Gaming In The Russian Cosmos, Part 1

By Jim Rossignol on January 5th, 2009 at 11:24 am.


This is a piece about Russia, Ukraine, and the future of PC gaming. It is about creativity, piracy, and thirteen tonnes of software every day.

A version of this article, which is based on my trip to Moscow and KRI last April, appeared in the May edition of PC Gamer UK. I’ve updated and expanded it for RPS, and broken it into two parts for ease of reading. Here’s part two.


Moscow’s Cosmos Hotel is a formidable structure and a startling venue. The huge, curving hi-rise is a classic of 1970s Soviet architecture and would not look out of place on the set of a Bond movie – all concrete, metal and polished wood, surrounded by trodden snow and patrolled by men in long coats. Inside the curves continue with long wood-panelled corridors, which are inhabited exclusively by grim-faced maids. The open foyer and gift shop are all faux-space race credentials (Neon sign reading: “Welcome, Yuri Gagarin Bar!”) and Vegas-like slot machines. There is a sizeable gold-plated mace with matching dagger in the gift-shop.

Stepping out of the Cosmos’ heavy glass doors you’re greeted with the domed rooftops of the national exhibition centre, and a giant constructivist sculpture of a rocket heading for the skies. Miles beyond that, there’s a vast, brutalist television tower, which would not look out of place in City 17. Suddenly Half-Life 2′s Citadel has a real-world cousin, and Russia seems to live up to its legends. This evocative locale is the location for KRI, Russia’s own game developer conference. Most of the games being developed in the former USSR, and the surrounding countries, are being shown here. There could be no better venue.

Into The Cosmos

In many ways it’s a typical games show, with peculiarly-clad ladies (some dressed in silken air-hostess uniforms, others draped in little more than paint) dispensing fliers and mild embarrassment on the show floor. The show is, I suppose, a kind of validation of the size and scale of the Russian games industry as it exists today. There are technology stands, and some game stands, but overall a wealth of companies of all sizes, both global and local. While there are dozens of smaller companies now operating in Russia is is 1c that dominates completely in the publishing arena. Many companies want to have their say on the future direction of the Russian games industry, but the towering yellow wealth of the 1c stand suggests who might really be holding most of the cards.

I wandered around and got to play a few games. Death Track was ludicrous: a kind of brutal rally version of Wipeout, with post-apocalyptic European capital cities and battle-cars decked out with fiery lasers. I sat down to play for several laps, and get flashbacks to the end of the Nineties, when futuristic racers turned up on the shelves every few weeks. I watched the EU exploding in some kind of hybridised version of World Rally Car and Gears Of War. The producer, an elegant young woman from Voronezh, explained to me that gamers like to get feedback from their acts of digital violence. I nodded.

Later, in one of the Cosmos’ darkly panelled hotel rooms, I was to be demoed the ultra-realistic Men Of War, by the ruin-faced lead producer. An intense forty-something man, he explained to me in excruciating detail just how detailed the damage model for the game is, forcing my translator to work double time to articulate his explanation of how armour-piercing rounds travel through buildings and into armoured vehicles. The game blew me away as I blasted buildings, Tiger tanks, and Nazis.

Then there was Captain Blood: a game that lived up to its name with surges of God Of War-alike violence and caricatured ship-to-ship combat. It’s remarkably polished, and ready for the consoles. But I’m unsure if that game will ever hit PC, given its hack ‘n’ slash sensibilities. 1c talked up its Xbox pedigree.

There was also a surprise in the form of hybrid-RPG King’s Bounty. It’s a game comparable to the most recent Heroes Of Might & Magic title, and yet surpassing it on all fronts. The turn-based battles are dominated by vast monsters, while the world-wandering is so vast and intricate that you can even add a wife and child to your inventory. Be careful she doesn’t divorce you – she’ll take half your gold! I marvelled at it, and wondered why we see so few of these kinds of games today: surely they’re our answer to the ultra-stylised Japanese RPGs? Quietly, I noted the game down. I suspected someone back home would probably like this game when it gets an English translation…

The star of this particular show, however, seems to be Cryostasis. It is dark, and weird, and technically proficient. The opening minutes of the game see you stumbling through a raging blizzard to get to the frozen ship inside which most of the game will be played out. The showpiece, however, are the flashbacks into which your character stumbles, deliriously, as you struggle through the game: touch a corpse and you get to relive their final minutes, and play through sections of the game on the ship as it was before it became marooned and haunted in its Arctic grave. A game that plays with memory, distorts time and reality, and makes you care about staying warm. It’s fascinating, and exhilaratingly violent. Cryostasis shows just how aggressive the Russians are being in their reinvention of classic game designs. I can’t wait to see whether the final game actually pulls it off (we hear it doesn’t – RPS RumourBot), perhaps that doesn’t even matter.

