Home Features The Hidden History of Halfbrick

The Hidden History of Halfbrick

The Hidden History of Halfbrick

Stories of Halfbrick’s rise and fall have been told and retold. The do-or-die moment before it rolled the dice on new IP. Fruit Ninja conquering the world. The shedding of designers and transformation into a publishing house.

But stories of its genesis? Bizarrely, there isn’t an accurate account available.

Official company communications have put forward the “six guys in a basement” narrative most of us are familiar with. It’s a fiction, perhaps born out of a desire for conciseness — but it erases the quiet heroes and nuanced history of Australia’s most successful game studio.

The Halfbrick we know started with a trio of three very Queensland nicknames: Shaz, Baz, and Daz. But in a bizarre rewriting of the tale, the ABC documentary Play to Win portrayed the start of Halfbrick as Shaz, Baz, and… Phil? It’s unclear why the documentary wrote out a co-founder (and broke with the fun rhyming convention) to awkwardly slot in Phil Larsen, who joined Halfbrick years later in a PR role.

Through company press releases and the only documentary available, we only know the later chapters of Halfbrick’s story, and it’s time for the other half of the brick.

Failure to Launch

Halfbrick had several false starts before it was the studio we’re all familiar with. First registered as a sole trader, then a partnership, the earliest Halbrick staff were a gaggle of graduates from a one-year Qantm course. That class of 2000 included two eventual founders of the Halfbrick we know: Shainiel Deo (Shaz), destined to be CEO, and Dan Vogt (Daz), a longtime director and co-founder.

After some disastrous school projects – as most student projects are – a number of them decided to chase the dream of a studio making its own IP. There wasn’t anything especially meaningful about the name — just a bunch of words thrown up on a whiteboard over beers, and Halfbrick seemed to be the one that stuck.

The earliest Halfbrick had all the stereotypical trappings of young, inexperienced developers. Light on discipline, and heavy on beers, pizza, and Counter-Strike. It aimed to make a game that was too big, went nowhere fast, and shed members down to about five.

Months later, the next version of Halfbrick aimed to attract contract work by building a platformer called Booze. The prototype video puts one in mind of Altered Beast, with the main character gaining a scarier form as power orbs are collected. Sensing things were more professional this time, Dan Vogt joined the team in an artistic capacity, working on sprites.

Sadly the crew would have more issues and split yet again, with an amicable shared ownership of code assets — leaving Shaz, Daz, and Jason Cassar, another Qantm alumnus. It felt like another false start for Halfbrick, and there were more to come in 2002.

In the new trio’s first six months, the group worked on the PS2/GameCube versions of Rocket Power: Beach Bandits for Evolution Games, and brought on programmer Courtney Pasieczny to help. Later the crew would work out of Cassar’s house on an idea that wouldn’t see the light of day until years later when we were treated to Raskulls.

The focus on contract work was a more realistic trajectory for a new studio, but the crew always had its eye on original IP. It mainly focused on tools and tech for 2D platformers and the GameBoy Advance, hoping to use the same tools later for its own games — a common double-dipping strategy for studios finding their feet.

The notion of expanding into new hardware was toyed with, as were new prototypes, but these too didn’t eventuate.

“The deals never went anywhere,” Vogt told us. “But it got us jazzed about making a 2D platformer with a mascot character.”

Another prototype the team had been excited about, titled Fuzz & Rocket, aimed to take the best platforming parts of Yoshi’s Island and Donkey Kong Country and put them on the GBA. After Cassar moved to Melbourne the team had to work out of Shaz’s house with a few interns to get it in a presentable state. The project was put on the backburner until being cancelled years later, and the team would lose more members — but it meant when the team met with Krome Studios in August of 2003, it had something to show them.

Krome immediately put them to work.

Bringing on Az and Baz – real employees! Halfbrick moved into Krome’s basement with the task of bringing Ty the Tasmanian Tiger to the GBA. The future looked brighter, albeit below ground. This began the true “basement” part of Halfbrick’s history — the basement of Krome Studios.

Polishing With Krome

The time at Krome marked a turning point for Halfbrick. In name and nature, this was when Halfbrick transformed from a loose group of individuals into a company.

Grateful as they were for the work, the conditions at Krome weren’t ideal. Quality Assurance teams had it the worst — a stuffy room with crowded benches for seats and CRT monitors stacked on top of each other. Hygiene was also a factor.

“We used to have rats come and mess with our stuff,” said Vogt. “At one point I made a rat trap with an apple and a pencil, where a weighted basket would trap the rat if it touched the apple. It worked perfectly when I came in the next morning, but it had chewed its way out of the plastic basket!”

Still focusing on the GameBoy Advance while working on the Ty franchise, Halfbrick filled gaps in Krome’s expertise but was more interested in striking out on their own than rounding out Krome’s services to US contractors. The time had come to think seriously about their future.

“It was just nothing for the longest time,” Vogt said. “False starts, accruing experience, taking in bits along the way. Not afraid of losing out. We just figured, once it’s valuable, we’ll have a talk about it.”

After a successful job on Ty, the crew would begin work on the sequel, Night of the Quinkan, in 2004. They reached out to other publishers for more work, while Shaz and Vogt scanned Brisbane for suitable office space. When THQ commissioned Barnyard from them, that gave the green light to move to the Kelvin Grove office — the home of Halfbrick for the next ten years, and birthplace of every iconic Halfbrick custom.

Shainiel and Vogt had the discussion about ownership they had been putting off, and Vogt would run a new office space that Halfbrick could call its own. From 2004 until 2012, Vogt (Daz) would be a Director of the company, at one point owning a significant amount of voting shares.

Not that voting was often necessary; leadership decisions came without conflict in those days. The move to Kelvin Grove in Brisbane in 2005 allowed Halfbrick to build the culture that would lead to its future successes.

