Get Out Of Here: Areal Kickstarter Suspended

By Alice O'Connor on July 23rd, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Howl.

“Spiritual successor to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with its lead designer onboard” seems a foolproof Kickstarter pitch but crumbs, Areal has become a comedy of errors. Beset by accusations of lies and scamming (some, at least, unfounded), developers West Games lashed out with the worst PR-ing I’ve seen, claiming everyone was out to get them rather than addressing legitimate concerns.

It’s not wholly surprising, then, to see that Kickstarter have suspended the campaign. It had two days left to go, and had passed its funding goal. West Games say everyone’s out to get them, but they will persevere.

“The fact is that there are a lot of companies that make their livelihood on STALKER, so when we showed up on the scene, they saw us as a threat and did everything that they could to stop us,” West said in a statement after the shutdown. “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).”

People who have backed Areal won’t be charged and West Games won’t get any money. Kickstarter don’t say exactly why they suspended the campaign, but their FAQ lists some likely suspects: misrepresentation, claiming other people’s work, and so on. We don’t know whether this suspension is based on something new Kickstarter have discovered, or in response to the whole cavalcade of reasons that have some people baying for blood. This will take some explaining.

The background: Areal was a very poor Kickstarter pitch. The video showed mostly unlabelled S.T.A.L.K.E.R. footage with a few snippets of scenes that were implied to be from Areal, but were a store-bought Unity asset set. Given that West said they’re developing their own engine for Areal, that was a bit dodgy. Their later prototype gameplay footage also appeared to be in Unity with bought assets. All this Unity is fine if they’re doing very early prototyping or have decided to switch to the engine, but West dance around it, seeming to operate under a principle of “don’t say anything and maybe people will assume the best.” When you’re asking them for money, that’s no good. The Kickstarter also used some concept art that West’s artists had made for other projects.

The Kickstarter goal of $50,000 is clearly not enough to make a game of Areal’s scope. It might go some way towards a prototype, a proof of concept for investors, or could top up money already secured for development, but West didn’t say anything about this. When you clearly don’t have anything resembling a game yet, you can’t ask for a clearly unrealistic sum without explaining what’s going on. West Games CEO Eugene Kim later told Eurogamer that they had some money lined up already and might seek investors, but they should’ve said that from the start.

Those two points alone were enough to make backing look iffy, but gosh, such a terrible mess followed. Areal got off to a bad start when a marketing chap from Survarium devs Vostok Games–formed by a chunk of folks from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. dev GSC Game World–declared West Games’ claim of being the people behind S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to be “fraudulent,” and said they’d contacted GSC’s lawyers. Many readers took this to mean West weren’t who they said they were and that the whole thing was a scam. Vostok later clarified that it meant S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was the work of hundreds of people, so this handful couldn’t make that claim, but it was too late.

Then people noticed that photos of team members on the Kickstarter page were for sale on a stock photo site. Which they are, because a pal photographed them and they signed releases. Videos later showed they do indeed wear those faces. But, again, that clarification came long after people declared it proof of a scam.

Some are also suspicious about Leonid Kovtun, the chap who the Kickstarter money would go to. Unproven speculation is that he’s the same Leonid Kovtun who’s been involved in a number of lawsuits and seems connected to a Maximillian Kovtun. That happens to be the same name as a chap behind art-borrowing space game Kickstarter Space Pioneer and, uh, crowdfunding for a “nuclear energy space station.” West say Leonid Kovtun is an investor and responded “we honestly don’t care if he has or hasn’t filed lawsuits in the past (if it’s even the same Leo).” This is all speculation based on similar names and similar lawsuits, not proof of anything, but it makes people uneasy. That’s the problem with Areal: lots of small things make people reluctant to trust it.

A strange feeling.

Not helping any of this is West Games CEO Eugene Kim, who’s been quick to spout accusations and deflections but slower with solid information. He’s posted lists of people thought to be trolling the Kickstarter’s comments. He’s slated VG247 and Forbes, saying they “are unprofessional and show incredible personal bias” in their coverage of Areal. Negative articles on Forbes came about because selling a majority share to a Chinese company means Forbes has “lax editorial standards,” according to Kim. He did apologise for that, at least.

