Ukrainian Game Developers Persevere – IGN
Around four in the morning on February 24, 2022, Alex Molodkin was hard at work in his Kyiv apartment. The Steam Next Festival was in full swing, and Molodkin was participating with a free demo of the cozy puzzle adventure he was developing with his partner, Puzzles for Clef. His family was asleep. It was a normal night for Molodkin, until the war began.
“I was just working on our game because I often work late into the night,” Molodkin says. “Everyone else was sleeping and I hear some distant explosions. Didn’t need much time to realize what’s happening. So I just had to wake everyone up and deliver the awesome news.”
Molodkin woke his family and the group moved into the hallway of the apartment, bringing necessary belongings. And that’s where Molodkin has been, for the most part, since February – sleeping in shifts with his partner to keep an eye on the news or any threats that might require them to react. He considered evacuating with his family, but with a family of four and no car, it’s a logistical nightmare. Plus, as Molodkin puts it, it’s a matter of principle. “When some bad guys show up in your country, you don’t want to run the moment they show up. You want to stay put for as long as possible.”
Molodkin’s story is a familiar reality for a number of game developers from all across Ukraine, who found their lives upended unexpectedly when Russia attacked their country in late February. The invasion is still ongoing over two months later, and has resulted in (at time of writing) the deaths of over 3,000 Ukrainian civilians and the displacement of over 5.5 million.
IGN spoke to five developers and two gaming event organizers from the country about their experiences over the last several months. All of them told us that there had always been concerns about Russia’s escalating aggression since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, and some had even made preparations in case things took a turn for the worse. But they hadn’t expected a full-scale invasion to tear their lives apart overnight.
Russia’s attack occurred as Ukrainians in the games industry were in the midst of extremely normal activities: testing new builds, plotting out levels, planning events, making budgets, hashing out publishing deals, spending time with their families, and living their lives. Now, they’re trying to get back to those same activities, but with a new motivation: a hope that by keeping the Ukrainian games industry alive, they can bring funding, awareness, and support to the country they call home.
Games Development in – and for – Ukraine
Alexey Menshikov, CEO of Ukrainian VR, porting, and publishing studio Beatshapers, was in the US for the annual DICE Summit in Las Vegas when Russia invaded his country. When he saw the news, he was in shock, unable to do much beyond scramble to get help to his 35 employees back in Kyiv. He managed to get the word out to his team to evacuate, and some did, moving to Western Ukraine amid massive traffic jams. Others didn’t want to go. Menshikov tells me his lead engineer refused to leave Kyiv, even though bombs were falling nearby, because he didn’t want to leave his cats behind.
For the first two weeks, he said, no one got any work done at all, even after those who wanted to evacuate had done so. How could they, when their homes were being destroyed, their loved ones in danger?
But Menshikov says by the third week, something had to change.
“You feel like you’re stuck watching the news,” he says. “And it’s bad for your head … So after two weeks I stopped, I started filtering the news sources … And I told the team, ‘Hey guys, you have to filter what you do. And let’s focus on work because this is what you can do the best … so after three weeks, we got back to work. The country needs money coming in.”
Frogwares, the Ukrainian studio behind games like the Sherlock Holmes series and The Sinking City, had an even bigger challenge, with a staff of nearly 100 remote workers scattered across Ukraine. Communications manager Sergey Oganeyan tells us that Frogwares set up dedicated Discord channels to gather information on where its members were and to help them share information to get those evacuating out of the country.
Now that its entire team is safe and accounted for, some are working on a smaller project that Oganeyan describes as “doable and manageable given the current circumstances” to help keep the studio moving forward. But others are choosing to contribute in other ways, such as volunteering to fight if they had previous military experience or working full-time to provide humanitarian aid, and Frogwares is giving them the time off and enthusiastic support to do so.
“We’ve had people who had to flee from cities that have now been nearly decimated,” Oganeyan says. “Others have lost their homes. We know people on the team that have lost friends and relatives. We’ve been living under the sound of air raid sirens and hiding in bunkers for months now so everything is just one big blur. And then there is the barrage of news coming in.
“It has brought a lot of the country together. The world – and to be honest some of us – didn’t think we’d hold out this long and fight back so well. Once we all saw there is a chance to actually win this, it galvanized so many of us to actually stand up and fight back however we could. There is a collective belief in the future of this country that hasn’t been felt for quite some time in my opinion.”
