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Legendary games developer Mark Jacobs on reimagining mass PvP in Camelot Unchained

Published: 20:07, 09 September 2020
Camelot Unchained

Nearly 20 years ago, Dark Age of Camelot was a new, exciting, PvP MMO experience. As its successor takes shape after seven years, Mark Jacobs tells us his of hopes for Camelot Unchained, how the games industry has changed, and why Star Citizen needs to succeed.

Camelot Unchained is the direct descendant of the groundbreaking Realm versus Realm MMO Dark Age of Camelot, which launched in 2001. Allowing players to fight en masse against players from opposing realms in a three way struggle for supremacy, it's been seven years in development after a Kickstarter campaign, external investment and a sizeable personal contribution from Mark Jacobs himself. Jacobs talked to us about the development process, the decision to build a new game engine to handle Camelot Unchained's unique requirements and how he aims to recapture the magic of the original game.

A screenshot from Camelot Unchained showing a female charact Camelot Unchained

Before we dive into the interview, one remarkable thing we'd like to note about Jacobs is that he comes across as unapologetically genuine. We were a long time pursuing an interview with him, but now we've got it we're delighted he is so direct and clear in his beliefs on what is right and what is wrong, even if those wrongs are his. In an era of massaging the message, this is a welcome departure from bland corporate statements that are supposed to appease everyone while saying nothing. It is no wonder that Jacobs has ultimately ended up running his own studio and created his own engine for his vision of what a PvP MMO should be about, even if that's taken seven years. As the true initiatives in contemporary gaming come again and again from outside the big companies, it's encouraging that a veteran such as Jacobs still dreams with his eyes open.

AC: Can you describe Camelot Unchained for those unfamiliar with it?

MJ: So Camelot Unchained is our RVR (Realm vs Realm) game. We hope it to be universally a spiritual successor to the greatest RvR game ever made, which was of course Dark Age of Camelot. We hope to do what Dark Age did - and better - in terms of RvR. That's our focus.

AC: And you're seven years into the project?

MJ: Yes. It's a bit of a  Gilligan's Island thing. The "three hour tour". We were supposed to have an engine done by now, and it's taken longer. The good news is, especially if you've seen the recent tests, you've seen what the engine can do. It can handle lots of people, it can handle buildings falling down with real time physics, all handled by the server with hundreds or thousands of people playing. So, you know, we've accomplished that part. Now it's all about us making the game. 

AC: How far are you into that process?

MJ: We're focusing on game, game, game now. So, the classes have been going in, extended classes are being worked on. The giants are going to go in. We're getting caravans. We're getting a lot of the game in. And yeah it's taken us a while. We've done all that without trying to sell extra things to our to our existing players, or to sell things to bring in even new players. For example, horses, we haven't gone 'buy horses" or "now we can sell other kinds of mounts and maybe we can sell birds and we can sell all these things to try to bring in new money". We have not done that.

City State Entertainment Screenshot from Camelot Unchained showing two warriors about to clash in a field covered with long yellow/green grass. Camelot Unchained

AC: In terms of crowdfunding and backers, it's impossible to ignore Star Citizen and their scale. Any lessons you've learned from them?

MJ: Oh my god yeah. Chris [Roberts] and his team have one an amazing job on building a very strong community, they galvanised an audience. It isn't like he was a Blizzard, where a new game comes out and their audience goes right over there so they already had they already have a built in audience for anything they do. And in the beginning he did it without spending a lot of money, you know, because it wasn't like that Kickstarter was all that successful - it wasn't. Look at the numbers and compare it to what we raised, it's about the same. But then they started doing other things, selling spaceships, and it took off.

AC: They've raised hundreds of millions of dollars now.

MJ: You know, one lesson from Star Citizen is certainly that you can create this community. A huge community, a million plus based on the number of units they've sold. But you have to be careful with over promising. Chris has painted himself into a really tough corner. You know it's not that they can't deliver on their expectations  but you raise $400 million for a game, and you take as long as they have, expectations are astronomical high. And so it's going to be tough on them. Any talented team with enough time, money, and the right leadership can deliver. Usually what happens is you don't get all three. You don't get the time and the leadership, and the money.

City State Entertainment Picture of the Deus Vult guy now walking outside a forest on some meadow Camelot Unchained

AC: Do you think they'll succeed?

