Mark Jacobs explains Camelot Unchained’s beta delay, confirms game title [Updated]
Jacobs has explained that the senior programmer hired in June was essentially poached two days after his arrival. While CSE has since hired yet another new programmer, he won’t begin until September, making the August beta impossible. Jacobs told Massively OP that the beta could be delayed into next year, but he won’t set any date until the refreshed programming team is back on course.
He has, however, assured backers that the game’s “spending is below projections,” so the budget is good shape. CSE will continue to issue a refund to any crowdfunder who requests it.
We spoke to Jacobs prior to the official announcement to ask a few questions about the delay and its impact on the development of the game. Read on for the full Q&A and the Twitch stream.
Massively Overpowered: We now know that the first of three planned Camelot Unchained betas, originally estimated for August, has been delayed, but we don’t know how much. I know you’re not announcing a new date just yet, but can you ballpark it? Since the new programmer won’t start until September and you originally wanted a programmer for June, we’re looking at several months of delay, right? If you’re not announcing the new date until September, is there any chance it’ll be delayed until next year?
Mark Jacobs: Yes, there is a chance that it will be delayed till next year. When you are working with a small team, the loss of a couple of people can make a huge difference, so it would be foolish for me to say that nothing bad could possibly happen over the next few months. On the other hand, things are moving along nicely for the team size we have, and we are pretty confident that we can get an awful lot done before the end of the year.
Do you anticipate any other delays or potential delays? What misfortunes would drive the game even further off course? Is the studio going to rush to try to stay on track for beta 2 and beta 3, or will those be similarly displaced? How long/how many times can CSE delay without affecting the budget?
The key to our moving forward on schedule was (and remains) dependent our ability to add the right people to the team. We are certainly not going to rush to stay on track, because doing things that way leads to spending too much money, too quickly. And as I’ve said in the past, it is precisely because we didn’t try to rush to beta that we are still in great shape, money-wise. As for how many more times we can delay without affecting the budget, well, I think what’s really important right now is that we’re currently fine financially, even with this delay. Now, if we were going to announce delay after delay, or we had to say, “Sorry, we’re scrapping our engine and switching to XXX,” then I would start to be really worried. On the other hand, I think the chance of either of those scenarios happening is a lot smaller than even Ant-Man can get.
Are players correct in thinking that the delay actually means that no features or content will be sacrificed in order to help the studio keep to an arbitrary timeline?
Correct. During the Kickstarter, we said that one of the reasons I was putting in my own money was so that if/when we encountered delays, we wouldn’t have to bow to publisher/investor demands to start scrapping stuff in order to hit a certain release date. That hasn’t changed, and even with this delay, and it’s not going to change. The possibility of delays like this one is why we went down this path, regarding hiring and post-release stretch goals. Can you imagine how dumb we would look if all of our SGs were geared to more content, features, etc., for launch? That would be just awful. In that scenario, how could we say, with a straight face, that we could hit our release date?
Could you explain to readers why precisely one key programming position has been so difficult to fill (and keep filled) and how that one role can bottleneck the whole game?
Guys like Andrew, who can write a great engine from scratch, are just hard to come by. What has made it even harder to attract talent? Well, the fact remains that we are in Virginia, and not California or Austin. We had this same problem at Mythic, before we were acquired by EA. The key reason usually cited by many prospective candidates for not taking our offers is that if something goes wrong in Virginia, they pretty much have to leave Virginia and move to a different state. For example, even when Dark Age of Camelot was a huge hit back in 2001, we still had more difficulty that we expected in attracting talent to join the studio. On the other hand, once CSE made the decision to allow the senior guys to work remotely, the resumes started flowing more rapidly.
In terms of how a senior graphics engineer can bottleneck us: It doesn’t bottleneck the whole game, but it does negatively impact our schedule. For example, the first task on the new programmer’s task list was to improve/rewrite our VFX system. What we have works well, but we need to take it to the next level. Since we didn’t have the manpower to do that on time, it meant that some members of the art team had to move on to other tasks. Additionally, it delays implementation of more of the A.I.R. system until we get the new VFX system since VFX are kind of central to A.I.R. Plus, once he left, it meant that Andrew and I had to spend lots of time on new candidates, legal, and other matters, which took our focus away from what was most important, making the darned game. Unfortunately, that process continues even today.
