If you’re a dedicated gamer, chances are you’ve had dreams of making games yourself one day. After all, after spending a few afternoons worth of your time plugging away at a particularly engrossing game, it’s hard not to fantasize about what your dream game would look like – where it would be set, how players would interact with it, and what stories you’d like to tell. Chances are that you also know who developed your favorite games, and you can recognize a few famous names from the game development community. And who wouldn’t like to experience some gaming fame and fortune?
But while the fantasy of game development can be tantalizing, the reality can be quite different. Games can crash and burn, derailing the careers of the developers behind them, or some less-than-wise decisions can land a programmer into hot water. That’s what happened with these game developers. While some are quite famous and have had long, healthy careers, others have found themselves unable to recover from the blows to their reputations that their run-ins with the law have brought them. All of them, however, prove that being a game developer isn’t always fun and games. Here are the 15 game developers who went to jail.
15 John Carmack (DOOM/Quake)
An early star of game development, John Carmack is famous for founding id Software and developing pioneering first-person shooter games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. But before he found fame in software development, he found himself on the wrong side of the law. When he was a teenager, Carmack and his friends decided to break into their school to steal Apple II computers from the computer lab. Carmack even invented a mixture of Vaseline and thermite that was meant to make for an easy entry. Unfortunately, one of the group unwittingly set off a silent alarm, and they were caught. After an unproductive meeting with a youth psychologist, Carmack was sentenced to a year in a juvenile detention facility.
14 Ivan Buchta & Martin Pezlar (ARMA)
In a case that was widely publicized around the end of 2012, Ivan Buchta and Martin Pezlar, two developers working on the tactical shooter ARMA 3 for Bohemia Games, were accused of spying on a Greek military installation and sent to jail while awaiting trial. The two were actually in the vicinity of the military base on holiday, not spying; nevertheless, due to holdups within the Greek legal system, Buchta and Pezlar were held in custody for nearly four months before being released in early 2013. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Buchta and Pezlar were returned home safely and ARMA 3 was released in September of 2013 to widespread critical acclaim.
13 Stefan Erikkson (Gizmondo Europe)
In one of the most infamous cases of game development corruption, Stefan Eriksson, a Gizmondo executive, was sent to prison after crashing a one-of-a-kind Ferrari Enzo. The Gizmondo was one of the biggest gaming flops ever, a wonder device that was launched with great fanfare and marketing expense, accompanied by plenty of hyperbolic statements from Eriksson and other execs. But after the crash opened an investigation into Eriksson’s past, the shady dealings that brought the handheld console to market were revealed, including Eriksson’s ties to the Swedish Mafia. The Gizmondo tanked, Eriksson was sent to prison, and the story lives on as a cautionary tale of gaming hubris.
12 Jing Zeng (Game Of War)
The iOS title Game of War is recognizable to most online denizens for its omnipresent, often sexist ads (including one extremely campy commercial featuring Mariah Carey), but the business dealings behind the free-to-play title are more than a little shady, as Jing Zeng’s arrest indicates. An executive at the game’s parent company, Machine Zone, Zeng was arrested for stealing trade secrets after learning that his job was being terminated. And in a dramatic twist, the FBI apprehended him just before he boarded a flight to China in an attempt to evade arrest. Remember, kids: crime doesn’t pay, even if you’re about to lose your job.
11 Kenneth McCulloch (Eternal Darkness)
Gaming is a pastime enjoyed by players of all ages around the world, and one that many players come to during their childhood, which makes Kenneth McCulloch’s arrest that much more unsettling. McCulloch was a former employee of Silicon Knights, a studio famous for creating the cult classic Eternal Darkness for the GameCube. He was arrested just as his new employer, Precursor Games, was gearing up to develop the long-awaited sequel to that title; his crimes included possessing child 'adult' material and sexual assault. His former employers essentially disowned him as a result, but his arrest remains a sobering reminder that the programmers who work on our favorite games aren’t always good people.
10 David Rushton (Sensory Sweep Studios)
Remember the Wii and DS era of gaming, when Nintendo’s new accessible angle suddenly meant that the market was flooded with cheap casual games meant to bamboozle well-meaning parents and new gamers into spending money on bad software? David Rushton’s Sensory Sweep Studios was one of the companies pumping out games like this, but it turns out that what seemed like easy profit might not have been as lucrative as he’d planned. Rushton was arrested and later convicted of tax fraud and not paying his employees, and as a result of his fraudulent practices, he spent a year in jail and had to make restitution to the developers he’d stiffed.
9 James Kosta (Rock Band)
Sometimes, jail time is the end of a developer’s journey, the sad punctuation mark on a career, other times, it only marks the beginning. James Kosta was arrested at gunpoint at 14-years-old after being caught for illegally hacking commercial and military networks. His computers were confiscated, and he was sentenced to 45 years in prison, but after one year, he was released for good behavior. He then went to work for the CIA at the ripe old age of 20, and later founded the independent development company 3G Studios in the mid-2000s, where he helped to develop Harmonix’s hit Rock Band. Not bad for an ex-convict, huh?
