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

Image: iStock

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."


Image: iStock

"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."


Image: iStock

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."


Comments

    Halfbrick tried to play it safe and tread water in an industry that thrives on ingenuity....I know why they act like they do, but you really have to push forward and take some risks.........

    Flippin heck! No idea their story went like that... super fascinating read. What an absolute shame though, so sad.

    Last edited 08/11/16 11:29 am

    This is a perfect case study of how business and guys in suits have NO PLACE whatsoever in games design. Corporate dumbasses don't do ANYTHING to a game studio except ruin it. Halfbrick's corpse should be stuffed and mounted and put on a pedestal as a warning to other companies of what happens when you let useless "managers" who know nothing about games dictate game development, rather than, y'know, GAME DESIGNERS. You fail.

      I'm sort of with you on this. Companies and the Creative Process have, time and again, shown they're at odds with each other. The whole process of establishing existing business practices within a creative group always seems to destroy that creative element.

      Though I do have hope one day that there may be a good way to foster true creativity within a company. Google's 20% time was a step in that direction, though that was eventually disbanded. Double Fine's amnesia fortnight is another good approach. Certainly, existing business practices are not working to help creativity.

      I think that the crux of the issue is that businesses are risk adverse. This is the polar opposite of how creativity works. Creativity is about taking risks, letting your personal belief guide you to your goal, without assurances, without guarantees.

      Good luck getting an MBA to ascribe to this. It goes against everything they were taught. Hence, creativity will always die in the hands of an MBA.

      Last edited 08/11/16 7:03 pm

        The best companies find the perfect balance between business and creativity, and they use their individual strengths to bolster, not inhibit, one another. Pixar's probably the best example of this.

      a. make the most money
      b. make the best games

      Business guys in suits prioritize a>b,
      natural game designers prioritize b>a.

      I guess a games company needs to find a good balance between creativity and business in order to be successful.

        There's an old saying in software development. Developers prioritise correctness, performance, then development time. Managers prioritise development time, performance, then correctness. I imagine there's a similar conflict on the creative side too.

    Ahhh, the sweet, sweet smell of journalism on Kotaku. Oh how thy missed thee.

    This is pretty sad to hear really. Not so much boo hoo sad, but sad to think that this is what Shaniel has become. I went to college with him, and during that time, and the years following, everyone admired him for his vision. I think a lot of us had doubts about how successful Half Brick would be, but most of us were pretty chuffed when it developed and became successful.
    Sounds to me like he's turning it in to what Krome became before they bit the dust. I hope he comes to his senses, but who knows really. If he's living for the all mighty dollar instead of a passion for great games, I doubt they'll be around much longer.

      If he's surrounded himself with yes men as the article suggests, it's very doubtful he'll change course. The article paints the picture of a man who has put on a blindfold of his own volition, unaware that it has blinded him to the reasons for Halfbrick's success in the first place, and aggressively refuses to listen to people who want to help him open his eyes again. Changing course now would mean admitting that he was not only wrong, but wrong for years. The fiction that he's succeeding is easier to accept than the reality.

      Arguably nothing changed for the company direction-wise. They were a Krome-like studio developing mid-budget games for bigger publishers, and it was Fruit Ninja that was the anomaly that broke rank and became successful. Perhaps Shainiel is sticking to what he knows, or doesn't believe that the success of Fruit Ninja is repeatable. The addition of a middle management layer is a concern, though - I don't know of many jobs in any industry that aren't hampered by it.

    I thought Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride were fantastic games but Colossatron didn't have the same staying power. I guess that was a fluke, but I guess the changing culture is why I really didn't give them another thought after that.

      I've popped back into JJ for a go over the years. It's got ads plastered everywhere now. Telling. That alone gave me a pretty good idea of what was happening before I'd read the whole article.

        Yeah, I think I bought it just before it went f2p, I feel like I might have gotten some sort of legacy reward? One thing I liked was there were limited edition vehicles and costumes you could buy for copious amounts of coins and the game encouraged you to buy coins, but it wasn't something forced on you. I haven't played it for a long time sadly, my iCloud sync got screwed up and I lost a lot of my purchases which upset my inner collectionist. Kind of discouraged me from playing.

    This is a fantastic read Mark! Kudos for all the work that went into it!

    A game studio with money is a bit like a mule with a spinning wheel. Don't know how he got it and damned if he knows how to use it.

    Excellent post Mark. that's one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in a long time. It really shows what effects sudden success can have on a person/company. Kudos to you.

