February 20, 2024

12 min

Video Game History

Juan Jimenez

Marketing Manager

Ukraine: A Story of Game Development, War, and its Social Impact (Part One)

Remember when a gentleman going by the name of Solid Snake said that war had changed?

Sadly, it has not changed that much. If at all.

In the morning of February 24, 2022, what was— up to that point — only in the mind of geopolitical analysts and in the halls of government buildings across Europe became a dire reality

Russia’s armed forces, commanded from afar by President Vladimir Putin, invaded Ukraine.

The reasons for such behaviour would merit an entire post and, as prime experts in the video game industry, we probably wouldn’t get those right.

But what we can, fortunately, get right —almost to a fault — is the unexpected, terrible impact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is currently having on our medium.

Because, whether you were aware of it or not… Ukraine is of paramount importance when it comes to gaming.

Humble, but loyal

To the uninitiated, Kyiv may seem like a typical Eastern European capital. But it became the cradle of Ukrainian video game efforts since 1993 and has grown steadily ever since | Source: ABC

Ukraine’s history as a video game haven began in 1993, when Dmitri Prokopov, Andriy Desczuk, and Victor Silecs foundedMeridian’93. And the first official Ukrainian game developers already had some ideas on their minds.

Namely, Admiral: Sea Battles (1996).

Admiral: Sea Battles was a turn-based strategy game based on naval warfare and combat during the mythical Age of Sail. Across eighteen missions, players explored, fought, and built forts and ports in what would be seen as a precursor to games like Sid Meier’s Pirates (2004).

Even though the initial reception of the game’s development was lukewarm at best, it developed enough of a buzz to be seen by German-Austrian media titan Koch Media. After a successful meeting at Hamburg, not only did Koch Media decide to run their own game label — Deep Silver — but they would become Meridian’93’s publisher in both Western Europe and America.

Including, of course, Admiral.

Even though Meridian’93 would not grow enough to gain the world’s admiration, their developers and employees would. Programmers and designers of Meridian’93’s earlier games would become part of Creative Assembly and SEGA, giving new blood and ideas to titles like Medieval II: Total War (2006).

Suddenly, it became clear that Ukrainians weren’t joking. With the founding of GSC Game World in 1996 by Sergiy Grygorovych, not only did Ukraine end up being a powerhouse:

Grygorovych himself became a millionaire before 25.

Best known by their hugely successful,epic-in-scale Cossacks strategy series (ongoing since 2001) and their sleeper hit, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), GSC Game World was the prime school for several junior developers and designers.

Under Grygorovych’s direction and production duties, GSC entered a massive spree that included Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars (2005) and its expansion, Cossacks II: Battle for Europe (2006).

GSC also added the well-received follow-ups to Shadow of Chernobyl, the standalone expansion S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky (2008), and a would-be sequel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat (2009).

Inspired by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novella, Roadside Picnic (1972), as well as Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979) and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl ended up being the epitome of Ukrainian game development for many years | Source:PCGamesN

Thanks to such steady hits, GSC was able to grow exponentially in a very short time. By 2010, when the studio officially announced S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, it was home to nearly 200 employees.

But then, in what would become a tradition for the Ukrainian game scene, ambitions got severely hit by reality.

As GSC’s mammoth-like size overwhelmed its financial stability, Sergiy Grygorovych was forced to dissolve the company by December 2011, barely one month before S.T.A.L.K.E.R.2’s planned release year.

Ukraine’s prodigal sons ended up parting ways.

Three months later, in March 2012, former GSC employees — including Oleg Yavorsky, GSC’s PR manager and its most ardent speaker — founded Vostok Games. The company would go to develop Survarium (in early access since 2015),a hybrid game of FPS and survival horror that has since found a cult-like status among gamers in Eastern Europe.

Four years later, Vostok Games would release Fear the Wolves (2019), a competitive, Battle Royale FPS that continued GSC’s overall commitment to post-apocalyptic, Chernobyl-based imagery and gameplay.

Years before, in 2000, Frogwares — founded by French expatriates and developers with dual headquarters at Kyiv and Dublin —began a pretty decent career with their Sherlock Holmes video game adaptations.

Particularly, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (2014), Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter(2016), and Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One(2021) have been well received, with most video game publications concluding they are remarkable games — as mired by bugs as they could, they still happen to be excellent detective games and pretty deserving of the ultimate sleuth’s reputation.

Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction novels and novellas, Frogwares also released The Sinking City (2019). While sharing the studios’ former pedigree with literary adaptations — and even getting some superb reviews along the way— The Sinking City ended up being embroiled in a much publicised and scrutinised legal battle with Nacon, Frogwares’ most stalwart publisher.

But if we search for the true pinnacle of Ukrainian video game design, we will need to bring up a studio that, coincidentally, resumes the country’s difficult history within the region — and predicted, somehow, its current geopolitical situation.

An exodus in the making

Even though Metro 2033 (2010, later remade in 2014 as part of the Metro Redux collection) was based in Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky's work, it still honours the Ukrainian developers' fascination with bleak, survival-based narratives that began with Shadow of Chernobyl

As with many other studios, 4A Games’ birth was a direct result of GSC Game World’s implosion. Conceived by former GSC developers Andrew Prokhorov, Alexander Maximchuk, and Oles Shyshkovtsov, 4AGames started operations in Kyiv in 2006.