The last senior programmer would have been a huge catch for an indie studio; usually it’s the studio he was from that is poaching from indies like CSE. Can you tell us a bit about the New Guy/Gal and what he/she will bring that is of specific value to CU? What’s the plan if this new hire doesn’t work out?
OK, I’m going to do something I normally don’t do and “cop out” a little here. Because I don’t want to jinx things, I am thus obligated to be super cautious about this. However, I will say that he is a very experienced, senior programmer, who will fit in just beautifully on both the networking and gameplay sides of the team.
What specifically is the team’s focus this summer other than the alphas? What is doable sans that senior programmer?
Our focus for the remainder of the summer is both to continue to increase the engine’s ability to handle an ever-increasing number of Backers and Bots, as well as to make the engine build feel more like a game build. So, things like weather, wind, clouds, new terrain system, the first classes, etc., will all be making an appearance before the summer is over.
How have the alpha tests been going in general? Has the team done any course-correcting in design and tech as a result of the concentrated alpha periods?
The alpha tests have gone great. We’ve had the expected kind of issues pop up, and so far, we are dealing with them quite well. As we’ve been saying, the engine is coming along great, and we’ve been slowly adding new tech to it. In terms of any course-correction, nope, we’ve been tweaking stuff, of course, but we haven’t had any “Oh, we need to scratch this entire system” yet, and that is a very, very good thing.
How many refunds did CU see after the last delay? How many do you anticipate seeing now? Will you be offering any additional awards to existing backers or incentives for brand-new backers after this announcement? Are you concerned that recent happenings in the crowdfunding space regarding refunds and missed dates will negatively affect CU?
The last delay cost us many thousands of dollars, and I have to expect that this delay will do the same, and potentially a bit worse. On the other hand, we really pushed out a lot of stuff during the P.A.T.S., and I think we can do the same thing during the extended alpha. FYI, to date we have paid almost 50K in refunds. As far as offering different incentives, well, we’ll talk about that in two months when we announce the beta date. All I’ll say for now is that our alpha backers will certainly have more time in alpha, and at a minimum, as a thank-you to them, I plan on having the servers up more often than we originally planned, during the extended alpha. For our backers with beta 1 access, we will also be letting them into the alpha tests at certain times, but we’ll talk more about this going forward.
As to whether the stuff in the crowdfunding space will affect us? Probably, but we’ve been very clear about our refund policy, and we will continue to stick to it. We are pretty unique among crowdfunded games on that score, and I’m proud of that. I’m hoping our backers will recognize this delay as what it is: not good news, but a good sign for the future. As I said in the video, we could have said that we were delaying beta for a couple of months, then rushed out a crappy beta in the early fall and said, “Mission accomplished!” We might make games, but we aren’t going to play those kinds of mind games with our backers. They trusted us with their support, and I’m not going to betray that trust to avoid the heat, avoid paying refunds, avoid criticism, or anything else. Any and all crowdfunded developers should be willing to do the same, once donations from players are accepted by them.
You’d told your backers a few months ago that your wife was seriously ill, leading to extra stress and time away from the game’s production for you. How is your wife doing now?
We had a couple of quite unexpected setbacks, but things are back on track. She’ll be beginning her radiation treatments soon, and fortunately, she didn’t have to go through chemotherapy, so we are looking at that as a big win. However, while it did and does add extra stress, I wasn’t away from the game’s development for very long. In some ways, I’m still the same guy I was back at EA, when after my mom died from cancer I was back in the office quite quickly, and even worked from the hospital. Fortunately, I’ve been able to go with Janet to all of her appointments, surgery, recovery time, etc., and still run the studio and be the lead designer. After all, there are still 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, as the backers on our forums can attest.
Thanks for your time and candor!