Australia’s Most Successful Game Studio Is Having An Identity Crisis

In years gone by Halfbrick had a tradition.

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. 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.

But according to sources, Halfbrick as we once knew it has changed — and has been changing — 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 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 units in its first month. A tremendous number at the time, but modest in comparison to what would come. In three months: One million. By September 2010: Two million. March 2011: Twenty million. By May 2012 it had sold 300 million units and was on one third of all iPhones in the US.

2015: One 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 hellbent 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.”

Halfbrick was founded in 2001 by a small group of developers. A team that essentially worked out of CEO Shainiel Deo’s basement.

Halfbrick’s origin story is a familiar one.

Like most Australian studios in the early 2000s, Halfbrick spent its formative years locked in the work-for-hire treadmill, churning out projects for major publishers. An eight-year grind working on licensed properties to absurd, mentally distressing deadlines.

But it kept everyone in paid work. Halfbrick wouldn’t release its own independently developed video games until 2009, in direct response to a traumatic set of changes in the local games industry.

2009 was a difficult time to be an Australian developer. The “mid-budget” video game was in the process of dying a slow, painful death. The surging Australian dollar led to stratospheric development costs and overseas publishers were fleeing in droves. Studios closed left, right and centre. An endless struggle for traction. An endless struggle to keep the lights on. An endless struggle to keep people employed.

A difficult time to work for Halfbrick.

Just before Christmas, 2009. Shainiel Deo called a meeting. He told his staff that 2010 was make or break for Halfbrick. At current trajectory, he estimated, they had roughly nine months left.

The message hit home. It was especially pertinent for Luke Muscat, lead designer of a small team within Halfbrick. His last video game — Rocket Racing — was a commercial disaster.

Early in 2010 Luke gathered his small team and told them, “We need to make $300,000 this year otherwise… get your portfolios ready.”

The stakes were high.

Luckily for Luke, and Halfbrick, his team made Fruit Ninja, one of the most successful mobile games ever made.

As you might expect, this took many people by surprise.

“We were never prepared for success as a company… That’s been one of the biggest challenges.”

Jason Harwood, a producer at Halfbrick at the time, said that. For better or worse, the success of Fruit Ninja would define the studio’s trajectory over the next half decade.

Halfbrick’s dramatic rise: It was essentially the result of one single game, made on a whim by a small team of three in six short weeks. Luke Muscat openly admits to ignoring the advice of important, smart people within Halfbrick during its minuscule development period. Many within the studio didn’t care for or believe in Fruit Ninja.

Now the entire studio was dependent upon it.

It was a powerful momentum shift; an incredible time to be working for Halfbrick.

“It was kind of amazing,” says one source, “checking the App store charts every hour, watching Fruit Ninja doing awesome and getting really excited about it.”

That year Halfbrick had an end of year party at Stadbroke Island. They got drunk. They ran around the beach like they’d found the golden ticket. They roasted a pig on a spit.

It was just the beginning.

Next year Halfbrick sent the entire company to Fiji for a week.

“It was crazy,” one former employee told us.

In 2009, almost two years previously Shainiel Deo stood up and told his entire company they were close to complete collapse. Now he was sending his staff on all expenses paid holidays.

They’d come a long way.

But while the entirety of Halfbrick was sunning itself in Fiji, another video game was in the process of changing the trajectory of the company once more. Jetpack Joyride: Halfbrick’s second major commercial success.

Another Luke Muscat project, Jetpack Joyride was hardly the cultural phenomenon that Fruit Ninja was, but by almost every possible measure it was a stratospheric success.

At $1 a pop the game sold 350,000 units in its first week, but during Christmas 2011 Halfbrick did something unprecedented. Instead of charging $1, they made Jetpack Joyride free to download. It was initially supposed to be temporary — to boost sales — but the experiment went so well, and resulted in so much increased revenue, Halfbrick never changed it back.

And that was the moment when Halfbrick began to think seriously about this new phenomenon known as “free-to-play”.

Free-to-play was in the process of transforming mobile gaming. Developers began giving their games away for free. Instead of cash up front, studios made money selling in-game micro-transactions. Not everyone paid their way — many download games and play without spending a single cent. But some players might spend thousands of dollars on your “free” video game.

Halfbrick was in the process of taking advantage of this new business model, but not everyone agreed with the shift.

“Halfbrick had its big moment at the start of mobile,” one source told us, “but Halfbrick wasn’t structured for free-to-play. Halfbrick wasn’t built to be a King or a Supercell.”

Regardless, the company continued to profit from Jetpack Joyride‘s success. The game was successful at a dollar price point, but went stratospheric as a free app with micro-transactions. Jetpack Joyride would eventually hit over 350 million downloads. It made, and continues to make, a lot of money for Halfbrick.

But its success resulted in indecision with existing projects in development.

This was especially true of Colossatron.

Colossatron: It was supposed to be the “next big thing” for Halfbrick but, according to sources, was hampered by management constantly changing their minds regarding its business model.

“They suddenly made the game free-to-play,” we were told, “which caused frustration.”

Regardless, the team quickly made changes reflecting the game’s switch to free-to-play.

Then later, just before the game’s release, management changed their minds again, making Colossatron a $1 paid app.

Colossatron was not successful, not least in comparison to Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride. For some, its troubled development was the beginning of the end.

A huge argument between Shainiel and Sean Druitt, a prominent, popular producer at Halfbrick, made life difficult internally.

Shainiel wanted to transform the way teams communicated with management. His solution: Instead of having producers sit alongside the teams they managed, Shainiel wanted all producers to sit in one single room, apart from their teams.

According to sources, Sean Druitt — along with many other producers — didn’t like the idea, and pushed back.

“Sean disagreed as it would make working with his team harder than before,” said one source.

The argument escalated.

“Shaz raised the stakes and said he might want to rethink working at Halfbrick if he didn’t like the idea.

“Sean told his team and it blew up across the company.”

We made numerous attempts to contact Shainiel Deo for the purposes of this story. We were told that no comments or statements would be made.

Sean Druitt left shortly afterwards.

The “producer room” idea lasted a month before being abandoned.

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 possible 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 soon 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 haemorrhaging 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 was a core group of long-serving key staff members, including 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 14 September 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 Startup-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 was $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.

Fourteen 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 their 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.”

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