Earlier this month, Eximius: Seize the Frontline, an Early Access game on Steam described as a hybrid FPS/RTS, received a DMCA takedown notice. Now, Steam games receive takedowns like these all the time - but this one was unique in that it was filed by Ammobox Studios, the Malaysian developer that created Eximius. Why would a dev DMCA its own game? According to the folks at Ammobox, it was because their UK-based publisher, The Game Wall Studios, wasn't paying them.
In a post to Eximius' Steam community forum, Ammobox explained that "we had to file a DMCA against our very own game on Steam" because The Game Wall "went off grid and has not made any payment of the sale of the game to developers." The takedown had the desired effect, and the game's store page was pulled offline on January 9. Existing owners were still able to play it, but Eximius was unavailable for purchase until yesterday, January 22.
"We managed to gain back access to our store page on Steam," Ammobox explained in an update to its original post. "You should be able to purchase with no problem on Steam now. We're still in the middle of pursuing legal actions against our previous publisher which may take some time."
Ammobox is now listed as both the developer and publisher of Eximius on Steam. However, at the time of this writing, The Game Wall still appears as the game's publisher on the Humble store. The Game Wall hasn't totally disappeared from Steam, either; it's still listed as the co-publisher of Guns and Robots.
I reached out to Ammobox and spoke to concept artist Christian Salge, who works for the studio remotely. Salge confirmed that following the DMCA and Eximius' subsequent reinstatement, Ammobox is now in control of the game's Steam page and its revenue. Apart from the studio's ongoing legal battle, that would be the end of this story - were it not The Game Wall's reportedly sordid history.
"Promises were made and broken"
On January 21, 2019, Ammobox CEO and founder Jeremy Choo shared the studio's plight in a Reddit post. Choo clarified that his studio was missing revenue from Eximius' September 2018 launch all the way through the recently concluded Steam Winter Sale. In an update addressing feedback from other indie developers, Choo also explained why the studio first accepted the contract with The Game Wall, and how they got into their current situation.
"You may call this dumb," Choo said. "Perhaps we are. We have been turned down by many big publishers mainly because we're a new team. It didn't matter if we execute or what we made, it just mattered that we aren't already a proven team. While we understood that rationale, it was frankly [frustrating] that this is how the world is run. Perhaps you could call it an emotional weakness. We rooted for the underdog because we are one of similar nature. Additionally, there was another factor. One of our investors [pulled] out [a] few months before launching, causing us to lack the finances for marketing. This was an unfortunate incident that forces us to accept whichever publisher that comes our way."
"So, from reading your story, it seems the guy went on a similar approach he did with us: He set up a meeting, talked about a new investor and some marketing plans he could set up for our game," e-vinyl said. "At that time he was looking 'to invest' in the Portuguese game development scene, since the publisher's CEO was Portuguese himself. We were rather inexperienced back then and we signed a contract with them, knowing their portfolio was not as 'big' as it is today. Afterwards it was the same as you guys: promises were made and broken until contact was ceased."
Slinki developer Titan Forged Games is also listed as the game's publisher on Steam. However, a press release from 2014 confirms that Titan Forged Games did indeed partner with The Game Wall. This release also links to the publisher's current website, which still lists Eximius as one of its games. (Update: The Game Wall's website has since been taken down.)
Slinki's 2014 press release features quotes from The Game Wall PR contact Eduardo Monteiro. But according to The Game Wall's publicly available business records, Monteiro is also the publisher's founder and sole employee. This lines up with stories Choo reportedly heard from other developers following his Reddit post.
"Things like this need to be exposed," Choo said on Reddit. "This person needs to be put out of business."
In an interview with GamesIndustry, Ammobox said The Game Wall - that is, Monteiro - "disappeared completely" in November 2018. According to Salge, Ammobox still hasn't heard back from the publisher, and sadly it's looking like they never will.
The Game Wall has not been active on its Facebook or Twitter since September 2018, and the phone number it has on file has been disconnected. As Choo said on Reddit, the studio's odds in court aren't great, either. For starters, we're talking about a Malaysian developer invoking US law to pursue a UK publisher who seems to have skipped town. Reaching any sort of conclusion wouldn't be easy or quick. Apart from that, Choo said Ammobox probably won't be able to afford the legal fees, especially with the lion's share of their revenue missing.
It's a terrible situation all around, but Choo and Ammobox are raring to come back from it. "We're nearly collapsed, full of debts, but finally regained our App ID," Choo said. "We will rise up." If nothing else, after all this, The Game Wall probably won't be getting any new clients anytime soon.