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

    
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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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lostkoss

I didn’t play the original DOAC.
The more I hear about this one, the more I like it.
If the mass battle system doesn’t end up a laggy light show where your not sure what killed you I will be impressed.
Once you get to the magic point of “No more wipes”, I’ll probably check it out. Mass battles aren’t really my thing, but I’m sure I’ll find some way I can contribute.

My advice to all developers is to remember in the end, the game must be fun to play.
Actual hands on play.
You can have the best systems in the world but if the actual gameplay is laggy or slug like or glitchy it really detracts from the fun.

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Mark Jacobs

Thanks again MOP and Bree for the story/interview and to all the people who participated below, as well as those who are just reading MOP and keeping it alive and well.

Good night/morning all. CU soon. :)

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Dean Greenhoe

My interest will last forever. My body is another question. :)

Ill be there at launch day no matter what.

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Mark Jacobs

Thanks DG, I I know how you feel about the body. I just looked at one of the KS videos and I went “Gee, I still had hair on the top of my head back then!”

Let’s hope you and I, as well as other Backers/devs, don’t have too much longer to wait.

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Solaris

I love Mark’s transparency. I love that he doesn’t sugar coat his answers and is just a genuinely honest guy. I backed CU on Kickstarter and while I expected to by playing by now, I’m not upset. If the game isn’t out by end of 2020 I’ll be pretty disappointed.

Great interview and good luck to Mark and all his team. Look forward to playing the game.

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Mark Jacobs

Thanks Solaris, much appreciated. As far as sugarcoating answers, yeah, I’m not very good at it. When I’ve been asked certain questions over the year, and give people an honest answer and then they get angry, my response is always, then why the hell did you ask me? I can be diplomatic about it, but if somebody asks me to evaluate a game, biz opportunity, etc. I always assume they want my best advice. I’ve learned over the decades, much to my chagrin, that’s not always true. :(

It’s 2AM and I’m starting to digress so I’ll just say thanks again, respond to a few more posts and then head to bed.

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Jack Pipsam

When it gets closer to release then I’ll rev up again my interest, but I couldn’t sustain it haha.
I backed the project when I was still in high-school, now I’ve completed my Bachelor’s Degree :P
But with some many games being rushed messes, Camelot Unchained has one chance to launch and making sure it’s the best it can be is undoubtedly the wisest choice.

I just hope there isn’t too much crunch, that would be brutal to crunch for that long of development.

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Mark Jacobs

Right now we are not planning on crunching to release CU. Would we if it was a choice between shutting down and releasing the game? Yep, in a NY minute but I’m hoping to avoid that.

Thanks for your support and patience JP, I hope you don’t have to get a Masters to keep you busy while you’re waiting for the game to release. :)

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Jack Pipsam

Honestly, if it was up to my mum I would be going for one right how now haha.

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Paragon Lost

You know, I’ve thought long and hard about Kickstarter as a backing platform over the past few years as I’ve backed many projects. (my wife backs a lot of things as well). I find that I no longer am a fan of it as a platform for backing online multi-player role-playing games. It’s a fine platform for many varied projects but for mmorpgs, I’m just no longer a fan.

I’m still a fan of Mark Jacobs, just want to get that out of the way. My opinion of Mark hasn’t changed at all from my first encounters with him back in the early 1990s on GEnie and with DragonsGate. He’s a fine person and I’ve always been appreciative of his efforts to be transparent, communicate and hold to a level of ethical behavior that’s a rarity in the corporate world.

I feel the amount of income, time and assets that are required for mmorpg development really aren’t best suited for using Kickstarter. Smaller projects are fine and appear to work well with Kickstarter, but I just can’t be supportive of the platform being used for mmorpg development.

As far as CU goes, I had to look up my commitment level its been so long. I’m at the Physical Phat Lewt Forever level ($450.00 though I’d swear I was $500.00) and if my memory serves me my wife is as well, though I’ll have to ask her later, I bet she can’t recall her’s either. lol. Anyhow I’m still a fan of MJ and the project, though if it was just starting out now, I know I’d have passed on backing it.

