Camelot Unchained boss rebuts theory that its studio finances are in disarray

    
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Dedicated readers of MassivelyOP already know that Camelot Unchained has become an MMO saddled with controversy over the last couple of years. Originally Kickstarted in 2013, it has seen multiple major delays, the founding of a second studio, and the announcement of a second game using its custom-built engine. It’s also run some pretty impressive mass-battle tests in its now three-year-old beta one phase and is by all accounts still under development.

However, the ongoing refund situation has been a thorn in City State Entertainment’s side since even before 2020 as players on Reddit and in our own comments have sought the refunds they were promised, some for over a year. Anyone who reads our comments knows how incredibly annoying it is to see every Camelot article about actual game progress followed by a thread that dissolves into a sea of complaints about delinquent refunds and haranguing of CSE, and we understand that some of the angry backers have turned to straight up harassment and toxicity behind the scenes, which is never OK.

But we’re still baffled as to why some of those refunds still haven’t been processed and why company has been willing to burn all its hard-won reputation and goodwill over what appears to be a clerical problem. That was one of the reasons we gave CU our “stormiest future” award in 2020.

I’d like to be able to tell you straight from the horse’s mouth what’s going on over there, but the second of our 2021 interviews with the studio on this very topic was never actually returned to us; our last formal response from CSE was in May. As we already noted in the March interview on alchemy, that second interview was focused on the studio funding situation rather than on design; specifically, we asked about the state of funding for both games, how long development would be sustainable on current funding, how hiring was going, how big the studio is, when the game would advance from beta one, when the remaining NDA would drop, when to expect launch or a minimum viable product, whether the game’s monetization could change, how big a playerbase was needed to sustain the game financially and gameplay-wise, what happened to Final Stand: Ragnarok and its “first access” last December, why refunds were so slow, how many more refunds were outstanding, and whether and how the studio had responded to apparently futile backer claims to the state attorney general.

Truth be told, we never expected clear answers on some of the more explicit questions – we all know devs aren’t really going to give launch dates in interviews – but others are fair game even now as CSE has maintained that the full game experience is still coming and refunds are ramping up with vaccinated staffers return to the office. And the lack of recent transparency on many of these topics had led to confusion and suspicion from backers who have traditionally praised the company’s candor.

To wit: A new video from YouTuber KiraTV goes digging into publicly available financial records for the company, including crowdfunding figures issued by CSE itself. By his accounting, the company actually seems to have unwittingly reported that it lost somewhere around $56,000 in crowdfunds through its website between May and November of last year, presumably because of refunds. After that, the crowdfunding ticker was removed from the website. He also argues that Final Stand: Ragnarok didn’t pull in much money either; based on the game’s website’s own counts, Kira calculates that it made only around $6000 from first access packs.

Of course, $56,000 is not really much money for CSE to lose in context, and from there, the math only gets much foggier and more speculative. Kira attempts to piece together things like office space rental fees, crowdfunding, multiple rounds of publicly disclosed investment, the $1.36M 2020 PPE loan, and the publicly disclosed $3.44M in salary for the company’s 38 staffers last year, estimating that the company has raised at least $18M and spent nearly as much (we assume much more on both counts – that’s actually a sign that CU’s staff are being relatively well-paid for an indie studio, and we already know Mark Jacobs doesn’t draw much of a paycheck).

Kira’s conclusion is that CSE is running on fumes, which might explain the refund situation, but he admits that it’s just guesswork based only on what is public and that it’s also possible CU still has a huge cache of untapped funding waiting in the wings.

The problem here is that we’re missing so much of the behind-the-scenes of the company that while concerns seem well-justified, conclusions about the company’s health are premature. Redditors, for example, have reminded naysayers that CSE was hungrily hiring for both its studios all through last year. And then, CSE’s Mark Jacobs himself appeared in the YouTube thread to rebut some of the theories.

“Your title ‘The finances are REALLY bad’ is untrue and misleading since you don’t have the facts,” Jacobs posted. “As a privately-held company, we don’t have to talk about all the funding we’ve received. Lots of privately-held companies talk about their finances, others do not, especially when they are not taking a large round of financing (as we did in the past). […] It can ‘look’ to you anyway you think it does but you are claiming that ‘The finances are REALLY bad’ which is quite different from ‘The finances LOOK REALLY bad’ One is stated as a fact, that other is stated as an opinion. Your choice of course but there is a world of difference between the two. And, if you simply looked at how we keep expanding the team, that we aren’t a team whose finances are ‘REALLY bad’ or we couldn’t continue to hire.”

In responses to other hecklers and well-wishers, Jacobs also posts the most recent update on refunds to date, remarking that the CU team has still not returned to its East Coast office as of the middle of July.

“In terms of refunds, nothing has changed in terms of how I do things. When I’m in the office, I take time out to pay some refunds along with my other work. The team is still not back in the Virginia office and I’ve only been going in some days and WFH the rest. That will continue.”

The community is certainly missing key information in the overall picture, but the backslide in crowdfunding, flop of Final Stand: Ragnarok, and PPE figures aren’t really in dispute; they merely add to our understanding of the project. While there’s no concrete evidence to believe City State is on the verge of collapse, we have also seen first-hand that neither we nor the public are getting the transparency on the crowdfunded Camelot Unchained that we deserve, which has resulted in an upswell of distrust coming from vocal MMO players and personal disappointment from stalwart fans who’ve followed the game for eight years. And until the refund process is finally and fully complete for all the backers who’ve been waiting so long, it seems as if CU will continue on under this rain cloud of its own making.

With thanks to Pepperzine.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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