Keen beat me to it, and stole the very counterexample I was going to use. In today’s post, he talks about Warhammer’s ‘biggest flaw,’ and it’s the same flaw that I see: Warhammer has no soul.
It’s a terrific game, well-designed and mechanically solid. It has a colorful IP, rock-solid art direction, and enough content for players to advance through. It has a wonderful PvP system that’s well-balanced at the group level and provides a reward stream for participating it it. It’s got a ton going for it.
But you know, at level 22, just over halfway through the leveling, I feel like I’ve pretty much explored Warhammer’s world out. I’ve visited the Chaos Wastes and the narrow streets of Praag, and been only modestly inspired. I’ve fought in a dozen different scenarios, all of which play well but none of which are in anyplace particularly interesting. I haven’t seen every zone, but I have no drive to visit those I haven’t, nor to play the Public Quests I’ve missed. The content and questing is good, but I have no desire to try to advance the story, or even read the parts of the story I’ve already unlocked. And even if I was, it’s not my story – it’s somebody at Mythic’s. I feel like I’ve explored it enough to completely understand it. I don’t feel like there’s some surprise or mystery over the horizon.
There is very little sense of community. The game is dominated by big guilds, within which there is interaction, but outside of their own cliques, nobody talks. The open channels are silent. Warhammer makes forming and getting into groups so easy that the grouping, something utterly central to the MMO experience, is utterly meaningless. You can join a group, play for hours, and then log out, never having said a single word to anybody. The Warhammer grouping tools are so good that they eliminate the need to have any kind of social interaction in the game.
The quests are all good – and all paint-by-number. The difficulty goes up, and the number of phases goes up, and the challenge is there, but there’s never anything that’s a departure from the old standards. There are no dungeons worth talking about, and lairs are one-off encounters packed into a world that’s far to small to accommodate that kind of content. There are no Easter Eggs in Warhammer – if it was worth putting in, it became a feature, and everyone knew enough about it from top to bottom on day one to strip it of any mystery or suspense.
Lots of people are playing Warhammer. And they are having fun. But I don’t have a sense that any player feels any love for the game, or the world. I’m not talking about the players who have left, like me – I’m talking about the players who stay. There were passionate players – before the game launched. Four years in, there are still millions of World of Warcraft players who are passionate about the game, who love it despite all of its many flaws and want it to succeed and improve. Such players are invisible in Warhammer less than two months after it released. New classes and new quests and scenarios, even new zones and the arrival of the missing capital cities… none of that will give this game what it’s missing, only more of what it already has.
Warhammer is a work of splendid engineering. Vanguard, and EverQuest, and Age of Conan, and even WoW, are works of craft. They have soul. It’s the difference between a monolithic, Soviet-era apartment block and the Empire State Building, the difference between an award-winning documentary and The Godfather. The former you will watch once, and be entertained or informed; everything it has is lain on the table. In the latter there are layers and subtleties that make it worth experiencing a dozen or a hundred times over. This is what makes repetitive content worth tolerating.
It’s something that the Warhammer development team, skilled and dedicated as it was, managed to miss. Vanguard’s development, catastrophically flawed as only a true debacle can be, got this one thing right, and because of that Vanguard survived the worst launch in the history of MMOs, and is still around – even thriving in a comfortable niche sort of way.