Had you asked me a year ago if Wrath of Heroes would have closed today…. I might have believed you.
The game was doomed to fail. In this article you will find out how.
It all began with a studio called Mythic. Mythic successfully created a game called Dark Ages of Camelot. DAOC was successful in attracting 1M gamers to its ranks and was one of the few early MMOs actually able to compete with Everquest and Lineage. It was a masterpiece. The game was so great (for it’s time) that people would be talking about it as the prime example of great PvP for a full decade of development.
For years people would release MMOs talking about how they have former developers of Dark Age of Camelot. Even today, Elder Scrolls Online, declares that it has developers from this monumental game.
So when DAOC studio Mythic was purchased by Electronic Arts people started throwing doubts into the future of this former independent studio. Warhammer Online was announced as the first post-EA title. The game was hyped up to no end. A large part of the success of the hype was how into the game developers were. When asked to describe MMO players the lead developer stated “people want games that are addictive, in which you beat your chest run at your opponent and kill or be killed.”
It was this sort of attitude that saw the game get 1M on launch sales… but that’s all.
Warhammer Online fell apart relatively quickly and was never really able to develop as a game. Support for the game was dropped very quickly and some or all of the staff was re-assigned to a new MMO studio “Bioware Austin.” To this day Warhammer Online still runs with the infinite trial which unlike most games which have this… it’s had no positive improvements on entry into the game. SWTOR went free to play, Warhammer Online still remains a subscription based game.
The Warhammer franchise was still felt to be worth exploiting. THQ was still having relative success with their Warhammer 40K series and it was felt they just needed to make the right Warhammer game for the giant Warhammer tabletop community.
The end result was they created a multi-online battle arena (MOBA) based around Warhammer Online’s end game multiplayer.
Fail #1: Market Mis-Conception
At the time of Wrath of Heroes there were really only two types of MOBA games available, your typical shooter types and your League of Legends types.
The shooter types were more popular as their gross sum of players was by and large the largest percentage of the market. Although League of Legends had a large player base, other games of its type (and there were many) had no chance of success.
So it was openly presumed that League of Legends was a bit of a fluke and copying it’s format was a bad idea.
League of Legends had a lot of problems with its game. The first was that it wasn’t all that welcoming to new players. The amount of stuff you would have to learn was tremendous considering HOW many unit and unit types there were exactly. One top of that it wasn’t all that obvious what items you ought to buy, the values of different things for different classes, and the end game for this game.
The League of Legends format was seemingly not worth copying because it fit into a large niche similar to that of World of Warcraft. In the past Mythic (now Bioware-Mythic) tried to snake users away from Activision-Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and failed. So obviously taking on the industry giant was not going to be their goal.
Then they looked to the other genre, shooters. Shooters are open to anyone to join. They actually have no learning curve whatsoever. Anyone can jump in and play instantly. Shooters didn’t revolve around an existing evolving game like LoL and didn’t have complicated in-game decisions to be made. Shooters were games you could jump into and jump out of, no long commitments and no long term investment, other than the initial purchase.
Call of Duty’s model in particular was of great interest. It allowed people to make open customizations in between games to weapon types in between matches based on how much you leveled that particular weapon. It was felt this could be adopted to heroes and as you would level your heroes you could create advantages or traits.
This ended up being a fairly large mis-interpretation of the existing market place. As it turned out the reason why people were so accepting of Call of Duty style play was because it was really the only popular option. Tribes Ascend was able to show with it’s hyper popular space shooter that you can have complicated progressive play in a MOBA and be very successful.
The end result was a product that felt very bland and didn’t seem to go anywhere.
They very significantly missed the marker on their market. The thing that people liked about Call of Duty games was that your kills rewarded you with a “in a row” based system in which you could deploy some sort of trick against the enemy. Had the Call of Duty franchise been expanded into larger roles it’d probably do even better.
There was no evolutionary system in WoH. It was simply a game in which three teams spammed their abilities against each other in hopes of landing final blows until the time was up.
Fail #2: Tri-Faction
One of the crowning ideas from Dark Age of Camelot was the idea that it was easier to balance a game around three factions than one. The idea worked like this. If two teams are fighting each other the two teams had to be identical otherwise they would have advantages over each other. With a third faction added in it meant in three way battles there needed to be far more co-ordination to team up with the other team and take down the person who was in the lead… and then backstab your former friend who is now in the lead.
If this doesn’t make sense to you… you’re not alone.
But you can’t convince fans of the original franchise of the inherent wrongitudeness of this argument.
Let’s say for example you are one such person who accepts this argument.
The fault in the argument is that there is some sort of balance in a constant 2v1 type of scenario, in which the king of the mountain is always the one.
As a matter of fact the levels of tactics in this gets minimized from removing key players or isolation type strategies simply to two teams zerging whomever happens to be the top. Of course you can’t zerg only the guy who is on the top because you want to also crush the person on the bottom from time to time so that when you get to the top they have further to grow.
