Steve opens up the Great Book of Grudges, and reads a few chapters to Carrie Gouskos.
In an extensive interview, the two discuss WAR’s history from launch up to the present day, the changes which have taken place over that time, as well as what’s yet to come.
If you played Warhammer Online at launch and have been wondering if your issues have been addressed and now is the time to come back, this interview was done with you in mind.
If you would prefer to listen rather than read, this interview can be heard in its entirety during Episode 27 of our Working as Intended podcast.
The MMO Gamer: To get us started, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what it is you do at Mythic.
Carrie Gouskos: I’m Carrie Gouskos, the Producer on Warhammer Online. What that means effectively is that I’m responsible in some way for everything that happens with respect to what goes into the game, what the big picture plans are, and how we work with the community.
There’s obviously a large team of people who deal with the specifics, but for me it’s about the big picture, and steering it into the direction I think it needs to go, and working with the community and the team to hopefully get everyone’s goals aligned together.
The MMO Gamer: Now, you and I have only met once before, way back at Games Day LA in 2007.
WAR had just entered beta then, and I recall that basically everything was coming up roses: The game was looking great, it had a very rabid fanbase… I can attest to just how rabid, when I said something slightly negative about it in an article later on.
The game had a huge buildup, a huge following, then it launched, and…
Carrie Gouskos: There are a couple ways to answer that.
Pre-launch, I think we did a very good job about getting people excited about the game. We had a huge license, and we had a lot of unique personalities on the development team that were really infectiously excited about the game.
We thought we were doing a lot of really neat stuff, and wanted to share that with everyone. I don’t think internally—actually, I know internally, nobody here was going “Oh, we’re going to beat WoW!” or any of that. There was none of that kind of gauging.
But it was like, “We’re going to have a successful MMO. We’re going to be awesome, and have so many players!” all of that stuff. We had a lot of expectations, and we launched to that kind of hype.
I think the problem was, to some degree, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed.
I actually think that we have a large game, with a lot of people playing who are excited about it. But you can see how many servers we opened with, all of that, and people try to do the numbers game, guessing how many players we have now…
The fact of the matter is that we came out huge, and there were problems. So I think that was a little bit of a buzz kill for the development team, and to some degree our players, as well.
We’ve been spending all this time since trying to refine the game, and get it to a state that we think, “This is what people are looking for, this is what they want.”
If you asked me personally how I feel about it, I loved the features in our game at launch, but I do think obviously there are things that I look at and say, “God, I wish I had fixed that! Or I wish I’d done that!” You can do that all day long.
So the goal since then has been to do all those things that we wanted to do, and to grow with our players, and instead of trying to make the game we think players are going to like, make the game that players are going to enjoy, because they’re the ones sitting here telling us, and we’re listening to them.
We’ve been maybe more quiet in the past six months, because we’ve been hunkering down and going, “Okay, what is it that’s going to satisfy the players’ needs, make them come back, and make them happy?”
I think we’ve accomplished that. I don’t want to say that in the tone of like “rah-rah,” I do feel like we’re down to business at this point, and we’ve done a lot of things to the game that has pacified some of the dissatisfaction at launch, and I’m very happy with the players, and their interactions with us.
The MMO Gamer: Those improvements were actually the reason I wanted to talk to you, today.
I played WAR at launch… hell, I played a long time before launch, I was in beta from January of 2008. I got into the pre-order head start, talked all my friends into buying the game… We had a guild going, big alliance, a hundred guys on every night.
And then all of a sudden it just kind of… stopped. Coincidentally, right around the time that Wrath of the Lich King came out.
Carrie Gouskos: Uh huh. [laughing]
The MMO Gamer: That was basically the reason that I quit. I don’t play MMOs to solo, and I don’t like making new friends. So once all my friends quit, I was gone.
And, I’ve pretty much been trying ever since to talk them into giving the game a second shot.
I decided to just jump in and swim last month, and see if I could needle them down by constant reminders that, “Hey, I’m playing WAR again, you want to come back and try it?”
But their responses always tend to be, “No. We played it. We didn’t like it. That’s it.”
And that’s of course the prevailing notion of just about every MMO on the market: People get an idea in their head at launch, and no matter what happens to a game six months, a year afterward, the day they bought the box is the image they have in their mind forever.
Anarchy Online, for instance, was never able to live down that launch…
Carrie Gouskos: Actually, Anarchy Online was one that I went back to like three times. Every time I went back, I just wanted to love that game so much, I tried so hard.
