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STALKER: Who's the rightful heir?

Sparked by West Games' Kickstarter campaign, Ukrainian studios are fighting over who's got the real successor to the franchise

Last week's controversy around West Games' Kickstarter campaign has all the elements of a mystery novel and a slavic Game of Thrones plot line.

It's a truly Ukrainian saga, featuring legal threats and an unruly succession ruckus, as well as a reclusive software millionaire who closed his GSC Game World studio at the height of its popularity.

There's a bunch of braying developers, each squabbling for the mantle of successor to GSC and its still-popular STALKER franchise. And, of course, there is West Games - a relatively new studio that's seeking to cash in on its STALKER pedigree by launching a similar game funded through Kickstarter.

The funding round kicked off last week, targeting a goal of $50,000 by the end of July to develop AREAL - its post-apocalyptic first-person shooter.

AREAL looks like it's being developed in the same mould as Stalker, the futuristic FPS survival game, where players roamed around the infamous Chernobyl nuclear zone, strafing atomic mutants and various assorted foes. It was an immensely popular franchise on various platforms, especially in GSC's core Russian-speaking market. The franchise name alone is said to be worth millions of dollars.

It's this brand value that seems to have caused the latest ruckus. West Games began marketing AREAL as the "spiritual successor" to Stalker, including using footage, trailers and other concept art from STALKER on the studio's Kickstarter page.

"We found it appropriate to show some of the STALKER art as a demonstration of our previous work and current possibilities," says Eugene Kim, West Games founder and a former project manager at GSC Games World. "Our artists who worked on the STALKER series own a non-property copyright on the art assets they've made - I mean they have a right to show them as a result of their art work. Not to use them commercially, but to demonstrate their skills."

"I can see why they are doing it - this publicity has helped promote the Kickstarter. But the guys here worked on STALKER for a decade and it is galling for them to see their work used this way"

Oleg Yavorsky, Vostok

It is this claim of GSC pedigree, as well as West Games' use of STALKER material, that prompted an angry response from various Ukrainian modders and rival studios, each claiming to be the true successor of GSC and Stalker. Some commentators hijacked the threads on the AREAL Kickstarter page, suggesting the studio's lack of original promotional material meant it was either an outright fraud, or the studio hadn't really moved its idea for Areal off the drawing board.

As the controversy widened, West Games' Ukrainian rivals - mainly a large modder called Misery Development Ltd, Vostok Games and 4A Games - launched broadsides against West Games. Each claimed for themselves the status of "heir" to the STALKER franchise, while dismissing Kim's West Games as a false pretender to the title.

GSC Games World, set up in 1995 by Sergei Grigorovich, was the most successful Ukrainian gaming company. But its demise in 2011, under murky circumstances, left a bunch of experienced developers in Kiev twiddling their thumbs. Many of these went off to form various independent studios, each claiming to be the only true legitimate successor of the franchise. Vostok and 4A, both Kiev-based and packed with former GSC developers, say they find West Games' claim to GSC provenance "galling".

"It is completely unacceptable that [West Games] ... which has very a dubious claim to STALKER ... use this material to promote their game, and promote themselves as the successor to the franchise," says Oleg Yavorsky, marketing manager at Vostok.

"It is not only unacceptable, it is illegal use of copyrighted material. I can see why they are doing it - this publicity has helped promote the Kickstarter. But the guys here worked on STALKER for a decade and it is galling for them to see their work used this way," Yavorsky says.

He believes West Games' justification for using the Stalker material is a legal technicality.

"STALKER was going for a decade - in that time there were hundreds of people who worked on it, even if they did very little, they just came in and got to put STALKER core development on their resumes," he says.

Staff at fellow Ukrainian STALKER-heir-pretender, 4A Games, took a similar hard line view against West Games.

"They are taking a risk using game footage from STALKER, and to name themselves successor has got some people here angry," says Dmitry Lymar, a developer at 4A Games.

Another fierce critic is Misery, which is using Kickstarter to develop a similarly themed post-apocalyptic game. Commenters on Misery's webpage pointed out the unlabelled use of the STALKER footage in the AREAL video, as well as the lack of complete details about West Games' development team. Other posts highlight the studio's claim to be headquartered in Nevada, USA, when it is, in fact, based in Ukraine. GamesIndustry International contacted Kim at a Ukrainian mobile number on Friday. One poster on Misery's site questioned whether it is possible to develop a multi-platform game using a proprietary graphics engine for just $50,000. Another question that Misery raised was AREAL's footage showing graphics obviously made with Unity and X-ray engines - despite West Games' claim to be using a proprietary engine.

