Camelot Unchained’s Mark Jacobs on guilds, groups, and the social systems that make an MMORPG go ’round


Over the weekend, the studio behind crowdfunded RvR MMORPG Camelot Unchained released a hefty chunk of its ongoing beta one document, revealing extensive insight into the way the game’s social systems will be laid out. Parts of those social systems will look familiar to MMO players, such as groups (Warbands), guilds (Orders), and raids (Battlegroups). But there are more layers to contend with, including perma-groups or mini-guilds (Permanent Warbands), as well as project-oriented raids (Campaigns), all designed in the service of an ambitious RvR-centered MMO that makes space for soloers and small guilds by not over- or under-privileging the largest teams in the genre. That’s the goal, anyway!

CU boss and MMORPG veteran developer Mark Jacobs, whom many of you know personally thanks to his ubiquity in our comments section, gamely answered about a thousand of my questions over the weekend, which we’ve compiled into an absurdly long interview about how to properly smush together all these groups into a social system sandwich that makes everybody happy. There’s even a Star Trek quote and a bonus question about Warhammer Online’s development and CU’s budget at the end!

I strongly urge you to check out the original doc first, as the interview assumes knowledge of the basic terminology and structure of the game. Fair warning: While Camelot Unchained’s document is almost 6000 words, this interview itself is close to 4000. You put Jacobs in a virtual room with me and my questions go on forever, and damn if he doesn’t answer them exhaustively. It’s a whopper, but it’s worth reading for a glimpse into what could be the future of MMO community planning.

Massively OP: When I read the first version of this document, I suspected large guilds that enjoy their role as MMO content gatekeepers would freak out that they weren’t being pandered to, that there wasn’t much to differentiate small orders from permanent warbands. Now that I’ve seen the fleshed-out doc, I suspect the opposite. Orders are getting a lot of stuff — shops, property, banks, guild halls, clothing marks, and a deep progression system — and I’m deeply worried that a small order is just not going to be able to compete. Tell me I’m wrong! Tell me your progression system is based on time and not size/grind/power? And even then, how will newbie guilds compete?

Mark Jacobs: Funny how things change, right? In looking at our system, the progression we have planned for Orders is quite different, in a lot of ways, from other similar systems, even ones that I have worked on myself. For example, none of the progression rewards give an Order an advantage in combat. That’s a pretty big change from other systems that have been used over the years. Secondly, our Order progression rewards function in a similar way to our overall Realm Rewards, in that progression can be earned in multiple ways.

One of the things we are doing with these rewards is to allow Orders to earn them, over time, simply by being an active Order in the game. Now, what does active mean? In our Realm Rewards system, it means that they show up and try to play the game, whether as crafters or combatants. They don’t have to be successful at it (though it doesn’t hurt) to earn most of the same rewards that larger, more successful Orders can earn. Now, the larger and/or more active Orders can earn the rewards faster, but the key to making the entire system work is that our game is not intended to be grindy, in any way. You can have a slow progression system without making it grindy by forcing people to craft thousands of arrows, or beat up on a rock until their wrists fall off, etc.

As always, it boils down to whether we can make this rather unique approach to leveling up a character in a computer-based RPG work for our Backers and players. If we can do that, then the same system will also work for our Orders. As I’ve said on our Forums and in other places, we’re trying to create a system that will not appeal to everybody, but one that is interesting and exciting to a wide range of players.

If “MJ believes [multiguilding] is one of the things that has hurt the viability and attractiveness of guilds in modern MMORPGs,” why wouldn’t the same be true in a game where you can join infinite warbands and link them together infinitely, receiving many of the same social (if not economic) benefits? What I’m imagining is that people will still join a powerful, old order with all the right perks — capped out at whatever that number winds up being — for the perks and then join their real friends in a warband. That can’t be what you want, right?

First, we might be a little BSC at times, but the idea that you can join an infinite number of Warbands, and then join an infinite number of Warbands together, is not in the plans. In the document we used the word “multiple” and while the number is still TBD, the number of Warbands you can join/link will not be large. Secondly, as always, all of this is subject to change if it doesn’t work out in Beta. Thirdly, we have to accept that this is 2017; the tools that people have to connect are more powerful than they were, say, back in 2001. So, even if we didn’t give players the ability to work together outside our systems, they could do it anyway. Finally, we see Warbands and Orders fitting together quite nicely for the following reasons:

  • There are a lot of people who don’t want to deal with the issues of guilds/Orders. This has been talked about for many years, and I think most of MOP’s readers can probably sympathize with that problem.
  • There are a lot of people who just want to play with a small group of friends and family. They don’t want the overhead of a guild, and might want some recognition for their ability to be a successful group.
  • Linking Warbands together through a Battlegroup (which I think is what you are referring to), is a temporary thing. It can’t be made permanent.

