WAR is (still) Everywhere

The WAR Team

The WAR Team

The tagline “WAR is Everywhere” was part of the top-level marketing shtick we used during the development of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. It was supposed to indicate that the game would be – above all else – about a permanent, ongoing, PvP/RvR struggle. It was initially just part of an effort to differentiate WAR from other titles where PvP was a secondary component, but it became a somewhat broader concept as development progressed. By the time we launched, it felt like WAR – the game itself – was EVERYWHERE.

I’m not going to waste time picking at old wounds or attempting to offer a post-mortem commentary on “what happened”. There’s been tons of gossip and speculation and smug armchair game design (and project management) in the years since it launched. Some small bits of it have been on-target. Most of it is uninformed BS. It will be up to people well above my pay grade to decide if the “real story” ever gets told, but in the meantime I will say this:

We were proud of and confident in the game we launched. We knew it had enormous potential. We knew it had been well-built and crafted with care and affection by hundreds of developers. We knew that those developers spent YEARS of their lives, giving it their all to make sure that WAR would be everywhere and enjoyed across the globe.

In a few hours, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will go offline for good.

That’s sad in a lot of ways, not the least of which being that the hard work that hundreds of developers put into it will vanish, without a meaningful way to ever visit it again. It’s one of the cruel realities of MMORPG development. You can’t just load up your old work years later and show it off to your kids.

But it DOESN’T change the fact that – now more than ever – WAR is everywhere.

WAR launched a little over five years ago and began development a few years prior to that. It was a huge part of a lot of lives for a very long time and it will be sad to see it slip away. But for most of us, our direct involvement with the game ended years ago. Only a small handful of people who actually worked on WAR are still at Mythic to see it shut down firsthand. The vast majority have moved on. Some have left the industry entirely. Most have joined new studios, teams and projects. But everyone took some of WAR with them, out into the world.

If you look around the industry today at pretty much any major MMO being developed in the Western market, you will find WAR there. Sometimes, it will be in the games themselves where concepts and ideas that first showed up in WAR have been “gently borrowed”. Mostly, however, it’s in the people making those games. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a major MMORPG team whose leadership doesn’t feature someone who cut their teeth as a developer on WAR. In some cases, HUGE chunks of the WAR team simply set up shop in a new project – old comrades in a new home.

That hasn’t happened by accident. We didn’t miraculously recruit a team of people who were already the Best There Is At What They Do. The WAR project helped MAKE them that. It gave people an opportunity to learn and struggle and grow. Oddly enough, I suspect that – had WAR been a run-away success – a lot of those people WOULDN’T have become the industry leaders they are today. It’s hard to toughen up and get stronger in a comfortable environment. It’s even harder to grow if you never leave the nest.

When those people walked away from Mythic, regardless of why, many found an industry that respected their experience, their talent and their hard work. More importantly, they found an industry that WANTED that experience and talent and hard work for new projects.

Personally, WAR gave me amazing opportunities that I will be forever thankful for. It let me do lots of silly things, it let me travel the world (always cattle-class, but still a good opportunity!), it let me meet tons of amazing people – on the team, in the wider industry and among the hordes of fans. But probably most importantly, it taught me lessons I make use of every day now. Hard-won wisdom, first learned (and earned) in the trenches of WAR has helped me be a better designer, producer and director.

As I said, in a few hours, WAR itself will go offline forever. But the people who made it will carry the lessons they learned with them onto countless projects, both now and in the future. The next time you log into a new MMORPG, scan the credits for familiar names and when (inevitably) you find them, you can smile and think “WAR is here too”.

As a final note, I wanted to touch on the folks whose post-WAR experiences haven’t been entirely rosy. I don’t want to gloss over the real human cost of the project’s failure to become a blockbuster, because that’s a very real part of the story as well. I realize that not everyone was able to transition to new and better things, at least not within our industry. There were a large number of people who simply decided they couldn’t put their families through the stress of the game development “lifestyle” anymore. For those folks, I totally get it and wish them well. But there were also plenty of people who left the team and were never able to find a new industry gig. That, to me, is a tragic waste of talent and experience and potential. I hope that everyone who worked on WAR is aware that – for all of the bumps and bruises we endured after it launched – the work they did is held in high regard across our industry.

It is Fear, O Little Developer, it is Fear!

“Ere the Moon has climbed the mountain, ere the rocks are ribbed with light,

When the downward-dipping tails are dank and drear;

Comes a breathing hard behind thee, snuffle-snuffle through the night–

It is Fear, O Little Hunter, it is Fear!”


