Camelot Unchained lands $7.5M investment to hasten development: Our chat with Mark Jacobs on funding, VR, and beta one
If you know one thing about indie MMORPG Camelot Unchained, it’s that CEO Mark Jacobs appears to dwell perpetually in internet comment sections amiably sparring with gamers and attracting loyal advocates.
But if you know two things, you also know that the game is late. Really late. The RvR-centric, PvM-free, anti-lockbox, sub-only MMO was supposed to enter beta three years ago, according to its successful 2013 Kickstarter, but studio City State Entertainment suffered admitted setbacks along the way – both hiring difficulties in the company’s Fairfax, Virginia, location and technical hurdles. Much of that has since been rectified; in 2016, the company launched a second studio in Seattle while continuing to hire engineers and spending the better part of a year completely refactoring its character ability code and polishing up its home-grown engine. But here we are in 2018, still mumbling beta when? at Jacobs and his dogged crew.
Well, we’re finally getting an answer to that question and more, along with a significant blast of hope for the future of the game, as CSE has just received a massive cash infusion to speed up development. I spoke to Jacobs at length – he’s infamous for being effusive – about what’s going on with the game and the studio in 2018. Read on for the executive summary!
Show me the money
So let’s talk about that cash infusion. After half a year of behind-the-scenes work, CSE has inked a deal with a group of investors including GF Capital, which is flooding the indie studio with $7.5 million to finish Camelot Unchained specifically. That augments the $4.5M in crowdfunds, plus the original investor kitty. Jacobs tells me the group includes trustworthy investors he’s worked with in the past (some of whom helped bankroll Mythic and Dark Age of Camelot, for example). Not all of the details are public, but I can say that it’s a minority stock deal, meaning that the investor group now owns a portion of City State, though not the controlling interest. Jacobs and his original co-investor (his sister, together with whom he preserves that controlling interest) and a member of the investor group will sit on the newly formed three-member board of directors. Moreover, Jacobs still holds the largest single share of the company himself.
All of that might sound pretty scary, especially to MMORPG players still wary over Daybreak’s buyout by Russia-backed venture capitalists. But this is not an equivalent situation, Jacobs hastened to assure me. “They’re not looking to buy us for parts,” he explained, and they, like he, believe in the power of the PC market and CU’s role in it. In fact, his core requirement for agreeing to the investor deal was that he retain complete and total creative and development control of studio operations. The structure of the studio also remains the same, save the fact that Jacobs takes on a formal CEO title (co-founder Andrew Meggs is now formally the CTO). Nothing about the game’s design plans or launch business model plans will change, he vows; it’s still an RvR MMO, it won’t succumb to feature creep, it’s still not going to run with microtransactions or lockboxes, and it will still utilize a subscription-only payment plan.
In other words, the game’s development will go on exactly as he planned it, and he wouldn’t sign on any other way.
“I’m a goddamn stubborn New Yorker,” he laughed, “and the investors just want [CSE] to make a great game.” So gamers appear to have little to fear on that account.
What’s the money for?
That $7.5 mil isn’t going to just sit around; Jacobs specifically aims to use it to hire more bodies and develop the game faster, something it sorely needs. You’ve already seen the first stages of that, as CSE’s brought in a new producer (fresh off Star Citizen, incidentally), a new community manager, and an animator-and-a-half in recent weeks, in addition to engineers (he’s particularly proud of the animator, as CSE sought new blood on that task in response to donor feedback). The company’s headhunters now have clearance to go ham on building out both studios to capacity to speed up the timeline (within reason, of course; Jacobs is well aware that not everything scales perfectly just by throwing people and money at it).
It’s all in the service of getting beta one out the door faster and the full game into our hands sooner rather than later – without any additional feature creep.
I did ask about the possibility of a third studio, and after he finished laughing, he asked me to take him out back and shoot him if he ever so much as suggested such a thing. So two it is!
Beta when? Launch when?
Jacobs told me his leads are in final discussion on “when” with the new producer right now. Expect the announcement in the next few weeks and beta soon. How soon? “Sooner, rather than later, this year.” It’s close. And when it hits beta, it will be a real beta, so don’t expect a soft launch or early access/pre-alpha shenanigans. “We don’t want to go down that path,” he told me. “We’re still going to beta one the exact same way we said we were going to do it so that people will actually have fun and actually want to come in and test.”
