Interview: Camelot Unchained’s Mark Jacobs on the state of the beta and the NDA


We’ve been watching Camelot Unchained ever since its original Kickstarter in 2013 – and a lot has changed in the ensuing six years, including the anticipated launch date, as the studio spawned a second studio and built its own engine from scratch in order to service its ideal mass-scale RvR MMORPG. Right now, the game is approaching the anniversary of the launch of its first beta, and in spite of (or maybe because of) the incremental progress demonstrated in weekly dev blogs, we’ve seen readers and MMO gamers who are concerned about the game’s future but are unable to peek beyond the curtain of the NDA.

To sort out the situation, we recently spoke to City State Entertainment’s Mark Jacobs about the state of the game, digging into the NDA, the projected launch, the impact of last year’s outside investment, and the grumbling of the community during this long wait. Read on!

MassivelyOP: So as I’m crafting these questions, we’re coming up on the first anniversary of beta one. Can you give us a broad overview of how you think this first year of beta has gone and what were its most remarkable advancements?

Camelot Unchained’s Mark Jacobs: It’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Some things went great (building destruction, large-scale NPCs/ARCs) but some things didn’t go as well as expected (the ability system needed more time/effort). The most remarkable achievement was what we have been showing our Backers for the past few months, the ability to destroy a 9.4M block building, real-time, with a true physics/stability system run via the server that is fully networked. That’s pretty remarkable, even just the rendering aspect of the battle, without even factoring in building destruction.

How much longer do you think this leg of the beta will go on? You’re planning more betas, right, but not early access shenanigans?

After we missed our last date, I said we were just going to stop talking about dates until we were sure we can hit them. But I can say is that the plan is Beta 1 is supposed to be longest of the three Beta stages with Beta 3 intended to be the shortest. In terms of early access shenanigans, nope, none planned as of now. We have two more Beta stages planned; this is just the first one. As you know, I did the same thing in terms of the Beta stages for Dark Age of Camelot.

When will the NDA come down? Do you think keeping the NDA up for so long (compared to other indie MMOs in similar stages of production) has caused PR problems for the game?

Some games don’t mind streaming their games early because they are using great commercial engines such as Unreal. In our case, because we are building our own engine, our early days were pretty rough. It’s so much harder, as expected, when you are building almost everything from scratch. In terms of whether it has caused PR issues? No, not in the big picture. Are some people pissed, yep, I’m sure they are, and I understand and respect that, but we’ve been really clear about how we were going to do things, including the NDA, so nobody should be surprised that I’m sticking to what we said we were going to do.

In terms of when it will come down, the plan is still the same as it has been. First, we will allow people to talk about some of the tests that they are in. We’ve been doing this for months. No screenshots, no videos, but they can talk about the test, including the negative things as long as they also say that they were in a Beta 1 (of 3) build. After that, we’ll allow some people to stream certain tests. After that, we’ll open up streaming to all people for certain tests, and then we’ll open it up for anybody.

A year and a half ago, you told us a 2019 commercial launch was very likely, but it doesn’t seem so right now, yes? What’s your best prediction for a launch window right now? And what about CUBE’s public launch? What about dropping some planned features to get it out the door faster – is that on the table at all?

It’s still possible but we’re still short the engineers I hope(d) to get to make that happen. We just added a new engineer this week, but we need a few more if we’re going to have any shot at 2019. As I’ve been saying in our updates, if/when we make the determination that we can’t make 2019, we’ll let our investors and our Backers know.

As far as CUBE, we don’t have the engineers to make that happen. I wish we did. If we only had 3 more engineers, we could make CUBE the game a thing. We haven’t hit any snags with it, we just don’t have the engineers to make a commercial version of it viable.

Last year, you inked a deal with a group of outside investors specifically to finish the game and hire more people to develop faster. Can we ask how that process has gone? Have the investors changed anything about the way you’re developing and designing the game? Similarly, has the addition of a second studio been worthwhile?

