The death of Trine: a cautionary tale about game development in India
Trine (not to be confused with the awesome game series of the same name) was one of India’s first console studios. It got mainstream public attention in India for its announcement of the interesting-looking racer Streets of Mumbai, and while that was only a ploy for attention, since then Trine has made ten games ranging from RPGs like Gothic 3: Forsaken Gods to cricket titles such as Street Cricket Champions. It was arguably one of India’s most prolific studios.
Now, almost a year after apparently going defunct, Trine is in the news again. With some Trine employee salaries still unpaid since last year, the folks behind Trine have started a new company anyway.
I managed to speak to then-CEO Sangam Gupta (who, if Google is to be believed, hasn’t been interviewed in six years). The ex-CEO and erstwhile owner of Trine now runs Rebelfiction. I wanted to know where it all went wrong for one of India’s brighter studios. He boils it down to himself:
It was my personal managerial mistake. We had overestimated ourselves, to be very frank. For [...] the resources we had available, we should have got rid of [some other resources] to keep the payments going.
Though this sounds like a rather simple error, it’s not the only thing that torpedoed Trine. Prying further, it seems like mismanagement was just one of the many problems the company had.
Passion and publishers
Gupta was trying to build a studio that was different. His vision wasn’t to create a pure service- driven business similar to the IT sector, nor was it to be as frugally-run as some of his competitors.
I didn’t want to run this like an IT business. That’s not gaming. We’re gamers. We’re doing this out passion. We’re doing what we love. Sure, we’re an entertainment company, but we have to deliver. And I banked on my team delivering. That’s where I found my position to be the worst. Not only am I getting heat from employees for not getting paid but I’m getting heat from clients. Publishers would get upset.
Specifically, publishers got upset with Trine missing milestones and release dates. Teams at Trine were given the liberty to set their own milestones, but that didn’t work as smoothly as Gupta had hoped. They sometimes missed by as much as five months. Naturally that had an adverse effect on the balance sheet.
My vision for Trine was to give all the guys a platform to perform. Every milestone given to a publisher was [set] by the team. With Move Street Cricket 2, my own team said that they’d submit the gold master by November. That didn’t happen until April. I clearly told every single guy that if this happens there will be payment issues. During the production phase there were no payment issues because we were delivering on time and we were getting paid on time. It’s not like I was running away with the money.
Part of the problem, Gupta says, was that he didn’t have the clout to hold publishers over a barrel when it came to game delays. All the money that came into Trine, he claims, was from clients such as Sony and Jo Wood, and if the game wasn’t done on schedule they’d simply stop payment:
No external funding was there. We were purely reliant on funding from the clients and that’s limited. I remember having discussions with Jo Wood where developers across the world [would] hold publishers to ransom. Either they pay or the code would not be handed over. Publishers already invested ten million Euros in a game; they have to give another one or two million to support the project. We didn’t have those benefits. We couldn’t blackmail somebody because we weren’t big enough.
A few ex-employees chalked the issues with delays up to inefficient management and inexperience on part of the employees. But when they did end up backed into a corner by their own deadlines, employees claimed, Gupta had no issues with making employees work extreme hours, even if they hadn’t been paid in months.
Fire at will
Part of the problem was also Gupta himself. He’s certainly a divisive figure, and lot of the employees I spoke to lauded him for being approachable and keeping an open door policy. But an equal number felt he made life tough for project leads who wanted to keep their teams in check, as the open-door approach led them to feeling redundant. Some also felt he was too immature, brash, and impulsive to lead a company.
They refer to him as a friendly boss. But he was extremely evasive when it came to discussing important matters, they said, although most found him to be perceptive of the issues present in the company.
And Gupta himself admits he wasn’t exactly playing by the book all the time, especially when it came to firing people. If he wasn’t happy with an employee’s performance, he’d fire them on the spot. That’s usually not done in India; you simply can’t hire and fire people without due process. Giving them severance or asking them to serve out a one or three month notice is the norm. Gupta says of his detractors:
All the guys who are talking publicly are the sort who were terminated immediately. If I get mad I just go the computer, turn off the monitor and tell the person to leave. I believe if I am paying a salary and giving you an opportunity which other people can get as well, [so] I want dedication.
