We speak to the director behind Tiny Metal and the $1 million crowdfunded nostalgic JRPG infamously surrounded in controversies.
Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble is the closest thing you’ll get to an Advance Wars sequel. A turn-based strategy in a chibi anime world of toy soldiers, mechs and air-based warfare, grounded in today’s social and political climate and cartoon violence, it’s the only modern spiritual successor to the Nintendo classic made by and for Japanese fans. But it’s also made by the people behind one of the most ambitious and controversial Kickstarter projects of all time.
In 2013, director Hiroaki Yura pitched Project Phoenix on Kickstarter, a squad-based real-time strategy game made by a team of veteran triple-A western and Japanese developers under Creative Intelligent Arts. Their credentials included the likes of Final Fantasy, Diablo III, LA Noire and Halo 4, all under the programming lead of David Clark, the Australian-born developer protege who made the adorable metroidvania Ori and the Blind Forest in just three months while crashing at Yura’s place in Japan.
Better yet, the famous Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, who had never worked on an indie game beforehand, was set to compose its soundtrack. With breathtaking concept art, an emotionally choral and orchestral score and chibi in-game character models, it all felt like a JRPG fan’s dream game.
So, unsurprisingly, it became one of the most crowd-funded video game projects of all time, surpassing its mere $100,000 goal at over a million. “It’s a first ever video game Kickstarter to succeed in Japan,” Yura remembers, “we were in a week or two in front of Mighty Number 9.”
But six years since and the game isn’t out. In fact, no one really knows if it’ll ever be released. The team continues to share annual updates about the project, callouts for programmers and how they’re gearing up to finish the game, but backers are yet to see anything more than a concept and hefty ambition. Instead of playing a critically acclaimed RPG, they’re left feeling betrayed and ripped off by false promises.
But as Yura explains, his team fully plan to bring this project to life, they just weren’t prepared to handle a project this ambitious. Even with an alleged million-dollar backing, Kickstarter took a decent chunk of their funds and some backers never fully paid, leaving them with only $870,000.
And while a majority of the team were allegedly willing to do it for free, he says that what they were left with could “only pay three or four people for a year.” Even worse, after the success of Ori and The Blind Forest, Clark was headhunted by Microsoft to make a sequel, and had no free time to continue with Project Phoenix. With other developers on the project having their own lives and projects to work on too, the dream team was soon to split up and Yura’s “plan to get Phoenix done” was delayed indefinitely.
“How am I supposed to replace a genius programmer that could probably program everything by himself?” Yura says. “I can’t, you can’t. You’re supposed to have like a dozen people. I mean, Octopath Traveler was made between 15 and 20 programmers.”
“Normal programmers. I can’t pay for that, not with the budget I have. People don’t understand how games are made or people don’t know how decision making is made.”
Currently, if you go to the project’s Kickstarter page, you’ll see comments flooded with requests for a refund. Over 15,000 people have backed the project and 11,000 of them want a full refund for their pledged amount. From this, Yura admits that he wishes he could refund backers but won’t be able to do so until he has the money to make the game: “I do want to finish the game. I do want to, I even want to, I never said this in an interview before, but I even want to refund their money because we didn’t keep the timeline.” Yura explains, “If I could, but it’s just firstly, I need to get money to finish the game.”
Instead of working on the game, Yura started a new studio called Area 35 Inc and began work on Tiny Metal, a fun spiritual successor to Advance Wars, despite early criticism from backers. Since the last official Advance Wars game, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, was released in 2008, Intelligent Systems shifted its efforts to Fire Emblem games that lean heavily into the fanatic shipping culture of anime fandoms. So, much like the creators of Stardew Valley and Undertale, indie developers that missed the cartoon army strategy took things into their own hands and decided to make their own inspired games.
The latest in the series, Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble, is a tactical strategy game for the Nintendo Switch, PS4 and PC, grounded in a terrifying political and social climate surrounding our current refugee crisis. It follows a fantasy World War Three where superpowers are fighting for resources. Syrian refugees have all been forced to leave their homes and with no country openly welcoming them, they’ve turned to become travelling mercenaries for hire.
