In January 2019, Greg Pryjmachuk, the founder of the studio Minskworks and the developer of Jalopy, was working from home on his latest project Landlord's Super when he caught sight of an unusual announcement from Jalopy's publisher Excalibur Games on Twitter.
Excalibur had just revealed its latest game, Road to Guangdong, a simulation/narrative title about a trip across China in order to save a family restaurant from ruin.
For Pryjmachuk, the game seemed somewhat familiar. Jalopy, Pryjmachuk's successful road trip game, had also focused on a journey across a geographically distinct region in a banged-up old car (featuring a different coloured door), accompanied by an elderly family member. Though Pryjmachuk doesn't try to claim ownership over the road trip genre by any means, he feels uneasy now about the similarities.
"It just came up on Twitter, with 'From the publishers of Jalopy' plastered all over it," says Pryjmachuk over a phone call. "I was like, hang on, what's this? What's happened here? I watched the trailer and it really did seem to lean into the whole Jalopy thing quite hard."
Pryjmachuk says that while he was still working on Jalopy, Excalibur approached him about the possibility of making a sequel, but he turned down the offer in order to carry out fixes and updates on the original game. He says he was concerned about the development span they were offering him to work on the sequel, which he alleges was only 12 months (a short period of time when you consider the first game had taken over three years to make up to that point).
When Road to Guangdong released into Steam Early Access, the reaction online was negative to mixed. In user reviews and on Twitter, one of the major complaints was the game had failed to live up to the standard Jalopy previously set for the genre. For Pryjmachuk, however, more concerning was that some players had mistakenly associated him with the new project, despite his total lack of involvement. Minskworks was not involved with Road to Guangdong at all. Instead, a small development team called Just Add Oil Games had handled the development of Road to Guangdong in partnership with Excalibur.
"I got loads [of messages]," Pryjmachuk says. "I still get messages now. The initial reaction when Guangdong came out, I think the user score for it just kept going down and down, which is really depressing because you can't do anything and you keep answering the same question. And the publisher won't give you a platform to say, look, this had nothing to do with us."
Some of these messages were minor in their criticism of Pryjmachuk and Minskworks, with the players later apologising for the error and criticising Excalibur for the mix-up. You can see examples of this frustration in both Steam reviews for Road to Guangdong, as well as in one of the few YouTube comments responding to Landlord Super's announcement. However, there were some comments that went beyond simple confusion into abuse, attacking Pryjmachuk and his company for "abandoning Jalopy", and making antisemitic comments about the developer - something that is simply unacceptable.
On Jalopy's Twitter account, which Pryjmachuk retains access to, he put out a statement distancing himself from Road to Guangdong, making the distinction clear to customers and stating he was still working on bug fixes for Jalopy. In April 2019, he followed this up with another statement on the account, once again pointing out his lack of involvement with Excalibur's newly-published game.
The experience has left Pryjmachuk feeling burnt out, with his relationship with Excalibur deteriorating over time as he's struggled to resolve these issues in a satisfactory way. It's a series of events he says has dashed the hopes of a true follow-up to Jalopy ever appearing.
"I have designs for a sequel ready to go, but obviously I can't use the Jalopy name anymore," says Pryjmachuk. "So then it's at the point where I've got to start from the ground up again and it's like, if I'm competing against Excalibur, what's the point?
"Honestly, I've been burnt out for the last year," he continues. "I'm still doing it, because I love to work on games, but when you spend years on a game and they can move on without you, it kind of gets you a bit put off the industry."
Pryjmachuk was initially reluctant to talk about this story to the press. In particular, he was wary of "being seen as a troublemaker" or a "curmudgeon" and acting on instructions of others who had told him to keep his head down and bury himself in his work. But this has been a process that has left him feeling voiceless and frustrated - emotions he's channeling into his latest project, Landlord's Super, a construction simulator set in Thatcher's England.
When asked for comment about these allegations, Excalibur issued a lengthy statement to Eurogamer:
"As a publisher of many games in the simulation genre we were interested in Jalopy when we saw Greg's prototype, although it was called Hac at that stage. Together we made the game a considerable success, with a loyal following.
"We were very interested in a sequel, but Greg wasn't interested for a variety of reasons that he explained to us. We offered various proposals to him, but he was clear that he was focusing on something else, which was fine. We did tell him that we still saw opportunity in the road-trip space, and so would look into finding another game. He said that it didn't matter to him as he was focused on something else. We signed another game in the road-trip space, which didn't contradict any obligations we had or have to Greg, albeit one with a much stronger focus on story rather than car maintenance.
"With regard to the marketing, on the Steam page for Road to Guangdong we had a tagline 'from the publisher of Jalopy'. This form of cross-promotion is normal for us, as it is for many publishers. It helps our audience to find new games, and conversely helps our games to have access to our audience. There is nothing underhand in it. Greg was unhappy with it, so we immediately took it down.
"With regard to the developer of Road to Guangdong, we really don't want another indie developer who has acted in good faith to get dragged into this, so we respectfully decline to discuss them.
"We are of course really sad that Greg has negative feelings, but we feel that we have acted properly, openly and in good faith throughout. We have tried to resolve any ill-will and are always happy to talk to Greg. We wish him well with his current and future games."