It's never pretty when a studio closes. There's nearly always a project in progress, there are always people who feel the sharp end of the deal. Sometimes, the residual fallout means bitterness, recriminations and legal implications. It's rare for the process of dissolution not to marr the memories of the work done by the studio.
So it was with GSC Gameworld, developer of the STALKER and Cossacks series. When that studio imploded in 2010, having already endured rocky treatment from publishers and fans after the release of Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, things rapidly got messy. Several parties laid claim to both the STALKER IP and many of the assets which were currently in production at GSC. As Vostok Games, 4A and West Games rose from the ashes of GSC, things got a little murky, with various claims to IP rights and provenence being raised.
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Now, GSC is back, and looking to start afresh.
We spoke to Valentine Yeltyshev, part of the original GSC team and spokesperson for the studio's return, about what happened, why and what's next.
So, what happened to initiate the shut down of GSC four years ago? Was it a purely financial decision?
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"Well it's a combination of issues, not just a financial one, and it was also a personal decision by our CEO. Actually, STALKER 2 was in the middle of development, but we started to realise that we weren't ready to complete the game at the level of quality that we thought it should be. That was connected to a lack of specific people in the team.
"We realised that STALKER 2 was different. It was going to take too much time - by the time it was ready, it was definitely going to be out of date"
"Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat were both closer to add-ons than stand alone games, they were completely based on Shadow of Chernobyl. We realised that STALKER 2 was different. It was going to take too much time - by the time it was ready, it was definitely going to be out of date. We had the scenarios all written by the guy who did the original STALKER, but that's just a scenario, not a full game. We were closer to the beginning of development than the end.
"It was a difficult decision, because the team was working towards a full-scale game, but they and our CEO understood that the game just wouldn't be at the level we wanted from STALKER 2. There was also a problem getting interest, and the right money, from publishers. We were offered funding once we reached alpha. Actually we would have been able to fund the entire development ourselves, but we still weren't sure we'd be able to sell it once we'd got to alpha.
"So there were a lot of complex reasons that led to the decision to stop development. We were never closing down forever, but at the time we were aware of some pretty obvious obstacles that we weren't going to be able to overcome. Maybe we needed more team leaders. Still, we'd built some levels, areas of the zone, some characters, a new engine. A completely new engine, written from scratch, which was already a next-gen engine at the time.
"The X-Ray engine was quite ahead of its time, but only in 2007, not 2010. The new engines in CoD and Battlefield had started to arrive so we needed to get better. It was maybe 70 to 80 per cent ready. It was a huge step up from X-Ray. It was oriented on PC and Xbox 360, and there were plans for it to work on PlayStation eventually.
"Everything is stored! We have all the assets, materials and engine."
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What happened with the West Games claims about the STALKER assets and team?
"I don't really know enough about them, but the story is quite funny. These guys were basically promoting themselves as being the STALKER team, that they were working on STALKER, but that's not true. When we were working on STALKER 2, we were also planning on releasing a browser game based on STALKER so we could keep the audience engaged until released.
"That project was never finished. There were mistakes. But the guys at West Games, that was the STALKER project they were working on - a flash game. So when they promoted themselves as having worked on STALKER, I was quite surprised. We would definitely win the legal action against them, but we won't start it. They used a lot of the ideas from STALKER... I don't know what they were thinking, starting that. I haven't heard from them for quite a while."
(West Games has recently announced a rebranded funding campaign for a game called STALKER Apocalypse which uses much of the same media previously seen in its Areal campaign. You can read about the legal implications of that here)
So you're not looking to hire anyone back from those teams?
"At the moment, we don't need anyone. We have a solid team. We're fine for now, but maybe when we switch to another project we'll expand the team."
"We're pretty sure about our fans. The market we're in is quite old fashioned: they're not 16 year olds, they're 25-40 years old. We don't think free-to-play is the right model for the game we want to make"
You've got a new, unannounced game in the works. The market is very different to what it was four years ago, have you been tempted to change with it and try free-to-play or mobile development?
"We're pretty sure about our fans. The market we're in is quite old fashioned, they're not 16 year olds, they're 25-40 years old. We don't think free-to-play is the right model for the game we want to make. So we're making an old-fashioned, full price game, we think our audience will be happy about that. We're expecting a lot of our old audience!"
It's not been an easy time for Ukrainian developers, or indeed Ukraine in general. We've already seen 4A open a new studio in Malta, were you tempted to move elsewhere?
"No! We're staying here. It's a hard time for Ukraine, but that's a good time to be proud to be Ukrainian."