February 20, 2024

3 min


Juan Jimenez

Marketing Manager

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

Peace, or not?


To the surprise of many, the ghosts of Euromaidan and the Russian invasion of the Donbas in 2014 did well to shield the Ukrainian video game industry.


Strategic moves such as 4A Games' relocationof its headquarters — from Kyiv to Malta — coupled with the invasion of theDonbas being a short-lived, regional affair meant that by the second half of2014, the games and technology industry had almost fully recovered.


Once the dust of war settled, Kyiv returned tobusiness as usual. 4A Games stepped on the gas to complete the development ofMetro Redux — the remastering of Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light for PC and eighth-generation consoles — in August 2014.


A little over half a year later, Vostok Games would publish Survarium (2015) in early access. A faithful example of the common place narrative of Ukrainian game development, Survarium was developed partially in response to the cancellation of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 and the closure of GSC Game World four years earlier.


Although the game was not part of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.series, Survarium inspired itself in it with first-person shooter gameplay that blended role-playing and survival elements for the definitive post-apocalypticexperience.


Based on the Strugatsky brothers' novel Roadside Picnic (1972), Survarium took place in 2026. The story's setting was decidedly bleak: 90% of the human race lost to a natural disaster.


The remains of humanity banded together infactions that, with varying degrees of success, weathered the apocalypse and backed Survarium's pretensions of becoming a proto-MMORPG action game.


However, not everything during these times was peaceful. Nor was it without controversy.


Founded by Eugene Kim in mid-2014, West Games did intend to pick up the baton of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. saga without question. Formed by former GSC employees, West Games hit the ground running by opening a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their first game, Areal.


Areal quickly sold itself as the spiritual successor to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., showing concept art, designs and what appeared to be an alpha build of the game on its Kickstarter page. It all looked very neat and professional, worthy of a studio made up of GSC vets from its glory days.


Those veterans did not hold the copyright of GSC's almost mythical saga.


What followed, lacking a more elegant explanation, was a PR and lawsuit massacre.


Vostok Games, 4A Games, and Misery Development Ltd — a team of modders of the original games — immediately alleged the illegality of West Games' claim, making increasingly heated denunciations andexchanges on public opinion and websites.


They even went further: declaring themselves, of their own accord, the actual heirs of GSC and its renowned intellectual property. With no one to deny or disprove them.


No one, save for Sergiy Grygorovych.


To this date, no one knows what happened. Grygorovych withdrew from the public eye following the original GSC shut down, becoming increasingly recluse and stating that he wanted to retreat from the gaming industry to try new things.


But, as he was still the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.series’ copyright owner, all allegations of continuing the saga would have to count on his approval. Presumably, West Games’ intentions didn’t.


Although West Games completed its funding round for Areal with relative success, the project was suspended by Kickstarter shortly afterwards. Claiming that West Games broke the website’s rulesregarding funding campaigns, Kickstarter left the studio with no other optionthan direct funding through their own website.


Currently, we do not have additional info onthe project’s continuity.


Presumably busy with their projects — andrecalling the legal action Grygorovych took in 2011 against a team of Russiandevelopers who intended to make an MMORPG based on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. — Vostok and4A Games also shelved the matter.


And Grygorovych?


His brother, Evgeniy, ended up re-founding GSCGame World in Q4 2014 and became its CEO. Not to revive the saga that launchedthe studio to legendary status, but to develop Cossacks 3 (2015), a 3D remakeof the original Cossacks: European Wars.


The eventual announcement of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2:Heart of Chornobyl would happen four years later, in 2018. The game has atentative 2023 release date, developed in Unreal Engine 5.

An emerging idiosyncrasy


From 2014's second half onwards, the videogame industry in Ukraine started to diversify and escape the dystopian cliché.Spurred by foreign investment and the emergence of new gameplay paradigms,newly founded and established studios began approaching novel ideas.


This fact led to the expansion andstrengthening of Ukraine as a true powerhouse of video game development inEurope and the world.


On the local front, Ukrainian developersgained considerable tracking for an unusual genre: casual games. Studios suchas Zadzen, Murka, Absolutist and Mokus Games began to make a splash with modestsuccesses in app shops.



With games like Elements: Epic Heroes (Zadzen,2014), Towers: Relaxing Puzzle (JOX Development, 2021), and Room8 Studio making casual games inspired by Family Guy, Independence Day, Kubo and Power Rangers, Ukrainian developers' taste for the post-apocalyptic seemed to fade for a while.


We should clarify that this market already hada significant international presence in Ukraine. Attracted by low developmentcosts and human talent, a few world-renowned casual and mobile game developershad already opened offices in the country.


Although they had already opened an office inKyiv in 2007, by the end of 2018, Gameloft's Ukrainian headquarters already hadmore than 400 employees. Between 2010 and 2012, Israeli gaming start-upPlaytika already had three locations in Kyiv, Dnipro and Vinnytsia. By 2019,the company had 920 employees among its ranks — almost three times as many asSamsung's Ukraine branch.


Continuing the trend, in 2011, gamblingsoftware company Playtech opened an office in Kyiv. With roughly 700 employeesby 2021, Playtech Ukraine expanded to be one of the most prominent offices ofthe studio worldwide.


In 2014, Israeli developer Plarium opened a branch in Kharkiv. With around 70 employees, this branch would be one that would bring crucial contributions to Vikings: War of Clans (2015) and Plarium's flagship game, RAID: Shadow Legends (2019).


