The spectacular rise and fall of AAA MMOs Age of Conan and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning back in 2008 sent shockwaves throughout the MMO industry. These were the two most hotly anticipated games since World of Warcraft and they both sold through an insane amount of copies only to nosedive shortly after launch. The aftermath resulted in a sort of dark age for the MMO genre over the next two or so years. How could such two high profile games rise so high and fall so fast, so quickly? Some even wondered if the genre would ever bounce back. While both Conan and WAR shared the same immediate post-launch fate, they were both on very different paths from that point on, but let’s first discuss what ultimately lead to WAR’s downfall and yesterday’s news that the game would be shutting down this December.
First, you have to understand the project’s development history. Warhammer Online began at another developer, Climax Studios, only to be canceled in June 2004. Mythic Entertainment, the developers who had successfully launched the RvR-centric Dark Age of Camelot a couple of years earlier, managed to ink a deal with Games Workshop in 2005 so that they could develop Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning.
The story may vary depending on who you get it from, but suffice it to say that WAR’s development was fraught with problems, and this lead to numerous delays. EA, who had acquired Mythic Entertainment a year or so after Mythic signed the deal with Games Workshop, likely wanted the game completed after dedicating a ton of resources to the project and so the game finally launched in September of 2008.
For fans, the disappointment began well before launch, however. Obviously, fans were frustrated by the numerous delays, but getting the game out in time for its September release date came with a pretty hefty cost to the game’s feature set. Warhammer Online promised a massive RvR campaign progressed by the actions of its players. This would be a never-ending tug-of-war pulled back and forth by players. As part of that campaign, players would wage wars in the lands of their enemies, pushing them all the way back to their race’s respective capital city and ultimately culminating in the attempted sacking of said capital.
With two factions and six races in the game, this meant there would be three capital cities on each side up for grabs, well, until it didn’t. In July of 2008, it was announced that six capital cities would be reduced to two: one for the Empire on the Order side and one for the Chaos on the Destruction side. To make matters worse, it was also announced that four classes (two on each side) would be slashed from the launch lineup. These classes were added back into the game eventually, but by then it was far too late.
Despite the disappointment surrounding these announcements, WAR ended up selling 1.2 million boxes by mid-October that year and was sitting pretty at around 800,000 subscribers. The game reached critical mass so quickly that Mythic made one of their first and most disastrous post-launch mistakes in launching far too many servers to deal with the influx of players. Sure, it helped cool things down in the short term, but in a game that heavily depends on players to drive the war on both sides, this decision was the cause of serious issues over the coming months.
You see, players began leaving the game in droves. Part of this had to do with the state of the game and then there was that whole World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion that launched just a short two months after WAR did. This resulted in some severe population distribution issues across the game’s many servers. Some servers were outright ghost towns while others were still bustling with activity. It didn’t help that factions were generally imbalanced across many of these servers, too. Even if you were willing to stick with the bugs, unpolished, unfinished, and undercooked content and features, the day-to-day core RvR experience just didn’t work on many servers and it made those servers feel like the game had died faster than it ultimately would.
This became a sort of vicious cycle as players continued to leave the game out of frustration with the state of the game and individual server situations. By March of 2009, WAR’s subscriber base dwindled down to 300,000 and 63 servers were brought down and merged. The merging and subscriber hemorrhaging would continue until only two servers remained by 2012. And now here we are, five years later, with Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning set to shut down this December.
But did it really have to turn out this way?
I stuck it out with the game for probably over a year and I would ask myself this question every time I made an attempt to come back to the game. Even though WAR was an undercooked game, I still haven’t found another MMO since that has offered such a compelling PvP experience. Warts and all, WAR was a game with a ton of unrealized potential and great ideas. As dated as WAR looked visually (even for 2008, honestly), many of those ideas really paved the way for some of the great stuff we’ve seen since then.
For one, WAR did dynamic event content first with Public Quests and even though many were broken or unbalanced in various ways, the Public Quest content was well done overall. Of course, this experience was refined later in RIFT and then taken to a whole new level with Guild Wars 2. Today, just about every new MMO is including some form of dynamic event content. WAR’s Open Group system allowed players to easily get together and play. Whenever you entered an area you could see a number of open groups that were available to join, press a button, and jump right into the group. This made getting together for Public Quests and RvR incredibly simple and intuitive.
However, one of my favorite features of WAR was the game’s Tome of Knowledge. This was basically a compendium of everything you did in the game using a book-like interface. It served as a centralized location for your quest log, bestiary, noteworthy NPCs, history and lore, armor sets, and most interesting of all, your “WAR Story”. As you progressed through the game’s areas and content, these blank pages would fill in bit by bit, telling a story of your adventures. Filling out your Tome of Knowledge by doing things in the game often rewarded you with experience points, titles, trophies (which you could wear on your character), and sometimes even abilities. It was really an achiever and lorehound’s dream.
That brings me back to my original question and my disappointment in the two divergent paths that Age of Conan and WAR would end up taking. Conan was also a hot mess at launch. Heck, it was arguably in a worse state than WAR was. Still, Funcom brought the awesome talents of Craig Morrison and Joel Bylos on board, and the Conan team endeavored to right the ship. How successful Funcom ultimately was is certainly up for debate – but the point is that they genuinely tried. Conan received an extremely well-done expansion and continues to receive game updates to this day. Funcom even jumped on the F2P train to try and make the game’s business model more appealing. To be fair, Mythic did put out a good deal of fixes and content additions post-launch and the game’s RvR design (aside from Renown Rank gear) is arguably in a much better state today than it was years ago, but they just didn’t try hard enough. EA seemed to have given up on the game far too quickly and that really sealed the game’s fate for good.
Eventually, updates of any sort completely dried up and the game was essentially put on life support. Even as the first subscription-to-F2P success story of Dungeons & Dragons Online played out and other games followed in its steps to similar levels of success, WAR continued to plod along the same path. A “forever free” trial to level 10 wasn’t going to cut it. I simply never got the sense that EA wanted to make some aggressive changes in order to turn WAR back around the way I did with Funcom and Conan. Instead, they took one of the game’s most popular features, its instanced battlegrounds, and attempted to create a MOBA out of it. Yeah, that didn’t work out, either.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll ever really know the answer to my question and that’s a damn shame. The fires may still be lit on WAR’s battlefields, but the last songs of battle were sung long ago. As sad as I am to see it go, it’s indeed time for this WAR story to end.
Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB