An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 4

This is final part of a series from an interview with Jongwoo Kim, the creative director of Lucifer Within Us, a unique mystery game. To read our writeup on the game, click here. To read part three, click here.

Headcanon, Scalpels, and Lessons Learned

Fritz Wallace: One of the things I mentioned in the writeup was that Lucifer Within Us does feel a bit short. Like, I solved the last case, and the big reveal happens, and I’m ready for the next part… and then credits roll. Was the game intended to be a setup for the next part of the adventure after those first three cases?

Jongwoo Kim: In my headcanon, Ada goes off and it’s a longer adventure in that world to find those acolytes, and exorcise each one. It would be much more episodic. LWU as it is almost functions as an origin story for this world, and Ada, to set up the other “Books” in the series, if we were using Sherlock Holmes as an example. I would love for her to go on more adventures.

Fritz Wallace: Another lore question, if you don’t mind. Is Ada’s ability to use the timeline a supernatural, or a technical ability? Or is it something else?

Jongwoo Kim: I think that’s an excellent question. She’s an exorcist, but what makes her special? When we initially envisioned the project, when the timeline was created, it was meant to be a mind’s-eye sort of thing. It’s someone replaying in their mind. But that was when it was one of multiple tools the player had access to.

Given how dominant it became, I don’t we ever really decided “how” it worked. I think if it was an actual supernatural ability, we would have had some visual of her engaging in the timeline mode, but we didn’t do that. So I think the reality of the game that we actually delivered is that Ada is just visualizing it in her head. It’s not magic, a special technology, or supernatural ability, it’s a skill she has. At the same time, given the setting, I can see why folks might view it as one of the first three.

Let me put it this way. Something I really wanted to avoid doing was… I feel very frustrated with Quantic Dream-style mystery adventure stuff. Occasionally the player gets amazing abilities. In Heavy Rain, the Agent gets Ari, where he can go into his own world, and solve stuff. But you can only do that when the player is allowed to. The game decides when you can do that.

It raises the question “Without this ability, is the Agent a worse detective?”
I didn’t want to diminish Ada, and by extension the player, by implying that this is just a trick, or magic. I wanted the player feel like they solved the case through their sheer intellect.

The only concession and supernatural ability is the ability to exorcise demons, and to enter the sanctums of the suspect. So, in that way, she doesn’t have any other supernatural crime solving abilities, because that would be truer to her character, and the spirit of the game.

Fritz Wallace: I feel like the game did that really well. Throughout the whole game, there was only one moment of adventure game logic: that bit in the second case where you have to pick up the scalpel, and then give it to the doctor to have them perform an autopsy.

Jongwoo Kim: God, that scalpel. Yeah, that case has a long history, and lot of iterations. I’m not super happy with how the scalpel stuff was implemented in the end. So I sympathize with you there.

I do want to comment on that a little bit. One of our challenges was figuring out if problems in the game were due to UI, or to mechanics. One of the things we ended up doing over time was simplifying down interactions you can take with a character. So instead of asking or presenting, it would be just one action.

Generally we wanted to avoid what you called “Adventure Game Logic”. Shouldn’t Ada be able to perform the autopsy herself? In terms of the scalpel, in terms of trying to ship with the assets we had, we ended up going that direction [having the doctor perform the autopsy]. If I could, I’d have Ada examine or autopsy the body herself.

Fritz Wallace: You’ve mentioned a few games whose mechanics you don’t feel do mystery very well. Were there any other games or stories that did influence Lucifer Within Us? I feel like the default suggestion is something like Sherlock Holmes.

Jongwoo Kim: So, as far as Holmes influence, I don’t think any specific case or book influenced the game. But it was important to me, as far as player experience or the dream of the game. The phrase I kept repeating during development as “The player should not feel like Watson, the player should feel like Holmes.”

I often feel that in a lot of mystery games, the rug is pulled from underneath you. As much as I like Dapangropa, I get frustrated with every debate, because it’s like “Oh my god, you’ve been withholding a critical piece of information the whole time. I could not have known the solution, or I could guess, but given the evidence in my log, I could never have solved this case the way you wanted me to with the given mechanics.”

In that way, Holmes is a big inspiration. While I complain about the Frogwares Holmes games, in some ways, Holmes had a very kinetic style of investigation. He got into scuffles, he was at the scene of the crime. Ada is distinct from that. It’s a very clean investigation, followed by exorcism. But within the space of the investigation, there’s no field work other than the scene of the actual crime.

So, for character and experience, Holmes was a big influence. Beyond that, Phoenix Wright for the contradiction system.

Fritz Wallace: It’s interesting, since it’s such a clean investigation, relative to a lot of other things.

