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Visit the “Global Developers” hub

The growth of a new series of game development studios outside of the usual hubs of the USA, Japan and Western Europe has gone under-reported and certainly under-analysed when we talk about “diverse voices” in gaming. We’ve seen a seismic shift, with developers creating big, ambitious 3D games for a fraction of the development cost of the latest Call of Duty or Assassins Creed game –- especially studios in Central and Eastern Europe. Here are five studios from places you might not necessarily associate with game design, but who’s titles can nevertheless stand proudly amongst the giants of the gaming world:

GSC Game World

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Ukraine?” I bet it isn’t “games studios that make titles that sell multi-millions of copies,” but that’s precisely what the country produced in GSC Game World. Founded in Kiev in 1995 and first known for the Cossacks series of strategy games. GSC made a radical shift in 2007 releasing S.T.A.L.K.E.R., an ambitious FPS set in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The game sat in what seemed like development hell for almost six years, but eventually in March 2007 the “Shadow of Chernobyl” fell over the word. Interestingly enough, during this time, some of their former staff had also founded the fellow Ukrainian development studio “4A Games,” who we will cover later.

The addage goes: “make what you know.” Growing up on the doorstep of one of the largest ecological disaster zones on the planet will give you a unique sense of post-soviet — and even real life post-apocalyptic — decay. Many of the S.L.A.K.E.R. games (rather dated) textures were derived from actual photos of the Exclusion Zone taken on an early digital camera. This makes the game feel very uniquely Ukrainian, being steeped in both the mythos of the zone and the culture of every day Kiev. I’m not the only one who will gush about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. when given the chance; it has a loyal following and extensive modding community to this day.

Sadly, GSC Game World became defunct in 2011. Although it was announced that the studio would re-open in December 2014, much of the team have splintered off into other studios and projects — including Vostok games, who recently released online free to play shooter Suvarium.

TaleWorlds Entertainment

Starting in 2004 as a hobby project of studio founder Armağan Yavuz and his wife İpek Yavuz, Mount and Blade is a game that received a hugely warm and positive reception from gamers. So much so that it allowed them to found a studio located in Ankara, Turkey in 2005 and eventually led to Mount and Blade becoming a full PC release in 2008. They are currently in development of Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord.

The game was rough and ready but also a little basic and outdated in many aspects. But Mount & Blade focuses in on game play elements most medieval RPGs miss out on; the realities of commanding a middle age arms and the importance of mounted combat. This ability to marry game play aspects that really engage a player with mechanics that are generally put on the back-burner of most games is a theme I see running through these studios and their titles. As their first commercial project, it was ambitious and pretty successful in most of what it set out to do, and it filled a hungry niche in the market for its style of a more down to earth medieval experience sans fantasy elements.

The formula was improved upon in Mount and Blade: Warband, a game I am personally a huge fan of. Even though some of the subsequent expansions and DLCs have had mixed reviews, they still maintain that unique feel of commanding a band of period accurate medieval fighters.  PC focused (as most of the games discussed here are) it had complex, sometimes finicky, but ultimately rewarding systems.

Their output has been singularly the Mount and Blade franchise, with slightly less activity the past couple of years. But that might have something to do with ongoing the development of Mount & Blade II.

4A Games

A close relative of GSC Game World and co-founded by some of the people who led the creation of the X-Ray engine that powered S.T.A.L.K.E.R., 4A games is another Kiev-based developer known for their post-apocalyptic shooter series Metro. The game is based on the books of the same name by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Releasing their first game Metro 2033 in 2010, they have gone on to great success despite the odds.

4A Games has survived the death of their publisher THQ and the hellish development crunch under replacement publisher Deep Silver. Even the ongoing Ukraine crisis, which caused the studio to move their headquarters to Malta in 2014 to avoid the conflict, couldn’t keep them down. Harrowing tales of the development conditions for Metro Redux came to light when they spoke about having to smuggle PS4 and Xbox One development kits into the country to avoid the crumbling and corrupt customs system, but they still managed to produce an excellent product. It’s stories and triumphs like this that show just how patently ridiculous (and ignorant of international affairs) the “white privilege” narrative of the gaming press really is.

Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light, and their respective improved Redux versions have been met with critical and commercial success, as well has being community favorites.  The Metro series boasts uncompromising graphical fidelity on their flagship PC releases and have become famous for their atmosphere and rich setting — once again bringing AAA quality games to market at a fraction of traditional AAA costs. Something that looks to be more and more possible in a global games marketplace.

A close relative of GSC Game World and co-founded by some of the people who led the creation of the X-Ray engine that powered S.T.A.L.K.E.R., 4A games is another Kiev-based developer known for their post-apocalyptic shooter series Metro. The game is based on the books of the same name by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Releasing their first game Metro 2033 in 2010, they have gone on to great success despite the odds.

Wargaming

After a showing of more single player focused experiences, we move on now to a runaway online gaming success. Based in Belarus and Cyprus, Wargaming originally developed the Massive Assault series but is best known for their World of Tanks MMO tank battle game released in 2011. A game that was receiving a huge amount of community attention and praise even before its release.

As of December 2013 there were 75,000,000 World of Tanks players registered worldwide with and a peak of 1.1 million concurrent players. That’s a lot of users and the bulk of their success actually came in Russia and Eastern Europe itself, showing there is huge demand for games that cater to that market. As a free to play online game funded by player purchases, World of Tanks was also able to avoid much of the piracy rampant in places like Russia — piracy fueled mostly by less than ideal game pricing, localization, and distribution polices of international publishers. World of Tanks is proof that gamers in any part of the world will pay for a product if it’s priced correctly.

World of Tanks provides access to the tank arsenal of most major world powers, it’s a game that does one thing very well: tanks -– and it shows that if you have a focused model with rewarding game play and a free to play economy that isn’t too greedy then you can find great financial success.  The “World of…” franchise has spawned further games like World of Warships and World of Warplanes.

The Astronauts

 

Founded in 2012 in Warsaw, Poland by the original founders of People Can Fly (developers of Bulletstorm and Painkiller fame) The Astronauts set out to create a graphically beautiful world in which to tell a story. What they came up with was The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Released in September 2014, the game has gone on to great critical and commercial success.

The game follows the dark and supernatural tale of the disappearance of Ethan Carter, and a detective’s disturbing journey through the fictional town of Red Creek Valley to locate him. The game is noted for its breath-taking visuals and ground-breaking technical achievements, all the more surprising coming from an independent studio and small eight member team.  Sometimes mistakenly derided as a “walking simulator,” the game has puzzle and problem-solving  elements giving the story a moody pacing.

One of The Astronauts themselves, co-owner Adrian Chmielarz, has been quite outspoken on the subject of global game design and the challenges facing designers outside of the U.S. He maintains that many of those making games are being held to an unfairly American standard driven by internal politics. The perception of games, game design the gaming community seems very different in central and eastern Europe than that put forward by many major gaming outlets located in the United States and Canada.

This is Just the Start

In writing this, I’ve come to realize just what a divide there is between the U.S. and Europe when it comes to focus on big, complex GPU guzzling 3D games on the PC platform. That is another factor in the divide of global gamers and developers and another angle the gaming press can’t quite get its head around. These studios develop for a domestic audience as well as an international one but different parts of the world consume and play games differently. This can lead to games being overlooked by the press or people are left not quite knowing how to categorize them.  One thing is sure though, these developers and other studios are not going anywhere but up in the future. As we see the expansion of gaming becoming spread worldwide, more and more games and voices are sure to come from unexpected places. And I greatly look forward to it.

You can Visit the “Global Developers” hub here

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a terribly British man with a background in engineering. He writes long-form editorial content with analysis of gaming, games media and internet culture. He also does the occasional video game retrospective with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good measure. He also does most of our interviews for some reason, we have no idea why. A staunch supporter of free speech and consumer rights; skeptical of agenda driven media and suspicious of unaccoutable authority but always hopeful for change.
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