Feature Article

The Strange Case of Areal, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s "Definitive Spiritual Successor"

Vladimir Putin knows video games?

When developer West Games launched a Kickstarter campaign for a spiritual successor to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it caused an internet-wide investigation that resulted in accusations of fraud and the eventual suspension of the Kickstarter. Before it was canceled, the project met its goal, but not one day of its month-long campaign went by without suspicion and uncertainty.

Called Areal, the game seemed ambitious and interesting. But between widespread criticism from journalists and developers, a mysterious note purporting to be from Russian president Vladimir Putin, and several big donations that pushed the total money raised over the $50,000 mark, the Areal Kickstarter could never escape its controversy. But how did this Kickstarter come to be so inflammatory? You've got to go all the way back to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. days to understand.

Concept art from Areal. Pictures in this article are from Areal (via its Kickstarter) unless otherwise noted.

The Collapse of GSC Game World

After the release of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, Ukrainian developer GSC Game World went to work on a sequel. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was originally scheduled to be released in 2012, but the game hit a huge snag when CEO and founder Sergei Grigorovich decided to close the studio for personal reasons in December 2011.

Fans of the series rejoiced when, in January 2012, the studio announced that it was moving forward and continuing to work on the project. But GSC was in dire straits: the team desperately needed funding and worked hard to secure a backer for the project.

Concept art from Vostok's Survarium

But time caught up with the team, and in April 2012, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was officially canceled and the studio shut down. The team worked without pay for four months, and no investor came to the developer's rescue. The team members moved on to other things, with the majority joining Vostok Games to work on an MMO first-person shooter called Survarium. Many of the other developers went on to help make Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light at 4A Games. They generally stayed in Ukraine.

Fast forward to 2014. Another group of ex-S.T.A.L.K.E.R. developers began a Kickstarter campaign for a game entitled Areal. Called West Games, this team wanted to create a successor to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, but it didn't have enough money. So they turned to crowdfunding.

Here's where things get weird.

A Tumultuous Beginning to the Kickstarter

In June, the West Games team launched a Kickstarter for their ambitious project. It aimed to be an open-world, post-apocalyptic shooter with a divergent and player-driven storyline. The developer described the gameplay as driven by the absence or presence of a material called "Metamorphite," which creates both mutant, malevolent creatures and gives you special abilities. "Areal is the culmination of everything that we want to see from a post apocalyptic game," the developer stated on its Kickstarter. The developer set the goal of a 2016 release on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U, and it asked for $50,000.

West Games wanted only $50,000 to make an open-world shooter with a player-driven story.

At first glance, the campaign seemed normal and even exciting. Fans of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. immediately jumped onto the promise of a similar game, and West Games' goals were lofty. West aimed to combine the best of Fallout, Metro, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. into a new title. But then, people started questioning the price. How, under any circumstances, could a developer fund a project of that scope on current-gen systems with only $50,000? For comparison, open-world action game Grand Theft Auto V is estimated to cost $266 million to make.

West Games' Many Reasons for Only Seeking $50,000

West Games quickly addressed the issue of the seemingly insignificant budget by saying that it was necessary to attract attention from bigger companies. It appeared that the developer, then, was searching for an angel investor to sweep in and support the project to completion. That's at least what founder Eugene Kim claimed earlier in 2014 in an interview with Russian website Games-TV.

But Kim's story changed when the Kickstarter launched and the criticism began. On the Kickstarter homepage, the developer explained that crowdfunding actually covered the costs left after the team used its own resources. "We've pooled all of our savings into making Areal, and don't have funds to go any further," West Games wrote. "Unlike most companies, every one of our employees has invested their time and money into making Areal. The budget that we've pooled together covers salaries and some aspects of game development. We need the Kickstarter and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. community to support us by helping us cover the rest."

Eugene Kim provided three different explanations for where the rest of the development money would come from.

Then he provided yet another reason to Kotaku, saying that the team already had investors and a pool of resources to draw from. "We have a set sum of investment, but I cannot give you exact figures at this time," he said. "What I can say is that Microsoft has reached out to us and is interested in our project. With that said, we will remain independent in any case and will release on all the platforms we listed. Of course we need people's support to help us get the game out there, and of course, the more people contribute, the more resources we have."

With so many conflicting explanations, it's understandable that skepticism would arise around the game. But all the team had to do to assuage concerns was provide some proof that Areal was real and the team was actively working on it.

