Off-road driving simulation Spintires has had a rough ride. It was one of Eurogamer's favourite games of 2014, the year it took Steam by storm. But then development stalled and Spintires fell off the radar when British publisher Oovee and Russian programmer Pavel Zagrebelnyy had a bust up.
The two eventually shook hands and Spintires was updated further over the course of last year, but by the end of 2015 their relationship was back on the rocks. Then, at the beginning of February, concerned Spintires fans spotted something even more serious. The UK government had served notice it would dissolve, as the company had failed to declare its finances. This time, whether Oovee and Pavel suddenly became BFFs again or not, it looked like Spintires had been completely run off the road.
Now, Eurogamer has spoken to both Oovee and Pavel in a bid to find out what had happened, and to discover what future - if any - Spintires still has in store.
Spintires is a detailed driving simulation where you must haul trucks and other vehicles over rough off-road terrain, through mud and rivers and whatever else lies in your way. It's about overcoming difficulty. "Spintires can make a set-piece out of a puddle," Chris Donlan wrote of the game back in 2014. "It can make precisely zero mph feel like knuckle-splintering stuff."
Publisher Oovee is registered in Gorleston, near the Norfolk coast. It's a small company with only a handful of employees. The outfit started life selling Train Simulator add-ons - new locomotives of varying types - through that game's Steam store. Reece Bolton and Zane Saxton, respectively listed as Oovee's producer and managing director, both worked for local train companies in customer service positions at the time. And then Oovee heard about Spintires, the work of Pavel and a few others. A Kickstarter campaign called for £40,000, raised £60,000, and Spintires' popularity soared. For a time, the plucky little offroad sim was the best-selling game on Steam.
It's fair to say Spintires has made Oovee a lot of amount of money. How much money? Oovee hasn't said - and it is this refusal to divulge the company's finances that has left fans restless. Oovee's earnings before Spintires were small - in the four figure range. After? Well, there's this local news story from February 2015 about Saxton and his £135k Mercedes, complete with personalised Oovee number plate. It had been splashed by paint stripper just two weeks after Saxton had purchased it. Whoever was responsible had acted out of a "combination of opportunism and jealousy," a "livid" Saxton said at the time. One year on, Oovee had far bigger problems - it was about to have all of its assets seized by the crown.
"Yes, our accounts are late. But they will be filed," Oovee's Tony Fellas explained to Eurogamer in a new interview.
Fella's role at Oovee is as its web systems and IT manager. Now living in Cyprus, Fellas has been involved in a half dozen small businesses back in the UK, many of which are now dissolved. His web design company, Chicsystems, built the sites for Oovee, Spintires and a Yarmouth bed and breakfast he owns, among others. He also built the website for a company named Saxton Haulage, another business interest of Zane Saxton. And then there's Saxton & Co., an umbrella company set up by Saxton of which Fellas is a minority shareholder. Spintires fans noticed the creation of this company last year, as Oovee's own accounts grew increasingly overdue. They feared Oovee would simply be left to go under, while the money Spintires made was transferred elsewhere.
"It has been complex due to the release of Spintires and future plans," Fellas says when I ask why Oovee hasn't declared its earnings. Fellas goes on to blame "future plans" and "accounting procedures", including the risk of "double taxation", all of which "took time to resolve". Fellas doesn't go into detail about any of these. As for Saxton & Co., Fellas states it is just a holding company, and any transferral of funds means Oovee's money still exists - "just in a higher company". Importantly, it is a company which does not yet have to declare its finances. "I have to say we were not as quick to deal with this as we should have been," he offers.
Quick isn't a word many would use to describe Spintires' protracted development. Updates have been sporadic - not least during the period when Oovee and Pavel fell out. "There was a period last year where there were no updates and everyone was putting on their tinfoil hats speculating about anything and everything," Oovee producer Reece Bolton tells me. "It was somewhat like the 'who shot JFK?' situation, a lot of conspiracy theories but no real facts."
