The Game Archaeologist: WAR's biggest battle was with itself

The Game Archaeologist WAR's biggest battle was with itself

Who would have thought that on WAR's fifth anniversary and just days after I dropped a few favorite things about the game, Mythic would be announcing a closure instead of an exciting celebration? While we can all say it that Warhammer Online's upcoming sunset was expected, nobody predicted that the news would go down on its fifth birthday. Maybe someone over there likes order more than chaos and sees a nice symmetry in this. Personally, I think it felt a little bit mean to do that to the remaining community that was patiently sitting there hoping that the studio would toss them even a small bit of recognition.

But facts are facts, and after December 18th, the game of public quests, the Tome of Knowledge, "bears, bears, bears," Slayers and Marauders, RvR and scenarios, exploding squigs, and drunken Dwarves will be no more.

There are a few months left to experience the game if one so desires, but the end is finally here. It's caused many of us who were invested in the game back in 2008 to take stock of our memories and deal with the last chapter of this strange, wild rollercoaster that started with a strong IP, a studio steeped in PvP MMO development, and a pair of white sunglasses. In the end, WAR's biggest battle was with itself -- and it lost. Today, let's look at the whys, the what ifs, and the community reaction.

The Game Archaeologist WAR's biggest battle was with itself

The whys

2008 might well go down as some sort of case study that grad students might tackle in Advanced MMO Marketing and Development. Two factors raced side by side as Warhammer careened toward release: a powerful promotional campaign and a struggle to bring a fantastic array of ideas into reality. It was a rocky year, from the EA acquisition to a second delay to the announcement that two classes and four capital cities would be cut from launch. Still, the team promised, promoted, and stirred up tremendous amounts of excitement at a time when many gamers were starting to weary of the current big MMO on the block. Here was a contender, we were told. Here is the Led Zeppelin alternative to the Beatles' popularity.

Metaphors. Devs love 'em.

Let's skip ahead to late 2009 or early 2010. After an initial launch that saw very strong sales and a playerbase to match, the whole structure started to shake apart from the twin forces exerting on the game. WAR was buggy and somewhat incomplete, and even further fixes, class additions, and the Land of the Dead content addition wasn't enough to turn the tide. WAR bled subs like crazy, Mark Jacobs was fired, and a lot of the team was let go or left for better opportunities. It was about this time that I and some other WAR bloggers got a personal email from a lead developer asking what we thought went wrong with the game and how we'd fix it. All I could think is, "Man, if you're asking us, then it's too late."

I don't think that there's a big secret to what WAR did wrong. It should've been a three-faction game, period; the two factions were almost always unbalanced without a way to give the underdog a leg-up. It should've been in development for a lot longer and either cut PvE entirely or dumped a lot more resources into PvE. Mythic should've stayed out of EA's clutches. And WAR should have not promised what it couldn't deliver.

There were ideas, great ideas, in this game. Many of those ideas have been embraced by the industry and transplanted elsewhere. But an idea gone sour can damage more than no idea at all.

Wrath of Heroes was a valiant attempt to repurpose WAR assets and try to grab some of the MOBA fortune that's being passed around these days. I don't know enough about that game to declare why it didn't work, but obviously it wasn't bringing in enough to support itself or WAR proper. In retrospect, it was probably the last chance that WAR had to staying alive.

The Game Archaeologist WAR's biggest battle was with itself

The what ifs

Producer Carrie Gouskos' farewell letter to the game is rife with memories and positive sentiment. What I found most interesting about it are all of the projects that we never knew were being worked on behind the scene.

She mentioned an iPhone companion app (nifty), a Blood Hunt expansion featuring vampires (which might've done quite well), Chaos Dwarves (unless she was, indeed, kidding about them), and two of the missing cities, Karaz-A-Karak and Karak Eight Peaks. All of this is maddening if you start contemplating what might've happened if these came out and the game had been doing much better.

The biggest "what if" about this game is what might've happened if Warhammer Online went free-to-play. I mean, it totally should've. It needed the same shot in the arm that DDO received in 2009 with that F2P conversion, and the wave of F2P adaptations following that should've been more than enough reason to do so.

I don't think we'll ever get a clear answer why F2P didn't happen, although Gouskos did let slip that the team had been working on a F2P version for Asian countries. Would China and Korea have embraced a F2P WAR? Maybe, but I don't think so, not after seeing how some of our other imports have been faring over there.

The Game Archaeologist WAR's biggest battle was with itself

The community reaction

When we started to get email tips suggesting that Mythic was canning WAR, I spent an afternoon refreshing this official forum thread. It was just about the saddest thing I've seen all week: a group of loyal and valiant players hoping that the alleged announcement emails were fakes, and then the dismay and anger as the official post went up. It reminded me that there were still people who love this game, and despite the bungling on behalf of the studio and publisher, stuck it out because of those feelings. I admire that.

"I met my husband and a wonderful group of life-long friends in this game, and I'm buggered if I'm letting her go down without some epic WAAAAAAAGH!" one poster wrote.

"Da boyz ain't dun bashin'! Da Big Bash is ON till dey turn da lites out!" another said.

In the following hours after the shutdown announcement, I had a friend on Twitter express bewilderment about the sheer number and passion of WAR tweets that erupted. "I've honestly never seen/heard anyone talk about WAR until now that it's shutting down," she said.

Perhaps not in the past few years, no, but there was a good stretch of time when Warhammer rose to challenge World of Warcraft in the blogging scene. We bloggers just couldn't shut up about it in the year leading up to it and the months afterward. You hear a lot of criticism about the level of hype that made this an impossible-to-please title, and while there's truth to that, that hype is also what spawned a lot of our discussion and excitement. For many of us that cut our teeth on WoW and felt ready to move on, this felt like the next step. We were passionate, we were foolish, we were funny, and we bonded over it. We even hosted a blog initiative to get other folks writing, an initiative that was perhaps the high-water mark of the blogging community's enthusiasm.

That's why this announcement has caused many former WAR bloggers to come out of the woodwork for a digital wake. In addition to my own thoughts on the occasion, the following bloggers have posted their reaction to the game's end and memories of better times: Harbinger Zero, Welshtroll, Inventory Full, Tales of the Aggronaut, Pumping Irony, Why I Game, Ardwulf, A High Latency Life, One Shard, The Nosy Gamer, TAGN, Grimnir's Grudge, Vicarious Existence, and the last faithful WAR blogger, Werit.

I echo what Werit said when he wrote, "So while I wish WAR's story had a different ending, I have no regrets over the time spent involved with the game."

The future

As I said before, we still have a few months left. Massively will be giving you a few more "last looks" at the game even if you don't go back, and we'll stream the shutdown too for those who can't attend in person.

Meanwhile, there are options. Those loving the RvR action could go back to Dark Age of Camelot or wait patiently for Camelot Unchained. Warhammer fans can look forward to Eternal Crusade or hope that something MMO-like comes out of past or future Games Workshop license deals. Or you could just let go and move onto something else entirely.

While it became the norm to belittle Warhammer Online in comments, blogs, and forums, I can't help but remember what joyous fun I had writing about it, playing it, and engaging with others over it. So it might be bitter to see it close, but it's also sweet to know that the best legacy it had still remains within many of us.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.