In 2008, EA launched the MMO Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. It had thousands of players around the globe and received generally positive reviews. It didn’t quite cross over into pop culture but it still won dozens of awards and had a large following. That’s why, when EA decided to shut the game down in 2013, players were a bit surprised. EA sent around an email stating that the game was going to be closed down… and that was it. Age of Reckoning was set to join the graveyard of forgotten games.
Max Hayman missed the email. In fact, he missed the end of the game entirely. He logged on to play one day and found the game simply didn’t exist anymore. Most people might have just shrugged and bought another game… but Max really wanted to play that game.
He had a background in computer science, so when he found out that other players had started work on an emulator for the game, it seemed natural that he would help. They used a private server to host their game and dubbed it Return of Reckoning. At first the functionalities were pretty simple. Players could go into the world and walk around. It took a couple of years before the essence of the game started to return and, since then, it’s been steadily growing.
They now have 20+ active contributors and developers.
The team has released some 300 patches and updates.
The game has 350,000 registered accounts and nearly 4,000 active players.
They have 54 instanced PVP scenarios, 30 main zones and several dungeons.
I got to chat with the project founder and team lead, Max Hayman, and head game master Jason (who players will know as Wargrimnir) about the game, their journey and how the heck developers can handle a side project of this calibre. What they shared includes a lot of hands-on learnings and a couple unexpected twists. Whether you're looking to learn how they keep Return of Reckoning alive or you're in desperate need of some tips to complete your own project, the duo had a number of insights to share.
Q: What’s your advice to other devs with their own side projects?
Max: Everything has an answer. Every problem you come across has a solution. You’ve just got to break it down to the smallest possible thing, and every day you’ll chip away at one thing and you’ll be able to get closer and closer to this goal. You’ve just got to start. It can be overwhelming at the start, but you just have to stay persistent at a healthy rate.
Jason: Burnout is one of the things I warn people direly about. If you want to invest yourself in a project like this, you're doing it at your own pace. If you invest more than you can handle, you’ll have other problems in life. That will cause more stress and will leak out in other ways. ...We want everybody to make sure that, if they’re contributing to the project, they’re doing it at their own pace.
Q: How do you manage teams and tasks?
Jason: Having a really verbose communication tool is important. Discord is surprisingly good for keeping everything organized and being able to search extensively… We used to use Slack, but the fact that you have to have a paid version of Slack to be able to search through everything made it very limiting. We currently have something like 35 staff channels on Discord. We also have a bunch of Discord bots that handle a lot of backend stuff. We have our stream bot that was built by another guy who is actually a big fan of the server. We have one to track our SSL and our backups. Bug tracker has its own bot. GitLab has its own bot.
Max: GitLab basically does everything we want on the development side. So if someone pushes some code and has a problem, it tells us. We try to automate as much as we can so when we have to patch, everything is ready for us to just download and put on the server. It lets us free up as much time as we can.
Q: Has anything positively surprised you in regards to your work on the game?
Max: The most positive surprise was when we found a model of one of the original lead game designers. For April Fools’ we had him as the quest giver for the event. He spotted it on Twitter, jumped into one of the streamers that was streaming the game's channel and started talking to people. That was really nice.
Jason: We do get feedback from people who originally developed the game and get to hear some of their stories. That’s always really cool. There’s a general acceptance of who we are and our being able to reproduce this dead game. And the people who birthed it are kind of giving us props for keeping it going. I think they’re surprised, a lot of them.
We also got hit by a huge YouTuber who gave us a 4,000 population spike. We were just scrambling to make sure all that worked. And that fact that it did work, it was like, ‘wow, we can handle that much’.
Q: How do you find time for everything?
Jason: At some point over the years, it just becomes part of what you get up and do... Take all of your spare time that you would normally dedicate to everything else and just dedicate that to running the game. I just make sure I have time to spend time with my daughter. That’s pretty much the extent of what I have time to do outside of the game.
Max: We’re a small team and we don’t have any of the tools to make content that easily. A lot of the players want content more regularly, but it’s just not something we have the capacity to do. We just try to keep up. It’s difficult, but we try.
It’s important to remember that we’re not like a big business where someone is available all the time. Usually, you put your request into a pool and hope someone picks it up. No one’s paid. There’s no obligation for anyone to do something. Some people have a family, kids, and they can only provide a couple of hours a week or something.
Q: How do you find inspiration for new content?
Jason: We are blessed with the Warhammer Fantasy IP—not directly. We haven’t had it bestowed upon us by Games Workshop or anything, but a lot of the stories in the game were either pulled out of Warhammer fantasy lore or are lore-adjacent and fall within that world setting, if not pulled directly from existing live events. One developer, Ekalime, runs a very detailed blog just detailing expansion after expansion on the existing story, and I think he pulls from that a little bit when he has time to start running a new story.
Max: We also take advantage of some of the stuff that was sort of half-built in the game but never finished. So we build upon what they’ve half done and that leads us in the direction we hope they were thinking of going.
Q: Do you have a favourite army in the Warhammer lore?
Max: I like Chaos Dwarfs.
Jason: Hey that was mine.
If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of work, you’re probably right. For the Return of Reckoning team, there was no quick trick or hack that got them to 4,000 regular players. The side project has been much more than resume-padding, and there’s no guarantee EA will let the game live on forever. Still, the team keeps going, thanking the community for being so wonderful and appreciative.
This has been a very long labour of love, so I’ll end up with the only CTA that will do them justice: Go play Return of Reckoning
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