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The Rockstars of WAR

Game promotion, especially in the massive multi-player online (mmo) space, can be an uphill climb. Dozens of new mmo’s get launched on a regular basis. Some are concepts, others are full-blown games. Many fail. A few succeed. Warhammer Online may succeed where others have failed, but never before has a company made the people who design the game into such up-front stars in the lead up to release.

Starting early with downloadable video “podcasts” of game convention presentations filled with crudely made PowerPoint slides and raucous fans yelling for Warhammer t-shirts, Warhammer Online began carving out a space for its self in the mmo marketplace of ideas.

Bolstered by rabid fans of Warhammer table top wargaming — a hobby that includes phonebook sized catlogs of minatures, paints and terrain to play them on, not to mention rule books and other accessories — Warhammer Online’s video podcasts became more personal with the introduction of Design Manager Paul Barnett.

Barnett, a dark-haired Brit with a penchant for sunglasses and fast talk, was a strong cup of coffee. But early on he was exactly the brew the company needed. Barnett mirrored the ridiculously high energy and passion shown by fans who loved the more than 20 year old fantasy franchise. Downloaded in the thousands, the podcasts were an early success.

Presenting a combination of information, wit and insight into the development process, Barnett kept fan’s energy high by letting them know that they were not ridiculous for loving the game. He loved it too, and he was fighting behind the scenes to make the game as strong as it could possibly be made.

warhammer online the age of reckoning

It could be argued that Paul was best known for being funny in the podcasts, but the real combination that endeared him to fans was his equal mixture of wit, insight and knowledge. Paul brought all three to the podcasts in an attempt to explain why Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (also known as WAR) would not be just another MMO.

The high elves of the fantasy world, he explained, were like posh (rich) English people. Their nemeses, the Dark Elves were their opposite — not working class English people, he would insist — more like posh English people on drugs. “Think Lord Byron.” he would say in interviews. With one concept like this after another boiling in fan’s brains, the game would begin to have visuals to show to people and an entire world to explain.

Associate Producer Josh Drescher had already been lending his voice to the podcast’s introductions. So it was only natural that he introduce himself in one and narrate an animated explanation of the complex “Realm Verses Realm” system that would pit one side, Order, against the other side, Chaos, in a series of areas where spaces would get tighter and stakes would grown larger. Drescher’s announcer like voice and smooth delivery made him a fan favorite, even appearing with Barnett in some of the podcasts.

At the same time as the podcasts, various members of the development team were making a splash at gaming conventions both in Europe and the US. Assistant Producer Carrie Gouskos, well known as a quick talker, became the voice of an innovative element in the game; The Tome of Knowledge.

Bringing together elements of many preceeding games, and adding a few ideas of their own, the Tome was a breakthrough in fantasy time-management; a sort of Warhammer DayPlanner on steroids. Gouskos, as the lead designer on the Tome, became it’s most ardent spokesperson.

Like the Tome she was designing, she always seemed to be filled to the brim with ideas. If her enthusiasm for the project came out a bit disorganized, that was exactly the point. The game was bursting with ideas and there was a need for a mechanic to bring it all into sharp focus and organization.

If Paul and Carrie were developer doppelgangers for enthusiastic fans who could hardly contain their energy, Executive Producer Jeff Hickman was a cool, calm eye at the center of the storm. Hickman, like Drescher, was a more relaxed presenter, but no less enthusiastic to see the game he helped develop become a reality.

Behind the scenes Hickman had to deal with many problems, and it was Jeff Hickman who had to tell disappointed fans when it was decided to cut content several months short of the game’s release date. But if Hickman’s job was difficult at times, it was also something he took obvious pleasure in.

Jeff stood beside Paul Barnett in a number of the videos, like a strong, quiet yin to Paul’s more carnival-barker-like yang. The two would often answer questions for fan and industry websites with Paul answering questions dealing with the underlying philosophy and the “heart” of the game, and Jeff answering the more detail oriented and practical questions.

Hickman’s more quiet and steady approach was no less informed than Barnett’s, and though perhaps less flashy, revealed a strong and steady hand at the wheel of development. Warhammer fans were buzzing on forums about which was the better of the two, and which was more popular.

But more importantly to Mythic, when people were talking about the verbal fast jabbing Carrie Gouskos, or the laid-back Josh Drescher and comparing them to the dynamic zealotry of Paul Barnett or the strong leader vibe of Jeff Hickman, they were promoting the product that all of these people were working day and night to produce. They were really talking about WAR.

age of reckoning

Intentionally or not, Mythic was setting up players and potential customers up to fall in love with their game by falling in love with the game designers. By stepping forward and promoting a game that came with a huge tabletop gaming pedigree, Mythic’s backstage creators pulled aside the curtain and made a connection with their audience that drew people in to hear what they had to say.

It wasn’t just a sales pitch; it was a sermon. Hickman, Gouskos, Drescher and Barnett were pulling people in like excited kids eager to show their parents the science fair project they’d been working on. Except that this science fair project cost millions of dollars and could potentially make many more millions of dollars over the years if successful.

Mythic took a core audience of (sometimes literally) screaming fanatics, and harnessed their energy by putting forward fans of the Warhammer Fantasy universe who just happened to be the ones making the game.

Whether in podcasts, print or video interviews, somehow their infectous passion for the game they were crafting always came across — even when there were no computer models to show, no animation tests or city sets to put in front of the fan’s eyes.

Before all of that, there were only people, ideas, energy and personalities to carry forward the Warhammer banner… the banner of a game that would be years from completion.

But somehow they pulled it off. They got the basic facts of the game across, and put themselves on the line to talk about why they gave a damn about a massive multiplayer fantasy game  when some say the market was already too full of them. Now, some time later, many (including Hickman himself) are saying that Warhammer might represent a turning point in the gaming business.

After he and his fellow developers have worked so hard behind the scenes and in front of the camera to make the game happen, the answer to the question of Warhammer’s success might also answer the question of what business model the gaming industry pursues in the near future.

With the corpses of literally dozens of poorly performing MMO’s littering the gaming landscape around them, the developers behind Warhammer online could very well be poised to claim genuine rockstar status in the eyes of satisfied and adoring fans, and in the hearts of a weary and dispirited gaming industry.

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