Remember that bit in the Warhammer 40,000 rulebook where that Space Marine went into a Space Marine village and was cornered by a commoner with a yellow exclamation mark above his head? The one who told him to go out to his garden and kill ten snotlings that were terrorising his space-crops? No you don't, and neither does Mike Maza, creative director on Warhammer 40K MMO Dark Millennium Online.“We just couldn't wrap our heads around a Space Marine killing ten wolves for their pelts. It's just not 40K. We don't want to give those kinds of quests to the players, we think it takes you out of the fiction. The objectives of our quests are far more epic than that.”
Warhammer 40K's grim future of inter-species war is perhaps the only universe you could get away with a 'kill except the number would be well into the thousands. But traditional online RPG models – all stilted combat and ritualistic toolbar presses – are anathema to a universe based on the sole unifying principle of smashing the faces off everything that ever existed. Dave Adams, founding father of developers Vigil, adds his perspective: “at first we said 'let's make a standard MMO. Guy goes in, dude's standing there, patrol walks by. I tap, select him, and hit one.' It was lousy.” It didn't fit with the game played on tabletops across the world, it didn't fit the team's imagined experience, and most importantly, it didn't fit with 40K's endless, rapid-fire carnage.
Dave explains his vision of the universe, developed from 25 years of familiarity with Games Workshop products: “We're designing a cinematic, action-oriented MMO, balanced in terms of player-on-player and player-versus-environment battles. There's a lot of ranged combat, but also a healthy dose of melee. You're not gonna have a bunch of static spawns, you're not gonna have a bunch of random patrols.” Vigil are playing in a universe defined by a quarter of a decade of development, tightened but enhanced by reams of backstory. Were they to produce a retextured WoW, they'd be chainsworded to death by armies of angry fans – and rightly so.
Fortunately, Vigil are aware of this. Dave has got serious complaints about the whole MMO genre. Whole genre, look away now: “You just pretty much hammer on the number keys. They're the same mechanic over and over again.” Vigil previously worked on console-oriented action beat-'em-up Darksiders. It was heavy on the reactive combat, full of man-stabbing and bloody moments calculated to make people shout “yeah!” and want to play air guitar. Dave argues the team learned more from that experience than they have from their MMO peers. “There's a lot more finesse in what you do in a console game. The moment-tomoment, the weight of the animations, the response, the effects. It's really all about the pace.”
Strong words from a team without a finished MMO of their own. But it's not like they're novices paddling in the genre pool: Dave himself left online specialists NCsoft in 2005 to found Vigil. I asked him whether he thought any other online worlds got combat right: “It's just not been a priority for them. A lot more attention is put into console games: if you sit down and you play an MMO, and you actually compared it to a triple-A console game, a lot of the stuff would never fly.”
I asked him why he thought that was. “A lot of developers see that as an opportunity to cut that corner because there's so much to do on an MMO. They think people care about X, Y and Z. They don't really care about the feeling of the combat.” But Vigil have to make the same world, the same economy, the same community as other online world- builders – how will their MMO break this apparent corner-cutting culture? “That disparity isn't going to be tolerated for too long: eventually someone's going to do it and everyone else is going to have to follow suit. We want to be those people, and that pushed us toward a more action- oriented formula.”
Dave began to describe what he meant by this, but not before sticking a final power-armoured boot into MMO contemporaries. “If you see an MMO 20 feet away you know it's an MMO. There's a million icons on the screen, the interface is the same. They're so predictable. Our goal is when some guy's walking past DMO they won't instantly know it's an MMO. That depends on a minimal interface: it's not a full FPS but it looks more 'actiony'.”
Actiony is not a word. Define 'actiony', Dave! Mike Maza stepped in to help: “We've done away with the action bar icon from the screen – we've kept it down to essential elements for ranged combat.” That's not to suggest that it's all shooting – half of Warhammer 40K is focused on getting within spitting distance of your enemy and then jabbing the pointiest thing your race knows about into their eye. But Mike says that's simpler to handle than gunplay. “Melee combat is relatively easy, we have tons of examples of how it's been done in the past.” It's similarly easy to see how it'll be approached in DMO – a middle ground between the kinetic feedback of singleplayer fighting and the arcane dance of MMO combat. How the team will deal with frantic battlefield crossfire is less obvious. Internal discussions are still ongoing about shooting specifics, and subject to rapid change.
John Mueller is DMO's art director, and gave me an insight on the portions of the gun-game they have locked down, describing the design that's gone into 40K's signature sidearm: the Space Marine bolter. “We spend a lot of time just making those feel awesome. It's really one of the universe's primary weapons, it's important for us that it handles and sounds the way we and Games Workshop think it should.”
Space Marines are sorted then, but the still-unannounced races and classes not blessed with such a well-defined firearm won't be getting cast-offs. John's art team have spent time poring through the tomes of 40K history for gun-spiration, and crikey, is this a universe that likes its guns. “There's a lot of documentation about the weapons in 40K, but there's also things like a belt-fed stubber that might not have been drawn before. With these, we'll extrapolate it visually from other things in the canon.” New guns will be canonical cannons, then.
Your mouse-handling skills will play more of a role than they would in a standard MMO, but the team agree that it's not going to be a twitch-centric shooter. Dave clarifies: “It's still an RPG. There's still stats. Your ability as a character is related to your level and the kind of loot you have.” Loot! See, other MMOs: DMO might flip its middle finger at you when you turn around, but it's still one of the guys.
In terms of design, how this pickuppable junk will change your character is defined by GW's dictation. John explains how the relationship between the companies affects aesthetics: “You have these character archetypes that Games Workshop have set. But at the high levels we want see how far we can go with the awesomeness of the gear.” Calibrate your awesomeositors to register unprecedented awesomeosity.
The intrinsic need for loot and gear means no jettisoning of the usual systems of shopping and crafting – though how they're going to be portrayed hasn't been explained yet. I asked John Mueller what Space Marine towns would look like, and his response was simple: “Space Marines don't have towns. It's not like our cities are specifically a 'Space Marine town', it's more just like a settlement in the Imperium, instead of a branded area.” Artistically, how do they ensure that a generic settlement stays interesting and true to the fiction? “Everything is really old! That's what Games Workshop always say, whenever they put something in 40K, just make it look really old.”
As 40K's overlords, GW are protective of their invention: it wouldn't do for a tech priest of the Adeptus Mechanicus, servants of the Emperor and born from the ancient forge world of Mars to be wearing a funny hat. Space Marines wear power armour; necessity states you could end up looking like your friend if you play the same class. John explains how to get around this problem and still foster a sense of identity. “Character customisation is about progression, where you go and what you do in the world changes how you look. Space Marine armour is so heavily adorned, you can imagine how the progression might go: a marine who's been on campaigns will make all kinds of adjustments to his armour reflecting his experience.” I'm mentally accessorising my marine already: a nice Tyranid tooth necklace would bring out the red in my power armour.
You're not going to be working from scratch, either. The Imperium is the only confirmed race so far, but every starting option has players coming into the game as a hero – there's no Space Marine toilet cleaning duty to earn your stripes. A good thing when you're up against genetically superior backsides. Mike quickly outlined a typical opening to a newly minted character: “There's scenarios that introduce you to your character class. We'll throw you into your very first instance, to get a feel for a very player directed experience. Then you'll go to your trainers and merchants, then drop down onto the over-world from orbit.” The team kept schtum on how travelling between worlds would work in-game, but planet-hopping is necessary to advance – the Sargos sector in which the game is set is a big chunk of space.
It's not just your character you'll be customising: mechanised war machines are central to DMO, as they are to the 40K fiction. The game's first trailer teases viewers, ending on footage of a five-storey walker romping across a blasted landscape. That two- legged monster was a Titan, one of 40K's largest and most killy war- bastards – and Dave confirms that a player was controlling it. “You'll use vehicles in PvE, you'll use them in the general over-world, and you'll use them in PvP.” These vehicles can be run with a crew, separate players taking on the roles of gunner, driver, and man who stands on top and yells “DRIVE FASTER!”
Or, you can go it alone. “In a tank, you control the primary turret, but you don't have the full command of all the weapons on the tank. If someone jumps in the primary turret then you might just be driving.” 40K's grab-bag of lethal vehicular toys makes this prospect a tasty one: the game's first trailers clearly point at a number of the universe's iconic battle-tanks, such as the Predator. Handling is pitched somewhere between simplistic and simulation, but Vigil are keen to keep the physical connection: glide toward another player on a turbo-charged bike and you'll thunk into them: “you can't drive through another tank like it isn't there. That just looks weird.” Mike singled out the PvP battlegrounds as a particular hotbed of vehicle use, but wouldn't be drawn into explaining quite how they'll work when used against your fellow human.
Developing a game in Warhammer 40,000K's universe brings specific challenges. Traditional MMOs are built around downtime, longer periods of peace, shopping and chatting between raids. You stop to chat in 40K's fiction and you get sliced apart by shurikens, turned into a gibbering inside-out mass of muscle by Chaos gods, or biffed in the gob by a powerfist. As the sourcebooks regularly remind us, there is “ONLY WAR!” in the 41st millennium. Dave has a philosophical way of handling this issue: “I imagine the 40K universe as a giant machine who's output is war – but it's still a machine. There's still cogs and pistons, there's still all the internal machinations and workings of a machine that makes the war.” Neat concept, but let's frame it in the hour-to-hour of playing the game. “There's a lot going on off the battlefield. Sure, war in the battlegrounds and PvP conflicts are a big part of the game. But another big part of the game is just exploring what's going on off the battlefield, following the fluff and stories.”
War in DMO is stratified, taken further than just the pew-pew in direct conflict – it's about the thrill of the chase, the long-game in questlines. Even just for the Imperium, one of many not-yet confirmed races, there's different types of war: “the war on the battlefield, the psychological war the Imperium engages in to maintain this giant organisation and prevent rebellion, the war against Chaos.” Life in Dark Millennium Online is intended to be constant struggle, full of constant threat that – Vigil hopes – will provide enough of an incentive to live in a constant universe where war reigns.