The Start of Halfbrick Culture

With more work lined up for THQ and Nickelodeon, the stage was set to expand the number of teams. With that came the need to put company policies and culture in place.

Late night pizzas to accompany evening work was common. Scrum development was tested while working on a 2008 prototype, and later adopted throughout the company. A profit sharing arrangement was considered endlessly, but specifics such as how to handle tax could never be ironed out.

“We legit just stole the Valve playtesting process,” said Vogt. “They did a GDC thing and said ‘please steal this,’ and we found it worked great for us.”

Arguably the most important culture fixture was Halfbrick Fridays — time reserved for employees to work on original projects. Companies like Google and 3M had experienced success with similar policies, and Shainiel Deo’s voracious appetite for business books kept them trying new things.

It was born of necessity. Placed against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, Fruit Ninja literally saved the company. Most of the Australian market had been doing work for US companies whose dollar was doubled down under. Post-GFC, it was harder and harder for Aussies to win those contracts, even with Halfbrick’s relationships with publishers like THQ.

The key to Halfbrick Fridays was its structure. This wasn’t a day for everyone to just work on pet projects. You had to pitch to the group and gather willing helpers for your idea, a sort of microcosmic marketing test to prove there would be public interest for it. According to Shainiel Deo, the round that birthed Fruit Ninja was about building “ a one-screen game your mum could play.” Needless to say, after Fruit Ninja was pitched, several people put their hands up to assist with the prototype.

But even the mindset that led to Fruit Ninja was intentional. Weekly beer sessions were often led by Shaz and focused on where the larger gaming market was headed, and what the company should be building towards.

“At one point I spoke to someone at Defiant who said they viewed the culture over at Halfbrick as too blokey”, said Vogt. “Looking back, some of the stuff was a bit ‘ugh’… But I never fully agreed. It was just a specific mindset. That’s why Halfbrick people who’ve left tend to hire other Halfbrick people. It’s a kind of craftsman culture.”

This presents the success of Fruit Ninja in a different way. Rather than the simple narrative of Luke Muscat tinkering with an iPad and randomly falling into touchscreen brilliance, it was more deliberate, targetted, and perhaps even inevitable. If App Store success is lightning in a bottle, Halfbrick Fridays made sure there were always ample bottles to work with.

The rest is known history — Fruit Ninja took over the world, Luke Muscat went on to create another great success in Jetpack Joyride, and the company had gone from almost laying off most of its staff to fully paid overseas holidays.

A Monarchy Has No Vogts

Over time, the craftsman culture started to take its toll on Dan Vogt. There were fortnightly check-ins on every project, each 2-3 hours long, and finding time for his own projects was increasingly tough. He found himself burning out and took a sabbatical in 2011 — before having an overseas epiphany that he wasn’t coming back.

“I used to want to lead a prototyping team in the company, I had lots of ideas,” he said. “While taking a break, I realised if I were given a million dollar budget, I wouldn’t know what to make. I was burnt out on the company. Not the people.“

Vogt arrived back in Australia to a Halfbrick at war with itself. New managers driving new priorities, and veteran designers unhappy their prototypes were being knocked back. It was the beginning of the well-documented end of a Halfbrick era: the firing of designers, taking on publishing contracts, expanding into Asia, and turning Fruit Ninja into a global IP powerhouse.

As a passionate advocate for design, Vogt and his collaborative creation had grown apart.

Examining the Old Narrative

Whether down to humility, imposter syndrome, tall poppy avoidance, or just plain indifference, Vogt never wore the mantle of “boss” with ease. Newer employees often didn’t realise he was leadership until months later, and after his departure, many didn’t know his name at all.

“People tell me to embrace the ‘co-founder’ term,” he said. “In terms of the new company, I was there for all the important stuff and decision making.”

That’s a recipe for rewriting history, though one could put down the simplistic “six guys in a basement” narrative to brevity, even if it’s at the cost of accuracy.

Shainiel Deo doesn’t speak to the media, but in a 2017 video celebrating Halfbrick’s induction into the QLD Business Leaders Hall of Fame, he did highlight Dan Vogt as a subsequent partner of the company, as well as acknowledging key figures like Luke Muscat.

But the ABC documentary? That was deliberate historical fiction.

“They interviewed me for around 5 hours. Later they said they were sorry I was taken out of it but they had to string together a narrative and all that,” Vogt told us.

The “Daz, Baz, and Phil” section almost seems like there was a first draft that was factually correct, and edited later, for… reasons? Vogt, as a designer, would have snugly fit into the documentary’s main thread of Design vs Evil Modern Business Models.

“Everyone who watched the doco, who was there, thought ‘what the fuck?’” he said. “It missed the core story, Shaz’s evolution. There were hints of it, where he was talking about designers leaving, and then they had a bit where he cried — but that footage came from a different interview when he was talking about his relationship with his family breaking down. The viewer would’ve thought, poor guy, his staff went off and left him.”

For stories spanning many years, it often takes multiple angles and lenses to get the full picture. The documentary managed to capture the general feeling of a studio attempting to move into a new space. But in terms of documenting the history of Australia’s most successful studio, it felt like sacrificing specific truths for a narrative.

Other than being Australia’s most successful studio, what makes the story so compelling is the thought of what could have been. What if Halfbrick had kept its belief in good design, risk-taking, and new IP? What if it invested in new projects locally, like the $500,000 fund from Hipster Whale, the creators of Crossy Road?

We’ve only had a half-story from Halfbrick, and despite its wild success, it feels like we’ve only seen half the potential as well.

Thanks to Dan Vogt for his time.

Halfbrick and representatives from the Play to Win documentary were contacted for comment on this story.

They have not responded at the time of publishing.