Q&A: Mark Jacobs past, present, and future

In the second part of GameSpot's interview with Mythic's CEO, the veteran designer discusses what's next in the MMOG genre, the newly launched Warhammer Online, and how he has managed to keep his studio afloat for 13 years.

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Concluding the first part of GameSpot's interview with Mythic CEO Mark Jacobs, the veteran game designer boasted that impressive announcements would arrive this week pertaining to Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. True to his word, publisher Electronic Arts announced yesterday that it had sold 1.5 million copies of the Games Workshop-based massively multiplayer online fantasy game to retailers in advance of Warhammer Online's September 18 launch.

Mark Jacobs has a bit more to say.

As noted by the publisher, that shipped tally signifies the highest preorder demand for a PC game in EA's 26-year history. That demand also bodes well for Mythic's professed ambition to take a rusted cleaver to Blizzard Entertainment's market-dominating World of Warcraft, which has been peerless in the MMOG space since it launched in 2004.

So how has Mythic managed to climb a few rungs on the ladder built by Blizzard? In the second part of GameSpot's interview with Jacobs, he explains the secret to creating a game with a mass-market appeal. He also provides insight on why twitch-based massively multiplayer online shooters don't fit into that mass-market model, which genres the MMOG scene needs to expand into, and what advice he would give to internal and external developers in the wake of Ensemble Studios' impending closure.

GameSpot: Mythic has a strong tradition of player-versus-player combat in a fantasy setting, dating back, from my memory at least, to Rolemaster: Magestorm. Was there ever any thought of introducing Magestorm's first-person shooter, twitch-based combat to Warhammer?

MJ: That's a great question. I don't think anybody has ever asked me that. The answer is yes, but the answer then turns out to be no. And here's why. Yes, we thought about it. I think that's great. Actually, I brought up a similar point concerning Magestorm about a year ago.

The problem is this. Right now, if you look at the different genres out there, say you have [real-time strategy], [first-person shooter], [role-playing game], if you're looking for the widest possible margin, I think it needs to be an RPG. Magestorm, being an FPS, would end up being less attractive to a very wide audience when you translate it to the MMOG world. The reason being is FPSs are generally perceived to be games that are played by younger people. People with better reflexes. People with more time. And that's the polite way of looking at it. There are all sorts of nasty things that people say about FPSs when you play them competitively.

So we looked at it, and said, "Look, if we're going to spend this much time and this much money, do we want to define a new genre?" And our answer was no. For Warhammer, we wanted to make it an MMORPG. Now, could we have made it an FPS? Oh, yeah. It would be a hoot. Could we do that down the road? Maybe. Could we look at using the Warhammer IP in different ways? Sure. But, I really believe this--I hope I'm wrong because it would be in some ways wonderful if I'm wrong--that if you're looking to go to the widest possible market within the MMOG world, it needs to be an RPG, which is not twitch-based because so many people feel that they won't be able to compete in a realm-versus-realm (RVR) situation with other people if it is twitch-based. If it's a player-versus-environment game, whole different story, right? If it's a PVE game, then it's a little bit better.

But when your whole focus, like ours, is RVR, if people feel that they'll never be able to win because they're older or they're too young, or their reflexes are no good, or they're just not interested in FPS, you've just shot yourself in the head when it comes to big numbers. And considering what these games cost, if you really want to do an AAA MMO, you want to reach a wide audience to justify the expense or to justify the return on the expense.

And so that's why we made the decision. It was really that simple. It wasn't because we couldn't do it. It's not even because we didn't want to do it. But, if we wanted to go into this space and really have as much success as possible, the answer was doing RPG, work on the combat to gear it for RVR, but not to do an FPS.

GS: So if not an FPS, what do you see on the horizon for the MMOG? Where do you think innovation will come?