Accusations of Fraud and Missing Assets

When the Kickstarter went live, West Games found itself in the spotlight. Unfortunately for the developer, it wasn't friendly. Only a few hours after the campaign began, the team came under fire and was accused of being fraudulent.

This is what we in the industry call guerrilla PR... We are taking appropriate measures to combat this.

Vostok Games--the first developer to come out of the ruins of GSC--called out West Games for misleading the public by claiming it was composed of ex-S.T.A.L.K.E.R. team members. According to Vostok, West cannot claim that lineage at all. A Vostok spokesperson took to the developer's forums to dissuade people from supporting Areal, saying, "We have contacted GSC's lawyers regarding this fraudulent claim of being the developers of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro Last Light. Please do all you can do [to] ensure people know these claims are false."

Of course, West fired back with accusations of its own. Mere hours after introducing its Kickstarter, West posted an update addressing Vostok: "We have contacted Vostok Games about their supposed claim that we are fraudulent. They say that they have no relation to that claim and have since deleted the forum topic wherein a moderator accused us of being fake." The Vostok post was removed, but that didn't stop the controversy, especially after Reddit users debunked a supposed official apology on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Facebook page and showed that it was not from Vostok.

At the same time, Misery Ltd., creators of one of the most popular S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mods, took to the comments of Areal's Kickstarter to continue to inflame suspicions. Reddit joined in and gradually began to seemingly undermine the legitimacy of West Games. West responded by, once again, calling the team out in an update on its Kickstarter page. "As we've mentioned before, a former S.T.A.L.K.E.R. modder and current creator of a similar post apocalyptic Kickstarter project has been flooding our comments with negativity and misinformation," West Games wrote, "and then using various accounts to promote [its] game, called Project Seed. This is what we in the industry call guerrilla PR... We are taking appropriate measures to combat this."

Vostok and Misery both accused West Games of fraud.

Misery backed off from its attacks on the Kickstarter page and removed its accusations from its website. Eventually, however, it supposedly provided one last statement (which was removed and only exists now via Reddit). "Several friends at Vostok Games have emailed us directly to show their support in our parade against West Games fraud," a Misery team member wrote according to the Reddit user. "One contact in 4A Games has done the same. Eugene Kim's portrait has been found on Shutterstock. Our article of scam warning will be updated with these latest news. We refrain from posting on Kickstarter because some backer[s] believe that we should have second agendas in all of this."

But West Games didn't fold, and instead published a video of its members, including Kim, speaking to prove their existence. Soon after that, Vostok slightly revised its criticism, instead attacking the lack of Areal footage and art. Vostok's PR manager said to Eurogamer, "My biggest concern with West-Games is using the footage and assets of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and representing them as their own, which is not only illegal, but simply just not right."

West Games responded to this with several more Kickstarter updates, posting more concept art and stating that the game was so early that the team couldn't reasonably provide more footage. But last week, West decided to post footage of a prototype build of the game. The one-minute video shows off a bit of the environment and the player walking around and firing a gun.

This, however, did nothing but stimulate suspicion even further. In fact, images created by Kickstarter backers show how Areal's prototype video seems to feature stock assets from the Unity game engine. Further, images of Areal characters appear to be more or less lifted directly from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. screenshots.

Backers claimed that the Areal prototype took from Unity engine stock assets.

It seemed like the campaign couldn't get any more complicated. Almost every day, new accustations of fraud and theft would emerge, and West Games would respond. But those responses were almost immediately analyzed and seemingly debunked. It was a back-and-forth between the developer and the public, and neither side could sufficiently prove its arguments.

The Letter

Then, West Games posted the most unbelievable Kickstarter update of the entire campaign: the developer posted a letter in Russian, and it was signed "Vladimir Putin."

Of course, the possibility of the Russian president actually sending a relatively unknown developer a direct message is extremely small. Making it even more far-fetched is that "Putin" actually invited the team to the Kremlin. The sender wrote, "If you give me the chance to play the alpha version of the game, when it is ready, then I invite you in advance to the Kremlin, to meet personally, be ready to play a little bit and talk about the interests of young people, the gamers of our country."

West Games acknowledged its improbability, but also suggested that it might be valid. "We thought at first that there's no way that this is legit, because we are a Ukrainian studio for the most part, and it's probably the usual trolls trying to deceive us, but then when we looked at it closely, we started thinking that it might be real."