Battlegroups will have some perks, but as you point out, they don’t have almost any of the perks that Orders get, and these perks are UI/group combat related. Plus, I’ve also said on our Forums that anything we give the Battlegroups that could impart an advantage in combat would also be given to smaller groups/individuals where appropriate.
And a lot more…

The situation you mention has been part of MMORPGs ever since the concept of guilds in these games came into being, so it’s nothing new to our system. OTOH, by creating the concept of named/permanent Warbands, we hope to find a way that you can play with your friends and your Order, and still get recognition both inside and outside your Order. Will some people do what you describe? Yep, but as per above, that is not a new problem in MMORPGs, and I hope that we have a system that will cause that to happen less, while at the same time boosting overall Order participation.

I have serious issues with big guilds – over the last 20 years, I’ve seen over and over how they can wreck MMORPGs by sheer force of numbers and power, tilting the balance of entire servers, bogarting content, and driving people from games. But I can think of some (Gaiscioch specifically) that I think add more to game communities than they take away. But they have hundreds of members. How will those types of guilds fit into this particular social structure, where Orders have a (relatively low?) cap?

First, we haven’t set the limit on Order size yet. It will be more than a few dozen, less than unlimited. Where that will shake out will be determined through Beta after a lot of thought, reflection, surveys and possibly Tequila! As to folks like Gaiscioch, yeah, they are good people. I met with some of them when I was in the Pacific Northwest on one trip. Secondly, I think that the Orders in our game have one major incentive that they don’t have in other games, the fact that there isn’t a lot of CSE-made content to bogart (damn Bree, you going all old school slang on me so “cop a squat and then let’s grab some za!”) like there is in other games. And I do agree with you that guilds can be a negative force in some games. That’s one reason we are against mega-guilds and doing things to encourage people to create/join Orders of all sizes, including small ones. Being an RvR-focused game doesn’t mean that all the Orders are going to go all Kumbaya with each other, but I do think that there will be plenty of reasons, opportunities and tools to work together in a very unique and powerful way.

Is there a reason a realm couldn’t just link everybody into one massive battlegroup – say maybe using a mod that would auto-join anybody logging in to that battlegroup – and be done with the complicated grouping web? It seems like this would circumvent the cost and confusion of creating a campaign. On that note, how in the world is the unit frame UI going to look if you have your entire realm joined together in a battlegroup? (Click/grid healers are crying right now.)

LOL, yeah, the issues that will arise with healers is an entirely different kettle of Luchorpáns! :) We’ve talked a bit about “Healer Vision,” but that topic’s for a different day.
As far as using a mod, sure, that is something players could and probably will do, since we are giving players more access to our API than any other major MMORPG has ever done. Who knows, if players do that, maybe that would cause us to rethink our approach, but I know that the system that JB pushed for/designed is definitely worth a try, especially because it hasn’t been done before in an MMORPG.

There are also some other things to keep in mind: A Battlegroup does not have the same perks/advantages of Campaign. Battlegroups really are just a way for people to work together better than they would without the tools. There aren’t things like missions, rewards, etc. associated with Battlegroups. Also, keep in mind that we don’t have a Unit frame-based UI.

Is there a reason temporary warbands are necessary at all? Couldn’t they be just as easily binned as battlegroups, since battlegroups can have an unlimited number of people? It seems like an unnecessary layer for an RvR MMO, I guess is what I’m getting at. In a PvE game, some content is scaled for single groups and some for multiple groups, but not here. Is there some mechanical reason to need temporary groups of eight to be differentiated from temporary groups of more than eight? What am I missing here?

As to temporary or permanent Warbands, the fact is that the foundation of group gameplay in CU is built around the Warband, with group-based abilities, skills, and effects being applied among your small group. With cross-group support and healing being much more limited, it really puts the focus on working together as a Warband. When engaging in large-scale combat in CU, your Warband is your lifeline. With hundreds of players around you, your focus is keeping your Warband working strongly together as a unit, and on taking out not just an individual enemy player, but on disabling and taking an enemy Warband out of the fight.

Having said that, while we certainly could have just gone with Battlegroups and possibly a distinction within the Battlegroup, we believe that the separate concept of Warbands also fits from a thematic, roleplaying, and historical perspective, as well as a gameplay perspective as per above. After all, Warbands have sort of been a thing for a long time before MMORPGs, right? :) Also, this gives us a much easier path to making adjustments/tweaks to the Warband and Battlegroup system/mechanics as they are separate systems that are meant to work together.