MJ: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is get some great sci-fi and horror games out there. Those are the first two. I mean, I think we still have other types of MMOGs to do right. Because if you look at the sci-fi games that have come out that are true RPGs, none of them have approached WOW's numbers, right? Not even within sniffing range. And even the most successful wasn't even in the top two or three, or even four or five, I think, in terms of subscriber numbers. So there is a h*** of an opportunity in RPG right there for sci-fi. You know, horror, nobody's ever done a horror game in North America or Europe. There are some Asian horror games, horror MMOs. So I think that's the first thing. Let's get some other genres in here. You know, let's go to sci-fi and get some cool games. Let's go to horror and get some cool games.

In terms of other innovation, oh, I think somebody's going to do a great MMOFPS. You know, it's just a matter of the right developer with the right IP. The real question is, what's its total upside? Where are subscribers going to end up? Conan was going to be essentially an RPG with a heavy FPS element, but that changed, obviously, because if you look at their combat system, it's not an FPS combat system.

So I think that's a possibility. I'd like to see a great MMO role-playing shooter, and there are a bunch of online RTSs, but not in that true, huge MMO space. But, these games are getting so expensive that it's hard for publishers to look at this and say, "Wow, let's spend a ton of money on something that is very innovative that could fail miserably." And the problem is as we become like Hollywood--and I think the comparisons are getting more valid. I think 20 years ago, when people first started using them, it was kind of like, "Yeah, no, sorry, guys," but now it's a lot closer to truth--but just like in Hollywood, how many studios do you know that are going to green-light a $100 million film that's really, really risky? It doesn't happen a lot. Lord of the Rings was a big risk for New Line and Disney, and Disney pulled out, much to their chagrin. I can imagine those kinds of conversations. "You sold it?"

That was considered very risky, but they got three films out of it. So when they looked at putting that much money into Lord of the Rings, that they were willing to do it because they figured, "Well, no matter what we get three films out of it, [and with sales of the] DVD, we'll be fine."

But in our space, where you can only get one game out of it, where it's not like, "Well, if I green-light this for $80 million all in, if it doesn't work, I'll still be able to get another game out of it, or I'll have some other ancillary way to make up the budget," it's going to be tougher because you can't do that. You can't have a huge secondary source of revenue like Hollywood does with DVD.

So I think it's going to be even tougher to green-light expensive, innovative products because of that. I mean, look at Spore. He was able to do that because he's Will Wright, right? Because he has a track record that is one of the best in the history of the industry. But do you think any other company, or even EA maybe, would have been willing to take that chance on a developer they hadn't heard of? The answer's probably no. I mean, it's really tough.

So I think that's going to always be a challenge. Hopefully not always, but it will be a challenge going forward if you've got a space that's very competitive already, that's very expensive to do games in, and then you have somebody who goes, "Yeah, we want to try something totally different, and yes it's going to take a minimum of three years, most likely four or more, and it's going to cost us a ton of money, but we're not sure there's a lot of upside." Yeah, they'll laugh you out of the pitch room.

GS: So, yeah, you're talking about the financial realities of this business, and it segues into the last point I wanted to cover, the news that Microsoft would be closing down Ensemble. What kind of message do you think that sends to game developers such as yourself who have been acquired, or what advice would you give to those developers who are thinking about being acquired by publishers?

MJ: Well, OK, so first of all, and this is something that always is a question in any developer's mind, is, "Am I going to survive, inside or outside?" The fact is, the game-development business is just a bear. It doesn't matter whether you're external or internal; it is really tough to run a successful gaming studio. If you go back and you look at the history of the games industry, there are very few developers who survive for a long time. There just aren't a ton of us. Mythic is one of them, now at 13 years. That makes us one of the longer-running developers. So it's really, really tough.

Now, in terms of a message, I think the only message it's going to send out is Microsoft may not be as interested in doing games internally as they used to be. But that's cyclical, right? I mean, you've seen this before. Big companies get interested, then if they don't do well, then they get less interested. Or, they do well internally but now because they're internal, everything costs more, so then they shut them down.