In the interview on Friday, Kim said these comments were part of competitors' "black PR" campaigns aimed at sinking West Games' Kickstarter.

"There have been some competitors using "black PR" against us, and we have seen some contributors pull back their money as a result of this," he says.

He declined to give precise figures on how many Kickstarter contributors had withdrawn their money.

On Monday morning, the total raised had reached $33,000, out of a $50,000 target - and the rate of increase seems to be slowing.

In an effort to deflect the criticism that his studio lacked pedigree from GSC, Kim on Friday posted a video showing his core development team sitting at a table together. Several of the West Games developers worked at GSC, including on the STALKER titles. Kim himself headed GSC's browser-based STALKER MMO project for nearly two years; it was unfinished by the time GSC shut down the studio in 2011. Other GSC alumni include concept artist Alex Moseichuk, lead developer Evgeny Obertyukh, lead game designer Peter Dushynsky, who worked on some of the core STALKER games, and head designer Yury Negrobov, who claims to have worked on every STALKER title released by GSC.

Kim also published several updates over the weekend refuting the criticism levelled by Misery and Vostok and others. It seems to have worked - whether it was these updates, or the private calls between West Games and its critics - it presaged a retreat by Misery, Vostok and the others.

Vostok deleted its critical thread threatening legal action, while Misery did the same over the weekend.

"Our artists worked at GSC on the various STALKER franchise games. We are only using the art and footage they personally were responsible for"

Eugene Kim, West Games

"We decided that, though West Games is acting illegally, it is up to GSC World Games - the holder of the intellectual property rights of STALKER - to take action," Yavorsky says. Similarly, Misery posted on its website: "Misery Development Ltd. has been formally asked to resign from commenting on West Games and their Kickstarter project AREAL. Misery Development Ltd. would like to state that whether or not to pledge on a Kickstarter campaign is for the community to decide, and an individual choice."

But the issue may not just disappear. Just like in the Game of Thrones books and HBO series, how this slavic saga ends depends on the decision of the King himself. In this case, that means Sergei Grigorovich.

Grigorovich is the copyright holder of the STALKER franchise. He started GSC in 1995, and grew it into the most successful Ukrainian studio. It launched the Alexander strategy game in 2004, alongside the movie, and its STALKER survival FPS game in 2007. It was immensely popular, and GSC launched two more expansions and then began work on the sequel. But Grigorovich's baffling decision in 2011 to close down GSC at the height of STALKER's success surprised many.

It left a large pool of experienced games developers in Kiev unemployed; most went on to work at either Vostok or 4A Games, with the aim to finish off the STALKER sequel they'd been working on. Vostok offered to buy out Stalker from Grigorovich, but the sides never reached an agreement.

Since then, Grigorovich has become something of a Howard Hughes in the Ukrainian games scene. He grants few interviews; in his last one, given to Ukraine's edition of Forbes earlier this year, he is quoted as saying he became tired of the industry, and was seeking something new to do in his life.

Even though Vostok and Misery and the other successor studios have backed off, West Games' biggest risk may lay ahead - Grigorovich's tendency to defend his STALKER copyright through legal action.

He released a strange press release in late 2012, reminding the "successor" studios that GSC was the intellectual property owner of the STALKER franchise. It was Grigorovich's warning to his prodigal developers - or heirs - to respect copyright, or face legal wrath. Since then, neither Vostok nor 4A has dared to use Stalker material, despite their claim to be the successors of the STALKER series.

Both have since developed similarly themed games, such as Metro 2033 and survival MMO Survarium.

Grigorovich defended his intellectual property in late 2011, when a group of Russian developers published STALKER Online - an MMO based on the STALKER franchise. The Russian judge in the Urals district ruled against Grigorovich.

West Games' Kim says he hasn't been in contact with GSC or its lawyers yet. But he seems confident he hasn't violated the company's copyright.

"Our artists worked at GSC on the various STALKER franchise games. We are only using the art and footage they personally were responsible for," he says.

GSC did not respond to emails seeking comment.

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Ben Seeder