Warhammer Online is currently the best PvP-oriented fantasy MMO on the market today. So why is it doing so badly? Why have subscribers been leaving it in droves, forcing server merge after server merge, still failing to solve the population problem on some servers or realms?
The biggest problem is they forgot the lesson of their greatest design triumph: DAOC's 3-faction system. Warhammer uses a 2 faction system, like WoW. And, like WoW, this led to horrendous amounts of problems with population imbalances that got ever worse because the side with the most soldiers would win, and winning sides would attract more players while losing sides would lose players faster. Thus, the 2-faction RvR paradigm is doomed the moment one side starts to eke wins over the other. Conversely, the DAOC 3-faction RvR paradigm is self balancing rather than self-imbalancing. In the 3 faction system of DAOC, it was shown that when one faction started to gain dominance over a server, the other two factions would almost always call a "truce" with each other and focus their efforts on bringing down the top dog of the moment. The effect wasn't immediate, but it was much more balanced.
That this lesson was either forgotten or abandoned during the design phase of Warhammer Online is absolutely astonishing, to say the least. To abandon a successful dynamic in such a way shows a colossal failure of planning and/or judgment. They can't even blame this one on the lore of the Intellectual Property - Warhammer has always emphasized conflict between numerous factions. In fact, it was Mythic's design which shoehorned 3 factions which fought each other as often as not (Greenskins, Dark Elves and Chaos) into one faction for the sake of having a 2 - faction paradigm. Even that aside, it would have been simple during the planning stages to conceive of a third faction consisting of, say, Skaven, Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings just as an example. Unfortunately, such decisions were not made in early development, and Mythic remained committed to the 2-faction paradigm. The reason why it is important that a decision such as this be made in early development is that because once the decision is made and development proceeds along those decisions, it becomes exponentially more difficult, time consuming and expensive to change paradigms with as each stage of production is reached. It costs nothing to change an idea while simply a concept, but now changing to a 3-faction paradigm is as good as impossible, since every zone of every tier of the game is designed explicitly around combat involving only two factions. To add a third faction now would necessitate not only introduction of new content for the third faction, but the complete re-design almost from the ground up of all existing content to support a possible 3-way fight. Thus, Mythic has painted itself into a corner and has no option but to remain committed to the 2-faction paradigm, as the time and capital no longer exists to go "back to the drawing board" with a title that is a year past launch with the rest of Electronic Arts standing over their shoulder wondering why the WoW-esque profits aren't rolling in as planned.
Another reason Warhammer is floundering so badly is because of another design element that WAR developers mistakenly believe is one of their greatest achievements: the "open party" system. This comes from a fundamental misconception about group dynamics - Mythic thinks that any tank, DPS class or healer is pretty much interchangeable with any other tank, DPS class or healer. The open party system is a breeding ground for PUGs (Pick-Up Groups, groups that were formed from whatever random people were available at the time, as opposed to "Pre-made" groups of people who know each other). PUGs are always at a disadvantage to premade groups because players of the same class are NOT interchangeable. A healer isn't a healer isn't a healer. Some players, frankly, are not as good as other players. And even the good players have wildly different styles of play - where they like to stand, how far they like to charge, who they guard, etc. No two players are alike, and an effective, cohesive group comes from players learning to play with each other as a unit, supporting and assisting each other to make the group better. But when the dynamic of your group, and the playstyles of any given member in it, can change at any given moment without warning or planning, party dynamics go all to hell. Melee classes that like to push into enemy groups to assault enemy healers first suddenly find themselves alone, unsupported and unhealed because, unbeknownst to them, the others in the group prefer a different tactic. Groups who came to rely on a "back-line" healer constantly healing from relative safety are suddenly knocked off balance by having to adapt to a new Warrior Priest who prefers to "front line" heal. "Assist train" enthusiasts grate on "AoE grind" enthusiasts and the whole thing just falls apart.
The Open Group element also discourages the community building that comes from forming guilds. Since anyone can find or start an open group at any time and have a reasonable expectation of grouping (though it probably won't be a GOOD group, as noted above) causes many to feel they don't need a guild because they can always find other people to play with. But what does not occur to these people is that the main advantage of having a guild is the organization and coordination they facilitate. Indeed, even many extant guilds already formed in warhammer forget this too, leaving guildmembers to their own devices (and the not-so-tender mercies of the various Open PUGs) rather than emphasize the cooperative benefits of doing things together as a guild. Thus, the already manifest performance difference between PUGs and pre-made and "Guild" groups becomes even more pronounced, leading to further discouragement among the majority of players (because let's face it, there's usually 10 PUG prey to every pre-made predator), leading to less subscribers.