So it's an ongoing thing, but I think in the end, the only message that it should send is you've got to continue. If you're going to be bought, or if you're going to be a game developer--because again, I don't think it matters whether you're internal or external--you've got to always deliver. If you don't always deliver, bad things are going to happen. And, with Mythic, one of the things that I had insisted on from the moment Camelot looked like it was going to be successful was to sock away money. And I don't mean sock away in my bank account, I mean in Mythic's bank account. Because I knew that we would mess up, right? Everyone does.

And so when you look at what happened with Imperator, if we had been just about any other developer, we would have been in deep trouble, right? Because here we are, we're spending a lot of money on the game, and now we're postponing it. But because we had spent so much effort and so much time putting money away instead of just putting it into our pockets like other developers--not that there's anything wrong with that. As developers you're allowed to do it. It's your company. If you want to pay yourselves more, you can do it. Or you want to take money out, you can. I mean, it's your company. As long as you're not publicly traded and you're not cheating the investors, which in our case, we were the investors for most of the time. And we made sure that once we were successful, Abandon Entertainment, who was our investor, was very well treated. So, you know, they were very happy.

But we made that effort. We made that decision to say, "We're going to sock away the money, and we're going to have a nice, fat bank account for Mythic, so that if that mistake occurs, we won't be in deep trouble." And so when we had to shut down Imperator, we were still able to get the Games Workshop license, pay them a nice advance, they were very happy with it, and then go into development on Warhammer. And that is what separated us from being like other developers that might have been shut down over that, or in deep trouble because of that.

So if you're an independent developer, the first thing I would say when you have a success, sock away the money. Make sure you always have an emergency fund, and it's a significant emergency fund. And I've even done that when we were struggling. Now, we couldn't put away a lot, but let me tell you, when we signed our deal with Abandon to do Camelot, we were pretty close to shutting down. We were almost out of money. But I know one thing for sure: If we hadn't already saved some money, we would have been out of business before we could have even done that deal. And so I think the development shops that are external need to do that. If you're successful, don't think it's going to last forever, and this is something that plagues entertainers, sports stars. How many celebrities do you know that are broke because they spend their money like water?

And I think that the lesson that you can even draw from that internally is be smart how you spend the company's money. And one of the things that EA would tell you about us is that we didn't change after EA bought us. If you look at what other developers do, go to their offices and then come to ours. You will be very surprised at what you see. We are very--we don't look like a lot of other game developers. We don't have a ton of pool tables. We don't have any pool tables, frankly. Or ping-pong tables, or these huge buildings that are shrines to people's egos, or offices that they just spent a ton of build-out on. And I don't mean the normal perks, because normal perks are good. It keeps people happy.

It's not that we couldn't have done that. We could have stomped our feet with EA, and said, "Look, you bought us. This is what we want." But we didn't. And, so EA looks at us and says, "You guys know how to spend money." They like that. One of the reasons when we went for an extension--or the extensions, excuse me--they said, "OK, we get it. You guys are really good at what you do, and we like how you've been spending money. You've been very cautious, and so no worries. Go ahead and do it."

And I certainly won't name names, but I've been to other studios, and I look at what they're spending money on or how they're wasting money, and I go, "Boy, this is going to come back to haunt you if you don't have a ton of success."

And so I look at Ensemble closing as being a terrible thing. I love their games. But it should be no more of a message, I think, to the development community than an external developer shutting down because they ran out of money. And [there's] an old cliche about those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But if you look at the history of developers, even successful ones, a lot of them that do get shut down have forgotten the lessons--that nothing lasts forever, and you are going to screw up no matter how smart you are. You're going to screw up, and if you haven't prepared for that day, you're going to be in deep trouble. And we will always prepare for that day. Maybe I'm paranoid or just very cynical, but I believe we will make more mistakes going forward, and we prepare for that day. And if you're going to do that and you have success and you still remember that, you'll be OK. You can weather a storm or two.

