Brooke Holden had all but given up on breaking into the video game business.
She had gone to university to study game development, but realised partway through her degree that she hated coding. Holden had also come across horror stories about labour conditions in the game industry, where employees regularly work 60- to 80-hour weeks, and thought to herself, no way, not me. But one year into a job as an office manager, Holden, 26, was still dreaming about getting into games, maybe applying for some sort of team management position.
“Professionally inexperienced but passionate team manager looking for a hobby project to help support and manage,” she posted to a subreddit for assembling game dev teams. It was just a lark, yet a half dozen replies accumulated under the post. One in particular stood out, from an account with an active Reddit history on developer recruitment boards. The poster’s name was “Kova,” and he told Holden that his small team of three developers had recently ballooned into a 48-member operation that needed a manager “on everyone’s ass.”
Holden was exhilarated. On June 22, 2019, she signed a contract with Kova’s company Drakore Studios, accepting the position of junior production manager at $13 per hour (about £10).
There was just one problem: Drakore Studios didn’t actually exist.
Over the course of a month and a half, “Kova,” real name Rana Mahal, convinced at least 25 people to join a game studio that was not a registered company, and develop a video game to which he did not own the rights, in exchange for no pay. Six of them came forward to tell their story to Kotaku.
The story they told was one of deceit, exploitation, incompetence, and hope, and one fuelled by gamers’ desperation to participate in an industry that has stoked their imagination, lifted their mood and forged friendships since childhood. It was a story of a boss who constantly told aspiring developers that their paychecks were on the way and that investors were just about to sink tonnes of cash into the company’s coffers, and that his high-placed friends at major game development studios were advising him throughout the process. The reality was quite different, and when Drakore unravelled, it unravelled fast.
“People shouldn’t have gotten into game dev stuff with me,” Mahal told Kotaku via a Discord voice call. “We didn’t maliciously intend for this to happen. Do a piece warning other devs about things that can happen. I made some mistakes.”
“This was my first ‘job’ in the games industry,” Brooke Holden said. “I just had no idea how standard it was.”
Talking over the position with Drakore, Holden learned that she would facilitate the team developing a game called Zeal. This part, at least, was true: Zeal was an Early Access game that had been released on Steam by a team called Lycanic Studios in September 2018.
Lycanic was a team of two developers, Mert Dinçer and Tim Popov. They’d been grinding away at Zeal for two years, but it hadn’t taken off. Zeal strove to replicate the thrill of player-versus-player encounters in massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. Dinçer and Popov imagined a game that would be competitive, customisable, tightly-designed, and itch-scratching. Lycanic attempted to raise funds for the game on Kickstarter, but cancelled it after it only accrued a fraction of its goal. Still, there were specks of light: its nearly 300 Steam reviews were “mostly positive.” A couple of big Twitch streamers even gave it a go, including Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris, who has 2.5 million followers.
“We didn’t have a marketing budget,” said Dinçer. “We were just indie developers trying to fulfil our passion. We thought the idea of the game was good, and if the implementation was good enough, people would be interested – publishers, investors, et cetera. But we had no network or connections.”
Mahal, who was active in an MMORPG Discord group, heard about Zeal from a fan of the game in that server. Straightaway, Dinçer said, Mahal offered to combine forces. “He wanted to buy our company and dissolve it,” Dinçer said. “It felt good.”
Holden said Mahal told her that his family, or a family connection, had invested $25,000 (£20,000) in his studio, and more money was coming from other investors. Holden dedicated herself to assembling and managing the team, which turned out to be comprised of around 25 people, not 48. There were 2-D artists, 3-D artists, designers, marketers, and even interns, all of whom she diligently helped manage for 60 hours a week on top of her part-time office manager job. There was the Croatian developer who goes by PD, a tech lead designing Zeal’s roadmap. There was Brandon Murphy, father of four from Virginia who had recently been laid off from PlayStation after spending seven years there as a regional sales rep. There was the concept artist Júlia Caroline Santana. And then, of course, there were the original developers of Zeal, Dinçer and Popov.
The studio was also developing an MMO called AetherBound. “There was a fair amount of concept art” for that game, Holden said, but little else. Zeal’s publication would help give their studio some legitimacy first. Mahal told Holden that his background included a stint for Amazon Game Studios as a junior art director. While he was there, he said, he was contracted out to Bioware to help with Dragon Age Inquisition. He said that while he was there he had studied under Mike Laidlaw, then the senior creative director of the Dragon Age franchise, who he said was now coaching him on Drakore Studios’ projects.