MJ: I hope they do. I mean I've said if Star Citizen fails, it will be the worst blow to Kickstarter backed games ever. And, you know, it will engender I am sure, massive lawsuits, and so I'm the last person on this planet, maybe other than Chris and his team, who wants to see a fail. I want it to succeed, I want it to be huge. I've been fan of Chris Roberts right since Wing Commander back in the day.

AC: If you were to do this thing again with Camelot Unchained, what would you do differently?

MJ:  Something that I go back and forth on is, you know, should we have tried to make it with the Unreal Engine? And the answer is we could have, but it wouldn't have been this game. We could have scaled it down and it could have been just a really great game, but without the large scale battles. You know even recently with Fortnite, they had to make adjustments to their [UE] engine so it can even support 100 players. Financially, I think what I probably should have done differently, but I didn't want to for a host of reasons, is getting money first, and then go to Kickstarter. But that would have meant going to investors, where they would have taken a much bigger cut and they would have wanted bigger control. The single biggest thing I would have done is just not say three years [development time]. I was really confident that we could recruit enough engineers, you know, out of either Mythic or, you know, from Bethesda to to fill the team. And unfortunately we were we were not able to do that.

A gathering of players in the MMO Camelot Unchained Camelot Unchained

AC: Are projects such an yours an educational phase for game making? Open development, crowdfunded, etc?

MJ: So when you look at Kickstarter, the whole idea behind it, of course, was that it was going to open up a lot of things, not only to people like me to make games, but also to the public. To learn how, you know, how the sausage is made the room where it happens. And that's a good thing, except when things start going wrong or being delayed or just mistakes are made, and then that openness also bites you in the ass, and you get, you know, more negativity, people get more angry I think.

AC: So what do you say to people who question why you're seven years in development?

MJ: We should have been done sooner, we should have been able to make the engine sooner. As I love to say, it was all because we couldn't hire enough people but it wasn't, we weren't perfect, we made mistakes too. However, the thing that I always remind people when they ask is okay, go back to 2013. Look at the engines that were available, look at the games people said that they were going to make. Look at the promises that people made about how their tech or their game can support these large scale battles and ask yourself, has anyone else done it? And that's the thing, right, because in a perfect world or semi perfect world, we still should have had the engine in the state it is now a couple of years earlier, no question about it. But the fact is, since then, since the Kickstarter, nobody else has done it [large scale battles] either. 

A siege weapon in the MMO Camelot Unchained Camelot Unchained

AC: Other people have faced similar challenges?

MJ: I'm sure you're familiar with Improbable [Improbable Worlds]? Here's a company that got a half a billion dollars from SoftBank, and money from people like NetEase, and they haven't done it either. And so here's my little team and we have done it, we have proven, no tricks, no editing videos. Just come on in and see what the engine can do and we've shown it. You want to put 2,000 people in a battle? The engine can do it.

AC: Will your backers be satisfied with that?

MJ: If we can release Unchained next year - and I'm not saying that's a release date, I'd love it to be the release date - and as a finished game, not as an early access, not as MVP, not as anything else, and it does what we said it was going to do, then the players who are our backers may not be happy about the seven years but they'll go "okay. It did what you said it was going to do". And that's going to be without a doubt the most important thing. If it isn't what you said it was going to be, gamers won't forgive you for that.

AC: How big is the backers pool for Unchained?

MJ: We don't talk about that much publicly other than to say it's around 40,000. Usually what you get on your Kickstarter is a fraction of what you get when you release it, if you release something good. So, we always said that if we had 50,000 people who were playing the game, we'd be fine for those large scale battles. So, you know, for me it's not a question of, do we have to have 100,000 now, because I know that if we do something good, more people are going to want to play the game.

City State Entertainment Picture of the Deus Vult guy walking around in a forest Camelot Unchained

AC: Are you surprised that RvR has not become a more mainstream mechanic?

MJ: If you had asked me that question three years ago, I would have had the same answer that I've had, you know, for years, and that is that until very recently, I think it was safe to say that the majority of people who played games, didn't want to engage in PvP.  However, you look at Fortnite now and you look at other games that have happened in the last few years, where people have engaged with PvP in a way that I don't think anyone expected them to. So I think that going forward, there's a better chance for RvR, as a subset of PvP, to have wider acceptance.

