STALKERwas the kind of gloomy and artful first-person shooter that left gamers wanting more. So when a Kickstarter campaign launched late last month claiming that a team of former STALKER developers were a making "a definitive spiritual successor," gamers were intrigued.
UPDATE: Shortly after we published this story, Areal's Kickstarter campaign was suspended. A representative from Kickstarter wouldn't go into detail about the project or its suspension, and referred Kotaku to this relevant section of its FAQ.
Original story follows:
GSC Game World, the Ukrainian studio that created STALKER, had disappeared in 2011 and took any last hopes of a proper sequel with it. This new game, Areal, sounded like the next best thing. Or maybe even something better.
But gamers' excitement soon gave way to scepticism. Something about the Areal Kickstarter just didn't seem to add up. If West Games, the young and apparently star-studded studio that was making the game was based in Ukraine, why was the Kickstarter project based out of Las Vegas, Nevada?
The questions only got more pointed from there. The project was asking for $US50,000. Yet the developers claimed in their Kickstarter materials to be building a new proprietary engine for the game, and were planning to release it for PC, Mac, Linux, Wii U, Xbox One, and PS4 by 2016, with early access coming to some backers as soon as next year. Those are big promises that established game companies can't always keep. Was $US50,000 really enough to cover the development of a project of this scale?
Plus, everything about the game just sounded so ambitious that it bordered on grandiose. In the Kickstarter pitch and corresponding materials, the West Game developers promised a dynamic, open world shooter that could be many different things to many different kinds of players. Sort of like a post apocalyptic, spiffed up version of a game like Skyrim, only it was made by a group of people who looked like they were working out of someone's living room:
Above all else, however, what really perplexed gamers about all these promises was that West Games wasn't showing much of anything from Areal. No screenshots, no in-game footage, nothing. Many shot-for-shot breakdowns of the artwork and other materials displayed on Areal's Kickstarter page throughout its campaign (such as this recent one) have made a convincing case that West Games lifted images from Unity development templates, or simply used old STALKER concept art.
The small slices of genuinely new material, meanwhile, didn't look like much:
I first got in touch with West Games after Kotaku received an email from CEO Eugene Kim saying that his company's Kickstarter project was being "attacked on all sides by Russian internet trolls." Kim went on in that first message to say that he had recently received a letter claiming to be from Russian President Vladimir Putin. He even provided an image and a complete translation from Russian into English, though he didn't show me an envelope. The letter said that one of Putin's daughters had backed the project, and he was writing to express his appreciation for their game and inviting them to the Kremlin once an alpha version was ready and playable.
"We thought at first that there's no way that this is legit, and it's probably the usual trolls trying to deceive us, but then when we looked at it closely, we started thinking that maybe there's a small chance that it might be real," Kim wrote. "We don't really know to be honest, but we're sending the original signed letter in Russian and a translated English version anyway, for you to judge for yourselves."
Kim wasn't able to provide any convincing evidence that this letter was actually written by Vladimir Putin. He didn't even try to, really. I only mention it because it gives a good picture of what communicating with Kim about his game has been like. The moment I pressed him about the Putin letter over email, he responded by saying he didn't even believe the letter was real either.
"Well, we've never said that the letter was real," Kim wrote. We saw the signature on it and looked at comparable letters, they looked the same. It's probably photoshopped, and we found it very weird. If Putin did actually write this letter, then that's horrible, because he should be focusing on the actual crisis, and not on our video game. As far as who could send it, who knows! The world is a vast place and logic does not permeate through every person."
Indeed. So why was he even mentioning it in the first place, if he knew it didn't stand up to scrutiny?
"We don't think that it's real," Kim replied, "but we thought that it was an interesting read so we pointed that out via an update."
Trying to get a clear answer from Kim about other mysterious aspects of the Areal project involved a similar back-and-forth. He always had an answer for everything. But he was also willing to admit, with good humour, that some of these answers weren't entirely satisfactory.