Jongwoo Kim: It is a little ironic that to do that idea, we had to change the idea to be about the supernatural. I’m super happy with it too! But a part of me does wonder if it would have made a stronger mystery game [if it had maintained it’s Cyberpunk theme] even if the project is more interesting and compelling as a result of its unique setting. But I don’t know. I would love to try to make something with the timeline mechanic again to be sure.

Fritz Wallace: One thing that did happen to me was that the game gives you 3 demons, and by the third case, there’s only one demon you haven’t exorcised yet. So it feels like it gives the game away a bit.

Jongwoo Kim: I mean. I see it both ways.

On one hand, I think it’s inevitable that if a game has an overarching arc, the player gets some sense of it. I think rewarding them on that front is good. So at some level, I’m happy if an astute player can see what happens in the third case ahead of time.

At the same time, I was surprised by how many people were caught off guard by the victim of the third case, because they thought the abbot was set up to be the big bad, or what not.

If I learned nothing else, I learned that it’s quite hard to predict how someone else will perceive the intended arc of a mystery. And I think that makes it interesting from a mystery design standpoint. It indicates there’s more to explore, and different levels of challenge one can design, without overwhelming the player.

Fritz Wallace: I will say, I didn’t get the overarching structure of the game, with the spear and whatnot, until the second time I played it, and went “Oh, that’s how it all comes together.”

Jongwoo Kim: Awesome. Well, I’m glad that worked for you on the second playthrough for sure.

Fritz Wallace: I think that’s pretty much everything I had to ask. This is the part where if you want to give a shout out, or mention a current project, this would be the ideal place to do that.

Jongwoo Kim: Well, I definitely have something cooking right now, but it’s not ready to show yet. I’m excited to unveil it to the world, and it’s coming soon.

Fritz Wallace: Well, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!

Lucifer Within Us is available for PC on Steam. If this interview has made you interested, you can find it here!

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 3

This interview is part three of a series from an interview with Jongwoo Kim, the creative director of Lucifer Within Us, a unique mystery game. To read our writeup on the game, click here. To read part two, click here.

Technical Troubles of Transforming Time

Fritz Wallace: Lucifer Within Us has an incredibly unique timeline mechanic that allows you replay and see what each suspect claims to have been doing at any given point in time, and to rewind and move around. How does that system work?

Jongwoo Kim: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but most games with a replay system won’t let you rewind. For example, if you watch a replay of a game like StarCraft, or an RTS, it’s usually not actually a replay, it’s just a recording of all the button presses.

But for Lucifer Within Us, because the player needs to be able to smoothly rewind, we had to record the animation data for anyone point in time, in addition to recording all the animations and false testimony for any given point in time. And in addition to that recording, we had to make sure all of this was consistent with the audio for any given point in time.

For example, if Gideon says one thing, but is located somewhere else, it won’t be a smooth experience. So you have to be sure when things are going to play, aligning your time cube.

It’s actually a weird technical challenge that isn’t done often. It’s the kind of thing I’m quite proud of, like a very cool toy sort of thing. It’s quite satisfying for me to be able to rewind things back and forth, and see the characters move around.

Fritz Wallace: I’m curious about this, since I’ve done a small amount of work with Unity myself. What made it so difficult?

Jongwoo Kim: So certain parts are Unity specific, but the bigger problems are “How do you make a system where the player can rewind to any point, at any time, and still have it make sense?” And there are quite a few problems.

The first one is logistics. How do you ensure a character’s movements are believable and make sense if the player can watch every moment of what they’re doing? Especially if what they’re doing a lie. The simple solution is to have them idle for a large amount of time once they reach what they’re doing.

Before we implemented rapid scrolling/skipping, it was frustrating for the player experience to watch everything happen slowly, when you have idling like that. But if we’re assuming that the player should be able to navigate at any point in time (which is what you’d want to be able to do as an investigator), there are other weird challenges.

For example, characters say their lines, but that won’t necessarily line up with the length of a given section of movement. Initially we had extensive testimony lines, but we realized players don’t want read paragraphs of text. Also, any text that’s not explicitly describing the actions being taken tended to be misleading, and players wanted to ask questions. There needed to be coherence between what was spoken, what was happening, and what was seen.

But all of this still has to align with the logistics of the case, how the character gets there, and be continuous, because it’s a timeline. So the solution we came up with was that we had an editor built on top of Unity, that would allow us to record the case from beginning to end for every possible variant. And there are additive variants, it’s not like it’s just every single variation. So you’d have the vague testimony for every character, the true timeline for every character, and then every layer in between.

Fritz Wallace: So for example, in the third case, where each of three suspects has to still line up and make sense at any point in their stories.

Jongwoo Kim: So yeah, those three paths have to happen, but you have to keep in mind, sometimes the timing of objects involved in the case changes too. For example, in Gideon’s case, when and how he manipulates the coronet changes the testimony and outcome. The same is true of Abraham and the shovel. So you have to make sure certain objects disappear from the timeline, and only appear when they’re speaking.

