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Gaming In The Russian Cosmos, Part 2

This is the second part of my article discussing gaming in Russia, Ukraine and the other CIS countries. It's based on a trip I made to KRI, the Russian game developers conference, in 2008. Go here for part one.

So PC gaming is changing, and it not entirely down to the technocrats of the West to say how that happens. The US and the UK might have reprised traditional imperialist roles in setting out some of the templates for modern gaming, but the future is going to be in the hands of the rest of the world. What will define the next decade of gaming is economics: the emerging nations have more people willing and able to make games, and they can do it for less money. More importantly, perhaps, they have more people who are willing to play games, and largely, the games they play are on that most cheap and cheerful platform, the PC.

But what is most fascinating to me is how the different cultures of various countries manifest in the games we see appearing. China and Korea, whose game cultures came about thanks to the necessity of providing themselves with games when no-one else would, seem oddly alien in their mass-consumption of grind-heavy MMOs. The public-gaming plus mass-online mentality seems singular to their way of doing things, and MMOs in these two countries have been enormously influential. China has even seen one MMO based purely on its own legends, with Fantasy Westward Journey.

I've spent time elsewhere looking at this bleeding of local culture into the otherwise internationalised (or perhaps Americanised) culture of games. I've tried to pinpoint how these gaming cultures came about, and I should do a little more of that in a planned tripped to China later this year. To do the same with Russia, Ukraine and the other post-Soviet nations seems a little easier. These nations have a clear gaming identity of their own, which is defined by the fall of communism in 1991. Their world is one where cheap PCs have flooded in, along with Western games, and where consoles were kept out by economic conditions in the late '90s. Consequently they seem like a parallel dimension to Europe and the US: things are different, and yet somehow entirely the same. They have the same kind of play habits as the West, and the same kinds of games. Here an FPS, there an RTS, with a sprinkling of online games. And yet the flavour of their local games is distinct, offbeat even, but nevertheless recognisable: there are some weird and ambitious games out there, and these companies are not afraid to reach for the stars, yet the way they play, and the way they design, seems based entirely derivative of Western games.

So this is not a clear game design culture rift like that between North America and Japan, and nor is it a gaming behaviour difference like that between South Korea and the rest of the world. But it is a marked difference in taste. It's something specific to the region.

Red Science

Sitting in a grey-panelled ultra-functional meeting room at 1C's headquarters in central Moscow, I asked one Russian games boss why games from the region were noticeably different to Western titles and he laughed, replying “Russian developers all want to make a new Fallout!” And you can see what he means, because Russian games do have something of a grim outlook: what better to capture that than a sequel, spiritual or otherwise, to the greatest of the post-apocalyptic RPGs?

It's only one trend with Russian game design, of course - the others being unforgiving simulation, World War II from the Russian perspective, and fresh takes on tired fantasy tropes - but it is the one that somehow seems to have best captured both our imaginations, and those of the people who comment on CIS region games from within those countries. And the post-Soviet realm does inspire that kind of imagination, too. Even in my brief time in the Russia I saw an incredible catalogue of ruins and dereliction, all sitting alongside the shiny new capitalist heartland. It was not a new concept to me. When I interviewed Ukrainian developer Anton Bolshakov, the creative lead on Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl he told me: "Splinters of Soviet Empire are plentiful in Ukraine – forgotten productions, catacombs, neglected military facilities and so on. Even our office is located at an ex-military factory with no more active production. When walking around such areas you can’t but think how the time froze at this place of man-made catastrophe. Logically, it struck us as a cool game setting to explore."

He went to explain the myths and urban legends that had sprung up on his home turf: the fictions that sprang from Soviet secrecy, the stories surrounding the Chernobyl accident. "Our game sort of expands onto what could have happened in reality. It’s a story about a post-apocalyptic world with its own tragedies, heroes and laws. After that, [our inspiration] was the accident in Chernobyl itself. A murky and terrifying example for mankind of thoughtless use of high technologies."

