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Joystiq Interview: Jeff Hickman on managing a successful WAR

When the Joystiq Network last spoke with Warhammer Online executive producer Jeff Hickman, the experience left us rolling on the floor in laughter. During a guest appearance on the Big Download podcast, Hickman and company were noticeably tired from a tour in Leipzig and PAX promoting the massively multiplayer title, and decided to kick back with a few drinks and have fun.

While still entertaining, this time it's all business. Today, signifying Warhammer Online's one-week retail anniversary, Hickman returns to discuss the launch, future add-on content and address some of the issues with the game.

Listen to the entire interview now or jump in if you like your interviews in ye olde style wall-of-text format. We're all about options here.

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Gallery: Warhammer Online

We're Joined by Jeff Hickman, executive producer at Mythic Entertainment which just launched Warhammer Online. How are you Jeff?

I am absolutely fantastic, Xav. How can I not be?

(laughs) Well, the first question I think a lot of people have on their mind is ... obviously you're playing Warhammer Online. What are you currently rolling (Faction/Class)?

What am I rolling personally? Witch hunter. I'm on the side of Order. I was just telling Chris (WAR's PR Ninja) I'm level 17 and I'm working on reknown rank 15, I have an epic set of Realm vs. Realm boots that I got killing one of the players out there and it requires level 17, reknown rank 15 and I'm almost there. I'm having an awesome time. I was just doing some scenarios this morning in Tier 2 Dark Elf/High Elf on Phoenix Gate (server), as a matter of fact.

A lot of people know that before Warhammer Online launched, in the summer there were quite a few careers that were cut from the final product. Of the careers that were cut, name a favorite you were sad to see go.

Woo! That I was sad to see go? Of course. I was sad to see all the careers go. Probably the ones that made me the most happy were the two tanks. It's something we are very interested in revisiting as soon as we possibly can after launch.

It has been a week since you launched at retail; the game came out last Thursday. What is the mood around the office now that the game is actually out at retail?

"I'm bragging and boasting a little bit and people can poke at me about it but we probably had the smoothest MMO launch in history."

Ecstatic is probably the word I would use. Our launch, and yeah I'm bragging and boasting a little bit and people can poke at me about it that's fine, we probably had the smoothest MMO launch in history. We didn't have any problems. Well, any problems is probably too strong we had little things that would crop up every once in a while, little buggy things but we were fully staffed all over those things when they came up. We didn't have, you know, major server outages -- any problems. The launch has been so great for us.

The game is really being received well. We all love playing it so we're all at work, during lunchtime, playing the game or playing with each other online at night. So, the mood is ecstatic. We're working really hard also, it's important for us -- and the most important issue for us is -- "Okay, let's pay attention to what the players are saying both in-game and in the forums. Let's identify the things they are complaining about or asking for with improvements. Let's analyze those things and make sure they're right for the game and if they are right, let's put them in."

That's kind of our deal right now. We're constantly doing little revisions. We've got patches coming up very, very soon. I don't want to give you a date but they're very, very soon that will introduce improvements to the game that players are asking for. That's kind of our take for the next month to two months, let's hit it hard and fast. Let's be proactive. Let's show the community that the amount of effort and community awareness that we were showing throughout beta doesn't end with beta it was only the beginning and that we are here to stay and we want to know what you guys think. We're going to make the game as goof for you as we possibly can.

Does working on an online specific title feel like you're working on CRUNCH every time you walk into work?

(laughs) Um, no it's probably not quite that bad. But there definitely is, there's a sense of urgency that is a little different from crunch. It's more a daily sense of urgency where, in crunch you're shooting for a goal at the end of the month or the end of your milestone however long your milestones are and you have this stretch goal that you're pounding away and have planned 15-hour days.

Now -- you walk in the door -- every morning literally at 8 o'clock we have a report that comes back from the community teams from CS, the community teams, and from QA. We look at that report and go, "Hmm. What are the big issues today?" And we nail them. If we can we nail them that day and if we can't nail them that day we nail them over the course of a couple of days. So it's a sense of urgency, "Let's stomp on this stuff right now." Which is very different from, "(Groan) I'm going to work 15 hours today." A little bit different but definitely high-stress.

When you did the demo for me at PAX a big focus of that was on Public Quests. In the retail release, right now it feels like if a zone isn't well populated some of the public quests are not doable. Was this a concern during design?

Yeah, absolutely. We pay really close attention to how the public quests are put together and how players are playing through them. There's a couple things that we took into consideration when we were designing. Number one, it wasn't our intent that public quests would be piled into, 100 percent all the time by everyone who was in the area. It was our intent that this was a place you could go and you could have a good time and sometimes public quests, just like any other area in the game, are going to be heavily populated sometimes they're going to be less populated -- which we why we made the initial stages of public quests very easy for a solo player. So, as a solo player I can go into a public quest and I can actually work towards my influence in the area, working towards a goal. The goal may not be, "I'm going to finish this quest and get the treasure chest at the end." The goal might be, "I'm going to get my influence rewards instead."

"As we move forward we'll be modifying and looking at public quests, making them easier if we need to and making them more attractive if we need to."

