When role-playing game Project Phoenix first hit Kickstarter in 2013, it sounded a dream project. The Japanese RPG brought in more than ten times its crowdfunding goal based on its top-tier talent. But there's no end to the project in sight, and the man behind Project Phoenix has since moved on to another project altogether, a strategy game called Tiny Metal.
Sony’s indie publishing label, Unties, launched Tiny Metal on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC earlier this month. Now, Tiny Metal is mired in the ongoing controversy that has surrounded Project Phoenix for nearly past five years.
In an interview with Polygon, Tiny Metal and Project Phoenix director Hiroaki Yura tried to clear up confusion about the state of the Project Phoenix's funding — which some backers and critics suspect has been used to produce Yura's other project.
“People weren’t frustrated that we were doing Tiny Metal. They were more frustrated that [they thought] we took money from Project Phoenix,” Yura said, regarding backers of the latter game’s crowdfunding campaign, which raised more than $1 million in August 2013. With an all-star development team, which includes Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and others who worked on the franchise, Project Phoenix quickly became one of RPG fans’ most anticipated games.
But in 2015, Creative Intelligence Agency, Project Phoenix’s developer, delayed the game by three years, to 2018. Yura also denied distraught backers refunds, while publishing sporadic campaign updates meant to assuage fears that the JRPG sounded too good to be true. The team continued to be blunt, however, about how personnel and financial issues forced production to start and stop several times over.
People had already lost faith in Project Phoenix as the team shared more and more bad news. In spring 2017, Yura and other team members spoke frankly about how mounting budget concerns that led them to consider an alternative method of funding: producing another game with outside investors, the profits of which could potentially go back into Project Phoenix.
“A group of private investors was interested in a prototype of a strategy game that I had begun development on several years ago with [programmer Daniel Dressler],” Yura wrote in June. “I used my own money to fund the prototype, and they offered to fund the project the rest of the way through. To be clear, we never mixed funds between this project and Project Phoenix.”
But Yura didn’t name that project until August, when the director confirmed that it was the buzzed-about strategy game Tiny Metal, which was also initially pitched through Kickstarter. Yura spun up a separate development team, Area 35, to produce Tiny Metal, which had failed to meet its crowdfunding goal in September 2016. Still, Tiny Metal entered production the following month and was formally revealed this past May — with no mention of the Project Phoenix connection.
Complaints piled up about the failure to disclose the connection between the two games — or where Yura’s cash-strapped team was getting money from — until Tiny Metal was well underway. Yura disagrees that he should have been more open from the get-go about Tiny Metal’s ties to Project Phoenix, as backers of the latter project openly wondered on a handful of occasions. The confusion isn’t any fault of his, he told us.
“In our opinion, we’ve been very, very transparent,” Yura said. “We did tell the backers from the very beginning that Project Phoenix was meant to be done during the free time. We treated Tiny Metal like a day job so we could quickly finish it.”
But it all goes back to Yura’s own admission that it’s not so much that Tiny Metal is the problem for most people as it is that backers want to know what’s going on with Project Phoenix. Four years on, most of the recent Kickstarter updates have concerned Yura’s new game, not the RPG to which backers given their money.
Yura stressed to us that, while he’s still committed to making and releasing the game, Project Phoenix’s finances are in dire straits.
“We spent all of our money for Project Phoenix that we got from our backers and more,” he said. “Continuing this would be suicidal, because we can’t finish the project with what we have.”
That’s why, according to Yura, shifting gears toward Tiny Metal was a necessary step. Despite attempts to set the record straight about the source of Tiny Metal’s funding , following its showing at PAX West in September, Yura has only found himself in murkier territory.
In November, a former member of Area 35, Tariq Lacy, released a statement alleging that Yura had secretly paid for Tiny Metal with Project Phoenix backers’ money. Lacy posted his accusation to Facebook, where it was quickly removed following complaints from Area 35; he also sent it directly to Polygon. Here’s the key allegation:
Here’s how it happened: after they received the Kickstarter money for Project Phoenix, they subsequently shut down their original company (Creative Intelligence Arts, or “CIA”), then used that same money to establish AREA 35 and pay for staff, equipment, and an office to make TINY METAL.
The company’s CEO, Hiroaki Yura, asked me to deflect any accusations that this money was from anyone other than private investors; in actuality, Hiroaki only dipped into his own funds and asked for money from private investors after the funding that he had secured for TINY METAL was running low. I refused this request to fabricate and minimize the truth for the purpose of misleading others, then told Hiroaki to remove me from all matters regarding Project Phoenix so that I would not be implicated in this affair.
You will notice progress reports on the Project Phoenix Kickstarter blog, as well as their official Project Phoenix blog. These were written periodically by Hiroaki Yura himself in order to squander doubts that the project was dead. The nature of these blog entries, through their infrequency and intentional ambiguity, reveals to us that the project never was meant to be released. To Hiroaki, this ruse under the guise of a campaign and blog was merely an effective means to receive funding while removing any obligations to investors.
Lacy’s statement concerned both Project Phoenix backers and those excited for Tiny Metal, which was an anticipated, if niche, indie title. Now, the public narrative was, once again, that it was built with Project Phoenix’s money — a game whose Kickstarter funding had been squandered, and whose development team had very little to show for it.
“People thought [Tiny Metal] was a scam from the start,” Yura said, vehemently denying the accusations. “We have shown legal documents to US Gamer, outlining our investors ... you don’t show those kinds of things as a company to other people. We felt so desperate.
“Why would we do this? If we didn’t like our game or want to finish Project Phoenix ... I don’t know. It’s really hard to be convincing when someone is pointing fingers at you and saying you did all this and have no proof.”
A last-minute delay for Tiny Metal in the wake of Lacy’s allegations didn’t help matters. By the time Tiny Metal finally launched in mid-December, the chatter about what this meant for Project Phoenix — a game delayed several times, very little of which has been shown to the public — had grown beyond Yura’s control.
On Reddit, most discussions of Tiny Metal are accompanied with notes about the developer drama. Despite several positive (if not high-profile) reviews, Yura is convinced that the game won’t be able to escape the suspicion.
There’s now talk of impending legal action against Lacy. Yura is fighting back against his former employee’s claims, he said in a public response on Tiny Metal’s Steam community forum.
“We are a small and earnest team, though Mr. Lacy’s actions in the office and posting of his lies has caused great distress among his former co-workers,” wrote Yura. “We have devoted over two years of our lives to bring TINY METAL to life. Having poured our heart and souls into TINY METAL, it is truly a sad thing to see false and evidence-less accusations cause such great harm.”
Yura told Polygon that his next step is gathering evidence in the hopes of taking Lacy to court for defamation. But after all of this very public drama, Yura said that he’s at a loss for words.
“We’re just doing what we can to get people to know about Tiny Metal,” he said. “We’re trying to put this past us, because we can’t do anything more. The rest is just lawyers, who are going to sort it out.
“I guess I’m very sad about all of this.”
Clarification: Added context to a quotation from Yura to clarify comments on backers’ speculation as to where Tiny Metal’s funding comes from.