Camelot Unchained: Mark Jacobs Talks About the Ins and Outs of Dark Age of Camelot’s Spiritual Successor
If you follow my MMORPG coverage, you probably know that Dark Age of Camelot is, and has always been, one of my favorite MMORPGs of all time. It should be no surprise that I’m quite excited about the upcoming release of Camelot Unchained, which is DAOC‘s spiritual success.
That’s why I jumped to the chance to have a chat with the man at the helm, Mark Jacobs, who was DAOC‘s Lead Designer, and to ask him about the latest mechanics introduced for the game, and about what we can expect in the next few months.
Giuseppe: Camelot Unchained has gone a long way since the times of the Kickstarter campaign. Now that the closed alpha has started, could you give us an overview of the development situation and of what we can expect in the coming months?
Mark: The current development situation is that all is going quite well in Alpha so far. Our never-ending search for senior programmers is progressing nicely. In terms of what you can expect in the coming months, we will have lots of additions to C.U.B.E., the first pass at our archery system, updated models, the initial version of our inventory system, an even larger world and, we hope, integration of some of Nvidia’s latest technology.
G: The Banes and Boons feature is probably the most original I’ve seen in a MMORPG since… forever. That’s mostly because it has so much potential for development headaches that it would make most MMO developers run away in terror. Can you talk a bit about the philosophy behind its design, and about what players can accomplish with it?
M: I’ve been a fan of B&B-type systems since they first debuted in pen and paper gaming. In my opinion, they can add a lot to the players’ ability to customize their characters to better fit their respective choices of playstyles. In the perfect system, we would have a mixture of RP-focused B&Bs that don’t affect RvR too much, if at all, and then a set of more RvR-focused ones (including crafting, building and combat). As always, time will tell how well we can pull this, but it’s certainly worth a shot.
G: Speaking of potential development headaches, I find the ability builder insanely cool. On the other hand, doesn’t it risk to turn into a balancing nightmare? Or maybe letting players “break” balance a little bit is exactly what you’re aiming at? I have a feeling hovering around the darkest corners of my brain that tells me that throwing canonical balance out of the window might actually end up being fairer than being too restrictive and flip-flopping back and forth for years trying to find an artificial balance that doesn’t really exist…
M: Balancing the ability builder is going to be one of our biggest challenges, especially since we want to keep with our Foundational Principle of making player choices and classes matter. This feature is definitely on my scary-to-do list. OTOH, if we find out that it simply can’t be properly aligned with the strong class archetypes we promised, we will scale back some of the flexibility and still have a more robust system than almost any other MMORPG I am aware of.
G: There have been a few attempts to refresh the concept of RvR lately, but they didn’t seem to work too well, for one reason or another. It simply seems that after Dark Age of Camelot no one managed to pull it off with the same level of success. Would you agree? And if you do, what could be the reason? Is there any specific element that you think Camelot Unchained has, and that will allow the game to set itself apart from the post-DAOC attempts, and do RvR right?
M: I think that Dark Age of Camelot had a revolutionary RvR system that nobody has been able to equal since 2001. One of the reasons for this is that Dark Age had the advantage of being the first MMORPG to really focus on RvR, and like most “first time” games, it was quite beloved. As to why it was so successful overall, a combination of factors came together, including the team that built it, the focus on RvR instead of it being a tack-on, and the fact we were willing to take a lot of chances with the game and its systems. We were an independent and hungry studio (if Dark Age had tanked, we would have been out of business), and that’s the kind that can usually take the biggest chances with games. Fortunately for us, most of the ones we took paid off, and we created an MMORPG that earned an important place in the history of the genre.
G: One of the problematic elements of RvR games tends to be a faction accumulating so much power that it makes the game less fun for those playing in the other factions, triggering a vicious circle from which it’s hard to recover. Having three realms helps, but it’s not always sufficient. Will Camelot Unchained have any failsafes against this problem, or you prefer to leave the outcome of the war fully in the hands of the playerbase?
M: The problem with balancing out the power of Realms is not an easy one. One of the things we have already said that differentiates us from other MMORPGs is our horizontal vs. vertical progression system. In a game where vertical progression and player population really matter, the balance problem is exacerbated. OTOH, it’s not all about the relative power of a Realm’s characters; there are other factors in play as well. All I will say now is that we will not be afraid to take some chances with different ways to ensure players want to log into our game and play it, even when their Realm is the weakest on the server.