– Rudyard Kipling

Over the past week, lots of folks from around the industry have been linking and nodding approvingly in response to this article offering “7 Reasons You Don’t Want To Work in the Video Game Industry”.  Like most things that get people worked up, there’s some truth to what is written there, but I take issue with much of what’s on the list.  My main complaint is the suggestion that most of these problems are unique to game development somehow.  With one exception, they are not – and I don’t mean that in the sense of the problems being shared in a limited way with a small number of other jobs. 6 out of the 7 are problems that apply nearly universally to ALL jobs.  Specifically:

7. You Won’t Work On A Game You Like

(1/2 true) You won’t ALWAYS work on something you love, but you often will. When I was getting started doing testing and support work, I had to deal with some stinkers, but I also got to work with lots of stuff I really enjoyed. Once I was properly into development, I never worked on a game I didn’t love again.  But beyond that, how many OTHER industries allow you to work on “things you like”?  Almost none, by my reckoning.  The worst thing I’ve had to do as a game developer is more interesting to me than the best thing I can imagine doing as a lawyer.

6. You’ll Be Expected To Move Far, Far Away

(true) Maybe not right away, but if you stick around long enough, expect to be shuffled all over the planet in cattle class. The good news: This usually doesn’t happen until you’re fairly senior in the industry.  I find it odd, however, that the author focused on the issue of having to travel abroad to work with international teams (which, as I mentioned, tends to mostly impact Management).  The more widespread (and problematic) scenario is that you’ll have to move around domestically to find work, often once every few years.  Regular state-to-state relocation makes it hard to do things like buy a house or feel comfortable starting a family.

Oddly, this wound up protecting lots of developers (myself included) when the housing market tanked.  I never felt comfortable or confident enough to get the $350-500,000 mortgage that would have been necessary to “own” a reasonably-sized home in the DC area (where I lived when the Recession hit).  As a result, when the housing market collapsed, I felt like I’d dodged a MAJOR bullet.  When I was laid off couple years later, I felt the same way.

5. The Fans Will Attack You For Everything

(true) Fans will get mad at you, but it’s only because they love (or want to love) your work. There are far worse things than lots of people giving a damn about what you do.  In addition, the fans will ALSO be your strongest, most steadfast advocates.  Personally, I get something out of both strong criticism and vocal praise, so I don’t consider this to be a “problem”.  This is probably the ONLY thing on the list that is “unique” to game development (and its other creative brethren).

4. Nobody Will Understand Your Job

(false) People understand game development WAAAAY better than many jobs. Imagine being a cop or a lawyer or a doctor, where a huge chunk of the population watches 30 hours a week of procedural dramas that TOTALLY misrepresent their jobs. THOSE guys are misunderstood, not us. In addition, almost no job is really “understood” by people outside that field. Do YOU know what your tax preparer does when it’s not tax season? I assume mine fights crime in a magical kingdom filled with math wizards.

Also, who CARES?  Honestly, unless you’re desperate to constantly be told how special and interesting you are, do you really give a damn about your spouse’s co-worker’s husband being intimately familiar with the ins and out of your daily routine during a chat at a dinner party?

3. You Can’t Complain – Literally

(1/2 true) You can complain about serious issues – forced overtime, hostile work environments, etc. just as much as any other person can. I know of NO cases where someone complained about a legit workplace problem and was then punished (much less fired) for raising it.  Most studios have well-trained, diligent HR departments who take that kind of thing VERY seriously.

Obviously, if you bad-mouth your employer or berate your coworkers or the product you’re working on publicly, you’ll get fired. But you’d get fired if you did that ANYWHERE.

2. You Will Work So Many Hours, You Will Essentially Stop Existing

(true) Yep. You’ll work long hours. Crunch exists and it sucks. Companies know this and (generally) try to make it suck as little as possible, but that doesn’t excuse it.   It’s worth noting that, as the Great Recession drags on, this type of “work more with less” approach is becoming the norm EVERYWHERE.  Leaving game development won’t magically help you “start existing” again (assuming you could find work at all).

1. You Will Get Fired

(1/2 true) You probably WON’T get fired. That would mean that you were removed with cause based on poor performance. If you do good work, you almost certainly won’t get fired. You probably WILL get laid off. If you HAVEN’T been laid off before, you’re probably very young. But that’s also true for nearly every OTHER industry in the world right now aside from repo men and undertakers.

So what’s it all mean?

To me, it means that the game industry has positive and negative features that you should consider before deciding to pursue it.  MANY of the negative features it has are shared with MOST professions, but very FEW of its positive features exist elsewhere. There are excellent reasons to thing long and hard before diving into game development – even when times are good everywhere else, but there’s no reason to think about it as a “scary” industry that dooms all who enter to suffering and defeat.