As for the commercial launch: While there’s the remotest possibility of hitting 2018, don’t count on it – it would require a ramp-up or acquisition that even $7.5 million isn’t going to buy on short notice. 2019, however, is very likely. You can write that on your calendars in the blood of your enemies. (CUBE – the Camelot Unchained Building Environment toolset players can already toy with – may hit the streets earlier, do note.)
What about player backers?
Anybody watching Kickstarter over the last few years knows that it’s possible for backers to be totally screwed over even when a project is a little too successful – just ask the schmucks who backed Oculus, only to watch those dudes sell out to Facebook to the tune of two billion bucks while they got… a “free” headset.
Jacobs is plainly aware of that concern and told me CSE is working on a plan to properly compensate existing backers, but since the plan’s not finished, I can’t comment on it just yet. I can say that my impression is that long-time backers will be content with the way things shake out, and new players will still have a chance to join in – it seemed clear to me that Jacobs intends to reward well the gamers who’ve stuck by his studio all these years. Expect more on that as soon as those plans are finalized and public.
Company assets, CUBE, and VR
I did probe Jacobs about the state of the company before this investment deal to sort out just how badly this money was needed after such a significant delay. It doesn’t sound as if CSE was desperate, though every studio can always use more. “You’re always burning money” in development until the game is released, he admitted, but the game would still have completed development and launched even before this fresh investment – just very slowly.
“CU was coming out one way or the other,” he told me. “But our re-abilitiation [ability code refactoring] cost us a lot of extra money,” meaning that to complete the game, Jacobs was going to have to invest more money himself, which he was prepared to do. Now he won’t have to and can instead accelerate that development. (Also worth pointing out here: Up until now, Jacobs hasn’t collected a salary. I joked that he is doing capitalism wrong, but he was undeterred – that’s just how he runs things.)
Intriguingly, as I was inquiring about the company’s assets (who would own what should the game not succeed after launch), Jacobs let slip a few juicy development details, including the fact that CUBE, the game’s Minecraft-like building system, is being prepped for full-scale VR capability. “The investors loved that,” he remarked into my stunned silence. It isn’t taking much away from development of the core game, either: “It’s just [Senior Client Engineer] George [Davison] – just George in his spare time.” That also means it’s a technical possibility for Camelot Unchained as well, though Jacobs was clear that there’s “no chance CU could be a VR MMORPG without a ton of work.”
The engine itself, robust and built from scratch, is also an enormous asset for the company with value all of its own should CU not perform to expectations, though right now, Jacobs said, there are no plans to market that engine to other dev houses. “Down the road, would we do that? Sure,” he hypothesizes, but for now, they’re not angling to become the next Epic Games.
“I make very few promises, but those promises I make, I keep,” he told me – and his promise is to finish Camelot Unchained. The sooner the better, I think you’ll agree.
Click to display original press release
FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA January 18, 2018 – City State Entertainment, LLC, developer of the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game Camelot Unchained, announced today that it has secured a $7.5 million minority investment. This round is led by the original investors in Jacobs’ last video game studio, Mythic Entertainment, Inc., which was sold to Electronic Arts in 2006. The investor group includes the principals of GF Capital Management & Advisors, LLC, a New York City-based private equity firm.
“Knowing that we have support from the same core investors who helped enable Mythic Entertainment to create Dark Age of Camelot is incredibly exciting,” noted Mark Jacobs, CEO of City State Entertainment. “And when you add the benefits that the insight, experience and access that working with the senior leadership of GF Capital will bring to our company, the team is more enthusiastic than ever about delivering our games to an expanding global audience.”
“We’re creating a game and engine that allow truly massive numbers of people to all interact together in a shared space, changing their world in meaningful and dynamic ways,” added Andrew Meggs, Chief Technical Officer. “The most exciting part is seeing what they’ll do with that world.”
“I couldn’t be happier with what this investment means for Camelot Unchained, our company, and most importantly our crowdfunding Backers,” said Mark Jacobs. “We can immediately accelerate hiring in our Virginia and Seattle Washington studios as well as our delivery of Camelot Unchained, as a way of thanking our Backers for their continued loyal support!”
As always, we’d like to thank Jacobs for taking the time to speak candidly with us about the state of the game and the studio. See you guys in beta one, yeah?