Editor’s Note: This is the second half of a two part interview with Mark Jacobs, the General Manager of EA Mythic. For this first half, which focuses on Warhammer Online, please visit this link.
Our AGDC interview with Mark Jacobs covered more than just Warhammer Online (see part one). The man was also on hand to discuss Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, the EA deal and the state of his company.
Ultima Online just launched Kingdom Reborn, a free 3D upgrade to the game. It overhauls the UI and brings the game into the 3D age without sacrificing the basic principles of the game. It’s still isometric and the controls are more or less the same. They just updated it as the groundwork for new content.
Jacobs admitted that they were not expecting this update to revolutionize the game. It’s about to turn 10 years old (Origin originally launched it on September 25th, 1997) and they had to be careful not to undermine the playerbase they have. As such, Kingdom Reborn is a completely optional update. Will they eventually force people to move over? Maybe some day, but Jacobs compared it to the various engine upgrades in Dark Age of Camelot. Eventually, their metrics tell them that only a very tiny percentage of users are on an old client, at which point they retire it. That means that if players really do prefer the old client, they can vote by their choice and EA Mythic will do what is in the best interests of the users.
Jacobs didn’t hide the fact that the Beta had some issues and knows that it will take a long time for such a fundamental change to sink in. Their goal is to improve the game without fundamental change and adoption rates will dictate the pace at which they move forward.
An example of this is the Stygian Abyss expansion pack, announced at the same time as Kingdom Reborn. Originally, they were two parts of the same initiative, but it doesn’t take much to realize that EA Mythic has downplayed that update a bit. This is no coincidence. The plan remains to work on and launch that expansion, but first they want KR to sink in. If no one adopts it, well, they may need to rethink their plans for an expansion specifically tailored to the features KR opened up.
Jacobs also addressed the health and future of Mythic’s original MMO Dark Age of Camelot. He admits frankly that World of Warcraft took a big chunk of their numbers – as he predicted it would – when they launched in late 2005. At first, they bounced back like many others, but one just has to peek at the concurrent numbers on the Camelot Herald to know that the game is well off its all time peak of roughly 250,000 subscribers. Jacobs couldn’t discuss numbers – EA is after all a publicly traded company – but did not hide the fact that it is down. He attributed it to its age and more recently to The Burning Crusade.
Despite the downturn, the game still makes a tidy profit for EA Mythic and is in no immediate danger of disappearing. Mythic has a history of maintaining games for years and years, long after they pass their prime. A good example of this is their pre-DAoC games that they maintained long beyond the point that most remembered they existed. The advantage of a mature MMO is that ultimately, it can be maintained – if not expanded – with a very small workforce. So long as DAoC remains profitable, it will march on.
That said, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is on the way and given that they themselves are developing a game that is in many ways a spiritual successor to Camelot, Jacobs fully expects a large hit to the Dark Age of Camelot numbers. He does not, however, believe that it will completely wipe the game out.
In general, Jacobs says he remains quite happy with the controversial decision to join forces with Electronic Arts last summer. Since then, their parent underwent a major shuffle, now organized into four game divisions: EA Games, EA Sports, EA Casual and The Sims. The first portfolio houses EA Mythic as well as any of their offerings that do not fit into the other clearly defined roles and is their largest division. Frank Gibeau heads up that division and Jacobs spoke very highly of him and their relationship to date. The transition has been a positive one for their MMO business, he told us.