We live in unsettling economic times, regardless of the industry we work in. This calls for caution and patience and long contemplation of our options. If you’ve done the leg work necessary to learn what game development would REALLY be like and the risks and labor seem “worth it” to you, then I say be not afraid – go forth and take your shot.

Oscar Predictions

Just under the wire, here are my predictions for this year:

Actor in a leading role

Who should win: Colin Firth
Who will win: Colin Firth

Actor in a supporting role

Who should win: Geoffrey Rush
Who will win: Geoffrey Rush

A win for Bale would be great since he was equally excellent, but tie goes to the better film.

Actress in a leading role

Who should win: Natalie Portman
Who will win: Natalie Portman

To quote myself from elsewhere: She went down the “How to Win An Oscar” list and checked every box. Lost an unhealthy amount of weight for the role? Check. Straight actor doing same-sex love scenes? Check. Commenting on a comfortably damnable subject? Check.

Actress in a supporting role

Who should win: Hailee Steinfeld
Who will win: Hailee Steinfeld

There were some very weak contenders in this category. Steinfeld is the only sane choice.

Best motion picture of the year

Who should win: Black Swan, True Grit or The Social Network
Who will win: The King’s Speech

Anything but Inception will do, really.

Achievement in directing

Who should win: Tom Hooper or Darren Aronofsky
Who will win: Tom Hooper

Sometimes, precision and reserve can win the day. The lack of a nomination for Nolan seems to indicate that the Academy is feeling that way this year.

Adapted screenplay

Who should win: The Social Network
Who will win: The Social Network

Honestly… they made a movie about a website gripping and intense.

Original screenplay

Who should win: The Kids Are All Right
Who will win: Inception

I just have a bad feeling about this one. I hope I’m wrong.

Best documentary feature

Who should win: Exit Through the Giftshop
Who will win: Inside Job

EXtG was amazing. A Banksy acceptance speech would be potentially mind-blowing. But Inside Job lets Hollywood think it’s super-duper-important, so it’s got a leg up there.

Best animated feature film

Who should win: How to Train Your Dragon
Who will win: Toy Story 3

Not a great showing this year for this category. Toy Story 3 was deeply mediocre, especially by Pixar standards. HtTYD was at least wacky fun.

Achievement in art direction

Who should win: Inception
Who will win: Inception

I think Inception will pick up a lot of the more technical awards and get snubbed in all of the major categories.

Achievement in cinematography

Who should win: Black Swan of The King’s Speech
Who will win: Inception

People seem to thing that CGI, slo-mo and practical gags Kubrick pioneered in the 70s are a revolutionary visual styling.

Achievement in costume design

Who should win: True Grit
Who will win: The Tempest

Not much thought going into this one. Alice in Wonderland shouldn’t win because it was pure CGI rubbish. True Grit had cowboys and I like cowboys. Meh.

Achievement in film editing

Who should win: Black Swan
Who will win: Black Swan

That movie scared the bejeezus out of me. Mostly due to its editing.

On health care and creativity.

Here’s a fact:

Fans of video games aren’t getting the best, most creative work from our industry because the American health care system sucks.

Read more

A note to Roger Ebert on art and video games.

I love Roger Ebert.  He is, in my view, not only the finest film critic of all time but also a tremendous social critic, political gad-fly and general Fan of Life Well-Lived whose stories and commentaries on everything from rice-cookers to Russ Meyer films utterly intrigue me.

I hold his opinions in high regard.  That is not to say that I AGREE with them all the time, but I find that he regularly displays an extremely difficult-to-balance mix of advocacy and objectivity in his writing.  Objectivity, contrary to the notions put forth by cable news outlets and the like, is NOT simply the act of “presenting both sides” or of creating a bullet list of positive and negative aspects of the thing being considered.  Objectivity allows you to (even DEMANDS that you) take a stand and defend your position, so long as you are willing to have your mind changed by a reasonable counter-argument.

Read more

This is your world: Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

Sometimes – just SOMETIMES – I regret living in the post-Scientific Revolution era.  Sure, I like sanitation and the germ theory of disease and air planes and HDTV and all of that, but those goodies come at a price.  That price is the fact that we live in a world where we rarely accept things without evidence (except when it comes from talk radio or cable news).

The result?

You and I live in a world where we DON’T believe in lots of weird and wonderful things.

Vegetable Lamb of Tartary' For example, we don’t believe that some lambs are the fruit of a magical super-plant.

No, really.

In an effort to figure out why cotton exists, medieval “scientists” decided that the best possible explanation was that a special kind of lamb sprouted from a plant and was connected to to that plant by an umbilical cord.  The Vegetable Lamb spent its life grazing about its host-plant and – once the plant died – the lamb died, leaving behind cotton.