The coronets explosion example, she (Alex Bull, 3D Artist) had to make an animation, and then adapt the animation so it’s rewindable, but with the pieces still appearing and being discoverable on the ground.

If you go back and look at everything side by side and where things are, you actually might notice a few small changes. There are some errors, and we tried to be very careful about avoiding them, but it was very tricky. We also discovered during testing that certain players are much more obsessive about certain errors then others. In the first case, the glass door and its position at the start of the case would frustrate players, because the door ends the testimony closed, but if it was open when the player gets there, it raises questions about who opened it, because someone must have.

And so any error like that in the recordings became frustrating to players because it both throws the player off, and breaks that sense of being a detective. The vision of the game was for the player to use everything they see, and figure out the answer themselves. It was damaging and misleading when we made mistakes like that.

From a very tech point, and this is Unity specific. There’s no built-in system in Unity that supports rewinding animations for the duration of the cases we have. While Unity does have a system that can work for 2 minutes in length, there was no guarantee that our cases would be under 2 minutes. It also has further restrictions: i.e., can only record during run-time. So a player would have to watch full case normal speed 1 before that system was usable.

So we had to figure out another way. I won’t go too much into details, since I’m not sure that’s interesting to anyone who isn’t trying to perfectly recreate the system in Unity. There was an alternative animation system available in the Unity made by the developers that allows you to play any animation arbitrarily. And so by using that system, and then another way to capture either every frame, or however many intervals you wanted, to take a snapshot of a character, their exact animation state, what they were holding. And we’d take snapshot after snapshot, and then using those snapshots, we didn’t have to use Unity’s animation system any more. And using those snapshots, we could interpolate between the states.

It’s a bit strange to say snapshots though, because that makes it seem like it’s an actual film in a way, right? But in reality, it’s still taking place in the physicals space of the game, the characters still are moving around, and have physical properties.

In the ideal world, I would have wanted it so you could just reverse time whenever you wanted. If someone threw an object, you would just have the physics system run in reverse, accelerate it in the other direction. But because the player could skip around to any moment in time, and physics going backward is not something Unity supports, the approach we took was different, by recording at every major interval and interpolating, and taking enough snapshots that it looks smooth.

Fritz Wallace: That’s a pretty intense technical challenge.

Jongwoo Kim: Yeah, I don’t think the studio ever talked much about the technology we built for this project, but it is certainly something weird and unique about the game.

Fritz Wallace: So it seems like a lot of effort was put into both designing these systems and making them work technically, which is fairly impressive.

Jongwoo Kim: Yup.

Fritz Wallace: Would you ever want to make more games using the timeline mechanics? Or more games in that setting?

Jongwoo Kim: Yeah, so if I were given the opportunity to revisit that world, I’d really love to. Would I like to revisit those mechanics, whether it was using that IP or not? My answer would be a careful “Yes”.

While we didn’t milk everything we could out of it, in terms of logistics and mechanics, it’s a very particular setup. In the sense of, not just the implications of the mechanics, as much as the logistics of making a game like that work. In order for that to happen, since I no longer have access to the code base, I’d have to rebuild a lot of things. And that’s the main thing I’d be reluctant to do.

If I could, I’d love to make more cases. I think a timeline based approach has a lot more space to be explored. I also think some of the choices we made for Lucifer Within Us do restrict some future possibilities because of the narrative commitments of that project. I’m very happy with those narrative commitments, but at the same time a digital exorcist needs to exorcise demons. So we have to provide demons, and that narrows the possibilities compared to a traditional investigator. I don’t think that pertains to the timeline though.

This concludes part 3 of the interview. The final part will go up tomorrow and involves the games lore, headcannon, and some of the lessons learned from the project.

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 2

This interview is part two of a series from an interview with Jongwoo Kim, the creative director of Lucifer Within Us, a unique mystery game. To read our writeup on the game, click here. To read part one, click here.

Making Murder Mystery Mechanics

Fritz Wallace: What lead you to be interested in creating a mystery game?

Jongwoo Kim: For me, I was very frustrated at the mystery genre. To start, it’s a very vague genre. Like horror, there isn’t any single mechanic that defines it, like jumping for platformers, or shooting for shooters. There’s no unifying mechanic. Some games take the approach of a visual novel, being very text and menu based. Some are just adventure games, but with a mystery aesthetic.

So what I wanted to do with the project was to create mystery mechanics. To design tools we can give to the player that can be meaningful and applicable across multiple cases, and that the player can build skill around.

As a counter-example of what I’m talking about, take something like Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games. Sure, ultimately you accuse someone with their systems, but it’s bloated with a lot of mini-games. And if I’m gonna be blunt, they aren’t fun to play.

