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Camelot Unchained: surviving the freemium apocalypse

Camelot Unchained is an RvR MMO smackdown from the Middle Ages. Creator Mark Jacobs talks to VG247's Dave Cook about his Kickstarter and the impending free-to-play apocalypse.

Mark Jacobs understands the MMO market. He's been making fantasy role-playing games since the '80s, co-founded Mythic Entertainment and served as lead designer on every project he worked on at the studio.

He's seen many MMOs come kicking and screaming out of companies around the world, only for them to die prematurely before they could turn a profit.

It's a harsh market, one that is in a state of turmoil at the moment as subscription models fail, install bases dwindle and everyone rushes to embrace the freemium monetisation model.

Now founder of City State Entertainment, Jacobs told me the influx of free-to-play titles is thrusting the genre towards an apocalypse. He believes the bubble will be fit to burst just a few years down the line, and then only the strongest IP will survive.

That's why his latest project Camelot Unchained is going down the Kickstarter route. It's the spiritual successor to Mythic's celebrated Dark Age of Camelot, a game that embraced the idea of realm-versus-realm - or 'RvR' - massively multiplayer back in 2001.

It was ahead of the curve in many ways, but now Jacobs is looking to up the stakes with Unchained. It promises 500-1000 player battles on-screen at any one time, grand tri-realm skirmishes, and a world where every item beyond starter sets is crafted by players. Kiss your loot drops goodbye people.

The game takes place in a depiction of Camelot where a trans-dimensional barrier called "The Veil" has been shattered, spewing demons and other-worldly horrors everywhere. I ask Jacobs why he's returning to the realm now, 12 years after Dark Age first hit the scene, and what he hopes to achieve given his experience of the MMO genre.

"It's really a question of looking at Camelot, looking at other RvR games - whether it's Guild Wars 2 or Shadowbane - and other games that have come out across the last 20 years of MMOs and go, 'OK, what things are in these games that frankly, we don't want to see in our game? What things can we improve on and what do we want to expand on, given a pure RvR setting?'

"It's a combination of looking at everything else that's out there, my more-than 20 years of making online games, and looking for an opportunity to try again some really - as I call them on our forums - 'bat-s**t crazy ideas'.

"Because if you're going to make a niche MMO, why should you try to make a niche MMO like everyone else's niche MMO? Experiment. Take some risks, that's the whole point of doing it via Kickstarter and not going with a publisher who would be most likely - as you know - anti-risk."

Camelot Unchained takes a peculiar but intriguing form, with three realms, a deep housing and crafting system, and absolutely no PvP or PvE. It's just an ongoing war for Camelot's domination. I ask Jacobs about the game's particularly mind-boggling crafting mechanic.

"Obviously you have to start with a few things in the store, because you don't want guys running around naked. There will be some low-level items in the store, so when you come in for the first time and you decide to outfit your character you won't have to wait for a crafter to make the bare necessities. But after that it's up to you.

"We've made absolutely clear that there aren't going to be loot drops. There won't be token drops that you can exchange for goods in stores. There isn't going to be that 'big bad' who drops that wonderful item that you spent the last 60 hours grinding for. There's going to be none of that. Period.

"People have asked on Kickstarter, 'Won't you please at least put in some item drops?' The answer is no. This needs to be a crafted-driven economy, and the only exception to that would be if there weren't enough crafters. Obviously if one realm is under-populated we might work with crafters to make sure that there are more items by speeding up development time and other things."

The original Dark Age of Camelot was a pet project for Jacobs who happens to be a big fan of the Camelot legends that began in the 12-century, and he explained that at the time he had to really fight to make the first game happen within Mythic. But now the slate is clear to really run wild with ideas.

Jacobs explained, "I think today, given the non-PvE nature of the game and the pure RvR focus that we can do some really interesting things with the legends, the classes and the races that not only would be difficult to have done back in 1999, but almost unthinkable today when you look at how most games build their races and classes, and even the whole question of gender."

There are no duplicate classes in the game, as each of the three realms plays home to unique character types with distinct abilities. Jacobs conceded that perhaps Dark Age went a bit crazy in piling on too many different classes and he felt it resulted in a loss of balance. He won't be taking the same steps this time, however, but will be trying many new things.

"I wouldn't say that what we did with classes was absolutely a mistake," Jacobs continued, "but one of the things we certainly did over the years was, as we added more and more classes and more abilities things got a little out of hand. We went nuts with it, but that was one of Dark Age's things. It was designed to be a game with more races and classes than any other MMO up to that time.

"One of the things we'll be doing in Camelot Unchained is that, in the beginning there will be fewer races and classes. I have a very interesting stealth mechanic in mind as well, that I know hasn't been used in an MMO before that everyone here believes is kind of exciting. How it's going to work? I have no idea.

"It could work out really well and add a whole new level of gameplay. The same with archers. If you look at how they've been handled in most games, they're mostly mages with bows and a pet. But we want to get away from that, as it just devalues them and makes them less interesting.

"We're looking at what we can do to make them something that you're going to want to look at and fear. But also know that these guys can;t just turn invisible and vanish. They will miss so it won't just be 'pew pew' with your bow, but a much more challenging and interesting class."

I'm only a few minutes into my chat with Jacobs and I can tell he's a person who truly believes in the future of MMOs, but feels great concern for the way the industry is handling them at present. 'Freemium' is a particular term that troubles him, as he simply sees no long-term advantage to giving your game away for nothing.

There's a degree of middle-finger waving to these mass-market ideologies in Camelot Unchained, as the game's client will be distributed over torrent and while the rest of the world ditches paid tiers. the MMO will operate a cheap subscription model.

By making people subscribe, Jacob's aim is to attract a smaller, more-dedicated player-base of paying customers, rather than a mob of disinterested free-loaders. It actually makes perfect economical sense when you realise that only a small percentage of MMO players actually place money on micro-payments.

Jacobs continued, "You know, free-to-play is just another model, and just like every other model in the industry, it will hold its special little place for a while but then there will be consequences. Those consequences in a few years will be a bit of an apocalypse.

“You’re going to see a lot of developers shutting down, and you’re going to see a lot of publishers going, ‘Oh yeah maybe spending $20 million on a free-to-play game wasn’t the best idea ever.’ That’s part of the reason, but the other reason is equally as important, that if you go free-to-play, you really have to compete with every other free-to-play game out there."

Seeing as Camelot Unchained is well on-track to hit its Kickstarter goal, it could just buck trends as a subscription-based MMO that offers something quite different to the rest of the pack. How long it will live on for in this fickle world is another matter entirely.

Stay tuned for a follow-up interview with Jacob's about the deeper issues in the MMO market, his experience while Mythic was under EA's wing, and much more in the near-future.

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Dave Cook avatar

Dave Cook


Dave worked on VG247 for an extended period manging much of the site's news output. As well as his experience in games media, he writes for comics, and now specializes in books about gaming history.