“We were raped from the very first day”: how twenty-five people worked a month in a non-existent game studio


Not getting a cent.

On Kotaku published an investigation of a major fraud that occurred in gamedev community. Twenty-five people got to work in a game studio that was engaged in the development of Zeal – indie-MMORPG.

However, after a month it turned out that the company did not exist legally, and it did not have any funding. We chose the most important of the material.

One of the storytellers was Brooke Holden – the girl worked as a team manager. Before that, she was in a similar position in the office, hoping one day to get into game dev.

In order to get the first experience in the field, she turned to the subreddit, where game developers are looking for associates. Despite the fact that “it was not serious,” several users responded to it. One of them was a man with an active history in subreddits with game development vacancies – he said that his team of three people had recently grown to forty-eight, and the resulting studio urgently needed a manager.

At the end of June 2019, Holden signed a contract with Drakore Studios – agreeing to the position of a junior production manager with an hourly rate of $ 13. According to the owner of the company Rana Mahal, she was registered in Canada. All employees worked remotely.

In Drakore Studios engaged in the creation of Zeal. This game really existed – it was released in Early Access on Steam in September 2018. It was developed by Lycanic Studios, consisting of two people – Mertha Dincher and Tim Popov.

Zeal was conceived as a MMORPG, focused on PvP battles in the spirit of World of Warcraft – but only “without grind, level-ups and steam-over gear: I chose the class, assembled the build and went to the arena.” Lycanic even started a Kickstarter campaign after the game was released in early access, but in the end it was canceled – for half the time, the project collected only a tenth of the required money.

However, work on the game continued, and her community continued to live. Zeal has almost three hundred “mostly positive” reviews on Steal, and a couple of large streamers on Twitch, including Sodapoppin with 2.5 million followers, managed to show it on their broadcasts.

We did not have a marketing budget. We were simple indie developers who tried to make the dream a reality. We thought that the idea of ​​the game was good, and if we could implement it well, people would be interested – publishers, investors, and so on. But we had no connections

.Mert dincher Co-founder of Lycanic Studios

Rana Mahal learned about Zeal from one of the fans of the game. As a result, he suggested that the developers “unite forces” and buy out Lycanic – Dincher and Popov agreed, considering this to be a good way out. According to Mahal, he had 25 thousand dollars of investments, and it was planned to attract even more money from investors. The founders of Lycanic continued to work as part of Drakore.

After Holden went to work, it turned out that the company consists of twenty-five people, and not forty-eight of the claimed. There were 2D and 3D artists, game designers, marketers, and so on — the girl helped them all to streamline the workflow, combining their stay in Drakore with office work.

Also in the studio in preproduction there was another game – MMO called AetherBound. The team hoped that the release of Zeal will allow them to gain experience and fame.

Concept Art AetherBound

Mahal told the staff that he allegedly had experience at Amazon Game Studios – in the position of junior art director. Then, he said, he also worked as a contract in BioWare during the development of Dragon Age Inquisition – and there he was allegedly instructed by Mike Leidlow, creative director of the franchise.

During the investigation, Laydlow gave a comment to Kotaku. Amazon Game Studios did not respond to the request.

I do not remember anyone with this name – so it is unlikely that I was a mentor for him to one degree or another.Mike laydlowcreative director of the Dragon Age series

Even then, Dincher and Popov noticed that something was not clear here – they did not find sufficient evidence of the stories of Mahal. But they had nothing to lose.

Even if there was even the slightest chance of Mahal being clean, it would have been worth it. Then the situation with our game was worse than ever.Mert dincherCo-founder of Lycanic Studios

Lycanic signed a contract with Drakore, according to which the rights to Zeal were transferred to Drakore – with a payment of 7 thousand dollars. Dincher and Popov should have remained in the team in the lead positions of the development and receive interest on sales. After this, the full production of the game began.

During the development of the Mahal from time to time told what they said about Zeal, his “friends from the industry.” “A friend from Riot Games” considered that the studio had a wrong approach to creating cosmetics, and “a friend from a large publishing house who was already ready to invest,” wanted a class system, not a customization of characters.