In one, I’m being hunted with a hunter with a rifle, and dodging bullets. It doesn’t have anything to do with the mysteries. And when you fail at these, it’s an awful feeling. “I’m Sherlock Holmes, why am I doing this?”

And so that’s where the timeline mechanic began. The initial prototype of the game was really focused on getting the timeline right. But it quickly led to other questions, such as “Okay, the timeline is good for temporal and positional parts of the mystery, but it’s not so good for relational information.” Such as, who likes who, who hates who. Who owns what, who saw this?

So at an earlier stage in development, we had a mechanic I believe we called the evidence map. And so any piece of evidence you found would show up on this evidence map, but it would also be linked to the other items on map. Among games that are actually out there right now, I think Murder Mystery Machine bases its entire gameplay on a similar mechanic.

But as this relates to cut mechanics, there was a version of Lucifer Within Us with a mechanic with the same idea. And it was compelling, but players found it to be almost too interesting.

Fritz Wallace: In what sense?

Jongwoo Kim: It wasn’t meant to be a fundamental aspect of the game. Actually, even the timeline wasn’t intended to be the fundamental aspect. All of these mechanics were intended to serve the tools for the player to understand what happened to the best of their ability.

But even though it was just informational, players tended to engage with the evidence map with the assumption that they had to use evidence map to progress in the case, even though it didn’t actually have the ability to do that.

There was an additional feature that tied the timeline and evidence map together called the hypothesis system, which allowed players to tie things to together, and map assertions about what they believed about happened.

So if you found certain things in a character’s testimony, and certain things about evidence, you could say things like “I think X did this with Y,” and it would test to see if that lined up with your current understanding of the case.

And all of these features were functional at a core level, but they became very clunky. The amount of UI needed to get them to do something simple was difficult. And secondly, it was difficult to make content for them at any reasonable pace.

Game UI from the final version.

If you’ve ever heard the term information haystack, that’s more or less the issue we ran into. The idea is that if you’re trying to find a needle, and there’s so much hay, the more hay you add in relation to the needle, it gets harder to find the needle.

Now obviously there’s a balance, and want some things to sift through for a compelling mystery, but at a certain point, if there’s just too much information, too much hay, it becomes impossible to invalidate certain possibilities.

So the inclusion of these features and creating content for them would in retrospect add too much to both the team’s haystack, and the player’s haystack. As a designer, though, I feel like the full mystery experience needs all these things.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what’s essential until everything is assembled. Also, to know if something is an information haystack problem, or a UI problem. Could we have just improved the UI in such a way that the players would know how to use it intuitively? Or was it a fundamental problem with the content or mechanics?

And if you don’t know, even just playtesting these mechanics is hard

Fritz Wallace: It seems like a big challenge to let the player do all of that, and trust them to figure it all out.

Jongwoo Kim: Right, so on that note, there were a lot of questions around that. “Why don’t we just script this part? Why don’t we just tell the player this part?” And the answer was in terms of the vision for the project, I wanted the player to be the detective, not the developer. I didn’t want twists people wouldn’t see coming to show up.

The design is to leave a case open enough that there’s nothing stopping a player from getting the information they need to reach the correct solution.

But that means you have to keep in mind a lot of possibilities. What if the player talks to this character first, or finds this evidence first?

If I look at the Steam reviews, some folks complain it’s too easy, some complain it’s too opaque, and I have mixed feelings on that. I do feel confident someone can solve every mystery without resorting to a walkthrough, or brute forcing everything.

You can see a suspect, the evidence, the alibi, and it’s more likely someone did something rather than not.

But something I noticed during playtesting was that players get attached to early theories. If they don’t like a certain character’s personality, or they seem suspicious for some reason, there’s a level of confirmation bias that motivates a player to stick with train of logic.

On the one hand, I didn’t want the game to be a sudoku puzzle: i.e., eliminate all other possibilities, it can only be this. But if the solution is too blatant, there isn’t much for the player to do. But some people would argue LWU is like that, and honestly, there’s more a degree of the obviousness of the solution than I first though when starting the project.

In early development, we had cases that were pointlessly complex relative to the average player’s desire to solve them. There was motivation loss at a certain point because there was so much to consider. And while I’m glad we streamlined them to a point, if I went back in time and talked to myself at the start of the project to say “By the way, at the end of the project, here’s the level of complexity on most of these cases” I’d be kind of disappointed.

Fritz Wallace: So there was some compromise on the levels of difficulty in the cases? How do you feel about that?

Jongwoo Kim: It is a bit of a bummer, but especially with the premise change, the project became more than just “Make a compelling player-driven mystery solving game.” We needed to execute to the best of our ability with the team we had, with the strengths and weaknesses present.

Fritz Wallace: Even with all that, how do you feel about the end state of the game?

