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Untamed Isles is a cautionary tale of game development funded by crypto investors

Project on hiatus following crypto market crash, public backers won't receive refunds.

Untamed Isles, a Pokémon-like MMORPG with "optional" play-to-earn elements, has been placed on indefinite hiatus.

The game had been set for an Early Access release date of 6th October, which will no longer be happening.

"There's been a lot going on in the last 72 hours. This has been a wild rush," is how Joshua Grant, CEO of Phat Loot Studios, opened his Twitch stream on 12th August. The stream was held to address the statement that had just been published by Phat Loot, in which Untamed Isles' hiatus was announced, and to field questions from the community.

Untamed Isles teaser trailer, released on 18th July.Watch on YouTube

Development on Untamed Isles started over two years ago at New Zealand-based indie Company Phat Loot Studios. At the time, Grant called the game and his studio "his dream", the latter of which grew hugely to work on Untamed Isles. More than 70 people were brought on, all of whom will be let go in under two weeks.

The project raised $841k NZD (around £420k) through Kickstarter, more than four times the original goal of $200k NZD. Despite raising almost $1m from backers, this barely scratches the surface of the costs and investments that Untamed Isles has been sinking whilst in development.

One of the problems which has led to the current state of Untamed Isles is its ever-widening scope and costs, Grant said, who claimed that weekly wages for the team were around $100k NZD (£50k) a week. The money gained through the Kickstarter covered about two months' worth of wages for the team working on Untamed Isles. Grant admitted that the amount of funding needed was "massively underestimated".

Looking at the game's Steam and Kickstarter pages, it's hard to believe that a small indie developer's first title was going to be a huge open-world MMORPG with "1.5m possible combinations" of animals to tame, PvP, breeding mechanics, dungeons and raids, a dynamic weather system and new islands constantly appearing, and a physical book series. As the Kickstarter reached more and more of its stretch goals, more and more features which were promised had to be added, which equated to more time, and more money needed to pay staff.

Untamed Isles Kickstart stretch goals
The roadmap for stretch goals posted on Untamed Isles' Kickstarter.

Development on Untamed Isles could not have been funded through Kickstarter solely. Grant stated he, along with Phat Loot's shareholders and board of directors, had personally been funding the company to keep it afloat, with none of them taking a salary.

Otherwise, the game's funding has come from crypto investors, which is now the biggest blocker for the game's release. Untamed Isles is intrinscally intertwined with cryptocurrency and blockchain, which attracted many crypto investors to the project. However, with the recent crypto crash, new crypto investors who were expected to add more funds instead pulled out. Currently, the company has no funds to keep the lights on, which is why development on Untamed Isles is being paused until crypto investors have more confidence in the market.

Grant reiterated throughout his stream that development on Untamed Isles would resume and the game would launch at the "right time", when the crypto market was in a better place. When exactly this will be, nobody knows.

At first glance, it isn't clear that the game has relations to blockchain technology. The first mention of the play-to-earn elements on Kickstarter is about 3/5ths down the campaign description. It's easy to miss or skip over because there's so much you would need to scroll through before you reach it, and it's not visible if you go to the very bottom of the page either.

On its Steam listing, there is no mention of play-to-earn or blockchain whatsoever, hiding the fact that the game looks like it would have violated Valve's strict ban on blockchain. Under rule 13 of what content is not allowed to be published on Steam reads the following: "Applications built on blockchain technology that issue or allow exchange of cryptocurrencies or NFTs".

Untamed Isles' Kickstarter claims the project is a "game first, crypto second" and states that its blockchain aspects aren't necessary to play the game. Despite this, it's undeniable that play-to-earn is intended to be a core part of the game as, in his livestream, Grant stated his vision was a "live functioning marketplace that enabled players to trade and enjoy their assets between each other, to enable them to make money while they played or purchase things they want with real-world currency". (The assets in question here being tokenised versions of players' creatures.)

And Grant also seems passionate about using blockchain. "I don't have any regrets on getting into the crypto side of this," he added in his stream, "because the opportunity was there". Grant stated he believed that integrating crypto into Untamed Isles would add value to the game's community, and value to gaming as a whole.

