Gaming’s graveyard is scattered with the bones of abandoned studios. In an industry that is epitomised by rising production costs, consolidation, increased competition, new console tech challenges, and fickle consumers, it is hardly surprising that so many indies go belly up. Over the last five years, UK developers have been hit especially hard, including Kaboom, Pivotal, Silicon Dreams, Argonaut, Elixir, and many more. The market is so competitive, the budgets so high, that to screw up a single game can prove disastrous.
Kapooki Games was one of Ireland’s brightest hopes at the turn of the decade. The company set forth in a tide of talent and ambition, with a wide-reaching modus operandi: console games, PC games, mobile phone games, and non-games related marketing applications. A skilled team were compiled from Ireland’s fledgling development base; investors and international publishers were eager to sign up. Yet, almost six years after Kapooki’s birth in 2000, the company collapsed under the weight of debt and deserted projects. Where did it all go wrong?
Kapooki’s story begins in the late 1990’s when Dave Stafford and Shane Whelan began to brainstorm over pints in Dublin’s Messrs Maguire pub, dreaming up prototypes for videogames. They were both employed by educational software company Riverdeep but were intent on establishing a business of their own. Dave Stafford recalls: “We worked towards setting up a games company for a few years, adding more like-minded people to the group from various disciplines as we went. We would meet at least once or twice a week and discuss what we needed to do, be it attend business events, find and contact with people who could provide funding, work on demos, business plans, research technology and so on.”
Dave conceptualised an MMOG called Junk, and spent a number of months designing that universe and creating characters, although he had yet to recruit programmers to help him along. At NCAD, Dave had designed a board game called Lorgaine (complete with wooden play pieces and laminated cards) and now explored its potential for an interactive world. “We had no technical experience in putting together the graphics element of software, certainly not in 3D,” recalls Shane Whelan. “The experience up to that point came from Riverdeep or basic graphics applications, but the end result was non interactive. Riverdeep had a pretty good system for churning out graphics, so we didn’t have to do a lot of R&D. It was just like learning another graphics programme.”
What Dave and Shane lacked in technical experience, they made up for in energy and ideas. Gearoid Coughlan, Roudy Courser and Ger Lawlor joined them, and when Michael Griffin (who had just completed his masters in Information Systems at NUI Galway) signed up, Kapooki started to look like a real prospect. In early 2000, the team attended the First Tuesday Club in Dublin’s Odeon Bar on Harcourt Street. This hugely successful gathering of entrepreneurs and investors was held on the first Tuesday of each month and saw thousands of pounds in venture capital going up for grabs.
“There was space for ten speakers,” recalls Shane. “By sheer coincidence, the guy who organised it went to my school and he offered me one of the speaker slots. I had no preparation – nothing written down – but took to the pedestal. We had no money but we had been working on ideas for the last two years and were ready to start now. That was the extent of my speech. I was stopped three times going back to my seat because there were so many investors who were hungry for business.”
According to an article in siliconrepublic.com, Kapooki’s largest investor was Campus Venture Capital, which injected €500k in April 2000. Other backers included Enterprise Ireland and a number of private investors. Kapooki officially started operations in May 2000, recruiting (amongst others) two graphics experts from Riverdeep, SoftCo programmer Richard Stowe, and 3D model animator Brian Loughlan. With Michael Griffin in place as CEO, the team eschewed a glitzy HQ in favour of more gritty surroundings.
Kapooki HQ was above a tattoo and pound shop on Talbot Street.
Dave Stafford explains: “The company office was in Talbot street, off O’Connell street. We were in a… let us say …economically orientated office space, but after a bit of spit and polish – well okay, carpentry, electrics and painting – we were set to go. We were above a Tattoo parlour, which was fun. It made giving directions to clients entertaining too. The work environment was great when we started. We were willing to devote our lives to making the company a success and for many of us it was a dream come true. There was great camaraderie, which was good, as the hours we put in were astronomical. We were happy to do it if it meant success for the company.”