Bolshakov seems to have tapped into something that resonates across the world right now: apocalypse and disaster do seem to sit at the back of our minds, and the contemporary urban decay that these games take their inspiration from do seem to somehow act as ghost of the future, showing us what the world might be like after we are gone. It's a powerful theme that appears across gaming, cinema, and literature with increasing frequency. We're worried about what the future may hold, and these games seem to instantiate that. And not in some cheery Mad Max fantasy way, but with definitive bleakness. Something rare in the general upbeat world of gaming. It's the way in which some Russian teams have tapped into this first hand that interests many of us, as if they're articulating the kinds of grim futures that we want to be able to imagine, and yet cannot reach.

These kinds of themes are also found in Metro 2033, another Stalker-like shooter, this time set in the future ruins of Moscow, and a possible contender for one of the big titles of 2009. We'll hopefully bring you an interview those guys in the coming weeks. We can only hope that the game also channels some of Stalker's excellent game design.

Of course technical proficiency doesn't seem to be the issue here: the game developers of Russia and Ukraine are technically proficient and highly educated – thanks in part to the superb education system enforced by the communists - and yet they still lack experience. Compare their fresh-faced youths to the grizzled bossmen of the US games industry and it begins to become clear just how youthful their industry is. Even the 1c games leads seem young by comparison. But Russia's gaming ecology is growing fast, and their fresh developmental imaginations are growing with it. It is immature, and while that can produce naive, adolescent results, here it seems to indicate that there's lots of potential. What we are seeing, thank Mother Internet, is plenty of experimentation, and some great games.

Weird Terrain

You've probably already encountered some of these great games via our multifarious bloggings. We've seen games such as Cryostasis, King's Bounty, Men Of War, Perimeter, Boiling Point, Space Rangers 2, and Pathologic turn up and cause something of a stir. These games aren't revolutions in any classic sense – there's no genre-slamming Half-Life or World Of Warcraft in there - but the methods and themes are nevertheless intriguingly different, and refreshingly bold. Pathologic was a particularly profound experience for one RPS writer - tapping into those themes of bleakness that I mentioned before - and the strangeness of the experience certainly rang a few bells with the huge number of people who read the Pathologic article in the weeks after we posted it. It looks like the Ice Pick team, they who made Pathologic, intend to return to similar weird terrain in their upcoming game, Tension.

For my own part, I was inspired by my time playing Stalker, and I still return to it now and then. Stalker's influences, which I've banged on about before just here, are clear: Chernobyl and Russian hard science fiction. But in game-design terms there was something else going on too: unmitigated ambition. The idea that there was no reason why GSC shouldn't try to make a living world shooter, years before any Western dev studio was attempting such a feat. The CIS country development houses are aiming high, and even when they fall far short of their target - I'm looking at you, Boiling Point - they still create interesting experiences. Immaturity is bringing forth creativity. It's usually the young that start garage bands, and by the same token it's often the young game design teams who create the unexpected experiences. You can see a certain psyche pushing its way through. Adolescent battle-fantasies they might be, but they're as fresh and aggressive in their execution as anything the rest of the world is offering.

Nor is that notion of ambition and experimentation confined to a single genre: both simulation and RTS have benefitted from this distinctly Eastern attitude. Perimeter's iconoclastic RTS is steeped in Eastern independence too – deliberately exploding the idea of what resources mean in an RTS - and revelling in a Russian fiction that is weird by anyone's standards. Men Of War too, the sequel to Faces of War, is a remarkably ambitious project, more like a battlefield infantry simulation than a standard RTS. I can't imagine a Western studio even attempting such a game in these glossy Company Of Heroes times, and yet it makes sense when Ukrainian devs Best Way dump it in our laps and expect us to deal with a grand, brutal RTS of incredible scale and detail.

Of course there are deeper social layers to the genesis all this. The other point that 1c boss chap was making was that Russian and Ukrainian gamers do seem to have much the same gaming heritage as us, but by and large without the consoles. Even in 2008, less than a third of all gaming is done on console systems. This was a nation that has had, since the fall of Communism, easy access to IBM PCs, and even easier access to pirated Western games. Until relatively recently it was possible to pick up a package pirated copy of a Western game for less than a dollar on any high street corner in Moscow. In terms of game tastes, then, this is, you might argue, the motherland of PC gaming.