G: Racial design is often a determining element in population balance. MMORPG players are visual creatures, and the ability to play characters they find familiar and attractive is normally pretty popular. In most MMORPGs human-like characters tend to be among the most popular due to that. Arthurians have humans and stormriders. Vikings have the vikings themselves and valkyrie. On the other hand, the Tuatha Dé Danann are all pretty alien-looking, with the Tuatha being the most similar to humans, but still quite far from them. You even avoided the classic elves. Is there a reason for having a faction more trending towards alien-like looks than the others? And is there no concern that this might turn the Tuatha Dé Danann into underdogs like it happened in many DAOC servers with Hybernia?
M: First, I agree with you. Second, as I’ve said from the beginning of our Kickstarter, we are going to show more racial concepts to the players than there will be in the game at launch. So, the races you have seen up to now are just the beginning. Third, our next push on races will be humans because, as you know, we took a survey of our Backers, who told us they would like to see more human races. And so they will. : D
G: In your previous games there has always been a rather big divide between people that liked to run in small groups and “zergs.” Personally, I do enjoy the zerg (that are often despised), because of the leadership and organizational aspect, which I find to be an enjoyable challenge, but I’m well aware that many disagree. What’s going to be your approach to this dilemma for Camelot Unchained?
M: I think that there is a big difference between zerg types. You may want to see some, such as the ones that focus on taking and holding (not trading) keeps. OTOH, there are others you really don’t want to see, like keep traders or wandering kids’ soccer teams (zergs that don’t want to engage other ones). By default, if we want to have large-scale battles, we need to have some actual large-scale groups, right? So, what we are going to do is make sure we have enough abilities to counter zergs while at the same time laying out the world so the most effective way to succeed isn’t by playing in one. If we can do all of that, while not imposing overly harsh penalties on zerging, we will have a nice, workable balance.
G: Porting PC games to consoles has never been so easy, and we’re seeing many MMORPGs making the jump. Is a PS4/Xbox One port something you see as a possibility in the future of the game, or it’s completely out of the question?
M: Right now, it is completely out of the question because the kind of game we are designing is not suited to the consoles’ control layouts. OTOH, I can see us doing a game on console at some point, especially given the relative ease of moving to them from the PC these days.
G: I have to say that it broke my heart to see Mythic close. Have you contacted or hired any of your former colleagues to bring them into the Camelot Unchained team? I know you’ve been working on reinforcing the team. How is that going?
M: We have a couple of ex-Mythic folks here, but most of the more experienced ones went to Zenimax Online. OTOH, there are a few senior ones I’d rather engage in real-life RvR with than work with them again, and thankfully, they feel the same way about me. “Old” Mythic Entertainment was a great studio with some really amazing people who worked their butts off to keep the company afloat before the success of Dark Age of Camelot. Also, the newer Mythic team put everything into making Warhammer Online. I still think it’s an incredible shame that they won’t ever get the credit they deserved for making WAR in only a little over three years while operating as part of EA. If they had been given the time that other games/studios got, it would have been awesome. Unfortunately, as I’ve said before, that game and that team got caught up in a “perfect storm” of problems, none of which were caused by average team members.
G: C.U.B.E. seems to be a lot of fun, and I’ve already seen some great builds. Yet, it’s in a rather early stage of development. What can we expect from the evolution of your building feature? Are you going to implement smoothing tools that will make buildings look a bit less like Lego?
M: We aren’t going to add something like Voxel Farm to the game, but there are things we plan to do that will make the buildings look better and better. However, if you go back to our Kickstarter building video, this is the kind of system we always intended to make. For example, Andrew livestreamed a video where he showed how it would be relatively easy to add curved surfaces to CUBE. That alone would make a huge difference, and we have a lot more coming down the road.
G: Thanks for your time, Mark. Any parting words?
M: First, thanks for taking the time to interview me and as always, thanks for your support of Camelot Unchained. Second, while I hope that what people are currently seeing makes them smile, I think they will like what we will be adding over the next six months even more!
Camelot Unchained raised $3,338,687 via Kickstarter and additional crowdsourcing at the moment of this writing. With the alpha test currently underway, it’s scheduled for release exclusively on PC in June 2016. You can find the game’s official page here.