Microsoft, Disney, Eidos, Vivendi, the Irish Lotto, T-online, SCI, EA, Nintendo, Encore, Hip Interactive, Codemasters, Empire Interactive, O2: all these companies talked shop with Kapooki, and the team worked around the clock to deliver the goods. “From meeting in pubs and in each other’s houses to starting the company and our first year in business, there were no backward steps at all,” smiles Gearoid Coughlan, Kapooki’s former CTO. “Everything was propelled forward. It was brilliant. I don’t think there was a bad day for the first year and a half. We initially had an agreement with O2 to host our MMOG, as they were thinking of venturing into online gaming, but that fell through in the first few weeks. This didn’t dampen our spirits at all.”
The team was focused, highly driven and excited at the thought of creating their first game. In the mind of Michael Griffin, and the rest of the team, the dream was to create an IP that would capture the public imagination and kick-start a franchise. That IP was Lorgaine: The Black Standard, an MMOG based on Irish mythology and a descendant of Dave Stafford’s college project. In this turn-based tactical game, players formed an army from either the Fomorians or the Tuatha Dé Danann, and then travelled ancient Ireland taking part in ritual contests, either for their own renown or as part of a larger conflict. Each war band consisted of 12 warriors of varying types and abilities.
Ger Lawlor worked on various aspects of the game, including crowd simulation, particle systems, camera effects, graphics and audio. “From a developer point of view Lorgaine proved interesting. The new technologies, upon which the game was being built, provided a strong learning curve for a team that had no previous game
development experience. Although it was originally developed as a board game, some of the game mechanics were better matched to the software model and the design. This created an explosion of additional features that could be built into the game.”
Lorgaine was an ambitious project, especially since it was original IP and an MMORPG. Ambition, however, bites the nails of success. Although German ISP T-Online published the MMOG as part of its online offering, the team were not particularly happy with the finished result. Feature creep (software that over-emphasises new features to the detriment of other design goals) was a particular problem, explains Ger.
“New features were unproven and pulled into the feature set, often against technical advice. There were technical issues with the graphics engine that slowed development and proved unsuitable in terms of supporting the vast universe we planned to build. On top of all that, there was no market research/support that could help change the product’s direction. None was ever undertaken. This raised questions with our investors and the end effect was to destabilise the company financially.”
Kapooki not only focused on big budget games, but also mobile and flash games. A contract with 02 led to two wireless titles: The Big Six, a Six Nations Rugby tie-in; and The Dating Game, especially released for Valentines Day. The team were often under-resourced and forced to work simultaneously on large titles as well as these smaller games. Gearoid Coughlan recalls a client bringing 24 cans Red Bull into the office one weekend so he and another programmer could complete a game. But these projects were funded via shared revenue and were not profitable, especially when set against time and development costs. Even the fantastically-named Night of the Zombie Brain Eaters From Beyond Mars failed to get a release beyond Kapooki’s own website.
The company’s first big body blow came in 2002. Michael Griffin had initiated talks with Microsoft – after various meetings the software giant approved the proof of concept for an Xbox game called Salvation. This third-person action game, based on Dante’s Inferno, cast the player as a witch-hunter who has to fight his way out of hell. Supported by Microsoft development funds, the team spent six months working on this game. Dave, Mike and Shane, created realms of documentation and design, and dedicated an inhuman amount of time and effort toward the project.
In May 2002, at E3 in Los Angeles, the team were told the bad news. “We had completed the proof of concept and were meant to sign deals to proceed with the game, but Microsoft had rearranged their studios,” says Gearoid Coughlan. “The guy we were dealing with was no longer in charge. The game was shelved.”
“Ironically, the game wasn’t our Salvation it was our undoing,” mutters Shane Whelan. Around the same time, T-Online dropped all its “violent” videogames after an alleged games-related shooting in Germany, leaving Lorgaine without a home. 2002 was a tough year for the technology sector as a whole, but potentially fatal for a fledgling start-up. Shane Whelan recalls: “We laid off most of the staff after E3 2002. I left, as did Roudy Courser. I was getting married and just didn’t think it was fair on my family to put up with a struggle.”
In the minds of the remaining Kapooki staffers, the show had to go on. “We got the company got back up and running and re-hired a couple of people,” continues Gearoid Coughlan. “The investors still had some faith in us and were willing to keep going if we found someone with more experience in the games industry.” Michael and Dave tracked down Les Edgar and John Cook, who represented some of the world’s top game companies, and they agreed to come on board. Kapooki picked itself up and carried on, but its next large-scale venture proved to be the last hurrah.
