Australia’s most successful game studio is having an identity crisis

Fruit Ninja, one of the most successful games of all time, was an unexpected hit for Halfbrick.In years gone by Halfbrick had a tradition.
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When an employee decided to leave there was a farewell. A slideshow, a card signed by everyone. A speech — a celebration — topped off by a ceremonial bag stuffed full of marshmallows. Weird, flippant. By design. A sense of closure to dedicated service in pursuit of one unified goal: the creation of unique, innovative video game experiences.

A gesture reflective of the experience that — from the outside in — you might expect from a company like Halfbrick.

Halfbrick. Australia’s biggest, arguably most successful, video game studio.

Halfbrick: the golden child. Halfbrick: the success story. Halfbrick: the enduring symbol of an Australian games industry in full recovery. Halfbrick: the phoenix from the flames. After years of redundancy, studio closures and flat out misery, Halfbrick: everything we wanted Australian game development to represent. Verve, creativity, agility, polish, quality. Independence.

Halfbrick: the dream in action.

But Halfbrick as we once knew it has changed, and has been changing — according to sources — for years now. From the outside in Halfbrick has always existed as a static enduring example of success; living, breathing proof that Australia has a games industry worth believing in.

From the inside out; a different story. Halfbrick: a studio with a powerful, damaging identity crisis. Halfbrick: a company teetering on the edge of a chasm it doesn’t quite understand, can’t quite traverse.

Over the past six months we’ve spoken to numerous sources within Halfbrick. Ex-developers, ex-designers. Some left years ago, some left as recently as last month.

But they all tell the same story.

And that story begins with a little game called Fruit Ninja.

Fruit Ninja: the centrifugal force around which Halfbrick’s story orbits.

Fruit Ninja, released in April 2010. A minor miracle of design. One of the first mobile games to take full advantage of the iPhone. One of the first on the platform to seamlessly merge form and content. Fruit Ninja: a game built for touch screens. Almost instantly, it was a massive hit.

It sold 200,000 in its first month. A tremendous number at the time, but modest in comparison to what would come. In three months: 1 million. By September 2010: 2 million. March 2011: 20 million. By May 2012 it had sold 300 million units and was on one third of all iPhones in the US.

2015: 1 billion.

Fruit Ninja is one of the most successful video games ever made.

The kind of success story you could never predict, let alone plan for. In many ways Fruit Ninja was a glorious accident. In others it was a calculated stroke of genius, led by a small group of developers hell bent on success.

Fruit Ninja in its earliest state was designed by Luke Muscat, prototyped by Joe Gatling and worked upon furiously by Luke himself alongside Steve Last and Shath Maguire. Fruit Ninja was almost exclusively the end result of that team’s hard work.

“Fruit Ninja wasn’t planned,” one source explained. “It didn’t have a long development cycle and it wasn’t the result of management making the right call — except to get out of its way.

“Fruit Ninja was a miracle. And everything changed as a result of that miracle.”

The writing was on the wall. Alongside the shift towards free-to-play, sources say Shainiel Deo was determined to add a layer of middle-management to what was previously a flat company structure.

It was the source of much resentment, particularly amongst long-serving staff, who were now being asked to justify design decisions to middle managers with no real understanding of how Halfbrick had worked in years previous.

The real issue: Halfbrick traditionally promoted from within, which helped preserve its unique culture. Now Shainiel was creating what one source described as a “fairly draconian” management layer. Crucially, he was creating this management team using external hires.

Many in this middle management layer were notorious for drawn-out meetings that were frustrating and unproductive, particularly to those involved in design.

Others were more forgiving, believing middle-management was brought in to execute a new mandate from Shainiel himself — who was becoming increasingly distant (and inaccessible) to Halfbrick’s rank and file.

“Shaniel had the right intentions,” explained one ex-staffer. “The big issue at the heart of all this: how can a small, indie spirit which results in great games, be maintained in a big company with expensive overheads.

“Those two things were at war.”

In the midst of this expansion, Halfbrick opened a Sydney office.