Do you think people will be confused by temporary vs. permanent warbands? I’m wondering if MMO players will feel a weird sort of compulsion to opt out of joining temporary ones rather than feel obligated to stay more permanently, which could actually shut down ephemeral social connections rather than encourage them.

If this were 1999, maybe I would be more concerned about whether the audience will understand how this system works, but it is 2017. Players will do what they think best for themselves and their chosen groupmates, whether it is to form a permanent Warband or just a PUG that is as ephemeral as the promises of most politicians.

How will realm membership fit into the organizational hierarchy — will there be special chat and leadership (etc.) for realms too, like somebody elected Empress of the Tuatha? Or is all of that 1) automatic when you roll a toon and 2) not something governable by players?

As of now, we don’t have any plans for an overarching system of governance where players can become Kings of their Realms. It’s not that is a bad idea, it just isn’t one that we want to spend any time working on. The Kings of the Realms are important figures within the Camelot Unchained lore, and having players become them would not fit well with our systems, lore, or game that we are making.

You are embracing soloers. Fantastic! What kinds of options will they get in line with the heraldry, property, perks, shiny stars, and tags that the large groups will have, to help them feel less like second-class citizens? What about realm-wide calendars and such for people who just want to be part of the faction instead of part of somebody’s fraternity?

There will be perks for solo players, of course, including the ability to own land. With our Realm Herald and other social systems/features, I don’t think our solo players will ever feel like second-class citizens. No, they won’t have all the same perks as Orders, but since the perks for Orders don’t come with a personal advantage in combat like stat bonuses, we don’t believe it will be a big deal, Also solo players will be able to take part in Campaigns, those created by both players and by the Realm. Through these they can earn some of those shiny stars and contribute to the social group play in CU without having to ever actually party up with another player.

One of your reasons for not going with multiguilding was that you made it a Kickstarter promise. Have you guys bumped into anything you promised that you have had to go back on, simply because it turned out impossible, unfeasible, or just a bad idea?

Nope, I’m a stubborn son of a *****, and I also don’t believe in “bait and switch” campaigns. Everything we laid out in our Kickstarter was something we discussed internally concerning our ability to deliver on it. Yep, we’re late, but we haven’t subtracted a single feature from our stated goals, not one. Nor have we added any pre-launch Stretch Goals that have contributed to our delay. Now, having said that, if we decide that a feature was a bad idea, we’ll change/delete it from the plans, but that hasn’t happened yet.

You say group formation won’t cost anything in beta one, implying that it might later. You mean for groups that traditional carry a gold-sink/fee, like guilds, right? Not warbands? I can’t imagine you’d be charging people to group!

Correct, temporary Warbands will always be free, but permanent Warbands might have a small cost–greater than zero, but less than creating an Order. OTOH, maybe you’re onto something! We could cash shop it too! Or better yet, make it a lock-box that you have to buy at a cash shop and that has an undisclosed .0001 chance of allowing you to group! Oh, this is such a huuuge idea!!!! :) (Just in case there’s any doubt, he’s kidding. Jacobs is on the record as despising lockboxes rather a lot.)

Commissioning guild heraldry sounds like a worthy cash-shop addition that isn’t going to trip any pay-to-win snares — it reminds me of when Path of Exile would charge $1000 for a custom-skinned weapon, and they had so many people buying it that they couldn’t keep up. Is that the same sort of scale you might be looking at?

I have no idea on what we would charge, but yes, I’m interested in doing this precisely because it doesn’t, in any way, become P2W. I don’t know if we will do this, but it’s an interesting idea, and would be a nice perk for some folks. I could also see using it as a prize/reward under certain circumstances.

Is there anything to stop a guild from just “granting all the stars” to everyone instead of meting out accolades the way you intend?

If an Order wants to all sit around in a circle after bumping up their internal levels and titles and tell each other what kind of special snowflakes they are, that’s up to them. It won’t have any effect on the game, so if that’s their idea of fun, God bless, and may the Schwartz be with them. :)

You aren’t working toward tying the in-game social systems into social networking, and thank you for that – I don’t want tweetspam about my new outfit or achievements for linking my account to Facebook either. But on the other hand, being able to log into guildchat from a browser and get important guild event broadcasts on my phone would be nice. Is that something you will develop, or are you opening up your API so thoroughly that player modders will be able to pick up the torch?

Both. We have already opened up our API in a way that most other MMORPGs haven’t done. In terms of getting broadcasts and the like on your phone, yep, we want to do that as well. And when we fully implement Discord, we’ll do even more, going forward.