“I have no recollection of anyone by that name, so I find it hard to imagine I was coaching them in any capacity,” Laidlaw told Kotaku via email. Amazon Game Studios did not return Kotaku’s request to confirm Mahal’s employment there.
After some light research, Dinçer and Popov agreed with each other that they had some reservations about this guy. There just wasn’t enough of a paper trail on him. But what did they have to lose? “Even if there was a slight chance of this guy being legit and getting marketing people, I thought it was worth the shot,” Dinçer said. “The situation with our game was already rock bottom.”
Lycanic signed a contract with Drakore stating that it would turn over their rights to Zeal to Mahal’s company in exchange for a total payment of $7000, and remain with the project as its lead developers. Soon enough, Zeal had a full game development team behind it. Brooke Holden and Brandon Murphy wrote a pitch deck with 21 slides in orange and pink and sent it out to 32 game publishers. Some of them, like Devolver and Team17, sent back responses.
Sometimes when Mahal would convey feedback on Zeal, he’d frame it as second-hand expertise from his contacts at the big game publishers: his buddy at Riot Games thought Zeal was doing cosmetics all wrong, or his friend at a big publisher was on the brink of investing, but wanted a class system, not a character system.
“I sat with my wife and was like, ‘Look. That’s one month. We have enough money in the bank where I can sit here for one month and put all of my effort into Zeal.’”
Dinçer began to suspect that Mahal was masking his own opinions as those of his (possibly imaginary) friends. Other things he told his staff struck them as fishy, too. Mahal said someone at Epic Games offered him $2 million for the MMORPG AetherBound. (An Epic Games representative told Kotaku via email that there is “no truth” to that statement.) Mahal began asking his staff whether they could design an Auto Chess-style game, and ship it in a couple of months. There was even talk of moving all the studio’s employees to Canada, which was particularly enticing to some of them because of the promise of free healthcare.
All the while, Drakore Studios’ employees pressed Mahal to show them Drakore Studios’ paperwork, which no one had yet seen. Why wasn’t Drakore registered in Canada? More importantly: When would the first paycheck come through?
All throughout these six weeks, none of the people Kotaku spoke with was paid, or knew anyone else who said they had ever received money in exchange for their services to Drakore. Most of them said they expected that at least a few paychecks were coming.
Concept art for AetherBound. Image: Drakore Studios
“He said they had a $25,000 [£20,000] investment, which would last until the end of August,” said Holden. When she pressed him, she said, Mahal replied that Drakore had already “burnt through that $25,000,” and that unless he could drum up more funding, nobody was going to get paid. Staffers Kotaku spoke with said they were working between 20 to 60 hours a week for Drakore Studios between mid-June and mid-July.
Brandon Murphy, who had been laid off in early June by PlayStation and had four kids to feed, said he was told he’d be paid by July 11. Murphy said he had turned down six job offers in favour of Drakore. “I sat with my wife and was like, ‘Look. That’s one month. We have enough money in the bank where I can sit here for one month and put all of my effort into Zeal. The money is coming in one month.” When July 11 arrived, no money arrived with it.
Mahal told Kotaku that the $25,000 did exist, but did not show any records to prove it. “Let’s say I took the $25,000 and blew it on drugs and never paid out a single person,” he said. “I made it clear to everyone I spoke to that there’s a real chance we don’t get funding.” When asked why he said staffers would receive payment July 11, Mahal said that “there was an investor I was talking to who was possibly going to pan out.”
In an effort to drum up investor interest in Zeal, Mahal contacted Jonathan McKay, who runs the Canada-based studio Skymarch Entertainment. “He wanted me to help raise money for him,” McKay told Kotaku over a Discord voice call. “He said he had a background art directing and had been in the industry for a while. Everyone likes to throw out these buzzy companies they worked for, which mean nothing to me.”
Promotional artwork for Zeal. Image: Lycanic Studios
McKay, who said he has helped other aspiring studio leads raise money and “find the right connections to make their dreams a reality,” thought Zeal looked cool, but he wanted to do some research into Drakore Studios, and asked to talk to some of Mahal’s employees. He introduced McKay to Brooke Holden.
Holden had become increasingly suspicious of her boss over the last month. She still had not seen a penny in payment, and the stories Mahal was telling her, which she was sharing with the rest of Drakore Studios’ staff, were increasingly unbelievable – enthused investors in high places, around-the-corner pay-offs. Speaking to McKay, she started telling him about her role in the studio and its goings-on around Zeal. Soon, the conversation shifted, and Holden says that McKay’s voice dropped into a “very serious tone.”
“It’s going to be very hard for me to find you investments,” McKay told Holden.
“Why?” Holden said.
