Why did we DMCA our own game few weeks after launching?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
We've all heard stories about publishers trying to squeeze developers for an extra dollar but our experience with UK based publisher took poor publisher behavior to a criminal level.
Our team at AmmoboxStudios is a small 10-man indie team mostly based in Malaysia with a few around the world. On the 28th of September 2018 we launched our multiplayer FPS / RTS hybrid Eximius: Seize the Frontline in Early Access on Steam. This was a passion project that we began developing about 8 years ago.
In 2018, months before launching our 8-year passion project, we signed with a small UK-based publisher. A UK publishe based off in Cambridge that promised to help deliver our marketing needs for an E-sports title. When one investor pulled out last minute, we knew that we couldn't afford the marketing plan we felt we needed. Our choice became clear as we needed at least one publisher to see it through.
The decision to go with this small publisher was neither a short nor impulsive one. We debated and discussed over weeks as we tried to iron out as a good deal and guarantee the publisher’s role in the launch of Eximius. Part of it included negotiating for a performance-based exit clause as suggested by our incubator and our Business Development partners. Having all of it secured legally we went in with our eyes wide open. Essentially, it was a gamble because although he answered our questions satisfactorily and provided guarantees we still had reservations based on their previous portfolio and obvious missteps. Bearing in mind that this is a one-man operation publisher, many of these worries were assuaged a healthy balance sheet in the publicly available document in UK's companies’ house. This was, after all, an Early Access publishing and we could still control any damage with a properly drafted exit clause. We, optimistically, saw working with this publisher was an opportunity to grow and develop both companies.
Come September 27th; our Launch Date. After launching, promises began to be broken and delayed. No customer support was provided as promised. The list of marketing activities promised did not surface and soon, we realized the truth. We were just being stealth-released. It was just us announcing in our community and nothing else was happening.
We were willing to bite the bullet and try our best on our side to give him the benefit of the doubt. Right after our launch, we begin to prepare a Halloween event. With no time to reflect on the situation, the team worked hard to push our Halloween content with the focus of getting a bigger player base. One month after release all revenue was channeled into the publisher's account with us not seeing a single cent. We thought this was just normal funds delay.
By the end of October, we were at a dangerous crossroad. We had zero revenue and no money to pay the team the next month. Having some of our salaries delayed was one thing, but the servers couldn't run without funds.
At this point, our community was still unaware of whole situation and we wanted to keep the news away from them. However, without any marketing, player numbers dwindled, bad reviews were surfacing because of the lack of player base. We had people coming in to our community hub concerned about the dwindling player base and price re-adjustments. We couldn't act on any of these without the publisher. At times, we were accused on being unwilling to spend on marketing. We wanted to reveal our situation at that point, but it couldn't be done without telling the whole story.
At this point we were faced with 2 choices. One option; to power through and continue to get into debt while keeping the team and game alive. The other option; was to be financially conservative. Cut losses, shutdown the servers, burn the team and save whatever money we had for legal action. One choice risks my personal credit, while the other doomed the team, and the game.
We chose choice 1 and had a tough time explaining to our angel investors who put their personal money behind this project. 2 months post-launch. We paid for all development updates, servers, and support services with our last dollar while the publisher continue to give excuses for further delays.
As the end of November approaches, another pre-planned activity was coming up. The Winter Tournament 2018 would be the first of the many planned quarterly tournament that would feature sponsored prizes. This event put tremendous stress on everyone as it is our first time running E-sports like activity. The initial promise was to hire an experience organizer to run this.
While the Publisher left us to our own efforts and resources to run this planned tournament, an ally emerged in the midst of this entire crisis. One of the investors of the Publisher assisted us in making the tournament a success. Despite having no contracted responsibility with us, and no prior experience in tournaments, the CEO himself assisted us in seeing the event through with his hardworking team. By the end of November, we managed to pull through a successful tournament with 7 international teams competing for crypto a prize that is worth more than USD1000. The community had a great time and many were looking forward to the next season's tournament.
November ended, and reality surfaced. Our initial finances only prepared us to last for 2 months post launch before expecting actual revenue. We made this clear to the publisher. He knew this was happening but at this point he had disappeared completely.
As soon as we could, we immediately tried to take legal action. Technically he was already in breach for more than a month. After expiration of cure period, he continued to ignore our attorney's demand to return our app id and to pay all revenues owed.
Having our revenue delayed was one thing but facing the prospect of losing Eximius permanently was altogether different. The application rights in Steam were in the publisher’s account and there was nothing we could do about it.
During this whole ordeal, we were on the correct side of the law, but nothing could be done as we can’t afford to pursue this legally. It is fully understandable that if we walk into this mess without legal homework done , it would have been a different lesson. But this was a different lesson altogether. We did not expect a Publisher to blatantly just disappear while holding all our money. Having no funds at all to work with also means we're in a position with no legal recourse. This is a situation we did not expect as the Publisher that has been around for some time and being covered in several game media sites.
After a few weeks of desperately trying to claw for a response, finally, we decide to employ a scorched earth policy. If we’re not seeing a single cent, neither should he. This was the most gut-wrenching move. To kill off what you have created for years. By the holiday week of December, on the advice of our contacts in Steam and our attorneys, we launched the paperwork of mass destruction. Right before Christmas, the DMCA notice was fired off.
This was the first of the many steps that enabled us to the recover the app rights. It was not until the beginning of January that Steam contacted us for further due diligence. The DMCA eventually kicked in on January 7th and the store was taken down. The continued action was the final thing that allowed us to take control of the application. After a few weeks of having no DMCA counter notice or response from the publisher, Steam assisted us in transferring the application back to us. In total we lost revenue from our Launch, Halloween Sale, Autumn Sale, and a portion of the Winter Sale revenue. It was a huge loss that was enough to cover 6 months of operations. We knew there was little hope of seeing the money; our priority now is to regain control of the game. Up to date, the sole director of this UK-based company and the only person we have ever dealt with has yet to give a single response as to why he decides to take all the money and not respond. We can only speculate.
In the weeks following the disappearance, we eventually broke the news to the media. Influencers began to cover the story and tell it from their perspective. When our Reddit post went a little viral with the help of several news site covering it, we eventually discovered more horrifying tale.
We weren't the only Developer affected by this Publisher
Within a few days, 2 other Studios spoke up being signed by the Publisher and had the same experience of him disappearing when money begin to flow. Being stuck in the similar issue without any funds , they cannot take action. As of now we're still currently going through a difficult time recovering from debts and finding means to further our development. But having regain control of our application allowed us to move on.
As an indie studio we always thought that our job is to make the game with all our hearts and soul, market it the best we could and try our best to survive. The takeaway lesson here that we would like all indie to know is to add this list to the worse case scenario. We had a great contract that we paid senior attorney to look through. We did due diligence but we found no trace of any negative story. None of this was enough. This is not an experience we wished upon our worst enemies.