Jongwoo Kim: I am quite proud of how the project came out, and the overall quality. I like Ada’s characterization. She’s a strong, confident protagonist in a murder mystery game, in a male dominated society. And I think that comes across in the game itself.

I think in terms of character design, I’m happy with how we balanced technology and religion. Given the number of characters and complexity of the cases, I think the cases are satisfying to solve. And I’m really pleased with how we got the smoothness, and level of detail with the timeline mechanic.

This concludes part 2 of the interview. Part 3 will go up tomorrow, and talk about the technical challenges involved in making a game where information is critical, and the player can rewind time whenever they want.

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us

“The players should feel like Holmes, not Watson”

Late last year, on the 15th of December to be precise, we reviewed a very good (but short) mystery game called Lucifer Within Us. When I wrote that review, I also reached out to Kitfox Games, the studio behind the game, because I wanted to ask them some questions about it.

If you haven’t played Lucifer Within Us or heard of it, it’s a mystery solving game with a very unique timeline mechanic. You interview suspects, they give testimony, and you try to tease out the lies and omissions they give you. If you want to learn more about the game, we did a writeup on it! You can read that writeup here.

To my complete and utter shock, Kitfox responded to me! They helped me get in contact with Jongwoo Kim. Jongwoo Kim was the Creative Director on Lucifer Within Us and has also worked as a designer and gameplay programmer on several of their other projects, including Shrouded Isle. He was one of initial founders of Kitfox Games, but was no longer at Kitfox as of the time of this interview. He was kind enough sit down and answer some of my questions about what went into Lucifer Within Us, changes the game went through, and even some of the technical systems underlying the game’s unique timeline mechanic.

Challenges and Cuts – Part 1 of 4

Fritz Wallace: Can you tell me a bit about how the project started?

Jongwoo Kim: So Lucifer Within Us was the first time I had the Creative Director title. This was a point in studio development where we decided we should have two teams going at the same time. So Tanya, one of the other founders, continued to lead her project which became Boyfriend Dungeon. At the same time, I was leading Chronosight, which would eventually become Lucifer Within Us.

Fritz Wallace: It’s an interesting name.

Jongwoo Kim: And you can see why, right? The game’s fundamental mechanic is based around the timeline. At that point in time, the project had a much more Cyberpunk theme. What we determined though was that there are a lot of games that already had that aesthetic.

(Ed Note: Lucifer Within Us was being developed before the release of Cyberpunk 2077. Of course after it came out… well, you can read our “review” of Cyberpunk 2077 here. Kitfox was by no means the only developer who made choices to avoid competition with what at the time was still expected to be an absolute juggernaut.)

Jongwoo Kim: And so around the first year of the development of Lucifer Within Us, we discussed that internally, and came to the conclusion the project could have a much more unique direction. So we went back to the drawing board for the premise, while keeping the existing mechanics. And that’s when the final direction for Lucifer Within Us came forth.

The fundamental idea is digital exorcism. It feels inherently contradictory—

Fritz Wallace: It’s a really cool premise, and it’s something I’d never seen done before.

Jongwoo Kim: I’m super happy you liked it! I think it’s a very cool and unusual juxtaposition, and it brings up a lot of interesting questions. What happens in an futuristic theocracy? What happens when technology advances to the point that you can digitize aspects of a person? And how does that play out and interact with a lot of the questions and issues that tend to come up around spirituality?

The idea of being an inquisitor who exorcises demons became just such a pull once we arrived at that premise, and the team rallied and shifted to make that happen. But as cool as it was as a theme, it did lead to a lot of challenges.

A screen from the first case, showing off the timeline mechanic.

We were a small team. If I remember correctly, even today Kitfox is only 9 or so people. And to absolutely clear, I’m no longer part of Kitfox.

We had a small team, and this was our first 3D project. We underestimated some of difficulties around 3D game production. That, coupled with the theme change made things hard. For a cyberpunk theme, we could have bought assets from Unity Store, or maybe had some contracted work done. After all, a shipping container is a shipping container. There would have been more assets and options for re-use.

But the unique setting made this difficult. What does a futuristic theocracy look like anyway? It was virtually impossible to use any pre-existing assets, and that put a strain in our production pipeline. It made it difficult to have lot of content without overworking the team or going over budget, and there were challenges on that front.

I feel a bit regretful about it. It is a cool setting and I wish we did more to flesh out the experience the and the world.

Fritz Wallace: Were there any big changes in the scope of the game, as a result of those challenges?

Jongwoo Kim: I think everyone on the Dev team would tell you that if it was possible to have more content in the game, more cases, or more buildup to the finale, we would have done it. Whatever the situation, there was interest in having more at release. But as noted above, various factors didn’t line up.

So working under those limitations, we decided it was better to make a polished version of what we knew we could deliver, than taking the risk to add content we didn’t have time to polish. So as an example, sanctums were supposed to be more expansive in terms of what you can do.