In-game voice chat seems to fail in a lot of MMORPGs, even when it’s become a staple for FPS titles. Do you think you guys can compete with third-party apps on that front? How will you deal with harassment and toxicity in voice chat, where it’s harder to track and report?

Yeah, the stuff that people say to each other whether in text or otherwise (flashback to Dark Age of Camelot’s opening weekend, and morons are talking about how they are going to “kill Jews” or are Osama bin Laden, etc.) is horrific. In terms of incorporating in-game voice, that’s why we announced the partnership with Discord a while back. Discord is currently one of the most popular third-party voice apps around, and we’ll have that built right in. Just as a player can choose to use the desktop app, web app, or mobile app for Discord, they’ll be getting another easy-to-use option in-game. Will we deal with harassment and toxicity? Yep, we sure will. I hate that crap with a passion.

How are you planning to stop people from using alt accounts to communicate with the enemy and/or spy on opposing realms? (I’m sure you’ve answered this before, probably even from me, but this doc is adamant about not being able to chat to or mail a realm enemy, so it seems relevant again.)

Of course, just like some other games I helped create, players cannot create characters from different Realms on the same server. There’s nothing we can do about people buying multiple accounts to do this. We couldn’t and wouldn’t implement a system where it’s one account per credit card, because that would be unfair to families, folks who give/get gifts, etc. OTOH, if we got proof that somebody was cheating in that way, we would ban the account, no refund. This has been a problem in our kind of MMORPG forever, and I suspect some folks will do that in our game as well.

This is random, but I’m curious: Did you guys consider the Asheron’s Call monarchy system when debating how to build out the social infrastructure of the game? Do you think it could work again in an RvR game?

I think it could work in some games, and I do think we could build out a social system at a “King’s Court” level, but for now, it’s not something we are planning or even thinking about doing for Camelot Unchained.

Also random: You mention in passing that your “total budget is less than a one-year spend” on Warhammer Online. That is terrifying to me, given that I remember how unfinished Warhammer was at launch (sorry). Is that really an oblique slam on EA, that you’re doing so much more than EA could on so much less? Can you remind everyone (briefly!) how you’re pulling it off to a jaded readership that’s watched so many games and budgets come and go?

So, let me restate what I’ve been saying since my NDA/NCA with EA ended in 2010, including on places such as MOP. EA was not the only reason WAR launched earlier than it should have launched. They were “a” reason, but not the only reason. Credit for the other part goes to certain individuals at Mythic, who lied about the state of the game and had their own agenda. I told EA that I believed WAR was not ready for launch, but I also told them that nobody on my team would say that they agreed with me. One said they “would support me” but wouldn’t say that they believed that the game wasn’t ready. If I had had the support of anybody, I might have been able to force a delay in the launch, but again, there were other agendas at work, as was shown by what happened when EA and I parted ways. OTOH, I have also credited (on MOP as well), John Riccitello for stating publicly that games such as WAR didn’t get the support they should have. It’s why I’ve stayed in touch with JR and not with other people: He has the courage to admit mistakes, unlike some other folks I know.

Now, in terms of saying I can do more with less, well, that’s true, but that was true with Dark Age of Camelot as well as WAR (whose budget was a fraction, truly a fraction, of a game like SWTOR), but it wasn’t/isn’t all thanks to me. The team that made Dark Age of Camelot was a great, hardworking, and talented team, just like the one we have now. The difference is that this team has had to write almost all of the codebase (not some bits, we’re using Nvidia’s PhysX for example) from scratch, whereas Mythic had 4+ years of code to draw on when making Dark Age of Camelot.

As for how we’re doing it: a lot of hard work, mostly smart decisions (nobody is perfect), and by focusing on making the game first and foremost. We’re not making expensive and time-consuming videos, taking time to go to shows, or focusing on doing things to bring in additional money. Yeah, it hurts my wallet more than I would like, but I said we would make a great game, and we’re going to do just that, come Hel or high water. :)

In terms of jaded folks (and as a gamer, I’m certainly one of those), we’re late, we know it, apologize for it, continue to offer refunds, and slowly, ever so slowly at times, have built world-class tech that is allowing us to build what we hope will be the next great RvR game. What we are trying to do is best encapsulated by the scene from Star Trek: Wrath of Khan where a tired James T. Kirk is talking to his ex-girlfriend, Carol Marcus, about how he feels old. She says, “Let me show you something that will make you feel young as when the world was young.” The MMORPG world was still young in 2001 when the best RvR game of all time, Dark Age of Camelot, launched. We want to show our Backers and potential players all over the world something in the coming months that will make them feel that same way again. As I always say, time will tell.

We’d like to thank Mark Jacobs for answering our questions with depth and candor!


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