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Camelot Unchained Class Q&A with Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs and the team working on Camelot Unchained have released their very first class design document. This information comes as part of their goal to have a transparent design and development process. With this first class document — The Viking Warrior Class (Drengr) — comes information on a major part of the class system called Paths.

We were able to ask Mark a few questions about the design document. As always, the questions we ask when we interview a dev (even a friend like Mark) are the ones we want answered most — even if it means throwing a few tough ones in there — and the questions we feel our readers care about. If you have additional questions for Mark please feel free to leave a comment. He reads what you have to say and might even comment himself.

Keen: In the Path system you have stated that going down a ‘path’ unlocks ‘achievements’ and that they are entirely (or majorly) cosmetic type stuff. To be 100% clear for our readers, is it right then to assume that choosing a Path is not a means to unlock new abilities like Thor’s Lighting Smash Attack, but instead would be something more like ‘because you use crushing attacks you now glow purple and red with lightning and blood’?

Mark Jacobs: That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work! You just explained it better than I did the first time, when we presented the document to our Internal Testers for their initial review.

Keen: The path system seems like a clever way of disguising levels. “Looking for a Drengr with x Thor milestones” sounds like a spiced up way of saying, “Looking for a level X warrior with DPS spec”. I know that I have oversimplified this for the sake of asking this question, but is this the overall intention of the path system — to create a means of giving players a way of stating what kind of character they have built?

Mark Jacobs: Once again, you are correct, but with one slight modification. Since we don’t really have a vertical leveling system, but rather a horizontal one, I would describe it more like “Looking for a DPS warrior who has unlocked Thor’s Lightning Smash Attack, Mjolnir’s Revenge, Goldilocks for the Win! (just kidding), etc. With the Path system, identifying yourself when you are LFG becomes just a wee bit easier.

Keen: Path Banes and Boons (PB&B) seem to completely contradict the idea that a path does not unlock talents or skills, etc — especially if non-optional. It’s one thing to use a hammer and get better with a hammer, but another to use a hammer with the intent to unlock PB&B’s. Can you clarify how these banes and boons can exist within this path system and not play a major (if not complete) role in the choice?

Mark Jacobs: That was one of the points I discussed with the IT folks on our Forums. Now, if those B&B unlocks could be achieved by non-Path players, it works out fine. In that case, the B&Bs would be tied to amount of time in-game, power, or some other condition(s) that would track across all Paths. But, as you say, if the B&Bs are tied solely to progression along the Path, that might be a problem. That’s one of the reasons my initial thought was to have these B&Bs open to all Drengr, and not tied only to Path progression. This is definitely one of those points that we are going to be in deep discussion internally as well as with our Backers over the next few months and beyond.

Keen: There seems to be a lot of progression elements for the player to focus on: Weapon choice, skill usage, skill crafting, runes, banes, boons, potential skill degradation, bonding, stats, and now paths. (Did I miss anything?) Are paths meant to be a way of organizing all of these things to give the ‘general populous’ their path of least resistance to a play style by providing a common denominator?

Mark Jacobs: That’s the beauty of the horizontal system we are trying to build here. We can’t rely on the traditional verticality of leveling systems to give the players more and more powerful stuff as they progress in the game. OTOH, if we have a lot of different ways that players can progress, we can always keep adding small things to the game without breaking Rule #1 for Camelot Unchained, which is that new players have to be able to be competitive in RvR from day one.

As far as them being a path of least resistance, I would agree, but not just for the general populace. If we can create really cool and interesting classes and Paths, then even some harder-core players might be immediately attracted to one or more of them. With the mostly open-ended nature of the class/Paths, they could start their adventures in our game focused on one Path, and then tweak their build as time goes by.