And then, it gives you the opportunity to talk to your guild, talk to your friends and say "hey, let's do this public quest." It also gives you the opportunity to walk into a public quest and actually have people there. So, there's a lot of different ways that we thought public quests could work. Along with that, we're constantly monitoring the populations in the area and while one public quest itself might not be overflowing with people we find that, right now -- and our feeling is this is going to go on for the foreseeable future -- that in an area there's one or two public quests that is always being run by a group of people. It may not be every single public quest but there's people there who are doing public quests and you could find players to play with.

Having said that, as we move forward we'll be modifying and analyzing and looking at public quests and making them easier if we need to and making them more attractive if we need to. Our game is ever growing and so we'll change it as we need to change it.

Is it dangerous leaving this large of a factor out of your hands, especially in the early stages as players are still trickling in?

I don't think it's out of our hands. I think that it's definitely influenced by the population in the game but ... like, our game is ... any MMO is influenced by their population and our game stands really well with high populations or low populations. It plays differently. I don't think that it plays badly.

When you go into an area and there's ten people there, you're going to get a different experience than you are with a hundred people and some people will like one over the other. But, that's kinda the nature of MMOs. Kinda, one of the interesting things about MMOs is there's a lot of other people around you; you're not playing a single-player game and the game changes depending on who's around you.

So, dangerous? Uh ... we pay close attention to it, we're going to continue paying close attention to it. We're not going to let the game fall on its face because there's nobody there and again, what you see in MMOs is you see an initial wave of people go through and then forever you see a constant trickle of people go through. If you look at the areas, and we can see the metrics on the areas, there's huge populations in every area right now and even in games like Dark Age of Camelot -- which we still see metrics for -- there's still people in the low level areas playing in a game that's seven-years-old now. So, I don't have too much fear for it.

You mentioned there are things you can do to maybe make it more attractive for people to do those public quests. Right now, many of the Realm Vs Realm areas are separated out according to levels. As the game continues, do you think that you'll lift restrictions to help populate early level areas? Do you think that you'll bottleneck servers so that more people are in certain servers?

I think we're going to play that by ear as we move forward, you know? When we start to see what kind of problems actually loom then we'll decide how we're going to fix them. We have a lot of design pieces that we've talked about - like, "What if this happens?" And different scenarios where we said, "What if this happens? Well, we'll do this or what if this happens? Then, we'll do this."

So we have plans in place that we can put in motion if we need to. But, I think it's premature to look at that and go, "Woo, well this is what we're going to do in six months." It's going to be that long before that kind of stuff is really talked about.

So, we mentioned the content that was cut and it has been said that some of that content will find its way back in the game as an update at a later time.


Is there a time frame for adding that content? Is that not really a focus now?

It is definitely a focus but I can't talk about what that time frame is, I'm sorry. We haven't announced it yet and until we have officially announced it I can't talk about it. But, I can tell you that we think about it all the time. We've thought about it for over a year now as to exactly when and how we want to position those things and we all want as much in the game as we possibly can. Not just in content that we've talked about that didn't make it into the game but new content. Of course, we're going to keep pushing forward with that. I can tell you that we talk about the classes specifically very, very much.

So, when we mentioned that we were doing this interview, we got questions from everyone at our various sites.

(laughs) Okay.

One of the things we wanted to know, because a lot of people in the network are playing the game, is if they've had any issues or ran into any bugs. One of the ones that, I think, a lot of people are running into is clipping. Especially when you're fighting mobs and they clip into the ground making looting problematic or sometimes impossible.

Hmm ...

Do you have a dedicated team that that is looking into those bugs and some of the issues as opposed to the entire team?

"We literally have a top ten strike list (of issues) that we prioritize out and everyday we go through and just try to knock them off."

Wow, well. Yeah. Absolutely. So we have, to be frank, almost the entire team right now is just working on improvements. Not everybody. We have some people who are forward looking and are working on things we want to add to the game. But, like I said in the beginning, what it's about right now is making the game that's there as good as it possibly can be. Weird little bugs that we find, any crazy issues like what you're talking about, we look at them every single day.

We literally have a top ten strike list that we prioritize out and everyday we go through and just try to knock them off. Like, "Boom-boom-boom." Some of the players will see them going into the game immediately like, we'll work stability fixes into the game almost every day. In fact there are stability fixes going up tomorrow morning (Morning of September 25, specifically). So, you'll see those types of things that are super impactful probably a small percentage of the play base but are impactful to those guys so we want to fix them.

Having said that, we do have a lot of people working on this stuff. They are split up into specific teams. We have a core tech team that are looking into issues like what you're talking about. We have an RvR team. We have a combat and careers team. We have a UI (user-interface) team. We have a communities team. Each one of those teams is probably 90% dedicated to just improving the quality of the game as it stands right now.

So, keeping with that: we've had some comments from readers saying they are having issues with the Oceanic servers.


Specifically, log-in troubles. The one thing that we've heard a couple of times now is, when people are trying to log in they receive password errors even though when they try to log into a North American server it works fine.