Just take a look at King's Bounty if you want some proof: a more PC-gamer title you could scarcely imagine - fantasy, turn-based, vast, difficult - and its production values are nothing if not high-end. This is no amateur enthusiast project. This was a game made by a team who had absolutely love of the form, and a command of the technology. It was destined to be a PC classic. The same goes for Stalker and numerous others.

That 1c exec - a skinny blonde chap who couldn't have been far past thirty - continued: “Our studios lack management skills,” he said. “We're too young as an industry.” I wondered about that. Too young, or just young enough? I've lost count of the number of times weird, obsessive projects have been stifled or canceled by our mature, experienced Western managers. That's happening in Russia too, but the weird or brave stuff is still breaking on through.

The Endless Red Bear

Perhaps the most significant moments of my trip to Moscow, however, were those that illustrated people's simply joy in the classic tropes of gaming. The man who made Perimeter telling me, with a glint in his eye, that what he was aiming for in the future was "even weirder". Or the guys who made Fantasy Wars being honestly pleased and surprised that I'd both heard of their game, and that it had been well received by a wider audience. Or being reminded of the raw simulation excellence of IL-2 Sturmovik. Immediately after that meeting with the 1c exec, I was introduced to Oleg Maddox, the man behind Sturmovik. He had the face of a thousand cigarettes and laconic attitude that seems utterly in contrast to the crisply professional or ultra-enthusiastic nerd kings that I regular encounter in American game studios. Maddox is distinctly his own man, and his games must instantiate that. I wondered how much the Maddox games were a direct reflection of Maddox himself: a personality expressed via simulation games.

Oleg told me how much he was enjoying working with the freedom that 1c game him, and promised great things from the future flight sims he has not yet even announced. The same kind of quiet optimism seemed evident in all the developers I met in Moscow. Both creatively and financially, this is a new set of developers who love what they're doing, and who seem to understand the amazing privilege that being able to make games entails.

There's shovelware crap sitting on the Eastern shelves too, of course, and I expect there are plenty of coder-for-hire types doing little more than scraping together a living. But the message I got from the stronger tiers of gaming in Moscow, was that things are just getting better and better.

The dominance of PC gaming is only going to change relatively slowly out there, since the idea that a PC is also a useful tool for education and internet use is strong in Russia and the other CIS countries. This is a country that has only had access to our computing tech for twenty years, and they're making the most of it. Consequently, it's a hotbed for new developing talent: here, more than anywhere else in the world, young PC gamers are learning that they want to get into game development. The Russian-speaking indie game scene is expanding across these countries too, and one of my favourite indie games this year, Debrysis, was developed by a Russian team.

What's more, it seems that the PC gaming developers are beginning to realise just how easily they can compete with the expensive Western development teams. Here, and in the rest of the educated developing world, is where the future of PC gaming is being struck. If anyone makes a worthy spiritual successor to our past-generation classics, such as Deus Ex or System Shock, then it seems likely that it will come out of Russia or Ukraine. No one in the West would have the balls pitch a game like Stalker, and yet it seems like the most natural thing in the world for the GSC team, and it even sold 1.6 million at retail, and many more via download. Not bad for a bunch of guys working out a disused weapons factory.

Hopefully, however, this won't be a one-sided campaign, but a collaboration. Already we're seeing signs that the experienced, talented Western developers are moving in on the lower costs of Eastern teams and setting up shop. Crimecraft, the recently announced crime MMO, for example, will be powered by the US-developed Unreal Engine, the studio managed by an New York-based production core, and game itself built by a creative Ukrainian team. These kinds of distributed efforts are springing up all over the world, and that's a trend that is only going to expand and continue. Eventually, hopefully, the transit of talent and experience will be equal in both directions, and the industry of game development will become truly global. The Bear, I'd like to think, is going to take us to a better place.

Thanks to Dan for the photos of my trip.

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Jim Rossignol