You may have noticed a new face on Steam’s best-sellers this week: Spintires: Mudrunner. It’s kind of a remastered and expanded version of a 2014 simulation game in which you attempt, probably haplessly, to drive huge all-terrain vehicles with a propensity for getting stuck in mud. The original emerged largely from nowhere upon its release to top the Steam charts, selling in excess of 100,000 units.
While ostensibly a driving game, at the heart of it, really, it’s a mud simulator. Its assortment of unwieldy and gruff vehicles were never really the attraction. Instead, the enjoyment comes from slowly and deliberately plotting a successful course across its many deep and swampy vistas. And when that goes wrong – which it will – players have to do it all again to mount a rescue. It’s really quite tremendous fun.
You might have heard of Spintires before, though, because it’s spent a lot of time in the headlines - but for all the wrong reasons. By late 2014, fans had become disgruntled by a perceived lack of updates and fixes to the game. Tensions that were simmering behind the scenes soon boiled over, and a public spat between lead developer Pavel Zagrebelnyy and little-known UK publisher Oovee erupted into view in the ugliest possible way.
In February 2015 Tony Fellas, who is credited as Oovee’s forum, IT and websystems manager, went public to assure players that any issues between the pair had been resolved, and that update work was back on track. Of Zagrebelnyy, Fellas said simply that “no relationship goes without its problems”. An extensive Eurogamer report just the following week, however, painted a complicated picture.
Tales of a vandalised Mercedes owned by Oovee’s managing director Zane Saxton and missing earnings reports served as backdrop to what Zagrebelnyy claimed ultimately amounted to a case of missing payments and a communication blackout. Oovee maintained that it had fulfilled its contracts, describing Zagrebelnyy as an “upset genius”.
Tensions escalated the following month when it was alleged that Zagrebelnyy, in retaliation for the money he was owed, deliberately sabotaged the game with a piece of malicious game-crashing code. This was strongly denied by all parties, and indeed Zagrebelnyy and Oovee soon released a patch that addressed the bug.
But even now, over a year and a half down the line, the situation between the pair remains unresolved.
“Spintires was far more successful than anyone could have hoped. With big success sometimes comes big problems and unfortunately, we let some of our internal issues go public,” Zagrebelnyy tells Kotaku UK a few weeks ago. “This is an ongoing situation, though, and I hope we can resolve it soon. My immediate goal is to focus (no pun intended) on making MudRunner a huge hit.”
Asked how he feels about everything that happened and the way in which it played out so publicly, Zagrebelnyy says: “I am a programmer by trade, not a PR specialist. I don’t speak English natively and don’t have much experience in dealing with the press. I think that makes it hard for me to effectively communicate my position and I could have used better guidance on how to handle the situation.
“As the creator of the game I felt slighted, and lashed out as I had no one else to turn to for advice on how to handle it. We Russians can be a bit direct sometimes. [Now] I step back and look objectively at the situation, I totally understand why it was reported the way it was, but that is in many respects due to my own inability to effectively deal with the hype surrounding what was going on.”
What involvement his former publisher Oovee has with this new release is bit of a mystery. Spintires remains Oovee’s only credited title, and the publisher’s Twitter feed has twice referenced MudRunner. Focus Home Interactive is the publisher for the second game, however, and Oovee is not credited anywhere in MudRunner’s documentation. A question about Oovee’s involvement on Focus’ official FAQ page has gone unanswered, as have our requests for clarification.
The Oovee forum, which remains active and retains the Spintires branding, offers no additional insight, although a recent reply from Fellas (that admonishes a user for swearing) explains that: “There are two sides to a story and one day you may hear ours.”
Certainly, however, while the rest of the video games world moved on, Zagrebelnyy’s Spintires journey continued, and he has not stopped working on the game. He’s now back at his former employer Saber Interactive, and leading development on MudRunner.
“After releasing the first Spintires, I spent my time refining the mechanics, working on designs and improving the core experience. A lot of these improvements have made their way into MudRunner,” he adds.
“Obviously I have a lot of close friends here [at Saber], and my experience working with the team dates back to our Halo days. Saber has a lot of talent and working with a team with such tremendous experience means that MudRunner is a far superior product than it would have otherwise been.”
All the drama risks overshadowing a simple truth about Spintires: it’s a really great game. In fact, outside of all the drama, the only real problem with the original game was its lack of polish, and this is something Focus and Zagrebelnyy want MudRunner to address. “The game is being improved tremendously in all aspects. It is a much more refined product than the original,” Zagrebelnyy explains.
“We have a bigger and more experienced team working on the game, and we have the resources of a company of 400 people to test and provide feedback. Equally important is the substantial QA commitment, which gives it the triple-A feel it deserves.”
On the list of additions are gamepad support, a new Challenge Mode, cockpit view, improved UI, art and maps, and polished visuals. The learning curve has been eased off, too, and there are even plans for post-release DLC and possibly a release on additional platforms such as Nintendo Switch, although the details of this are still being thrashed out and kept under wraps.
When all is said and done, however, Zagrebelnyy is pragmatic about the problems of the past, and is instead looking ahead to what he hopes to achieve in the future.
“I wouldn’t say that pressure is the right word,” he says when asked if the first game’s negative experiences weigh heavily on him. “Unless you mean internal pressure – as I always want to put my best foot forward. I definitely did the best I could on the original game with the limited resources that I had at my disposal.
“Once we sat down to work on MudRunner we did a deep evaluation of all of the problems that the game had and have systematically improved all of them. I am very excited by the results and I think our fans will be too.”