That desire to do whatever they could – military action, aid, or working hard to bring money into the country – was universally expressed across all the developers I spoke to. All of them went through a similar period of shock and horror, staring at their news feed, trying to process what was happening to their home. But eventually, they realized that level of hyperawareness — what some might call “doomscrolling” — was neither sustainable nor actively helpful. Many returned to making games, believing that bringing revenue to their Ukrainian companies and paying taxes on that revenue was the best way to support their nation.
Of course, they’re still working in the midst of a war. Many of the people we spoke to are either located in Kyiv, or have team members still there – either by choice because they didn’t want to leave families or homes, or because of martial law requiring most men between the ages of 18 and 60 to remain in case they are required to fight.
Vladimir Kozinyi, CEO of Desperate: Vladivostok and Redemption of the Damned creator MiroWin studio, describes what it’s been like for him and his team members who have remained in Ukraine.
“Several times a day an air alarm is activated, we hide in bomb shelters – metro stations, house basements, car parkings and other places,” he says. “Due to the curfew, we are limited in our ability to be on the street, pharmacies and grocery stores are open less hours, [and] it is now not so easy to find the right medicine or get essential groceries. Missiles, military planes are flying over us. Someone sees the explosions with their own eyes. This is a nightmare and horror.”
At the time we conducted our interviews, those we spoke to in Kyiv said that the city had become somewhat safer than at the start of the invasion, and many were able to return to their homes. But as Digital Dreams CEO Maxim Novikov explains, the war is still very much ongoing around them. When Russia invaded, Novikov was in Spain on vacation, celebrating his wife’s birthday, and he’s been stuck there since. His 15 team members working on Mutant Football League 2 are still in Kyiv, where they’re becoming so accustomed to the kind of chaos Kozinyi and others have described that they no longer react to it.
“We had guys who were sharing the time between helping the war efforts and doing some work, and they had all the sirens and they had all the explosions, and you may sit on a meeting with them and you hear the explosions,” he says. “And they’re like, ‘Let’s continue, let’s do some work.’ So it really affected us.”
Games Gatherings Under Bombs
As Ukrainian developers adapted to their new situation while making games to support their country, another group of industry professionals were pivoting their own endeavors. Elena Lobova, co-founder of GDBAY and one of the organizers of game jam Hyper Casual Jam Com, had been prepared ahead of time, believing that something might happen to disrupt their planned late-February online event. The team, entirely based in Ukraine, was bracing for possible disruptions to power stations or the internet, and made arrangements for Lobova to fly to Bratislava so she could manage Hyper Casual Jam Com from there if things went poorly. But no one, Lobova says, expected a full-scale war.
Lobova was still in Kyiv when Russia invaded, and has shared her own experiences of that night elsewhere. She managed to depart the country safely after almost five days of driving, but many of her friends and colleagues remained, and Lobova directed her team to postpone Hyper Casual Jam Com. “I didn’t want to force people to work during the war.”
But, she says, her team members insisted on moving forward with the event. “I think my team is a team of heroes for making it happen,” she says.
“On one hand work is somehow distracting, because especially during the first days when I got to safety were either work or constantly checking the news,” she says. “It’s nice to have other problems besides being worried for your family and friends … Having a few hours per day when you’re thinking about something else really helps. Of course we didn’t ask much from each other and from ourselves.”
Lobova wasn’t the only Ukrainian event organizer putting together games events during an invasion. Alongside all the other concerns about finding safety and checking in on loved ones, director of business development for Ukraine-based games conference Games Gathering Irina Syomka also had to confront that her organization’s planned July conference in Odessa was not going to happen. But even without Games Gathering, Syomka knew there was something she could do for Ukraine. She and her colleagues pivoted, quickly putting together a free, digital charity event called Games Gathering: Game Dev Under Bombs.
Syomka says the event wasn’t just to raise money for Ukrainian aid. She also wanted to raise global awareness of what was really going on in Ukraine by inviting Ukrainian developers to share stories of their experiences living in wartime thus far. The goal was to reach industry colleagues around the world who might empathize with the Ukrainian situation, but who may not fully realize the impact it was having on the everyday lives of people they regularly met, spoke to, drank with, and befriended at gaming events and online.