Japan never opened their borders after World War Two, remaining an extremely xenophobic and defensive nation based on traditional Japanese iconography, weaponry and customs. America proudly goes to war with other countries under the guise of protecting their national freedom and image as the best nation in the world.
Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble released earlier this month and, if it sells enough copies, could make enough money to fund Project Phoenix and refund its dissatisfied backers. So far, it’s been well received by critics and sitting on Steam’s user reviews as ‘Mostly Positive,’ but given it’s surrounded by such a messy controversy and had little coverage in the lead up to its launch, it’s hard to feel confident that it’ll make enough to resolve backers’ complaints.
Despite its ties to Project Phoenix, Tiny Metal’s team is made up of developers who weren’t involved in the ambitious JRPG pitch. Instead, their previous work included animating The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, creating the original sound fx of Monster Hunter and Street Fighter 2, composing I Am Setsuna, and writing Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
Its gameplay is fun and strategic, having you control a squad of military units, tactically engage with the environment and base your attacks on a weapon triangle system. But, regardless of how it plays and who made it, it’s overshadowed by the unfortunate reputation of Project Phoenix and Hiroaki Yura.
Shortly after the first game was released, former Area 35 developer Tariq Lacy allegedly claimed that Yura used funds from Project Phoenix to finance his new studio and Tiny Metal’s development. Allegedly, Yura used it to pay for staff, equipment and a new office space, and told Lacy to deflect any questions about the source of their company’s money.
When Lacy released this statement, Yura filed for legal action and claimed that it was nothing but lies, revealing that he was bought out of his contract after he was found sexually harassing female staff. Six months later, Lacy admitted that he made up his claims and Yura and his team gathered enough evidence to file a case of defamation, which lead to an order by the Japanese court for the former team member to publicly apologise.
But by then, the damage had already been done. On Kickstarter, the original Tiny Metal struggled to find its feet and never met its $50,000 goal, dwarfed by the controversy around its million-dollar Kickstarter sibling and creator. The team who worked on Tiny Metal have unfortunately had to deal with the backlash of Project Phoenix, frequently asked questions about the project and blamed as being involved when they had nothing to do with it and just want to promote their game.
In a recent comment on Project Phoenix’s Kickstarter, one backer explains that they reached out to the Tiny Metal team for clarity on the JRPG project’s radio silence. In response, Yura pleaded, “please don’t be part of throwing negative remarks [at Tiny Metal’s team] just because I’m part of the project. [Tiny Metal is] developed by different people for the most part and the [people behind Project Phoenix] don’t have anything to do with Tiny Metal besides my involvement.”
Even six years since the game broke backing records on Kickstarter, we’ve seen virtually nothing of it. Yura stresses that he still wants to make the game and is always working on it in the background, and ultimately, “if [he] wanted it to be a scam, [he] would have taken the money and left.”
“I work for other people as well and you know, my reputation is also at stake here,” he says after translating an interview with Grasshopper Manufacture CEO Suda51. “It’s already quite damaged publicly but in terms of internally like working with screenings and all of that, that’s fine because they know I’m not like that.”
“Some people might say I don’t deserve the criticism or I don’t deserve what I’ve been told or I don’t deserve being called a scammer,” he concludes. “In a way, I do deserve it because they didn’t get them the game. They had [such] high hopes for it. And I’m very sorry about that, but it’s just, it is what it is.”
From all sides, the failed promises and potential of Project Phoenix is tragic. Over 15,000 people pledged money for this game and feel betrayed. From this and as his project drifts further and further away from any sign of completion, Hiroaki Yura has felt more and more guilty, and left feeling disappointed in himself and the circumstances that have made it impossible for him to make the game. But, even more tragically, it’s overshadowed a team of people completely divorced from the controversy and their passion project based on a game series they love. Project Phoenix has made it very hard for a team of Advance Wars fans to show off the closest thing we’ll ever get to a new Advance Wars, and that blows.
Julian Rizzo-Smith is an award-nominated freelance games and pop culture writer. He’s a fan of games rich with queer pop culture, Japanese pop culture and charming animation, stories about the people who make and are impacted by games, visual novels, life-sims, RPGs and action adventures. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster.