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The team at Nordcurrent, one of Europe’s biggest mobile game companies with downloads well above 100 million downloads, has had a traumatic year.
The game company is based in Vilnius, Lithuania, but many of its mobile game developers were based in Ukraine. And after the Russian invasion 13 months ago, Nordcurrent was thrown into chaos.
At the outset of fighting, Trofimova’s team had to help employees relocate or send their loved ones across the border into Poland, where the company set up a new studio.
Nordcurrent CEO Victoria Trofimova told me in an interview that the team has worked under unbelievable conditions, like when a Russian missile landed less than 200 yards away from the Nordcurrent office in Dnipro, Ukraine, just a few months ago. The blast damaged the building and shattered windows.
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Of Nordcurrent’s 270 employees, more than 100 are still in Ukraine, working a considerable distance away from the front but still in a warzone. Some employees refused to leave, and some joined the army to fight the Russians. And the team has helped raise money for the Ukrainian cause.
I talked to Trofimova about the challenge of running the business and the greater problem of reminding everyone that the war in Ukraine is still raging. And how to ship games — including some with some very goofy images — during wartime.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Could you start by telling me more about yourself and about Nordcurrent?
Victoria Trofimova: Nordcurrent is based in Vilnius, Lithuania. We’ve been around for more than 20 years. We started on consoles as a developer for hire. Then we moved to mobile at the beginning of iOS and smartphones. Now we specialize in developing casual games on iOS and Android. Our main studio is in Vilnius, and we also have two studios in Ukraine, one in Odessa and one in Dnipro. Most recently, we now have a studio in Warsaw for employees that relocated. We have about 270 employees across all of those studios. Our biggest games are Cooking Favor, Happy Clinic, and Murder By Choice.
GamesBeat: Of those 270 employees, how many are still in Ukraine?
Trofimova: We have just a few less than 100 who are still in Ukraine. There are about 20 in Warsaw and the rest are at the headquarters in Vilnius.
GamesBeat: Have they had to evacuate from their locations at any point, or have they kept working?
Trofimova: No, both cities haven’t seen action on the ground. There has been bombing and blackouts, those kinds of things. But the front lines are far from there. Odessa, being a port city, was bombed and attacked quite a bit in the last year. Dnipro is also a major city in the east, but the front is not in the cities.
GamesBeat: What do you recall having to do in the first days of the war?
Trofimova: During the first day of the war, there was the shock of it all. We worked on offering our employees the possibility to relocate. Because there were so many people leaving Ukraine, it was hard to organize transport, to get vehicles and fuel. Also, just getting across the border with everyone who wanted to leave. We initially moved everyone here to Vilnius. We organized, in total, two buses. We offered transport to our employees, the members of their families, and also they were allowed to take relatives and friends if they wanted to. And pets. We had quite a few pets.
After that we didn’t have big groups of people who wanted to relocate. After those two initial buses, all the relocations were just individuals. The majority of staff stayed in Ukraine. But this is a personal decision for everyone. It’s a decision that everyone makes for themselves. We offered the opportunity to work initially in Vilnius and now in Warsaw for all of our employees who want to. A lot of people moved out of Ukraine, but it’s still a country of 40 million people. Perhaps 4 or 5 million people left, so the majority of the population stayed. There are reasons for that. People don’t want to leave. They’re taking care of older relatives. Everyone’s situation is different.
GamesBeat: Did any of your employees get hurt that you know of?
Trofimova: Thank God, no, we don’t have any employees who were hurt. We have employees who are serving in the army, but as far as I know today, they’re all alive and well. We continue to operate in Dnipro, in the office. We had a bomb that fell next to our office last fall, which shattered windows on the side of the building. We were busy fixing everything before the winter, putting back windows and building up the walls.
Also, as you probably know, there are issues with electricity in Ukraine. The last couple of weeks have been quite stable, without any blackouts, but we still have to accommodate for that. In our Dnipro office we have two generators on standby. There were weeks where we had to use them. In Odesa, in our office building–this isn’t something we planned for, but there’s already a general generator in the building, which has been very useful, because Odessa has seen quite a few blackouts. In the first stages of the war, we had most of our people in Odessa working remotely, because they were afraid to travel to the office. Then, during the winter, because there were so many blackouts and the office had continuous heating, we had a lot of people going back to the office because they had better conditions there than at home. But now the majority of people are back to working remotely. In both offices we offer either option.
GamesBeat: How did you think about what was the best way your company could help your employees and the people around them?