In what could be seen as either a very S.T.A.L.K.E.R-inspired move — or a culturally congruent one — their first game would be based on a Russian science-fiction work: Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro2033 (2002).

According to most sources, Glukhovsky chose 4AGames to adapt his novel due to its founders’ former experience in S.T.A.L.K.E.R, as well as their location and common cultural background in Eastern Europe.

The game would be first announced in 2006 and, following a creatively successful development, the novel’s homonym game, Metro 2033 (2010), was published by THQto overall acclaim. With almost 1.5 million copies sold by June 2012 — even considering THQ’s near-zero effort marketing the game or funding 4A — the grounds for a sequel, and even a media franchise, were laid.

Unfortunately, such success colluded with THQ’s bankruptcy filing barely six months later, in December 2012.

The Metro 2033 sequel, and 4A Games, would need a new publisher.

Luckily, an old Ukrainian business ally came to the mix.

After THQ’s bankruptcy, all of its propertiesand franchises went up for auction in January 2013. Koch Media, familiar as they were with 4A Games’ pedigree and their employees’ past work in S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky, answered the call.

As a result, Koch Media acquired the Metro franchise rights for nearly $6 million.

Metro:Last Light (2013) would be published five months later, in May 2013, to riveting reviews. Acknowledging that 4A Games fixed nearly all bugs and tepid design choices that stopped Metro 2033 on the tracks of becoming a true classic, game press and critics unanimously concluded that the latter was a step in the right direction.

And indeed it was. Such accumulation of success by Ukrainian-based studios brought a lot of attention to the Kyiv game scene, years before the Metro series made a name out of itself.

Established in 2008, Ubisoft Kyiv became one of the French entertainment giant’s largest subsidiaries. And for all the right reasons: Ubisoft’s Ukrainian headquarters single-handedly ported to PC most of the Assassin’s Creed yearly outings since Assassin’s Creed II (2009).

German developer Crytek would also open a Kyiv subsidiary in 2006. Crytek Kyiv, as it was named, eventually would go to develop the popular multiplayer FPS Warface(2013), doing so up to the studio’s split in February 2019.

With such an impressive resumé, and global support at their side, who could stop the new kids in European game development?

As it turns out, the war did.

War never changes

In a region that has seen civil wars, coups d'état and changes in nomenclature as commonplace occurrences, Russia's invasion of Crimea was not particularly surprising. The destabilization that followed, however, left dents on Ukraine's sprawling video game scene | Source: The Daily Beast

Russia’s current presence in Ukrainian territory is not exactly its first rodeo.

In the former Eastern bloc countries, Russia’s shadow still looms long and dark. To Western countries, it becomes easy to forget that, not a long time ago, Ukraine and their neighbours were part of the Soviet Union — a fact that engraved itself not only into their politics but into their culture as well.

And, as we saw before, not only Chernobyl’s memories and significance had painted a picture where it was incredibly difficult to feel safe for long in a single place. The most damaging nuclear disaster in human history also shaped an entire country’s taste and preferences when it came to stories and narratives.

Now, bear in mind that we mention a time way before Jason Schreier diagnosed, in Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Game Industry (2021), that jobs in the video game industry tended to be more mobile than expected and to dramatically change in lifespan.

Back then, things were a little more stable. Particularly when considering that Ukraine’s video game industry was experiencing a veritable boom in trust and income.

But then, two historic events happened at the same time.

The first of those was the Euromaidan, or Revolution of Dignity. Occurring between November 2013 and February 2014, it involved a massive wave of demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine’s larger cities and town centres.

The cause? Then-incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden rejection of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, favouring closer ties with Russia.

Purportedly as a way of supporting Donetsk and Luhansk’s validity in their separatist claims, Russia invaded Ukraine’s eastern borders and annexed part of Crimea to their territory. Such events ended up being widely seen as a rebuttal over the Euromaidan and Yanukovych’s recent oust.

Suddenly, Ukraine was not a country stable enough to do business.

And video game companies like 4A Games knew.

Initially, 4A Games’ opening of their new headquarters in Malta was reported as a move to “better compete in the international stage”, according to a 2014 Gamesindustry.biz article. Given the recent turn of events in their home country, it was perfectly doable that other reasons had weighed on their decision as well.

And they were not the only ones.

In a 2014 article by Polygon, several reports traced to anonymous video game developers and designers spoke entire pages about the level of uncertainty and difficulties the Russian invasion brought unto their careers and job progressions.

Furthermore, and in a move that would end up being foreshadowing current events, Belarus-based, World of Tanks (2010) and World of Warships (2015) creator Wargaming considered evacuating their Ukrainian employees to their headquarters in Minsk and Cyprus.

Would that be the end of Ukrainian game development as seen?

Meet us in two weeks to get the answer — as well as an article that will deepen on the current Ukrainian crisis and, hopefully, how can we help and support our fellow brethren during such hard times.

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