Finally leaving the big names behind, I wander into the show floor. There’s the stand with a couple of developers who can’t speak English. Their work is all in Cyrillic Russian, and I have no idea what the name of the game is. They’re demoing something where six-armed mutants are exploding each other with energy pulses. I watch it for a few minutes, and see the various developers unload their enthusiasm onto people who actually share their language. It leaves me intrigued, wondering just what else was awaiting us in Russian studios – the games yet unshared and unannounced by their creators. I had left GDC in San Francisco, earlier in the year, with a similar feeling.

I later learn that these guys are students, desperately trying to sell their first game, which doesn’t even have a name – it’s called something like “our game project 2008”. I wonder if the world will ever see that bizarre little experiment brought to the market. In contemporary Russia, you might expect that it we will.

Thirteen Tonnes

Of course the ex-Soviet countries are as much consumers of these games as they are producers, and their market is still very much based on retail product. This means that the Russian frontier of the games industry isn’t simply faced with problems of development experience, creativity and design, it’s a logistical problem. It is the biggest country in the world, and the distances alone mean that people want to buy software from the shops, because they don’t have, and can’t have, broadband.

Just 142 million people have 17 million square kilometres to live in. (Compare that to 60 million of us in the UK sharing just 245,000 square kilometres). It’s an eight-day train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, where the the King’s Bounty team reside. They couldn’t make it to KRI for that very reason. What’s more it’s a place where publishers need to battle with the problems of distribution and rampant retail piracy. We might get upset about torrent sites and online theft, but up until a few years ago most games sold in Russia were pirate copies sold as packaged products on the street. The cost of broadband meant, for the larger part, it was cheaper to buy pirate product from a vendor. The problem was so bad that pirate companies were reportedly approaching publishers to offer to distribute their games. This has been quite fiercely stamped out by the Russian authorities.

The main company engaged in tackling all this is 1c, which we know for games, but in Russia it sells all kinds of more practical software – Cyrillic-language accounting programs and so forth. 1c ships a staggering thirteen tonnes of software every day, of which 98% is games. In the games arena, 1c are peerless, and republish Miscrosoft and Electronic Arts products, as well as promoting their own homegrown materials. Unlike Western publishers they even run their own software stores, which are a scattered across Moscow and the other large cities of Russia. There are now 280 1c-owned stores, and another 4000 franchises operating with the 1c licence in 600 locations across the former Soviet bloc. It’s a gigantic operation, and one that is making its owners rather wealthy.

These street-level stores, it turns out, are one of the most important ways in which the company are taking on Russia’s key problem: piracy. Gaming in Russia is around 70% PC-based, and so it was relatively easy for pirates to gain the upperhand, selling games for a few roubles in the same subway stalls that people use to buy cigarettes, cans of coke, and pocket-sized bottles of Vodka. 1c knew they had to combat this and their approach was quite brutal. Firstly they launched retail products that were super cheap, to compete with the pirates, and bear them on support and service. And then they lobbied for legislation to help them out.

This side of the coin is a little darker. The pirates were making a lot of money and weren’t likely to be stopped easily. They were mass-producing packaged copies that looked like real games, and were competing directly with the actual, licensed publishers for commercial product. 1C went as high as they could: to President Vladimir Putin himself. The man from the KGB soon realised just what value this burgeoning industry would be to his vast, developing country. The punishment for commercial piracy is now up to seven years in prison. A Russian prison. As disincentives go, it’s a good one.

With 300 people a year now jailed for software theft, piracy is rapidly disappearing quickly in the major cities of Russia. The Russian government have even managed to close some of the major torrent sites, and have published an anti-piracy guide to help retailers avoid getting burned by illegal distributors. It is a tough regime, but the Russian government know that they can’t allow crime to dominate their development: in gaming as much as anywhere else.

As more and more people shopped in the 1c stores, so the Russian publishers have been able to raise their prices back towards what it is in the West. All this has allowed the cost of games to rise, and therefore making gaming in Russia a profitable business at last, as well as a rather more expensive one for consumers. While a pirated game costing £2 might have been your only option in 2000, today games are about £12, and you’ll probably have to get them from a 1c shop.

