Survarium is the new free-to-play MMO from Vostok Games, a studio made up of ex-S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 devs. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with the team to learn more.
“At the time S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was at the initial stage of development scaling, we completed the graphical prototype, accomplished several level segments, to make sure everything worked as required and to eliminate the technical risks. By our internal estimation, the project would have needed about two more years of work.”
Losing your job unexpectedly is one of the most terrifying things a person can go through. Once the initial blow hits you a sense of panic overwhelms as you try to figure out how you’re going to survive the following month.
Vostok Games’ PR & marketing director Oleg Yavorsky knows the feeling all too well, after having his employment cut without warning by his previous employer GSC Game World, developers of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series. The whole team was laid off unexpectedly and S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 was canned, leaving Oleg and his friends with no where to turn.
Despite attempts to save the S.T.A.L.K.E.R franchise – many of which we discuss with Oleg below – the team failed to keep it alive, but instead formed Vostok Games, a new studio with a bright idea, an idea called Survarium.
Survarium is a free-to-play MMO title that takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where the growth of nature accelerates and chokes the densely populated land masses of earth, and all wildlife turns ferociously hostile, creating anarchy and economic collapse across the globe. All that’s left for survivors is to make it through each day in this harsh new wilderness.
It has S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s DNA written all over it, but this is a bigger, more ambitious project that looks to deliver similar themes like anomalies and mutants, but this is largely a new effort from an incredibly talented team.
To learn more about the demise of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. project, the birth of Vostok Games and the creation of Survarium, we posed many questions to Yavorsky and ended up with an interesting and in-depth new insight into the matters at hand.
VG247: At what point after S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2’s collapse did you decide to set up on your own to make Survarium?
Oleg Yavorsky: That unfortunately, was a forced move. Back in December 2011, after GSC Game World was unexpectedly closed down by its owner, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 development was ‘frozen’, the team had two choices: scatter and start seeking employment elsewhere, or stick together and try to secure some type of investment to continue developing the project we’re all so passionate about.
We opted for the latter. After several months of escapades and negotiations we secured the necessary funding. Then the problem with IP rights occurred as we couldn’t come to an agreement about using the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. brand.
The investors though, believed in the team’s ability to create cool games, even if we’d have to start everything from scratch. So this is what we did. In March 2012 we founded Vostok Games and started with the development of our first project, Survarium.
The process of making it on your own so suddenly must have been daunting.
Well, it definitely wasn’t an easy road. On the one hand, none of us had experience in fundraising before. On the other, we needed to meet the interests of three parties: the investor, the team and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. IP owner.
Unless we arranged it all quickly, we ran the risk of losing the team too. So we all started looking up our old contacts and acquaintances trying to locate potential investment partners. We spoke to publishers we worked with before, we asked friends and friends of their friends, we asked people in the community.
Given that everything collapsed right before the December Holiday Season, we couldn’t really start negotiations until mid-January. By that time we had put together a business plan and were ready to pitch S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 to potential investors.
“We’ve been into shooters for over ten years now, so FPS was an easy choice for a start-up project. The huge success of recent free-to-play online games like League of Legends, Team Fortress 2, World of Tanks and more looked very interesting.”
How did the pitching process go? Did anyone express interest in keeping the project alive?
We had a few meetings with venture funds and private investors in Kiev, we were on phone with Western publishers and we went to Moscow to talk about prospects. After a month or so into talks we could not get any real offer about backing up the project.
The game, with its multiplatform nature and huge volume of content required not only solid funding, but also an extensive production time period too. So the investors wanted to take their time, which the team obviously could not afford and which made us nervous, of course.
We started hurriedly thinking about an alternative project which would be cheaper and faster to produce and it was at this point when we considered the direction of the free-to-pkay online shooter. Dubbed S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-Online, we wrote up another business plan and started pitching it as our plan B.
The negotiations livened up and the team held its breath in anticipation. In February we realized that despite all efforts, we wouldn’t be able to secure the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. IP rights. That was a tough moment, with the prospects to continue the development of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. becoming vague the team was really on the verge of collapse.
Was that the final straw for your team?
Well at this point we got acquainted with Vostok Ventures, an investment company with interest in IT sector. They quickly understood our situation and it took us a mere two weeks of constructive talks to reach the basic agreement.
So by the beginning of March we celebrated the birth of Vostok Games. Those months of uncertainty were tough and challenging, but ultimately very much worth it. That experience made us stronger as the team and we also grew as individuals.
Can you describe what stage S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was at when you left, and what the feeling around the office was at the time of its demise?
On the day of GSC’s closure we planned an internal team presentation of the game’s scenario. Before that happened though, the CEO called a general meeting to announce he decided to close down the project and the studio, which left development team dumbstruck.