But I understand completely what you’re saying. It’s funny, isn’t it? The only turnaround I can think of is you need to have a complete makeover. And even then, it’s hard to change your intuition.
Which is interesting, because I do think a lot of games are actually broken at launch, but I don’t think that Warhammer was. There were problems, certainly. But compared to some of the experiences I’ve had in other MMOs…
I’m not saying that’s forgivable, at all. As an industry we need to move away from that, “We’ll fix it later” mentality, which I’ve never had. But they’re so massive, and there’s so much going on, it’s almost hard to contain it all.
And I guess you were setting us up for a question, which you can ask now if you’d like. [laughing]
The MMO Gamer: The question was essentially, even though the game has improved a great deal since launch, how can you get people to change their preconceptions of it?
How do you get past, “The game is Anarchy Online, I ain’t playing it no more.”
Carrie Gouskos: The true answer of how to get people playing the game is to fix the game. To put things in the game that they would like.
But the question you’re asking is about perception. I’m taking a little bit different approach than some of my predecessors, and maybe to my own detriment, but I’m going to stick by it and see how well it works.
Which is: To be as humble, and candid, and honest as I can be—obviously understanding that there are certain things that I can’t talk about, which are off the table.
But to really go to the community and say, “I’m going to sit here, and start by making you some promises, and I’m going to fulfill them all. And I don’t expect you to believe me until they’re complete.”
Hopefully, through this labored back-and-forth with people who are negative, and angry, and just constantly kind of going, “Let’s go! What can we do? How are we going to change this?”
My hope is, that instead of people’s enjoyment with Warhammer spreading through “excitement,” or that kind of false energy, that it comes through a true, honest passion, and happiness.
We certainly have people in the community that advocate the game, like our bloggers, these people are just fantastic, and they really feel very passionately about the game.
Don’t get me wrong, they hold us really to account with, “Why didn’t you fix this? And why didn’t you do that? But, their commitment is clear, and I believe they’re committed because they trust us, and they see us moving in the right direction, for whatever it is that they’re interested in.
The answer is, I’ll take ‘em back one at a time. I don’t need several hundred thousand people to come pouring back into Warhammer. I’ll take them one at a time, and as soon as they’re ready to come back.
The MMO Gamer: So then no opening the floodgates? No “Come on back, everybody gets a free month!”?
Carrie Gouskos: [laughing] Don’t get me wrong, if everybody wants to come play Warhammer again, I’m not going to complain.
But I want people to come back, and I want them to stay. I want them to meet people that they like to play with, I want them to be excited about it, and I want them to really enjoy it, and stay with us forever.
That’s what I want, honest as that.
The MMO Gamer: So, we’ve established why I quit, but now I’d like to discuss some of the other issues people had with the game, and how you’ve gone about answering them.
A lot of the complaints that I heard at launch were regarding the technical side of the game.
A number of these issues have been addressed, for instance the game runs much better now on the same hardware than it once did.
But, some of them haven’t; for instance, the crash to desktop issue.
You’ve said in a Producer Letter that bug fixes are now a priority for you, could you update us on the progress that’s been made on the technical side of the game?
Carrie Gouskos: Sure. This is actually one of those things where our exploration in the Asian markets have a lot of benefit to all the other markets as well, because of the numbers of players that are expected within a single area there, a taxation that we don’t really see in the playstyle in North America and Europe.
We pretty much have people dedicated to working on the crash issues. The crash to desktop stuff actually has improved significantly since launch, maybe it’s on a case-by-case basis depending on one certain set-up or another, we might not have addressed your crash to desktop.
But if you look at the overall numbers, we actually have improved on those, and server crashes have been all but eradicated.
The answer is that we have a permanent staff working on optimization, and dealing with performance as best as possible.
We saw a lot of those fixes coming in the Fall of last year, the 1.3.2 version was when we had the majority of it. Those were both client and server changes, specifically things like making texture memory better.
The Mac version helped with that, we had to make some changes with the Mac version of the game that improved the performance of textures significantly.
It’s just one of those things that you have to keep working on. I’m quite, I won’t say satisfied, but I’m happy with the progress that we’ve made.
The MMO Gamer: You mentioned something in that answer: The fact that you generally expect more players to be in the same area on the Asian servers, as opposed to the US and European servers.
That was actually going to be my next question… Another big holdover problem from launch, is that for a PvP game, a lot of people don’t seem to be that interested in actually killing each other.
