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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

Global Gamers, Global Developers: The Uniquely Ukrainian S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Series
Global Developers, Global Gamers: A Different Kind of Diversity
The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent be­low.
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.