Many in the game's community say they feel scammed and lied to. Whilst they thought they were pledging their money to a PC Pokémon tribute or a rival to TemTem, they say they didn't realise the game would incorporate play-to-earn, or that crypto investment was a huge source of funding for Untamed Isles.

Phat Loot released another statement earlier today repeating that it did not invest any funds received for the game's development into crypto, and that "all funds raised through crowdfunding and through traditional investment" were put towards development costs. According to Untamed Isles employees on the game's official Discord server, "most" funds used to build the game were acquired through traditional investment.

Regardless, fans argue Phat Loot is still investing in blockchain technology as a sector by developing a game based around the idea of trading and selling tokenised versions of tameable monsters.

When questioned by a viewer about removing the game's blockchain elements, Grant said he was unwilling to do, as it would be unfair to crypto investors who had already funded the project. Since Untamed Isles' inception, crypto trading was always intended to be a mechanic, Grant continued, and that removing blockchain entirely would mean the project's end. "I'd be sitting here telling you it's over," he concluded.

Grant also took issue with the impression people had of the game's use of blockchain, citing the negative press it has gained in the mainstream press as one of the reasons the play-to-earn part of the game received backlash from the community.

No acknowledgement was made by Grant of how Phat Loot was unclear with its blockchain intentions.

Regardless, some parts of the project's community simply do not want to engage with a game which embraces blockchain, whether that's due to realising general concerns over the long-term viability of crytocurrencies - or disagreeing with their environmental impact.

Stix, a YouTuber who runs the MMOByte channel, had this precise issue with the game. Recommended to him by some of his viewers, Stix posted a video praising the game on 20th July. The next day, he posted an update to apologise for unknowingly covering a game which had play-to-earn crypto elements, which he said he was strongly against. Stix also stressed he felt Phat Loot had been disingenuous about the inclusion of blockchain technology in Untamed Isles, and that if he had realised, he would have never covered the game to begin with.

Grant, in his Twitch stream, blamed MMOByte's apology video as the beginning point for the project's loss of public support. Following this, Grant stated "pretty much all of the other major mainstream gaming press companies [pulled] out on wanting to cover us".

Untamed Isles also lost any traction it had gained with influencers. Phat Loot had hired Wolfe Glick, better known as Wolfey, a former Pokémon World Champion, to "help oversee and design" the combat system in the game. Through Wolfey's network, the company had managed to get affiliates and influencers onboard, only for them to pull out. Grant blamed this exodus on a tweet from Wolfey. It is believed he was referring to the tweet below, in which Wolfey claimed the game was originally going to have NFTs, but plans for that were scrapped.

With a lack of press coverage and solid sales figures, Phat Loot says now is not the time to release the game, and doing so would only run the risk of incurring even larger costs for server hosting and a support team, without any guarantee of revenue.

Grant claimed the game had 50 pre-sales, whereas the company had hoped for between two to three thousand. With the Early Access release being postponed, all pre-sales and Phat Loot Tokens (the company's own blockchain token economy) are being refunded.

Backers on Kickstarter however, will not be receiving refunds. Grant said that the company currently cannot afford to refund backers because they just don't have the money. Backers are furious, having paid for development of a game that is now in indefinite limbo. Backers were initially promised a release date of December 2021, and Grant conceded that complaints about the continuous delays were fair. Now, backers are unsure if they'll ever receive the game they paid for, 10 of whom paid as much as $12k NZD.

Many backers feel the statement from Phat Loot is tone-deaf. Some say they appreciate the transparency from Grant on the situation, but most are angry to find out their money has been used to create a system they disagree with without them realising, and that a game promised to them half a year ago is longer on the cards.

Phat Loot says it will now wait for the crypto market to stabilise so its investors can return, and inject the funds which the developer says it still needs to see the game through.

Speaking at the end of his livestream, Grant remained staunchly opposed to refunding backers and releasing the game as it stood. Finally, he vowed to do everything in his power to ensure the game does eventually release. "Have faith in me, have faith in the project," he asked.

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