I’m in tier 4 now, since I started playing again. I formerly played a Sorcerer, now I’m a Bright Wizard, because I have a one-track mind.
And, a great deal of tier 4 seems to be sitting on my horse, waiting for a timer to expire at a battlefield objective, while people in region chat are saying, “Where’s Destro?” “They’re two zones behind us. Want to go kill them?” “Nahh.”
In 1.3.5 you’re changing city siege to be 100% PvP-centric, removing most of the PvE components. I was wondering if there were any plans to go back and take a look at the Open RvR segment, to do more of the same there.
Carrie Gouskos: Absolutely. The complaint about the fact that the cities were PvE end-game I think was in recent months one of the most significant we’d been receiving, which is why we chose that one to tackle.
We also, in the last version, addressed some of the scenario stuff as well. We’ve kind of been making our way through various things.
Open RvR is definitely the next hot-button issue, and this is an example of where candid gets me into trouble…
I made the comment to one of our bloggers once recently, when we had them out here for a roundtable, I made a comment that, “You know, I’m not sure what to do.”
What I meant was, sometimes it’s very difficult to just make people fight each other. Fortunately, we’ve got designers and a bunch of guys on the team who promptly hit me upside the head after that, and said “We know what to do!”
So we’re kind of tackling ORvR right now. I think that there are things we can do, I don’t think that we can ever get away from the fact that sometimes people are going to choose not to fight each other.
But I can tell you that the changes to the cities at least bring that aspect front and center, you are going to be fighting each other in the end-game, and that’s going to be a pretty exciting fight.
On the way up there, we definitely need to tackle some of that stuff, especially the timers. I’m tired of hearing people say “Waithammer.”
The MMO Gamer: Staying on the subject, in the lead-up to the release of the game, the ORvR campaign was pitched as being the epic battle of good against evil, and that actually getting into a city was “A Big Deal.”
Last night on Badlands, I think they were in Altdorf twice, and we were in Inevitable City twice, within the space of about eight hours.
I appreciate the fact that you took fortresses out to try and get city siege happening more often, but when you get the message “Inevitable City lies undefended! To arms!” and your reactions is, “Meh.”
Doesn’t that kind of take the fun out of it?
Carrie Gouskos: It used to be very difficult to launch a city. In fact, I don’t think we had a king killed for the first three months.
It used to be a lot harder than it is now, and that’s certainly something that we’ve done because we wanted to give more people the opportunity to see the end-game.
As part of the ORvR changes we’re looking at, “What is the campaign? How epic is it? How often do we want cities to be launching?”
That’s the question that I didn’t have the answer to. The unfortunate thing is that the things that make it take longer are those timers. If there weren’t those timers at all cities would be flipping every hour.
You want to reward people for effort. You don’t want to say “Get together with fifty people and maybe you’ll push one zone.” You want to say “Get together with fifty people and you can push all the way to the city!”
Certainly there’s some things that we need to address with that, and there are certainly ideas and various things that people have in mind.
The problem is always, with a live game, is anything you do, especially to make it harder after it’s been easier, is entirely reacted to negatively.
People just go, “Ugh! This is the worst thing ever!”
So you have to be creative about it. You have to do something that is enjoyable during that time. I don’t know if that means putting the forts back in or in a different way, but something.
We’re looking into exploring our options, there.
The MMO Gamer: And just to round the topic out, are there any plans for the foreseeable future to add in the missing capitals?
Carrie Gouskos: [laughing] Till the end of time, that question.
We are always looking at things like that. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I don’t really have anything tangible to say. But it’s certainly not off the table.
The MMO Gamer: So do you feel that cutting the other four and focusing solely on Altdorf and Inevitable City was the correct decision in the long run, having a year and a half to look back on it?
Carrie Gouskos: Oh yeah. We would be launching this fall. There was so much effort that went into the cities, to get them… it wouldn’t have been right to have them all.
The complexity starts to get in trouble. If I had to look back at lessons I’ve learned from the development of Warhammer, it’s the complexity thing. You get really caught up in “We can add this feature! We can do this stuff! It’ll be really cool!”
What happens is you end up cramming a bunch of stuff in, and yeah there’s a lot of cool stuff, but maybe not as polished as you wanted it to be. So, I would stay away from that as much as possible.
I actually think our game has got a lot of features, a lot going on, and maybe it doesn’t need all of those features, or maybe we could have added them in slower.
The MMO Gamer: Speaking of adding things into the game… Aside from the cities, any big upcoming content changes?
Carrie Gouskos: Yes! Every version.
