UPDATE 30/06 11.30AM BST: West-Games made a bizarre claim in one of the updates that Vostok Games has now shot down.
Wrote West-Games: "Regarding Union Studio, we had a preliminary project that was supposed to be a generic shooter, and we didn't agree with that vision. That project became Survarium from Vostok Games and we founded West-Games. Now, as you know, we have Areal in development."
I put that to Vostok's Oleg Yavorsky, who replied: "We never had anything in common with Union Studio. I do hope it's a translation mistake."
UPDATE 30/06 10AM BST: The main vocal dissenter against Areal - Misery Development - has been muzzled. Misery Development is the team that built the popular Misery S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mod before pitching a full game - The Seed - successfully on Kickstarter.
West-Games accused Misery Development of trashing the Areal Kickstarter comments in order to promote The Seed, and threatened legal action if it didn't stop.
It has now stopped.
Wrote Misery on the Misery Mod Facebook page:
- "Misery Development Ltd. has been formally asked to resign from commenting on West Games and their Kickstarter project Areal. Misery Development Ltd. would like to state that whether or not to pledge on a Kickstarter campaign is for the community to decide, and an individual choice."
The weekend updates to the Areal Kickstarter talked of shifting the conversation away from the campaign's criticism and towards the game itself. But they didn't; there's still no new tangible information - let alone footage - of the game to be had.
Leonid Kovtun, the mysterious man to whom the pledges are sent, was mentioned again:
"Regarding Leo, he handles some legal and financial aspects of our game," wrote concept artist Eugene Tyshkevich. "We've heard of conspiracy theories about him, but we honestly don't care if he has or hasn't filed lawsuits in the past (if it's even the same Leo)."
Success on Kickstarter is still well within West-Games and Areal's grasp. Despite the criticism, more than $33,000 has been raised of the $50,000 goal so far, with 24 days to spare.
Consider that many interested-but-hesitant spectators have lowered pledges to $1 until they're convinced Areal is legit, and that total could jump significantly - should significant evidence, convincing them Areal is a game that can/will be made, be produced.
UPDATE 27/06 11PM BST: West-Games has sent answers to more of my questions.
There's a question mark hanging over the identity of a man called Leonid Kovtun - the man who the Areal Kickstarter pledges are going to. Nowhere is he mentioned on the Areal Kickstarter page, nor has West-Games explained his involvement. A Reddit user did some digging and tracked him to Las Vegas, where West-Games is registered, and dug up some court cases (small claims) involving him.
He discovered ties with a Maximilian Kovtun, who also lives in Las Vegas, and who was connected to the Space Pioneer Kickstarter that failed in March this year. That was another project registered to Vegas but built by an Eastern-European (Russian-sounding) team.
I asked Eugeme Kim who Leonid Kovtun was and he replied: "Leo Kovtun is our partner. We have a large team, thus we do not have the opportunity to show everyone to the public."
A large team? Only seven people are listed on LinkeIn and 11 named on the Areal Kickstarter page. That's not enough to realise a pitch like Areal's. I asked Kim how big the team would need to eventually be, and he was evasive. "As big as we deem necessary," he answered, with a smiley. "All video game studios expand and contract to suit their current resource needs."
The resources for Areal are minuscule - at least the $50,000 Kickstarter goal is. I asked Kim how much he would need to make Areal a reality. "We have a detailed internal business plan that can be neatly summarised as follows: we have covered a part of the total budget (including salaries), whilst the rest of the budget comes from Kickstarter, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. community and possibly investors."
If much of the investment has come from the team itself, and what we've heard so far suggests it has, then why haven't we seen more of the project they've built. Why did West-Games choose to use predominantly old S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game footage for its Kickstarter pitch?
"We used footage from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to show the games that we have worked on in the past," he replied. "We are working on the game and will show in-game materials through various platforms, including Kickstarter and Facebook updates."
So how much work has actually been done on Areal so far?
"We have chiefly worked on game design, world building, positioning our project, getting a team together and many other things," Kim assured me. "These are very important aspects of video game development that are often overlooked, but are exceedingly important."
I asked whether West-Games was using Unity to make the game, as some suspected, having seen what they believed to be Unity during the Kickstarter trailer. Kim reiterated what was already said in an update: that the team had worked on "various engines" to evaluate them. He didn't say anything else.
UPDATE 27/06 08.40AM BST: There's been communication. Eurogamer has received an email response from head of the project, Eugene Kim, and there's also been a Kickstarter update overnight.
Unfortunately neither correspondence addresses the bigger question about Areal as a game, and whether it has a realistic chance of being made. Questions such as "why aren't we seeing more?", "why did West-Games use S.T.A.L.K.E.R. assets to promote Areal?" and "what is the roadmap for production?" are still unanswered.
The email and Kickstarter update focus instead on proving that the people named do really work at the studio. There's a video featuring five of the key staff at the studio all sat together saying hi.
The email regurgitated some of what had been written on Kickstarter before, about that one vocal dissenter - posting as Misery LTD - who's apparently on a crusade to smear the Areal project, and in doing so promote his own S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-like game.
"It's very hard to see people associated with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise perpetuating lies and biased misinformation with the purpose of attracting people to their own post-apocalyptic video games," Eugene Kim wrote in the email. "It's even harder for us to see that misinformation posted as fact."
