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Postmortem: Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot
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Postmortem: Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot

February 13, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Dark Age of Camelot was the best-selling computer game in the United States for the week of October 7, 2001, and was still comfortably in the top five when I wrote this. This Postmortem is an overview of how this successful title was conceived and developed. My role on the project was as the game's producer.

Mythic Entertainment has been developing online games as a company since 1995 - forever in this field - but the company's founders had made online games even before then. In fact, as a company, we probably have more experience than any other company in developing online games of all types - over the years we have developed role-playing games, first-person shooters, top-down spaceship shooters, and strategy games. When I last wrote a Postmortem it was back in May 1998 for Aliens Online, our online first-person shooter based on the well-known Alien movies.

After Aliens Online, a nonaccelerated game, we created our first 3D-accelerated game, Spellbinder: The Nexus Conflict. During that project, we developed a relationship with NDL, makers of the NetImmerse 3D engine API toolkit. We learned a lot about 3D engine development over the course of that project and became very comfortable with software and art development in this environment. We finished Spellbinder, which went on to be a mildly successful Internet shooter, and it still has a small but loyal following.

After completing the Spellbinder project, we decided to create a graphical online role-playing game to compete with the then-new wave of online RPGs such as Ultima Online and Everquest, which were taking traditional text-based games and adding a graphical front end, with very successful results. Over the years, we had developed several nongraphical online role-playing games, including Dragon's Gate and Darkness Falls: The Crusade. Because of our experience developing RPGs, we knew that we had to have a slightly different slant on our new title in order to distinguish it from the RPGs that were already on the market. Darkness Falls: The Crusade (DFC) featured a built-in player-versus-player (PvP) conflict in which three different teams, called Realms, fought each other for control of magical artifacts, known as Idols. We really liked this concept, which served to keep DFC players hooked on the game - especially because no other online game featured such team-based conflict as a core part of the game design. So, in late 1999, we decided to make a graphical version of DFC. The project was dubbed "Darkness Falls 3D," and we began preliminary work researching client engine and server technology.

Right off the bat it was obvious that we had two major factors going in our favor. First, we determined we could use a much-enhanced version of the Spellbinder graphics engine as DFC3D's client, just as we were able to use DFC's server code as a platform for the new game's back end. Having such a solid client and server right at the start - with associated client/server messaging - alone saved us at least a year of development. Second, and even more advantageous, DFC's server came with that game's database of objects, monsters, and weapons. Indeed, we went into the Camelot project with a huge head start.

We were proceeding along under the DFC3D concept until our president, Mark Jacobs, came up with the idea of basing the game, at least partially, on the Arthurian legends. It was a great idea, since the stories of King Arthur are in the public domain, which meant we could use them with no fear of licensing issues. Of course, because the game was based on the idea that three Realms were in conflict, we quickly came up with the idea of basing the other two Realms on Norse Viking myths and Celtic Irish legends, respectively. Having the myths and legends of three cultures gives Camelot the feel of being three games in one, since each Realm has different races, classes, guilds, terrain, and monsters.

Because everyone knows what happened in Arthurian England, we based the game after Arthur's death and developed a back story of conflict among the three Realms. The game was rechristened Dark Age of Camelot, and around January 2000 we began the project in earnest. A year and a half and untold numbers of Monty Python jokes later, we finished the game.
The initial versions of Dark Age of Camelot used the rights for a tabletop role-playing game called Rolemaster as a basis for the class and spell systems. Not long into the project, the company that created Rolemaster, Iron Crown Enterprises, filed for bankruptcy, and we lost the rights. This turned out to be good for us, however, because we were no longer required to adhere to a set of rules based on the license - although we did have to scramble for about a week to rename and retune spells and classes and otherwise clear Rolemaster content out of the game.

As a company, Mythic had never before been able to devote all of its resources to any one game - we'd never had a project big enough to pay for it. Because of the sheer size and scope of Camelot, we wanted to ensure that everyone at Mythic devoted themselves fully to the project. Doing so required an influx of money, and that's where New York's Abandon Entertainment stepped in. Abandon owns a couple of small companies, each of which specializes in different types of entertainment: a film studio, a web company, and a couple of game content development companies. Abandon wanted to become more involved in game development, so it purchased a minority stake in Mythic. This money allowed us to devote everyone on staff to the Camelot project, while also expanding and hiring much-needed programmers and artists. Our spreadsheets showed that we had enough money to support exactly 18 months of development starting from January 2000, giving the project a hard end date of September 2001.

By the summer of 2000, we had nearly our entire team in place. We had about 25 developers working full-time on the project - quite a small number compared to other online RPGs, but our existing technology allowed us to reduce substantially the amount of technical programming staff required. We had five programmers, ten world developers, seven artists, and several other people working on the game.

Rob Denton, Mythic's vice president and chief technical brain, was responsible for all client and server programming, as well as the client/server messaging that tied the two together. His input was critical during design discussions, as he could tell us whether an idea would work or not. He immediately categorized features into "doable," "not doable," and the dreaded "on the list," which meant that it could be done, but he wouldn't commit to it. Brian Axelson was in charge of server programming as well as design of the game's combat system - a critical component in a PvP-centric game. Jim Montgomery provided Camelot's client interface coding and also designed and coded the game's magical spell system.

CJ Grebb and Lance Robertson led the art team. CJ was responsible for the game's look and feel, while Lance handled figure modeling and animations and managed the team's deadlines. Their team used 3DS Max and Character Studio to create Camelot's character and monster models and animations. The character models were technically advanced, as each in-game character has several different parts buried in it that can be turned off and on by the game. So, each model can have a helmet head and a regular head (with hair) without having to load in a new model. Mike Crossmire created the game's spells in 3D Studio, tweaking the NetImmerse system to display animated spells with spectacular results.

The other major group in Camelot's development was the world team, led by Colin Hicks. This group was responsible for quests, monster placement, object placement, and just about everything else having to do with creating the world of Dark Age of Camelot. Camelot's economy was designed by Dave Rickey. This economic system ensures that players must continue to spend money as they rise in level, which limits the amount of money that stays in the game. Dave and Mark Jacobs designed Camelot's trade skill system, which enables players to make armor, weapons, and other objects in the game - all tied to the economic system.
Among the myriad tasks that I did as a producer (writing, designing, persuading, arguing, and such), my job was to make sure all the teams worked together. I hosted an almost-daily morning meeting (at the wretched hour of 8:30 a.m.) where Colin, Rob, CJ, Lance, and I got together to make sure that we were all on the same page. I was also responsible for maintaining the master game client - all files added to the game had to be given to me, so I could verify they worked and then integrate them with the rest of the game.

For the game's sound and music, we contracted with Womb Music, based in Los Angeles, which had provided music for some of our previous titles. Rik Schaffer, the main guy at Womb, composed a wonderful soundtrack that consisted of several long main scores, as well as many shorter pieces in the style of Celtic, Norse, and old English folk songs, adding a sense of depth and quality to the world.


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