The Muscovites might only have been revelling in capitalism for twenty years now, but Russia isn’t far behind the rest of us. Much of this, of course, is making the 1c bosses rather wealthy, but it’s also finding the vibrant creative industry that we saw on show at the Cosmos Hotel. KRI was a sign of a staggeringly healthy industry – Russia might be far from taking the US crown as PC game development kings, but the rate at which their sophistication and ambition is increasing blows everyone else out of the DX10 water.

Watch out, world: the Russians are coming for your games industry.

Next time: culture, apocalypse, and the Endless Red Bear.

(Photos by Dan Griliopolous)

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104 Comments »

  1. Feet says:

    13 tonnes a day? Man! That’s alotta tonnes!

    I believe that if Russians devs can spend abit of dev money on translating games to English and making them available for digital download worldwide that they’d quickly become real competitors to the US\EK game dev industry. Hopefully games like Stalker, Crysis and Kings Bounty are the first of many hunderds of games accessable to us Anglos.

  2. pepper says:

    Shame we dont see many of those games appear here in the west.

  3. phil says:

    Seven years in a 21st century gulag seems an appropriate punishment for piracy – discuss.

  4. Jim Rossignol says:

    @Pepper
    On the contrary I think the majority of the good Russian and Eastern European games are now finding deals in the West. We’re very much reaping the benefits of this boom.

  5. Flappybat says:

    I’ll never understand how Russia only seems to make really good or really bad games, they don’t seem to believe in mediocre.

    Shame they aren’t better at embracing Western digital distribution.

  6. Tei says:

    Piracy can be totally anhililated going online. Having a online part that request a valid user, and only allowed this user to be logued (no multiboxing). That, plus distributing the offline part for free.

  7. The Apologist says:

    For King’s Bounty alone I am truly thankful.

    My wife turned back into a frog last night.

  8. Ginger Yellow says:

    Any update on how Men of War is coming along? It’s out soon and I need an RTS fix until Empire: Total War and Dawn of War 2 come out.

  9. GriddleOctopus says:

    Thanks for the photo credit, Jim! There are loads more photos of the trip here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/grill/sets/72157606089141975/

  10. Ketch says:

    @Tei

    Steam?

  11. Cooper42 says:

    Please, please let this not descend into a piracy comments thread?

    I remember this article from earlier in the year. I have high hopes fro games coming out of the former USSR – if only because they won’t be as enamoured with consoles.

    Death track looks like it could be immense fun. And it’ll be interesting to see how Cryostasis comes out. Deadisland, albeit from a Polish developer, was looking really good. Site now down. Here’s hoping it wasn’t vapourware…

  12. Ziv says:

    @pepper: so right.
    @jim: can you list at the second half of the article the names of the games that you wrote about and got impressed of them and whether they were released?

  13. UncleLou says:

    “Shame they aren’t better at embracing Western digital distribution”

    Hm, they seem to be almost on the forefront of digital distribution to me. I bought King’s Bounty online weeks before it hits the shops, Stalker and Clear Sky can be found on a variety of DD sites, as can Space Rangers 2 and whatnot.

  14. c-Row says:

    Death Track, please!

  15. Him says:

    I wouldn’t mind taking a lot more chances on games if they were £12 a pop.
    That’s right. I’m on about actual physical media. Not an ephemeral online-account where I pay for access, rather than product.

  16. phil says:

    From the few Russian games I’ve played (Stalker and Pathologic spring to mind) there seems to be a refreshing and uncompromising bleakness about them. Fallout 3, for example, seems cartoonish by comparison – maybe we should be looking at Russia to push the medium forward.

  17. mikks says:

    Hmm, didnt the makers of King’s Bounty move from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad?

  18. AndrewC says:

    The bleakness seems refreshing only because we are currently flooded with Hollywood darkness, which is very bright. If Russian bleakness became the norm we would be screaming out for a comedy gay robot.

    Plus Stalker is full of terrible, atmosphere breaking jokes, it’s just we assume, because it’s in Russian, that they are talking about burying their mothers.

  19. Ergates says:

    Captain Blood? As in Captain Blood?

    I do hope so – a French game being remade by Russians. That’d be batshit crazy squared!. A continent sized lump of bat guano.

  20. Levictus says:

    @phil, @Andrew C

    Stalker was not developed by Russians. It was developed by a Ukrainian company. There is a big difference (contrary to what most Russians might tell you). I am sure you wouldn’t be too happy to be called Mexican!

  21. phil says:

    I’d personally love to be a Mexican – though not a Mexican’t.

