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. 

Iron Harvest – 1920

Iron Harvest, like its mechs, is cool, but also big, clunky, and frustrating.

Ed Note: This article should be read as a review of the campaign, and not the PvP multiplayer. We haven’t played pretty much any of the multiplayer, just a bit of campaign co-op. Even in the co-op, these issues were still present, but please don’t get the impression that we played enough to know if the multiplayer is balanced between factions and such.

This post was going to be about a different game called Unrailed, but instead, it’s about a different type of steam powered machine. Five second version of the article is this: I like Iron Harvest, but it has too many small problems for me to recommend at the moment, and its core gameplay systems don’t interact with each other well. Maybe it will be patched. Maybe the price will drop. But right now, it just costs too much for the issues it has. You can leave now, or you can stick around and read why I think that.

Iron Harvest is a RTS, more of the Warcraft 3 variety then say StarCraft. I’ve mostly just been playing through the campaign so far, and at about 18 hours in, I think I’m about two-thirds through. The two big parts of the game for me, are the story and the gameplay. So those are the two things I’m gonna talk about. Let’s start with the story/lore.

Look at that. I mean, just look at it.

Overall, the story is solid, if occasionally stuttering. Set in the same universe as the board game Scythe, you play as a variety of forces in a 1920 Europe with diesel-punk tech. This includes the Not-Quite-Germans, the Not-Quite-Polish, and the Not-Quite-Russians. The only real gripe I have about the story is that for all of the emphasis on the value of human life, the actual gameplay will have you blowing up shit from hell to breakfast. Otherwise, I’d say it’s fine, and from what I’ve seen, it does a pretty good job of nailing the “World War 1 was a clusterfuck that should never have happened” vibe.

Then we have the gameplay. You create bases, build units, and generally do RTS things. I want to talk about the units in a bit more detail though, because they’re where I have most of my issues with the game.

There are three types of units in Iron Harvest: mechs, infantry and weapon platforms. Infantry is a single group of up to 5 units, mechs are large single-unit mechanized robots, and weapon platforms are things like mortars, machine guns, and cannons manned by infantry.

All three units share a few things in common. First off, they feel fairly expensive, at least in comparison to say, units from something like Starcraft. You cannot afford to just run them like lemmings to their doom. They also all have an experience system, in which leveled up units get access to more actions/better stats. For some units, this is fairly minor, and for some, the units are more or less useless without leveling up.

All units also feel relatively clunky, albeit in different ways. Infantry is inherently the most mobile and least armored, with the ability to take cover behind fences and walls. This would be fine, except some fences you can take cover behind, and some you can’t, and until you mouse over them, you won’t know which is which. You can’t actually move an infantry squad individually, you can only move the group. This can become very frustrating when you can’t get them all behind your defenses.

(As a brief example, you can order engineer units to build barbed wire, but you can’t control them individually, so it’s entirely possible to build a line of barbed wire, only to end up with half of the unit on the wrong side, and now forced to walk around the map to just get back home.)

Speaking of defenses, let’s talk about mechs, and the terrain deformation system. I’ve included a brief example below.

What a small lovely church. I sure hope nothing bad happens to-
Oh dear.
This isn’t even from attacking or anything. This is from just having that mech move through it.

This is one of the coolest, and at the same time, most frustrating things about Iron Harvest for me. Mechs will just roll over a fair amount of anything that gets in their way. Unfortunately, this applies to your defenses as well. Unless you are very careful with your command move orders, they are more then happy to just stomp through fortifications you just finished setting up. Trying to keep mechs from destroying your own defensive line is a real struggle. And given that your defensive line usually exists somewhere between your factory and the place you want the mechs to go, it happens a lot.

This might be deliberate given that they’re supposed to be these hulking multi-ton behemoths, but it can also be exceedingly aggravating. They control like slugs on crack: hard to get moving, and even harder to stop. Mechs take about double damage from attacks that hit the back of the unit, so you want to be able to put them exactly where you need them, but the game doesn’t always play toward this. Move commands will not always actually re-orient a mech, and the turn speed on many units is very slow. This means you can end up with your forces pointed the entirely wrong direction in a fight.

Finally, the weapon platforms. I only have one real gripe with these, and it has to do with how the game handles attacks. From what I can tell, Iron Harvest seems to have a physics-based projectile system for attacks. This is true for all units in the game, but it’s easiest to notice with infantry-manned weapon systems.

This means that you can actually benefit from cover and high ground, but it also means your mounted machine gun will sometimes fire directly into the defensive sandbags you set up in front of it, instead of into the approaching enemy forces. You might just deploy cannons and later find out that they can’t actually hit anything. And since your troops don’t automatically adjust, they’ll just sit there while a battalion of jackholes with flamethrowers waltzes up to sauté your ass.

I’m going to try to summarize my issues here but it generally works out to this: unit controls are too clunky micro effectively, and interact with terrain, but if you don’t micro, you get wiped out. Not using terrain will mean you have a decent chance of just shooting into a wall. The experience system encourages you to keep your units alive, but scouting the map often requires at least some sacrifices, and again, requires that ever present micro. And you need to be doing all of this at the same time.

This last bit illustrates my biggest issue with Iron Harvest, and I think if I had to summarize it, it would be, “It feels like there are several underlying systems at work that simply do not play well with each other.” The game wants you to build fortifications, but you can’t control units effectively enough to not destroy them. The bunkers you can build that don’t just get destroyed when they get walked over count toward your population cap, as do anti-mech mines if you have access to them. The AI both gives you very little control (you can’t individually position units, just issue move orders until you have them where you want) and at the same time, you’re asked to be as careful as possible with placement, for example taking double damage if you’re shot in the back.

And finally, you have a destructible terrain system feels equally likely to fail you when you try to move a larger mech, and accidentally take out a line of barbed wire, because the AI simply follows orders.

Iron Harvest is full of interactions like this. You can station units in buildings, but you can’t give them hold fire orders. Attack move commands feel more like a suggestion. Units will repeatedly fire directly into walls, because they “see” enemies, but their attacks are blocked. Mortar and ranged units don’t have a “hold and fire” option. You can’t necessarily fire into fog of war.

These issues are less of a problem on the smaller levels, where you control a small number of units. Some of these levels are my favorite in the game, including one where you escort a train with a massive cannon. Another level has you using small sets of infantry to infiltrate and take out defenses, all the while avoiding larger patrols. These missions, where you have the time to focus and micro, where you only have a few units, and where you can really keep them alive, are where the games feels fun. You have the space to plan and watch, and figure out how to use all of these systems in your favor.

It’s when the game tries to have truly massive fights that everything just starts to fall apart. I found myself mostly just face-mashing my way through certain levels. I would try to build diverse unit compositions, but the second I lost a critical unit (longer range siege, anti-mech infantry), I would have to retreat and regroup my forces, as I would eventually run into a problem I didn’t have tools to deal with.

Iron Harvest is just too rough right now for me to see it as worth its price tag. The moments of fun are just not balanced out by the massive slog and frustration some of the larger levels can become. The quality of the campaign is varied, and doesn’t always play to the strengths of the game as a whole.

Iron Harvest is currently $50 on Steam. If you really love the aesthetic, and think you can put up with the issues above, you can buy it there if you want.