    Would be good to hear the whole saga from the other side of the coin, as I am a business manager/owner myself. Without comment from Shainian it does seem like this is only one side of the story from the employee perspective (his/their own fault for no comment). In my experience, what the employee perception of management moves/decisions are vs the reality of why they were made is a very different thing. After all no one sets out to deliberately ruin their company and the long term relationships that go with it. Maybe one day we will get a comment/post from Shainiel to get his perspective, as I am sure there was a lot more external/business factors/pressure on him that led to some of the decision that others might not be aware of.

    anyways thanks again Mark, that was great.

    Last edited 08/11/16 12:39 pm

      I'm sure everyone involved acted in good faith.

      However, Shainiel may have simply listened to the wrong people and made the wrong decisions. That sort of thing happens all the time. More importantly, it can be very hard for people to realise the impact of their decisions on the people below them, and the subsequent impact that has on the overall company, until the damage has been done.

        Definitely true, but I guess if management aren't being paid to examine and think about the consequences of their decisions, what are they being paid for?

      The article was very well written but not sure I'd go so far as to call it an "enjoyable read" considering the subject matter ;).

      As someone whose partner worked there during all this, I can tell you that you have read all you need to know. Bad management decision after bad management decision.

    Haha, wow. That was one of the wankiest pieces of writing I've read on Kotaku. If you could stop blowing smoke up Halfbrick's skirt for one second, you'll realise that Fruit Ninja isn't the model of innovation you make it out to be. It's a colorful little timewaster at absolute best, and at worst, a tired, half-decade-old relic that history will quickly forget. It is not one of the most successful games ever made, that honor goes to Pokemon, Mario Brothers, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft. Australia has produced much better games that deserve more attention. See Armello for instance. Look, the info in this article was interesting, but Halfbrick doesn't need you kissing its ass. Write like a real journalist, and leave your emotional and figurative language at the door. Lose the "Halfbrick: the dream in action" crap. What the hell does that even mean anyway?

      If you could stop blowing smoke up Halfbrick's skirt for one second
      Which he did in the second half of the article, so we clearly know how long your attention span is.
      you'll realise that Fruit Ninja isn't the model of innovation you make it out to be
      For it's time, which the article made clear, it actually was? You know the game is like 6 years old right?
      half-decade-old relic
      Oh, you do.
      It is not one of the most successful games ever made
      Except for 1 billion downloads and all the money it made, but how are sales a measure of success when it comes to selling a product anyway, right?
      Australia has produced much better games that deserve more attention
      No one is disputing that, but this is an article about how a large and successful Australian indie has fallen apart, not about the Australian gaming industry in general.
      See Armello for instance
      Maybe you should write an article about it on your website?

        Whoa such hostility. Man just had to make an account to join in. Dude not everyone's going to agree with the article but since you've insisted on showing your fangs and going on a personal attack, I figured i'd reply. First off. I did read the article. A celebration and mourning of what could have been had things not gone in a sad but also tragically predictable direction, with a hopeful but understandably wary look to the future . Yes we know. That was fine. What I had a problem with was the enshrining of a studio that's been riding the coattails of mediocrity for years. Yes fruit ninja is 6 years old, but it has been shamelessly re-released and rehashed for the same amount of time. That's not what I'd call innovation or "dream in action" as the article whimsically put it.

        If the video game industry just rode on profits as a measure of success, we'd have a second music industry. There are other factors. Including memorability, staying power and impact on the industry at large. But this isn't the purpose of the article, so no point going further.

        Alas it must be said, I may have attacked the writing a little hard, but gosh it sounded like he was describing a celebrated general at his funeral. Maybe a little exaggerated? No, I guess my down vote ratio disagrees.

        But may I say your last comment is a bit uncalled for. This is not an exclusive club where only kosher comments and opinions are allowed. Is it really one view per website? Well. Yes. But can we at least pretend it's not?

          Hey, props for actually coming back. And for making an account, even if reply notifications aren't working at the moment.

          "What I had a problem with was the enshrining of a studio that's been riding the coattails of mediocrity for years. Yes fruit ninja is 6 years old, but it has been shamelessly re-released and rehashed for the same amount of time. That's not what I'd call innovation or "dream in action" as the article whimsically put it."

          My God.. That is *Exactly* the point that the article, and the people interviewed were trying to make... The positive intro in this article was referring to the initial creation and release of Fruit Ninja, and JJ soon after.

            Hmm, this makes a startling amount of sense. Ok point taken. I'll drink less bleach next time. Apologies to OP.

              Big props to both of you for being civil about it all. Glad people got on the same page in the end!

          The article is literally about how the rehashing of their two successes and their refusal to innovate is what lead them to ruins. Exactly what you're saying

          The article explains how Half brick went sour and tried to recapture past glories by rehashing Fruit Ninja.

