STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl has had one of the most interesting afterlives of any modern video game. Bleak and buggy, the survival horror-infused shooter and its sequels earned the affection of mod-makers who devoted years to restoring old levels, upgrading graphics, patching bugs, and rebalancing mechanics. When GSC Game World, the Kiev-based team behind the games, abruptly dissolved in 2011, it created a cluster of new studios, most working on projects with a similar post-apocalyptic atmosphere. So when a small group of ex-STALKER developers launched their Kickstarter campaign for a "definitive" spiritual successor called Areal, it seemed like a natural fit.
The spiritual sequel is one of the standbys of Kickstarter video game development: the designers of a game like Myst or Mega Man ask their fans for help creating a modern-day interpretation of a classic, usually more than making their goal. Some, like Shadowrun Returns, have been unqualified successes. Areal, however, could be turning into a cautionary tale about leaning too heavily on grand plans and name recognition. A week after launch, the game has made over half its $50,000 goal. But instead of impressing fans with a new take on STALKER, the team behind it is fighting accusations of being naive at best and scammers at worst.
A small team, a tight timeline, and a low goal
Areal, based on a book of the same name, is described on Kickstarter as a complex open-world shooter set in a world where civilization has collapsed. Development studio West Games touts a wide range of missions, weapons, and vehicles, as well as an all-new game engine that will allow it to be released on Windows, Mac, Linux, and all next-gen consoles — including the Wii U. Its 11-person core team plans to deliver the game in barely over a year, with a $50,000 goal that's an order of magnitude smaller than Shadowrun Returns and similarly ambitious games. To some other people who got their start in STALKER, that plan is much too good to be true.
One of the most outspoken critics was MDT, a former STALKER modding team that successfully crowdfunded its own post-apocalyptic visual novel in April. When West launched its campaign, the group aired its concerns under the contentious headline "Areal is a scam." Some of the complaints were tenuous: a slapped-together logo, a "terrible website." But others pointed to major questions about the project. Areal had big plans, a tiny core team, and little to show except concept art, some apparently from STALKER. Its video also drew heavily on uncredited STALKER footage, and there were hints that it was using the common Unity engine, not anything of its own design. Vostok, which grew from the ruins of GSC and is currently building the online game Survarium, questioned whether West was really made of core STALKER team members. "There have been literally hundreds of people involved in working on various bits and pieces," marketing manager Oleg Yavorsky told VG 24/7. "Many people came to the studio to work for a few months just for the sake of adding 'STALKER development' to their portfolio." Fans on Reddit have done their own research into the company.
West Games had to convince skeptics that its team members were even real people
West struck back hard, apparently threatening legal action if its critics didn't rescind their more serious accusations, including a suggestion by Vostok that West's members were fraudulently claiming to have been involved with STALKER at all. Vostok deleted the forum post making the claim, and the VG 24/7 article with its statement seems to have been pulled altogether. MDT also took down its page of complaints, stating on Facebook that it had "been formally asked to resign from commenting on West Games and their Kickstarter project Areal." GSC finally joined the fray to defend West, officially making Areal the subject of a fight between no fewer than four STALKER-related studios, three with competing spiritual sequels.
West has successfully fought the most extreme claims, which included speculation that some team members were just fictional fronts for scammers, and it says its members have received death threats as a result of the criticism. In Kickstarter updates and correspondence with Eurogamer, it's attempted to address other problems, saying that it has other funding sources and more team members than its Kickstarter page suggests. It's suggested that Vostok and MDT are stirring controversy to draw attention to their own games, which have similar themes to Areal. But it hasn't done the one thing that would truly allay concerns: show off concrete, substantial work on the game.
Kickstarter has created an easy channel for spiritual sequels
The controversy over Areal is reminiscent of another tortured Kickstarter: Shadow of the Eternals, a now canceled successor to 2002 horror game Eternal Darkness. Unlike West Games, the studio behind Shadow of the Eternals had a shady past: its head was accused of deceiving publishers at his previous studio, which had also been sued for millions over a copyright infringement claim. Despite terrible planning and worrying fundraising choices, though, they seemed genuinely to be trying to make an ambitious sequel to a beloved video game. Areal looks much more likely to reach its goal, particularly given how much less it's asking for. In spite of that, it remains the most risky kind of project: the one that shows little and promises a great deal. Kickstarter, increasingly, is for fans who want to see their favorite series continue outside the limits of a studio system, whether that's in film, music, or games. But in this case, they'll have to trust the tenuous link between an untested project and the big name it's building on.