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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.