“We had an idea for a circus game called Frank’s Wild Years,” recalls Gearoid. “Originally this was an 18+ game where you played a down and out clown trying to make your way back into the business to the Big Top in Vegas. We were advised that it was too dark and it wouldn’t sell. So we boiled the concept down to a kid’s circus management game.” Ger Lawlor continues: “Players had to build the greatest circus in the world and could choose various performers to add to their acts, building their acts from scratch using an array of crazy props. When the acts were constructed the show would begin… Your success was portrayed through the crowd response”
Targeted squarely at the PS2 market, Big Top’s development progressed. Then, in May 2005, Kapooki CEO Michael Griffin stepped down for personal reasons. According to reports, Michael wished to spend more time with his wife and young child in Kilkenny – the long commutes to Dublin were understandably getting the better of him. By autumn 2005, with Dave Stafford in place as Kapooki CEO, the team had reached an internal pre-beta stage on Big Top, and the game’s core feature set was close to completion. Only Ger, Dave and Gearoid, were left at this stage. All had been working three months without salary. Big Top was close to a year in the making, around 90% of the game was completed, but Kapooki finally ran out of steam and money.
“Kapooki ultimately closed its doors because we were unable to acquire a publisher
or distributor for Big Top,” says Ger Lawlor. “Most of our funding at that stage was based upon getting a deal – the longer the lead time, the less financially stable the company became. This was despite the fact that we were at different stages of due
diligence with publishers, each of whom (based on my second-hand perspective) seemed to be showing a genuine interest in the game.” Dave Stafford adds: “After five years of constant crunch-time, we all just became exhausted. Even at that point, though, we continued on as long as there was the slightest hope.” That hope was finally shattered in October 2005 when, according to an article in the Sunday Business Post from that time, Kapooki Games collapsed with debts of over €700,000.
What went wrong? Why had one of Ireland’s brightest hopes in games development fallen at almost every hurdle? Dave Stafford ponders: “Well, I think we took on too much initially… We could have done with one or two people with more development experience at the outset, and the business side of the company should have had more resources earlier on. We brought [Les Edgar and John Cook] in later, but I think if we had them earlier it would have helped a great deal.” Shane Whelan adds his tuppence: “In the beginning there was too much naivety on everybody’s part. We needed a bit more business experience and a bit more cross-disciplinarian experience. Nobody had end design experience. Just because you happen to like games, a developer has to understand how software works.”
In the wake of Kapooki’s demise, the team went their separate ways: Michael Griffin returned to his family business, the hotel industry; Ger Lawlor now works in digital television; Gearoid Coughlan works for putplace.com, and is developing a new version of Lorgaine; Roudy Courser is a graphic designer; Dave Stafford is a pixel artist for Upstart games; and Shane Whelan coordinates the higher national diploma game design course in Ballyfermot College of Further Education. Many other employees emigrated to England, the States and elsewhere. Some are employed by major development studios.
Ger Lawlor says that if there is a lesson to be learned from Kapooki’s story, it should be for start-up studios to “attract an industry leader who can champion the company and provide strong guidance to the company at a very early stage… Insight into how successful game studios work is invaluable. Also, plan how you intend to generate revenue outside of the main game development and make it critical to the operation of the company.”
Dave Stafford advises new studios to be “passionate but realistic. It is a big money business, so pick your niche well. As companies like Havok and DemonWare show, an Irish company can make a massive impression on the world stage. In my opinion Kapooki’s demise should be seen more as a stepping stone than a headstone.” Kapooki now rests in pieces, but (from beyond the grave) it teaches us lessons about how to survive the competitive, costly, and cut-throat world of game development.
Author: Pavel Barter
For past features on Kapooki see:
Developments in Online Gaming – http://www.gamedevelopers.ie/features/viewfeature.php?article=4
Michael Griffin won the gd.ie ‘Salmon of Knowledge’ award in 2004 especially for his contributions to the ‘Lessons Learned the Hard Way’ thread. Read it again at http://www.gamedevelopers.ie/forums/viewtopic.php?t=15