My second time-warp into venerable MMOs takes me to the cross-mythological lands of Camelot, where, after 16 years, a sizeable number of players remain embroiled in a never-ending war.
My approach to exploring MMOs has so far been infused with a fair bit of slightly wanky critical distance: I’ve been fascinated far more by the passion of the communities, and hearing about what they love in these games, rather than getting massively immersed in the worlds myself. But I have to admit that taking part in a nocturnal siege in Dark Age of Camelot, where trebuchets, catapults and a thousand spells barraged the heavily-fortified keep of an infamously stubborn and defensive Midgardian general, was utterly riveting. Maybe there is yet some magic to this strange world...
Dark Age of Camelot launched in 2001, catering to those who wanted to band together against NPC critters as well as those looking to make a name for themselves in the PvP Realm War, where the three kingdoms (Albion, Hibernia and Midgard) lock horns over dedicated battlefields in a fight for territory, Realm Points and precious Relics. The game was very well-received at the time, yet was sandwiched awkwardly between MMO big boys EverQuest and World of WarCraft, which meant that, despite being successful on its own terms, it never quite became a household name.
But Camelot endures and, much like EverQuest’s core appeal funnelled into high-level raiding as its player numbers dropped, has now largely been distilled down to the headline feature that always distinguished it from its contemporaries - Realm vs Realm (RvR) combat.
To get a taste of the tough, feudal life of Camelot, I hooked up with one of the biggest guilds in the game, Dark Knights of Camelot, which has over 1,500 members and is part of an alliance with nearly 9,000 members. Its leader, Roxayn, describes the dynamic in the guild: “Most of us grew up together. Some of us were on different servers, but we all started the game around the same time and in that way have experienced it together. People have come and gone, but we always come back to it, or never really left in the first place”.
Dark Knights is a big guild with a big reputation, made up of players who, it’s apt to say, have been through the wars. Before we get down to the serious business of RvR, I join them on ‘Monday Night Madness’, a nostalgic raid night that ventures into the largely forgotten PvE side of the game.
“I miss this stuff,” says resident Friar Beth as 50 of us enter the Trials of Atlantis - a surreal area of floating islands and strange spinning orbs that provide power for an impressive-looking phoenix at the centre-top of the zone. “The architecture in these areas, the design. No one comes out to see it anymore, which is a huge shame”.
Similarly to EverQuest, Camelot has been patched over the years to accelerate the levelling-up process; various guild members estimate it would've taken up to nine months to reach level 50 in the early days, which can now be done in around 6-12 hours. Teddie, Dark Knights’ Battlegroup leader, chimes in: "What makes me sad is that there are so many parts of the game like this that nobody ever comes to, because the grind's been removed to get people into the RvR.”
There's a little hint of paradise lost here, with players knowing that they'll never be able to recapture the feelings of danger and adventure the PvE side of the game once had. This world really has changed, and what were once its great wonders now exist mainly for sightseers.
The raid itself sends groups to dispose of the power generator doodads around the arena’s edges, before slapping on the buffs and attacking the majestic creature in the centre. As the group beats this once-great bird down like a helpless battery farm chicken, they simultaneously reminisce about the dangers lowly Boulderlings used to pose: raiding these days, for a guild of this strength and size, is trivial in terms of progression or reward. It's a nice way to unwind between dealing with far more gruelling matters.
According to the Dark Knights, “nobody would be playing the game” by now if it wasn’t for the Realm War. While Camelot hasn’t seen the release of a major expansion since 2006, Broadsword, who took over development from Mythic in 2014, wasted no time in updating the RvR maps, siege weapons, and class balancing - refreshing the game in such a way that signalled they weren’t just here to send Camelot’s body out to sea on a burning raft, but to extend its lease of life for the foreseeable future.
Eager to witness a famed RvR conflict for myself, I wheedled my way into the Dark Knights’ next RvR night. An officer called Anger was elected to give me some basic survival training. His name and ogre-like appearance had me envisioning a brutal drill-sergeant routine where he gradually breaks down my sense of self, calls me a boar-fucker, and turns me into a dead-eyed, pole-armed killing machine. But Anger was actually a very chilled guy. He did, however, make the fragility of my situation quite clear: “I’m a push tank. If you were at least RR5, you’d be a push tank too, but at this point, if they see your realm level, they’ll tear you apart,” he said matter-of-factly.
What's the plan then? “Keep back by the cleric, and if they come up to you, slam ‘em.” Well at least it's simple, I thought. Anger helped me set up my hotkeys, and I practiced lamely on a dummy for 15 minutes, all-too-aware that merely knowing the buttons probably wouldn’t save me in the heat of battle.
My training regime was more Zumba than Full Metal Jacket and, if anything, left me feeling less battle-ready than before as I began to glimpse just how deep the combat mechanics are. Roxayn arrived to take us to the isle of Ellan Vannin, an RvR zone that was added by Broadsword in late 2015. Things started smoothly as we rampaged around the isle, capturing Midgardian towers with fairly little resistance. I even had a mini-moment of personal victory when I claimed the scalp of an NPC guard to the cheers of my companions.
Battlegroup leader Teddie had a calm approach, and liked repeating the same order at least three times with escalating intensity to ensure the message got across - Push into the water. PUSH into the water. PUSH INTO THE WATER. This kind of strategy really makes you feel like pushing into some water, and led us to taking out a Midgardian port and three towers within the half-hour. But Teddie was not content. “Guys, you aren’t gonna like this...” he started, with everyone suddenly begging him not to complete a sentence whose ending they already seemed to know. “We’re attacking the Key Keep”.