Keen: I can’t help but think of old school Ultima Online here. You have a skill cap of sorts with the potential to choose any combination of skills. You can max out a few or dabble in several to build whatever type of character you want. Back in the day, players used to give names to certain combinations of skill point allocations: Dexxers, Hally Mages, etc. Despite the fact that non-cookie cutter FOTM builds were great, people seemed to always go for these templates. Are you worried that players will identify too closely with a ‘build’ thus reducing the perceived ‘openness’ of Camelot Unchained’s character system?

Mark Jacobs: I hope not. The fact that we will not have cheap and easy respecs will certainly limit the FOTM builds, but as you point out, that’s not the only possible problem. I do think that some players will perceive certain builds as being “the” build for certain situations, but if we have enough Components in the game, and in turn enough varied and distinct abilities, that won’t be as much of a problem (we hope). Keep in mind that without PvE, and with large-scale battle and sieges being a huge part of this game, I think it will make choosing the “best build” a bit more difficult. OTOH, if our Backers and players are happy with a “best build” tradition, then that works too.

Keen: Do you hope that most players will use and embrace the path system or create their own sub-class?

Mark Jacobs: A mixture of both would make me very happy. If our Backers and future players think that the Path system and the classes we create are worthwhile, then that alone will mean that we have done a good job. If, after playing the game for a while, we have a mixture of heavily focused class/Path combos as well as player-made combos, and players are happy (as per above), then that would work for us too. As I’ve said since I created my first online game, no matter how smart we think we are, the players will always have their own opinions, and will also be, at times, smarter than us. We just have to try to create a great system, and then react based on what we see, hear, and experience as we and they play the game. That is one of the reasons we are releasing this document now, as well as why we plan on having much longer Alpha and Beta test periods, with a much larger group of Backers/players than most other MMORPGs have.

As always, thanks to Keen and Graev for this interview and support of this and other games I’ve been fortunate enough to work on over the decades.

Thank you Mark for taking the time to answer our questions!

Be sure to read the Viking Warrior Class Design Document for more information.

Why do players choose to solo?

The idea of grouping crossed my mind this morning. I was recalling all of the great memories I’ve had over the years forming groups in MMORPGs. I have loved (and still do) grouping over the years for many reasons: Social dynamics, access to more dangerous areas, often the increased rewards of tackling more and harder enemies, and the ways in which classes interact with each other in group settings. Groups feel like the core of a MMORPG to me.

Grouping is definitely not the core of MMORPGs for most people. I say most people because I have observed the rather obvious trend toward solo play from both what the bulk of players want and what the bulk of developers deliver — there is no coincidence that the two align.

Why is solo play preferred over grouping? I feel that if this can be identified, and the reasons for players choosing to solo either alleviated or incorporated into a grouping experience, then we can maybe get more people to want to group up in MMORPGs. Here are a few of the reasons I can think of for why players choose to fly solo and how I think we can begin to start addressing them. I would like you to comment with yours.

Finding and Forming a Group Takes Time

Forming a group is the most time consuming part.  Finding players, getting everyone together, and organizing can often tap into play time. If someone has an hour to play, the formation process may take up half of that. LFG tools helped, but were never given a true chance to develop once the tools came out that built groups for you. These very tools became a means of making group play just another version of solo play. I think if the older format of a LFG tool — a more robust version — we can get back to the group creation process. Creating that group is crucial to the process.

We can not cheat time. There will never be a way to properly remove the wait while maintaining the integrity of a great MMO group. But maybe we can reward players for time spent looking. For every 5 minutes without gaining experience while tagged as LFG, your experience gained during that play sessions will be boosted. That way once you find a group you can catch up and gain experience as though you were gaining the whole time.

Gaining Experience is Faster Solo

Many believe that playing solo allows you to gain experience faster. That is often true in modern MMOs — in fact it is very true. In older MMOs some classes were designed to solo, and they did quite well. I played a Necromancer and I could solo much faster than most groups, and most groups didn’t want me until I had certain abilities anyway. Grouping up should always give more experience. It should give a boost.