Is this an issue that you're looking into? Is there a log-in limit for certain geographical locations?

No, no. What is it, um ... and I don't want to get too much into the tech of this because I'm not a techie. I can give you a quickie overview of what it is. So, number one it is super high on our list. It is one of our, probably, top three issues. We know what the problem is. The problem is related to, even though we have our game servers in Australia; so when you're playing on an Australian server you have very low latency. But some of the authentication architecture is in North America and so what is going on is we're running into a latency problem with our authentication server. It returns this funny authentication error that is not actually correct.

The reality is that it's a latency issue. So, we have things in planning that are fixing that and hopefully we'll see something soon on that, I don't know the exact time line. But, believe me it is probably the number one operational issue that we have. We care deeply about the Australian fans as I think we show by putting servers on location down there. We want to do everything we can to make the experience great for them.

So, we're aware of it. We're working on it. Hopefully we'll see something really soon to resolve those issues.

Some of our tech heads need to know: obviously Warhammer Online has been built to scale well, but how well does the game scale across multi-core CPUs?

Boy, that's a great question. I asked that question the other day because I'm planning on buying a new computer and I'm like, "Hey, what should I buy? Should I buy a dual core? Should I buy a quad core?" So I was talking to my CTO (chief technical officer, Matthew Shaw) and he was like, "So the game scales well across multiple CPUs, dual core especially. The game will just love you to death if you go dual core. Quad core, it will use as much as it can but it is probably a little bit overkill."

Moving to dual GPUs if you're talking about graphics cards, not as big of a bang for the buck. Just so you know. Our game wants CPU more than it wants GPU. So, I don't know if that helps you out.

(laughs) Are there any future plans to support DirectX 10?

Hmm ... It's something that we talk about but we don't have any announced plans in place (laughs).

The one question I have pertaining to the actual launch of the game is how close to achieving the goal do you think Mythic Entertainment has come since Warhammer Online was first announced?

Oh, wow. You mean the goal of launching a great MMO? Is that the goal you're talking about?

Yeah. I mean, the goal of "these are the things we set out to do when we launch this game" when you announced Warhammer Online. Internally, "these are the things we want to do." How close did you get to that goal?

I understand. I think we came super close. The game isn't perfect. Nobody is going to say that. I don't think any game is and I especially don't think any MMO is. It's a living, growing world which is what I think makes MMOs great. I think that we launched, first and foremost, a super fun product to play. That was my number one goal when I was driving the team, is it fun? And you can ask anyone on the team that would say, "So, what we want to do is we want to do this..." and my first question would be, "Is it fun? Does that make the game more fun?"

And then there is a lot more criteria that we put in place. Do I think that we hit the "fun" goal? I think we nailed it. I think we blew it out of the water. I think PvE is fun. I think RvR is mindlessly, crazy, awesomely fun.


I can't get enough of it. I think that most of our players feel that way. Do I wish there are things that we could have got done? Things that we talked about and would have loved to gotten in? Absolutely. But again one of the great things about MMOs is that we're going to put those things in, in the future. But I think that we hit our goal really close. Do I wish that we could have crushed more of the little bugs that are bothering people? Yeah. But, we'll get there and we'll get there soon. We are all over this stuff. So, I feel super good about the game.

So, besides the bug fixes that we've already mentioned, where is the focus now for the WAR team? Is everyone now working on content? When do you start looking at proper retail expansions? What happens next for the team?

So, again I can't give you dates or anything like that but I can give you an idea of how we're structured and what we do. We've been looking at an expansion for two months now. I don't want anybody to get the wrong idea when I say that - we got four people out of 250 (Mythic Entertainment staffers) who have been doing pre-production on an expansion.

"It is going to be months, before we actually start going 'balls to the walls,' working on an expansion."

We know what we want to do. We know when we want to do it. We know what it's going to entail. But, it is going to be months, months, before that team expands beyond those four or five people and we actually start going "balls to the walls" working on an expansion.

We are very confident that it will be awesome. I'm super-excited and I know our players will be too when they see what we're doing. The other 245 people, or whatever it is, they are - again - mostly dedicated to improving the quality of the game as it stands now. Stability, all the little bugs and crap that pop up. Things that bug the players that aren't actually problems in the game but the players go, "You know if only we had a widget that did X or if only I could do this a little bit differently." You know? Just the little desires. We're focused on that, we're focused on stability. That kind of stuff.

And then we're just now starting to look forward into the two-to-three month or longer time-frames of, "What are we going to do for free content upgrades and beyond content?" And system upgrades that allow players to expand their play schedule. So we've got some absolutely fantastic plans that we're putting into place really starting this week where we're going to start, hopefully within the next month or two, we're going to start cutting off pieces of the team to work on forward thinking, cool, content system patches that will give free stuff to the players that they'll love.

It is exciting for us and I'm really excited about it because the world is so big that we have so much to choose from and we're kind of just plucking and going, "that is really cool. Let us do that." So, the players are going to dig it. It'll be great.

And again, the game is Warhammer Online. Jeff, thank you for joining us and good luck with everything.

Thanks. I appreciate it.

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