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Concerns and controversy around Areal project

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I reported on an upcoming Kickstarter for Areal recentlya game being billed as the spiritual successor to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. It’s in development at newly formed studio West-Games. With a number of ex-GSC employees listed, the project seemed promising, although I expressed some concern at the low project goal of $50,000 and its multiplayer focus. Well, since the Kickstarter launched, Areal has come under a lot of scrutiny. Hit the jump for a summary of the events.

The game is based on a series of novels by Russian author Sergey Tarmashev, which you can see in their garish glory here. Since going live yesterday, however, more concerns have been raised about the legitimacy of the project. The initial spark was brought up by Vostok Games, one of three companies formed of the ashes of GSC Game World and developers of the upcoming free-to-play S.TA.L.K.E.R.-inspired MMO shooter Survarium.

Joe Willburn, community manager for Survarium, initially stated this in their forum: “We have contacted GSC’s lawyers regarding [West-Games’] fraudulent claim of being the developers of Stalker and Metro Last Light. Please do all you can do ensure people know these claims are false.”

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The original post by Joe Willburn on the Survarium forums. The forum post has since been removed.

That post has since been deleted (though you can find the Google cached version here), and a cursory glance at Areal‘s developers’ LinkedIn history clearly reveals that they were indeed GSC employees, with varying levels of seniority. Vostok Games PR manager Oleg Yavorsky, in an exchange with Eurogamer, stated that his primary concern was the use of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. assets in the project being presented as West-Games’ own work, and their claims of being “core” to the series’ design. The pieces of concept art have been taken directly from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. wiki, according to VG247, and although they are the work of listed Areal artist Alexei Moseichuk, the sketches were during  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. development and are not original pieces for Areal.

“So that you understand, since the long years of development of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and then Metro, there have been literally hundreds of people involved in working on their bits and pieces, starting from beta-testers up to modellers responsible for certain weaponry models,” Yavorsky says. “Many people came to the studio to work for a few months just for the sake of adding S.T.A.L.K.E.R. development to their portfolio. Frequently they claimed afterwards to be the ‘core’ developers behind the game – you wouldn’t know anyway, right?”

That last comment is particularly rich — considering Vostok initially mistook them for imposters — but they make some valid points.

The project video in question uses footage from the three S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, as well as concept art. In addition, Reddit user “damjancd” keenly noted that the one bit of actual development work being shown was actually pulled directly from a post-apocalyptic map pack made for Unity.

West-Games have responded to the allegations on their project page, the full text of which has been posted below:

“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 (https://forum.survarium.com/en/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=3450#wrap) wherein a moderator accused us of being fake. The Kickstarter comments section has been completely hijacked by a couple of people, and even if we comment there, our posts will be ignored and buried. Misery LTD in particular is developing another post apocalyptic video game and is stirring controversy to attract people to his Kickstarter project. I hope that you, our supporters, can see through this deliberate negativity and help us make an awesome game with Areal. Update 2 is coming later today, and will clarify things even further.”

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The concept art for the unnamed shooter by UnionStudio.

I decided to dig a little deeper. Eugene Kim and Yuriy Negrobov were formerly involved with another company prior to West-Games called UnionStudio. UnionStudio was formed in 2012, soon after the collapse of GSC – as was reported by several gaming sites at the time, including PC Gamer and Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Go to the UnionStudio LinkedIn page, and you’ll see a brief statement that the company has “reorganized into West-Games”. What’s interesting is that UnionStudio was, at the time, developing a “cross-platform action shooter” supposedly inspired by Fallout, Mass Effect and Rage, but appears not to have gone anywhere substantial, with only a single piece of concept art released for it. Kim is also listed as the CTO of GoGames during his tenure at UnionStudio, which has and seemingly continues to operate Go FishingThe GoGames website is essentially a placeholder; UnionStudio’s domain expired in May 2014 of this year, according to the WHOIS lookup on the URL.

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This image, from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. wiki, is one of the contested assets, with the man on the far right being used as one of the concept sketches for Areal.

Furthermore, Peter Dushinsky (currently producer/lead designer of Areal) lists his responsibilities as “making concept design and preproduction for MMO TPS project” and “preproduction and concept design for Tactical MMO RPG” for UnionStudio and West-Games respectively on his LinkedIn page, which seems to be at odds with Areal‘s single-player promises but makes a lot of sense if you consider the odd multiplayer stretch goals for the project.

One has to ask why UnionStudio felt the need to form a new company (largely consisting of its existing staff), yet failed to mention that fact. Is Areal a repurposing of its original unnamed MMO project? Does it exist at all, given the questionable way the assets have been presented and the Kickstarter video? We’ll have more information as the story develops, but for now I’d recommend against backing the project.

In spite of the controversy, the Kickstarter campaign has already managed to reach more than half of its desired amount at the time of writing.

Sources: LinkedIn, VG247, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Reddit, PC Gamer, Eurogamer, Areal Kickstarter

  • Squirly

    Ok, look. My biggest issue is what they’re promising, what they have to show, and what they’re asking for.

    “Open world, vehicles, revolutionary AI” is basically the same blurb that was used for the original STALKER. GSC couldn’t get that right when only aiming to release it on PC. Now these games are claiming the same thing, but aimed at all the platforms (including WiiU???) and while only asking for 50K. And while having nothing solid to show us.

    What? How? It just smells fishy, regardless of the legitimacy of their credentials.

    • Rick de Klerk

      Their credentials were called into question by a kneejerk post by Vostok, a post that has since been removed.

      As you say, there’s a ton of factors that don’t add up: the number of platforms to be supported, the goal versus the scope, the spat with Vostok, a failure to mention their previous company, UnionGames, the use of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. assets and currently no actual gameplay footage of their own work.

      They did state that they would be posting a video with said footage later in the day, so we’ll see what comes.

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