Belarus-based developer Wargaming also forgedin fluential ties with the Ukrainian game development scene. In 2011, Wargamingbought the casual gaming studio Persha Studia, turning it into one of itscentral headquarters for the development cycle of its crown jewel: World of Tanks (2010). Persha would also be central to supporting World of Warplanes(2013) and World of Warships (2015) creation cycles.


All these facts combined painted an unusualpicture for Eastern Bloc countries: Ukraine was becoming one of the largestEuropean game development hubs. Enough to be considered almost neuralgic, withnational and international companies employing roughly 20,000 people andsupplying an audience of nearly 700 million gamers.


To many, this move made a lot of sense.Ukraine’s IT workforce was well on its way to 200,000 workers by 2020, makingit the fourth largest IT force on Earth — just behind the United States, India,and Russia. The overall lower cost of living in Ukrainian urban centres,combined with an exceptionally well-skilled labour force, made the country anIT development haven.


However, this would not last. Two factors played a crucial part in what, while not exactly the end of a golden era, was a momentous nadir in Ukraine's appreciation as the best thing that happened to IT since sliced bread.


Both of these factors were intrinsically related.


If there was one thing that Euromaidan did not change in the slightest, it was the level of corruption in Ukrainian politics. While this is a common scourge in the former Eastern Bloc countries, it has not been as prevalent in other Eastern European countries as in Ukraine.


So much so that, in 2015, The Guardianpublished a dossier calling Ukraine 'the most corrupt country in Europe'. Thearticle, written by Oliver Bullough, painted a country torn in two — survivinga border war with Russia over control of the Donbas and high levels of bribery,extortion and other economic crimes to address.


Neither situation is conducive to the economicstability needed to attract foreign investment.


As early as 2002, risk reports from financialinstitutions and think tanks around the continent indicated that Ukraine'scorruption pandemic would eventually escalate to undermine the country'sinternational perception as a healthy place to do business.


Even so, the IT industry and game developmentmanaged to weather this adversity. Because either most of the corruptionaffected the public sector or the technology industry could cover its costs,the gaming industry remained unscathed for the most part.


The second factor, however, proved moreinescapable.


The history of Eastern European countriestends to be cyclical, and, as the Ukrainians would sadly discover earlier thisyear, the breath of war is never far away.


War is always the same


The Russian escalation of the border war inthe Donbas region to an all-out war was a persistent fear in the minds of allUkrainians. Although the tone and frequency of this fear noticeably decreasedover the years, it was still common.


In February 2022, Vladimir Putin and hisgovernment decided to turn it up to eleven.


While the most plausible explanation for the war is retaliation for Ukraine's threatened NATO membership, a myriad off actors at this point do not allow us to get an accurate picture of what caused this incident.


We are, after all, a gaming blog. A geopolitics blog, we are not.


But the immediate impact this had on theUkrainian gaming industry is quite evident.


Five months have passed since the start of awar that seems to have no end in sight. During this time, video gamedevelopment in Ukraine has seen a range of statuses, varying from working withyour fingernails to living under bunkers watching minutes turn into hours withevery missile or artillery hit.


An estimated eleven million Ukrainians haveevacuated their country, including several developers that relocated toneighbouring countries thanks to their studio employers.


Many others, forced by circumstances or theirown volition to stay inside the country, have moved to rural towns or suburbsoutside urban centres more sensitive to shell attacks.


In the specialised press, we have been able toread some heart-warming and courageous stories over the last few months.Kotaku, Polygon, and GamesRadar have done an accurate and impressive coverageof both groups.


These groups have been quite lucky to see thelight of day.


A third group — those who chose to take uparms and support Ukrainian defence militias — have not been so lucky.


Much of our work involves recruiting andinterviewing candidates from all over Europe. Until not so long ago, Ukrainewas a reliable source of remote work for many of our clients, which naturallybrought us into contact with several of them in our team members' networks.


It is difficult to describe how dishearteningit can be to see reports announcing that people you once connected with, as aresult of the war, are no longer there. Or anywhere.


Sometimes the only thing that gives hope afterseeing reports and news like this is to see how good deeds and collaborationovercome adversity.


In the early months of the war, several gamestudios — both from countries near Ukraine and around the world — decided to dotheir bit to help their neighbours.


For one week at the end of February, 11bitInteractive - acclaimed for their anti-war game This War of Mine - offered aweek's worth of the game's sales to the Ukrainian Red Cross.


Wargaming also donated $1M to the UkrainianRed Cross.


Bungie, meanwhile, donated 100% of sales fromits annual Game2Give charity event to Ukrainian humanitarian organisations.


In March, CD Projekt RED donated $250,000 toPolska Akcja Humanitarna, a non-governmental organisation that works directlywith refugees and people displaced by war.


A few days later, CD Projekt RED decided tostop sales to Russia through its digital game marketplace, GOG.


In the same month, the popular DRM-free digital games marketplace itch.io collaborated with Necrosoft Games to sell a bundle of games in support of the Ukrainian people. The initiative raised $6M.


In parallel to this effort, Humble Bundle raised just over $20M with a similar sale, earmarked for the International Rescue Committee, the International Medical Corps and Direct Relief.


In April, Epic Games jointly raised $144M with Xbox to help humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.


The video game industry worldwide has donated$200M to the Ukrainian cause and counting. In case you are wondering how to help, we are adding some relevant links here:


Ukraine Crisis Media Center


Ukraine Red Cross


Doctors Without Borders


European Game Development Federation | List of national initiatives supporting the Ukrainian game dev community

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