Sanctums are the the internal mind and psyche of the NPCs in the game.

In an earlier stage in development, they would have been actual areas you could explore. That would be cool!

But given our limitations for 3D art production, implementing this was causing great strain. Each person would presumably have something different, right? And this is an abstract space. What does the internal mindscape of each of these characters look like? It added a lot of strain while not actually being critical to the mystery solving portion of the game. While you could argue it was essential to the premise of the game, it still ended up being cut.

Fritz Wallace: It sounds like it was a challenging project, and that versions of sanctums didn’t fit with the resources you had. Is that a part of why the released version of the game is somewhat short?

Jongwoo Kim: I think it would have been nice in the “Ideal” version of the game, if the sanctums hinted at the underlying psyche of the character. In retrospect though, we didn’t have the resources to commit to that mechanic.

I think if certain things had been different, such as if the team had gelled before, or if we had greater success at launch, it would have made sense for the studio to continue supporting the game. For example, new cases. I think that post-game content would likely have been the only way in which more content would actually end up in the game. But that’s not something that actually happened.

Of course, Sanctums weren’t the only cuts. This is a bit of a downer topic, for me at least, but it does have to do with what actually led to Lucifer Within Us.

This concludes part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will go up tomorrow. Jongwoo Kim discusses the idea at the heart of Lucifer Within Us, and how that influenced the rest of the game’s systems.

The Case of the Missing Publisher or How Ammobox Studios got their game back.

An Interview with Jeremy Choo, CEO of Ammobox Studios.

Last week, a really interesting Reddit post caught my eye. It was by a smaller game development studio from Malaysia called Ammobox Studios. The post was a warning about how their game had almost been stolen by their publisher, and how the fraudulent publisher was potentially back in business. 

While everyone has heard stories about shitty publishers, one of the surprising things for me was that Ammobox was able to actually recover their game, and continue development. I wanted to know more, so I reached out to Ammobox, and was able to talk to Jeremy Choo, their CEO and Founder. 

(F) John “Fritz” Wallace: Hi Jeremy, just wanted to say thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. To start, can you tell us a bit about yourself and about Ammobox Studios?

(J) Jeremy Choo: Well, I’m Jeremy Choo and I’m the founder and CEO of Ammobox Studios. Ammobox was started back in 2008. My game development background actually started with modding, with stuff like Warcraft and Starcraft. When we were first founded, we started with doing some outsourcing work, and this project [Eximius: Seize the Frontline] has always been a bit of a passion project for us.

It’s a garage project, something we’ve done in our spare time and I’d say we’ve been thinking about it for almost 10 years. Development actually started in an entirely different engine. We started full time production in 2018. And as part of this, we started looking for a publisher. 

So, this is where Eduardo Monteiro and his company, TheGameWallStudios comes into the picture. How did you meet him, and end up publishing with him? 

(J) When TheGameWallStudios first approached us, they weren’t the type of publisher we were looking for. Another member of the team, our business developer, an experienced guy who had worked in industry, was handling our publisher discussions. And one of the people he brought up was TheGameWallStudios and Eduardo Monteiro. 

Our business developer came to me and said, “Look, I’ve found someone we might be able to work with. He’s really keen, he’s got a publishing background, he worked with big companies before, and you can check out his background, his LinkedIn looks good. He’s got funding, they’re doing things bespoke, one title at a time.” It sounded very convincing! But even at the end of his pitch, some of the other co-founders didn’t really like it. So, GameWallStudios was not the type of publisher we wanted to go to. 

Sometimes, because of what happened, I think people will take the wrong message from our experience, which is to never go for a small publisher. I want to go on record and say “That’s not the case!” 

There are small publishers that do really well, even with small teams. I have several friends with teams about that size who do well. I want to mention this because the moral of this story isn’t “Small Publishers are Bad.”

In either case, at the end of the day, I ended up letting our business developer make the call. The thought was, “Since we don’t have another publisher, and this guy is promising a lot, but doesn’t necessarily have the reputation to prove it, let’s structure the contract so if he doesn’t keep his end of the bargain, the contract automatically terminates.” So we got what is called a performance-based contract, and drafted it out with a lawyer over here in Malaysia.

So the lawyer comes back and says “This looks pretty standard”, and we go forward with it. 

It never really occurred to us to think about the ultimate end: “What if this guy just doesn’t care about the contract? What if he just vanishes?”

You’d been careful: talked with lawyers, drafted a contract that would protect, but had trouble finding a publisher. So at this point, you decided to take a risk with TheGameWallStudios. 

(J) In our mind, we had nothing to lose, right? We didn’t have a publisher, and if things go wrong, he takes his cut, we go our separate ways.

