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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Warhammer Online and Second System Effect: Why Bigger Isn't Always Better

Posted by UnSub Thursday January 15 2009 at 2:19AM
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Like all blogs, particularly about computer game development, this post contains a lot of conjecture. So, with that in mind...

What is interesting about Warhammer Online (WAR) is how many of its core things it missed out doing well when it launched. A lot of the stuff that had been promised - the "WAAAAGH is everywhere!", the intensive RvR experience, the taking of learnings from Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC) and applying them to a new game - fell very short. War was hard to find in RvR zones because players were too spread out and in-game incentives promoted other types of play. RvR was so undermined by server crashes that it 1) because a griefing tactic, and 2) Mythic had to implement population limits around fortresses. So war is everywhere, but don't all come at once. And there are other numerous problems that WAR has experienced that I consider above and beyond acceptable for launch from an established MMO development studio.

So what happened? I've got no inside sources, no exciting "the lead dev stole medication from employees' desks" -style stories about why WAR failed to perform. But looking at WAR I see plenty of evidence of second systems effect. Second systems effect is the well recognised human behaviour of over-designing a second project to include all the things that weren't included in the first project. This leads to huge development times, large and complex products that are more error prone thanks to that complexity, and generally a product that promises to exceed the original in all ways but actually under-delivers. Sound familiar?

Part of this second system effect has to come from the gap between DAOC and WAR... and that gap's name was Imperator. Imperator was meant to be mainly PvE with very limited PvP and it certainly seems from the state of WAR that this was carried over as a design reality (if not intent). It's unlikely that there ever be a full accounting of what design decisions and systems for Imperator were carried over into WAR, but its unlikely that everything was thrown out when Imperator was cancelled in favour of WAR.

Imperator: You're going to be waiting there a while, Legionnaire.

Imperator: You're going to be waiting there a while, Legionnaire.

The next evidence of second system effect is much easier to see - the race / class / realm design. Everything was bigger in WAR. The scale of the conflict increased with three pairings (Greenskin vs. Dwarf, Order vs. Destruction, Dark Elf vs. High Elf) rather than just three regions (Albion, Hybernia and Midgard). The original design had every race with a massive capital city (six in total) even if only two were available at launch.The size of the overall landmass was bigger as a result. The number of unique abilities for each of the already large number of classes increased. WAR gave players a lot more options, but this had the accidental effect of spreading the player base further and making WAR seem empty while also being harder to find specific classes to play with.

Mythic also added in a number of extra advancement measures - DAOC had an XP bar and Realm Points; WAR got an XP bar, Realm Ranks, a PvE Influence bar for each chapter, an RvR influce bar for each Tier, a stack of separate measures in the Tome of Knowledge et al. That's a lot of bars to track, or to grind out for the rewards, with it being arguable exactly how much extra fun they bring to the game.

And so on. So much seems to have been squashed together in PvE, scenarios and PvP that the good ideas - Public Quests, for instance - are overridden by features and systems that impede gameplay. In other areas, basic systems - like text chat - were completely neglected and possess only the bare minimum functionality.

It is good to be ambitious - ambition takes us places we might not have gone before. But ambition needs to be tempered with a slight bit of common sense. Mythic tried to make a title that did everything following the years of experience they'd had, when a clearer focus on one system. RvR, which they hyped as the "major focus" of WAR, was buried under a raft of other systems that all aimed to be best of breed (to out-WoW WoW even) but all ended up tripping over each other and delivering an unsatisfying play experience.

It's interesting that few MMO studios or developers release a second title that is better than their first. EverQuest 2 tried to completely redesign EverQuest and took a very long time to gain traction. Raph Koster designed Star Wars: Galaxies to offer more than Ultima Online but ended up with numerous flawed systems in a title that lacked the heart of the Star Wars IP. NetDevil's fan favourite Jumpgate was followed by massive flop Auto Assault. Second systems effect accounts for some of these failings as developers attempt to outdo what they got mostly right the first time, only to fail to reinvent the wheel.

Time will tell if WAR can overcome its shortcomings and transform into something greater than it currently is. However, it certainly isn't the title it was promised to be from launch and a lot of those shortcomings arise from overdesigning WAR to have everything bar the kitchen sink.

daelnor writes:

I agree with some of this, but in the case of WAR...their problem was that they spent too much time trying to run away from DAOC rather than embrace it and improve it.  The "main attraction" of RvR was added in as an afterthought.  Originally it wasn't part of the plan, until all of the beta testers said "WTF are you thinking mythic??"

So..adding in RvR when it wasn't part of the original concept basically borked everything they were doing.  The game is progressing well now, but it could have been lightyears better if they would have had a better vision from the get go.

Thu Jan 15 2009 5:38AM Report
aesperus writes:

I agree with daelnor's comment on this article. I think the author spent too much focus on the warhammer example of the second system effect that he neglected key details about the development of WAR, it's result, and what this means for the MMO community. I do agree that the second system effect is a big problem in the MMO genre, but wish you would've went into more examples for this.

In WAR's case, and it is somewhat unique, the 2nd system effect could arguably be said to have been imposed upon them. Why do I say this? Because WAR has gone through a quite a few major changes during it's development.