So that's really about it. But it is sad. I loved Ensemble's work. I mean, my son has been playing Age of Empires from the time the first one came out. I mean, he loves those games. Yeah, and I think they're great for kids, actually. Much better than FPSs. And so it's terrible to see any of these guys go. But it's also a tough economy, and we're no less immune as individual developers than any other industry. I think, overall, entertainment--and certainly computer games are entertainment--is less vulnerable than other industries, but we're still vulnerable. And whether it's film or games, a lot of the time it's, "What have you done for me lately?" And you've got to have the hits, and you've got to continue to justify your jobs.

But, again, it would be no different in the outside world. It would be worse, I think. At least when you're internal you have a bit of a cushion. And hopefully a bit of internal memory, because if you've been inside for a while and you have good relationships with people and they like you and they think you're a great developer, you're going to probably have more slack than if you're out on your own and you have to explain to the bank that you need some more money. Good luck. You know, that loan officer who you were good buddies with when times were good, now all of a sudden you have to explain to these same people that, "Oh, sorry, yeah, I know our note's come due. We need another six years." See how well that goes over.

So, you know, there are good things that go along with being internal. There are bad things that go with being internal. But I think external can be a heck of a lot tougher in so many ways.

Discussion

23 comments
thingta42
thingta42

Just had a 4 Hour Siege on a Castle siege on Warhammer and it was Soo Cool! I love Warhammer!

Starsteele
Starsteele

@runstalker I agree with you in the sense that they created what they envisioned. As a game it is fun. AS a traditional MMORPG it falls short. Is that a bad thing .... NO. They are trying something a little bit different. The game itself is only going to work with a good playerbase. It isn't like a EQ or WoW where you can enjoy the full aspect of the game without opposing forces. Personally I would liken the PvE in War to a very vanilla F2P....aside from the PQs. The RvR is fun. I also hope that there are more genres in the MMo market as I am tiring of elves and such. It seems that we will see as new games such as Earthrise, Fallen Earth, and Stargate worlds are dealing with the Sci Fi genre. The makers of Eve are presently working on a Vampire the Masquerade MMO. The furture looks like it may be interesting. We will have to see what the developers create.

iamjct212
iamjct212

wow this is just a great interview. Thank you GS. I think it is a first for candid and accurate assessments of what it takes. I still worry about EA buying all and in the end gamers need to be gamers and have some independence, but i worry about the industry.

runstalker
runstalker

I'm playing it, and with no baggage from months of testing and obsessing like a lot of people. I'll say it's a really complete MMO -- all the systems, interfaces and objectives you've all come to expect, in a well polished Warcraft-like way. Good writing. However that doesn't mean it's much of a breath of fresh air. Last night I'm watching my PQ boss glitch into walls and steps, and I'm looking at crappy death animations with models clipping through everything, and ho-hum animation, and ultimately one 'aggro' person is 'kiting' every PQ boss in a ring-around-the-gimp routine, ugly AI pathing hiccups in tow... yep, it's still a MMO. A good one with lots of depth, but still guilty as charged. -- Yes, many crude things you simply wouldn't accept in a modern non-MMO game. The genre must improve overall to get me excited again. There are many top quality almost-massive multiplayer experiences today that look/feel just as good as their offline campaign, while EQ formula MMORPGs lag behind with dated technical standards and hours of tedious filler - like mindless gather X/kill X questing veiled behind shallow lore. Someone, do better!

MaxCadillac
MaxCadillac

Mark Jacobs loves him some Mark Jacobs. Come to think of it, so do I. ;-)

prpearljam25
prpearljam25

There is alot to be said about other peoples comments. I agree they shouldn't have cut the tanking classes from the game. As an open beta tester and early start player there are some balancing issues that still need to be addressed. You don't see what it's like playing as a healer or dps on a pq and there's no tank to be found because your faction dosn't have one. What it's like to be waiting around grinding or doing bg's (scenarios) because there's no tank in sight for the champion/heroic pq boss that's two shotting war priests/witch hunters as you desperetly try to spam heal to kill the guy. Not to mention that when you're in a bg and you face other class tanks that as a dps class it sure does take a long time....I mean a LONG time to kill a tank that maybe they should scale down their damage mitigation some. Over all it's a great game though and has me very excited because I know they'll get these worked out in the future. As a company they're very commited to balancing classes and working out in game issuses.... but unless you don't want it to become tank/healer RvR they need to address it quick or people will get bored with it.... I'm guessing Nov. Wonder what comes out in Nov

oflow
oflow

comparing WAR to AoC is a joke. I unfortunatelyactually leveled a character to 80 in AoC, and it was quite possibly the worst MMO experience of my life. I had more fun leveling to 10 in WAR than I did in months of playing AoC. Maybe AoC should have taken the same route as Mythic and put AoC back in beta for another 6 months, then mayeb they wouldnt have a game thats a joke. They are basically beta testing AoC on pc for t he console release to dupe and take the console players' money too.

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

tRens2k, I'm more than happy to give my reasons, but I tried to keep my previous post short because I figured no one wants to read a 2 page "comment" about my personal opinion on a game they'll probably just play anyway based on their thoughts and opinions about the game rather than mine. I'm more than happy to share my reasons why, but this is a comment list, not a personal blog. My last "comment" was already almost 1 page long, so I didn't think it would be a good idea to add 1 or 2 more pages explaining my reasons for why I thought the things I did, and I don't see why people would expect me to given that most people probably didn't even read my last comment given how long and boring it probably looks. So to keep it short, I found the game rather lacking in interesting, unique content, found it too reptitive, thought the PVP was just.. okay, and that a lot of things just seemed to be lacking in depth or flair. It seemed to me like a more streamlined, PVP-focused WOW with a different Setting, and a much worse "Talent" tree system that seemed rather poorly designed, and much less flexible and fun than other "Talent" trees in the industry. I didn't find anything that stood out to me as particularly engaging and fun after the initial "honeymoon/infatuation" phase ran out on me, and found that things got too same-y over time, and repetitive. Overall I'd basically just say that it's not a bad game, just one I found very mediocre, and when I realized near the end of beta (when things were pretty much finalized) that I'd have to pay for this game to keep playing it, that I wasn't interested anymore.

MC_Raptor
MC_Raptor

I like this guy! Now how do I snake in the door to get a job with a company like this? It's also true, I've seen companies who have pool tables, and football fields? FOOTBALL FIELDS? HAH ridiculous. last thing i want to do on a friday afternoon is play football with a load of people I work with. For americans I mean real football, not football you play with your hands.

yukikaze8721
yukikaze8721

other gaming industries should have a man like him. a man that is very passionate about his job.

Nashnir
Nashnir

My only concern is how long will WarHammer survive against WoW. I mean in terms of new content. WC is High fantasy while WH is low fantasy. Even a monkey can do the math to see which can spawn more content. The only upper hand WAR has is RvR but even in that if they don't introduce new content it will turn into a grind fest, just here you are killing live gamers. One more thing WAR has to survive is, now that they have hyped gamers so much they now deliver the product the gamers are craving for.

tRens2k
tRens2k

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

tRens2k
tRens2k

Arc_Salvo - I was an Elder Beta tester as well. Being a beta tester isn't always fun. Sometimes it might just be like work? I mean because it is... Your post means nothing unless you give reasons why you think the things you do.