There was an element of naivete among the new recruits. Some were young — direct from university or college — others were attracted to Halfbrick’s reputation as a space where game design was placed at a premium. It was 2011. Halfbrick was the most successful game studio in Australia. There was a reverence at play — some experienced developers took a pay cut just to be involved.

All were chasing that dream: creative freedom, working with like-minded people. There was a sense of myth-making, a romance to the idea of Halfbrick: a game design mecca where prototypes flowed freely in a glorious flat structure where everyone worked as equals.

“After I joined,” says one source, “it became quickly apparent that things weren’t going to play out that way.

“It wasn’t exactly flat management. It wasn’t exactly creative freedom.

“We arrived at a company that was trying to find its identity.”

Almost immediately, the Sydney studio was tasked with porting existing Halfbrick games to Asian markets. First off the rank, Fruit Ninja Champions for Korean consumers.

The team were disappointed. Mostly they were confused. This wasn’t what they signed up for. None of them spoke Korean. None of them had even visited Korea.

“The Korean market is extremely competitive,” explained our source. “It’s full of cultural nuances we couldn’t possibly master. It was an intense, saturated market we didn’t understand.

“It was a terrible idea. We tried to be friendly about it. At a certain point we all said, ‘we don’t want to do this’. We were basically told, ‘well you’re doing it anyway’.”

The Sydney operation operated as a satellite to the main studio in Brisbane. In the beginning the team felt part of a cohesive ‘Halfbrick’ culture, but that quickly deteriorated. Halfbrick was in the process of changing dramatically. This was reflected in Shainiel’s relationship with the development team in Sydney.

In the beginning Shainiel was on first name basis with everyone — including those in the Sydney studio. But that quickly changed. Sources say he was distancing himself from the day-to-day management of Halfbrick, which frustrated many within the Sydney studio.

Eventually, Shainiel decided to make the trip to Sydney. The team were excited.

“It was like dad coming to visit when dad doesn’t visit often,” one source said. “We were like little kids. The big man’s coming!”

The trip didn’t play out like the team had hoped.

“Shainiel had changed a lot,” we were told. “He wore different clothes, had a different attitude. He didn’t remember who in the office he’d actually met before.

“Suddenly he was like, ‘have I met you before?'”

“With Halfbrick’s choice to publish ‘Yes Chef’ and ‘Top Farm’ I think the penny dropped for more than a few people.”

Yes Chef and Top Farm: clearly inspired by existing franchises like Farmville and Bejewelled. Games that didn’t match the previous levels of polish and innovation expected of a studio with Halfbrick’s stellar reputation.

Many were disappointed by the shift in direction and the games being published.

Halfbrick began hemorrhaging staff. Most of whom left of their own volition.

Many left because the job felt dull and creatively redundant (“I wasn’t satisfied with the work I was doing there”). Others struggled with the new imposition of middle-management (“expert employees that had been making excellent games for years weren’t trusted to do their jobs — so they left.”)

Regardless of the reasons, over the course of a year roughly 30 frustrated developers left Halfbrick, choosing to work on their own projects independently or forming small micro-studios.

Among them, a core group of long-serving key staff members that included Chief Creative Officer Luke Muscat — the man responsible for so much of studio’s success. Arguably the most prolific game designer in Australia.

Luke — alongside Phil Larsen and Hugh Walters — left Halfbrick to form Prettygreat, a brand new studio devoted to making video games in the mobile space.

To those remaining at Halfbrick, it was a crushing blow.

“Design lost an advocate at the company [when Luke left],” explained one source. “It lost a voice.”

Many in the design team openly wondered if Luke would be replaced, but it soon became apparent that replacing Luke wasn’t going to be a priority.

“Vague answers were given like ‘someone will step up’. I now suspect that meant ‘we don’t want one.’

“By this point I think management lost faith in designers.”

“Halfbrick remains a design focused company and this change will empower everyone in our teams to contribute to design rather than concentrate design control in the hands of a few.

“Great ideas can come from anywhere and we want to create an environment that fosters this notion.”

That statement was sent to Kotaku on September 14, 2015. The day Halfbrick decided to make the role of ‘game designer’ redundant at its studio.