Mythic, while established, started out as a very small development studio with limited funding generated by DAoC. WAR was originally designed to be a scenario heavy / oriented MMO game, with PvP at it's focus. This fit well with the warhammer theme, however about a year into their development a few significant things happened. They were bought up by EA, and forced to restructure most of their staff in mid development. In addition, beta testing yielded a desire for more RvR content, similar to that of DAoC. This new funding made it possible for such content to be implemented, and such contant has to be implemented at launch, or not at all.

Due to their decision to include such a feature (which was not the initial focus, but later marketted as such), this very much generated the 2nd system effect. The results were a code that was not optimised (they are still optimising it) to handle such a feature, time lost due to a staffing restructure, and the necessity to create a complete redesign for a game that already has less development time than most MMOs to date.

The spread in population is primarily a result of 2 things (one of which the article touched on a bit) Over compensating for lag (servers spread way too thin, way too quickly), and a surge of some really good games within the same timespan (not in the MMO genre, but the effect is still the same).

It is unclear if they will regain any traction lost due to these initial setbacks, but the game has made some very significant changes towards that right step (optimising the client weekly, and improving RvR). I think this game points to another major problem in MMOs (especially as it pertains to the NA community), which is an inflated sense of demand. A certain few games (one of which mentioned, GW2) are trying to deal w/ this by drastically limiting the amount of information released prior to launch.

This is very risky though, but if it works it works incredibly well, as the hype is self-generating, and the likelyhood of players to over-hype the game (and thus be let down) is greatly reduced. However, on the reverse, not-hyping your game at all usually makes the game very vulnerable to competition. If someone else releases a hit prior to your game, the likelyhood of players bothering to give it a try is much lower. Time will tell.

I think what really must happen for the genre to continue on as a success, is twofold.

1) Demands need to be lowered enough to allow games to grow. (There is too much focus on releasing a 'finished' product on release, but not enough on making a solid game with room to grow)

2) More innovation needs to be brought to the table in ways that make sense. Innovation is never a bad thing, if it has a purpose that fits within a design scheme. However, the current trend is leaning a little too heavily on innovation for innovation's sake, rather than implementing it meaningfully into the game (ie AoC, 'possibly' spellborn (unreleased), & WAR).

Thu Jan 15 2009 7:24AM Report
Polyformist writes:

After playing WAR for a little less than 3 months I came to a conclusion.

If you enjoy instant reward, a game that rewards you regardless of your skill level, and you are totaly "ADD", this game has your name written all over it.

I am not saying that WAR was a bad game at all,  infact durring the short 3 month play time I admittedly had allot of fun,  however I found myself not careing about anything I had accomplished, and in many cases I felt as though I accomplished nothing at all.

I found myself looking for other things to do than play war towards the end.  So I canceled my subscription.

Thu Jan 15 2009 9:06AM Report
Skuz writes:

Aesperus has, I think, a better handle on things "as they stand" than the OP, second system effect is indeed part and parcel but plays backseat to the changes caused by EA's involvement, which were for the better in my view,

Mythic seem to be aggresively continuing development & rarely a week goes by without a large amount of stuff being done, some bugs are proving to be a little more persistant than others (pathing wackiness & stuck animations/spell effects) but huge amounts of improvements are being made on an almost daily basis, & there is a definite "goal" in the direction og the developments being made.

I myself had to step back from largescale ORvR as my pc is an old one, but with the amount of work being done I remain positive that the game will be just fine on my current pc in the future.

RvR is a big part of the game but I hear there are lots of PvE changes coming soon, something about "scaling" content has me intriuged.


Thu Jan 15 2009 9:52AM Report
DrSpanky writes:

 Nice read UnSub. I for one did not know about "second systems effect" and at first thought you were grasping for something that wasn't there. However, you pulled it all together in the end and it made good sense.

On a side note, one of the things brought up in the blog was the three different "xp" bars in WAR. This was one of the things that turned me off of the game. Every time I looked at those bars the game just seemed to scream back at me "grind more!" No thx.

Thu Jan 15 2009 11:49AM Report
UnSub writes:

@aesperus: An interesting read. I did have a few other second system effect examples, but looked that the length of the article and tried to choose only the strongest ones.

Fri Jan 16 2009 12:15AM Report
Thalarius writes:

Interesting read, however coming up on my 6th month of playing WAR have to say that the devs are doing it again. The 1.2 patch they put clearly favors one side of the WAR same thing they did in DOAC which caused a lot of players to cancel thier accounts in protest until they fixed it.

With this patch it clearlys shows the same two devs have not leanred thier lesson and are favoring destro.  At the moment the order guild is on a full strike, even some of my friends who play destro also say that thier destro guilds are on a full strike against the game, with lot of them who used to play DOAC cancelling thier accounts over this issue. 

If they have not fixed the problem with the 1.3 patch then will be cancelling my account with them as well. No sense playing a game that goes from Fun to UNFUN with one side being the favorite of the devs and makes that side overpowered that players have to end up cheating to win.

RVR is interesting to say the least but it has turned into a grind fest, as a causal player I do not mind RVR but have not gotten past lvl 38 due to finding no groups for pve groupings, instance runs and everyone in T4 is doing RVR grinding and no one is interested in PVE/PQ runs and Quests. 

Same thing happended in DOAC when they made one faction better then the others and gave that faction overpowered stuff.


Thu May 21 2009 11:12AM Report writes:
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