example), but for some, it was too realistic. We missed the big fireballs flying above our heads; we missed the crazy thunderclap animations that every level 8 warriors should be able do.
Despite having such a huge and well written lore and a stunning world that reflected it, Lord of the Rings Online never really sky rocketed as it could have – mostly due to its inability to really “get to us“.
In 2008, Age of Conan was launched. This time, the mistake was different. Despite having a series of books, a few feature films and a world to utilize, Funcom didn't deliver the full Conan experience, mostly due to lack content issues, repetitive content and a few other general content oriented problems.
The game's combat system was great, every class had nice talents to specialize in, the graphics were beautiful – But despite having a world backed up with a number of books and a few feature films, Age of Conan just didn't have enough meat to it.
What's the balance then? How can you create a full, solid world based on a strong IP (Where Age of Conan failed) and still leave the player with the feeling that they are epic (Where Lord of the Rings has failed)?
I think EA Mythic might have just found the answer, whether they meant for it to be found or not.
First, the goals in WAR don’t push you to unseat any major icons. You are not set in a race to "overpower" the Emperor or the Chaos gods. You can never be the grand leader, just like you would never be a better Barbarian than Conan was, or a stronger magician than Gandalf. You are a pawn in the war from the first day until the last.
If you do end up confronting one of those icons, it's in end game, where they belong due to their status and power – Arthas and Illidan anyone?
The epic feeling of changing the world that today's MMOs are missing could never be achieved in an IP based world – Aragorn will always end up saving Frodo, Conan will always end up being a king and the best that you can hope for is to be watching from the sidelines.
Mythic Entertainment has made a good call in letting us take a small, but tasty bite of the conflict and lore that is Warhammer – You conquer a keep and feel like you've done something for your realm, that you've changed the world, that's what feeling epic is all about and it doesn’t conflict with pre-existing IP lore.
Second, Warhammer's game lore isn't built on specific heroes and villains as Lord of the Rings and Age of Conan lore is.
The miniatures game depicts huge army battles, and not singular heroic efforts like Lord of the Rings’ quest of the fellowship or Conan's rise to power. Those massive tabletop battles? That's RvR combat in a nutshell.
While the IP is strong and you can feel how much influence has been drawn from it into the game to give it a dark fantasy feel, it still doesn't leave you with the overwhelming feeling of being just another squire for the great Conan.
What Mythic did was simple – Build the Tome of Knowledge, give people like me who want to learn more about the lore the chance to do so while not "forcing" it on anyone. You can just as easily take the quests without letting the NPC finish his long dialogue and simply go for the objectives.
Next, I am fairly certain Games Workshop has been a better partner to work with than Tolkien Enterprises, and I am sure the amount of content they supplied was larger and more detailed, and it shows. Judging by WAR's graphics and armor models, I can say the two teams (Mythic and GW) have worked closely on showing a good reflection between the tabletop games and the MMO.
Finally, and I think most WAR fans would agree with me, we came to play this game because it has interesting game features (Public quests, RvR, Paul Barnett's mind, etc.) AND tone (Lore, feel, and so on). The tone was set by the IP, the lore and the original game, but the features are the result of the developer's hard work and nothing can replace that.
I think that in such a rich IP based world, it's a mistake to bury your head into the stats and numbers. It feels a lot more epic to be a Chosen in Warhammer if you know what the Chosen class is all about. If you can feel you are more than just a heavy melee DPSer, but a true servant of one god or another, it means Mythic has done their job.
It's your call and game style preference as to which path you take, unlike Lord of the Rings Online for example.
Don't get me wrong, Turbine and Funcom did well in portraying the world (or a part of it, in Conan's case).
Having played LoTRO, I can attest to the fact that while the world and graphics are amazing, you could keenly feel that they had built the game to give you a feeling as if you're walking inside Tolkein's world. Age of Conan, on the other hand, gave you the feeling that you are fighting inside a quarter of Conan's world.
In my opinion, both games lacked good game features – Was it because of their reliance on strong IP and lore to fill the gaps, while trying not to step on any of the original IP copyright holder toes, or was it just because the features were just not good enough? I'll let you be the judge.
It takes a good set of features, a rich IP world and the wisdom to balance both to find that golden key into the heart of today's MMO player.