I've made contact with that vocal dissenter to find out more about where the intense scrutiny comes from.
These updates show there are people working at West-Games willing to put their faces, in a video, to the game. That suggests this isn't a scam, at least.
Now the team needs to prove it has more than ideas and a video of cobbled-together S.T.A.L.K.E.R. footage - not to mention a proper production plan - for its game.
ORIGINAL STORY 26/06 4PM BST: Accusations of fraudulent claims, suspicions of being a scam - what's going on with that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-inspired Kickstarter, Areal?
There are a few areas of contention: who are the people at West-Games and did they work on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? Are the assets used for the Areal Kickstarter actually S.T.A.L.K.E.R. assets? And does this project, asking for only $50,000, have any hope of ever being completed?
To answer the first question requires a bit of background - the whole topic requires background.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was made in Ukraine by GSC Game World. GSC collapsed, weirdly, in 2011 when leader Sergei Grigorovich unexpectedly and unceremoniously pulled the plug on the whole operation, citing only "personal reasons" (Polygon report).
Out of the ashes rose two new studios: 4A Games, established a few years earlier and would go on to make the respected Metro series, and Vostok Games, which is nearly ready to release Survarium - an online game that's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at its heart.
GSC - a shell company - and Sergei Grigorovich retained ownership of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. brand (noted in a post on GSC's website), but nothing has really been heard of them since.
Another studio with GSC ties popped up in 2012. It was Union Studio and it claimed to be created by S.T.A.L.K.E.R. developers. Union's pitch on startup funding site Gust said, "We are raising funds for our studio and our new AAA class on-line cross-platform third person shooter." Union Studio "reorganised" as West-Games in 2013.
Of the staff mentioned on the Areal Kickstarter it's only really artist Yuriy Negrobov that could be considered part of the core S.T.A.L.K.E.R. team, having worked at GSC since 2003. West-Games boss Eugene Kim worked at GSC for just over a year and a half.
Vostok Games' chief spokesperson Oleg Yavorsky - who worked at GSC from 2000-2012 - told me yesterday that West-Games' claim of Areal being made by the core people who developed S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was "overestimated" - and it is.
But there are people at West-Games who worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro, which is probably why Vostok removed the statement from its forum about the Areal Kickstarter making "fraudulent claims".
"We have contacted Vostok Games about their supposed claim that we are fraudulent," wrote West-Games in a Kickstarter update. "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 second concern is that West-Games used - maybe illegally (does GSC exist to enforce its ownership? I can't get an answer from GSC) - S.T.A.L.K.E.R. footage and assets to represent Areal. Watch the Kickstarter video again:
The dark night intro is very similar to this S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat trailer intro. At around 1.30 there are shooting sections clearly reused in the Areal trailer.
Now check out this S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky tech demo video. The train-track flyby at 0.47 is used in the Areal video, as is the boat at 1.04.
Even some of the artwork used on the Areal page doesn't belong to that game.
West-Games could be using this stuff to show what it wants Areal to be. It's misleading but that could be the case. But why isn't West-Games showing us Areal? The Kickstarter FAQ says it's in pre-alpha and that lots of savings and time have gone into making it. Why fill a Kickstarter pitch video with clips of other games if that's the case?
Developers are seen, in the Areal video, building an Areal environment. Observers believe the tools to be Unity and the assets to be from a shelf-bought post-apocalyptic package rather than made in house. West-Games suggested it was making its own engine and didn't mention Unity. This could be a short-cut way of making a quick prototype to show investors, but why not make that for the Kickstarter pitch instead?
Even the game's logo came under fire for being thrown together with a bog standard font as if someone didn't take much time over it.
Concern three: Areal will never be made.
Not for $50,000 - the Kickstarter goal - it won't, obviously. That's nowhere near enough - and the team is nowhere near diverse or big enough - to make an ambitious open-world shooter like Areal claims to be. Even at $500,000 it would be unlikely, let alone making it happen on consoles as well.
West-Games seems to be suggesting, however, that raising $50,000 will open new funding doors - perhaps be the evidence a rich investor needs to jump in. Kingdom Come: Deliverance, made in Czech Republic, did a similar kind of thing, albeit much more successfully.
Perhaps the $50,000 is what's needed to make a prototype to demo to publishers, although shopping for publishers via Kickstarter brings up all kinds of problems of its own.
Or maybe West-Games simply set the bar low so it would - at the very least - succeed, and then smash a stretch goal or two along the way.
The biggest problem with all this is that West-Games won't address these concerns. I contacted West-Games yesterday and again today, both through Kickstarter and a contact email addresses.
Here is a company not only pitching its future on Kickstarter but also one that's come under intense internet scrutiny. Why on Earth wouldn't it want to clarify the situation and clear its name? There are many backers who've lowered pledges to $1 until things are cleared up. But all they've - we've - had so far are flimsy updates attacking one vocal dissenter rather than answering the accusations levelled against the Areal project.
Usually developers work themselves to the bone during the Kickstarter drive to raise every penny they can. Not here, it seems.
So what are we left with? Is this a scam?
Whether or not West-Games is going to take your money and run, there's still a worrying lack of an actual product on show, a worrying lack of an actual plan - you know, with proper details - and a worrying lack of communication from the team making the game. Even if this Kickstarter is to be believed, it needs to do much more to justify taking your money. Proceed with caution.