Interview: Mark Jacobs Shares the Vision Behind Camelot Unchained

By Giuseppe Nelva

April 11, 2013

If there’s one MMORPG that holds a very special place in my heart, that’s Dark Age of Camelot. As co-founder of Mythic Entertainment, Mark Jacobs was one of the main brains behind that epic game. And, now, he’s back with a vengeance at the helm of City State Entertainment, spearheading his new project Camelot Unchained on Kickstarter.

Judging by how fast the game reached its first million dollars in crowd funding with an exceptional average pledge per backer floating around 160 bucks (the highest for games on Kickstarter), and by the extremely active comment thread on the official Kickstarter page, it seems I’m definitely not the only one “holding out for a hero” to bring the spirit of Camelot back.

While Mark Jacobs himself said several times that Camelot Unchained isn’t just a spiritual successor to DAoC, it’s hard not to see many of the elements we knew and loved, alongside quite a lot of new ones that seem to be sorely missing in today’s MMORPG market.

I finally managed to have a chat with Mark about his vision for the game and what you can read below is the result of that conversation.

Editor’s Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the term “RvR” that is used often in the interview below, it’s the acronym of Realm vs. Realm — a definition initially coined for Dark Age of Camelot that indicates non-instanced and persistent factional warfare between player-driven factions in a MMORPG environment.

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Giuseppe: Let’s start on the right track with a meaty topic: what are, in your opinion, the most relevant challenges of creating a niche-focused game like Camelot Unchained, and what are the main opportunities?

Mark: Great questions. Let’s break this down into the three pillars of gameplay – RvR, crafting and housing. For RvR, it is to make a game without PvE leveling, yet fun on a nightly basis. Without that, why would players go out into the new lands and fight night after night?

In terms of crafting, it is how to have a totally player-driven economy without relying on MMO tropes such as token drops, NPC drops, and the wide receiver who drops the winning touchdown pass in a key game. ;D

As for housing, it is how to integrate player housing (a subset of the whole building system) to be fun, but not so tedious that when the bad guys come and burn stuff down, you’ll feel you don’t want to play the game anymore.

Now, in terms of opportunities, with RvR, it is the opportunity to create RvR races, classes, spells, etc. without worrying about how they will play in PvE. This is a very freeing opportunity for me as a designer, and I hope for our artists and programmers as well.

For crafting, it means that our crafters have the chance to truly craft an economy all on their own, without worrying about drops, tokens, etc. For housing, it will be one of the few times – not the first of course -­ that that this kind of building system is implemented (it’s more than just housing) in a MMORPG.

G: There have been some voices in the industry demanding the removal of the “holy trinity” from class balance, but you decided to stick with it. As a tank-dedicated player (and proud of it) I can’t help but agree. But what are the actual reasons behind this decision?

M: Death to the Trinity! Off with their collective heads, right? Well, I think that the trinity is perfect for this game – not for every game, but for this one. I want players to be able not only to self-identify with their characters, but also for everyone to know what they are fighting when they look at their foes. If I was designing a single-player RPG, it would be a skill-based game with no classes, but for Camelot Unchained, I think this is the right decision.

G: In one of your Foundational Principles posts you said that there will be consequences for death. That’s interesting, considering that death penalties in PvP and even more so when factional warfare is involved have become very rare in this industry. Could you elaborate more on that?

M: Sure. First, death needs to sting a little bit in my vision for an RvR game. For example, you shouldn’t kill someone and then they immediately pop back up and get into the action just like you are playing a gigantic version of whack-a-mole. Second, the threat of a meaningful death (I’m not talking corpse looting) is something that adds zest to the battle. If nobody loses anything but a few seconds of gameplay time, it gets old really fast. Finally, if people can quickly get back into the action (even with the whole WaM thing), all that ends up happening is you engage in the MMO version of a soccer game for 6-year olds, where the ball keeps moving back and forth and nobody scores.

I want people to know they can lose a battle by being outplayed, and that it’s okay to do so. I want the winners to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor without worrying about the same guys coming back in 30 seconds and causing havoc. Most importantly, I want realms to know that if they plan their strategy correctly, they can score a big and lasting win.

G: The lack of an auction house is a daring decision. I played extensively another MMORPG with player-run shops and and market areas (Final Fantasy XIV) in which it was basically the number one complaint. While I personally (and very vocally) disagreed with those complaints, how do you plan to persuade your players that not exchanging goods the “easy mode” is actually more fun and engaging?

M: If I was trying to make a mass-market MMORPG, I couldn’t do without an auction house – not a chance. However, since I am creating a niche MMORPG for people who miss the community interaction, haggling and just plain chaos that came with having player run shops and player-to-player buying and selling, it’s an easy sell.

