Mark Jacobs is the outspoken co-founder of Mythic Entertainment, and has been in the MMO space for quite some time. He worked on early MUDs such as Dragon’s Gate, and was previously president of Adventures Unlimited Software, an early pioneer in the field of MMOs.
Gamasutra conducted a full interview with Jacobs about Mythic’s recent acquisition by EA, potential connections to Ultima Online, the future of MMOs, and World of Warcraft’s influence on the world of online games.
Gamasutra: Do you think that EA bought you because they’ve had such little success so far in the online space?
Mark Jacobs: I think it was a combination of a few things. I think that certainly their lack of success with Ultima certainly played a role in it. I mean, EA has never been afraid of admitting that it has great success, but also that it hasn’t had great success. So I think of course that played a part. Another major part that played into their decision was the fact that they had already played Dark Age of Camelot, so the top executives here know and love our game. Another thing that factored in was that Warhammer is not only a great IP, but also that the game we were making was well on its way to being a hit game.
GS: How did you originally take over the Warhammer license? I know Climax was making a Warhammer game initially.
MJ: We didn’t take it over. What originally happened between Climax and Games Workshop was that they were working on the original Warhammer Online, and then Games Workshop cancelled the deal, and all the Warhammer fantasy rights reverted to GW.
GS: So what made you pick it up, did you come to them or did they come to you?
MJ: Well actually I’d known the guys at GW for a number of years, well before we began work on Warhammer. So even during the time that they were working on Warhammer Online, they came to visit us a couple of times to ask how we do things. So we shared that with them because of my friendship with those people, like Robin Dews who at the time was involved in Warhammer Online, Paul Barnett, who’s now working for us. You know, we’re friends, we like your IP. So they came and picked our brains for a bit. And then when the deal fell apart, we offered our condolences of course, and we both said hey – should we work together on a game?
One thing I said to them was that they should take a little time. Wait. Let’s not talk now, you guys need time to figure out what went wrong the first time. And once you’ve got everything sorted out at home, then give me a call and we’ll talk.
GS: What are you working on with the existing Ultima people?
MJ: Right now I am not working on anything with the Ultima team. We’re not part of EA officially yet, not til the deal is done.
What has happened to date that I can tell you is that as part of EA, they would like us to talk to these guys and look at the IP, look at Ultima Online and see what the scoop is. What can we do now, or could we do something potentially in the future? But I can tell you that we’ve chatted with these guys, but that’s as far as we can go now.
GS: Do you have personal interest in working on the next Ultima?
MJ: I think that Ultima, both the RPG and the online game, are two of the most important games in the history of the game industry. I mean, look at what Richard Garriot did with Ultima. Fantastic work. Ultima Online was the first MMO to ever have 100,000 subscribers, it was the most successful online game for a number of years, and I think the IP is one that, as an IP that is owned by EA, is one that we should look at, to see what we can do with moving forward.
GS: Do you think the World of Warcraft (above) success is repeatable?
MJ: Depends on what timeframe. Is it repeatable this year? No. Repeatable next year? No. Repeatable down the road a little bit? Absolutely. Almost any success is repeatable. If you go back to when Ultima came out and it had 100,000 subscriptions, I’d talk to publishers and they’d say “Oh my god Mark, nobody can get more than 100,000 subs.” Then EverQuest had 450,000 – but before we were working on Dark Age of Camelot it was only 250,000. They said the same thing to us then. So do I think Wold of Warcraft’s success is repeatable today, of course not. Is it repeatable in the future? Well every time I hear somebody say, “oh, nobody will ever touch that!” A few years later, somebody touches that.
GS: Do you feel like those people will come from existing online players, or will the market have to expand?
MJ: This is great, I love this question. When I’m asked this question by journalists – and it’s a good question, don’t get me wrong, I ask them a few questions in return. So now we get interactive. Do you think every home in North America has broadband?
MJ: Do you even think the vast majority have broadband?
GS: Not yet, no.
MJ: Out of all the homes that have broadband, do you think they all have high-end computers for games?
GS: I’d say we’re getting close, but probably the answer is still no.
MJ: So out of all the homes that have broadband, and that have high-end computers, do you think the majority of them have played an MMORPG?
GS: Probably not.
MJ: So what I’ve asked is that the people who have high end computers, who have broadband, who would therefore be most likely to play an MMO haven’t, if those answers are all no, what’s going to happen to the market?
GS: So what you’re saying is you’ve got to build up new players.