AC: What do you think the magic of Dark Age of Camelot was?

MJ: Obviously, first and foremost it was using the mythology of Camelot. You know when I came up with the idea for the game - it was one of those moments, it was a Simpsons "d'oh" moment, you know, because, you know, nobody had really used it. So that was the first part of the magic, because we had something that nobody else had that a lot of people were super familiar with already, that powerful mythology. The other part of the magic of course was RvR. You know the whole notion of three sided PvP wasn't a new one. That idea came from Kesmai, their amazing Air Warrior game, which was a fight sim about three different sides that were just A, B and C. We just took that idea, and did it really really well. You know the whole notion that PvP could be broken into these various groups or factions was also something that hadn't been done before with a fantasy MMO.

AC: And those were the essential ingredients?

MJ: When I pitched the idea within the company, and then to the investors, the idea was simple. It really just boiled down to one line: Everyone who is a member of your side is a friend, everyone from an opposing side is your enemy. And that really worked, and people did not think it was really going to work. There was also plenty of other magic that was generated by the players, the players who came up with the idea of 4am Relic Raid, or the players who came up with stealth ganking on groups under bridges. We set up a lot of things for the players, but a lot of magic came from the players themselves. And that's one of the reasons why it's harder to replicate.

City State Entertainment Player built castle in Camelot Unchained during a sunset. Camelot Unchained

AC: Will it be the same for Camelot Unchained?

MJ: We will still rely on the players to create a bunch of the magic. I don't expect Unchained to be a million sub game and that's very simply because when you look at most games like this, they're harder for people because you have to do a lot of the work yourself. In most games you can go "okay well I know I'm going to go and fight in this area for a couple hours on my character and if I don't do anything dumb. I know I'm going to succeed". That's not the case in an RvR PvP game. I do think some of the magic won't be recaptured, not by Camelot Unchained, but not by any game, because for a lot of people, Dark Age of Camelot was the first time they've even seen anything like this kind of game. Same with World of Warcraft, for example.

AC: How do you intend to keep Camelot Unchained fresh?

MJ: The nice thing about what we're doing is because it's a totally RvR focused game, and not just RvR-centric or RvR with a helping of PvE, it means that we have to spend less resources to make content, and the content we make is focused on one thing. We didn't want to have those two loyalties through the split between PvE and PvP,  The amount of extra time you have to put in to when it comes to skills is a good example, you need to balance between PvE and PvP if you have both. We don't have that issue. We're going to be adding new classes, we're going to be any new races, we're going to be adding new islands, adding to the Depths. We don't have to accommodate PvEers who go through every bit of content as fast as you can create it. We're also not big on race and/or class-locked armour or weapons, so  I think we can keep it pretty fresh and we can keep building a fair array of races and classes for the game.

City State Entertainment A screenshot from Camelot Unchained showing a female archer in leather armor next to a skeleton on a coastline. Camelot Unchained

AC: What's the biggest difference in gaming between 1999 (when work on Dark Age of Camelot started) and now?

MJ: Distribution and money. Back in those days you would only get a small piece of the [financial] action. So that if you were selling a game for $40, the distributor took its cut, stores took their cut, big time. The publisher took a big cut. And so you, as the developer, were left with a piece of a piece of a piece of a piece. I mean, it wasn't like it was zero. But it wasn't the majority. And now, when you're selling it yourself, whether you're on the Epic store, or on Steam or no matter where you sell your game, you keep the majority. You know you don't see this talked about enough in interviews, when people talk about how game prices need to be higher, because games have gotten so much more expensive to make. Now that's true, games have gotten way more expensive to produce. But the difference for developers is that we have never been able to keep as much of the pie as we are now. And that's a really big deal. It's one reason why a bunch of smaller developers who get a hit, are all of a sudden doing really, really well. Back in the old days they would have again gotten a piece of a piece of a piece of a piece.

AC: What games have really impressed you recently?

MJ: Subnautica: Below Zero. I haven't had much time to play anything! I loved the first Subnautica game, played the hell out of it. I just haven't had the time to play lots of things. When you look at what we're doing as a company - I spend a lot of my time testing stuff and writing stuff up. 

AC: What was your favourite realm in Dark Age of Camelot?

MJ: I have never answered that question and I never will! I love them all, I really do. The classes, the races, they're almost all out of my head, so how I can not love them all?

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