Image: Concept art from West Games/Kickstarter
UPDATE: Areal's Kickstarter has been suspended. Kickstarter's Trust and Safety team determined the project violated its rules and terms of service. In an email sent to backers, the following four possible reasons are cited out of seven listed for the suspension: "A related party posing as an independent, supportive party in project comments or elsewhere, "Misrepresenting support by pledging to your own project," "Misrepresenting or failing to disclose relevant facts about the project or its creator," "Providing inaccurate or incomplete user information to Kickstarter or one of our partners."
A large portion of Eastern Ukraine is quite literally a war zone right now, in the wake of the Ukrainian revolution in Kiev and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. So you’d think the effort to crowdfund money to create a video game would be a struggle, or even come to a standstill. But the biggest challenge for West Games, an indie game studio in Kiev, has proven to be a digital mob, not a lack of interest.
Since the company launched its Kickstarter campaign for the video game called Areal last month, West Games has been besieged with what they call “internet trolls” from both Russia and Ukraine, and several people have accused the whole campaign of being a scam. CEO Eugene Kim firmly believes the Kickstarter page has become the front line of a “blatant information war” between the Ukraine and Russia, he said in an email to Motherboard.
But let me back up. Areal is the spiritual successor to the cult hit S.T.A.L.K.E.R series, an innovative Ukrainian-developed survival-horror, first-person shooter game. Set in the area affected by the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant disaster, the game takes place in an alternate timeline where a second explosion at the plant creates powerful artifacts and strange mutations. Bands of paramilitary gangs roam "the zone" vying for power, capturing territory in the Ukraine, and wielding Soviet-era weaponry in various states of disrepair. The series has sold well around the world, but is especially popular in Russia.
Areal is reminiscent of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R, but the haphazard Kickstarter campaign and a few red flags have attracted an onslaught skepticism that the project is legit. The game developers claimed they were attacked by hackers, spies, and trolls. Then, to make matters even more odd, this weekend West Games claimed it received a letter of support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What is going on?
“We think that the Russians have coordinated and worked out methods to sway public opinion abroad as well as methods to manipulate foreign journalists to write their viewpoints, and we think that our game is a great example of that,” he said. Paranoia aside, this isn’t a completely far-fetched idea; Buzzfeed and the Washington Post have uncovered online armies of Kremlin trolls prowling English- speaking media outlets since the Ukrainian conflict began.
Before the alleged Putin message, the Kickstarter campaign’s comment section was swarmed by Russian loyalists that West Games referred to as “terrorists,” though not in emails to me. In our email exchange, he spent a good chunk of time talking about these trolls, saying they have impersonated him, “delved into people's personal lives," and "accused us of faking screenshots.” West Games told the Verge in an intervew earlier this month their employees were even getting death threats.
It’s possible the letter was just the latest example of Russians trolling the funding campaign. It’s also possible that it’s a publicity stunt by West Games. And I suppose it’s possible, though highly dubious, that it’s actually a letter from Putin.
The letter (translated) reads:
My daughter told me about your game called Areal, which is the spiritual successor to STALKER, and told me that she paid money to support your project on Kickstarter. I also love video games as well as shooters, and I like this idea. It's important that our people do not shoot at each other, but instead, play games like this.
The first part of STALKER took place in Ukraine, and in the second game Areal, you put all events in the center of Russia – and if this is a war with mutants in a video game, then that is very interesting. I attentively familiarized myself with your idea and I really like it.
If you give me the chance to play the alpha version of the game, when it is ready, then I invite you in advance to the Kremlin, to meet personally, be ready to play a little bit and talk about the interests of young people, the gamers of our country.
Kim said he’s skeptical the letter is actually from the Russian president, but if it is, wants to know how he can contact Putin so that they might play the video game together.
“It's better to play video games in the Kremlin, than for them to shoot at actual people in our Ukraine.”
“We too feel that it's way better to shoot each other in a game than in real life, which is what's happening right now,” Kim wrote. “It's better to play video games in the Kremlin, than for them to shoot at actual people in our Ukraine.”
In terms of whether or not Areal is a legitimate project in development or a scam to make a quick 50 grand, the answer remains elusive.
Redditors and bloggers have pointed out that some staff photos are also purchasable stock photos, that the Kickstarter campaign is located in Las Vegas, Nevada, and that a game of Areal’s scope requires more than $50,000—the already-surpassed funding goal of the Kickstarter campaign—to make.
But West Games’s PR reps and Kim were quick to provide an answer to everything.
Regarding the use of stock photos, Kim explained these photos were taken by photographer Dmitry Panchenko who also sold the photos to be reused as stock art—not a wholly unusual practice among photographers (a photograph of yours truly is also available on Getty Images.) And a shoddy video West Games hastily put together to appease critics features employees who actually look like these stock photos.
As for the Las Vegas connection, Kim wrote they have a small branch out in Las Vegas and the Kickstarter funds are being sent to them because “the United States right now is much more stable financially then Ukraine.” In other words, should the situation in the Ukraine get worse, at least the Kickstarter funds for their game are intact.
Finally, the $50,000 Kickstarter goal is more to show the game has adequate popularity in order to attract real investments from an established publisher, said Kim in an interview with the Russian-language Games-TV.
He claims the real scammers are those trying to discredit the project. "Another thing that they've done is use multiple accounts to make a bunch of one dollar pledges, and every time a new backer comes along, they remove one or two pledges, so that it looks like our sum is increasing without any new backers.”