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Camelot Unchained interview with Mark Jacobs

8 Jun 2013  by   Peter Parrish

Throughout its successful Kickstarter campaign, Camelot Unchained has always been billed as an atypical MMO. A focus on Realm-vs-Realm, conscious attempts to avoid ‘hand holding’ and methods of enforced socialisation are all key to City State Entertainment’s design philosophy.

To learn more about the game, we asked lead designer Mark Jacobs about the thought processes and intent behind many of these riskier development decisions.

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IncGamers: For those who may have missed the Kickstarter, can you briefly summarise what Camelot Unchained is and how it’ll differ from what most people tend to associate with MMOs?

Mark Jacobs: Camelot Unchained, unlike the vast majority of MMORPGs, is tightly focused and RvR-oriented. It will also draw a lot of inspiration from the works of people like H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Giger rather than J.R.R. Tolkien. As all character leveling comes from RvR and crafting, it bears no resemblance to the modern, theme park-style titles.

IG: How have you found the whole Kickstarter process and what are your thoughts on the self-funding model, do you see the industry now moving in a new direction when it comes to publishing and funding?

MJ: Crowd-sourcing will not change the entire industry’s funding process, but rather, it will offer a viable alternative to the current publisher-centric model. This, I hope, will force the few major publishers that remain in the traditional spaces (PC and console) to moderate some of their positions in regards to IP ownership, payment models, etc. It may also be quite helpful when it comes to getting new development teams and young developers opportunities to get funding for their projects, which would not have been available to them otherwise.

IG: Reading through some of the game’s Foundational Principles, it appears that you’re aiming to reverse some of the recent MMO trends for ‘hand-holding.’ Do you think the genre begins to lack something when the games get too friendly, forgiving and lacking in consequences?

MJ: Absolutely, especially for hard-core (or simple core) gamers such as myself. The more hand-holding we make MMORPGs, the less immersive, in my opinion, most of them have become. While I don’t want to make playing Camelot Unchained a job, I do believe that we need to do away with a lot of what MMORPGs have chosen to offer their players. I want to put consequences back into the decision-making process. I want to give players the opportunity to really explore a world without also giving them the “CliffsNotes” version at the same time. And yes, Camelot Unchained will also punish you at times for your actions within the game.

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IG: It also seems as if you want to introduce a touch of randomness and chaos into the proceedings too (critical attack hits and failures have been mentioned.) How does this fit into your overall philosophy for Camelot Unchained?

MJ: Absolutely! Critical attack hits and failures were a staple of the old pen and paper games that were one of the main influences on the development of computer RPGs. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve played where I was saved by a lucky hit or the occasional “divine intervention” role, and how incredibly good that felt when it happened. Now, I know in a RvR-based game, it will not be fun when you are on the wrong side of it, but OTOH, it will feel great when you benefit from it. I think the addition of randomness will make Camelot Unchained seem more like a magical world, not just a game.

IG: Based on the above it seems you’re hoping to entice the more experienced, maybe older MMO/RPG player. Do you think intentionally daunting games are making a minor comeback? Titles like Dark Souls have found great success despite a reputation for being unashamedly ‘difficult.’

MJ: Absolutely Part Deux! I know I’m not the only guy in the world who thinks modern MMORPGs are too damn easy and dumbed down in order to draw in the more casual market. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but I’m not looking to try to create a game to appeal to that crowd. Instead, I’m looking to create one that appeals to the gamer who wants to take risks, is willing to lose some nights, and is in it for the long haul.

IG: The problem inherent to ‘theme park MMOs’ is always the lack of permanence to your actions. A quest-giver says “do this vital task for me!” but you know the next person in line is getting the same speech and that nothing is ever really solved. There’s no real, tangible outcome except the rewards for ‘finishing’ the quest. How will Camelot Unchained make players feel as though there are genuine, long-lasting consequences to their activities?

MJ: First, there are none like that in Camelot Unchained as I agree with you totally on how quests within an MMORPG can actually harm immersion. Secondly, as you work with your realm-mates to literally carve a world out of the apocalypse of the “Piercing of the Veil”, you will see the results of your actions on a nightly basis.

Using traditional RPG storytelling techniques in modern MMORPGs hasn’t really worked out too well for certain attempts, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. You know that even though the quest giver says “You must deliver this serum to the dying child now”, it literally means nothing to you. The child is not real, the quest will still be there tomorrow, and the five other people in line with you will get the same message. OTOH, seeing your farm, castle, town, etc. burned down because you and your realm were too tricked by another realm into attacking elsewhere… that would leave quite the impression on a player/realm. Unlike the standard MMORPG quest, the burning has consequences both for your realm and also for you as it might be the home you built with your own two hands that was burnt to the ground.

IG: Realm vs Realm is going to be the core around which the rest of the game circulates. How will you prevent the utter domination on a given server by one super-guild, who organises and crushes all opposition? It won’t be fun for them if you break the guild up, but nor is that server going to be that much fun for anyone else. How do you solve that problem?