It has been going well in general. It helped us, but at the same time, other studios have been recruiting like crazy at a salary range that we just can’t compete with, so it didn’t help as much as I would have liked. We’re trying, but it’s way harder than I expected, but if you look at the things that led to the huge increase in demand for engineers, most of them couldn’t have been expected a couple of years ago, let alone in 2013. If you remember that far-off year, people were talking about PC gaming being dead then. And of course, the experts were wrong about that. While I believed in PC gaming, I certainly was wrong about how difficult things would get in terms of hiring. It’s not like people expected Microsoft to go on a hiring/acquisition spree, Fortnite/Epic amazing success, etc. And this just isn’t our problem, the number of open engineering reqs for game companies (especially at the majors like EA, Ubisoft, Take-Two, Epic, etc.) is just amazingly high right now.

In terms of the investors changing anything in terms of design, nope, not a thing. The only thing that they have changed is that I have somebody else that I need to give status updates to.

In terms of having a second studio, yeah, without that studio (and our other remotes) we’d be in terrible shape.

There is a lot of grumbling and dwindling interest in the game over the last year, partly because of how long the game’s been in production (since 2013). Now, anybody who’s been following the game a long time will know the “why” behind the delays; you had hiring problems, you had to create a second studio on the other side of the country, you had to completely refactor your character ability code. But gamers are still comparing you to PvP MMOs like Crowfall, which was announced later and at least seems much further along. What exactly do you say to players like that who were once major followers of CU but are now exhausted of the long wait?

Well, while some people have lost interest and refunded, we have more active Backers now than we have had before, and by a wide margin. I’m not happy that we lose any Backers, but I do hope some of them will return.

In terms of comparisons to Crowfall or other games, we are making our own engine and that came with a price. And if anybody thinks making an engine is easy, ask Amazon how long it is taking them to build their own better version of the CryEngine. The advantage of using a pre-built engine is that you can get a game made faster, no doubts about that. OTOH, I haven’t seen any MMORPG do what we can do today, so I still like our chances to succeed.

The bottom line is this, we are basing the game’s chances to succeed on our ability to deliver large-scale (1K, but in the Kickstarter we said 500) player battles to people across the world. If we can do that, and the rest of the game is fun too, we’ll have a lot of interest in the game when it launches.

Do you have any regrets about the way the game has shaped up? For example, do you regret crowdfunding? Or the transparency that crowdfunding theoretically requires – not so much the level of it but the length of it? What would you change, looking back over the last six years?

In terms of regretting doing the Kickstarter, nope, not one bit. I love the transparency aspect. That’s one reason so many of even our original Kickstarter Backers are still behind us, the fact that they have seen the process from the earliest steps till now. The two biggest changes I would have made are: 1) Change the estimated release date. 2) Open the studio in Seattle as fast as possible. While there are a number of other things that I would have changed, those are the two biggest.

Related to that, do you folks have any plans to update how you craft your weekly reports? More than one writer and reader has mentioned that they can sometimes seem a bit samey and that the public might be better served by more colorful updates that focus on one singular thing – even if it’s something pulled out of the original design docs.

That’s fair criticism which I totally agree with. Once we lift the NDA, our update cycle/style will change dramatically since we can livestream the game. At that point we will probably go with monthly updates, instead of weekly ones.

In 2018 when I spoke to you, you dropped some tantalizing nuggets – both about the future of CUBE in VR and about CU’s custom engine, which you said had potential to be marketable even beyond the game itself. Has either of those things materialized? How is the tech itself shaping up?

Yep, we know that what we’ve done, considering how little time we’ve put into the addition of VR (thanks Valve for the OpenVR SDK). In one of the Stress Tests, a player asked if/when we were going add VR support. I told him the magic incantation to use when starting the game and voila, he was able to run around the Cherry Keep, during a siege, in VR. Much joy ensued! With our ability to network a huge number of players as well as to handle a ridiculous number of buildings/blocks (more if we disable our physics/stability system) would make for a great Minecraft-style VR game or even a castle destruction game. Maybe one day?

Any last words for the MOP readers?

As always, thanks for being a great MMO community. While there are times members of various communities disagree with each other, and at times with me too, MOP is the place where I hangout the most, even at 2AM or so because it’s a great place to talk/rad about MMOs. Keep the feedback/interest coming for MMOs because if we developers can create great games, players, including myself, get the benefit by being able to play them. ?

We’d like to thank Mark Jacobs once again for speaking with us. You can follow Camelot Unchained over on its official site.

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