MJ: Right, so you’ve got a ton of potential new players, and that’s only in North America. So as great as this market is, now let’s go east – or west, depending on where you’re from. Go into Asia. Look at only one country there, like China, and how big is their market? That’s just China. As big as that country is, there’s a heck of a lot more countries out there, and if you go a little south, there’s India. How big is India? And the online games market for India is almost untapped, if not totally untapped. So I think that the market for online games is not only going to grow, but it’s going to go ballistic. It’s only a matter of time.
If you unwind a few years, people were saying “Oh my god, only Americans are going to play online games. Oh the Asians? They’re never gonna do it, the Europeans? Europeans hate online games, they’re backwards” and blah blah blah. And look at what’s happened? Dark Age of Camelot was the most successful online game of all time in Europe. We crushed everyone that came before us. World of Warcraft crushed us. What does that tell you?
So I look at this market and go, I don’t care how many subs WoW has. I really don’t! Because no matter how many they have, that’s a small percentage of what else is out there. And another thing to keep in mind is that one of the great things that publishers have said is they look originally at online games and said “Oh it’s just a fad.” Well, Gee. This fad has not only lasted since the mid-90s, and a fad whose user base is only growing. And a fad whose number one game is now the single most profitable game, I believe, in the online industry. So hey, if this is a fad, I’m all for it.
So I think you’re going to see more and more people come, and you’re also going to see the stickiness of online games, that people didn’t think was going to happen.
GS: One thing that seems difficult about the online space is that a lot of it is venture capital funded. Were you worried when you were thinking about getting venture capital that they’d want to dictate what you were going to do?
MJ: It was a bitch. Of course they were! That’s why we kept saying no. Depending on the VCs, you have smart VCs and you have dumb VCs. Sometimes they’ll want to have control, but sometimes smarter VCs say, “We’re going to invest this money in you, take your time and get it right.” Smart VCs give a company time to get its product right. We turned down lots of offers, just for that reason.
GS: But you finally wound up getting some, right?
MJ: Yes and no, it depends on what you’re talking about. What wound up happening was from a financial standpoint we did a deal with Abandon, we did a deal with TA, then we did a deal with EA. With Abandon, we originally sold 33% of Mythic in order to do Camelot. That deal was – here’s the money, do Camelot. With TA, who were real VCs, they came in and said we believe in you guys, you guys rock, here’s some money. What we want in exchange was some stock. A lot of stock. And so that’s what we did. They said there you go, make your game, make us all very happy.
GS: Would you say they were happy with the eventual results?
MJ: Happy isn’t the word I would use, I would say they were thrilled. I think we’ll be getting Christmas cards from them. Everyone who’s invested in Mythic, from TA to the shareholders, is ecstatic. No dissent at all.
GS: Are you nervous at all about company culture as you transition over to EA?
MJ: Am I nervous? No. Was I nervous? Yes. That was one of the things we had to be convinced about by EA. I mean I’ve been in this industry a long time. I know the good and the bad, I’ve heard horror stories, I’ve heard good stories. EA is a big company with a long history. So I had to be convinced that this EA, the EA that’s being run by the people in charge today, was an EA that we would be happy as a partner with going forward. So I can say now without any doubt that I’m very happy with it, and I’ll tell you something else, I’m more happy today than the day I did the deal. I’ve spent more time with these guys, and I’m not just saying that, I’m kind of straightforward. I’ve gotten a change to spend a lot more time with these guys, and I really like what I hear. And I really like what I see. I sat in, because my official title will be studio GM and a VP at EA, so I sat in on franchise reviews and things like that, and the questions I hear from the execs are the questions I’d hoped to hear. Which is – why is this game going to be great? What do we need to make it great? Not “how many units can we get in a box tomorrow?” I didn’t hear that question once.
GS: What do you think about the free to pay, pay for items model?
MJ: One of my favorite questions. My feelings about companies that goldfarm, item sale and things like that is well known. I hate them with a passion. I think that if a game is designed properly, and can be funded by item transactions in such a way that it does not hurt gameplay, and it doesn’t turn the player into just a credit card, then I’m okay with it. What I’m not okay with are games that are designed to be nothing but quarter suckers in the online space. I think what we’re going to see is some games that are designed well, where item sales can complement the game.
One of the things I’ve talked about is let’s say you’re buying some fluff in the game. You want your suit of armor to look a little different from everyone else’s, or you want your guild to have its own banner or tabard, or little things that don’t affect balance – great, fantastic, why should I have a problem with that? But what I have a problem with is like if you know that you spend five dollars more than somebody else, you can kick their ass, that’s not good. That’s bad. That’s a message to the player that it’s not skill anymore, it’s not a willingness to play the game, it’s just a willingness to spend more money. And then they’ll know they’ll never have a chance because you will always be able to spend more money. So for that I’m dead set against it. One of the nice things I’ve heard from my meetings with EA is that they’re against it too.