And when people are already screaming their suspicions, for goodness sake, don’t post a letter ‘from’ Russian president Vladimir Putin which you say you received in the post, no matter how much doubt you express about its authenticity.

Undoubtedly there are people determined to trash Areal. West Games expected S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans to rally behind them, but instead had them try to tear Areal apart. They are being flooded with abusive comments and trolls and fake dev posts whose bloodthirst goes far beyond wanting to warn other people that Areal looks iffy. Invoking the name of a beloved game can be dangerous.

West Games are blaming all this on a Russian conspiracy and “direct competitors,” by which they mean Misery Development, a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. modder who’s now making post-apocalyptic visual novel The Seed, and the Survarium gang at Vostok. Yes, Vostok’s hastily-deleted “fraudulent” comment definitely caused trouble and Misery did rabble-rouse until asked to stop, but West are pointing fingers at everyone but themselves.

I do believe West Games have assembled a team including a number of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. folks to make Areal, but I certainly would not back it without seeing or playing something solid.

West are restarting funding through PayPal on their site. They should give up on crowdfunding for now and work on a decent prototype. Once everyone’s calmed down, they can release it and try crowdfunding again. They should be more open about their goals and means. And they should keep Eugene Kim away from keyboards and hire a better PR person.

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36 Comments »

  1. Stevostin says:

    The sense for light despite the crazy colors is completely amazing in that painting.

  2. DrollRemark says:

    They are being flooded with abusive comments and trolls and fake dev posts whose bloodthirst goes far beyond wanting to warn other people that Areal looks iffy.

    I dunno, a lot of the people who had legitimate concerns about Areal are suspicious that the massive spamming on their comments section is some kind of carpet-bombing operation to shut down all discussion there, rather than insult the developers. I mean, nearly all the posts were exact copies of one another, which all accused random backers of being trolls (some of whom quite clearly weren’t, which could be confirmed after the most cursory of searches).

    Then there’s also the way that the funding was only hit after it instantly jumped from around 35k to 65k over just two days, whilst only gaining two new backers in that time. If that doesn’t raise massive warning flags, then nothing will.

    I understand why you’d go for an editorial line on something like this Alice, but it almost seems like you’re being too kind to them.

    • Philomelle says:

      Yeah, the fake dev post was actually made by someone after the disastrous Reddit AMA and the spam bombing of the comments in order to parody Eugene Kim’s behavior toward backers; he was almost immediately told off by the Areal Investigation Brigade, who all thought that hostility toward West Games isn’t the right way to handle the situation.

      It’s also worth noting that while West Games happily copy/pasted entire chunks of the spammers’ copy/pasta for their own updates, they never tried to condemn or stop it. I say that because I’m one of the people who reported it and had a conversation with Kickstarter support about it.

      One of the spammers, Roy Anderson, did pop up in our E-chat and quickly confirmed himself to be a part of West Games by accidentally leaking a metric fuckton of info on their internal structure and operations by slipping up in the middle of his raging. He was the one who confirmed Eugene Kim never actually participated in the AMA, as well as that they were spam-bombing their own Kickstarter comments in order to “stop the spread of misinformation”.

      So yeah, I have next to no sympathy for West Games at this point.

    • LionsPhil says:

      On the upside, while Philomelle has dug deeper, at least RPS did some actual news reporting here and dug up some information on what happened and how each of those claims appear to stand, rather than just going “boy, maybe this is bad??!?”. Answers, not just questions.

      • hilltop says:

        Yes… but you seem surprised by that. Am I picking you up wrong?

  3. Philomelle says:

    “Many readers took this to mean West weren’t who they said they were and that the whole thing was a scam.”