In the studio, of course, it didn’t sound so believable – Dincher and Popov believed that he gave his position for the opinion of “friends” (who were almost certainly imaginary). Mahal also said that at Epic Games they offered him $ 2 million on AetherBound – a company spokesman told Kotaku later that this was a lie.

The owner of Drakore even asked if they could “develop a game in the spirit of Auto Chess“ for a couple of months ”. At the same time, the first conversations began to stop working remotely and help everyone move to Canada.

However, the strange promises faded against the background of another problem – for a month the employees have never paid money yet. Suspecting Mahal in deception, they began to pressure him to show documents about the existence of Drakore Studios – but no one saw them. Especially important was the question: when will the first payments?

When Holden began asking Mahal about what happened to those 25 thousand dollars, which should have been enough by the end of August 2019, he replied that “they have already been spent,” and until he finds new investors, there will be no salaries.

In a conversation with Kotaku, Mahal noted that these 25,000 indeed existed – but he didn’t confirm his words.

Yes, even if I took these 25 thousand to myself, spent it on drugs, and in the end, wouldn’t have paid them to anyone, then I clearly indicated for everyone that there is a serious chance that we will not receive funding.Rana Mahal

To increase investor interest in Zeal, Mahal contacted Jonathon McKay, the head of Canadian studio Skymarch Entertainment. Previously, he helped some studios find financing.

Mahal asked for help to find money. He said that he had been in the industry for some time and managed to work as an art director. Many who like to rush to the big names of the companies in which they managed to work, and which mean nothing to me.

Jonathan McKay

Head of Skymarch Entertainment

McKay liked Zeal, but first he wanted to dig information about Drakore Studios and talk with one of the studio staff. Mahal gave contacts to Holden, which over the past month has become very suspicious of his boss.

According to Holden, shortly after the beginning of the conversation, McKay switched to “an extremely serious tone.”

– It will be very difficult to find money for you.

– Why?

– Firstly – because your company does not exist.

Drakore Studios, Ltd., has not signed any contract with Lycanic for the transfer of rights to Zeal, and has never been registered in Canada or any other country. Mahal explained it this way: his accountant handed over the necessary documents and went to India for a long vacation – after which he returned and found that they were not accepted.

Holden started to check with her colleagues – and Dincher with Popov confirmed that Drakore did not acquire the rights to Zeal, and they did not receive any money. After that, the team took action: on July 23, Mahalu blocked access to all databases, from the email domain and social networks to Google Drive. On Mahal himself filed a complaint to the social services in connection with fraud.

Soon, Holden posted a great message in the Slack studio.

More recently, the facts were revealed, which none of us knew. First, Drakore Studios never existed. […] Secondly, in fact, Drakore, in fact, never owned Zeal, and the IP is still behind Tim and Mert. […] Because of the above reasons, no one can finance us – no publisher or investor in his mind will give money to a company that does not technically exist and does not own the rights to the game they sell. 

We were raped from the first day.

Brooke holden

As a result, Dincher and Popov left Drakore, taking Zeal with them.

This is not their fault – we were all misled. I really do not want to say this, but I strongly doubt that Drakore will pay us at least a penny. I could not find evidence of any money, only promises.

Brooke holden

Mahal himself does not recognize that this is a fraud. According to him, for some time he really owned Zeal, and he still plans to pay the promised money.

It’s funny that they consider me a fraud. Wow, a divorce for which I had to work from 80 to 100 hours a week for free. The best divorce ever.

Rana Mahal

Nevertheless, the journalist Kotaku noted that during the interview Mahal had repeatedly refused to confirm the presence of contacts, the rights to the company and his stories about working in game dedev.

I actually have these contacts, but I’m not going to give you names. You can say I lied if you want.

Rana Mahal

Meanwhile, Lycanic continues to develop Zeal – the game is being made on bare enthusiasm. Brooke Holden also stayed in the studio, helping the team in their spare time.

In the end, this is hardly a loss for us – we rather won in some way. Now we know a bunch of people who want to help us for free – until the game starts to bring money.

Mert dincher Co-founder of Lycanic Studios


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