Mark Jacobs’ Avatar (Image: City State Entertainment)
After a two-year hiatus from the video game world, outspoken game designer Mark Jacobs (not to be confused with fashion designer Marc Jacobs) is back, but he’s taking on something he’s never done before: casual games.
Jacobs revealed that his new company is called City State Entertainment, and it’s been operating incognito since its doors opened in early March. Located in Fairfax, Virginia, the company aims to create games for the mobile, tablet and social networking space.
“I’m tired of strings and being told what to do by other people,” said Jacobs in an exclusive interview with Forbes.com. “[At City State], we’re a very collaborative group where we talk about everything, and that’s what you need if you really want to be successful.”
The veteran game developer is no stranger to starting game companies. He established his first studio Adventures Unlimited Software, Inc. in 1983, where he acted as the lead designer and programmer of several fantasy role-playing computer games. In 1995, he co-founded Mythic Entertainment and went on to create massively multiplayer online games (or “MMOs”) such as Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. However, despite having vast experience making these niche but beloved online games, Jacobs thought it was finally time to set his sights a little broader.
“Social games are certainly a lot easier to develop than a traditional game, let alone an MMO,” he explained. “And because of the faster development cycle and the lower costs, we have a lot more freedom in what we want to do. We don’t have to worry if the hardcore gamers are going to get incredibly upset because we’re doing something a certain way. We don’t have to worry if our game is going to sell another 20 copies. We’re just looking to make fun, enjoyable games.”
While there’s plenty of fun and freedom to be had, Jacobs does have to worry about turning a profit, at least a little bit. After months of meeting with venture capitalists in Asia, he eventually decided to use his own money to fund the company. Though he declined to share specifically how much he personally invested, he did say that it’s consistent with “a generous seed round” in the same space and that the company will be well-funded “for quite a while.”
Jacobs’ previous companies were initially self-funded, with Mythic later acquiring $3.3 million in funding before and $32 million after the launch of Dark Age of Camelot in 2001. The entire 170-employee company was then sold to publishing giant Electronic Arts for an undisclosed sum in 2006. Jacobs remained the CEO and general manager until two years ago, when he abruptly left over creative and managerial disputes with the parent company.
“At the end of the day, when you take other people’s money, you have to do what they tell you to do; I’ve done that before, and a lot of times it’s cost me,” Jacobs said, remaining tight-lipped about the details of his departure from EA and Mythic.
Once his one-year non-compete clause was up, Jacobs began immediately putting together City State Entertainment. The team is now made up of 12 full-time employees — designers, programmers, artists, a recruiter/publicist and an accountant/business development person — and growing. It includes seasoned developers like Andrew Meggs, City State’s co-founder, technical director and lead programmer who had previously worked at Mythic and Bethesda Game Studios; Mike Crossmire, a graphic artist who was a longtime Mythic employee; and Lucas Feld, an artist with experience at Obsidian Entertainment and Day 1 Studios. Meanwhile, Jacobs acts as the company’s president and creative director.
Besides hiring a few game industry veterans, Jacobs said that one of his main goals with City State was to employ a diverse group of game makers, arguing that in order to make great games with a broad appeal, you must have people who come from different backgrounds.
“I didn’t want this studio to be the old boys’ club,” he said. “I was looking for, and continue to look for, a mix of people that represent a much more diverse segment of the gaming population — whether that’s women, young people, whoever — and, to be very blunt, not just ‘old white guys.’ I want people who can come in and bring in their different perspectives, and their ideas for new games and features.”
In fact, Jacobs said that three of the people on his staff have never played a game before they were hired at City State. “They’ve never played an MMO, and they don’t know hardcore games, but what they do know are the platforms we’re going for,” he said. “They know what they like. They can give us opinions that are much more diverse, and that’s what I want. We have a great bunch of guys and gals who are willing to speak their minds. This is the kind of environment that we had at the beginning at old Mythic, and the kind of place that I always wanted Mythic to be. We have a very collaborative environment; we talk about everything. I’ve got a great mix of people here.”
While things appear sunny at City State — also evidenced by the lighthearted tone of the official website — Jacobs and his eclectic crew are entering an arena clogged with a slew of mobile and social game start-ups churning out FarmVille and Angry Birds clones. But he scoffs at those who say the market’s too saturated to make room for yet another social games developer.
“The market hasn’t saturated yet because the number of devices hasn’t peaked,” he said, pointing out that bad games are what’s flooding the space. “There are a lot of games out there that are nothing more than clones, and that’s not good. It’s not good for Apple, it’s not good for the consumer, it’s not good for anyone. And that is what’s going to change. The mobile and social space hasn’t matured enough, where the developers have really hit their stride on these devices.”
With that in mind, Jacobs assured that he didn’t create City State Entertainment to become the next Zynga. Though he didn’t reveal details on the games that the company is working on just yet, he said that the company will be focused on creating wholly original intellectual properties that will eventually be translated into other media, like comics, television and film.
“We’re hoping to carve our own niche,” Jacobs said, “but at the end of the day, what we really want to do is just make great, fun games for everyone.”
City State Entertainment is currently working on a title for iOS and Android devices, and “possibly PC,” to be released in Q4 2011.