    Though the game was made by Ukrainians (and I admit my mistake) the source material which the game stays admirable close to in terms of atmosphere, Roadside Picnic and Stalker, is about as Russian as Russian can be.

  22. Kalle says:

    “the Russian government know that they can’t allow crime to dominate their development…”

    Uh, no. But they’re opposed to petty crime that doesn’t kick back money to the Kreml.

  23. phil says:

    Interestingly there seems to be a glut of Strugatsky inspired games centred on their Noon universe book Prisoners of Power – Has the RPS Hive Mind heard anything about this?

  24. AndrewC says:

    If I changed references to ‘Russian’ to ‘former Soviet’, would I look less staggeringly ignorant?

  25. Jim Rossignol says:

    I believe the collective denomination is “CIS Countries”. Obviously it’s something I’ve struggled with in this article too.

  26. Dan Harris says:

    Why haven’t I bought King’s Bounty yet? Dammit.

  27. Larington says:

    Heres hoping piracy doesn’t dominate the discussion. Anyways, I definately look forward to seeing more games from former soviet bloc, for too long has gaming been dominated by the cultural stereotypes of US, UK and Far East games.

    Its a pity that the guys sitting around camp fires in Shadow of Chernobyl are telling jokes really, as an English speaker only I’d always assumed they were telling stories about stupid situations other stalkers had gotten themselves into over the years. Entertaining cautionary tales like don’t eat yellow water.

  28. Alaric says:

    I am rapidly disappearing quickly. =]

  29. RichP says:

    Gaming in Russia is around 70% PC-based

    Why is PC gaming so strong in Russia? Not that I’m complaining, but you probably don’t have nitwits over there saying OMG PC IS TEH DEAD (probably because 1c would send a terrifying ex-KGB fellow after them)

  30. RichP says:

    Also: It’s nice that we can actually play some of the better Russian PC games. Back when I actively played JRPGs and what-not, it seemed like some of the coolest ones would never be released outside of Japan. (*cough* Mother 3 *cough*)

  31. Tei says:

    So.. what are the countrys that are more pro-PC?
    We know Korea. But Korea is deep into mmorpg’s.
    So seems Russia is another.
    Brazil? Australia?

  32. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Why is PC gaming so strong in Russia? ”

    As I understand it, pretty much every gaming market which isn’t North America, the UK, Australia or Japan is dominated by the PC. The console manufacturers and publishers have been very slow to officially launch consoles outside those markets and they are often exorbitantly expensive.

  33. Alexandros says:

    Well, actually most of Europe is pro-PC. In fact it seems that only the UK is following at the footsteps of the US console hysteria. Every other country seems to prefer PC gaming.

  34. Calabi says:

    Its probably because of all the piracy in it, which is probably because of the less disposable income with the expectation of consuming as much as the richer nations.

  35. Dominic White says:

    Ginger: Might as well count europe in general as a second-tier market for consoles as well. In France, your average PS3/360 game costs 70 euros, and a lot of publishers don’t give europe the time of day in general.

    Fun fact: Chrono Trigger – yes, the SNES original – is due for its first ever debut appearance in Europe later *this year*. 14 years late.

    14 fucking years.

  36. Larington says:

    “Well, actually most of Europe is pro-PC. In fact it seems that only the UK is following at the footsteps of the US console hysteria. Every other country seems to prefer PC gaming.”

    I do find myself wondering if this can be attributed, at least in part, to the idea that non-english speakers aren’t able to read (Excepting translation websites) all the doom sayer bullhonkey that console manufacturers spout day-in-day-out. Word of mouth (Propaganda) is a dangerous weapon indeed.

  37. El_MUERkO says:

    If you’re a military sims fan you’ve gotta love the old USSR! Black Shark is worth a try by anyone who ever read a phonebook sized manual or used a key overlay in their youth! http://www.digitalcombatsimulator.com/

  38. pepper says:

    @El : yeah BS is a great simulation from what ive seen from it so far, havent been able to give it a go but its predecessor never let me down.

    @Jim, next to the LOMAC/IL2, and stalker series, what more comes from russia what i should know about? I remember this rally game a few years ago, but i havent really kept up….

  39. RichP says:

    China, too. I’m actually really intrigued by its PC gaming market, which probably makes more money than the Xbox 360 and PS3 combined, but you don’t read much about it.

    Back when I played PlanetSide, someone on the forums got access to the Chinese beta and provided some entertaining reports. The biggest difference: Chinese players always worked as a team, even in pick-up squads and platoons.

