Wild West Online first appeared on Kotaku UK’s radar a couple of months ago, when we received dozens of emails pointing towards a GTA forum where an apparently ‘leaked’ screenshot of Red Dead Redemption 2 had been posted. Being suspicious sorts, we stayed away, and it turned out this was an unconventional reveal strategy — after all, an unattributed screenshot of Wild West Online on a Rockstar-focused board was obviously going to create Red Dead Confusion. After this flurry of attention, the publisher stepped in to reveal all.
Depending on your perspective, this is clever or cynical marketing. Subsequent to this, however, as details of WWO emerged it was linked to controversial developer Sergey Titov — a connection which the publisher has denied. Titov is behind various companies that have produced several poor-quality games, the most infamous of which are the zombie sim War Z and Big Rigs. The publisher's denial is a denial and yet, even now, unexplained coincidences around WWO raise questions.
Wild West Online is, as the name suggests, a cowboy-themed massively multiplayer open world action game. It looked decent enough in its initial screens and in the first gameplay walkthrough, released by developer 612 Games yesterday.
Even so, something about the early screenshots immediately raised the suspicions of Redditor TheSkiesAreShattered, who suggested that Wild West Online was using the Nightshade engine built by Sergey Titov’s company Free Reign Entertainment. Free Reign most recently developed and released the game Shattered Skies, which has less-than-stellar Steam ratings mainly complaining about it being abandoned by the developers.
Although TheSkiesAreShattered’s initial post has since been removed, it was enough to stoke the curiosity of other internet sleuths. YouTuber BigfryTV, for instance, posted a video highlighting further connections, albeit circumstantial, between Wild West Online and Free Reign Entertainment.
Some finds were minor, some look a little bigger. Bigfry noted the similarities between Wild West Online and Free Reign Entertainment’s online presence, specifically their similar website and forum architecture. Then there’s the fact that Stephan Bugaj, creative director at 612 Games, is connected on Facebook to Sergey Titov.
The more significant connection Bigfry uncovered is that DJ2 Entertainment, who will be handling “the world building and fiction” on Wild West Online, also worked on PC shooter Romero’s Aftermath and Hawken. The former was a Free Reign Entertainment game, and developers on the latter eventually went on to partner with Free Reign Entertainment to work on the since-abandoned Burstfire.
None of this, of course, proves any direct connection between Wild West Online and Free Reign Entertainment.
These rumours were enough, however, to spur 612 Games into action. The company released two statements on the matter: the first confirmed what many had already suspected — Wild West Online is running on Free Reign Entertainment’s game engine Nightshade — while the second refuted any other involvement from Titov in the project.
The problem is, and this has happened with Titov’s games in the past, these denials are coming from forum posts, so it’s impossible to verify exactly who’s speaking and how reliable their information is. As you can see from the post’s claims about the Nightshade engine, this kind of denial raises as many questions as it answers: “DJ2 have licensed engine from Free Reign Entertainment, as it was only engine available for licensing that was built from the ground and suitable to run online open world game and one that allowed us to achieve what we already achieved in a short time. Since this topic generated so much interest we will release more detailed response later today.”
That initial statement failed to address Titov’s or Free Reign’s possible involvement with Wild West Online. The same account then followed up with a more direct statement, explaining in more detail why the engine had been used, and finally denying Titov’s involvement, “And response NO, Sergey Titov is not involved in development of the game, but yes we use game engine developed and supported by one of his companies. And this is why we believe that more detailed response in in order to provide full transparency.”
That detailed response came soon enough, this time through more official 612 Games channels: “Yes, we are using the Nightshade game engine from Free Reign Entertainment. However, 612 Games is neither a subsidiary of Free Reign, nor financed by Free Reign or Sergey Titov. The team is focused on making a great game that will speak for itself, and now that we’ve addressed this topic we are going to return our focus to the game itself. Thank you for your continued support.”
Whether Titov is directly involved with Wild West Online or otherwise isn’t really the point, however. It’s the questions this fog of company names and past projects raises for players. The big concern for anyone considering investing in the game’s recently announced Early Bird programme is the combination of that track record with just how difficult it is to pin down any information on the development team.
There are three main companies directly referenced on Wild West Online’s website. One, WWO Partners Limited, has yet to return any results during our initial searches. It's unclear if it exists beyond a name. The others, thankfully, do exist. The first and more established company is DJ2 Entertainment, a “pre-eminent transmedia production and development consultancy company” according to the site’s About Us section.
