The Warhammer Online That Almost WasApril 21, 2008
Back in the day — we’ll use this phrase for the year 2005 — Warhammer fans were a little less than thrilled, even disillusioned, when Mythic announced their upcoming Warhammer online universe. At least I know I was. You see, we’d been there already, and it struggled and failed to lift off the ground. Before Mythic ever laid a finger on Warhammer, before Paul Barnett bought those hideously awesome sunglasses, before “War is Everywhere!”, there was another company already hard at work on an online Warhammer presence. Their name? Climax Online.
Climax formed in 1988, and began to seriously publish games in the Playstation era. Today you might recognize them as the makers of Silent Hill: Origins, MotoGP, and both the PC Viva Pinata and the Playstation Diablo port.
As early as 2000, Climax spied the Warhammer IP as a project worthy of their interest and efforts. Despite having no experience in the burgeoning field of online RPGs, Climax engaged the project fully and built up some buzz through E3 videos and limited press. An early partnership with Microsoft to build up the back-end technology went into the works.
By 2002, Climax joined to work hand-in-hand with Games Workshop in order to transform one of their most recognizable IP’s into a hit MMO, and with SEGA distributing the game, they named the venture “Warhammer Online Ltd.”
One of the most notable features of Climax’s Warhammer — and what it will be remembered for — was an intense, unrelenting dark atmosphere. Almost grim, as some described it. Playable races announced included Humans, Elves, Dwarfs, Halflings and Ogres. Four starting classes were also released: Warrior, Academic, Rogue and Adventurer. Guilds would be called “Warrior Companies”. Clothing and armor would be independent graphical layers that would go on top of your character’s model, versus the standard “reskinning” the basic character model that we still see today in many MMOs.
It was stated that the long and narrow Warhammer world (set in the Empire) would take around 12-14 hours to walk end-to-end. Players would find three cities, 12 towns, 30 villages, 30 farmsteads, 18 coaching inns, 15 dungeons and other various landmarks to explore. The game world’s look skewed to the more realistic (think LOTRO), with dark and muted tones abundant. Weather effects were planned and even seasons, including snowfall that would actually accumulate over time (cool!) and other effects that would affect combat.
Noise was made by Cryptic about getting away from level-based advancement toward more skill-based (the same statements Mythic initially supported). The idea here was that you would earn rep with a certain group and then join them to learn what career skills they could teach (including a variety of non-combat skills). Careers were lumped into various tiers — Career 1, Career 2, and soforth — that represented the power and difficulty level of the skills. You could easily learn C1 skills, but you had to jump through a lot of hoops to access C2, and so on. Once you accumulated a certain set of skills, you would find yourself fitting into a class of sorts; a Master Assassin required (among other skills) beggar, ruffian and herbalist skills. The higher you went in the career tiers, the more you became flagged for PvP to members of opposing career sets. As far as I can tell, this type of PvP flagging would not be optional, but integrated.
While several locale names — like the city of Altdorf — might be familiar to today’s Warhammer Online testers, Climax’s game seems almost radically different from what we’ve ended up with now. The planned server sizes would be relatively tiny (4-6k in population), voice acting non-existent, inventory would consider weight as a factor, combat would be round-based (not real time) to compensate for slower internet connections, no crafting system, trading between various NPC vendors would be a viable way to make a buck, and GMs would stage numerous live events such as invasions.
What struck my attention the most is that Climax’s Warhammer would come replete with an in-game journal that would record every quest undertaken, every mob killed, atlases and so forth — a precursor to our beloved Tome of Knowledge, perhaps?
As the world of Warhammer was deeply suspicious of magic — almost anti-magic, in fact — the magic system in Warhammer Online would be altered from most traditional fantasy MMO models. Each zone would have a certain magical “attunement”, resulting in varying streams of magical energy that players could draw on for their diabolical spells. What might be easy to cast in one area, they explained, would be almost impossible in another, depending on the spell in question.
As the development rounded into its second full year, David Nicholson, president of Climax at the time, was quoted as saying this:
“We want to assure fans that we won’t be rushed in this, and we won’t release a game that does not meet all the strict quality criteria we place upon ourselves and placed upon us by the guys at Games Workshop.”
Sound familiar? The Climax team, who received a nice boost in profile at E3 2003, struggled to show something — anything — new at E3 2004. Battles between Climax and GW about the art and animation were cited as a major holdup. It quickly became obvious that Climax bit off more than it could program, and planned features were scaled back or cut altogether.
By June 2004, GW took an inventory of the project, which they estimated would take $30 million to finish and launch (in comparison, Star Wars Galaxy took $30 million to fully develop, and World of Warcraft $60 million). GW deemed it to be too expensive, and stopped funding the project. This didn’t fully kill Warhammer Online, though, as Climax continued to fund the project out of their own pockets and struggled to find a publishing partner. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t happen, and Climax’s Warhammer project was officially canceled for good by the end of the year.
Robin Devs, Climax’s general manager on the project, posted this good-bye on the now-defunct Warhammer Online website:
“It is with a great deal of sadness that I inform the community that we have decided to discontinue the development of Warhammer Online and will be closing down this website with immediate effect. This has been a difficult and painful decision but it was taken following a full review of the progress of the game, costs to date and future costs of the project. As a result both Games Workshop and Climax Development Limited, the computer games developer, have agreed to terminate the development project. I would like to say a personal thanks to all of the people who have followed our development over the last few years, your constant support and enthusiasm has meant a great deal to us.”
About five months later, the Dark Age of Camelot folks snapped up the license and decided to start over on the entire project, creating their own vision of the Warhammer world.
The rest, as they say, will be history.
“Warhammer Online: It’s No Fantasy” – Old E3 trailer on YouTube