It was a move that surprised many. Few were aware how dramatically Halfbrick had changed since the release of Fruit Ninja.

But those with an insider’s perspective understood perfectly: it was consistent with the behaviour of a company consolidating past successes. As one source told us at the time, creative risk-taking was “a thing of the past” for Halfbrick.

There would be no slideshow. No giant bag of marshmallows. Despite years of combined service Layton Hawkes and Ryan Langley — Halfbrick’s two remaining designers — were given a handshake and 10 minutes to leave the office.

Two game designers. It didn’t make sense. For a studio as sizeable as Halfbrick, that number seemed low. It seemed low because it was low. In fact, just days previously, Halfbrick had at least four game designers on staff.

Sources report that, just days before Layton and Ryan were made redundant, the remaining two designers on staff were quietly taken into a room and ‘promoted’. Instead of being called ‘game designers’ they were now ‘product managers’.

“It was out of the blue,” one source said.

The day after those promotions, the remaining two game designers had lost their jobs.

But why Layton? Why Ryan?

Multiple sources informed Kotaku that Ryan and Layton had expressed concerns regarding Halfbrick’s direction; that both felt the need to defend design as a discipline.

Almost everyone we interviewed believes Halfbrick was in the process of creating a work environment where management decisions were accepted without question.

“They want ‘yes men’ that will agree to make the games they want,” said one source.

“A lot of issues came from hiring people who were ‘yes men’,” claimed one ex staff-member.

“Shainiel doesn’t want anyone to challenge him directly.”

Making video games at Halfbrick is different now.

Roughly three months ago Halfbrick formalised a new set of processes that determines what games would be created and released.

Games don’t start with an idea. They don’t start with a mechanic. They start with questions like ‘should this product be built’ or ‘can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?’

Those processes, those questions: they’re largely based around a book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

One source: “to get a project approved for development, you start by trying to find a gap in the market, and then interviewing people to see if you should build something in that area.”

Developers had to take ideas to marketing, describe their game’s potential audience, and wait for interviews to be set up.

“It means you have a bunch of developers sitting around trying to sort out interviews for six weeks without building anything.”

According to sources, Shainiel and the management team were rejecting prototypes at an alarmingly high rate.

“There was no real vision. So much standing between a team starting and finishing a game.

“The new lean process really encourages copying.”

Those who remained after the ‘game designer’ role was made redundant believe that decision, along with these newly mandated processes, are a major issue. Creativity has stagnated. Morale is at an all-time low.

“Developers also can’t focus on what they’re good at,” said one source.

“Mostly people don’t care,” said another. “They’ve managed to effectively weed out the people who care.”

In September 2016 there was another purge. But this time it was voluntary.

Frustrated by a lack of support for his ‘Lean Start-Up’ inspired processes, Shainiel sent out a company-wide email.

His offer: voluntary redundancy to anyone in the company who wanted it. His reasoning: Shainiel only wanted people who were “100% committed” to Halfbrick in its current state.

It was referred to as the “golden handshake”.

Anyone with issues regarding how Halfbrick was being run could leave, and would receive a payout. The minimum payment: $10,000, but employees would be paid whatever they were legally entitled to as a redundancy payment. For some long-term staff members, that number was upwards of $20,000.

Everyone had 10 days to decide.

Numbers regarding how many took the redundancy are vague, but most put the number at around 14.

14 staff members took Shainiel up on his offer, took the “golden handshake” and left Halfbrick of their own volition.

At this stage Halfbrick’s future is unclear.

“They’ve lost so much talent,” one source told us.

Some believe Halfbrick will continue to leverage its existing properties — cement Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride and expand those brands into new, potentially lucrative markets. Others believe Halfbrick will move towards publishing — helping other studios release games into an increasingly temperamental mobile market.

Previous communications suggest Halfbrick will continue releasing its own, studio developed video games, but it’s difficult to tell: Halfbrick and Shainiel Deo turned down repeated interview requests for the purposes of this story.

“Our focus lies in the future,” said a Halfbrick spokesperson, “and we don’t want to dwell on the past.” celebrates video game culture with news, reviews and long form features.

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