Developer 612 Games, meanwhile, is described as being “comprised of numerous industry veterans who collectively have over a century of development and production experience. Our team have worked for over a decade specifically in the open-world PC MMO survival genre, and have contributed to titles like League Of Legends, the Crysis series, Ryse, Armored Warfare, Neverwinter Nights, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Star Trek Online and many, many others.”
As superficially reassuring as that roll-call of names might be, it’s surprisingly difficult to track down any additional information on 612 Games as a developer. It doesn’t appear to have a Twitter page, and its official website, which was only registered in March this year — two months before Wild West Online’s reveal — consists of two pages, one of which is a “Come back soon” page, and the other a list of its principal staff. Neither page makes mention of Wild West Online.
Things get a little more confusing when you look at those principal staff members and realise that two of the three also work for DJ2 Entertainment, in different job roles. DJ2 told PC Gamer in its Wild West Online reveal that 612 Games is partially-owned by DJ2, and that DJ2 owns equity in 612 Games. But that doesn’t really help pin down 612’s development pedigree — information that would doubtless be useful to potential Early Bird backers — and only adds to the sense that these companies are very tangled up with each other.
The only non-DJ2 name on 612 Games’ website is Sirus Ahmadi, listed as the company CEO. Unfortunately, Ahmadi’s LinkedIn profile only notes his involvement with 612 Games from March 2017 to March 2017. His current role is listed as CEO of tech company OPEN-2, LLC, whose registered company address is at 612 Santa Monica Boulevard. The same address that’s registered for, yep you guessed it, DJ2 Entertainment, closing the circle once more.
At this point, all potential Early Bird backers know about 612 Games is that this company developing an online game has only had an online presence itself for a few months. There’s no detail on the development team which, for a project of WWO’s scope, must be a considerable number of people. Stephan Bugaj, 612 Game’s creative director, and the man who has conducted Wild West Online's press interviews, has a background in adventure games and animation rather than MMOGs — and is referred to as executive producer, a role that’s usually rather removed from the day-to-day development, in yesterday’s first Wild West Online gameplay trailer. The detail that does exist about WWO, in other words, seems to concern the people who'll be overseeing it rather than those making it.
Beyond Mr Bugaj, there’s no obvious way to identify the ‘numerous industry veterans’ behind WWO. Though it is interesting to note that it references League of Legends which, as we know, none other than Sergey Titov worked on from 2006-8. If nothing else, the lack of information seems odd from a marketing perspective — building an audience for an early access game is hard, and surely revealing a few of the storied developers toiling away behind the scenes would be a great way to get some attention.
This lack of answers, on the other hand, will just keep drawing internet sleuths back to the question: who is developing WWO?
Some have noted the innocuous similarity between the URL for Wild West Online (playwwo.com) and the URL of Shattered Skies, developer Free Reign’s previous game (playshatteredskies.com). There’s something more peculiar here, though: Wild West Online’s URL was registered last October, meaning that developer 612 Games registered playwwo.com six months before it got around to registering the URL for its own company.
And then there’s the small matter of trademarks, as spotted by another detective on Wild West Online's official forum:
Here is something interesting. Infestation (previously War Z) was published by "OP Productions", yet another publisher that apparently lacked a functional website (never seen that before). The first result you get in Google when searching "OP Productions"? This Steam discussion of someone doing detective work to see if Hammerpoint (War Z) is actually OP Productions. It’s a pretty compelling trail of how Sergey/HammerPoint/OP goes through LLCs like mouthwash, with none of those companies being around anymore. So what's the connection? A lawyer named "Steven Bercu" did all of Sergey's previous trademark work, as you can see here.
The poster then goes on to note that Steven Bercu has only trademarked work by Sergey Titov in the past.
So, who's doing Wild West Online's trademark work? A certain person named "Steven A Bercu", who happens to work at the same Lime LLC! Now, there very well could be two Steven Bercu's working at this law firm, but a simple google search shows only TWO people working at this place, a "Valerie Walls", and Steven.
Mr. Bercu is far from the only link between Wild West Online and Free Reign Entertainment, but it’s funny how these coincidences mount up. While writing this article we learned that Wild West Online’s PR is being handled by Vim Global. A cursory internet search immediately tells us that Vim Global also handled Free Reign’s Shattered Skies.
The Nightshade engine and a lot of circumstantial evidence connects Free Reign Entertainment and Sergey Titov with Wild West Online. But publisher 612 Games denies the connection, and until further evidence turns up we have to take the company at its word. The spaghetti tangle of company names and things like 612’s set-up may be a little unconventional, but there’s no harm in that.
We'll endeavour to find out more and report further. In the meantime, those players who might fancy backing WWO’s development should perhaps wait for more transparency before handing over any cash. You know what stuff's like on the internet: it can be the wild west out there.