    The PC is still the world’s the dominant gaming platform, followed by the Wii and PS2. Interestingly, Nintendo is the only current-gen console manufacturer that’s self-sustaining; Microsoft and Sony can only subsidize the billion-dollar losses of their consoles through the profitable arms of their respective conglomerates.

  40. Pags says:

    Jim: What is 13 tonnes in Peggles?

  41. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Might as well count europe in general as a second-tier market for consoles as well. In France, your average PS3/360 game costs 70 euros, and a lot of publishers don’t give europe the time of day in general.”

    True, but they do formally sell machines and games there, which is more than you can say for most of Asia, Africa and Latin America. And even the UK is much less console focused than the US and Japan. It’s only since the Playstation that consoles became really big here.

  42. hydra9 says:

    @Ergates:
    Sadly, this Captain Blood is a swashbuckling pirate adventure and not a remake of that Captain Blood which I loved so dearly in days of yore.

    @phil:
    I’ve played the FPS based on the Strugatskys’ ‘Prisoners Of Power’ and it’s really terrible. Made by Orion, who have produced some dodgy stuff. The RTS is meant to be decent, though, and the adventure game… Well, that just looks like Myst.

  43. Nahual says:

    After the STALKER games, which I loved, the game FPS i’m waiting for the most in 2009 is Cryostasis (Of which we’ve sadly heard so little lately). Go Eastern Bloc!

  44. Levictus says:

    @phil

    I am not implying that it sucks to be Mexican. I personally think most Mexicans are a lot more down to earth and less stuck up than most Americans. It’s just matter of getting things right. Ukraine is not the same thing as Russia.

    I would be a bit more careful with dumping everything to do with the USSR as being Russian. Even within Russia itself, the Russian identity is a very complex issue. There are actually two terms for the word Russian ‘Ruskiy’ and ‘Rossiyanin’. The first is more of a reference to ethnicity while the second one is more to do with the national identity. So which one are you referring to? I don’t mean to sound like an asshole, but seriously you sound like you don’t know what you are talking about. Let’s just stick to facts. Stalker was developed by a Ukrainian company that used common Soviet cultural legacy as inspiration for its game. Does that sound good? Again sorry for being pedantic, but I am sure you would find it weird if I referred to Id’s games a product of Mexican cultural legacy (bad analogy, I know, I am just trying to show you my reasoning).

    @AndrewC

    Lol, yeah, that works.

  45. hydra9 says:

    Aye, eagerly awaiting Cryostasis, which I hope will make its Feb 13th UK release date. The Russian version is out, and has been getting some very positive reviews.

  46. Ruke says:

    Peggle = 4.2 ounces (amazon.com)
    13 tonnes = 416,000 ounces
    99047.6 Peggles

  47. Nuyan says:

    RichP: “Back when I played PlanetSide, someone on the forums got access to the Chinese beta and provided some entertaining reports. The biggest difference: Chinese players always worked as a team, even in pick-up squads and platoons.”

    So Chinese culture affects the way people play those games and make them play in a more collective manner than us westerns with our individual freedom ideas. That’s rather fascinating. Would like to read more into similar examples.

  48. Pags says:

    Peggle = 4.2 ounces (amazon.com)

    13 tonnes = 416,000 ounces

    99047.6 Peggles

    I knew there was a reason I got up today. Thank you sir.

  49. Uraelski says:

    I’ve been looking forward to The Tomorrow War, an epic, story-driven, space-to-planet-combat-sim thingy 1C seem to be publishing. Amazon had the wrong date on it for ages, then sent everyone who pre-ordered it an embarassed email saying the had no idea when it was coming. Play.com say Feb ’09, but I don’t know if I can trust them….

    Stalker was brilliant, really benfitting from a non-western approach. More of this East-European yumminess, please!

  50. Tei says:

    It will be dificult for russian dudes to get the throne of PC kings.

    USA/UK can make games in english, that is a giganteous market. And later, localize these games to other *latin* langs, like italian, spanish, french and maybe to german.

    While creating a game in russian mean you have to translating it to english. So here is a cost, you don’t have in USA.
    Also, translating from english to spanish is easy, but from russian to any latin lang is way hard. ( I suppose) (read: $$$).

    On the other part, USA has a horrible internet system, with ISP that limit the downloads with a cap. And this is bad for digital downloads, that is a cheap (I suppose, I don’t know) method so… maybe this will push gaming to other countrys with cheaper internet. ( I bet the current internet in russia has to be anwfull, but theres less distance from awfull to amazing, than from mediocre to good)

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