GS: What do you think of non-character based MMOs?
MJ: I think that non-character MMOs have failed, and will continue to fail at a higher rate than character MMOs. At least pay-for-play character MMOs. Free MMOs that use vehicles, well that’s a model I haven’t seen. I’m not sure it’d do any better. But when you’re looking at a subscription based MMO, the reason that most players want to play the game has to do with their character. I know for example with women, there’s an even lower attraction rate to the game if all they get to play is just a car.
GS: And then at the same time in Korea the biggest game is a kart racer, so I guess it depends on the market.
MJ: Right, and I’ll readily admit that I’m not an expert in Asian games. I know something about Asian games, I’ve done some research, but I’m nowhere near an expert yet. So most of what I’m saying applies to North America and Europe. Maybe Asia as well, but I can’t say that without a degree of uncertainty.
GS: How would you go about tackling Asia then?
MJ: I’d spend a lot of time doing research, I’d spend a lot of time on the ground, talking to people who’ve lived there, guys who’ve seen the community, and seen the games. Have you ever been to the Austin Game Conference? A couple of years ago I delivered a keynote, and it was considered a bit of a downer. It was very straightforward, and one of the things I said was that I think most of the Asian MMOs coming into the U.S. are going to fail in this generation, just as I think most American games going to Asia are colossal failures. And the reason is not because we’re smarter than them or they’re smarter than us, but that it’s tough enough to figure out what will work in your own country. How much harder then to figure out what will work in a country where you’ve never lived, where you have none of the same cultural experiences that they do. So in order to figure out what will work in Asia, you need people who will understand the market, you need to do research, you need to look at it, and even then you’re only increasing your chances a little bit. But that’s absolutely something I’m going to be looking into over the next few years.
GS: Why did Imperator get put on hold?
MJ: The reason was very simple. It tested well when we had journalists come by pre-E3, and we did well at E3. Everything that we read was good, some good, some great, nothing amazing, but nothing like “Oh my god, this game is trash.” But what I didn’t see afterwards were two things that were very important to me. I had to see the team take what we had done up to E3, and then after E3 really take the next step. I didn’t see that. What I also didn’t see was the excitement that I was hoping for from the E3 show. It got good reviews, but I didn’t get the really hot vibe that I wanted to get. So I looked at the reviews, and I looked at the decisions we had made and that I had made, and I said, you know what? This is not going to be, I don’t think, a big hit. It’ll be a good game, but not a great game. And as a company, I can’t afford for us to spend a lot of money doing just an okay game. And at the time, Mythic was independent. And so if we failed with Imperator, there wouldn’t be anyone to bail us out. So I looked and said let’s postpone it, let’s focus on Warhammer, then when the time is right, let’s go back to the IP, see what we were doing right and see how we could make it better. I loved the concept, I think it could be a great game and a great IP, but it isn’t today.
GS: Do you find it harder to judge quality or how players will react in an online space?
MJ: Oh no, I think it’s easier, especially with our kind of games, because you interact with other players. So I can throw twenty people into an area and say here’s a stick, go beat the snot out of each other. Then when they’re done, they can tell me what they thought. And they can tell me on so many different levels that you can’t do in a standalone game, so I think that in many ways it’s easier. Now designing the game, and getting it right, that’s a lot harder. But getting feedback is a lot easier.
GS: Do you think the online market can support as many genres as can be supported on console?
MJ: No, I honestly don’t. I think there’s a little bit more limited market for the genres, but a less limited market for subscribers. It’s a little dichotomy, right? Certain genres work better on the console as stand alone or small multiplayer games, vesus massively multiplayer ones. So I think that genre-wise I think we’re a little more limited in the pay-for-play MMO space.
The last thing you want to do is try to shoehorn a genre into a space. I mean if it works on consoles, then we’re going to really make it work in the online space, right? You hammer and hammer, and what do you have in the end? A beat up game. A beat up design that you’re trying to force into a space that it may not fit. PC games are different from console games, and if you try to shoehorn something, like games that were designed for the PC to the console, sometimes bad things. So I think the MMO space is the same way. One thing that makes it different though is the subscription model. If you’re asking someone to pay X dollars for a box, then X plus additional dollars over the course of the year, they’ve got to like it a wee bit more than a plain old stand alone or console game.