The MMO Gamer: I meant “big” in air quotes, along the same lines as, for instance, Land of the Dead.
Carrie Gouskos: We aren’t prepared to announce anything right now about that.
The MMO Gamer: Another one of the big issues at launch was basically, I hit the PvE level of 40, and my brain hit a mental wall.
I looked at all those big, purple numbers that I was going to have to grind out, and I was thinking to myself: “Should I quit while I’m ahead, or keep on going?”
What have you gone back and added in to make those big, purple numbers you have to go through from the PvE cap of 40 all the way up to the RvR cap of 80 more “carrot-y,” as opposed to just killing people for the sheer sake of killing people?
Carrie Gouskos: We’re always evaluating what’s available at each of the levels to make sure that it’s as carrot-y as possible. If you think of a game like ours, where RvR really is the crown jewel, it makes sense to have the higher level cap be the RvR cap.
To some degree, what’s carrot-y about the upper levels is the sense of pride that a lot of people have, “Oh man, I’m renown rank 80!”
People are really prideful about that. And a lot of things are gated off of the renown ranks, different sets of armor, abilities, all of that stuff.
I guess I wouldn’t say that making those top 40 levels seem more tangible is something that I see as a problem. I see that as a challenge, and a lot of MMO players like to overcome challenges, and so that’s presented for them.
Clearly you didn’t have enough of the other kind of things, the stickiness, to make you want to overcome that challenge, but hopefully in your return, you will.
The MMO Gamer: For me, I’m kind of hard-wired for the traditional MMO mindset: You follow a set course of progression to a cap, and then you wait for the expansion. That’s the way it usually goes.
So, for my progression I hit 40, and then… “No one is giving me quests! No one is telling me what to do! I must be instructed! I must be led by the nose! Where do I kill people? How? Why? Where do I get these armor sets? What’s a ‘ward’?”
That last bit I actually have to commend you on, because that was another one of the big problems we had at launch: Everyone knew you needed wards to complete the high-end content, but nobody knew how you actually got them.
Putting that right in the Tome of Knowledge, with explicit instructions that were easy to understand, I thought that was a great additional carrot.
Carrie Gouskos: The information thing is a really interesting challenge. I enjoy it, but it’s sometimes really frustrating.
You do it too much one way, and there’s text all over the screen and people going, “Ah! Get this stuff out of here!”
On the other hand, the moment they need to know, it should be “How do I know what a ward is? Oh!”
How do I know when you need to know that? And the Tome has been great fun, but it’s been a great tool as well, to provide that information. Like with Live Events as well, to have them all available in the Tome, that’s been wonderful.
But I guess it’s sort of a slightly different principle, like I said about what to do next, and where to go next… The answer is you go kill people.
How do you do it? There were certain things that were lacking, like global chat channels at launch, which made coordination difficult. A lot of things we’ve been working on has been improving communication, and ways for players to find each other and interact with each other.
We made some pretty big improvements to chat, including adding the global chat channels, the War Report which tells you where the fights are, which is kind of successful, and kind of not.
The rally call… we’ve been playing around with all that stuff. We did a lot of changes to the guild system, to make guilds more interesting, you could do a lot more stuff with guilds and recruit people easier, that kind of thing.
I think that’s the key, we need to give you guys the tools to be able to interact with each other well. That then provides the, “What do you do now?”
The MMO Gamer: To me personally, WAR has always been the most fun when you’re out killing people on the open field of battle.
But, as I said in an earlier question, it seems that more people are interested in avoidance these days than fighting pitched battles, because somebody always gripes, “Oh, they’ve got five more guys than we do, we don’t have a chance!”
I remember back in beta, some of the most fun I ever had in WAR was during the zone tests, because it was a command economy.
Mythic just wrote in the patch notes, “We want you to go to Praag, and kill every man, woman, and child you see.” And so the entire server did. All day long.
Have you ever considered bringing that over into the live game? Just locking down everything except one area and saying, “This is your objective for today. Kill everybody. You’re not getting any renown unless you do.”?
Carrie Gouskos: To varying degrees that is something we’re exploring.
One of the things that we’ve been working on, and this is something that I think has been successfully working for the past few months is the Weekend Warfronts, which is kind of a different goal each weekend, basically a Live Event each weekend.
Right now they’re scenarios. We’ve had some talk with people about doing Open RvR with it, so that this weekend we can say, “Okay, go kill people in this zone, you’ll get this bonus, or do this…”
I don’t know if we’ll ever lock down all the other zones, but I think we can find clever ways to incentivize playing in certain areas.