“When you are listening to them, they are joking, locked in, and trying not to [speak depressingly], but they are [depressed],” Syomka says. “Not all the people who we ask to share their stories committed because some of them are really hurting … When you are listening to all the stories, I totally understand that it sounds far, far away … you can close your laptops, switch off TV and continue to live your own life. But when it’s happening so close and with your close friends … everything hurts, and there are a lot of stories that will live with us forever I think.”
Silent Neighbors, Former Friends
Understandably, none of the people we spoke to could say with any certainty what would come next for them as individuals, their studios, or for Ukraine. Those away from home have no idea when they’ll be able to safely return, and those still in Ukraine don’t know if they’ll be able to finish their projects and rebuild their lives, or be called to fight or evacuate the next day. Novikov says that he and Digital Dreams are just taking it day by day, trying to work to support their families, relatives, and country.
“We want to go back to our plans,” he says. “We want to go back to our dreams. We want to just live a normal life like before.”
Kozinyi notes that for MiroWin, there’s been a direct business impact – a number of clients are afraid of entering into a business relationship with companies in a country where military action is ongoing. That said, he adds that others have reached out with previously unavailable opportunities in an effort to support Ukraine specifically, and those relationships have allowed MiroWin to keep some semblance of normalcy in its workflow throughout the war.
One particular frustration and sorrow a number of those we spoke to had was the way the invasion had eroded relationships with their Russian colleagues, or even outright ended partnerships that were previously positive. Menshikov, for instance, had a collaborative project in the works with a Russian team; they had to pull the plug due to the war.
As Molodkin points out, Eastern European developers have historically been quite close – attending the same conferences, often working together on the same projects. But, he continues, the war has broken up many of those communities because “everyone has very different problems now.” Even if most Ukrainians don’t blame individual Russian citizens for the situation, there’s now quite a bit of tension within game development communities, Molodkin says, and no one knows how to talk to one another. Some groups have outright banned political discussion to avoid the issue, but that can cause problems of its own.
“Obviously, Ukrainians don’t really appreciate that kind of attitude because it’s not like we want to talk 24/7 about it, but sometimes it’s hard not to talk about it,” he says. “So being shut down by our fellow colleagues, even if they’re from different countries, is not really appreciated. And, well, that will definitely impact our international relationships with those countries.”
Others, like Syomka, say that it’s frustrating seeing Russian colleagues they had previous connections with — going out for drinks, talking, and becoming close friends through industry events — refuse to speak out against the actions of their government. Syomka says that she has urged those who reached out to check in on her to share information about the situation in Ukraine with their industry colleagues and friends, but none did so. Though she acknowledges that Russian censorship and the high punishment levied against those who speak out against the war is likely the reason, Syomka says the silence is still hurtful when you’re watching your people die in front of you.
“Some of them asked me, ‘How are you?’ or ‘How do you feel?’ I’ve answered it: bad,” she says. “Everything in my life is ruined and everything is ruined. And I left. I don’t have a job. I don’t have my home. I don’t have money. What do you expect to hear from me?”
Rethinking Violent Games
Another potentially long-term shift that’s occurred for a number of Ukrainian game developers is in the kinds of games they want to make. Menshikov says that the war has caused him to reflect on the Ukrainian games industry overall, and the kinds of games that tend to represent it. Beatshapers is currently working on an unannounced action-adventure title (he compares it to Tomb Raider or Uncharted), but games like that, he says, are a bit of a rarity from Ukrainian studios.
“In Ukraine, if you take the top titles: Warface, Stalker, projects for Wargaming – they’re all shooters,” he says. “I came from shooters back in the day, the companies I worked at before. I just realized it’s a lot of violent games. I’m okay with violence, because it’s real, but we probably can do something else. So we were thinking our next project will be different.”
He’s not the only one. Molodkin, who was already working on a non-violent game, says that while the goals and tone of Puzzles for Clef haven’t changed, his perspective on why it’s important has been reaffirmed. Oganeyan says that Ukraine’s situation has already been impacting Frogwares games since the 2014 revolution.
“The team has said in the past that a big theme around The Sinking City was an expression of insignificance and loss of control which they themselves felt,” he says. “As for how the current war will influence us, I can’t really speak for everyone, but I would think this entire experience isn’t something that any one of us will easily forget or walk away from unchanged. So whether our future games will talk about these things openly or not, what is certain is that a lot of this hurt and pain will come through one way or another in the stories we write.”
