The messy, inside story of controversial UK indie publisher PQube

The messy, inside story of controversial UK indie publisher PQube

In late August, Indonesian developer Toge Productions announced plans to tear up a contract with UK indie publisher PQube. The team behind A Space for the Unbound, the game PQube had signed to publish, claimed it had learned several things that left them feeling “manipulated and exploited”. One of these was the existence of a diversity grant, which the studio claimed was “intentionally withheld” and used as “leverage for [PQube’s] own commercial gain”.

PQube responded to Eurogamer: “We have honoured all obligations of our publishing agreement and have supported Toge Productions at every stage of product development throughout their delays and difficulties. This support has included offering significant further funding, over and above grant funding to support development, porting and marketing.”

The publisher then alleged “Toge Productions have sought for some time to unilaterally enforce unreasonable revised terms to our agreement and it is disappointing that, as a result of not achieving that and despite PQube’s significant efforts to accommodate this, they have sought to deal with the matter in this way”.

Watch the trailer for A Space for the Unbound here, a game at the centre of recent events surrounding PQube.

It didn’t take long before Thai developer Corecell Technologies, which had also signed with PQube to bring its games AeternoBlade and AeternoBlade 2 west, issued its own allegations. It claimed PQube hadn’t paid the entirety of its initial minimum guarantee (an agreed upon sum the publisher must pay to the developer in instalments), and that it had withheld publishing rights.

Amid the allegations and statements, it was unclear what was really going on. According to 10 sources who worked for PQube, who asked not to be named to protect their careers, life inside the publisher is a mixed bag of experiences.

Toge Productions and the Diversity grant

One source claimed PQube signed Toge’s A Space with the Unbound with a £50,000 minimum guarantee paid in instalments. This minimum guarantee meant PQube had to provide the agreed upon amount to Toge to help fund development. After the deal was done, Microsoft approached PQube on the hunt for “games from diverse backgrounds, with interesting features, that come from underrepresented cultures”, the source said.

PQube had several games on its books that fit the bill, and A Space for the Unbound was the frontrunner. The grant was secured and £50,000 was provided to support the game’s development. According to a source, this made A Space for the Unbound a risk-free venture. “The conversation discussed internally was that because the money given by Microsoft to PQube matches the minimum guarantee with the developers, that means the project becomes zero risk,” said a source. “I don’t recall Microsoft asking to talk to the devs directly, although the money was obviously meant to support the development.”

But did Toge get the money? It’s complicated. PQube received the grant, but what happened next is unclear. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you what happened to it,” said a former PQube employee who worked at the company at the time. “Some of it is pure cash flow, you need an influx of cash that’s coming from wherever. There’s obviously a lot of in-goings and out-goings. As a publisher you spend a lot of money upfront and then you wait two or three years before you see profit back from any product since it’s in development. Meanwhile, you’re still doing work on it.”

Microsoft declined to comment.

Screenshot from A Space for the Unbound
Screenshot from A Space for the Unbound.

According to former PQube staff who worked on A Space with the Unbound, Microsoft issued the grant well before the publisher began marketing the game.

“At the stage we’re talking about, no money was being spent on marketing or anything to do with the game specifically,” the source said. “We were too early to even make a marketing plan. So apart from paying the minimum guarantee milestone payments, there was nothing being spent on the game.”

As for PQube’s alleged “unreasonable revised terms”, one source claimed this referred to an increased revenue share Toge demanded after discovering the grant.

One current PQube employee, who asked for anonymity to protect their career, claimed the team knew there were concerns about the Steam version of A Space for the Unbound: “Before the statement came out, I heard they were unhappy with the money situation. What I heard in meetings is in March of this year they wanted to change the Steam kickback [revenue split] for the game.”

Ex-PQube head of production Melissa Lewis, however, insisted PQube handled the diversity grant fairly and in keeping with similar situations.

“We, as the publisher of the Xbox version, were the de facto point of contact for Xbox. Microsoft will not talk to anyone else aside from PQube. Microsoft gave the grant to us because that’s how it works, [it] does publishing grants, not developer grants. We received that, and then went to the developers and gave them £80,000 for porting across all consoles including Xbox. So, while we didn’t take that money and send it directly to them, it’s not like we withheld it from them.”

Meanwhile, some current PQube staff allege Toge’s statement was intentionally misleading. One current employee called it a “bullying statement”, and claimed it was deliberately issued on the first day of Gamescom, when most senior staff were out of the office. “It is so easy [for Toge] to provide evidence,” said the source. “Instead, it is forcing our hand to provide evidence, which I don’t think we should have to do because we’re being bullied into doing it.”

On Friday October 14, PQube, Toge, Mojiken and Chorus (a freshly involved stakeholder and indie publisher) issued a joint statement saying the companies “have come to an agreement to the satisfaction of all parties”. The result is Toge will continue to publish A Space for the Unbound on PC, while Chorus will handle console publishing.

The statement continued: “Whilst there have been commercial differences in respect of some of the terms of the agreement between the parties, all parties would like to clarify that: 1. All grant monies received by PQube were received by Toge Productions. 2. PQube has fully supported the return of rights to Toge Productions.”

The statement suggests PQube has washed its hands of A Space for the Unbound – and most likely Toge itself. Both companies declined to comment further.