Not for any doubt of MJ’s ability, but more from a point that if I knew it was going to be going on six years and require so much more money I’d have said nope, need to go the corporate route (points at Amazon or someone like that) in order to get this done.

MJ’s had a big on going problem getting and keeping talent because they cost to have and keep. That requires a lot more money then any Kickstarter can deliver. I’m not criticizing MJ here, it’s the nature of the industry and he I know does what he can. I just feel that it’s a much harder path to completion without big backing and Kickstarter is definitely not big backing. :/

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silverlock

I’m not sure the suits would back a new game engine and without the new engine my interest in this game would be greatly reduced. Although I say that as someone who still hasn’t backed it yet.

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Mark Jacobs

Yeah, I get it. I’m not sure the problem is the fact that MMOs via Kickstarter are the problem, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things happening over the last 6 years that have hurt a lot of game developers. Costs have risen rapidly for everyone (especially engineers) and most, if not all the major studios/devs are really looking for talent. And in our case, we’ve been really picky about the people we’ve brought in as you mentioned.

A big problem with all game devs is scope creep. Now, I’ve said in the past that one of the advantages that working with a publisher can give you is, at least in theory, more discipline. OTOH, that also comes with additional overhead so that too takes times. We’ve been pretty ruthless when it comes to adding scope but we also did set out some really aggressive goals for us on the tech side. That’s one of the things I would have done differently as well, I would have scaled down a few things in the design.

Another problem is that the tech side of MMOs is just really challenging. Unreal is an awesome engine but the server-side tech you need to make MMOs is a whole other bit of code. And while there are people who are saying that they can solve some of those problems (like Improbable for instance), their tech hasn’t reached the point of being able to drive games like Crowfall, CU, SC, etc.

Unfortunately, if devs like CSE had to go to publishers to do these kinds of MMOs, they wouldn’t happen. Now, we devs have to deliver these MMOs or they won’t happen again but I like the chances of a number of MMOs in development right now. So, it’s a bit of a conundrum. If the major studios create a typical MMO, they will usually be risk adverse and go for the safer one(s) which they will then load it up and down with RMT goodness and surprises. OTOH, some indie MMOs are doing the same thing but others are not. And while the wait for CU, SC, and others is long, it’s not like the majors have released new MMOs in 3 years of development either anytime recently. It’s a tough situation for all of us. OTOH, I do think things will get easier in the next decade and I expect more MMOs to go into production in the 20s than this decade. But as always, time will tell.

Thanks for the support and honesty PL, though when it comes to the later, I’m not surprised. On the former, I try really hard never to take that for granted.

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Michael18

I hope MJ and team land a couple good licensing deals for the engine. Seems like some nice tinkering they did there and I’d be happy to see this rewarded.

btw: does anyone know if CSE has provided some more detailed infos on the engine architecture (written or video)? I’m tinkering on my own little MMO server myself in my spare time, now and then (lol) and find client/server tech very interesting in general.

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Mark Jacobs

Right now we are not looking at licensing our engine. Not because it’s not the OMFG best (cuz it isn’t, Unreal is) but because it would take a lot of time to get it ready for licensing.

In terms of details, the server is mostly C#, client mostly C++, we use Nvidia’s Physx (modded by us), Coherent for UI work, WWise and some other bits and pieces of tech. What else would you like to know?

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Michael18

Thanks for the reply!

I was thinking of things like the client/server communication (types of messages, data), what’s done on the client and what’s done server-side, to what extent anticipation is used, multi-threading approach, where you had to deviate from common practice in MMO client/server design, and in general how you made it possible to support that many players in one battle. A blog post or something about these topics would be really cool. (or blog post series? ;)

Personally, I didn’t back the project primarily because I wanna play the game — I suck at PVP, unfortunately; too slow, haha — but because it’s a really cool software design challenge you set yourselves (and I liked the way you run and present the project).

BUT: if you feel in such a blog post you’d have to give away too many “trade secrets” or innovative things you came up with or if you think it’s just too much effort, I can totally understand that! Just thought I’d share the idea in case you might think it could make sense.

