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.