"I invite you in advance to the Kremlin, to meet personally, be ready to play a little bit and talk about the interests of young people, the gamers of our country."

But whether or not the letter was real became irrelevant as criticism reached a fever pitch and the Kickstarter came to an abrupt and screeching halt.

The End of the Kickstarter

Soon after West posted the alleged letter from Putin, several more websites produced articles outlining the problems surrounding Areal and suggesting that West Games might not have been completely honest. West followed up with a scathing update, pulling no punches in its critique of two of the companies responsible for criticism of their Kickstarter. They quickly apologized, but the attack is still published and visible.

Then, it seemed like West Games finally had some good news. The Kickstarter reached its goal last weekend, surpassing the $50,000 mark and reaching over $64,000. But this, too, sparked controversy when Eurogamer and Kicktraq revealed that a jump of over $24,000 occurred with only a registered two new backers. This means that two massive donors jumped in and donated to the project, which isn't necessarily unusual on its own. What is unusual is that these donations came out of the blue, during a time when very few new backers were coming into the project.

And suddenly, at the beginning of this week, Kickstarter suspended the project. Just like that, Areal's crowdfunding campaign was stopped dead in its tracks. At about $65,000 it was frozen, and the game was put on hold. When asked for comment, Kickstarter simply pointed toward its FAQ and the section that dealt with its terms of use. According to the crowdfunding website, it is explicitly prohibited for a developer to pose as a backer and donate to itself. Neither Kickstarter or West Games have provided an official reason for the suspension, however.

Kickstarter suspended the Areal campaign this week.

Eugene Kim has provided his thoughts on the matter, and he believes that the cancelation has to do with the extreme suspicion and criticism that the project drew. In a statement to Kotaku, he said, "The fact is that there are a lot of companies that make their livelihood on S.T.A.L.K.E.R., so when we showed up on the scene, they saw us as a threat and did everything that they could to stop us.

"People also need to take into account that Ukrainians and Russians are in an information war right now, and as a Ukrainian developer, we were subject to constant hostility from Russian Kickstarter accounts (we even got death threats). There are over 16,000 comments on our Kickstarter, which is unprecedented for the amount of supporters that we have, and a lot of our comments are hate filled."

What Now?

Time will tell if Areal ever sees the light of day. Perhaps West Games will find an angel investor and the game will be made. Perhaps it will launch as the first-person, divergent narrative-driven game that the developer promises. Perhaps Areal will fade into history.

But one thing's certain: West Games isn't giving up. It began a new campaign on its own website, which has raised almost $12,000 at the time of this writing. And Eugene Kim still strongly believes in its cause. "We know that we can make Areal even better than [S.T.A.L.K.E.R.], because of advances in technology, gameplay mechanics, and story," he said. There's no stated end to the new campaign, so we will see if West Games can eventually produce Areal some time in the future.

Note: We asked West Games to comment on the suspension of its Kickstarter, and it hasn't responded. We will update this story if the developer provides a statement.

Alex Newhouse is an editorial intern at GameSpot, and you can follow him on Twitter @alexbnewhouse
Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com


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Discussion

85 comments
nbf4548
nbf4548

Wow, what a complicated mess.  Stalker was a great hybrid of exploration, survival and FPS.  If you haven't tried it, play it with the Stalker complete mod to upgrade the visuals.  I will happily try any game that's in the Stalker legacy.  They have great mood to them and are a fresh change from other shooters.  

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

Latest: THey release an open letter in English blaming Russians for the failure.......and then released a letter in Russian blaming Americans for the failure. Just saying.

jcknapier711
jcknapier711

Metro was just a boring FPS.  It was just another run and gun FPS.  It was only interesting because it was post-apocalyptic and those settings are always inviting.  The problem is that there is no shortage of post-apocalyptic games.  


It had nothing on the original STALKER trilogy.  Nothing.

nurnberg
nurnberg

Kickscammer proves there is a lot of id1ots with money in the world.

7Deuce
7Deuce

Russians, ruining everything, as usual.

BMTO_Abe_Ace
BMTO_Abe_Ace

Have we stooped so low that we need play by play commentary on reddit fueled internet dramas now?

Fallout_red
Fallout_red

Ah, West Games... The dev team that believes PS4 dev kits are downloadable. They obviously know what to do with $50k.

Hurvl
Hurvl

What with all the vagueness and accusations/claims pulled out of thin air, they should have called it Aerial instead.