Yet Oovee had the power to explain. Why hadn't it made things clearer to Spintires fans? "We were dealing with a situation that, to this day, holds us under an non-disclosure agreement (NDA)," Bolton continues. Ask Oovee anything about the nature of Pavel and Oovee's arrangement and you get a similar response - it's under NDA, and that's it. "He has been paid as in his contract," Fellas adds, when asked about comments Pavel has made online stating displeasure regarding the way he was treated. "I can't and don't want to go into too much that could become public knowledge," Fellas continues. "We always fulfil our contracts..." he adds. Suggesting Pavel didn't, I ask? "I can't confirm or deny that."
Pavel himself tells a very different story.
"They owe me a s***load of money according to our contract," Pavel tells me in a new interview. "But I don't have any leverage because my judicial skills are zero. I haven't had a meaningful communication with Oovee for many months (maybe a year)."
Pavel was a graphics programmer at Saber Interactive between 2008 and 2013, working on Halo Anniversary for Microsoft, Inversion for Namco Bandai, and Battle L.A. for Konami. Spintires began life in August 2010 as Pavel's "hobby project", but after the Kickstarter success in 2013, he worked on the game full-time.
As Spintires' original creator and main programmer, Pavel feels like the game is still his baby - whatever the contract he might have signed. Oovee is responsible for "all the stuff unrelated to the game itself," he explains, "such as its website, Kickstarter and Steam". Oovee also handles the game's forum, where Pavel has now ceased posting, and organised "some QA attempts". Pavel has previously alleged that Oovee withheld payments from him, which caused him to stop working on the game the first time around.
"We basically stopped work due to a license issue," Fellas says when I ask him what happened. "I can't talk much due to an NDA. I'm sure you will understand. That was resolved and we moved forward."
But development now appears to have ceased again. "It's sad Oovee does not cooperate to build this franchise properly," Pavel says when I ask him what's going on now. There had been talk of a Spintires sequel after Pavel's first break from development, but nothing further about this has materialised. I ask Pavel how much he thinks he's still owed, but he says he doesn't know. "In the end, Spintires is still a huge success for everyone involved (me included)," he concludes. He does not sound hopeful of his chances at getting any more money.
While digging into Spintires for this article, Oovee became aware I had spoken with Pavel, which appears to have rekindled discussion between the two. "[An] Oovee representative actually started responding to me now," Pavel told me, more recently. "We will see where it leads." In the meantime, the legal notice threatening Oovee's dissolution was also rescinded. According to a note posted to Companies House on 3rd February, "cause has been shown" why Oovee should not be struck off the register. At the time of publication, the company's accounts remain overdue.
"I already have several new features implemented and I'm doing more," Pavel says when I ask him what he wants to do next. "I'm just not sure if those will be part of Spintires updates as we lack proper communication with Oovee." The game was recently updated, but Pavel explains that away as a hotfix update. "I don't know if my new features would be updates to Spintires or part of a new game or franchise, but I have at least one or two years of work ahead before I switch to something else," he adds. "New features include snow, a larger view distance, nicer skyboxes, rain, wind, tracked vehicles, realistic soft wheels simulation and vehicle collision model similar to [fellow vehicle sim] BeamNG."
"Pavel was working on the game when it was updated in December, having done very well to manage the release of both the truck and map editor before the Christmas holiday," Bolton says when I ask what development work is currently ongoing. "Development staff currently consists of Pavel and his team, and at this time we cannot say whether we are going to hire as we are still drafting up and finalising plans to move forwards." As for Pavel himself, Bolton says Oovee is "maintaining its contractual obligation" to him.
Says Fellas: "Pavel is often upset, I'm afraid that geniuses are often like that."
It's clear there's little love lost between Oovee and Pavel, and vice versa, but it also seems like they are stuck working together in the short-term. Oovee lacks anyone with development skills and the people involved seem to have other business interests. Pavel has the development skills and the passion to continue working on the project, but has to work with a publisher whose ongoing role and current finances are, at best, unclear.
That's not to say that Spintires is dead, however, even if its current PC version is stuck in the mud. "Spintires is far from over, very far from over!" Fellas concludes. "We realise we have not been as forthcoming as we would like to have been. This has been for a variety of issues, which we commented on the forums about as best as NDAs and legal issues allowed.
"However we can confirm we are in the final legal stages of completing some new paths forward and expect to be able to announce details in the forthcoming weeks." Fellas says Oovee's plans will show "a great future for the Spintires game" and also the "franchise" in general. Here's hoping the game's fans will agree.
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