    Being one of the backers behind solving this humongous mystery of a project, I can in fact confirm that they aren’t who they claimed they were. Their entire team made LinkedIn profiles in an attempt to look more professional and once those were unearthed, it came out that only three of them were on STALKER’s team at all. And while one of them is the original game’s writer and lead designer, the other two mostly did some background work.

    As for the rest of the team, most of them worked on browser games. Their listed PR Manager actually never worked in PR; most of her career is being a narrative director on Facebook and hidden object games. As for their CEO, Eugene Kim, he was an engine architect on STALKER 2 for a couple months. Aside of that, his only finished project in the game industry is Go Fishing Online for Facebook.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that the only object in their in-game footage that wasn’t outed as Unity Store assets is the wrist-mounted gadget. A Ukrainian 3D artist eventually came out in the comments on a Russian website and said he was the one who made it. West Games approached him during their recruitment drive, had him make that gadget as “a test of his abilities,” but then never paid or contacted him again. Needless to say, he wasn’t very impressed by seeing his work in a Kickstarter pitch he isn’t connected to.

    • DarkSaber2k says:

      This post contains roughly 737% more actual journalism and research than this article does.

      • P.Funk says:

        Well its obvious RPS doesn’t write investigative journalism articles too often because that involves a lot more time, by getting lots of perspectives and digging beneath just facts available to anybody. This article is mostly just an overview of the issue but with little analysis beyond the tail end, which makes it like most news pieces out there.

        Summary articles don’t get things completely right if nobody else has dug deep to reveal them, because thats what most news does, repeats what other people have proven. Mostly they reveal accepted things which are uncontroversial and its the investigative people who reset the metric of whats an uncontroversial fact in a given story. As much as some guy posting a comment saying something is slightly different than reported seems factual, confirming that takes lots of work. Posting it in a news article without doing the full measure to confirm it would be worse than reporting a more uncertain “fact”.

        All that said, I don’t know how uncontroversial Philomelle’s information actually is, or what the paper trail looks like. I suspect “investigative journalism” is something of an anachronism in gaming though. My feeling is that just getting a story that isn’t tainted with publisher money is gaming’s version of good journalism.

        I could be massively massively wrong though. :P

        • Philomelle says:

          I wouldn’t say any of my information is anything special because all of it is readily accessible if you know where to look. I would even link it if not RPS’s rigid rules about linking in comments. The only part that was hard to dig up was the piece about the wrist gadget. It popped up on West Games’ VK (a kind of Russian Facebook) page, along with complaints from West Games’ concept art designer about how he was treated like crap while in the company and believes that they only hired him to have a “concept artist” face on the Kickstarter page. The comment was promptly deleted (West Games routinely deletes everything except glowing praise from their comment sections), but the guy who left it also linked a Russian gaming website. I dug through Areal articles on it and eventually came across the comment, which also contained proof in the form of the poster’s screenshots of the gadget’s high-poly model with textures not applied yet.

          That said, I should note that most articles like these are expected to come up within 1-3 days of the event and that’s how much time the journalist has to gather all available information; the only exceptions are ongoing investigative articles, much like the Areal article written by a Forbes contributor that was being updated every 3 days over the course of the whole campaign.

          I, on the other hand, have been part of the Areal Investigation Brigade since June 25th. I had literally three more weeks to gather information and dig through the breadcrumb trails than Alice did. And speaking with a certain degree of, uh, expertise on Areal and West Games’ ridiculously toxic behavior, I’d say she’s done an exceptional job summarizing the biggest controversies of this project. My contributions are more trivia, additional little facts provided to RPS readers because I really like this site.

          • P.Funk says:

            I believe the sentiment of your final 2 paragraphs really hones in on what I was trying to say.

          • Nate says:

            Which is, of course, part of why a rapid news cycle is a bad idea that leads to superficial analysis. Especially since this is video game news, and nobody really minds waiting to read something really interesting.

            But that’s all by-the-by, because there are such worse offenders, and this article is maybe the first time I’ve read “wholly” spelled correctly in five years.

