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GDC Europe: Zootfly's Troha On Trials, Tribulations Of  Prison Break  Game

GDC Europe: Zootfly's Troha On Trials, Tribulations Of Prison Break Game

August 17, 2009 | By Simon Carless

August 17, 2009 | By Simon Carless
More: Console/PC

The collapse of Brash Entertainment had serious ramifications for numerous developers with whom the now-defunct publisher had deals. One such victim was Zootfly, who was developing the Prison Break game based on the Fox television series.

Against significant odds, Zootfly -- a Slovenian one-game studio with 40 staffers -- was able to stay afloat, keeping the project on life support until Koch Media and Deep Silver picked it up just recently. In a GDC Europe talk, the company's Bostjan Troha discussed "how we magically survived... [after] being inches away from being completely obliterated" by the "industry debacle" of Brash's crash.

Zootfly, founded in 2002, might be best-known for an unofficial Ghostbusters game that got much Internet interest. In this case, its relationship with the Hollywood publisher started when Brash greenlit an original IP game from Zootfly. But then, the publisher changed its strategy to publishing licensed games only -- hence the switch to Prison Break.

Brash Entertainment, Troha explained, was a "startup with a grand idea", to be a crossover TV/movie and game publisher, intended to "herald the coming of a new age" of licensed games.

The change from original IP to licensed games should have been "a red flag" for Zootfly, but even so, the two firms signed a $5 million deal to do Prison Break without even anyone from the publisher even coming to visit the studio -- another early warning.

Troha explained how "an ungodly mix" of video game and movie people at Brash ended up bringing a series of processes to the table that weren't actually formalized, adding: "as their logo uncannily foretold, they were fighting all the time."

He explained that a number of crazy ideas for the Prison Break game -- both implemented and not -- were "oozing from all levels of executive management" at Brash, and went on to describe some of them.

For example, it was suggested that collecting rubber bands could be the basis of the game's economic system, and that one Brash executive advocated for 'rat shanking', since, as the game was needing to be Teen-rated: "We can't stab and kill inmates... so let's slice up rats."

He also revealed that the genre of the game changed a couple of times during development, leaving visual inconsistencies along the way. (However, the new version of Prison Break, approved by Fox and now being published by Koch, is extensively redesigned and re-architected.)

Brash: The Beginning Of The End

When Brash's institutional investors started pulling out, there were layoffs and eventually project cancellations, and Troha noted that "milestones were habitually three months late." When Brash canned Zootfly's game, the publisher promised to give Zootfly $748,000 as part of Brash's termination, to pay off multiple milestones on very good terms.

(But in fact, Brash hasn't paid up at all to date. Troha said it's vital to understand how well your publisher is doing and truly question things when, for example, milestone payments are late.)

The publisher transferred all its assets to a specialized company while Zootfly was waiting for their final payment -- by which point "it was way too late." Troha strongly advises never to wait for money if a publisher is in trouble: "the developer is always at the bottom of the creditors list." He said that, in hindsight, he should have flown to Los Angeles to negotiate for the money, and start litigation immediately without it.

Troha explained that Zootfly's execs were very careful about how they explained the cancellation to their development team, even practicing the meeting among themselves. He says that the developers ended up having a much more positive view on the subject as a result, with the team having a concrete goals in mind -- polishing a vertical slice of the game to re-pitch.

The company also realized that if layoffs started, it would probably be the end of the company as a whole, so they made sure that Zootfly's executive team were at least perceived by their employees as being calm, collected, and strong. Uniquely, it seems that the development team banded together -- bolstered by a promise of no layoffs and no pay cuts -- to approach the project from a new perspective.

The Aftermath: Pushing To Get Prison Break Picked Up

This reboot allowed Zootfly employees to take a week to write down the specific issues with the game design and methodology of the title in development. At this point, a vertical slice was started, both to "set the quality bar for the finished game" and create a demo that helped pitch the game to publishers.

Zootfly managed to re-license the game via Fox, who had allegedly not seen the title before -- since Troha claims that one of Brash's strategic decisions was not to show the game to the licensor until the game was so late in development to change anything.

But how did Zootfly keep going after the cancellation? Troha explained that the company diversified into architectural visualizations, simulation tech, and advergames to help keep things going. In particular, the military simulation business kept the firm going through the slow period after the Brash project was cancelled.

Since they could show alternative income, the banks that Zootfly spoke to understood that the company would not immediately go under, so advanced them money. Zootfly itself had some venture capital-related investors, but these backers pulled back in the recession, with no extra VC available. So the company additionally applied for European grants, and received more than 2 million euros.

For the re-pitching process, Troha indicated that the company made the same problem three times in a row -- to "entrust business development to an agent... who then failed to perform". He suggested that, particularly for developers, it's incredibly important for to know people in the biz themselves, to get publishers interested.

A final blow also occurred earlier this year -- the Prison Break TV series was canceled in January at the height of Zootfly's pitching efforts. Even though "the interest of publishers just vanished" at this point, the company powered through to sign the Koch deal, and also have another current title under development, the intriguing-sounding Mr. T & The Nazi Fools.

Overall, Troha gave an honest and considered behind the scenes look at a publisher collapse that his firm has somewhat miraculously managed to recover from.

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