This next bit is sort of personal for me, but at this point we’d been rejected by a lot of big publishers. Most big publishers will never really want to take a chance on a first time team. They say things like “there’s too much risk” or “you’ll never be able to execute.” And even if they are interested, they’ll want to wait and see how the game does in Early Access.

So we thought, if big publishers aren’t interested, let’s go after the small guys, let’s find an underdog. Someone like us. We didn’t really tell him that, but we were thinking about it. We thought, “He’s small, but so are we.” 

We were a four man team trying to build a first person shooter/real time strategy hybrid. We were trying to punch above our weight class. And it felt like Eduardo was the same way, in trying to publish and work with these smaller indie games. He was like us. 

In hindsight, we definitely made the wrong choice there. 

Just as a quick aside, do you have any idea why you might have had such a hard time finding a publisher?

(J) So, Eximius was our first major title. We’d published smaller stuff before, but when we met with publishers, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And I think that was kind of a turn off. What we did know is we wanted our publisher to get more copies of the game out and get the word out. What wanted strong Esports support, strong influencer marketing, and tie-ins, people to do write ups on sites like Kotaku, Destructoid, stuff like that. Very cliche stuff and regular stuff. 

I think the Esports support is probably the most unusual thing there. And of course Eduardo did mention that he was very much into Esports competitive gaming, that he knew how to get this and that. It’s all a bunch of lies at the end of the day, but we thought it would all work out.

Back to the story at hand. You have your contract, you’re getting ready to launch into Early Access on Steam. When did it start to feel like something was wrong?

(J) So we were going to try to get a write up from Destructoid, and we were going to reach out to some specific influencers. So, the game launches, we’re expecting to see a write up, some ads, something. And none of these promises are followed through! 

I reached out to the Destructoid employee we were in contact with to ask if Eduardo ever followed up, and he says “No, he never did.” So the game launches, and I find that we have no write ups, no marketing, no ads. And this was when we realized that something is really wrong here. Then all of a sudden, Eduardo starts becoming harder to contact, and starts to disappear.

What do you mean by started to disappear?

(J) Well, I say he disappeared, but it was actually a pretty long time before he fully vanished. So right after we launch, we ask him where the marketing is. And he goes “Don’t worry, it’s coming, it’s coming.” And around the same time, we had a tournament planned with a company called Triforce Tokens, that does some crypto-currency stuff. So we were putting a lot of effort into the tournament, recruiting teams, putting up marketing.

So about two months after release, we’re talking with him, asking for the money, asking for money from sales of the game. He keeps buying time until he can’t anymore. He keeps making up excuses. First he tells us there was a problem with the bank, then he tells us he was in a car accident. At some point I went to my co-founders and said “What’s the contingency if he just disappears?” And then finally, right in the middle of the tournament, he vanishes. 

That sounds pretty rough, to say the least.

(J) When this whole thing took off, it was very chaotic for us. We had a larger team, we were backed up on salaries that we weren’t paying, and we were thinking “Okay, well if we don’t get the money out, we’re gonna be dead.” Like, in a month. We’re still in active development on the game, we’re still running this tournament that we have to pay out prizes for, and we haven’t told the community anything. It was just too much going on all at once. 

And people are still buying the game! But we’re not getting a cent. We’re supporting the game, we’re pushing out bug fixes. People are asking about the price and such, when the game will be on sale, and we’re thinking “We don’t actually have any control over this!” So we had to keep our game faces on.

So at this point, he’s dropped off the face of the earth. You’re in the middle of a tournament, you don’t have access to any of the money from your game. How did you go about getting your game back?

(J) First thing we did was find an indie friendly lawyer in the UK. [Ed Note: Eduardo Monteiro and his company, the TheGameWallStudios does business out of the UK, which is why Ammobox had to do this.] This person tells us to wait for the termination clause in our contract to kick in, and when it does, we’ll send him a letter to terminate the contract. He also gave us examples on how things could go if Eduardo responded. So for a pretty nominal fee we had him send that letter. 

At the same time, we had been reaching out to Steam. We were lucky enough to have had a contact at Steam that we had just met. Steam had just come to Malaysia around the time we launched. So we met some of them and asked “Hypothetically, let’s say all this is happening, what could we do?”

They told us “Well, we can’t actually just take the game from his account and give it back to you, we can only do it if we get a court order.” 

But they did tell us that we could put out a DMCA so that he couldn’t sell the game anymore. Because at this point, not only is he stealing the game, he’s also stealing the money from the game sales. So this Steam contact told us “If you can’t get the money, don’t let him have it.” So that’s what we did. 

A DMCA is pretty easy to do. The content owners are obligated to take the offending content down, and then decide what to do with it. It’s shoot first, ask questions later. It can definitely be abused, but in our situation it was a bit of a lifesaver. Steam had to take the game down immediately. We sent the letter on the 23rd of December, and they took it down from sale at the start of the new year. 

