Examples of Damage Control in Gaming: The Not-So-Tiny New Drama with Project Phoenix

Project Phoenix’s concept seemed immensely promising during its Kickstarter campaign run between September and October of 2013, but to say its post-crowdfunding period has been rocky would be one of the largest understatements I’ve typed on this blog.

Here, developer Creative Intelligence Arts expressed the desire to make a Japanese RPG reminiscent of one from the 90s, a time when the genre was considered to be at its best quality and quantity-wise. They promised to enlist talented AAA-level staff to help them with their goal, including several who worked on the Final Fantasy series, with composer Nobuo Uematsu among them. They didn’t have any gameplay to show, but the combination of their good pitch and nice artwork spread across the page helped it raise over $1 million. But even then, there were signs that its development would go horribly wrong, like how the lead designer’s biggest credit was being on the QA team for L.A. Noire, and how no lead programmer had been chosen.

This all fell apart shortly after the campaign, when the aforementioned game designer left the project, and they had the damnedest time finding a programmer. Worse, they subsequently provided video of an alpha version that looked nothing like what they promised, and actually resembled a real-time strategy title. To say backers were pissed would be an understatement, and that anger has only continued to grow as they’ve had nothing substantial to show. Now, there’s even more drama swirling around the project.

What a dialogue box in Project Phoenix was supposed to resemble, but doesn’t.

Tariq Lacy, former marketing and PR manager for Area 35, posted damning and since-deleted accusations on the Project Phoenix Facebook page. He claimed the company was established through the remnants of CIA after it was shut down, and that they used money raised for Project Phoenix to fund the development of another game: Tiny Metal. Essentially, he’s saying they scammed backers to fund a project they didn’t ask or pay for. He’s also said Project Phoenix barely exists, and that status updates are only being made to string backers along.

Lacy also claimed that CEO Hiroaki Yura told him to “deflect any accusations that this money was from anyone other than private investors.” He said Yura only asked investors for money when funds for Tiny Metal started running low, and that he couldn’t stay silent about the truth.

Of course, Yura provided his own retort and denied the allegations. He claimed Lacy was a toxic employee released from his contract due to sexual assault allegations, along with other problems, had three witnesses who could corroborate the story. Lacy denied the allegations and claimed they were libelous.

Yura intends to release legal documents and proofs after they’ve been discussed with a lawyer. He continued by claiming the Kickstarter money for Project Phoenix went to the aforementioned disliked alpha build, and that money for Tiny Metal’s initial budget came from Australian investors. When that wasn’t enough, he acquired the rest of the cash through Sony Music Entertainment.

Who knows why Australian investors would put money into a small Japanese project, but it’s possible Yura has connections. I’m also having trouble believing that all the money for Project Phoenix was spent on that alpha.

Tiny Metal, Big Drama

This is a hell of a back and forth, but Lacy’s claims would answer a few questions. Tiny Metal was the game Yura referred to in Project Phoenix’s late-April update, where he claimed returns from their music projects and money from investors was being directed to another initiative that would be announced in May. Note how he referred to it was a “tiny product” and “tiny project,” hinting at its identity. He claimed that if that project is successful, they’ll be in a position to deliver Project Phoenix.

For one, working on a different project while backers of Project Phoenix had been waiting for that title for three-and-a-half years already is a terrible idea, given how this should take priority. What’s really interesting here is how hesitant Yura was to reveal which title he was referring to, despite Tiny Metal being known at the time. A Kickstarter campaign was held for it between September and October of 2016, which was unsuccessful. It was confirmed to Project Phoenix backers in August (and not May, as promised) that the project was Tiny Metal, and backers themselves weren’t happy despite their claim that no money from the successfully crowdfunded project went to it. But given how many promises CIA and Yura have already broken, it’s difficult for anyone to trust them.

Also, the Kickstarter page referred to Tiny Metal’s developer as “Area 34” when it’s now “Area 35.” The Area 34 name is also on the screenshots on that page. This is strange, to say the least.

Tiny Metal was previously scheduled for release yesterday, but was delayed until December 21st less than 24 hours before release — coincidentally mere hours after press outlets started picking up the story of the recent drama. The official reason given for the delay was to add more content and polish the existing material, but it’s hard not to believe it was due to this scandal and the hope that it could blow over in a month. Given the nasty shots Lacy and Yura took at each other, there’s no chance of this ending anytime soon, particularly when one of them could sue for defamation.

The latest Project Phoenix update is also about the Tiny Metal demo, though I can’t read it since it’s reserved only for backers. There could be an update about Project Phoenix there, but they haven’t dedicated a post to the project since the end of June. The prospects of the title’s eventual release have looked bad for a while, and with the way things are looking, I’d be surprised if they ever improved. There’s a better chance of the drama between Lacy and Yura escalating soon, so look forward to that if you find this entertaining.

Meanwhile, I’m sorry to everyone who backed this, because this drama assuredly isn’t what any of them asked for. Hopefully someone can do something about a refund. If this keeps up, “Hiroaki Yura” will be on par with “Keiji Inafune” in being a name to avoid on crowdfunding campaigns.

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