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Warhammer MMO lead remembers when 40k first “caught fire”

Warhammer MMO lead developer Jack Emmert explains his 35 year love affair with the worlds of Warhammer, in part one of his interview with Wargamer.

Warhammer MMO lead developer Jack Emmert running a game of Horus Heresy examines a pair of Alpha Legion Lernaean Terminators, beside two colleagues

Newly formed studio Jackalyptic Games caught the attention of Warhammer fans earlier this year when it announced it was working on a brand new Warhammer MMO. Wargamer caught up with Jack Emmert, the veteran MMORPG designer leading Jackalyptic, to ask him about everything from his favorite Warhammer 40k factions to his vision for the future of MMOs.

Emmert’s first big hit was as lead designer for 2004’s City of Heroes at Cryptic Studios. He was the CEO of Cryptic when it published DnD MMO Neverwinter in 2013. Until recently Emmert was the head of Daybreak Games, managing the team running DC Universe Online. He left that role in March 2022 and was quickly hired by publisher NetEase to found the autonomous studio Jackalyptic.

In part one of our interview, Emmert explains his deep passion for the worlds of Warhammer.

Warhammer MMO lead developer Jack Emmert's model collection - a red Thousand Sons contemptor dreadnought with a golden scarab logo

When did you you first encounter Warhammer?

Emmert: Well, I remember when Rogue Trader came out. The comic book store that I was working at outside of Philadelphia, Showcase Comics, from that point on was huge into Warhammer – both fantasy and 40k. So I would say that in that period, when I was doing the ordering for everything, I guess that’s really where it all started for me.

First it was more a curiosity than anything else. It wasn’t prominent – I remember we had our copy in the back. But man, did it catch fire, right, and really just started to grow. There was nothing else like it! And to this day, there’s very few other IPS anywhere close to it in terms of originality, visuals. And, you know, the same is true for fantasy.

I would say it took a couple years for it really to catch. And when it did, boy did it really catch, right? It was kind of like the Magic the Gathering of its day, to a very small degree. All of a sudden, you had this game whose product took up a third of your store, you were successfully adding to the revenue stream, and it made comic book game stores viable in a way that they would not have otherwise been.

Warhammer mmo - the cover art for Warhammer 40k 3rd edition, a massed formation of Black Templars Space Marines painted by John Blanche

Was that when you started playing?

When third edition Warhammer 40k hit was when I really started playing, really hardcore, and then fantasy shortly thereafter.

Was that fifth edition Warhammer Fantasy, with the Bretonnians and the Lizardmen?

Yeah, that was the box. I still have the box with the rules and stuff, but those miniatures are long gone.

Warhammer MMO lead developer Jack Emmert's model collection - Adeptus Custodes warriors in black armor

What armies do you play?

So in fantasy I play Lizardmen and Dark Elves – that’s Warhammer: The Old World. Then in 40k I have a lot of armies because I’ve been playing a while. I probably played Tyranids the most, Dark Eldar the longest. I’m working on a small Grey Knights force, a small Thousand Sons force – sub 1,000 points – and Custodes.

I use the Custodes to play Horus Heresy with, too, and I’ve got a Night Lords Terror Assault rite of war. I’m building a counterpart 40k Night Lords force that coordinates with my Horus Heresy force – so it’s the same guys and I’ve created lore for them to have changed. And I’m gonna start playing 10th edition with T’au.

Warhammer MMO lead developer Jack Emmert running a game of Horus Heresy at a company off-site event

Wow! So what’s the most recent hobbying you’ve done?

I was putting together Chaos Space Marine terminator shoulder pads, putting them on, finishing up, glueing together my Havoc squad. And last week we had a work off-site event, and we played a number of Warhammer games. The session I was running was my Night Lords and Custodes, teaching people how to play Horus Heresy.

Is that because you’re working on a Horus Heresy MMO?

I’m afraid that’s not a scoop, we were playing every IP there. I was getting people in my studio into Games Workshop.

Warhammer MMO - map of the Warhammer 40k Imperium of Man by Games Workshop

What’s your favorite part of any GW setting?

It’s always fascinated me how the old ones had this connection to the various IPs. There’s this ancient race and you end up with either the Lizardmen, or in the case of 40k there’s the war in Heaven with the Necrontyr and all that. That sort of antiquity fascinates me in the way that it cascades forward throughout the storylines, and both IPs.

Which always leads to the argument: are these worlds related? How does this work? And of course, that’s the whole point, right? We’re going to argue about it. And I doubt Games Workshop is ever going to open their mouths about whether fantasy and 40k are in some way linked, but that’s fine. They shouldn’t. It’s like Wolverine’s origin – before they revealed it, that mystery was such an inherent part to the character.

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What do you think of Warhammer 40k 10th edition?

I think what is so brilliant about Games Workshop is that they’re trying to create rules sets to fit different but overlapping audiences. Because who they’re trying to appeal to with Age of Sigmar is not the same as with The Old World. There is definitely an overlap – I have some Stormcast Eternals painted up – and similarly with 40k, and Horus Heresy and all of these.

This is extremely important for all game development, video games, or otherwise – what is your game? And who is it appealing to and why? Once you identify that, then you revolve around it. And let’s be honest, some of the editions of the GW games were not exactly mass market. They were hard to understand, hard to follow, required a whole lot of bookkeeping.

Well, what 10th is doing now I think is brilliant: you’ve got unit cards, just put them out on the table. What am I going to have, five or 10 cards? And anybody worth their salt after half a dozen games will know the stats of most of their cards by heart. Shrinking stratagems down to a single card, so instead of flipping through 50 pages… I understand what they’re trying to do.

I mean, there’s a limit. Right? This isn’t checkers, there’s a limit to how you can do it. But that’s what makes the novels and video games great, is that these will reach people that aren’t going to buy an army and play or even buy a miniature and paint it. This is going to reach a different set of folks.

Warhammer MMO development team Jackalyptic play Warhammer at an off-site event - a scattering of red dice on a gaming mat

Do you think an MMO will bring Warhammer to another new audience?

That’s what I’m hoping!

Come back tomorrow for part two of our interview, diving into Emmert’s storied career in the MMO industry, and why he’s confident that publisher NetEase is the perfect environment to bring a new MMO to life.

If you’re an MMO fan but you’ve never really gotten into Warhammer before, we have guides to the best digital Warhammer fantasy games and Warhammer 40k games, which are great ways to start exploring the settings.