Then I realize that I can see his strategy. He’s trying to get as much money out while he can, so he has the game on sale at other storefronts as well. We had to DMCA them too. And finally we were able to get everyone to stop selling the game. 

Honestly, a lot of the law stuff felt very pay-to-win. If we had the money, we could have gotten an injunction and gotten the bank accounts that the various digital storefronts were sending money to locked. If we had won the case, we would have gotten him to have to pay our lawyers fees. And because he was using his home address as the address for his company, I think it would have been possible for us to seize his assets or something, even if he declared bankruptcy. All the clauses in the contact say he’s in the wrong. He can’t argue his way out. This isn’t a case of “Well, we got screwed by the contract” or something. He just took the money and ran.

I think he probably knew we couldn’t afford the legal fees. 15,000 pounds (Just under 20,000 USD) may not sound like a lot, but it’s two years’ salary for a single artist in Malaysia. 

So, you finally get your game back after talking to Steam, and using the DMCA to block sales of it. This was a while ago at this point. Where is the game now, and what brought all of this back up?

(J) So since then, we’ve gotten much farther. We were lucky to be able to move on. It wasn’t a natural position, I think he expected us to be dead and buried. He tried to crush us to get away with maybe… $100,000? It’s unbelievable to me. But we got out, because of some lucky decisions, and some helpful parties. We got a lot of support from our community, we had some influencers cover it, people bought the game to support us. We did try to run a gofundme to sue him, but we didn’t raise enough money to have it go forward. I think it came in a bit too late, after interest in what was going on died down. 

Alright. So, that’s all the mildly depressing stuff, but the story has at least a bit of a happy ending with you getting the game back. I actually wanted to try Eximius, but it wasn’t for sale on Steam. When is it coming out?

(J) Right now we’re close to our launch date, and we’re aiming for Q1 2021. Hopefully, we’ll finish the game in time. No more sleep for us! [Laughs] But I’m feeling confident we’ll hit our schedule. We wanted to release at the tail end 2021, but I think we’ll have a higher quality product if we release it early next year. Right now we’re focused on getting it to 1.0. We’ve restructured our marketing strategies, to get better results. We want a successful launch, and to put this behind us. 

Few quick questions, and then I think we’ll be done. What sort of game is it, and given your background, do you have any plans for mod support for Eximius?

(J) Eximius is what I would call an FPS+. It’s a first person shooter, with a real time strategy game also added on.

Regarding mod support, we want to, but it will be post 1.0 if it happens. Right now our systems are constantly changing, and every time it changes, it would break any mods that existed. I want to make sure stuff is really solid before we work on that, I don’t want to break peoples mods. And Steam auto-updates means you break stuff easily. We’re all really big into modding, and if it becomes something we can do, we want to. But right now, we aren’t planning for it. 

What are your goals for the game, like after all of this struggle and work, what will make you feel like it was all worth it? 

(J) We want to make something that is timeless. Something like CSGO 1.6, Renegade, or Natural Selection. Something that people will be playing for years. Something that there is nothing else like. 

How much will the game cost?

(J) Releasing at around the same price, maybe a bit higher. I don’t have an exact price yet, but what for 1.0 is more than double what we have in EA [Early Access] now. Our 1.0 is actually on a separate branch that we aren’t pulling into EA, because it’s a semi-separate game where a lot of systems are rewritten. We’ve released maps/weapons, and 1.0 has double the content of EA. Customizations, squad mechanics, etc, stuff people have been asking for. 

Just one last question, one I like to end these interviews with. Anything you want to say to your players?

(J) I would want to say thank you. The games industry and gamers can be harsh these days. 

It’s very easy for someone to just buy the game, decide they don’t like it, leave a bad review, and refund it. But our community hasn’t done that, even as we have struggled. So I’m grateful to the people who bought our game and didn’t just refund it. To everyone who has stuck with us as we’ve been on this journey to 1.0 release. We keep these people in mind, and we want to make a high quality product and not disappoint them.

In addition, there were a lot of people who bought the game just to support us, back when this whole thing started to come out, and when people learned what had happened to us. We had hundreds of people buying it just to support us, not even to play the game. We wish they would play it! But we’re still very thankful for them, and want to thank them from the bottom of our hearts. 

Thanks a ton for your time, and best of luck with Eximius. I’m looking forward to seeing it when it comes out!

Editor’s Postscript – Eduardo Fernando Teixeira Monteiro is the full name of the scammer mentioned in this article. If you do a few searches, you’ll find that he’s been up to this sort of bullshit since about 2014, and Ammobox isn’t the first group of people he’s done this to. Like any scam artist, he operates at his best when people don’t talk about him, his tactics and what he’s done, so I want to give a huge shoutout to Ammobox for sharing their story, and hopefully making it harder in the future for him to do business.