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In the morning of February 24, 2022, the Russian government began a large-scale military attack on Ukraine. Among the many Ukrainians who are speaking out and asking for support are its game developers. Ukraine is home to a large community of game creators, all of whom are feeling the effects of the escalating geopolitical conflict.
Members of the game community in Ukraine estimate that the country has over 400 game-based organizations and provides jobs to over 30,000 employees. Several game studios from Europe, Israel, and Russia have branch offices in the country, and outsourcing and work-for-hire compose a major part of the industry in Ukraine. Even if you’re not aware of it, it’s very likely you’ve played a game that was made or supported by a Ukrainian studio.
Several game studios have spoken about the conflict on social media. GSC Game World, the developers of the Stalker franchise, tweeted:
Frogwares, makers of the recent Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, said: “We can’t just stand by. Russia attacks our homeland and denies the sovereignty of Ukraine. We are trying to stay safe, but this is war, there are no two ways about it… . We’re a peaceful nation, and in all the years since we gained our independence, we’ve never attacked or threatened anyone. Because of this situation, our work will be impacted and our lives can be destroyed.”
Mobile gaming studio Gameloft tweeted: “Gameloft is home to two studios in Ukraine — Kharkiv and Lviv — and we want to express our support for them and everyone else affected by the current events unfolding in the country. We have been following the situation very closely for the past few weeks and have been in an ongoing conversation with our Ukrainian studios. We are all deeply saddened by the current events, and our thoughts are with our dear teams and community members in Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s history with gaming
Alexey Menshikov was at Ukraine’s first game company, Action Forms, in the 1990s, and then he worked at and built game studios over the years. He is currently head of Beatshapers, a mobile game studio that has 20 people in Kyiv, Ukraine. He has checked in with his people and they are safe, but he worries about whether they will remain so if the war drags on and involves the entire country.
Menshikov is part of a diaspora of Ukraine’s game industry, where leaders have migrated to other countries like the U.S. in search of capital and other resources to support their efforts to run international operations with links to the development teams in Ukraine. Menshikov now lives in Los Angeles and manages the studio from afar.
In the past, much of that tradition has been in work-for-hire companies which make parts of a game such as its core programming or art, while design is handled elsewhere. But increasingly Ukraine’s studios and developers have moved up the food chain in gaming to creating games and original titles.
Dean Takahashi of GamesBeat first crossed paths with Ukrainian game makers in 2010, when he met with the developers at Gameprom, a creator of pinball games for mobile devices. He was surprised when he learned that they had worked on so many pinball titles, and he was impressed with their resourcefulness. They didn’t grow up playing pinball. Instead, they learned by watching YouTube videos and then made their games.
Much of Ukraine’s gaming activity is focused in the capital city of Kyiv, which for years was the home of the Casual Connect Eastern European game developer event. The recent GamesGathering event in December drew more than 1,500 people. “We have grown a lot of companies, and many like Wargaming have a big presence in Ukraine,” said Menshikov, who started as a sound designer and like many Ukrainians taught himself game development skills.
The Ukrainian game developers with whom GamesBeat has spoken all cite the country’s education system as being a major factor in why the games industry has flourished there, with universities turning out talented programmers and creatives who can enter into the industry directly.
Game studios in Ukraine
Major studios in the region include the Russian-Irish mobile gaming developer Playrix, which entered Ukraine after acquiring local studios Zagrava (in 2019) and Boolat Games (in 2021); Ubisoft, which has locations in Kyiv and the coastal city of Odesa; and Plarium, the Israeli developer behind Raid: Shadow Legends.
Esports is also a major part of the Ukrainian gaming community. The government recognized it as an official sport in 2020, with Oleksandr Borniakov, Deputy Minister for Digital Transformation acknowledging that “millions of Ukrainians” enjoyed watching esports. The country’s teams are also regular winners at major events, with Natus Vincere (or “Navi”) being one of the biggest teams.
Natus Vincere gave a statement on Twitter that reads:
Major player Oleksandr Olegovich Kostyliev, a.k.a. “s1mple” tweeted that his home city was being shelled during the initial conflict.
This is not the first time game developers have been affected by the ongoing conflict between the two countries. Two major Ukrainian studios pre-2014 were A4 Games and Arkadium, both of which were forced to move offices following the Russian annexation of Crimea. A4 Games moved its studio to Malta at the urging of its publishers, and Arkadium’s team in the region (Arkadium is also based in New York City) opted to move to St. Petersburg.
Yuriy Dyachyshyn, CEO of Thundermark, runs a game studio with 40 people. The company has been trying to come up with contingencies to help its employees by advising them to move into the western part of the country, Dyachyshyn said in an interview at the Dice Summit this week in Las Vegas.
At the moment studios are continuing to call for support as they follow the directives of the Ukrainian government. WePlay Esports said in a statement this morning that its office in Ukraine will continue to function for the time being “Work in the WePlay Holding Ukrainian office is in full swing … . All WePlay Holding employees are aware of the government instructions they need to follow and continue working from home.”
G5 Entertainment, a casual/mobile game developer, also said: “G5 Entertainment is following the escalation in Ukraine closely; we currently have no reports of our staff being involved in any hostilities. We recommend our employees to follow the advice of the Ukrainian president to shelter at home and not relocate at this point. We have some employees that have relocated earlier whilst the majority remains in their hometowns.
“At this point we have given the Ukrainian employees two days off so that they can look after themselves and their family and friends. We remain committed to our employees wherever they are situated and are doing our best to support them through the immediate situation and will evaluate ongoingly which measures are best suited to support them going forward.”
Other members of the global community are reaching out to show their support. 11 Bit Studios, the Polish developer behind This War of Mine, has declared that it’s donating all proceeds from its games to the Ukrainian Red Cross, and GOG has declared its support for this.
Earlier this month, as conflicts were escalating, game development agency Amber opened a new studio in Kyiv. Amber CEO Jaime Gline said at the time, “Our presence in the Ukrainian market will not only strengthen our creative capacity, but also send a timely and strong message of our support for our team in Kyiv and the wider Ukrainian game dev ecosystem.”
We at GamesBeat send our best wishes for the wellness and safety of the gaming community and all civilians currently in the Ukraine.