At the time S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was at the initial stage of development scaling, we completed the graphical prototype, accomplished several level segments, to make sure everything worked as required and to eliminate the technical risks. By our internal estimation, the project would have needed about two more years of work to complete all the planned content.
Survarium is your silver lining of course, and the concept sounds fantastic. Can you talk us through the process of how Vostok brainstormed the pitch?
We’ve been into shooters for over ten years now, so FPS was an easy choice for a start-up project. The huge success of recent free-to-play online games like League of Legends, Team Fortress 2, World of Tanks and more looked very interesting.
Obviously the online genre was pretty new to us as we’d only dealt with traditional game development before. So, for months we’ve been researching the available information about the market, prospects, development challenges and so on.
Some basic advantages of going online were pretty obvious from the start, such as the possibility to launch the game early and continue developing it, versus having to run the full development cycle to be able to release as with the traditional retail game.
This saves us development cost and time, increases our chances to kill piracy by running the game free-to-play, and gets us in line with the current games market evolution.
Survarium is a new IP, but it does have some things in common with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Is it fair to call it a spiritual successor to the series?
“Although we’re not striving to make it a survival simulator, we do plan to integrate certain game elements requiring players to take care of their character’s basic needs for food, medicine and other elements you would need to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.”
We indeed see Survarium as an evolutionary successor of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. concept. Many familiar game elements, such as factions, anomalies, artifacts, mutants, the atmosphere in general are going to be in common with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, but all of those elements will be new as it’s a different game with its own world and rules.
As opposed to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. universe, with Survarium we are no longer going to be limited by the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The ecological catastrophes in the game have a global nature, so in terms of locations and events, we plan to demonstrate not only Ukrainian post-apocalyptic areas, but move further around ex-USSR and beyond. The game’s concept allows us to implement practically any place on Earth.
These areas have become overgrown and hazardous of course, so does that backdrop give rise to survival elements we’re now seeing in games like DayZ?
Although we’re not striving to make it a survival simulator, we do plan to integrate certain game elements requiring players to take care of their character’s basic needs for food, medicine and other elements you would need to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s something I hope we never experience that for real [laughs].
For example, oxygen tanks and gas masks will help you safely avoid chemical or radioactive dust poisoning. Need for food, medicine, antidotes and more are all on our list. We’ll get the system explained in detail in one of our next development diary videos.
It sounds like a game where players will largely carve out their own story, given the trials of survival thrown at the player. How deep will you go on plot threads?
Given it’s an MMOFPS, the story presentation will differ from traditional S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or other similar shooters. Technically, the story details will be split around all the play modes planned, including PVP, PVE with co-op play-through and the Free-Play mode.
Most of the info will be revealed via the game events in co-op missions; however you can also locate quite a few story details from the levels themselves by finding documents in labs, reading computer notes and so on.
For Survarium we, in fact, are planning several storylines developing in parallel and linked together into one metastory. We want to get the community involved here, so depending on the preference of the players the story will subsequently move in this or that direction.
There’s also a reputation system in there as well isn’t there? How will that work?
We are still figuring out the details, but our idea is to integrate a system of social ranking which would allow players to get a positive or negative reputation based on their actions in-game. For example, players could lower their reputation for teamkills or being vulgar to other players, or raise the reputation for helping out other players in-game.
If the player’s reputation drops extremely low, he would receive a special sign against his nickname to indicate his bad Karma, so other players can see it.
So the karma metric is something else that is linked to reputation? How to the two work in tandem?
Based on those Karma points, or social ranking, the matchmaking system then can sort players into a game depending on their reputation. In this way, the aggressive players can be selected to play with similarly aggressive other ones. Testing is yet to be run to see how effective the system proves to be, but we are hoping it’ll help minimize the negative experience with the unruly type of player.
The ingredients all seem to point at the makings of a superb title, but why did you decide to make the game free to play? How will Vostok Games make it sustainable?
I believe free-to-play offers a very fair kind of game model. You can play for free and pay for it only if you like it and want to. As far as I can see, this approach will make the future of today’s gaming as it is easy for the players to understand and accept.
With Survarium, our stake is on delivering a fresh quality play experience in the immersive world of the game. Unique atmosphere, involving story, various play modes, anomalies, factions and such are among the key elements to make Survarium stand out.
In order to make the game sustainable, we intend to introduce a democratic pay model, where players can opt to pay for extra comfort of play, such as faster leveling-up process, unique equipment, access to more detailed statistics etc.
It sounds like the team is stronger than ever given what happened with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. Are you confident that Survarium will hit its late 2013 release window now that you’ve found your feet again?
Our plan is for complete development of the game to last about three years, including 3 game modes, system of clans, tournaments, variety of game maps and so on. Luckily, online allows us start releasing content without having the players wait for years until all is there and polished.
We are still on track with end of 2013 for the Beta. Keep an eye on the Survarium site for more details coming in later.