Majd_Abdulqadir
Majd_Abdulqadir

Looking through the MobyGames profiles I see that this game has Yuriy Negrobov on, which is actually one of the two lead designers of the original STALKER. This project has as much merit to it as the rest IMO.

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

You totally missed out one of the biggest red flags of the campaign: THe person who created the Kickstarter and would be getting all the money was a person in LAS VEGAS not the Ukraine, and when questioned about this Kim never answered and changed the subject on several occasions.

rezaghasem
rezaghasem

GSC didnot do anything and now when this new team is going to work on a game that deserves stalker name..، gcs in angry???why???they didnot do anything just talking!!!!gsc guys you are not stalkers any more!!!!!!!!!!

jcknapier711
jcknapier711

Come to think of it, it could greatly benefit Russia to create a military training simulator similar to ARMA.  Maybe they do?  I have no idea.

jcknapier711
jcknapier711

I really liked the factions in Clear Sky.  Always loved blasting those freedom scum.

Mercaptan
Mercaptan

I played STALKER SoC 3 times , ClearSky 3 times, Call of Pripyat 3 times , despite the crashing frome time to time i always kept playing the like i couldnt get enough, i realy cant understand why the franchise didnt get suport to continue , its a verry underated game that diserves a much much more , on atmosphere and the desolating feeling no game has nothing on stalker

RELeon
RELeon

STALKER always seems to draw so much drama. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to create a successor to the game, yet they always end up being cancelled, changed, or just vanishing. It strikes me as very odd that this particular game always seems to draw so much conflict.


Don't get me wrong, these games were fun, and had a great atmosphere. But they weren't exactly blockbuster hits that made record breaking sales. It is like this IP is cursed or something.

hystavito
hystavito

Just wanted to mention sZone Online as a lot of people haven't heard of it.  It's certainly STALKER like although I haven't done any research to see if they have people that worked on any STALKER games.


It's free to play, I haven't played it since the alpha way back, I should check it out again.  I get emails from them occasionally but they are in Russian :).  The website has English though, so I think it's a mistake or bug or something that their email system doesn't send me English.  Just an example of how they are a little rough around the egdes :).

luert
luert

I think that west games lied about a couple of things to try catch people's attention for advertising but all this hate to them for trying to make a stalker game, I think those who accused west games got a lot to loose if west games succed, it's rather unusual that so many people want to go against a company like this when their motives and reason don't seem to be so much flawed, if they've managed to defend themselves well this means that their motives aren't so bad as people think, I'm not saying they didn't lie but, going as far as to block them completly, that's a bit too much, something's fishy about this whole story if you ask me

parkurtommo
parkurtommo

I wouldn't be surprised at all if this entire project were to just fade away, taking all of the money it raised. 


I loved STALKER and it really needs an update. The atmosphere is unprecedented but it's presentation is meager at best. If someone could make a STALKER game but implement the smoothness and rich quality of Metro; that would be GOAT material.

fgjnfgh
fgjnfgh

I enjoyed reading this, but aren't they stupid to claim that the president of Russia wrote them a letter of invitation? They could go to prison for such a false claim

NoahRoalson
NoahRoalson

STALKER games are some of the most underrated FPS/RPG games I have ever played. The atmosphere is superb!

chechak7
chechak7

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is ICONIC game and developers deserve much better options 

gamingfriendly
gamingfriendly

Dont insult S.T.A.L.K.E.R by putting the name of this scam next to it (yes i am a big S.T.A.L.K.E.R fanatic) Shadow Of Chernobyl is one of the best games ever made and if THQ did not rush GSC it would of been even better, this sh_it on the other hand is just a scummy scam at worst or a shameless attention wh@ring to catch a publishers eye on the expenseof the backers, dont give it publicity.


RIP S.T.A.L.K.E.R & GSC you will never be forgotten and the modders will carry on!

ferna1234
ferna1234

i'd love some more stalker. i don't mind if it has another name

blueinheaven
blueinheaven

I love a bit of gossip. Developer hate rage is so much more interesting than hearing about current gen Remaster number 5022.

b74kd3th
b74kd3th

Man stalker was dark Moody and awesome

MAD_AI
MAD_AI

The way the campaign was handled never inspired any confidence to be honest.

I still don't understand why Sergei chose to close down GSC, Stalker was popular and successful for a game made in Russia.


I hope the next Metro is closer to Stalker, open world, complete customizability and freedom.

dani3po
dani3po

The worst part is how badly they have treated consumers. Anyone who made a "uncomfortable" (albeit logical) '' question was labeled as a troll by the developers.