If killing 1 monster solo in 1 minute gives 100 exp, and killing 1 monster grouped takes 20 seconds and gives 100 exp — the rate of gain is triple that of a solo player.  That’s how it should work, or something similar. However, in most of today’s games the experience is divided up and the monsters do not take that much longer to kill solo. A solo player can see gains much quicker. I believe in group EXP bonuses. I strongly believe in them. Do not punish a player for soloing. Reward a player for grouping. There -is- a difference.

Solo Players Can Do It All

This is definitely a product of the times. Modern MMOs have all but done away with having to group while leveling up. Solo players can go anywhere and do anything. This is only the slightest generalization. Soloing in older MMOs pretty much meant finding the places few and far between where you could gain experience, and grouping meant the world was your oyster.

Grouping needs to unlock more areas with the benefits from above. More areas = more cool stuff to see, better experience, and faster exp. These areas can not be instances. They can not be “additional.” People should want to go where groups can go.

Classes that Have to Group are Boring

I think this is a real thing. Classes made for grouping these days are boring. Players who can solo perceive their bag of tricks to be more dynamic and interesting. A player who solos in today’s MMOs does indeed feel like he or she can do everything. Back in older MMOs, groupers had the bag of tricks and solo players were one-trick ponies. Cast 1 nuke until it does or dot, fear, sick pet, sit. Give people more cool and exciting ways to harmonize with other players and they will seek out these opportunities.

Conclusion

Reward grouping without punishing a player for soloing, and make the transition from solo to group an easier one. Create the true richest experience of the game in a group while still providing the means to solo. Never punish a player for soloing — some choose to do so because they find that more fun, and I understand that. At the same time, these are massively multiplayer online role-playing games meant to be enjoyed to their fullest in a group experience with other players.

Lore Is Meaningless Without A Game

If you have to market and make a big deal about the lore in your game then you’re doing something wrong. Lore by itself, without a frame of reference, will never be a unique selling proposition. You can release all the novellas you want, tell people how you have this glorious archive of rich history surrounding the world you’ve created, and spam the MMO news sites for months and it will all mean nothing without something to connect that lore to great gameplay.

Look at WildStar’s Loremageddon or whatever they’re calling this marketing push. Why should I care? Why should that story EVER matter to me? I have absolutely no connection to any of it, nor do the rest of the players in this industry. The game already flopped. Lore isn’t bringing anyone back. Had this been pushed before launch it wouldn’t have made any difference.

EverQuest has a fascinating and rich foundation of lore. None of that mattered pre-launch for EQ 1, but it mattered a lot for EQ 2. The original EverQuest connected players to the world through the experience of playing the game and was able to present the lore to the players in a way that actually became meaningful. The lore mattered because the game was good enough to get the players to feel like they were living it. We’re kind of back to square one with EverQuest Next though as a new generation of MMO gamers try and discover what the world of EverQuest is all about. Lore is only there to bring in the old school players like myself — and funny enough we’re scrutinizing the heck out of it.

Warcraft is another example. Without the critically acclaimed success of the RTS games, Warcraft would have been nothing more than some orcs and humans. Blizzard had already told a glorious story through a series of amazing games, and that meant they could push WoW’s lore and story far more. Fast forward 10 years and they were able to push story so hard pre-launch of WoD because the story had been building up for a decade around a game that people enjoy playing.

Lore sells itself when it is presented well within a game that is ‘good enough.’ Lore becomes a powerful, moving experience that will create emotional bonds between players and virtual worlds. It is a necessity. It is not, however, something to put at the forefront of a new IP without incredible support from the rest of the game.

Item Luck in MMORPGs

Luck plays all sorts of roles in MMORPGs. I’m wondering how much randomness we really need, and how much of this random luck based gameplay can be replaced with the player actually engaging with and doing something in the game.

There are those moments of luck when you crit that monster right before it kills you and you survive. I think those elements of luck are less avoidable and are generally ‘okay’. They add to the spice of life and the thrill and dynamic nature of combat. Sometimes twitch based play isn’t always necessary, and even most twitch gameplay has elements of random luck.