“First off: The company is not real.”
“Stupidity is what I chalk it up to,” Rana Mahal told Kotaku. “I was just thinking, ‘Okay, things will work out.’” Counting your chickens before they hatch.”
Drakore Studios, Ltd., the legal entity that had signed the deal with Lycanic to acquire the rights to Zeal, was never registered in Canada or any other country. Mahal’s explanation for this was that his family’s Canada-based accountant, on whom he was relying to do the requisite paperwork, had taken a long vacation to India after he filed the incorporation documents. The accountant returned, he said, to find that the paperwork had not been accepted in the interim.
“We were fucked from day 1.”
Over the course of her call with McKay, Holden not only found out once and for all that Drakore was not a registered company, but also that Mahal did not actually hold the rights to Zeal, the game they had all been developing full-time over the last month. In the contract between Lycanic and Drakore, reviewed by Kotaku, Mahal cites the sale of Zeal to the “active legal entity named ‘Drakore Studios Ltd., organised and existing under the laws of province [sic] of Ontario, Canada.” It says Mahal would buy out Mert Dinçer and Tim Popov’s shares in Lycanic, although all parties agree that no money was ever exchanged.
“He had the wool pulled over all these guys,” said McKay. “The lying, the deceit – he definitely was crooked to all the people he was dealing with.”
Holden began comparing notes with her colleagues. Dinçer and Popov confirmed to her that Drakore did not actually own the rights to the Zeal IP, which left her shocked.
After taking some time to collect themselves, the team hatched a plan of action. They needed to come up with a way forward, or at least, a way to stop Drakore’s momentum, fuelled by the labour of its increasingly suspicious employees. On July 23, the motley crew of amateur game developers who made up the phoney studio locked their leader out of everything: the Google Drive, the social media accounts, the email domain. Murphy, who had shared his personal information with Mahal as part of his job application, put a fraud alert on his social security number.
Once this was done, Holden posted the damning news in Drakore Studios’ Slack.
“There are some facts that have VERY recently come to light that none of us had been made aware of,” she wrote. “Firstly, as far as we can tell, Drakore Studios has never existed. Several of us have been asking for the business number for MONTHS and have received nothing. Not only that but Drakore at no point, actually owned Zeal, the IP still lies with Mert and Tim, something that I personally had been led to believe otherwise so I apologise if I passed along that (or any other) misinformation. These two facts combine to make us absolutely UNFUNDABLE. No publisher or investor in their right mind would invest in a company that both doesn’t technically exist, or hold the IP rights to the game they are trying to sell. We were fucked from day 1.”
Holden went on to say that Dinçer and Popov had decided to leave Drakore and take Zeal with them. “None of this is their fault,” she wrote; “they were told half stories and misinformation too. I hate to say this, but I HIGHLY doubt that ANY of us will see a penny from Drakore. There never was any money that I can find any evidence of. Just promises.”
A screenshot from Zeal. Image: Lycanic Studios
In his conversation with Kotaku, Mahal said that he did intend to take over Lycanic Studios and argues that he did “temporarily” have the rights to Zeal according to the contract. He also pushed back on the idea that Drakore was a “scam.”
“It’s funny that some people are like, ‘You made a scam,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, great scam, where I work 80 to 100 hours a week for no money. Best scam ever.” But the fact remains that Mahal, by most accounts, told employees that he owned the rights to a game he didn’t own the rights to and that he would be able to pay them for their work when he didn’t yet have the funds. Mahal told Kotaku that he still intends to pay his employees for their work, although he is not currently receiving regular paychecks anymore from his family’s construction company, where he works. He maintained that his deal with Lycanic was “definitely” a “helping-them-out thing.”
Several times throughout the interview, Mahal failed to come up with evidence for claims that he had made to his staff about his background, investors, and company. At one point, he said, “I do have those contacts, but I’m not gonna name anybody. You can say I lied about it if you want to.”
Lycanic hopes that in the end, the experience with Drakore will turn out well for Zeal. “At the end of the day, this is not a loss for us. This is a win for us,” said Dinçer. “We know tons of people who want to work with us and not ask for money from us until the time the game starts making money.”
Another former Drakore employee, game developer PD, said the experience has not soured him on making games. “It’s still what I’m most excited to work on,” he said. “It’s almost not work.”
Brooke Holden hasn’t given up on the dream, either. She is staying on with Lycanic Studios while still working at her part-time office job. Brandon Murphy has taken another unpaid gig, this time as president of the esports team Slate Gaming.
“Nobody’s getting paid there,” Murphy said. “But the difference is, we all know.”
Featured image: Angelica Alzona