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Published January 6, 2013

Early in the summer of 2012, the free ARMA II mod ‘DayZ’ skyrocketed in popularity soon after release. Within months it had over a million players and people were buying ARMA II simply to play DayZ, resulting in ARMA II topping the charts of Valve’s Steam store for four months straight. Obviously, the zombie genre was peaking and there was plenty of money to be made.

Enter The War Z. Announced on July 19th by Hammerpoint Interactive, The War Z set out with one goal in mind: cashing in. The War Z was to take the zombie genre into the hallowed lands of MMO-dom,  promising open worlds of 200-400 km2, strong role playing elements, dozens of unique skills that could be learned and improved, and up to 250 players per game server. To the DayZ populace, this sounded a bit like Valhalla come early.

Who is Hammerpoint Interactive, though, to promise the world to the zombie obsessed? Well, it is hard to say, as Hammerpoint Interactive has no website of their own - strange in this day and age, particularly for a game developer. What we do know is that it’s leader is Sergey Titov, former Technical Director at Riot Games. Even then, though, a quick glance at Sergey’s LinkedIn profile shows literally no mention of Hammerpoint Interactive. Sounds legit.

Since his 21 month stint at Riot  (2006-2008), Titov has been a busy bee. Among other games he has been involved in through his role as CEO of Arktos Entertainment Group (the company that ends up funding most of the fly by night development teams, like Hammerpoint Interactive), Titov helped build “Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing” (the worst game created in recent memory, if not ever) and The War, Inc: Battlezone - a free to play , online multiplayer shooter. We’ll come back to that.

The Alpha

The alpha test of The War Z began on October 15th. There was much made of the announcement and subsequent alpha in relation to DayZ - many saw it as an obvious attempt to cash in on a new market in gaming. Sergey Titov denied that DayZ had much of anything to do with the development of The War Z, stating that his game had been in development before DayZ even came out. However, this is where “The War, Inc” really begins to come into play.

On May 16th (one week after DayZ began making headlines in the gaming press on Kotaku), Sergey took to The War, Inc. forums and postulated the concept of making a zombie version of the multiplayer game. Hammerpoint Interactive, the ‘development studio’ behind The War Z (and obviously not the same studio as The War, Inc.) seemed to come into existence the same day that the game was announced, with Twitter, Facebook and Youtube accounts all being created around the same time. Also of note is the fact that the game’s website, www.thewarz.com, was registered in late May of 2012 - shortly after floating the possibility of development on The War, Inc. forums

These facts, and Sergey’s way with the truth, did not discourage many, however. DayZ was popular for a reason - the gaming community yearned for zombie action. As a result, thousands flocked to The War Z, dropping real cash for the privilege of testing Sergey’s reskinned shooter. By all accounts, there were a genuine few who felt that the game had promise: most, however, did not. It’s Alpha status was nearly unplayable, with some popular figures in the gaming community outright throwing their hands up in disgust at The War Z’s condition. Negative feedback, however, was not what Sergey and his Community Moderator, a man known as KewkD, were looking for. Posts critical of the game were frequently deleted on sight by the moderators at TheWarZ.com, while many players also fell victim to bans from the game for no provided reason at all.

With nearly all dissent smothered by the watchful KewkD, The War Z continued trucking along. Hands on demonstrations were given to various members of the gaming media, who seemed at times to struggle to say a good word about the game. With DayZ Standalone on the horizon, it must have swiftly become apparent to Sergey that the time to strike was soon - very soon.

The Launch

On December 17th, The War Z was put up for sale on Steam. While it had apparently been known by members of The War Z community that this was simply a ‘Foundation Release’, a la Minecraft or the upcoming DayZ standalone, no mention was made of the current state of the game on the Steam page. Instead, it listed all of the features that The War Z hoped one day to achieve, listed as though they were present in the current game. To break it down simply, here’s a screenshot:

Naturally, gamers did not take well to this. Several critical threads were made on the game’s Steam subforum - threads which were immediately deleted by none other than KewkD. To add insult to injury, the Terms of Service specify that by agreeing to play the game, customers also agree to not being able to get a refund - for any reason.

Given all this, it seemed simple as to what Hammerpoint (aka Sergey) should do: issue an apology, correct his game page on Steam and offer refunds to those who purchased the game under the impression that it was everything he claimed it to be.