Gupta says he also had problems finding reliable talent. Hiring in gaming has always been a cause for concern in this country. He cites the example of a programmer who brazenly took off from work for three weeks without prior notice, leading to massive delays on meeting crucial milestones.
To add to this, other countries caught up extremely well and eroded the cost advantage of publishers doing business in India. Gupta cites the current situation in the animation industry: according to him, India is twice as expensive as China and Thailand. He gave me the example of what transpired during the planning of Trine’s cricket games:
Street Cricket Champions 2 (on the PS2 and PSP) was a re-skin as per Sony’s mandate. All we did was re-skin all the art assets and fix a few bugs. We couldn’t do much since the team behind the first Street Cricket Champions left. The engine was the Infernal engine and by then Terminal Reality had shut down so support was nil. We did the bare minimum. But we still spent INR 95,00,000 (approx. $158,000) on Street Cricket Champions 2 on the artwork including characters, animations, UI, and even salaries.
A year later we thought of doing a Street Cricket Championship 3 for the PS2 and PSP. One of our guys suggested that we get the art outsourced by a developer overseas. We got quotes from developers in China, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand who have worked on a lot of games. They were willing to do the entire art for 13 lacs [around $22,000]. If you’re getting it done much cheaper elsewhere, why would you get it done from India?
When other studios would have halved their size, Gupta believed in going against the grain. Many Indian developers working at the bigger game studios feel that infrastructure, software and hardware resources are scarce. As a result, the games suffer. Gupta wanted to avoid that, and in the case of Move Street Cricket 2, he was adamant about making the shift to the Unreal engine and managed to get a buy-in from Trine’s tech team. His reason was simple:
Let’s get a game out where we don’t have to say “we don’t have this”, I don’t buy into that Indian bullshit where “Oh it’s made in India so it’s like that”; the license for Infernal was $20,000 and Unreal was $150,000. I could have [stuck with Infernal and] pocketed the money or paid off the guys, but we needed to get a good game out. The animation system needed to be on par, the lighting system had to be on par.
Some ex-employees rubbished these claims, stating that licenses were bought solely to prevent any lawsuits from engine holders. At the time, according to them, Trine was not paying to use the engines in its possession (something Gupta denies). How legitimate these insinuations are is unclear.
But whatever the truth about licenses, costs were a problem. Prior to landing a deal with Sony, he pursued Electronic Arts and Codemasters to make cricket games based on their licenses, but nothing materialized. The catch with Sony, however, was operating on a smaller budget with each subsequent game:
For Move Street Cricket 2, the budget was far less than that of the first Move Street Cricket. If you see the difference in quality, it was still [an improvement]. We’re not getting paid ten to 15 million dollars a game. We were getting paid ten percent of what most studios got for a basic AAA game.
Movie tie-in madness
In spite of this, Gupta claims that the cricket games were commercially successful, due to the fact that there wasn’t a competing cricket game since EA’s Cricket 07 was no longer available. Then came Ra.One. This was a game based on a movie starring Bollywood’s favorite hero, Shahrukh Khan. Usually most of Bollywood’s efforts in gaming were limited to mobile games. In a country where Bollywood actors are worshipped, a fully-fledged console game was a big deal.
But movie games are usually of poor quality due to shortened development timelines, and expectations were high. It was a pressure cooker situation for Trine and Sony. Jim Ryan (President and CEO of SCE Europe) had high expectations on releasing the game on time due to the massive marketing spends behind it, as well as Shahrukh Khan promoting it himself. Completed in around nine months, Ra.One was critically panned, and deservedly so. It’s something even Gupta admits to:
The game sucked. You know it. I know it. It’s not that just because we made the game we call it amazing. We knew very well what was going on. Sony knew what was going on. It’s not like they saw the build at the last moment. They were getting a build every 15 days. If we didn’t deliver, Red Chillies (Khan’s company) would get super pissed. We were forced to do it. Not only were we fighting battles externally we had internal politics to deal with as well.
All this however, amounted to naught. Sure, the game did well, but there were still problems. Salaries weren’t paid on time and money from publishers was nowhere to be found.