People resent other players who run in pre-made or guild-only groups. Because (among other reasons) I want a fighting force that is familiar with the styles and tactics of its own members, I have a policy in the guild for which I am leader in WAR - we always run in a guild warband, whatever we do. I've seen the results for myself. Running in a guild warband means there's always a place for guildmates who come online to join the activity and enjoy the added effectiveness of teaming up with other players with whom they are familiar and comfortable. As a result, I've led keep defenses where a half warband (~12 players) of my guild has successfully repulsed attacks on keeps we were defending when the attackers were fielding four times our numbers. But our own realm-mates resent us. They call us elitists, or selfish, and accuse us of not being "team players." I respond that anyone who wants to join our guild can do so, and they'll be welcome in our guild warband, which is about as non-elitist as you can get. No matter your skill or background or class or level, my guild will welcome you and give you a try, and even share the fruits of our crafting and gear-farming labor with you. This is elitism? Apparently it is, since the default is the "open group," which the rank and file of the server feels makes them entitled to riding the coattails of a more effective group of players who practice and play with each other without having to put in the effort and commitment to also contribute to that group of players. It makes me feel like a woman who has been called a bitch because she won't engage in casual sex. If you want in my metaphorical bed, I want to know you're going to be there not only in the morning, but for the foreseeable future.
Yet another reason for Warhammer Online's troubles has been the absolute abandonment of the player economy and the crafting sector. In DAOC, mythic created a very robust and versatile crafting system which, when taken to its very end, produced the best gear in the game, absolutely customizable to your needs and your playing style in a straightforward (if time consuming) manner. It wasn't perfect, but it existed. In Warhammer, Crafting is the unwanted stepchild of the game. The methods of crafting items was intended to be new and original, but worked out being arcane and unintuitive as well as largely unhelpful. There is no way to craft one's own armor or weapons, though you can craft items that enhance dropped or quested items to a degree. Consumables are also craftable, but investment in creating them seldom matches return and most players consider the process to be more trouble than it is worth. Add into this problem that there is no real money sink in this game (the last major investment you make in Warhammer is at level 20, when you buy your mount for a paltry 15 gold which is easily earned before you need it), and you are also presented with hyperinflation combined with oligarchism - the longer you have played, the more money you have lying around doing nothing, which causes the price for higher end items to skyrocket because money becomes more and more meaningless... but meanwhile, the newer players who have not yet hit the point where their money is growing faster than the US federal debt find themselves unable to meet the ever-multiplying asking prices for the gear that is considered "standard minimum" at the upper levels. 500g+ for a single piece of level 40 set armor is not uncommon, and prices from there go up into the multithousands. Thus, the good gear generally gets sold back and forth between the longest-running players, with none of the money really finding its way down into the hands of the newer players. Even the seemingly exorbitant costs of castle ownership (often costing guilds dozens of gold per hour) does not seem to fight the inflation. Prices of "green" gear usually stays around a stable few gold per piece, but in the neverending arms race of RvR, where the oligarchs are ever increasing their destructive potential with better and better gear, stepping one toe into combat with green or even blue gear will usually spell your instant annihilation.
These are the three major reasons Warhammer Online has gone from one of the most anticipated titles to being practically on life support, even as it celebrates its first anniversary of launch. And that doesn't even include the myriad of other problems that are innate to any MMO - the bugs, issues of prompt response from customer service, controversies of class balance, etc. Warhammer's subscribers are being wooed away by the latest flashes in the pan (Champions Online even managed to catch my eye, despite its lack of meaningful PvP... and of course, Aion has been hyped beyond all measure even though it promises to be yet another unimpressive Korean grindfest). It's a pity that the company which created the best PvP MMO to date - Dark Age of Camelot - has now been unable to replicate that success, even when bolstered by one of the best and most prolific fantasy IPs in existence.
And it's a shame, because RvR is still the best PvP MMO experience there is in the world.
And that's the word from Bandit camp...