All in the Cards

All in the Cards
The Idea of Warhammer

Shannon Drake | 3 Oct 2006 08:03
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While Games Workshop began as a small bedroom company focused on importing American roleplaying games for the British market, their own lineup of tabletop miniature games like Warhammer Fantasy Battle made them a power in their own right. By 1990, Games Workshop employed over 250 people, and by 1994, their shares were floated on the London Stock Exchange. However, while there were many successful Warhammer 40K (Warhammer's sci-fi relative) videogames, Warhammer's fantasy line struggled to find success in the age of electronic gaming, boasting some obscure PC strategy titles and not much else.

Their online effort, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR) is a star-crossed project. After costs began to rise under Climax Online, WAR's original developer, Games Workshop pulled its funding, ultimately killing Climax's chances to secure a publisher. In the meantime, Mythic Entertainment's decision to shelve its aggressively-promoted Imperator left the company looking for a new project. One thing led to another, and WAR found its way into Mythic's Virginia-based development house.

Managing this marriage of American videogame and British tabletop game companies is Design Manager Paul Barnett, more business consultant than misty-eyed visionary. That's not to say he's unfamiliar with the industry, as his roots go back before Ultima Online, to the days when text-based dinosaurs ruled the Earth. "I wrote some MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) back in the early `90s," Paul says, going through his resume. "One, Legends of Terris, went on to become the biggest MUD in Europe. After that, I went into business consultancy working with big business." While he'd left the gaming industry, the gaming industry hadn't forgotten about him. "I had stayed away from the computer industry and only went back into it because of two things: Warhammer and Mark Jacobs (Mythic's CEO and lead designer for WAR). I met Mark years ago when my games were on AOL. He and I hit it off, but it took another decade before we could work together."

While he'll mumble about a dark conspiracy to bring him back into computer games, the real story isn't quite so mysterious - on the record. "Games Workshop had just cancelled their first Warhammer game with Climax. They had decided that they would consider licensing out the project, but only to a company they trusted. As part of my consultancy, I suggested Mark and Mythic." A remarkable series of coincidences came together, by his telling: "Games Workshop already had a history with Mark. I had introduced them a few years back. Once the magic had happened, both Games Workshop and Mark indicated they wanted me to be part of the project." Conspiracy? "Quite simply, I was asked," he says, though the rhythmic pattern of his blinking may just be Morse Code.

Balancing the desires of an old-school British tabletop game company with the urges of Mark Jacobs and the Mythic team can be, he says, "a difficult job. Games Workshop is rightly protective of Warhammer, and Americans are naturally optimistic that they can understand anything." He serves as a liaison between the two, he says. "I spend most of my time helping both sides get the best out of each other, explaining the needs of Mythic to Games Workshop and vice versa." When the inevitable culture and game design clashes pop up - "Two countries divided by a common language and different cultures, and all that" - it's his job to mediate the dispute and get everyone on the same page.

The major challenge for a company taking something with a built-in audience and converting it to a videogame is deciding where to draw the line when it comes to strictly sticking to the existing property. I asked Paul for his thoughts on that, whether they are trying to get a complete, exact replication of the tabletop game, or if they are looking to capture the "spirit" of Warhammer itself. "[That question] has a very long answer that I really can't do justice to here. But if I had to try and explain it, I would say it's important to understand that we are not making a game based on the tabletop war game. We are taking the idea of Warhammer - the idea, concept, theories and feeling - and making the best Realm versus Realm MMOG we can." He adds, "Warhammer is Batman," meaning no matter what form Batman is in - be it comics, movies or LEGO - there is always a central theme, a sort of spirit of Batman's character running through it.

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