The kind of luck I want to see change mostly has to deal with items. I’ve experienced a variety of item drop luck. EverQuest monsters would often have a loot table, and one particular mob might drop a pair of pants I need. I could kill that monster 100 times and it might never drops the pants, but it could drop them twice on the 101 and 102 kill. Raiding in WoW is another type of luck. When 10-40 people go into a raid the luck factor becomes much more complex: Does the item you want actually drop? If so, are you the one to win it?

That kind of randomness leads to frustration and is purely “Did it drop? yes or no?” Almost no skill or active input is required from the player other than attending and making the kill. There are slightly better ways which I admit do not remove luck entirely from the equation but use it more as one tiny cog in a much larger system.

One of these forms of item randomness I did find workable was that in SWG. For example, Krayt Dragons on Tatooine could drop an item called Krayt Tissue.  The Krayt Tissues would have stats like “Enhances: +30 (to 300) to Max Damage, -0.3 (to -2.0) to Speed.” The +30 was common and low end, and anything around 100+ was really good but pretty rare. This item was used in crafting by Weaponsmiths to make Acid Launchers, DH17 Carbines, and a couple of other weapons better. They would take the tissue, use it as a component, and rely on their skill levels, modifiers, recipes, etc., to output a weapon that itself could have a range of stats.

The difference between item luck in these examples (EQ/WoW vs. SWG) is significant. One is luck or “randomness” (call it whatever makes you sleep better at night) worked into a larger system and the other is simply ‘did it drop or not’. One feels integrated with the game, and the other feels lazy to me.

I want players to have more control over this randomness. It’s not enough to simply craft 100 swords and have 30 of them crit into pristine quality. What else can the crafter do to have control over that end result? Is there a way the crafter can use the materials or a skill he can acquire? It has to be more than whack-a-mole or combine and pray. It has to be more than “did it drop for me?” These all have to be combined into something more dynamic and complex.

I still think SWG was on the right track. The raw materials had variability in their quality based on several factors: Conductivity, Decay Resistance, Flavor, Malleability, Overall Quality, Potential Energy, Unit Toughness, etc., etc. Any combination of these could have a different quality, and it was up to the crafter or a supplier to find them in the world and harvest enough to be used.  Crafters then combined the resources, used experimentation points, and crafted an item that itself had varying degrees of stats and qualities based on the outcome of the components and experimentation. Very few items were the same, and crafters could leave their mark based on their recipes — this is what made someone the “best weaponsmith on the server.”

Integrating this all into a crafting system seems to be the easiest way to remove the dumb or lazy luck factor. While I get that some people enjoy loot pinatas, it’s way too one dimensional for me and won’t ever lead to something new or better.

Social Progression vs. Gear Progression

In yesterday’s entry I hinted around the idea that players often want the newest gear because they want to look ‘cool’. I’m not necessarily speaking to just the aesthetics of the gear itself either. Many people want the latest and greatest for the ‘standing in town on the mailbox’ effect. It’s the idea that people are inspecting them, drooling over their gear, and wishing they could be just like that cool guy wearing the newest items.

Gear Progression is about being able to go past the gate standing between you and the next tier of content. It’s the treadmill. Gear Progression is the mechanism through which MMOs halt the speed at which players consume content. The actual stats on the gear and what it adds to your character matter far less to people than what they feel from being the “best Paladin on the server.” Such a notion does not imply that you truly have the skill, but rather you got the items to drop for you first. You are the cool guy standing on the mailbox and that makes you the “best.”

Once we understand that people seek Social Progression over Gear Progression we can begin evaluating other ways in which players can achieve the social side without having to raid or run on one type of treadmill. Social Progression can be weaved throughout a game. What if players sought after being the maker of the finest weapons in the land, or provider of the rarest gems, or the guy who has the coolest new pets following him around? These social transactions can take place all around us in a virtual world and achieve the same level of goal setting and progression as raiding without the need to always go through raiding.