“The centre of Kiev was burning as the finals took place.”
I’m sat at the bar in Kiev’s CyberArena, a dark hall filled with rows and rows of computers. There’s more than a hundred young men, most in their late teens, playing World of Tanks, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike. A few months before this hall was empty. The building shut down in January. The city wasn’t safe.
I’m with Vitalli ‘V1lat’ Volochai, a prominent Russian-speaking eSports caster, and Iegven Dubravin, manager of Na’vi’s Dota 2 team. They’re trying to explain how they ran their business whilst their country was embroiled in a revolution.
“It exploded on the dates of the tournament,” says Iegven.
“We had to hire an armoured vehicle with [bodyguards] and they were riding from here to the airport with teams because they wanted to stay safe.” Vitalli says.
It has been a wild, wild year for Ukraine’s brilliant PC developers and community.
Ukraine has been pumping out great PC games for years. From its bleak landscape has emerged the Stalker series, the Metro series, Cossacks, and more recently World of Warplanes.
But over the past year it’s seen massive political upheaval, with vast protests within the capital, Kiev’s, central square. In February after government snipers shot and killed more than 80 protesters, its president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country. Crimea, a region in south Ukraine, separated from the rest of the country and became occupied Russian territory.
I wanted to discover what it was like for the PC gaming community, living through such dramatic times. I flew out to Kiev to meet with developers and discover how the country has changed in the past year, finding what life was like before, during, and after the protests.
It all starts with education. And Ukraine’s excellent college courses.
“Ukraine traditionally had really strong technical universities,” Sergey Galyonkin, a developer who recently joined Wargaming, tells me. “A lot of artificial intelligence work was done in Kiev.” It’s fostered a large community. “Maybe a 1,000 people in game development in Kiev, maybe 1,500.”
Many of the developers produced by Ukrainian universities became contractors, working for companies outside of the country, either porting games or creating assets for other studios.
But eventually, a critical mass of bright young developers led to mega-studios, living and working within Kiev.
“The biggest outsourcer, Persha Studia, was bought by Wargaming,” says Sergey. There are now more people working for Wargaming based in Ukraine than in Russia, they’re in charge of developing World of Warplanes. Also “Ubisoft has an office here, Crytek has a development office here, and while Ubisoft has more to do with PC porting stuff, they made the PC port for Assassin’s Creed 4, Crytek Kiev made Warface.”
Homegrown studios are doing well, too. 4A Games and Vostok Games, respectively the makers of Metro and Survarium are based in the city. And, before it collapsed, GSC Game World, creators of Cossacks and Stalker, set up shop in an abandoned warehouse.
For all of Ukraine’s homegrown successes, there was always a weight around any entrepreneurial activity: the Ukrainian government’s rampant corruption.
It’s estimated that the Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych stole half of the country’s national budget. While roads crumbled and essential services suffered sustained austerity, Yanukovych built a fortune.
“His residence, Pushcha-Vodytsia, is open to visitors,” Sergey continues. “My sister’s been two or three times already. She said you cannot believe how they lived, it’s a palace. A golden loaf of bread, a golden toilet, a golden sink. It’s unbelievable.”
— Leonid Ragozin (@leonidragozin) February 22, 2014
Yanukovych’s palatial home included a private zoo and cellar stocked with personalised vodka bottles. When he fled, he loaded trucks with cash and valuables and sent them out of the country.
— Stephan (@sacmtl) February 22, 2014
Yanokovych’s greed directly impacted businesses with vast tax rises. “They’re a joke,” Maxym Hryniv from Mokus Games tells me. “We have 13% tax on income for regular people but we have a lot of hidden taxes. If you collate everything it will be like more than 50%. It’s too much. It’s a huge number. The government wants half of your earned money.”