        • frightlever says:

          Occasionally RPS tries to punch above its weight. I like the site well enough when it’s doing what it’s good at – quirky commentary on lesser spotted games, but when someone, usually John, starts commenting on legal matters relating to trademarks or patent law it really gets embarrassing but most people tend to agree with him because he’s taking a matter of fact, practical point of few, which clearly has little connection to the actuality of the law.

          They don’t have the resources to do investigative journalism, and I doubt they have the time to keep up with the minutiae of individual “scandals” like this one. That’s why comments like the one from @Philomelle above, and many forum threads on diverse subjects are such an integral part of the site. The real brains of the hivemind lies below the article and I suspect most of the RPS writers would acknowledge that.

  4. Frank says:

    I don’t doubt that they have enemies, but this failed because their pitch was terrible, as has been all their subsequent behavior.

    I’m still curious to hear from Kickstarter, who, according to their FAQ, are the ones who actually decide when a project gets suspended:
    https://www.kickstarter.com/help/faq/creator+questions#faq_41817
    I suppose it doesn’t benefit KS any to talk, though.

  5. GameCat says:

    Now Putin will be pissed off and he will attack Ukraine for sure.

  6. rexx.sabotage says:

    The World: “Hey, where are we going…

    and why are we in this handbasket?!

    • jiaco says:

      Absolutely. This whole ordeal was an affront on sanity. Since they have now copy pasted their pledge levels from KS to their website with PayPal links, I have already contacted PayPal suggesting they reconsider playing in this party. Any interaction with the NotARealGameAtAll club seems to be a one way ticket to fire and brimstone.

  7. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    I haven’t seen this joke but I’ve been dying to crack it for days – “A Real Kickstarter?” you can have that, it’s hilarious.

    • frightlever says:

      reddit and 4chan have been all over that. However, you are better for not being aware of that.

  8. MattyQToo says:

    I did a little more digging and it looks like Maximillian Kovtun is, in fact, Leonid Kovtun’s son. He’s named as the subject minor in a custody case between Leonid Kovtun and Natalie Tsaregorodseva back in 2001. The Case ID is 01D268737, searchable by going to http://www.lasvegasjusticecourt.us/, selecting Civil Case Search, selecting Family Records, and searching by the last name or by the ID.

  9. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    About that video, was the sound meant to be a geiger counter? Because being silent when there’s no radiation and getting louder when there is some is not how those work, and that’s hardly uncommon knowledge.
    (Protip: if a geiger counter does go absolutely silent, but isn’t broken, it means you’re in a region of very high radiation (basically the counter can’t reset between “clicks”) and should probably get out of there. Pointlessly specific advice, yay!)

    • hotmaildidntwork says:

      I…did not know that. That’s actually rather interesting.

      Blessings upon you, sir or madam! Your advice will surely be of importance during the coming nuclear apocalypse.

    • hilltop says:

      I didn’t know that either. Thank you! I feel disproportionately wiser.

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      That was the coolest thing I’ve read today. I’m not kidding.

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      It could be a device similar to the anomaly detector meant to detect whatever the developers decided to call environmental hazards.

    • Halk says:

      that fact was pretty rad

  10. InternetBatman says:

    There’s this case, and then the Confederate Express dev was caught illegally squatting in a California house he rented on AirBnB.

  11. Jalan says:

    The idea of people still wanting to give their money to these guys is one that boggles the mind.

  12. Crainey says:

    First time I heard of this project was a few days in when people started pointing out the Unity assets and their presentation alongside STALKER footage. If a project is shrouded in controversy from the very beginning there is a very good reason for that, so instantly even as a massive STALKER fan there was no way I’d put my money to this. Then when I saw the way they were handling criticism I told my friends not to touch this with a 10ft barge pole.

    The unfortunate thing is I agree with you, there probably are legitimate developers involved in this, who are being taken for a ride and will probably end up unemployed. There are too many talented teams in Eastern Europe and other locations that live in squalor because of corrupt business like this.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Cinek says:

    Obvious scam went down.
    It’s as simple as that.
    I have no idea why anyone would defend this project after all their lies have been proven.