The end of January brought with it the end of New Zealand's biggest game development studio.
Gameloft Auckland, a branch of the Paris-based mobile giant Gameloft SE, employed around 160 people at the time of its closure, many of whom are still looking for new jobs.
The government has since announced its intention to "claw back" $3 million in development grants from the company. But the process of - and reasoning behind - the closure remains cloaked in mystery.
We spoke to a now-former Gameloft employee, on condition of anonymity, to learn exactly what went down in the studio's final month.
Q: I'm sorry you lost your job at the start of the year - did this just happen right as you went back to work?
A: The studio had an annual leave period around Christmas time. Around about the 6th of January, people started coming back into the studio - we had a bunch of builds that we had to send off to the big Paris HQ. And then one of the weekends, an email that came through saying to come in on Monday, because there's a proposal that will affect the future of Gameloft New Zealand. It wasn't very obvious what it was about. That they had to keep it ambiguous - that was very surprising.
When we came in on the Monday, they essentially told us the studio wasn't profitable. Their proposal was to terminate the operations at the studio, making us all redundant.
Then they gave us a letter which stated their intent, as per the law, and they highlighted certain financial figures showing that we were running at a loss from 2014, almost, it seems. Now that was also a surprise, because if your studio's running at a loss, you would not hire that many people, or you would maybe cut back on a couple things. But it seems like these financial figures were a known.
Q: I've seen a couple of comments on a news story saying, "but I've just seen ads for Gameloft hiring people."
A: That's very true. We put ads out, and sometimes we bring in local people, and sometimes we bring in international people.
When we bring in international people, we relocate them to New Zealand. We help them with their residency process, etc, but what happens is these people are given the confidence that the studio is a viable option to stay at and move their family too. And then suddenly these financial figures come out, and apparently it's not so.
The biggest thing was that a lot of these international people - and we're talking about people from America, people from Spain, almost every corner of the world - they're being told, "here's your notice period being paid out; here's the annual leave you have; good luck." It's pretty crazy. So many people were pulled through this false impression that we were doing okay.
Q: So literally, you went in on the Monday and they all just said, "you're out of a job?" That was it?
A: No. We came in on the Monday, and with the New Zealand law around redundancy, before they make any final actions, they have to put forward a proposal of what their intention is and why. So we had a representative from HQ come through to our studio with a New Zealand lawyer, and he walked us through what they were proposing. He wasn't having fun either. This is his job. He'd been told, "you need to go down and propose this to the studio."
He walked us through what was being proposed, we were all given a letter saying what the proposal was, and then we were given a window of opportunity to make counter-proposals. That would be us proposing to downsize the studio to keep one project, for example.
[At the end of that window], we were told to come in before 10:00 for a meeting.
In the meeting, we were given another letter saying "thanks for your proposals." In that letter, they went through all the common questions and common proposals. I guess, again, by law, they've had to go, "yes, we see that you've suggested this, and we still believe that closing down the studio is a more viable option."
And then on top of that, we received another redundancy letter, which says, you know, "thanks for working at Gameloft, here's your payout." The normal contract restriction of trade - where you're not allowed to work at another studio for three months - that was waived, so that's good. And then I went to an interview right afterwards. [laughs]
Q: Wow, I'm sorry.
A: [laughs] No, it's all good. We [were] kind of sitting around waiting for the news for a while. They really have to make it look like they're abiding by the New Zealand law, and with that proposal period, where we had the option to make counter-proposals, they really needed to show that they'd given us an opportunity. They can't show that they've made their mind up already, which they probably have - they need to look like they're considering everything we've asked.
Q: I heard a whisper that Vivendi, which formerly owned Activision, was thinking about buying Gameloft. Have you heard anything about that?
A: Yeah. That was one of the things that was asked quite a lot to the Gameloft representative. Of course, he didn't give any confirmation - he had to be very careful about what he said. But the general feeling is that Vivendi has been hunting after Gameloft and Ubisoft for a little while now, before Christmas. And last time I checked, they had purchased about 26 or 28 percent of the shares.
We had known about this, and the big boss, Michel Guillemot, he sent an email about it to the studio. And it was like, if you read between the lines, he was kind of implying that all the studios needed to up their game, otherwise the Gameloft investors would not have confidence in the Gameloft family, and they'd sell their shares to the new owners.
I don't know any facts for sure, but if you imagine that the only shares that Vivendi have to purchase now are from the other investors, all they'd have to do is say, "we can run this place better than the family that's running the show" - because it is a family - and the investors would sell their shares to Vivendi. And for the Guillemot family, it's in their best interests to make it look like they're not running at a loss. So you can imagine that maybe - maybe - they might be closing down studios to make their numbers look better.
But that's only speculation.
Q: What was the reaction around the studio when you heard Gameloft was opening a new studio in Nigeria?
A: It was kind of bittersweet. Here, they're closing us, and we've output some quality titles, and apparently we've been running at a loss all these years and no one's made us aware of it. When upper management, apparently, is unaware that we're running at a loss, something really crazy is going on. And then Nigeria opens a studio and it's like, "okay..."
And you also know about the other studio closures - there was New York and Seattle, and I think some of the Chinese studios as well. So we were starting to try to pull up our socks anyway. But apparently, it looks like we were always being considered for it.
• Read the original article as it appeared on Gameplanet here.