November the 1st was a big day for EA, the colossal game publisher that currently impacts our little niche of the video game market in EA Mythic (Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Warhammer Online) and now with Bioware (their mysterious MMO). As you may or may not be aware, EA held their earnings call today at 5pm EST. Earnings calls are held by publicly traded companies to talk about the company’s earnings, the direction of the company and similar information. It was during this call that a push-back of Warhammer Online’s expected launch date from Q1 of 2008 to Q2 of 2008 was announced and discussed.
Earlier in the day, EA announced that they would be undertaking a re-structuring plan that would see what CEO John Riccitiello described as, “head-count reductions and facility closures”. Roughly translated, this means that EA will be closing some of their studios and laying off some of their employees.
“This was a difficult decision,” he continued in the call, “because it impacts the careers of some very talented people.”
While this may have piqued the interest and curiosity of many in the industry including the folks at EA Mythic, later on in the call, when he was addressing the subject of Warhammer Online, Riccitiello went out of his way to assuage any fears that Mythic may have had on the subject, and to shed some light on the situation:
“Frankly, this is a pretty straightforward situation, and I want to emphasize to the team at Mythic: No, we are not having you be part of our re-structuring. That's not the plan. We are investing in the growth of that studio. Warhammer's [push-back story] is a simple one: they missed part of a milestone. Mark [Jacobs, EA Mythic VP] came forward and said that it would affect quality if he held the March date. We made the decision with the big investment we've got behind it and frankly the talent and inspiration of the team to invest behind quality. We gave them a little bit more time, a little bit more money and we think we're going to have a little bit more of a hit on our hands. So… simple. So, you're safe Mark.”
The remarks seem genuine in the context of the overall call. While praise and high expectations were heaped on some of the other games that EA will be releasing in ’08, I don’t recall another studio being so singled out for praise with such attention given to the team.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity this evening to speak with Mark Jacobs directly about the release date change. While above, you see Riccitiello’s account of the situation, Jacobs also filled us in via his “State of the Game” address on the WAR Herald:
“During the last phase of beta testing, we received valuable feedback from our testers that will help make these features even better. When we looked at our options, two paths lay before us: 1) Ship the game on time with fewer features and less polish, or 2) Extend the development cycle and spend the needed time and money to make WAR great.”
When the above was presented to EA, a decision was made there to follow the second option in what Jacobs described as “not a very long time” as the decision was reached in “a little over a week, or maybe two”.
Jacobs went on to tell us that the team was meeting their goals in terms of the content that was going into the game, but that they weren’t meeting the time goals that they had set. Had the game shipped as scheduled, in March of ’08, Jacobs tells us that there would have been no time left to polish, a buzz word in the industry as of late that has become an important and noticeable element to an MMO launch.
With the recent launch date push-back of Perpetual’s Gods & Heroes MMORPG that was followed by layoffs and the “indefinite hold” placed on the game, it would be easy to draw parallels to the situation at EA Mythic. After all, before Riccitiello’s assurances that they would not be a part of the re-structuring plan, the situations, at least on the surface, appeared similar. With that in mind, I asked Jacobs how he would respond to speculation that WAR might be on the way out.
He made reference to the fact that they did not announce that the date was uncertain, but rather that they had a set date in mind.
“We’re putting our necks on the line. We know how to do this,” he said, making reference to the fact that they have been studying the metrics through the Beta. They are aware of what quests, classes, etc. that players are spending their time with in-game and enjoying. From there, they saw that there were aspects that the players weren’t particularly happy with. As an example, there were some quests that weren’t so popular, and some aspects of RvR needed to be re-worked. The additional time was needed to make sure that these issues were addressed and EA Mythic could release the best game possible.
“This game is going to live or die based on the RvR,” he told us. They wanted to make sure that what went in, it was right. “Feedback has indicated that it needs a bit more work. This has to be our distinguishing factor”.
We went on to talk a little bit about Beta as the sign-ups have been creeping steadily toward the half-million mark. To this point, we’ve been talking about some of the things that the Beta has borne out as needing work, so it’s only fair to point out that Jacobs told me that feedback on features like the Tome of Knowledge and RvR scenarios has been good overall. He also pointed out that it was unrealistic to expect 100% positive feedback on anything, and that he wasn’t trying to say that all of their feedback had been positive, just that overall, there were also a number of areas that were looking great.
The last question that I asked Mark on what had to have been an interesting day was whether this would effect the re-start, or the length of the Beta. He was very quick to point out that the beta would not be delayed and would re-start as scheduled in December, but that the delay would also mean an extended chance for players to “beat on the game”.
Over the last few years, a few events and cancellations in the MMORPG genre have made fans cynical of push-backs and corporate announcements. There is, therefore, a temptation to assume the worst whenever a delay is announced. That being said, I offer this quote from the earnings call regarding the decision to hold the release of the title “Army of Two” from Q3 – Q4:
“That was a decision as John [Riccitiello] mentioned earlier was made for quality and for the title and we though it better to sacrifice the short-term profitability for the long-term health of that franchise.”
Taken from this quote, this decision for those reasons isn’t a rare occurrence for the publishing giant.
So it seems as though, even with the announcement of a launch delay, spirits and expectations surrounding Warhammer Online at EA and at the Mythic studio are positive. Perhaps not surprising then that when Riccitiello addressed the share holders in the earnings call, he listed Warhamemr as one of the top prospects for next year.