The Key Keep is one of the most important strategic point on the map, offering a gateway to start launching attacks into rival realms. The problem was that a Midgardian Battlegroup leader was already sitting inside it with a substantial force and well-prepared defences. The guild tell me that he’s a retiree who makes use of his eternity of free time by getting into the Keep before any other faction can, holing up in it all night, and waiting for someone to attack him. The guy’s a buzzkill, not just because of his defensive mindset but because he’s a reminder that, if I'd bother to sort out a sensible pension plan, I too could do whatever the hell I wanted in retirement.
Like them or not, our turtling OAP's tactics attest to how the mentalities of players weave into the fabric of the game. The Dark Knights speak fondly of another, more aggressive Battlegroup leader, for example, against whom battles are more dynamic and take place all over the towers, keeps and open plains of the zone. One of their own BG leaders is a pilot, whose approach they describe as arrogant, sometimes condescending, but most crucially he is also very efficient. Then there is a German BG leader whose all-out, high numbers assaults they describe simply as Blitzkrieg (an association every German must just love, right?). While battlegroup leaders build up reputations among players, the game also commemorates individual heroics in the Realm War by erecting statues of the players with the highest K/D ratios. All of this creates a wonderful sense of player impact on the world, as heroes and generals throughout the years work their way into this ever-expanding, player-made history of Camelot.
But back to the battle at hand. As we’re setting up trebuchets on the riverbank, the defenders’ own siege weapons and casters sniping from towers slow us down. Teddie’s generalship is decidedly more severe than before - “Be prepared to drop tons of trebs, rescues, got siege too. Let’s get that WHOLE WALL TO THE RIGHT SIDE.” After 15 minutes of heavy night-time sieging (making for some lovely photos), the wall breaks, the group swarms through the bottleneck, and I get swept along with it like a child in a Black Friday stampede.
“In and left. In and LEFT. IN AND LEFT” cries Teddie. When he repeats it a fourth time, I wonder if things aren’t quite going to plan. As our increasingly-beleaguered BG leader keeps repeating the order, I resist the urge to ask, “In and which way?” This isn’t the time for dicking around, so I focus instead on pushing my way through the thick foliage of neon-coloured spells, ready to slam any Midgard scum that comes near - just like Anger taught me.
A sizeable group of us successfully follow Teddie’s orders and get to the 2nd floor of the Keep. He orders the casters to spread out along the ramparts and fire into the courtyard, and for someone to “get an egg into this oil” (I never figured out what this meant, presumably it's some way of blocking the oil, so I instead held onto the pleasing image that breaking an egg into a cauldron of hot oil will render it unusable, and leave you with a nice poached egg).
The battle was in deadlock. We had a foothold on the 2nd floor, but not enough players were making it through the dreaded bottleneck. We were, however, egging the hell out of those oil cauldrons and inching our way along.
Then, poetically timed with dawn breaking over the battlefield, disaster struck:
“Group of Hibs outside, guys.”
The third realm of Hibernia, completely absent until now, decided this was an opportune time to strike. This wasn’t some kind of Ride of the Rohirrim-type deal though, but a guerrilla group of elves, celts and minotaurs out to score some easy Realm points by ambushing us. They ransacked our siege equipment and the healers hanging round outside the walls. Without their support, those inside quickly fell, and our siege was broken. I stood my ground, frantically pushing the ‘Slam 'em!’ hotkey in the hope of stunning my attackers to death. In my head I went down fighting. In reality, I don’t think I landed a single blow. At least Anger wasn’t alive to see it.
So my foray into the world of RvR wasn’t terribly successful, but it was satisfying, and despite the game’s creaky old tech the Realm War remains a real spectacle of military scale and mass organisation.
As we licked our wounds post-defeat, I asked the guildies how they got into Camelot in the first place. None of them pre-ordered, bought into its (non-existent) marketing hype or brand recognition, or counted down the days on their calendar until its release. Instead, people seemed to have slipped into the game almost serendipitously. CDPL tells me of a former player called Linsamedic, a woman in her seventies who played with her children and grandchildren, and who introduced him to Camelot by loaning him the game so he could figure out a way to have it not lag on a dial-up connection. What started out as a dry diagnostic test turned into a passion and a leading role in the game’s community. Linsamedic, meanwhile, has a statue dedicated to her in the halls of Camelot.
Another guild member, Beth, never played videogames until she was given Camelot by her son - now working at id Software - when it first came out. Then there is the cleric Blazzum, who initially found solace in the game after his parents broke up, then returned to it after a 13-year hiatus when he hit another rough patch in life. “It’s kind of funny that the same game has proven to be a support system, like a family, in two different seasons of my life,” he told me.
Excluding hardline beliefs that older MMOs are deeper and more challenging (the ‘tougher than thou’ attitude runs strong among more zealous fans) than the games of today, it seems that those who stick with Camelot aren’t looking for the same things as the modern mainstream audience. Camelot was the first MMO for most of these people, who eventually became something akin to virtual stakeholders as developer/player relations become closer with the shrinking community. The guild heaps praise on the proactivity of producer John Thornhill, who even takes part in a regular Camelot podcast with Roxayn.
So there are commonalities between the players of old-time MMOs, but these shouldn’t take away from the unique charms of Dark Age of Camelot. It’s a game that’s stood firm by its PvP principles of offering a world uncompromisingly split into three distinct realms - a concept that other games with similar ideas, such as EverQuest 2 and more recently Elder Scrolls Online, found themselves having to water-down. This dynamic has nurtured an air of healthy tribal competitiveness and player-made history defined by individual heroics, tactical ingenuity, and memories of great battles and the people leading them.
These things make Camelot uncharacteristically emergent for an MMO, and the allure is understandable, even if for newcomers it may feel hopelessly inaccessible. Should you brave it, however, know that the community will welcome you, offer you companionship, fill you in on the politics and, ultimately, throw you headlong into eternal, glorious conflict. Faint heart, after all, never won fair Realm points.