      I don't get this comment at all.

        You used words longer than four letters. That makes some people angry.

        My apologies. I had a myopic moment and completely missed the point of your intro. It is a good article, and my comments were far too hostile.

          Hey man -- sorry I saw your later comments. You seem like a great guy! Please come back and comment more often!

    Halfbrick: a tale of utterly pretentious dribble. Not only has the author Mr.Serrels written this like a year 8 student trying to sound impressive by inserting words from the thesaurus but the length of the article is just unnecessary. Bad writing in praise of a mediocre game studio. When I was at QUT one of my professors Dr.John Banks was studying innovation in the video game sector - he was looking at Halfbrick. I asked him why on earth he would think Fruit Ninja would be considered an 'innovation' and he told me it was their business practices, not their games that made them innovative. No one will remember Fruit Ninja - it's financial success is far from the only requirement to be crowned the "most successful game". The only people who think this studio is impressive are the people who don't play video games.

      Hey man, I know you're a guest and all, but did you even read the article? They are NOT praising the studio. At all.

      Funny how these kinds of thoughtless comments always come from guests.

    Sounds like Shainiel never got over the trauma of the near loss of Halfbrick before Fruit Ninja. Doing 'good business' and preventing it from falling again became such priority that he lost sight of the real mission: make good games.

    Heck I don't even want to blame him. Every success after FN would have bolstered that mindview: Jetpack gets good F2P money, so now it's F2P or bust - Collosatron was hampered with tension with the desgners and flopped, so get rid of the designers.

    That idea of the lean startup seems particulary inspired to me. I guess its a good thing I'm not in the games industry :p

      I don't see it personally. I always thought the point of a startup, especially a lean one, was to fill a marketplace need with a new or innovative product. Although Halfbrick certainly started that way with fruit ninja, the subsequent push towards copying existing game models and playing it safe is the opposite of startup culture. So he's trying to put management and business models in place that are designed for companies doing almost the exact opposite of what his company is actually doing. Not a recipe for continued success.

      Last edited 08/11/16 2:19 pm

      A lot of the people I spoke to said the idea is sound, maybe just not that great when applied to game development.

        Sounds like it's a good approach at risk assessment, which a big company needs to heed. However, when it's allowed to interfere, nay, mandate a creative process, nothing good can be expected, especially if creativity is what the company's product was initially. It's like following a manual for good care of paintbrushes so strictly that eventually no paintings are attempted any longer.

    Something else to note that this article doesn't mention - but the Sydney studio is no longer around. It closed up a few months ago - probably around the time those voluntary redundancies happened.

    I'm honestly not a huge fan of stuff like Lean, LeSS and Agile methodologies like Scrum, especially when it comes to games. And a lot of these problems seem to stem from a transition into this kind of thing when there was nothing wrong with the old model.

      And when the old model allowed one guy to make them rich and then they forced the people who made heir money to leave.

    Just on a layout note, could we get the comment counts added back to within the articles too? Currently it seems the counter is only on the front page, so it's not as easy to check for new comments from within an article.

      That's a good point. I'll pass it up the chain to our dev guys.

    Wait, so.

    Kotaku don't write proper articles and Plunkett/Ashcraft just write two word caption on GIFs? Criticism.

    Kotaku write proper, lengthy, well researched article? Criticism.

    OK then.

      But wait, there's more!

      Kotaku criticise game devs/leak gameplay etc (like with Bethesda)? "der media is biased, why can't you just regurgitate press releases!"

      Kotaku praise indie developer *while also* criticising them for bad business practices? "stop blowing smoke up their arse!"

      Last edited 08/11/16 6:52 pm

    I used to work for Halfbrick Studios, for two years leading up to the success of Fruit Ninja and for a short while after.

    I can tell you now there's no speculation about Halfbrick in this article, it's all true, albeit missing plenty of stories the public will never hear about. It's not defamation, because it's true, get it? And if you've never worked there, then you'll never truly understand how justified this article is, unless you've experienced it for yourself elsewhere. It's not about cutting the tall poppy down, it's about the amount of sincere human beings mowed down at the apathy of a single greedy man, Shainiel Deo. Just google the muggle statue in the Ministry of Magic for reference material.

    Halfbrick is your quintessential small business rodeo. Entering it comes with a sense of excitement, nerves, and most of all the opportunity of possible creative whatevers. The best part is you get paid to do it. So a job in the games industry, in Australia, back then, was like unpolished gold; with a bit of work you could be onto something big.

