The Russian games development scene is home to some of the brightest minds in the industry creating games like The Void and Men of War, yet all is not rosy in the motherland, the economic crisis has hit hard and developers are having to adapt to a new world. Despite the financial pressures there are still many great, and other not so great, games coming from Russia. These are challenging times for an industry which is still young and has already had to deal with one economic crisis. In 1998 financial problems in Russia set back growth of the games industry, it is only now that it seems to be getting back on its feet.
Anatoly Subbotin of 1C Company, one of the largest publishers and developers of games in Russia, feels that it is only in the last four or five years that games development has moved from being a hobby and turning into a business that is comparable to what we see in the West and that it is this which allows titles like Kings Bounty and Stalin vs Martians to be developed. Despite the rapidly developing industry, Anatoly reveals “There are still some peculiarities. Many Russian developers still put a lot of effort in the creative side of their project, many teams still want to deliver something original. This is the reason why a big number of innovative products come from Russia.” These are ideas shared by Aleksey Luchin of Ice-Pick Lodge, a developer which has created a reputation for making experimental and innovative titles with Pathologic and The Void. Aleksey thinks that “The industry here is rather young compared to the ones in Europe and America, and …since the market is rapidly developing and due to the fact that doing business in Russian is different in its paradigm, the work patterns and traditions that the Western industry has accepted and follows, are still forming here. This fact lessens the control over the development process, and leads to developers being able to experiment with the game more.”
Unfortunately because of a lack of investment in some areas of the industry many games are released in extremely buggy condition. Aleksey says “the quality of games that come from Russian is in general worse than abroad – the games suffer from bugs, strange design decisions, often hard and requiring skill to beat the game and patience to look through the flaws to see a gem.”
It is not just a lack of investment that is causing problems, the economic crisis has hit the retail industry in Russia very hard. Alexander Scherbakov of Dreamlore (Stalin vs Martians) reveals some shocking statistics about the decline of the Russian retail market: “The traditional PC market we had is almost dead. By the New Year 2009 holidays local publishers were selling half from what they expected (compared to the same period of 2007). By the end of spring, they were selling 5 times less, than during the spring of 2008. Right now (compared to Fall 2007) the publishers are selling like 7 or 8 times less.” This is not just affecting the poor quality titles, Alexander thinks that all types of games are suffering: “Yes, you can’t sell unremarkable supercrap without any unique selling point as the publishers used to, since the retailers won’t order that. But everything else is just selling bad. Even AAA titles.”
There are various factors stemming from the economic crisis that has led to the dramatic collapse of the retail market, the inflation of the rouble and wage cuts mean that consumers buying power has decreased twice over. Alexander thinks that this is leading to a rise in piracy as people can’t justify spending money on games when it is needed elsewhere. In turn this leads to a downward spiral where retailers won’t stock a game because they don’t think it will sell which leads to publishers closing projects because they won’t get the guaranteed sales.
It may seem a grim picture for the games scene in Russia, but Alexander doesn’t think all hope is lost, he identifies three ways to survive as a developer in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics. “First option is going online or successfully going online. Second, is working directly with a Western (or Eastern!) publisher. Third option is outsourcing, but this one is pretty hard right now, not much orders nowadays.” Dreamlore is looking at moving into the online world for future projects and 1C has come together with another developer, Soft Club.
Anatoly feels that joining with Soft Club is the best way to tackle the economic crisis and drive business forward. “1C is the leading PC publisher in Russia and Soft Club is strong in console games sales. Together we plan to withstand the economic crisis more efficiently and moreover develop our business in the future more rapidly.” Creating a stronger console presence is important in Anatoly’s eyes, he sees changes coming in the traditionally PC focused market with console sales getting bigger each year.
The Russian games development scene is certainly unique, without it I am sure we would never see such artistic masterpieces as The Void or games like Cryostasis which use environmental effects like few others. As the industry continues to develop in Russia there is likely to become a clearly defined split between groups like 1C which make bigger titles and start to reach to the console audience, Dreamlore which will move into the online world and Ice-Pick Lodge which will continue with artistic and unusual games. Time will tell how the industry in Russia copes with the economic climate, some studios seem to have plans put in place while others may not be so lucky as to keep going past the development of their next game. It is a critical time for developers in Russia, hopefully we will see more gems like Kings Bounty and Men of War. Indeed, the next time you see a game coming from Russia, don’t rule it out as a buggy mess straight away, you may be surprised at what you find when you delve deeper into it.