The Game Archaeologist and the Quest for Camelot: A talk with Mark Jacobs

Life is full of serendipitous moments. For example, the other day I found the Holy Grail at a garage sale while looking through a box of half-broken Transformers. Who would have thought? If only the Knights Templar took a few Saturdays off from their epic quest to do a bit of bargain shopping.

Consider also that this month we've been reminiscing about Dark Age of Camelot in this column -- looking at the history, the devs, and the players -- and then, out of nowhere (well, technically Virginia) one of the key figures of this title returned from a year-long sabbatical. Mark Jacobs, who was let go from EA last June, recently popped back up on his personal blog to talk about everything under the sun.

Hey -- isn't DAoC under the sun? Why yes, yes it is. So I threw on my hiking boots, strapped a machete to my thigh, hired a Sherpa, and then composed a quick message to see if Mr. Jacobs would be willing to be interviewed by the eccentric media. He agreed, as long as we stuck to the topic at hand and didn't veer into his plans for world domination. Whoops... I've said too much. Hit the jump before I get into hot water. My Sherpa hates hot water.
The Game Archaeologist: Have you been a lifelong gamer? When did you start and what type of player would you say you are?

Mark Jacobs: I started playing computer games back in high school (it's what led me to programming) and I still do. I love most types of games but I always have a soft spot for RPGs and RTSs, and I was a huge PvP fan back in the day as well. I played a ton of the Starcraft 2 beta and enjoyed the heck out of it.

When Mythic decided to tackle an MMO, what drove you to pick the Arthurian setting?

Jacobs: We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what game/genre we could do in order to get funding for an MMO. Our first failed attempt was to raise money for a sci-fi game called Into Infinity and after that, the leading candidate became a horror-themed game. Well, during a shower (where I usually get some of my best ideas) I came up for the idea of Dark Age of Camelot. As I've said in the past that was a Simpsons (D'OH!) moment. I rushed into the office, talked to Rob and Matt about and then we spent weeks arguing over it. Fortunately, I won the argument by persuading other Mythic guys (including Matt) to support the concept of DAoC.

How was MMO game development in the late '90s/early 2000s different than today?

Jacobs: It's funny, in some ways it is really similar and in other ways it is quite different. In the weirdly similar ways, back in the late 90s almost nobody believed in MMOs. Even with Ultima Online breaking the 100K barrier and with EverQuest doing quite well, we still heard the ever-present whine of the unconvinced. Fast forward almost twenty years later and lots and lots of people question whether MMOs (and especially subscription MMOs) can still flourish thanks to the explosion of other online games.

In the ways that it is different, it boils down to two things, WoW and budgets. Back when we made DAoC, [we] only had $2.5M to spend on it and 18 months to get it out. Today, I suspect teams spend more money than that in pre-production alone. In terms of WoW, people and investors look at WoW and say "We want those kind of numbers!" To that I say, good luck, you'll need it. That's why I never said and will never say that any game will be a WoW-killer nor reach WoW's subscription-based numbers. As I've stated in numerous interviews, I don't believe any game will kill WoW, that may/will only happen over time. I've been making online games forever and I've yet to see any new game truly kill any successful existing game (wound yes, kill no).

"So, once I knew that I wanted an RvR game, I knew I needed the IP to go with it and well, as above, the shower led the way."

If you could go back in time to the beginning of DAoC's development history and give yourself a word of advice, what would it be?

Jacobs: Spend even more money on improving DAoC than we did.

Did you have a motto or axiom -- a "vision" or message statement, perhaps -- that you used with the development team to keep them focused?

Jacobs: Well, my vision was for the game concept and features like Realm versus Realm. In terms of keeping them focused, well, I guess it could be summed up by a simple phrase, "Would you like fries with that?" which was what I said we might all be saying, while wearing name tags and paper hats, if the game failed.

From your perspective, what feature in DAoC worked far better than anticipated?

Jacobs: RvR. It was the best RvR-centric game ever made in 2001 and, excluding WAR (for obvious reasons), the best RvR-game to date.

Why PvP instead of a PvE focus? And how was the Realm vs. Realm format born?

Jacobs: I love PvE games but I knew that going against the PvE champ EQ was a losing proposition. We didn't have the time and money to try to beat EQ so, borrowing an old baseball axiom, I wanted us to "hit it where it ain't" and we did. As to the RvR format, credit for that idea goes, as it always has, to the guys at Kesmai who created Air Warrior. As a long time player and fan of that game, I saw the advantages of having three realms that fight against each other. So, once I knew that I wanted an RvR game, I knew I needed the IP to go with it and well, as above, the shower led the way.

What did you enjoy playing in DAoC -- class, faction, favorite aspect of gameplay?

Jacobs: I played a lot of the different races and classes during development but once I moved into my first house in 2002, I lost the ability to play most online games due to my total lack of an Internet connection, so I had to stop playing DAoC. Heck, I couldn't even play WAR at home most nights. In one of the deeply ironic things, it wasn't until after my departure from EA that I was able to get a decent broadband connection at home.

What lessons did you and your team learn from Trials of Atlantis? Do you feel that this expansion got a worse rap over the years than it deserved?

Jacobs: Yes and no. I think we made some poor design decisions with the game which we compounded with mistakes in implementation. However, we tried to make it right and I believe that we did so.

What were some of your personal favorite memories while playing the game?

Jacobs: Seeing so many players having fun and the game not crashing was, without a doubt, my favorite memory. Everything else paled in comparison.

What were some of the challenges in balancing three realms and dozens of classes?

Jacobs: Challenges, what challenges???? :) Balancing any MMO is tough, and the more races and classes you through at it the harder it gets. You compound that difficulty when you throw PvP in there as well. It's impossible to make everybody happy and no game as complex as all the AAA MMORPGs that I am aware of, will ever ever manage to balance everything perfectly.

What are some aspects of game development that players rarely consider, but you encountered on a regular basis?

Jacobs: How amazingly difficult it is to balance everything and how long it takes to make any significant code changes without breaking other things. Another major challenge for us was getting people to work for us in Virginia both before DAoC and even afterward. I love Virginia but it isn't the easiest sell when it comes to convincing talented developers to move here.

Is there an aspect of DAoC's creation or run that you've always thought was interesting and would like to share?

Jacobs: One of the most interesting things about how DAoC was developed was the cross-pollination style contributions of so many of the team's members. While it wasn't a "hive mind" kind of thing, many people contributed to the design/development of the game in areas outside their official job description and that really worked out well for us. We had a great team of people and the hard work and effort that put into that game made it something quite special.

Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective!
This article was originally published on Massively.