Damage Control

Instead, Sergey at first doubled down on scamming, going so far as to defend the accuracy of his Steam page in an interview with GameSpy. However, it became apparent that this wasn’t going to work. The War Z, shortly after ‘launching’ on Steam, had skyrocketed to the top of Steam’s sales chart. Thousands upon thousands of players had descended upon The War Z, thinking themselves just mere clicks from post apocalyptic nirvana. What they found instead was a game with more bugs than a Tijuana motel, with none of the features promised.

Sergey then issued an apology, but even in this he failed to take full responsibility. His apology was aimed at players who ‘misread’ the information available on Steam. No mention of refunds was made for the masses. Instead, Sergey decided to just tidy up the Steam page a bit. The mob was angered, however, and not to be swayed by the smooth talk of a game developer who essentially blamed them for his mistake.

The next day, December 19th, Valve pulled the game from Steam, announcing that they would be issuing refunds to those who wanted them and that the game would only be made available again via Steam when Valve “had more confidence in a new build of the game.” Valve moderator al also announced that he would be looking into the behavior of the moderator on The War Z’s Steam subforum, stating that Valve ‘takes seriously’ allegations of censorship, as well as stating that criticisms of the game are allowed, so long as they are respectful and do not result in personal attacks against developers, moderators, or fellow players.

The Panderers

Sergey Titov can, no doubt, be cast as the villain in this drama. However, as every good villain does, Sergey went beyond a simple evil deed or three. He took advantage of his environment, particularly the people out for themselves. He reskinned a game, cashed in on an emerging game genre, and abused the trust of thousands of players - and then he took advantage of the gaming media’s propensity to pander. Several gaming media outlets had covered The War Z to some extent, prior to the obviously attention grabbing drama that has been unfolding since December 17th, and actually had kind words, with the occasional koolaid fueled glowing praise, for the product.

Nathan Meunier of IGN wrote on December 14th, just three days before the proverbial shit hit the fan, that The War Z was an “interesting, gripping experience,” as well as a “fascinating social experiment in primal human nature.” The latter quote was in reference to the Bandit/Friendly dynamic that players of DayZ would recognize in a heart beat, though in retrospect it seems that both quotes (if taken out of their original context and plopped into the context of this article) could still be applicable today. He did qualify his praise for the game by providing the usual disclaimers of ‘this is still a beta’ and ‘there is some evening out to do,’ but for the most part the tone of his piece indicated that this would be a game worth buying.

Beau Hindman of Massively (a Joystiq subsidiary) was able to get hands on time with the game at GDC 2012, back in October. His article, released October 12th, featured slightly more effusive praise for The War Z, based on his playtime alongside Hammerpoint Interactive’s Alex Josef. Beau had many kind things to say about the game, despite it’s early development status. “The lighting in The War Z works beautifully and realistically.” When Alex Josef set the game to night, Beau stated that “with my headphones on, I was actually a bit scared. I could only imagine how frightening it would be...alone in my house. I’m not sure I could do it!” He was also happy to parrot the claims of Hammerpoint without a shred of disbelief: “Players converge on massive maps that will support up to 250 players at a time!”

With the amount of exclamation marks, one can’t help but wonder if Beau is a journalist, or a Justin Bieber groupie. To top off Beau’s attempt at copywriting, we have this gem:

What impressed me so much about the game was not only how smooth and polished it was for an early version but how immersive the game felt. I could lose hours and hours to this one.

Tim Turi of GameInformer also fell prey to the same bug that bit Beau Hindman. While he was slightly more careful in his review, published in the December 2012 edition of GameInformer, to point out that some features were only ‘promised’, he still made bold proclamations that don’t seem to hold up under any kind of scrutiny. 

“The War Z alpha build is simply more fun to play than DayZ,” Turi stated. He then goes on to recount, with a similar breathless enthusiasm, a tale of survival that seems like something I read about DayZ when that first came out. “The War Z still has time in development, but already moments like this have me itching to see what else may happen. If you’re intrigued by post-apocalyptic stories that focus on the human element rather than the disasters themselves (i.e. The Walking Dead, The Road), try forging your own experiences in The War Z. You can pay to access the alpha now.” The tone of the article, naturally, suggests that paying for alpha access is a good idea.

