Behind the scenes on Subverse, the £1.6 million Kickstarter porn game hit

The following discussion and images are NSFW. 

Update: As of May 7th, GOG has come back to me with a statement in response to DC's comment in the below article that the retailer "wouldn't even return our emails". I've edited the article below to contain the statement, but for ease of reading, I'll put it here too. "Unfortunately, we haven’t found a single email coming from FOW Interactive, be it on our publicly shared inboxes or Bizdev people personal ones. We’re going to check with whom the devs were trying to contact, to understand what happened."

Edited story: FOW Interactive's Subverse, a pornographic genre hybrid game that will probably remind you superficially of Mass Effect, ended its Kickstarter campaign with over £1.6 million this week. How do I put this? It's not my sort of thing—but it's made so much money and generated a strong response from a certain type of player (15,000+ comments on the Kickstarter page and counting). Reaching 58,730 backers shows some obvious demand for what Subverse offers. 

It's described as "a tactical RPG/SHMUP hybrid that takes place in a fully explorable galaxy where you get to be the Captain of your very own ship... which is crewed by the sexiest and deadliest waifus you can recruit." There will be 10 'waifus' total in the game, and as well as earning their loyalty and having sex with them, the shoot-'em-up part is set in space, as you control a ship called the Mary Celeste. The tactical element, meanwhile, with its isometric-style camera, made me think of XCOM. Collectively, the game should take at least 30 hours to finish, according to the Kickstarter FAQ, and the first episode is aiming for a summer release.

"I've heard many people say this is an extremely ambitious project but it's not really," creative director DC tells me via email. "It's a simple and stylish little tactical game with sex elements thrown in as the reward so we are trying set ourselves up for a smoother development cycle."

From movies to games

StudioFOW's background is in CG pornographic movies, many of which are parodies involving game characters. For example—and for the love of god, do not search for these at work—there's BioShag: Trinity and Lara in Trouble, which feature familiar female game characters in scenarios I won't describe here (here's a great Kotaku piece that touches upon both videos). I can't say I was comfortable sitting through snippets of them to write this piece. 

I ask DC why he thinks the Kickstarter campaign has made so much money. "I'm not sure I can pinpoint a single factor to be honest. I think we had a really positive and confident pitch that grabbed a lot of people by the balls and then our existing fanbase (which is pretty massive) came out in force to help snowball the Kickstarter. The surprise factor in all this was that Subverse became a kind of symbolic pledge for many first-time Kickstarter supporters who are unhappy with the current state of the gaming industry... but that's totally not what we set out to do, we just wanted to make dick lasers and big bouncy anime titties."

The Mass Effect influence

The Kickstarter intro video makes reference to the Mass Effect 3 ending fallout from 2012 and the game's imagery recalls the series, so I want to know what DC makes of BioWare's RPGs. "I personally do like the series as do a lot of StudioFOW members. I think the sex was done tastefully by Casey [Hudson] and the team, they obviously had to cut the risque bits to avoid the publisher's wrath but we have no such concerns so we're going all out with the sex in Subverse. We do poke a bit of fun at Mass Effect due to the ending of ME3, but Subverse makes fun of pretty much every gaming controversy of the past 15 years so we're not trying to bully anybody specifically."

In the Kickstarter pitch video for Subverse, the voiceover begins with "From the studio that was banned from Patreon...", before describing the reason why, which is a werewolf performing a sexual act on a woman. I ask about the background behind the Patreon ban, which was communicated to backers in late 2018. "Patreon's ironically named 'Trust and Safety Team' seems to have a problem with werewolves," says DC. "Apparently 3D pornography featuring werewolves is totally against Patreon's newly updated terms of service, so our comedy movie 'Mila Red Riding Hood' landed us in hot water with them." Patreon's policy on nudity has a separate paragraph on pornography, which is not allowed on the platform. 

I reached out to Patreon to ask for a response to DC's claim above, and it provided this statement. "StudioFOW was removed for violating our Community Guidelines as we don't allow glorification of sexual violence, including bestiality."

