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.
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.

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