    There's the creative industry philosophies and practices of leaders like Gabe Newell, such as creative and financial opportunities for employees who are encouraged to form 'quasi internal studio teams' to invent and trial new ideas... Then there's Shaniel Deo, who dons the model but metaphorically strips you naked later on. He's not a leader, or a people person; he has all the same brain patterns of a sociopath. It's a status known as the serial killer-CEO, where matching brainwave trends are found in both types of minds. And yes, he hands you a bag of pink and white marshmallows in front of the entire studio while you muster your final words to glorify the last few years you'll never get back. I don't remember eating them, but I do remember the bag sitting in the pantry for months, as it reminded me to never again approach another CEO for a pay rise or creative opportunity.

    Backing up a bit, I had spent a few months pleasing US clients and Shainiel for an online game, but lost it due to the Big Short. In fact, publishers and outsourced projects started dropping like flies leading up to 2010. By October, we were on our last paid gig, Avatar Airbender, and were told redundancies would start occurring from said March/April. I knew that meant me, although I was a fully qualified animator, I was originally hired as a producer. What we had in the holster were a handful of self-managed small team ideas from our innovation program, that was canned for 8 weeks due to the focus needing to be on publisher projects. I happened to be part of the Fruit Ninja initiative following Luke's 5-second pitch. Literally, it was 5 seconds. "A game called Fruit Ninja, where juicy fruit pops-up on the screen and you slice it with your fingers. Any questions?" I had a Facebook game idea, where people could adopt countries that would be effected by scenarios from live news, and would require people managing other countries to help aid with their resources. Naturally, I dropped my idea, and Luke accepted my offer as an artist.

    The actual original prototype team consisted of Luke Muskat as designer, Dean Loades as programmer, and myself (No, I'm not Joe Gatling, and I don't remember he being present during the initial phase, though I'm sure he worked with Luke later). We had one full day of development every two weeks, but as I mentioned, we must of only had a top of three or four days work before restrictions were enforced. Fruit Ninja was prototyped in 3D [geometry], and I still have my art on a backup drive somewhere. However, Dean went on a world tour, not uncommon for some of the past Halfbrick employees I kept hearing about. So Luke decided to shelve Fruit Ninja, yes you heard right, and take up a Canabalt-based idea (later repeated as Monster Dash, and Jetpack Joyride), as Luke only possessed Flash programming skills. Having spent the past year on a rip-off game that went no where (XLBA: Raskulls aka Mr. Driller) I didn't want to rip-off another game and really believed in Fruit Ninja. I told Luke, in black and white on the instant messenger, "I think you should stick with Fruit Ninja, I already have the art, and you can prototype in Flash, which will look exactly the same in the company presentation."

    Whether or not that meant it would be produced later in 6 weeks with a team of six costing less than Shaz's new Wrangler, is up to anyone's fairy opinion. Shainiel gave the go-ahead for Fruit Ninja eight weeks later, as one last attempt to make money out of an IP, and rightly so. I wasn't there for the decision, or even the conversation, and wasn't invited to join the production team an artist or producer. That honestly hurt me, and pissed me off at the same time. I had been sitting in the corner of the studio for months with a sheer lack of interest from Shaniel. I was told by a veteran member of the studio this is how people are passively fired from the company. To date, only one person had been outright fired, due to more extreme circumstances. As for all the rest, people became benign melancholic furniture, and the reality of the 'creative industry' really sank in. Creativity as I knew it, was the mirage of a dangling carrot; I kept trying to take a bite, it had become a sad pursuit not even being a real payoff, and I felt like a donkey in the end.

    As a result, I was critical about how Fruit Ninja was being done, without reason, having been kept outside the circle I was once a part of, and I regret lashing out. Shainiel doesn't get emotional investment, as it's about dollars for him, so if he has an idea to make money, he'll not-so-surgically remove invested people from teams and have them cart their personal belongings across the studio. It feels like the walk of shame. It's difficult being left out, even as an adult, because human beings care about stuff they care about, and it's not undone easily, regardless of how old you get. The creative industry is the epitome of purpose and meaning for us. Shaniel takes it away and puts you in a corner with no creative outlet. Let's just say I took an esape job in technical support a friend offered to me to quench my lust for creativity.

    After working for Halfbrick studios for almost two years on probation rates, I outright asked for a pay rise, and the opportunity to propose game ideas. I was told "Halfbrick is a smaller company and we can't offer you anything more.", but I was given a pay-rise of $250... per year. And there's no amount of yelling you can do for anyone to hear you, and not a single audit will ever occur and bring justice to burnt-out and used plebs working for Halfbrick.