With StudioFOW's film background, I'm curious about its team's collective experience making games. "We've been making 3D movies since 2014 and have been quite successful with those. We've also made a few small interactive titles within our core team that have been big hits on Newgrounds. 'Queen of the Jungle' for example has over 7 million views. But we were lacking serious programming know-how in the team so we added some developers with Unreal 4 experience, and started working on Subverse late last year. The developers would prefer to remain anonymous for now so I can't cite their prior portfolios at this time." The profiles of the team on the Kickstarter page, rife with pseudonyms, make for interesting reading. As do the FAQs, for that matter ("Can I get my desired waifu pregnant?"). 

I'm keen to know more about the tactical element of Subverse, since that's the kind of system I've seen imitated a lot, but rarely done that well. "It's not really similar to X-Com, it's a much more simplistic combat system," DC says. "For example, we have no cover or overwatch mechanics. It's much more fast paced, despite being turn-based. A typical mission in Subverse takes around 3-5 minutes tops to complete, and in X-Com for example it can take upwards of 30+ minutes. It's still challenging to build however, because we're learning as we go. It's only our first game so we're trying to not overcomplicate things too much when it comes to combat."

I ask how the different components of the game are connected. "Your waifus can be used in both Shmup and tactical portions of the game. Their overall level determines their combat effectiveness in both portions, and it also determines how loyal they are to your cause. It's all tied together rather nicely, and the great thing about our game is that when you level up you not only get some standard RPG stat increases but also a talent point to spend on a love scene of your choice. The stats also don't get too complex, there's just enough under the hood to keep things ticking along nicely without bogging the player down."

The tone of the Kickstarter page says a lot about who the game is aimed at

The Kickstarter campaign shied away from expensive physical rewards—instead focusing on adding elements like an extra 'waifu', animations, and a digital manga. "We were extremely conservative with our stretch goals, only adding features that we were 100% sure were scalable. We even stopped adding stretch goals after a certain point altogether, but the pledges kept rolling in despite there being no more rewards. I think people appreciated our conservative approach to the campaign."

The tone of the Kickstarter page says a lot about who the game is aimed at, and I won't pretend I didn't raise an eyebrow a few times while reading it. Even knowing it's deliberately outlining itself as a comedy sex game, I ask how much the developers think about taste, tone or how they portray sexuality, which doesn't get a particularly satisfying response. "For me it's all about just having fun. Life is short, so you might as well bang some alien babes before you get put six feet under."

Selling on Steam

I'm interested to know what kind of content restrictions developers of games like this have to be aware of, since the game is planned for a Steam release. "We want to avoid the super extreme fetishes and darker themes, as they don't mesh with our creative vision for Subverse. It's a very satirical and lighthearted game so we have to maintain that tone with the sex as well." DC is pretty confident the game's audience is "around 90% men and 10% women, based on prior statistics from our website, analytics and surveys." That's pretty self-evident from the Kickstarter page. 

I ask DC if he thinks it's important games like Subverse are sold on Steam—it's listed as 'adult only' when you visit the game's page. "I think Steam and Valve need to be commended more for their open approach to their storefront. In contrast, GOG love to champion themselves on social media as gamer-friendly and paragons of free speech, but they wouldn't even return our emails." GOG responded to that with this statement. "Unfortunately, we haven’t found a single email coming from FOW Interactive, be it on our publicly shared inboxes or Bizdev people personal ones. We’re going to check with whom the devs were trying to contact, to understand what happened."

"Meanwhile we've had zero problems with Valve even when we used their Source Engine for some of our previous movies. Sure there is a lot of shovelware on Steam as a result of the 'anything-goes' policy but there are filters and tools in place for consumers to make informed decisions on what they are buying." 

Compared to the range of other porn games that are out there, I ask DC what he thinks sets Subverse apart. "We have a space station shaped like a giant butt. And also, an alien with six testicles." Now that I think about it, I've never played a game with those things on PC. 

Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.