Allegedly Blocked From Beta, ‘World Of Warcraft’ Designer Plays ‘Warhammer Online’ Anyway [UPDATE]

[UPDATE 12:15pm: The story has been updated with comments from EA Mythic’s Mark Jacobs.] When I spoke with EA Mythic head Mark Jacobs earlier this year about developing MMORPG “Warhammer Online,” it was inevitable that we talked about the competition — namely a little game called “World of Warcraft.”

“They’ve been paying attention, and I know they’re in our beta even though they don’t like to tell us they’re in our beta,” Jacobs said of Blizzard staffers during the game’s beta period in August.

So during BlizzCon this past weekend, I confronted “World of Warcraft” game director Jeff Kaplan about this. Had Blizzard employees really tried to sneak into the beta for “Warhammer Online”?

“I tried to get into the ’Warhammer’ beta, but I didn’t try to sneak in!” Kaplan said with a laugh. “I became friends with [Mythic creative director] Paul Barnett at Leipzig two years ago. Paul, [Mythic executive producer] Jeff Hickman and I were hanging out because we were all stuck in a small booth for three days straight.”

“I tried to get into the ’Warhammer’ beta, but I didn’t try to sneak in!”

Kaplan explained that he and Barnett became such good friends that he invited him to Blizzard’s offices several times. And when the beta for the “WoW” expansion “Wrath of the Lich King” was ready to go, he asked Barnett for a list of Mythic staffers to send beta keys to. “And then I’m like, ’Hey if you got any beta keys for ’Warhammer,’ that’d be awesome,'” Kaplan said. “But [Barnett] said that Mark Jacobs wouldn’t let me into the beta.”

[UPDATE: After this story went to press, we heard from EA Mythic’s Mark Jacobs, who said Blizzard employees had asked to join “Warhammer Online”’s closed beta. However, it was Mythic’s company policy to not allow competing games’ developers into “Warhammer”’s closed betas. Jacobs also said he would’ve been happy to have any Blizzard staffers join the open beta but was unaware of a specific request to do so.]

I asked Kaplan why he thought he and other Blizzard employees weren’t allowed into the “Warhammer” beta. “That’s a great question,” he said. “I’m always fascinated by betas in general and [non-disclosure agreements] and how tight-lipped they tend to be. It’s Blizzard philosophy that if you’re really confident in your game, then you have nothing to worry about. So I guess that would be my big take away from that.”

“It’s Blizzard philosophy that if you’re really confident in your game, then you have nothing to worry about.”

When it comes to other games’ betas in general, Jacobs had told me that his employees are not allowed in betas if it violates the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. Kaplan explained that Blizzard is the same way. “We don’t prohibit our employees from joining other games’ betas unless it violates that beta’s rules,” he said, “but we don’t really prohibit other developers from being in our betas.”

Now that “Warhammer Online” has been out for almost a month, I wondered if Kaplan had gotten a chance to try it. Even though he’s been busy working on “Wrath of the Lich King,” he revealed he has spent a little time with it.

“My character is like level 13 right now, and I’m playing Destruction on a server that’s imbalanced,” he said, referring to the factions in the game. He also said leveling his character has been going a bit slowly. “I’m at the point where I’m thinking about quitting because it feels like the best way to level up is in the battlegrounds,” he explained.

“But it takes me 30 to 45 minutes to get in the battleground queue. And then when I’m not in the queue, I’m trying to do the Public Quests. But I find that I’m either griefing other people in the Public Quests to try to get influence, or that there’s just nobody there.” Kaplan said he’d switch servers but all his friends were on that server. “I just feel like we picked wrong, unknowingly.”

“The ’WoW’ interface did a lot of things, and I think people would be silly not to learn lessons from it.”

I also wondered what Kaplan thought of the game’s user interface; it’s undeniably similar to “World of Warcraft.” “I think game developers just want to evolve systems, and people take a lot of inspiration from other games that have existed,” Kaplan said. “The ’WoW’ interface did a lot of things, and I think people would be silly not to learn lessons from it. Any savvy game developer is going to play a lot of other games and pick from the best. It definitely looks very familiar.”

With “Warhammer Online” now up to 750,000 subscribers, was Kaplan concerned about losing throngs of “WoW” players? “We would obviously be concerned with losing people to [“Warhammer Online”] but at the same time, the game stands to bring new people to the MMO market,” he said. “I think if anything, we can stand to benefit. If you happen to come into that game as your first one, and you’ve never played ’WoW’ before, I think ’WoW’ is going to be really exciting when you try it out and feel how different the combat is and just the general [Player Vs. Environment] systems of the game.”

He added, “We don’t want a scenario where there’s no other MMOs and ’WoW’ is the only kid on the block. I don’t really think that’s healthy for games in general.”

A little competition certainly couldn’t hurt “WoW,” could it?

[UPDATE 5pm: EA Mythic’s Mark Jacobs responds to the criticism.]

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