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