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

Well, in terms of technical issues I will say that WAR isn't comparable to Age of Conan and I'll clarify what I meant in my previous post by saying that I'm not comparing WAR to AOC directly at all. The only thing I said was that like with AOC, I think there will be a big initial surge of people who get into the game, and then afterwards, many of those people will get bored or tired of the game and leave. I was really excited to get into closed Beta and to play the game too when I first got in the Beta, but after a few weeks, I found myself only logging in to see if they'd added anything new, and then lost interest in the game in general after that. So did a lot of the "Elder" Beta testers from the old Closed Beta, which is why the Developers had to make all the new Closed Beta testers into "effective" elders to test the content on the Beta "Test" server, because out of the -thousands- of "Elders" picked, only a few hundred were logging on to actually playtest the game. Anyhow, I don't think WAR's launch can be compared with AOC's on a one to one ratio, I'm just saying that from my long months of observing the game as a Beta Elder tester that I think that in the long run, many people will get bored with the game when they realize it's not as deep or as fun as they hoped it would be. I personally think that cutting the 4 melee classes that they did is going to end up being a bigger issue than most people think it's going to be, and that they were some of the most fun and flavorful, and that the fact that gameplay was designed around having those 4 (especially the 2 tanks for the Empire and Dark Elf sides) is going to cause balance problems that'll soon become more visible. I'm not trying to rain on the parade of the people who like this game though, just saying what my opinion on what I think'll happen in the next few months and beyond from my experiences in Beta. If it turns out that the game only gets better and nobody leaves, then it's no skin off my nose. If it's good and people play it, then it doesn't hurt me not to play it. And if it gets -really- good over time and I want to play it, then I'll play it. If it turns out that it is and stays shallow and people don't play it... then I don't have any capital invested in the success in this game, so I don't lose money. So, no matter which way things go, it's really no problem for me.

jazilla
jazilla

with this company, you know that the servers will be top-notch. all of the technical stuff will be there as a foundation. i don't know how complete the game will be, but you won't be suffering from server lag or long waiting times. i assure you of that.

vandrius
vandrius

I disagree, arc salvo. WAR is one of the most complete and deep MMORPGs at launch I've seen in a long time. In fact, in terms of what I have seen during beta and launch, they have had great success in content and stability. AoC was completely, utterly different to WAR. The game was unpolished, the world was unpolished, and it was clear that the depth was severely lacking. WAR does the opposite. It steals the best features from other MMOs, has a great IP and provides a bucket load of polished content. It has been very well designed. The loss of the cities and classes isn't that huge - they have commited to patching them in. The biggest issues are some reasonably minor class balance concerns and crafting... and you know what? That is PHENOMINAL for a new mmorpg. Normally the issue is huge queues, dying servers, broken content...

yifes
yifes

arc_salvo: Yeah it sucks that they cut the cities, but that was mostly PVE stuff. The PVP end game is almost completely intact. And also it sucks that 4 classes were cut, but we still have 20. Mark appologized tons of times for the cuts, so I have no idea why you're complaining about his ego. Since head start, I've put at least 10 hours into the game, and the game has not bugged out on me once. Besides some animation issues, the game is working flawlessly, and it is nothing like AOC. You should be ashamed of yourself saying that this is anything like AOC.

ThugNMe
ThugNMe

I hope all those shipped units sell, I have the game sitting beside me now, so I did my part. After playing preview weekend, preview weekend+, and open beta, I have to say I will be playing this game for a long time to come. It truly is a great game.

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

Well, it really does seem that Mark Jacobs is very knowledgeable when it comes to game development and finances at the very least. That really does explain why he and his company have survived in the industry as long as they have. That said, I wish he'd try to learn to be more savvy when it comes to player perspective, or game design, or PR. Cutting 4 classes from WAR and rushing it to launch was not a good idea. Likely, WAR will be successful enough to last long enough to where they can patch those 4 classes (or equivalent replacements to them) in, but I just think it sucks that he didn't listen to his own advice about not rushing things to ship and deflating your ego and maintaining perspective and listening to your fans and taking the time to make sure your game is done right before launching it. The stuff he said about the Age of Conan developers and the rushed launch of that game was very telling, but I find it highly ironic that he didn't listen to his own advice. As a former WAR Beta Elder Tester, I've got to say that we'll likely see the same thing happen to that game as we now see happening with Age of Conan. A big initial rush of sales, then lots of people leaving when they realize the game's incomplete in a lot of ways and surprisingly shallow.

Golbez_77
Golbez_77

Good interview but I gotta disagree with him a bit on having things like pool tables/ping pong tables around the office. When it comes down to it these minor purchases aren't gonna cost a great deal and they provide a good amount of fun which in the end is gonna improve moral around the office and just make employees happy overall especially during crunch times.