THAT’s what science used to be like.  Totally insane, comic-book crazy explanations for EVERYTHING.

And I CHALLENGE you to tell me you’d rather live in a world where cotton comes from a stupid, boring little bush rather than from an insane plant/animal hybrid that exists in a legendary far-off land.

Blog Warhammer

So it seems I’ve been derelict in my duties.  Why?  Because I’ve failed to point out the most-excellent “Age of Blogging” event that the folks at Blog Warhammer are organizing (and that OODLES of sites are participating in).

Some quick advice to bloggers new and old:

We love constructive criticism. Let’s face it – if you’re running a WAR blog you’re part of the most passionate, “plugged in” part of our community. You represent an important part of the “voice” of the community and part of that relationship means voicing concerns. While I usually won’t read ranting or aimless whining, but I’ve always got time for even-handed, considerate criticism of what we’re doing. Be tough, be honest, be fair.

That being said:

It’s okay to be a fan. I like reading about people having fun with our game. While it’s fun for Devs to read about people enjoying their work, it’s actually also an important feedback mechanism. Just like constructive criticism helps us know where there’s room for improvement, positive feedback helps us know what people are enjoying the most and, thus, what sorts of things they’d like to see MORE of.

Make sure we can contact you. We really DO read most of the WAR blogs we’re aware of and sometimes that means we have questions to ask or feedback to offer that don’t belong in blog comments.

So… yeah. Get out there and blog! If you start a new site, make sure to let me know!

Follow-up to previous post.

A weirdly large number of people decided to email/IM me instead of commenting, which is curious. Are you all SECRET FILM MAKERS?

Anywho, to clarify a couple of things:

Yes, I realize that no “big” studio would grant the kind of access necessary to make a good documentary on game making. That being said, it’s far more likely that indie developers would be willing to consider it, if for no other reason than the promise of free advertising. And the story you’d get there would almost certainly be a good one, as there are only two likely outcomes:

1) Plucky underdogs make good and achieve success against all odds.

2) Wide-eyed dreamers crushed by factors beyond their control.

I’d watch either version!

An honest question.

Why hasn’t anyone tried to make a documentary on video game DEVELOPMENT?

I’m not talking some sort of post-mortem, deeply controlled Q&A deal.  I want to see somebody tag along during ACTUAL development and tell the story of how games are really made.

I promise there are all sorts of indie-film honors just WAITING for the Bright Spark who first manages to pull it off.

Know Your Roots.

The Brits have opened a video game historical archive at the National Media Museum in Bradford.  This is a Good Thing.

The nature of our industry has made it far too easy for us to “fire and forget” products in the past with the result being the loss of awareness of the history of great games that have been released over the years. Furtive and legally difficult efforts have been made to preserve the availability of so-called “abandonware” and the success of handheld devices has given added life to older games that get ported to things like the DS, but even then all that’s being saved is the data.

What makes efforts like this archive helpful is the addition of context.

Without understanding where something came from or why it looks, feels and behaves the way it does makes it hard to appreciate the significance of many older games. How can you explain the significance of text-based MUDs to a kid whose first online gaming experience was a graphically intensive shooter on XBox Live? You need a narrative. What was the world like when these games came out? What sort of impact did it have on players? On developers? On future game makers?

People tend to try and compare what we do to movies, which I don’t think is correct. We’re a lot more like music. I was talking with Barnett a few days ago and he mentioned something that struck me as very true. Anyone who loves games – as with people who love music – almost certainly has a “season” in their past where that love was first established and fortified. What you experienced during that “season” is lodged forever in a priveleged part of your mind and psyche and – while you’ll continue to seek out and enjoy new games (or music) for the rest of your life – you’ll always have a disproportionate affection for the things you LOVED during that specific time in your life.

For most of us, that happens when we’re young. I distinctly remember rushing over to my best friend’s house in the Winter of 1993 to try and grab DOOM off of the U. Madison FTP server the day it was officially released. And then, of course, failing to do so and desperately trying to get onto a local BBS that had it available. I have fond memories of weekends spent playing through old Sierra adventure games with my friends – taking turns at the keyboard while the rest of the group shouted suggestions and demands. I remember playing the original Civilization for the first time, then losing the next six months of my life to it. I’ve enjoyed hundreds – maybe even thousands – of games since then, but the games I played in those formative years mean the most to me on a core, emotional level.

It’s hard to communicate what old games meant to people simply by porting them to a phone. You need to offer the human side of it as well to capture the full narrative and history of where we as an industry came from. I hope we see more of this sort of thing in the years to come because the work of the early generations of game developers deserves to be preserved and remembered not simply in screenshots and emulation, but also in stories and in the collective consciousness of new generations of gamers.

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