GS: When I was at the MI6 conference a bit ago, Wes Craven was talking about how the best stories are those that come from timeless experience. Why do you think fantasy games are more successful in the online space?
MJ: It’s easier. Fantasy is easier than sci-fi. Want to know why? It’s simple. A gun. What’s a gun, a gun is impersonal. A gun can shoot somebody from across the room. A gun in the future should be able to shoot a room from a mile away. Part of the challenge we found with Imperator is how do you make a combat system based on lasers and energy weapons, compelling to an RPG audience. That’s one of the challenges. The other challenge with a sci-fi game is that fantasy is very well defined in our minds – we all have a vision of what something like Lord of the Rings should look like, what a basic fantasy world should look like. Sci-fi is very different, because you have all these different planets and environments and creatures, that should be otherworldly. But go into Camelot, go into Warhammer, go into Dungeons & Dragons, go into Lord of the Rings, go into WoW and look at a wolf. It’s a wolf. There’s a difference in the wolf, but you look at it, and you say “that’s a wolf.” Same with a dragon, same with a bear, same with almost any kind of monster you can name. Sci-fi, could be anything. And that’s tougher. You’re now creating very original IP. I think that some day someone’s going to get it right. Nobody has yet – nobody’s even come close to getting it right. But when they do, then I think you’re going to see big numbers come out of sci-fi.
I also think there’s something I can’t explain, which is that people are more willing to play a fantasy game that’s not as good online, than they are willing to play a sci-fi game that’s not as good online. And I’m not sure why that is.
GS: What sorts of design innovations have you seen in the online space in recent years?
MJ: Aside from some of the things we’re doing, one of the things that WoW, a lesson that we all should learn, is that they spent a lot of time and money making the experience always feel good. It was smooth, and polished. Whether you consider that an innovation or not, I’m not sure. But it was different enough from the old school, and I’m an oldschool kind of guy. I’ve been doing games for a very long time. But I saw that our games had to change. We were already changing Camelot, but not enough. Not fast enough. WoW is forcing people like Mythic, like EA, like Sony, to look at what they did in that example, and think “we’ve got to be as good as that, otherwise players are going to look at us and say ‘oh that’s kind of oldschool MUD. That’s oldschool RPG or oldschool MMORPG.'" We’ve got to do better. I consider it an innovation because they did it for our industry, in such a better way than anybody else.
GS: It seems to me that the PC market is where better hardware and graphics can make the most difference in terms of design.
MJ: But it didn’t in WoW! That’s what’s so brilliant about it. You can play WoW on a lower spec machine than EverQuest 2, and than Warhammer. It was the way they designed it. If you look at the amount of polys that go into their figures, it’s less than what everybody has. And yet it feels better than EverQuest 2, and it feels better than Camelot. Now I don’t think it feels better than Warhammer, but it’s better than the games that went before it. And it wasn’t driven by the hardware, that’s what’s so amazing.
You can play WoW on a laptop that’s not even state of the art. Try that with EQ2, try that with Warhammer!
GS: Are you content at this point to still be ramping up to that situation where you’re trying to beat them? Is it ok to not be number one?
MJ: Would I like to be number one? Absolutely. I’d be a liar if I said otherwise. Have I promised EA that we’d be number one? Was that even part of the deal? No. I’ll let you in on something. Not only did I never say we were not going to be number one, I gave them numbers that were so low, and I said you’re going to have to want to partner with us because you like what we’re doing, you like what we already have, and you like these numbers – because I’m not going to tell you that we’re going to get 10 million subscribers. Because if I’d sat here and really believed that we were going to get 10 million subscribers I would have taken my asking price, and multiplied it by 10. So we gave them numbers that were realistic. These are numbers that are low. Do you still want to get involved with us. And I said this to EA – “I don’t want you getting involved, then coming back to us going ‘you promised us the moon and the stars, and you gave us a piece of dirt.’” EA didn’t do that.
I’d like to be number one in the online space. I’d like to make EA number one in the online space. I think we can get there. But I’d be very foolish, and a liar – and I’m neither – if I said that we were absolutely going to get there. Because almost every time, and you’ll notice Blizzard never said this publicly, almost any time a company says that, they almost always fail. We’ve never done it and we’ll never do it. When Camelot came out people were saying “You’re the EQ2 killer!” And we said “No we’re not. We’re going to make a great game, and we’re going to see how it shakes out.” And if we’re number one, we’ve earned it, and if we’re number two, we’ve earned it. And if we flop, we’ve earned it. It’s up to us.