We get paid in development costs plus some royalties, which we never got. You can speak to Sony about it, “Sangam is still bitching about the royalties”. It’s a public thing, I’ve been very mad with Sony about it.
Although he claims Sony owes Trine royalties, as of this writing Sony hasn’t commented on whether such a discrepancy exists.
Realising that Trine was facing a cash crunch, Peeyush Agarwal, an early angel investor in the company, offered Gupta a way out. They would launch Trine on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) via an initial public offering (IPO). The proceeds would go towards Trine making games. Gupta claims that the IPO was successful and that the company was listed on the BSE.
Trine’s IPO got listed. Check us out on the BSE. The guy who promised us the funds offered us a deal, giving us money upfront which would support our development. Being in the business for the last seven years, I was annoyed at depending on someone every month to pay so I could pay it further and do the work for them. We had the capability. Though ratings weren’t good, we did pretty well commercially. My thinking was if a company can make money off us, why can’t we do it ourselves?
So this guy was the original angel investor in Trine at one point. He came in and said, “Get your company listed, I’ll give you funds from the IPO to do what you want to do.” To me it sounded to be a good deal. We were in a transition phase. Move Street Cricket 2 just ended and we were looking for funds for a next-gen cricket game. We already had development units from Sony and Microsoft. We started working for that. I had funds to support the company for three months. February we talked about the IPO; March the paperwork started. By three months I expected to have the money to continue. Production continued. The company got listed. [But] the money never came in.
At least, that’s what Gupta told us. However, we weren’t able to find any evidence of Trine being listed on the BSE, and the Indian Ministry of Corporate Affairs website has Trine filed as an unlisted entity (i.e. a company that has not IPOed).
Gupta claims that Peeyush Agarwal actually bought the company in order to run a shell company on the stock market. We contacted Agarwal via email for comment for this story but have not received a response. From April 2013 onwards, the staff at Trine had salary delays. Gupta claims no one left because they believed in the project. But during a meeting in July he had to lay off half of his workforce. He maintains, however, that he tried his best to help employees get paid.
After selling the company to Agarwal, Gupta claims that it was no longer his responsibility to deal with the company’s debts to employees, as he was simply the CEO and no longer the company’s owner.
But Gupta’s claims about Agarwal’s ownership raise questions. Ex-employees I spoke to had been told different things about the company’s ownership, and I was unable to find documentation suggesting that Peeyush Agarwal—the man Gupta claims is responsible for Trine’s debts—actually owns Trine. For example, the company’s 2013 Annual General Meeting was held in August, months after Gupta claimed Agarwal bought the company, but Agarwal’s name only appears as a shareholder, with a stake significantly smaller than Gupta’s. Agarwal’s name doesn’t appear in any of Trine’s filings on the Ministry of Corporate Affairs’ website, either. In fact, Gupta is still listed as a director.
The only other place I found reference to Agarwal was in the company’s IPO prospectus, as a selling shareholder with a 21.22 percent stake.
If Trine did list on the BSE—which there seems to be no evidence of—then Agarwal, as a selling shareholder, would no longer own his piece of the company. And if the IPO never happened, Agarwal’s 21 percent stake is certainly not enough for him to claim ownership of the company. If Agarwal is indeed Trine’s current owner, there should be documentation on file that proves it, but I was unable to locate any. All available documents present with the registrar of companies seem to be in conflict with Gupta’s statement.
We contacted Gupta to follow up with him about these discrepancies, and he states that none of the information was submitted to the Securities and Exchange Board of India (the regulatory body for the investment market in India) due to the dispute. He saysthe IPO prospectus hasn’t been updated since April last year.
The boss leaves
In any event, Gupta says that he sold the company to Agarwal and that a few months later he resigned as CEO. In our original interview, he told me:
I resigned from the company in May. Peeyush Agarwal owns it now. He gave me in writing that he would take care of the liabilities. That was a ground point for me resigning. I don’t want MNS people coming to my house. This was communicated to every team member that I am not a part of this and whosoever needs help in claiming their money I would help them get in touch or even offer legal help. I was pissed because my equity worth INR 11 crore (around $1,831,000) [still hasn’t been paid]. In fact I have filed a lawsuit against Peeyush Agarwal.