MJ: In a PvP game, one or two super-guilds can dominate a server. In an RvR-game, that is less likely to happen.  A few guilds can dominate a realm on a server, but since this is an RvR-focused game, at least those players belong to your realm and it’s in their best interests to try to recruit you and keep your guild happy since they want to be not only the strongest one in the realm but also the strongest realm on the server.

IG: Can you talk a little bit about the unique nature of each of the three realms in Camelot Unchained; how will they differ from one another?

MJ: Each of the three realms of Camelot Unchained will be very different from the others physically, aesthetically and in terms of backstory. They will also have very different attunements to magic, the Veil and some skills and classes.

IG: The boons and banes system mentioned for character creation sounds intriguing, it reminds me of racial traits and negatives in 4x strategy games. Can you say more about this system and why you might be opting for it?

MJ: I want to give our players the most interesting character creation system yet devised for an MMORPG. I’ve said from the beginning of this process that choices matter. Well, in an MMORPG, how much does it really matter in the character generation process that you can select from 50 different eyebrows or you have a “boob-slider” or other such surface differences. OTOH, giving the players options that allow them to really customize their characters’ backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses gives them the chance to create an avatar that feels more like a real person than a computer generated toon.

IG: Limited opportunities for character respecs have been mentioned as an aspect of the risk/reward structure you’re trying to create with the game. I see the ‘risk’ of not being able to continually respec, but what will the ‘reward’ be?

MJ: That we won’t be afraid to reward the player by creating very different classes, races and realms without worrying about people constantly flipping back and forth between builds. The reward will also come from players getting a better feel for their characters and, I hope, forming a stronger bond with them.

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IG: Crafting seems as if it’ll be a pretty major deal, in order to keep the realm supplied with arms and so on. How are you planning to make crafting interesting and remove it from the usual tedious grind cycle of so many other MMOs? Is there a chance that master crafters will be able to add their own distinguishing ‘marks’ to weapons?

MJ: We absolutely want to make the crafting process more interesting than in most MMORPGs. To help avoid the grind, we are going to try to limit the necessity of having to make 10,000 useless bits of flotsam and jetsam.  Instead. we’ll focus on a crafting system where everything you make will have value. As to having maker’s marks, there’s more than just a chance; they are already confirmed for the game. J

IG: It’s sounding as if crafters will have to sell their wares directly to people (no ‘auction house’ type shortcuts) and engage in a sort of bartering system. What benefits do you see to this kind of enforced socialisation?

MJ: If one is creating a mass market game like WoW, forced socialization is not necessary, and frankly, can be counter-productive. OTOH, in a game like ours, forced socialization will mean that the realm will feel more like a true home to our players, and less like a game. The combatants will have to get to know the crafters, who will will have to get to know them. Also, both roles are interdependent, so neither side can really succeed in holding the other hostage to their demands.

IG: It seems as if getting people to care about their given realm through ‘Realm Pride’ is a keystone of the game; to make them feel there’s something to fight for. What methods do you have in mind for implanting this sort of virtual patriotism in your players?

MJ: It starts with the differentiating the realms rather than mirroring and/or homogenizing them. None are evil per se, but each has it own reasons/plans for restoring the world, and all of them involve being the one in charge. By allowing the players to self-identify with the realms, races, etc., we lay a good foundation for other ways to help build realm pride including players building their own realm out of the rubble such as their own structures (homes, mines, towns, etc.), backstory (patriotic stories) and more.

IG: Camelot Unchained will be launching with a regular subscription model. You’ve been moderately outspoken about the Free to Play approach, at least in the sense that you think there’s a ‘shake up’ coming in the next few years. Can you elaborate on that?

MJ: Moderately? LOL, I think that’s one of the nicest things anyone has said about that interview. My point was then, as it is now, is that I don’t hate the FTP model, but simply that if too many developers/publishers chase it, bad things are going to happen to a lot of good developers. In the two months since that interview, a number of publishers have killed FTP games or shut studios, and Zynga just laid off 18% of its workforce. Now, I know it’s easy to say that Zynga was a victim of its own practices, but the fact remains that our industry has seen a lot of layoffs in the last 60 days, and its just going to get worse over the next few years. Some smart, talented and lucky ones (luck almost always plays a role) will do well, but a lot of smart and talented developers and publishers won’t.

IG: Having a ready-made core of beta testers (your backers!) will obviously be a huge advantage when ironing out gameplay issues and testing out more radical ideas. What are some of the first features you’ll look to receive feedback about?

MJ: In terms of the more radical ideas, we’ll look to our backers to work with us on some such as Veilwalking, soul capture, our building/mining systems, etc. We’ll also be looking to them for a lot of feedback on our magic system (which we haven’t talked about yet) and some other not yet revealed BSC ideas.

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IG: Finally, what’s the current release timeline for Camelot Unchained looking like?

MJ: We want Internal Testing to begin early next year, but nothing has changed from our Kickstarter release timeline of December 2015. It’s way too early in our project to announce the all too common MMORPG delay. :)

You can read more about Camelot Unchained on the game’s official website.

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