Why was the Kickstarter project based out of Las Vegas? Because a small part of the West Games operation is based there. They wanted to run the crowdfunding part of the development out of an American city because "the United States right now is much more stable financially then Ukraine."
Why were they only asking for $US50,000? Because West Games has other pools to draw from.
"We have a set sum of investment, but I cannot give you exact figures at this time," Kim 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."
Ok, but what about the lack of any real convincing assets from the new game you're asking gamers to pledge their money to? Well, West Games never said that their new engine was finished, only that they were making it. The game is in a pre-Alpha stage, Kim insisted repeatedly, even sending a Wiktionary definition of the term "pre-Alpha" to explain why there wasn't much presentable material yet.
Furthermore, Kim said, many of the original accusations about Areal's legitimacy came from two of its direct competitors who were working on similar STALKER-esque projects — Vostok Games and the Misery Mod project.
Again, that could sound escapist. But there's a kernel of truth here. One of the earliest threads debating Areal on Reddit was sparked by a post on the Misery Mod website that no longer exists. Vostok Games made similar attempts to debunk Areal by writing on forums and making statements to the gaming press saying that West Games doesn't truly consist of ex-STALKER developers. I reached out to Vostok and the Misery Mod for comment on this story, and will update it once I hear back.
When I asked Kim about these specific charges, he pointed out that one of the key developers now involved in Areal is Alexey Sytyanov, a designer on STALKER who used to work at Vostok Games as a lead game designer and screenwriter for their post-apocalyptic shooter Survarium. Companies lobbing accusations back-and-forth at each other might sound hyperbolic. But is it really that unthinkable when companies as big as AMD and Nvidia are doing the same thing?
There are many parts of Areal that remain unconvincing. But as Kotaku's Luke Plunkett wrote last month when the game was first making waves, the developers do have a certain "pedigree" that isn't so easy to dismiss either. And that seems to have worked in West Games' favour: with 49 hours left to go, it's currently at $US64,308.
Of course, even that is suspect in its own way as well. As Eurogamer pointed out in a recent article, Areal only surpassed its Kickstarter goal over the past weekend because it received a small number of very large donations. These donations didn't coincide with an influx of new backers, either, which suggests that existing backers suddenly decided to give a lot more money.
And once again, Kim had a vague response that was also true in its own way.
"If you're talking about the person who gave us 10,000 — he or she is from Russia and I hope that he does stay on his pledge," Kim wrote, "but we've had a history of people pledging large amounts, and then retracting those pledges. The last time something like this happened, we got a 10,000 dollar pledge from a guy named Ivan, but he retracted his pledge shortly thereafter. We've gotten 3-4 large pledges, and I don't know who they are, but I hope that they are real."
I have heard from many Areal backers since I began researching this story yesterday. All of them were able to provide records of their relevant Kickstarter pledges. None of them claimed to be offering pledges anywhere near $US10,000. But many of them, particularly those who'd become increasingly disenchanted with the project, told me that they brought their pledge down to $US1 just so they could continue to watch the saga unfold or weigh in on (to put it politely) in the Kickstarter page's lively comments section.
Are these vocal critics trolls and cyberterrorists, as Kim has charged? Strong language aside, that depends on who's actually telling the truth here. And since this all this sound and fury is centered around a Kickstarter project, thought would be a difficult question even if Areal didn't seem quite so dubious. I mean: this is the same website that's currently hosting a more than $US60,000-strong crowdfunding campaign to help someone make potato salad.
Unless something dramatic happens that undermines Areal's Kickstarter campaign in the next 48 hours, the question of this game's legitimacy will be kicked far into the future. At one point during our correspondence, Kim made it sound like he's looking forward to this moment — when West Games can move past the ambiguous STALKER legacy it promoted and focus on the new game instead.
"It's clearly been an mistake on our part to focus on what we've done," Kim wrote in an email at one point. "In hindsight, we should have put less emphasis on STALKER, and more emphasis on Areal."