But then of course that kind of counterpoints one of the reasons why we took the fortresses out: We did not want an entire server’s worth of people converging on one place.
We want people to have a good time, and we want to have a lot of people together, but we don’t want to have everyone together, because we don’t want performance impact.
Again, we’re looking at improving always, and we’ve actually vastly improved the number of people who can be in one place since launch, so I don’t even know if that’s an issue any more. But it’s something to be mindful of.
The MMO Gamer: I try to offer everyone I interview the chance to answer this question, because I find that there’s a lot of pent-up rage among developers in the gaming industry, like, “You bastards in the media never ask me that! And now that you’ve given me the chance, I’m going to talk about it for fifty minutes!”
So, is there anything that you personally would like to talk about? The sort of thing that people such as myself, for instance, don’t generally ask you?
Carrie Gouskos: [laughing] I actually don’t feel the way that most people feel. I think we get the whole range. I don’t think the questions fall on either one side or another, it’s like the “Why don’t people like Blah? Why did you do Blah? What would you do differently? Tell us about how terrible it was.”
I feel like we did a pretty good job of answering that question, because like I said, I think there’s a humility, and we’ve certainly learned from lessons.
On the other hand, especially given the line of questioning so far, I don’t want to say that I feel like the game is not… I really enjoy the game. I really like it. I like to kill people in the face.
I’ve met a lot of people who play the game that like the game. They don’t know who I am, so they’re not just telling me that because I work at Mythic and they think I’m going to give them free stuff.
This is just a matter of taste, and what you’re interested in.
That being said, what do I wish that people would ask?
For our players, and for people that maybe were players and stopped for one reason or another, it is nothing but helpful to constructively explain what it is that you do and do not like about a game. Especially an MMO, because they’re always changing.
And as much as I tried to avoid some aspects of the community, especially those that think that we never do right and will always be negative—for my own health I have to avoid it—we have people who gather that information, and get it together, and we use that to address the game.
So my answer to a question that wasn’t asked was, I would love for players to find ways to give their feedback about what they do or do not like about the game. Even if it’s really harsh feedback, because ranting on some site isn’t necessarily the best way to do it.
The MMO Gamer: Incidentally, I enjoy killing people in the face, too. Which is why I play a Bright Wizard.
That’s why I kept bringing up Open RvR, there aren’t enough people to kill in the face, because everyone just wants to farm renown.
Carrie Gouskos: [laughing] I agree.
I won’t mention what server I play on, but I do think that it’s sort of on a server-by-server basis. I think Badlands is a fairly balanced server, but on some servers you do see a lot more different aspects of fighting.
But we’re always looking to find more ways to embrace what the game is. You can get lost in going, “Is WAR a PvE game, or an RvR game?”
Obviously we want to support all different types of playstyles, and different types of people. But at the end of the day, we’re a game for people who like killing people. In the face.
To deny that would be naïve. That’s going to be our focus for as long as it can be.
The MMO Gamer: I like to end my interviews on a more philosophical note, as opposed to “What is your game, when is it coming out, and how many exclusives are you going to give me?”
So, why do you make games? Why do you wake up every morning, go to work at Mythic, and do what it is you do?
Carrie Gouskos: Wow. That’s a question, alright. [laughing]
I guess, for me it’s really selfish. I’m really, really passionate about video games, in general, all of them, every kind of them.
I love to interact with video games. I love seeing what they have to offer. And the ability to do something, and impact someone in the same way, I think is really exciting, interesting, and wonderful.
There is nothing quite like meeting someone who plays a game that you’re working on, when they’re excited about it, and hearing them go like, “Wow!”
So, it’s almost entirely selfish. I love it, I really do. And I think that’s true for most development teams, as well. There’s so much power at our fingertips to do stuff that people really enjoy.
Of course equally, those days when things don’t go right, or people are not happy with the game, those can be soul-crushing. But on a day-to-day basis, I think we do pretty well. It makes me happy to get up and come to Mythic.
The MMO Gamer: Thank you very much for joining us, we appreciate it, and we hope we can do it again some time.
Carrie Gouskos: Thank you.
Stay tuned to The MMO Gamer for more Warhammer Online coverage in the days and weeks ahead.
If this interview has piqued your interest, the game is currently offering an unlimited free trial (capped at level 10), and returning players may reactivate their accounts free for 10 days. Both are available at the official website: http://www.warhammeronline.com