Gankstar_VX84
Gankstar_VX84

this will never see the light of day, ever.. and it's unfortunate. Stalker was one of the best games ever made, now all you gotta do is install the complete mod and it becomes one of the best games ever made even by todays standards. bottom line gsc had some of the most talented devs in the industry.

hitomo
hitomo

no, all the talented people have gone to work on metro and that was long a ago,

a lot of what makes Stalker outstanding comes from the graphic assets and the engine,

and this was all done a decade ago ... I mean it was looking photorealistic even in directx8


'this chapter is finished'

nl_skipper
nl_skipper

Well I don't know how most people feel but I'm of the opinion that you shouldn't support a kick-starter when the person isn't even asking for an appropriate amount of money...


This team is just trying to get enough free donations to prove to an actual investor (you know, someone who would sign a contract, be much more a part of development, require feedback from the developers, etc) that the project has traction, and to me that's real scummy. 


There's no guarantee any investor would back them,  50k is barely a proof of demand for the concept, and when you've got additional, REAL, investors behind the project you're right back in publisher town, where the investors call all the shots, and the Kickstarter donaters are of no consequence or concern....  there are a LOT of projects on kickstarter there for this purpose too... to milk eager or gullible gamers only to turn around a sign a deal with a real investor, and turn their back on any prior promises or obligations that stemmed from the original KS.

xsonicchaos
xsonicchaos

I'm trying to be as neutral as possible here. Those were obviously "guerrilla PR" stunts, there's no denying that. You can't say someone hasn't worked on something or isn't that someone when they can actually prove it. What are you, nuts? But... russians, ukrainians, saussages...

That being said, there's something odd with the project. Awesome artwork just proves they have a good graphic designer, but the graphics designer isn't a game designer, and from what I've seen as in-game footages, it's terrible, it's every survival based on Unity found on Steam's Greenlight bad. So, you know, I don't care what you shove your money into, but you should be careful. Plus, $50,000 for a STALKER kind of game? That's reason enough to raise a brow. Just play STALKER.

vadagar1
vadagar1

oh god 


PLZ MAKE THIS HAPPEN PEOPLE

hitomo
hitomo

@jcknapier711  ... in regards to your other comment ... because metro was a console game ... if you play it on pc the graphics are simply unbelievable ... tesselation and stuff ... I respect this game for being the only Version of the xray-engine, optimized enough to run on consoles as well ... its a late success for that tech ...


and its like a spin-off from the stalker series

Xmus942
Xmus942

@nurnberg  Can you prove this is fake? If not you should probably shut up and refrain from making statements about other people's intelligence, lest you say something ironic.

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

Additionally there is the fact they kept referring to Console Developer Kits as something you simply "download"..... In fact there are quite a number of red flag facts missing from this article (such as the hilariously botched Reddit AMA), which leaves West games looking more innocent and unjustly wronged then is actually the case.

luert
luert

@fgjnfgh yeah true but I think this was a desperate act trying to put an end to it, although it just back fired instead real shame

shreddyz
shreddyz

@NoahRoalson agreed. It's a shame the studio didn't continue. The game world is/was unparalleled. 

jcknapier711
jcknapier711

@hitomo "no, all the talented people have gone to work on metro and that was long a ago,"


They why was Metro just a run of the mill FPS?  STALKER was plain genius.  Maybe the graphics people went and did Metro, but graphics don't make a game.  The whole novelty of STALKER were the RPG and sandbox aspects, which was non-existent in Metro.

JJB03
JJB03

@nl_skipper I'm not familiar with kick starters and how they work but, this system doesn't sound as scummy as you make out because to my logic if an investors see's enough traction, then that surely means an investor and publisher understands the reason for that traction is because of promises and obligations that are stated and what the developers hoped to create. 


So surly as long as investors/publishers work together with the developers create what those previous donators hoped for then there is no reason for those donators to feel cheated as they've donated to a result that they wanted to happen. I suppose what my point is, is why would a investor/publisher then shell out cash for a result that doesn't mirror what was originally envisioned in the KS in the first place, how would it benefit them to go back on what people are hoping for?    

nashathedog
nashathedog

@DarkSaber2k @JJB03 @nl_skipper It also ignores the fact that the initial KS investors were being lied to and told there money was all that was needed for West games to provide a full release on multiple platforms by September 2015