Finally, at least under a cursory search for War Z reviews, there is Alex Cocilova of PC World. His two page review at times attempted to restrain itself, but mainly failed. It closed with this (emphasis mine):

Overall, the game looks terrific despite the typical alpha bugs that I expected to see. Some of the textures were odd, the water reflected at a strange size and the zombie animations weren't entirely fluid. But I felt the atmosphere and the panic of being surrounded while my last few bullets fluttered away...At $30 with free DLC it isn't a high-risk gamble for consumers, and from what I've seen the game seems likely to be a hell of a lot of fun. 

For the average consumer of video games looking for a quick rundown of The War Z, these four examples (and doubtless there are more out there at lesser-known sites) likely spelled disaster on December 17th. If I see a hitherto unknown game hitting the top of the Steam charts, I’m pretty likely to google “[insert game here] review” to get a feel for it - not necessarily to make my purchasing decision (that would be silly), but to at least gauge whether or not it is a bad game that even the media won’t touch. Reviews are one of the top three reasons we even have a ‘gaming media’ to begin with - for four such outlets of relatively high standing (or at least reach) in the community to drop the ball so terribly hard, one has to wonder what the hell is going on behind the scenes. 

The Noble Few

There is now emerging, however, a counter-movement to the dreadful quality of ‘journalism’ in the gaming media. Some, like Forbes.com, are new to games but not to journalism; others, like GameSpy and PCGamesN, could be considered the other way around. These three sites have, in their coverage of The War Z and Sergey Titov, managed to at least mitigate the damage that the koolaid drinkers have done to the term ‘games journalist’.

Erik Kain, a contributer at Forbes.com, provided this excellent breakdown of the various ways in which Hammerpoint Interactive and Sergey Titov in particular have sought to dupe the public. Sourced information, side by side screenshot comparisons and even explained how it was that Valve allowed such a thing as the botched ‘foundation’ release happen. His piece is well worth a read.

GameSpy, a site not exactly known for hard hitting journalistic endeavors, managed to get an interview with Titov within a day of the Steam release. Instead of tossing softballs or taking the developer at his first word, Dan Stapleton hammered on the face of Hammerpoint in an attempt to get him to admit to some wrongdoing. The attempt was largely in vain, but the attempt was well worth making - and something that many more people should have been doing well before The War Z ever became a trending topic in the industry.

Finally, an honorable mention must also be given to Steve Hogarty over at PCGamesN, who did the hard math on The War Z’s only map and discovered that it fell short of the advertised ‘100 square kilometers’ - well short. Colorado in fact only clocks in at around 10 square kilometers of playable area.

Each and every one of these individuals has done their own small part to stem the tide of terrible ‘journalism’ in the gaming media. It isn’t a cure, by any stretch of the imagination, but by asking hard questions, getting hard answers and presenting the facts of the matter, these people (and others like them) are helping the reputation of gaming journalism far more than any number of exclusive previews one can see on Massively, GameInformer, or their kin.

The Aftermath

Following the heated developments of the Steam launch for The War Z, Sergey Titov steadily retreated from his bold statements in the GameSpy interview. Eventually he even proffered a full apology to the community. For many, though, the damage has been done and is nigh on irreversible. In recent days, The War Z has become the target of hackers: The War Z’s DNS entries have been allegedly corrupted, their authentication servers DDOSed, and even parts of their code corrupted. Whether this is in direct relation to the somewhat shady practices of Hammerpoint and Arktos Entertainment, or simply a matter of being ‘easy prey’ for malicious entities on the Internet, it will be surprising (to say the least) if The War Z continues on much longer. 

And that may be fine by Sergey Titov. After Hammerpoint Interactive cleaned up in the initial 24 hour bonanza on Steam, it was ‘bought out’ by another Titov owned enterprise - Arktos Entertainment. Whether this is part of a shell game, designed to protect the profit from potential loss to litigation, or simply a consolidation of hats, the end result is this: Sergey Titov made millions of dollars reskinning a marginal Free to Play game, getting certain gaming media elements to hype the reskin, and then launching it under false pretenses using a loophole in Valve’s Steam Approval process.

There are more than a few lessons to be learned here. First, if a game sounds too good to be true, it might just not be true at all. Second, certain gaming outlets have proven themselves time and time again to be completely unreliable providers of purchasing advice (be it through their own over enthusiasm or other, less honest circumstances). Third, Valve will have to take a look at their game listing approval process thanks to this. And finally, despite the success of some games like Minecraft, it is probably wise not to invest in what are essentially alpha builds of games. Especially if the developer doesn’t even have its own web presence.

Marc Scaurus
Just a dude