Corecell Technology and publishing rights

Toge wasn’t the only developer to publicly allege issues with PQube. The PQube-published AeternoBlade 2, developed by Corecell, had a relatively high minimum guarantee but sold badly, according to a former employee. PQube then tried to renegotiate the amount of the minimum guarantee in a bid to avoid losing money on the deal, a former member of staff told VG247.

This appears to have resulted in a breakdown between the two companies, with PQube conspicuously absent from the Steam pages for both AeternoBlade and AeternoBlade 2.

PQube issued a lengthy statement to VG247 explaining its version of events. It is published below in full:

“We enjoyed working with Corecell on our first project together and Corecell were very happy with the success of this. We were pleased to work again with Corecell on Aeternoblade 2 and, despite delays and quality issues we endeavoured to release the game in October 2019 for them as they requested.

“At our post-launch meeting in January 2020 Corecell acknowledged significant product quality issues and agreed to provide critical fixes in order to make the game commercially viable.

“Unfortunately, these fixes never materialised and Corecell remained unresponsive. PQube remained prepared to pay the full guarantee for the game, despite the very poor reviews and sales, and to publish the PC version in line with PQube’s option in the agreement. Corecell agreed in March 2020 to provide the PC version to PQube but then proceeded to list and then release the PC version itself without further discussion with PQube.

“Over the following two years, PQube proposed and sent numerous proposals and supporting agreements to revert rights to Corecell in line with their request but these were not acknowledged by Corecell. Nevertheless, despite all of the challenges and the lack of communication from Corecell, PQube released its rights to the console versions back to Corecell well before the end of the agreement term. We remain open to support Corecell in any way possible.

“Throughout our 12 years of distribution and publishing history, we have worked with numerous partners and have released over 200 games. PQube have a proud history of working with developers both large and small. From established global IP, to championing independent projects from smaller teams – we continue to publish multiple projects and sequels from our existing partnerships which is testament to the ongoing strength of our relationships and the strong bond between our development partners and our passionate and diverse team at PQube.

“We have always strived to provide focus and commitment to maximise the results for our partners and to support them fully through all stages of the product lifecycle. When challenges have arisen, as is inevitable over such a long period in the games industry, we have always sought to resolve them in a fair and reasonable way.

“We will continue to focus our energy on doing a great job for our partners. We continually work to develop and improve all aspects of our business and are fully committed to providing the best possible service and success for all of our partners.”

Corecell boss Noppon Wannapensakun confirmed to VG247 that PQube has now signed a “transfer memorandum” to Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft platforms for Aeternoblade 2, but continues to allege missing payments dating back three years.

“We are waiting for platforms to transfer ownership back to us,” Wannapensakun said. “Hopefully, it can be done next month and we will start getting revenue from our game. I’m not so happy that for all three years, they sell our game without paying us. But I don’t want to spend my life and my creative power [dealing with] legal issues. So, just make a new game, new content for AeternoBlade series. Hope our European fans continue to support us.”

Internal culture and workload

Some former PQube staff shared troubling stories of intense workload, negative interactions with certain senior staff, issues with relocation to office work amid the pandemic and claims of pay gaps between male and female staff.

Some former staff claim there “was no room to breathe” due to the workload, and “there was definitely a general burnt-out feeling” among staff.

Another source tells of a women’s group for female team members to share their experiences and identify occurrences of mistreatment. “Several were refused raises where their male counterparts were approved, several were paid less than their male counterparts, and we all witnessed many hostile outbursts targeted towards different women on the team, while the same cannot be said for men,” alleged the source.

PQube also suffers from “knowledge drought” due to junior hires and “a constant revolving door of staff”. “We had many team members with the skills and enthusiasm to succeed, but very few experienced individuals to guide growth and streamline processes,” one source said.

However, current staff painted a rosier picture of current life at PQube, claiming pay transparency and a friendly work-environment – aside from periods of crunch that are “typical” of any other games industry workplace.

Some current staff insisted current company leadership makes efforts to remove unnecessary short-term weight when needed. “I think when I’m overwhelmed, the team is overwhelmed, and the management is overwhelmed,” said one current staffer. “When that happens, we go ‘woah, hold it’.”

Senior staff members who, according to sources who worked with them, were allegedly a common source of frustration and hardship, are currently championing diversity initiatives within the company.

A snippet from PQUbe's Glassdoor page
While recent 5-star reviews do exist, a number of highly critical negitive Glassdoor reviews reflect the chasm of opinion between current and former staff.

PQube let staff work remotely during the peak of the pandemic, but as lockdowns eased the company enforced a hybrid working model that required staff come into either the Bristol or Letchworth offices a few days a week. This, for one former member of staff, felt “sprung on” the majority of employees. Some were told their jobs had moved to a different location.

Former head of production Melissa Lewis, who joined PQube in March 2021, said staff “were all told when signing contracts it was remote right now, but that it would transition into a hybrid situation when it was safe to return to the office”.

PQube has yet to comment on allegations around its culture and work practices.

What’s next for PQube?

What now for PQube, its staff and the developers who worked with them? The studios behind A Tale for the Unbound and AeternoBlade appear to have come to some form of agreement one way or another, with all parties avoiding a messy legal battle and publishing rights transferred. Time will tell on PQube’s culture, although internal issues are now very much in the open.

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