8 Hiroshi Kimura (Chaos Field)
In today’s economy, it seems like everyone has two or three jobs instead of one steady line of work. Even game developers have started needing side hustles – but can you fail big enough at one to affect the other? Hiroshi Kimura, who worked for the well-regarded shoot-em-up developer Milestone Inc., found out when he founded a second company dealing with energy technology. While the firm was constructing an ethanol plant in Vietnam, Kimura was caught violating financial laws while selling securities for his new company. When he was arrested, his energy company was shut down, and unfortunately, so was Milestone Inc.
7 Amir Hekmati (WWII/Vietnam)
Modern warfare increasingly looks like a Call of Duty game, a trend that dates to the mid-2000s when drone technology began to be developed. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that a real-life game developer would get caught up in the drama. Amir Hekmati, a developer for Kuma Reality Games, was visiting relatives in Iran when he was arrested on charges of being a CIA spy masquerading as a game developer. Moreover, Kuma Reality Games was accused of creating propaganda titles aimed at convincing players in the Middle East of the USA’s goodness. Despite his family’s (and the US government’s protestations), Hekmati was originally sentenced to death for spying. This was later reduced to a 10-year prison sentence, and Hekmati was finally released in 2016.
6 Takamasa Shiraishi (Persona)
Unlike the heroic tales of some of the developers on this list, Takamasa Shiraishi’s story is a genuinely upsetting one from start to finish. Shiraishi was a developer whose credits included work on games in the widely beloved Persona series. According to him, these high-profile assignments created a high-pressure work environment and put him under undue stress. This is understandable, but the way he dealt with it isn’t: Shiraishi became a peeping tom, sneaking into private homes and photographing underage girls without their knowledge. Fortunately, he was caught in 2015 and sent to prison. Hopefully, he finds a better way to release some steam.
5 Marvin Wimberly Jr. (Bob's Space Racers)
In a plot straight out of a 1980s financial drama, game programmer Marvin Wimberly Jr. was arrested in 2011 on felony charges of sabotage against intellectual property. He was employed as a games maintenance man at Bob’s Space Racers, a company that developed the classic Whac-a-Mole games found in arcades across the country when things went awry. Possibly concerned about his job security, he began to write viruses into the games that he fixed so that owners would need him to come back and fix them again later. Moreover, because these games kept breaking, Bob’s Space Racers began to accrue bad word-of-mouth, and in classic entrepreneurial fashion, Wimberly established a rival arcade games company to take advantage of the gap in the market. Who says arcades are boring?
4 Yuji Anamizu (Matrix Software)
Gamers around the world have decried developers like Konami whose focus has shifted from the immersive home console titles they once produced to more lucrative but less interesting pachinko machines. It turns out that the gambling culture around pachinko has led a developer to jail as well. Yuji Anamizu, a programmer at Matrix Software, was arrested in 2013 for fraud after he inflated the budget needed to produce an online pachinko game and kept the extra money for himself and two other employees. This was only one such scam committed by Anamizu, and police estimated that he gained millions of yen with schemes like this. But when you gamble, sometimes you lose big.
3 Kenneth Lockley (Tomb Raider)
Before Tomb Raider’s resurgence with its Square Enix-headed reboot in 2013, the series went through some tough times in the late 90s and 2000s. One such blow to its reputation came when one of the executives at Core Design, the famed original developer of the series, was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer to help him traffic an underage girl… while he was on his way to the launch party for the latest Tomb Raider game. After his arrest, he was removed from Core Design and sent to prison, but the shameful incident further tarnished a series that would reach its nadir a few years later.
2 Dov Katz (Oculus Rift)
Virtual reality is the wave of the future, supposedly. It’s been touted as an empathy-building machine, as a vehicle for more immersive gaming experiences, and as a way to really freak out your grandma. But after a few spectacular years, Oculus, the creators of the hyped Oculus Rift headset, suddenly found itself embroiled in controversy last year after one of its major department heads, Dov Katz, was arrested for soliciting teenagers for sex. For his part, Katz claims he was attempting to rescue the girl he was in contact with; maybe he thought he was the hero in a VR game.
1 Sam Smolders (Victom Of Xen)
While most of these developers work for major gaming corporations, smaller-scale programmers run into legal trouble sometimes as well. Sam Smolders, who developed the indie RPG Victim of Xen, is one such case. Smolders was arrested trying to enter the US without proper documentation after being denied immigration rights in 2008. His story is a sad one: despite being raised in the US, he and his mother were informed that their documents were incorrect and that they would be deported to Belgium when Smolders turned 18. After some unsuccessful years attempting to resolve his immigration status, Smolders instead put his resources into finishing his game, which was published in 2013 by Big Fish Games on Steam.