The end result is that whomever is in third place will always almost be in third place forever… and it goes back to be a 1v1 with an extra non-important party involved.
This failed tri-faction format has plagued MMOs for quite some time, when introduced into a MOBA it just showed very little hope.
By adding in third third faction it meant that you could not plot traps because any second you are not engaged in combat you are missing an opportunity to score some of those deadly kills.
If you are losing in a MOBA like DOTA2 your best bet is to play defensive and spring traps on lesser numbers of opponents. If you are losing in a MOBA like Wrath of Heroes you run out and do the exact same failing tactic you were doing before.
The problem ends up being killing blows. In a simple 1v1 scenario it’s very easy to track who earns a kill. But in 1v1v1 if I was to do 80% of the damage but you were to get the final 20%…. you got the kill. That just doesn’t seem right… and that fact just didn’t set well with the community as a whole. The fact that the game favored classes that had high nuking power over all others proved to be a massive downfall in this 1v1v1 format. People were choosing heroes specifically so that could run in and steal killing blows in team battles.
The tri-faction also limited what sort of game modes they could release. Of course there is elimination. Then there is elimination. There’s a hold a point mode. There was a somewhat of a capture the flag game. The capture the flag game ended up just being another elimination mode. The hold a point mode simply ended up being a run in circles mode. The tri-faction modes simply could not be fun.
Had they simply removed the tri-faction mode they could have created game modes that were strategic and fun. Instead it just always ended up being the largest spam possible.
Unfortunately though they could not remove it, all because of the third point.
Fail #3: Games Workshop
An intellectual property contains the right to an idea. So Games Workshop owns the rights to all content regarding the licensing of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. So at the end of the day all final say will go to Games Workshop on all things.
When you’re dealing with some IPs they’re very flexible. There are nearly 100 different incarnations of Superman and Batman with extremes being allowed by artists. When you look at Batman games in fact you find very few common elements as everyone seems to have their own unique take on Batman.
Having a very flexible intellectual property is important because gameplay elements have to be fun and the story has to be great second.
A MOBA has a very simple design. But when designed within a very stringent world it becomes difficult to create something worthwhile.
One of my friends was a former employee of THQ and he spoke of how hard it was working with Games Workshop. It would seem that as they had great ideas for Warhammer 40K titles they kept getting shot down because it was outside of the character and lore of the people they were portraying. In fact there was a book called Space Marine which Game’s Workshop sued because they felt they owned the term “space marine.”
The same basically happened for this game. The developers might have had all sorts of great ideas for the game… and they all got shot down by Game’s Workshop. All characters, abilities, game modes, and settings had to be run by Game’s Workshop before they could make it live. It kind of hurts when your hands get tied by intellectual property owners.
Fail #4: No Hooks
At the end of the day Wrath of Heroes did not have any “hooks” for consumers. A strong MOBA developer will offer a carrot to a gamer. Then the MOBA developer will slowly string that carrot away until the player is so far deep into the game that he gets upset about there being no carrot… and then he finally gets the carrot… and another trap is presented to the player.
This is the profit making gameplay of nearly every MOBA and every single MMO. The goal is to reward your players as little as possible but make it seem like they are making possible.
World of Tanks does this by rewarding two currencies that can be invested in different ways strategically.
Call of Duty does this by making it so your weapons level on every single use so that as you are leveling to unlock new weapons and perks you are also leveling to unlock new gadgets.
DOTA2 does this by offering you randomized rewards and set rewards.
A good hook for one of these games is one in which you are following that carrot for your reward and some intermittent reinforcement is presented so that you continue playing.
DOTA2′s model was lottery based, and there was no intermittent reinforcement.
Basically after achieving certain objectives in a match you would receive a lottery spin based on each win you get. You gained gold based on what combinations of things you can get.
There was no second tier keeping you there. If all of your gambling rolls were bad you were less interested in grinding. If all of them were good you would just think this is normal and still not care.
The gambling mechanic itself doesn’t represent a good hook.
A good gambling mechanic involves risking something to gain something. This mechanic has no risk, it’s just a randomized reward. If your reward happens to suck you feel cheated and unrewarded. If it’s amazing you feel lucky… and still unrewarded.
Instead the game ought to have scaled rewards in such a way that you gain large rewards for great success but you can risk it for even greater rewards… and then choose what your risk level is.
Without an effective hook however Wrath of Heroes was unable to keep people playing. Instead people would play for a while, make no progress and then just quit. The brain responds best to almost getting something and feeling like they could have had that. Without scaling rewards you cannot create an effective hook.
In the end the design team at Mythic-Bioware were trying to create a game that was fun to play instead of a game that was addictive. Games that are fun people will have people play it once and be done with it. Think of any single player game out there that you enjoyed… but uninstalled after you played it once. That’s what Wrath of Heroes was, an online game without an addictive hook.