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Gaming In The Russian Cosmos, Part 1

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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