In any case, thanks again for your time and for running one of the projects that help keep up my faith in the MMO genre!

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JOMO

This is the mmo I have the most faith in. I will be trying the other upcoming big crowdfunded mmos too, but I really think CU will be the best siege pvp game. Take your time!

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Mark Jacobs

Thanks! And you should definitely check them out! I’ve got my own faves in the bunch too that I hope work out so I can play them. :)

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Shadex De'Marr

I unfortunately lost interest in this project when I found out they were abandoning the PvE that DAoC had for one more all in PvP game title. Yes DAoC’s RvR was well done and a milestone for the industry but it wasn’t all that made DAoC special and a great game. What confuses me at this point is why is it taking this long to complete a PvP game that didn’t have to spend time creating mobs, or dungeons, or massive amounts of quests. All they needed was a world, players, and destructible castles. But 6 years later other MMOs are launching and here gamers ‘may’ get CU before another year.

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Bruno Brito

Uh…DAoC is remembered by it’s PvE? o_O Now that’s something i didn’t knew.

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Randy Savage

Remembered for ruining the game maybe lol

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Reht

I loved DAoC’s PvE, Shrouded Isles was great. Caer Sidi for life! I actually thought that ToA was a great expansion from a PvE perspective.

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Randy Savage

ToA was fine. It was really Catacombs with the instanced dungeons that turned me off. It just felt like they were trying too hard to compete with games like WoW instead of just focusing on the one thing they excelled at better than those games.

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Solaris

Man, I loved DAoCs PvE. However, still my favorite PvP MMO to date.

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Mark Jacobs

Solaris, Dark Age had its moments with our PvE, most of the good and some of them awesome and then, well, some of them were bad.

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Mark Jacobs

Umm, because having fully destructible castles using a building block system with a true physics/stability system (with server-side calculation) plus 1K battles with an ability system where players craft their own abilities from components has never been done before? :)

To date, no MMORPG has shown that they can handle 1K battles with players, all close-up and personal like, on a small patch of land. Building that tech has been the greatest challenge for us and as history has shown, everybody else who tried to do it.

Now, that’s not an excuse for being late, but it’s one of the main reasons.

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Randy Savage

You’re right. ESO craps out with just 20v20 skirmishes. GW2 with 40v40. And here CU is proving it can handle 500v500 with fully destructible buildings on top of that. And people wonder why it’s taking awhile lol

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Randy Savage

You can bitch all you want about how long the game’s taking to develop but at least Mark Jacobs maintains a level of communication with backers that is unparalleled in MMO development. And if you actually look at the technical feats they’re pulling off by building their own engine from scratch, you might see that it’s worth the wait.

I absolutely love RvR but one thing that has always held it back in its various incarnations is technical performance. CU is solving that, and with the addition of destructible buildings the likes of which we haven’t seen in other games of this nature.

If you want a refund because you have the patience of a petulant child, by all means go ahead, but I’d rather trust in the maxim that all good things come to those who wait because CU has the potential to set the new standard for the RvR experience.

gelfred
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gelfred

Yep, I wish it was out now and finished of course, but I can wait.

Testing it every now and then to see progress is keeping me happy.

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silverlock

Yes this looks like it will be fundamentally different from other RvR’s I love the thought of massed battles. Still not backing until after the NDA goes down though.

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Randy Savage

Yeah I’m not financially backing it either but that’s just a general rule I have with games nowadays. I’ll never again invest any money in an unfinished product, regardless of who’s behind it. But that’s got less to do with Mark Jacobs and more to do with every developer that has come before him with their hands out trying to get us to buy into all their “early access” and “preorder bonus” shenanigans. I’ve got a close eye on CU’s development though and will continue to cheer from the sidelines.

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Mark Jacobs

Sounds perfectly fair and sensible to me Randy, I can’t ask for anything else.

Oh wait, I can.

A pony?

:)

Thanks for the kind words and participation here on MOP, they are both appreciated.

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starbuck1771

I disagree that honor goes to Chris Roberts and CIG