Trofimova: With Lithuania being so close, we’re all very much involved. Everybody started something. We as a company, of course our main focus was offering relocation and helping with that, and also settling everybody in when it came to paperwork and housing. The people who traveled here hadn’t planned it, so the kids that came, none of them have passports. Some adults didn’t necessarily carry the documents that are usually required to cross EU borders. There are all kinds of issues.
Further to that, of course we as a company participate in various charities and initiatives. In our game Pocket Styler, which was developed in Vilnius and Odessa, and now in Warsaw as well, we had a Ukrainian collection, and the proceeds we gathered we decided to donate to an orphanage located quite close to the front lines. That was one initiative we carried last year, and we’ve continued to be in touch with the orphanage and help them recently with various supplies and things they’ve had trouble finding in Ukraine.
GamesBeat: The initial wave of aid around the world seemed like it was very enthusiastic. Some of that has subsided now. It’s not quite as front and center in everyone’s attention.
Trofimova: Of course this is subjective, but in our part of the world the war is still very much the main headline. We’re still all very much involved, still thinking about what we’re going to do this year. We have employees still in Ukraine. Let’s put it like that. There are still a lot of initiatives going on. Certainly we’re thinking about what we’ll be doing this year, just as we’ve done last year, to bring attention through our games. For us it still feels like very much a headline and an important issue.
We also have a PC publishing unit. We have several smaller indie developers that we work with. We’ll be releasing a PC game developed by a studio in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Those guys have continued their work even though Kharkiv itself has been one of the—it’s not one of the safest cities to be. There was an active action in the beginning of the war, and it’s seen a lot of heavy bombardments throughout. Those guys continued working from their basement, and we’ll be bringing their game out later this year on Steam.
GamesBeat: How have you looked at the disruption of work, and how much work can still get done? Have you been able to complete games during this time?
Trofimova: Of course, during the first month it was very shocking. This last year has been a challenging year. Things have to be taken into account. Employees experience blackouts. They have sirens and alarms. It’s a challenging working environment. The head of our Dnipro studio, though, said to me that the work is what helps keep things normal for them. It gives them a purpose. It has to be said that continuing to develop games in Ukraine—we continue to support the Ukraine economy, bringing hard currency into the country, which is very valuable at this stage.
After the initial shocks, then, we’ve been working under very unusual circumstances, but we’ve kept working. Of the two games that we released last year, the first was released before the war. In January we released Happy Clinic, which was developed in Vilnius and in the Dnipro studio. The other game, Murder By Choice, which we released in October, was developed in Odessa, Warsaw, and Vilnius. So yes, we’ve managed to successfully ship a game during wartime.
GamesBeat: Were there any Russian employees at the company before the war began? Did that create any situations you had to deal with?
Trofimova: Since we’re based in Lithuania and Ukraine, we didn’t have any Russian employees. Maybe we have some people who have residency, something like that. I don’t follow those details precisely. But we didn’t have any number of Russian employees or a development presence in Russia, so we didn’t have any of those issues.
GamesBeat: As far as long-term planning, what are you able to do? How do you think the company will be structured in the future?
Trofimova: For now we’re planning to operate as we’ve been operating after the war began. We’re still offering employment in Odessa and Dnipro, and in Warsaw for those who want to relocate. When the war ends, we’ll see whether we have any substantial amount of employees remaining in Warsaw, and whether the Warsaw studio itself will develop into a separate unit. It’s very hard to say right now. But we’ll continue to develop games and working on our live games. All of our studios have new releases, so there’s plenty of work to do. We have goals set for everyone working on our games.
GamesBeat: In hindsight it seems like one of the best things you’ve been able to do is just keep the company operating.
Trofimova: I have to agree with that. That’s very important, to offer stability and normality to people.
GamesBeat: When you communicate with employees about things other than work, about politics or the war, how does that happen? Or does that really happen?
Trofimova: Oh, of course. Before the war you could say—you usually didn’t talk about politics at work. It’s a private topic. The war changed that. It’s very much a topic. Whenever I have meetings online with our employees, the first thing we discuss is usually recent events – what happened, what they think, where things are going, how the Ukrainian forces are doing. That’s what we start with, and usually what we finish with. So yes, it’s very much part of the conversation. No matter how much you try, you can’t be uninterested in the news. It just doesn’t happen.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you would get to know your people much better in that way.