But again, the documentation seems to contradict Gupta’s account of what happened. Gupta was listed as one of the company’s directors, which means it’s mandatory for his resignation to be submitted into the company’s public records. Mandar Joshi, one of the Trine directors, resigned in November 2013, and the documents exist to prove it. But I could find no paperwork to back up Gupta’s claims of having left the company in May 2013. In fact, he even signed off on Trine’s Annual Returns statement dated August 1, 2013. That suggests that he was still acting as a director at Trine long after he claims to have resigned.
When asked about this apparent discrepancy, Gupta responded that as far as his resignation is concerned, it did happen last year and the relevant documents wouldn’t be “shared to a games journalists [sic].”
Perhaps unconvinced by Gupta’s claims of having nothing to do with Trine anymore, disgruntled ex-employees have continued to try to get money from him. He says:
[A] few guys were let off on a sour note. There were those who tried alternative methods like bringing a political party [to rough me up] or calling my house and threatening my wife if they didn’t get paid. It becomes a personal issue. If you want to do it the legal way, file a case against me.
The fact of the matter is people were laid off without getting paid. Gupta says the company tried in every possible way to ensure that ex-employees would leave for better prospects and with glowing appraisal letters. But many of them still weren’t paid. Naturally, a few of the annoyed ones took their rage to the Internet. Gupta himself was resigned to what transpired:
Whenever the money comes in, it will come in. If I don’t have it, what do you expect me to do? It’s simple as that. People were talking, “sell your Ferrari.” If I had one I’d sell it.
What he’s referring to was an anonymous blog post from last year. It’s a poorly-worded rant that details the supposed working conditions at Trine. It states he bought himself a new car while not paying a single penny in salaries and while offloading employees and skipping on office rent. Though it’s currently offline, an archive of it is not. Gupta vehemently denies these claims, stating that Trine is still in the red:
We were literally surviving on a monthly basis. There were no savings in the company. We still have debts. I never wanted to run it as a business. That’s why I’m very vocal against guys like Gameshastra for running it like a business. I’m still abusing them for it. Gaming is not an IT business. It needs to be run in a proper way. Ask my team if they ever had any deficiency in terms of hardware, software or infrastructure.
Of course, whether his was the “proper way” is debatable at best, and Gupta himself admits that he invested too much in a lot of things such as a full-blown render farm and a slick office. At the same time he states that instead of employees venting their ire in cyberspace for all to see, they should have contacted him directly. Only few of those who have however, actually received anything in the way of payments due. Most of them say they didn’t even get a response and if they did, it was simply a plea for more time.
That said, for a lot of ex-employees, Trine really was a relief from companies that had programmers swapping memory sticks to get their PCs to work (yes, this happens in India). The hardware was good, work timing was flexible, the office was swanky, and there was freedom to work as they liked. If it weren’t for salary delays and long hours, it would have been ideal.
New company, old hands
After the debacle that was Trine, Gupta founded Rebelfiction, a new game studio that’s a part of Crave India, a group companies that are in industries ranging from hospitality to manufacturing batteries. Crave India would be responsible for office space, funding and whatever else would be needed to make Rebelfiction succeed. “I’m employed so I’ll be fighting for my [employees] rather than [clients]“, he says.
The core team of Rebelfiction consists of talent from Trine (some of whom had left the company earlier due to salary issues) along with international heavy-hitters such as Dave Glenn (art director on Diablo II) as the creative director. He mentions that the studio has six games in the pipeline across platforms and is looking at a November launch. But Gupta still reminisces about what could have been at Trine:
I still trust all the people who worked with me. I still believe that if all the people who worked with me till 2010 came back. I’d make something fucking spectacular.
And though he might have made something worthwhile, the fact remains that some of those who worked with him have since given up on the games industry forever. Whether or not Trine’s debts to them are really on Gupta’s head remains unclear. But Gupta himself has moved on to Rebelfiction, and Trine’s story now seems like both a model and a cautionary tale for aspirational Indian game developers.
More on studio closures
GREE Shuts Down China Branch (Update: CONFIRMED)
Japan’s GREE was forced to lay off employees at its North American office, and now it has apparently shuttered its China branch completely.