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When I was interviewing Pavel Izotov, the maker of the Rebuild Ukraine mobile game, he paused multiple times to wipe tears from his eyes. That was very human and understandable, as he was making his game in the middle of a war zone.

Izotov lives with his wife Irina in central Ukraine in a city called Cherkasy. It has fortunately been spared much of the fighting that has devastated other parts of the country such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol. They have not evacuated from the city, but it has nevertheless been a terrifying place to work on a game.

In spite of that hardship, Izotov has succeeded in posting the Android game, which is all about rebuilding the country of Ukraine one building, landmark, and statue at a time. Proceeds from the ad-based title, published by PubRev+, will go toward humanitarian charities helping Ukrainians such as World Kitchen.

“Every step that we take is about how can we best serve Ukraine,” he said in an interview with GamesBeat. “I want to help my country, to help my people, and do everything that I can do.”

A statue from the 2014 war in Cherkasy: A Ukrainian soldier guards the White Tree of Gondor.

The title is but one of a myriad ways game companies are helping to assist Ukrainians disrupted by the war. Levvvel estimated gamers and game companies have donated more than $195 million to charities related to Ukraine, including $144 million donated by Epic Games and Fortnite players alone. And while Izotov’s contribution is a relatively small one in that big picture, not many people can say they helped under the same daily pressures and wartime conditions.

When the war broke out, Izotov was stunned and wanted to find some way to help. But he couldn’t join the military for health reasons. For the first week, the horrors of the war on the news so disturbing that Izotov couldn’t do any work. He and his wife spent time talking to friends in different parts of the country and following the news of the invasion. They knew people in multiple places that had become the center of the fighting. And they had friends who had become soldiers for the Ukrainian army.

“It has been really emotional. And we are talking with our neighbors about how, if the Russians come to our city, how we’re going to defend this,” Izotov said. “And some of my friends did leave the city.”

Working in a war zone

Pavel Izotov works on his laptop in a shelter in Cherkasy, Ukraine.
Pavel Izotov works on his laptop in a shelter in Cherkasy, Ukraine.

As the fighting started on February 24, Izotov already had a mock-up of the game as he was working on a hopscotch title. After the war started, Izotov couldn’t focus for a week. But eventually, he had a call with his publisher and they decided to make something to help Ukraine. Izotov decided to adapt the hopscotch game into a building game.

“The decision was pretty fast. We decided to make the game to help Ukraine and we changed our direction from commercial to charity,” said the CEO of PubRev+ Charles Castell, in an interview with GamesBeat.

Rebuild Ukraine

Izotov worked on the game himself, with his wife Irina, who he said has always been by his side testing the games that he creates. Izotov said that it was still really hard to keep control and stay focused sometimes. Another friend helped with the game design.

“It is a lot of emotion and stress, but this has inspired me to work more and be strong,” he said. “I realize that our friends on the front and the military are so strong. I needed to do something. I didn’t feel I needed rest. I was inspired.”

Izotov and his wife chose to stay in their home city in Cherkasy as rockets flew overhead to hit other cities in Ukraine. They moved into an underground shelter during the early days of the war.

Izotov said, “I did work for two weeks from the shelter. When the work began, we were always coming down. So every time the alarms went off we had to go outside and go to the shelter. And there was no internet. We were sitting on the chairs and on my knees was my computer. I was working on this game.”

To get internet access, Izotov had to go to his apartment building. It still had internet service so he went back and forth as needed.

Irina and Pavel Izotov.
Irina and Pavel Izotov in happier times.

“After the first week, I felt like I need to do something I need to help,” he said. “I needed to, how do you say, ‘contribute.’ I just can’t just sit in one place. I did come out from the stress. I began working day and night without sleep. I did work a lot. We were so emotional, inspired, and motivated.”

One problem was that the apartment building was among the type of prime targets that the Russians were hitting. So for a time Izotov and his wife moved out of that building and slept in a safer work building. As he was moving from place to place, Izotov wrote the code for the casual game.

Rebuild Ukraine will benefit charities like World Central Kitchen.

The war’s front is hundreds of kilometers away, but rockets can instill a lot of fear as they fly overhead.

“I think Cherkasy is the place that is the safest in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s pretty calm. It is a lot calmer than Eastern Ukraine.”

While he was doing that, his wife searched places to find bottles for Molotov cocktails. They had a cute dog and the kids in the shelter played with it. Overall, it’s still a surreal experience for Izotov to be working in a war zone.

A focus on rebuilding

Life in an underground shelter in Ukraine.

The game has over 100 levels and 10 cities (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, etc.). The game transports users to the rebuilding efforts, where they tap bricks on-screen that fly off to rebuild Ukrainian houses and monuments. This mechanic both educates users about the need for the long-term rebuilding efforts and allows for the placement of in-app advertising, of which 100% of the net proceeds will be donated to those charities in Ukraine.

The game also includes direct donation links for people who want to give more. Later versions will include in-app purchase collectibles. Users will be able to purchase the digital equivalent of specific items that will go into the rebuilding efforts (bricks, parts of monuments, etc.)

Castell said he and his coworker Ben Green got chills when they began thinking over the idea and talking with Izotov. The title tries to gamify charitable giving. Castell’s PubRev+ company is a boutique development and growth mobile in-app and connected TV agency.

And addition to running the firm, Castell is active in the social justice movement and has been working for a number of years with organizations and government institutions to create positive change across the US and the world. Without their counsel, Izotov said he would never have been able to finish the game.

One of the central tenets of the company’s culture is the idea of service and making sure to use its resources and talents to help those less fortunate, Castell said.

Eating meals underground in Cherkasy.

An iOS version of the game is awaiting approval. Over the long term, PubRev+ hopes to use the same game mechanic to raise money for reconstruction efforts in other countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and to help address some of the major social challenges we face here in the US.

To do the programming, Izotov, fortunately, didn’t have to be online all of the time. But he did have to go back to his home to search for various assets and information that he needed. After about two weeks, it became easier to work as life continued somewhat normal in central Ukraine. Still, the signs of war were everywhere, as some anti-air weapons in the city destroy rockets aimed at other cities. Some rockets fell in Cherkassy, but nobody died, Izotov said. For the most part, the internet has been stable in the city.

As for the rest of the game development community in Ukraine, Izotov believes as many people are working as possible.

“They are returning to work and people are returning to areas because the Russian soldiers have fled,” he said. “The developers are working together like never before. They are doing things like making nets for the military. I am more optimistic now.”

A soft launch

Kids liked playing with the Izotov dog in the shelter.

Castell said the Android game is in soft launch and he hasn’t seen much feedback coming in yet.

Since neither the shelter nor the office has a shower, the Izotovs return to their home to take showers and then return to safer locations.

Izotov has about eight years of experience making games, mostly as a freelance or indie game developer. Izotov said that he had some warnings from friends before the fighting started and so they prepared backpacks and had a car full of gasoline. The closest the Russians have come so far is a few hundred kilometers away.

A girl loads a gun in Ukraine.

Izotov said he had a friend in Mariupol and he doesn’t know how the friend is doing. That city has been flattened by Russian attacks. He knows others whose friends or relatives have disappeared in other places in the country.

Izotov plans to add updates to the game that capture moments in the war, like the Ukrainian soldier who told a Russian warship to “f*** off” over the radio in the early days of the war.

“We feel this is a great way to counter donation fatigue because there is no actual donation,” Castell said. “Just by spending time playing a casual game, you are contributing, you are helping, even if you played for five minutes. That money comes in and goes straight to help the people of Ukraine. We focus 100% on the rebuilding, as the rebuilding will take decades. It’s going to need help all the time.”

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