Trofimova: Maybe that’s true, and maybe not? Of course, it’s the case with the people who left Ukraine and came here. We had to talk to everyone individually and see what their needs are and find out how we could help. For those that stayed, yes and no. When something goes bad, yes. But when everything is okay—I used to go to Ukraine on personal visits and meet with the team. We’d have corporate events and team-building, things like that. That’s gone now. Now those events are local, or not necessarily happening at all depending on the safety situation. We’ve had real issues with that. It’s safe in the office, but you can’t go out to the countryside for a picnic or anything like that. You can’t go to the beach, to the sea.
All those informal conversations, team-building events, things like that are more complicated now. We’ve tried as much as we can, especially for those employees who are working remotely. But it’s just not safe for them in a lot of cases to come in for an exercise. That still has to all be done remotely.
GamesBeat: For GDC, I saw that you’re coming out. Are some of your team members also joining you there?
Trofimova: I’m not sure if I’m traveling right now, actually. Maybe and maybe not. There are other things happening here at the same time.
GamesBeat: Have you been able to work with any other game companies in Ukraine and nearby on anything?
Trofimova: Actually, no, we haven’t been part of anything in the greater development community, any initiatives. I’m not sure who stayed and who left, honestly. When there’s war, there’s chaos. That’s definitely been the case here. I’m not sure who is still there and who isn’t. Of course it also very much depends on the location, where they’re based.
GamesBeat: I just did an interview with someone else who felt like they wanted to do something political in a game, and so they made a game about being a drone operator. I wonder if you have that kind of discussion at all. Does it affect your content in any way? Your games are obviously much more positive on the whole.
Trofimova: No, we’ve never had a conversation like that. As you say, our games are more casual in general. I don’t think it would be optimal for us to do something like that. But we certainly have discussions about things like the Ukrainian collection in Pocket Styler. We still want to have initiatives within our games that are relevant. Ukrainian content, Ukrainian locations, Ukrainian cuisine, those are the kinds of things we’ve been talking about in the office.
GamesBeat: Has that content been popular with your players?
Trofimova: Yes, it’s been quite popular. But the initiative comes from us and from the teams.
GamesBeat: Have the teams dealt with electrical outages that have been particularly serious over the past year? Or has that not affected their regions very badly?
Trofimova: Oh, yes, for sure. There were citywide blackouts in both Odessa and Dnipro. We had to work with the generators. As I understand it, operating with the generators isn’t all that simple. You need to learn how to deal with it. The first time we switched on the generator, we burned it out along with some of the equipment. It has to be started step by step, and then the amount of devices you connect to it has to slowly, gradually increase.
We bought some more equipment so that the switchover when the electricity goes out is almost automatic now. The first time created some challenges, then, but in the office they’ve done it quite a few times now. We’ve had to adapt to quite a few things that I thought I would never have to know about.
GamesBeat: Do you feel different today compared to the beginning of the war, when it comes to things like where your opportunities are? It seemed like a very bleak situation in the first few days.
Trofimova: Last year came and went in waves. Certainly there were times when we all very much believed and hoped that it would be over soon. Now, as the war enters a second year, we think about that less, maybe. We don’t necessarily plan ahead for it anymore. We just continue to operate. It’s more or less stable. It’s not safe, of course, but it’s stable. There’s no action on the ground in the cities where we operate. Our employees have been incredibly brave and strong. They’ve worked really hard. We very much appreciate it. We want to continue working in Ukraine and continue supporting our staff. That’s the main thing on our mind.
GamesBeat: Have you been able to get good information about the state of the game industry in Ukraine? Did lots of studios simply shut down? Were they able to move out of the country or otherwise make it through the changes?
Trofimova: Honestly, we were so focused on us, so focused on making things work with our studios and our employees, I think we’ve never had a chance to look around during this year. Depending on the city, there are some cities that have been quite dangerous, so anyone there would have to relocate their staff overseas, or at least to western Ukraine. I know quite a few people who have done that. I don’t know how many have stayed or left or closed up, though. It’s hard for me to say.
GamesBeat: I remember some groups trying to count how many jobs there were in Ukraine. I don’t remember an exact figure, but I seem to recall there were well over 10,000 developers there. A lot of foreign companies operated divisions in Ukraine as well. But I haven’t heard anything lately about how those numbers might have changed.
Trofimova: I assume that information is very hard to gather right now, because of the chaos on the ground. Depending on the safety situation people move around a lot. There’s been a lot of relocation within Ukraine, as well as overseas. Likewise, I don’t know about the situation with foreign companies. All the big publishers, pretty much, had studios in Ukraine. Game development was very advanced in the major cities.
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