And Novikov, who’s working on Mutant Football League 2, has felt both affirmed in the kind of game Digital Dreams is already making, but also motivated to take that a step further.
“After a while, you’re so bummed with all of the negative things that you hear, that you have no energy to do anything,” he says. “All you want to do is lay down and hope that it is going to end soon. And some people started to cheer up other guys. They were like, ‘It’s all bad, but it is going to be better. Let’s do some fun things. Let’s make some jokes about the war.’ And it actually helps people to get to normal … And even though [Mutant Football League] is silly, it can help people to find an emotional shelter.
“… If you want to go to war, a lot of games are very realistic. Please use them. But [war] should not be in real life, ever. People who used to make war games, they are saying they can’t do war games anymore. This is where our silly game is actually a big plus because we can still do it, but even for our game where violence was an important component, we actually are reconsidering the violence.”
An Uncertain Future
For now, the developers and organizers we spoke with are all safe, though many are still in situations that could change at any moment – or have colleagues for whom that’s true.
Many expressed gratitude for the support they had already received from the wider industry. Lobova recalls that when Russia first invaded, she was overwhelmed with messages of support and offers of aid – too many for her organization to use. She was able to put together multiple forms to help connect those offering help with other Ukrainians in need. While Lobova and her entire team are secure for now, she says the reality for her and everyone she knows is nonetheless a grim one.
“I’m not sure if people really understand that it’s serious,” she says. “This is happening … I just today talked with my friend from Mariupol … I was really worried, and she just texted me back and said she was safe and she was able to safely evacuate from the city. She said, ‘Everything is fine. We found almost all our relatives.’ That’s considered to be good … We don’t know if our close people are alive or not, and there is no possibility to find out … I just wanted to say that almost every Ukrainian now has someone he or she knows who is not answering the phone and they don’t know if they are alive or not. That’s the reality.”
Beatshapers has 20 people still working in Ukraine, and is working to get those who made it outside of the country to Canada, where the company may open a new studio. It’s also trying to spin up a lot of different projects at once so it has backup plans if something goes awry. It received an Epic MegaGrant to support the company and help it buy equipment as it relocates and rebuilds.
Frogwares has also received an Epic MegaGrant, according to Oganeyan, who also says that the overall outpouring of support on social media has been extremely helpful, and the team is grateful. He asks that those interested in offering further support consider donating to one of the organizations recommended by the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, or taking other actions suggested by the organization. “When going through something as horrible as war, it helps to see that the world has not forgotten about you.”
“The future of our company is heavily tied to the outcome of the war,” he says. “Every one of us wants to live and therefore work in a free and independent Ukraine. This is our home and where our lives are. Whatever happens to us as a company is very dependent on what happens to us as a nation. Many people have asked us: do we plan to relocate to another country? But that is really easier said than done. You will never be able to convince 90+ people to abandon their homes, lives, and family for what in the end is just a job.”
All of the developers and organizers we spoke to had similar thoughts on how the wider games community can support not just Ukraine, but specifically its games industry. Donating to organizations confirmed to be doing on-the-ground work in Ukraine, and spreading information on what’s happening in the country from reputable news sources were top mentions amongst our sources. Oganeyan asks that games communities be patient with Ukrainian studios if updates or bug fixes seem slow, given the volatile situation. And several of those we spoke to mentioned that purchasing games from Ukrainian game developers is a simple but meaningful way to support their industry.
Following our initial interview, Syomka informs us that her Game Dev Under Bombs event had raised over $50k for Ukrainian aid, and is still both taking further donations as well as posting new talks from new speakers. “Everything you do to help Ukraine is enough if you do,” she says.
Back in Molodkin’s apartment, he and his partner plan to remain in Kyiv, and are committed to staying in their home unless there’s damage to their building or a direct threat that forces them to leave. Even if they have to leave Kyiv, he says, they don’t want to leave Ukraine. That said, he says that publisher Freedom Games has been very supportive, and has offered to help them relocate if they need to. It’s comforting to have the option, he says, even if they don’t take it. “Maybe we aren’t some kind of super patriotic people, but we’ve always loved it here,” he says.
For more information on the crisis and ways to offer support, please visit IGN’s guide on how to help Ukrainian civilians here.