I truly believe that this feature will help build community and make Camelot Unchained feel more like a real world than many other games that have had many, many times the budget of ours .

G: Let’s talk some about the world of Camelot Unchained: Will it be seamless like the world of Dark Age of Camelot, or we’ll find zones separated by loading screens? How far would you like the draw distance to go?

M: In my perfect world, only the safe areas (starting area, main town) will have loading screens but it’s too early to make a prediction on this. I’ll leave that to the genius of Andrew Meggs to figure out.

G: One of the foundational principles of Camelot Unchained is pride. Could you bring some examples on how you plan to turn pride into a rewarding element in its own right? Do you think it’s still possible in this day and age for it to actually gain more importance than simple (but apparently overwhelmingly desirable nowadays) statistical progression as it was for many in Dark Age of Camelot?

M: Sure, let’s start with guild pride. As you know, I tried to push the whole “Living Guild” concept in Warhammer and now I want to go even farther with it. I want guilds to be able to show off their accomplishments, to reward them for working with other guilds, to encourage them to focus on realm pride, etc.

In terms of class pride, that’s really easy; ensure the classes follow a strict system (as per above), and make each one really special and useful. It’s hard to feel pride as a healer if everyone can heal. What’s the point of being a tank if another class can tank almost as well and have other advantages. Fewer classes + more abilities per class + strict class definition = class pride.

The same applies to racial pride; make each race special with its own pluses and minuses, and don’t mirror them or reduce them so much that they are simply pretty models with a great backstory. I know why certain MMORPGs do that and for their market it makes sense, not for Camelot Unchained.

G: “Zergs” have always been a very controversial topic in RvR games. On one hand they can cause frustration for those that can’t gather sizable numbers, on the other hand it’s epic and involving (even thanks to the realm pride mentioned before) to see great leaders arise and show the ability and charisma to field and command large armies. Your engine definitely looks like it can handle some very large battles. What’s your stance towards “zerging”? Is it going to be encouraged, discouraged or you’re simply going to let players do whatever they want about it?

M: All of the above. Sounds lame and impossible, but I don’t think so. Zerging, in and of itself, can constitute a valid play style. However, if the game goes out of its way to reward it, that’s bad. If you want to take down a large structure, having the zerg come and help is a good thing.

If it’s simply running around, engaging in keep trading, etc., that is a very bad thing. Players need tools to fight the zerg – CC and other things that can discourage it as the behavior of choice. Think about how a true death penalty comes into play. If you can slow down the zerg and then whittle it down, it won’t be as awesome a choice for playing the game.

G: Housing will be a very important part of CU. While I know it won’t just involve building “houses”, will player homes be in their own instanced housing areas, or maybe they will exist in the main shared world? Can’t say the idea of burning down an enemy village made of actual player houses doesn’t sound interesting to me… After all in Warhammer Online we could burn down their capital city…

M: There will be some limited safe areas (as per above), but housing (I really need to call this building) in the non-safe areas will be encouraged and rewarding. Burn, baby, burn. ;D

G: In Warhammer Online, at least initially, defense had a massive advantage over offense. Capturing manned keeps and fortresses was extremely difficult due to how defenders could simply entrench themselves around choke points and fire away, while attackers had a much more difficult series of tasks to accomplish in order to even start landing blows on their enemies. How do you plan to balance attack versus defense in Camelot Unchained?

M: I think I emphasized that a bit too much in Warhammer, unfortunately. We want Camelot Unchained to be more fun, but we also plan on giving the players lots of different ways to protect and to attack structures. Unlike Warhammer, this game is set in a wide-open world, and while there will be some choke points of course, it will really be very different.

I know we have to make CU fun for attackers as well as defenders, and that is something we will be working on very early in the process as opposed to how we did it for Warhammer. That’s one of the nice things about not having any PvE in this game; we can focus on doing one thing right.

G: Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer my questions Mark. As a long time fan of Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online, I can’t wait to see the direction in which you and your team will bring Camelot Unchained. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers to conclude this interview?

M: Thanks for the interview and the kind words, I really appreciate both. As to what I’d like to tell your readers: please check out our Kickstarter, especially my Foundational Principles. I’m not the best writer in the world, but if you like the ideas I’ve expressed here and in those tomes, think about donating to our Kickstarter.

We’re really trying to do something unique with Camelot Unchained and unlike every other game-based Kickstarter, I’m putting up my own money as well because I have so much faith in this project.

There you have it. If you want a general overview on Camelot Unchained, you can head to the Kickstarter page (and possibly pledge your own support to turn the project into a reality for us all to enjoy), and you can check out the initial video pitch below. 

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Giuseppe Nelva

Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.

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