    And for God's sake, HALFBRICK'S SUCCESS IS NOT HALFBRICK'S SUCCESS, NOR SHAINIEL'S. People don't understand that Halfbrick as a whole was never on the same page in IP design and mobile gaming as it is now, and clearly struggling to maintain for obvious reasons. You can't actually, legitately, factually use the term "Halfbrick's success", like it was all planned under the leadership of Shainiel. Luke Muskat was the only guy in the studio that figured it out with utter conviction and perfect execution. I was there before, after, and see it now a few years down the track. Luke designed Fruit Ninja, Jetpack Joyride, and Monster Dash, and he set the standard not only for every other game Halfbrick would make, but many developers across the globe. As you know, I have no obligation to ride a unicorn around praising Luke's namesake, it's just a fact he IS the 1 billion downloads, and his talented crew who gave it their best to produce Fruit Ninja in 6 weeks.

    Halfbrick really could have been everything that people imagined, or still do imagine, despite the reports from the horse's mouth. It just needed to be good at heart, still managed with intelligence, but ultimately value creative human beings. Shainiel would have been a legend, in my mind, given that had occurred. Honestly, I don't believe it would have taken more effort. The anger and frustration he introduced to people's worlds have caused a lot more problems than attempting to be the fun, game-designing company it should have been. I know Ryan Langley, and Sean Druitt, and forty other guys who've been at Halfbrick, and they're good, sincere, and talented people who matter in and outside the studio. Sean supported me from my first day until we handed projects over. They're good f*cking studio ANZACs that look out for you, and understand you as a human being, and this jerk has torn them. They've been burnt by Shaniel Deo, with no remorse or need for cold decisions in the first place, and he answers to no one anywhere on this continent. Shainiel used to call me, "Fucking idiot", in front of the company touch football team, but hey that's OK, because we're outside the studio right? If I push back, I'll lose my job, so I have to take it.

    To this day, I still struggle with workplace relationships with my bosses, because I'm afraid of unwarranted criticism, verbal abuse, and neglect. I've had countless anxiety attacks during and following my experience with Halfbrick, more specifically with Shaniel and the stress I put myself through trying to please the expectations of him. Newer bosses don't even treat me the same way, and don't understand why I struggle with anxiety these days.

    In short, who gives a shit if a games developer does well in Australia. It's absolute vanity and meaningless, because there's no love. If Halfbrick is the best Australia has to offer, then the benchmark is being the biggest arsehole to the more sincere and loyal employees. The downfall of Halfbrick's reputation and ongoing failure isn't their business model, or project management methodologies, thank you very much profound professors, it's a lot simpler than that. The well-being of a company streams down from the head, and for a long time it's been greed, apathy, abuse, and emotional blackmail. And it will never change.

      Imagine if Nintendo treated their staff the same way. They would also be dead in the water without stars like Miyamoto.

    Like some, I wasn't a huge fan of the writing style in this article (it's a matter of taste); but the content was compelling. Kotaku...more like this, please.

      Hey! Glad you loved it. But it's worth pointing out that stories like this take a very, very long time to put together. We're always working on things though!

        Totally understand. It was well worth the effort.

        I'm actually quite fond of kotaku's short and sweet 'hey, check this out' kind of articles too.

        Would love to see articles categorised, as I think this would avoid disappointment for those looking for a meatier read. Bite-sized vs feature articles.

    Kind of had been wondering what the whole deal with Halfbrick was after that whole "game designers redundant" snafu last year... excellent follow up Mark, great reporting.

    One personal takeaway I found - it's the people that make a company, not its products or it's name. The best things to come out of Halfbrick were the innovative titles at the beginning of this cycle, created by passionate people who love what they do. I do hope they can turn it around at Halfbrick, no one likes to see a ship like that go down, but it does seem like they are headed for mediocrity. Very keen on seeing what Prettygreat come up with though.

    Something else I thought of when reading this: the kinds of things EA and other big publishers say when talking about games like Unravel. "We saw what they were doing and it's great, so we just let them do their thing and come back when they need the business/marketing stuff." Yeah it's all wanky PR crap, but I do think there is an essence of truth there. Judging from the reporting here, Halfbrick could learn a thing or two from the big publishers.

    If you really want an interesting insight into how americans fuck up aussie game studios, get ahold of the open letter that an was sent to upper management after Fury completely fucked over Auran studios. It's an incredibly interesting read.

    Great article. Sorry to hear. This sad scenario described is pretty common in Australian game studios, in my expaerience. A lot of stuff gets hushed up - people are afraid of losing their jobs, but it should come to light. There's real shit to learn from here.

    I saw they stole the name for jetpack joyride from another indie developer and then threatened legal action to take the domain from them. There is a writeup on the site. Pretty sad that's what it comes too.

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