“Games are a cultural force,” says Kate Edwards in her closing remarks on this panel on the geopolitical dynamics of games. In the last few years, gamers have been negative on the way developers model geopolitics in games. Always convinced that someone is trying to message them with some kind of SJW intent, the Trump-era kickback was not insignificant. But dynamics, global dynamics, have real world impacts on the creators, and so how would any gamer expect these things to not seed themselves in the stories that they tell? The conflict in Ukraine is a timely example on the impact of geopolitics on the gaming industry.
Kate Edwards, a geographer who does culturalization work in the games industry, is a consultant who helps game companies understand the real world of geopolitics. She discussed these issues during a GamesBeat Summit panel last week with game developer Dr. Yaraslau Kot, who is heavily involved in the game dev scene in Russia and Ukraine. Alexey Menshikov, head of a game studio in Kiev (and now a refugee from the war in Ukraine temporarily living in the United States) also joined the panel.
The three had a simple message: Politics impact games development and politics are in games.
The developers impacted by the conflict in Ukraine
Menshikov was at DICE when the conflict in Ukraine started. His team could not get out of Kiev. He worked with other nations and got fifteen members of his team and some of their family out of the country. His oldest daughter evaded capture. She spent a week in a local bomb shelter, left over from the Cold War. She eventually escaped to Europe. His company is back on track now at full capacity. It took three weeks for them to restore their workflows and collaboration.
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Kot had friends and family near Kiev. But many developers who were only able to focus on survival. Those companies have not reformed. They may not ever.
Kot lost a sister and her family; many family members joined territorial defense forces and are still fighting. He is trying to provide support and do what he can to help.
Edwards asks both “What does it mean to you for the western companies that are stepping up to provide assistance to the Ukraine? Do you think they are genuine or just trying to get attention?”
The aid to Ukraine is great. Some game companies are missing the point
Kot would like those companies to do more research. This War of Mine is not a Ukrainian game. Ukrainian developers could use more direct help. The conflict in Ukraine has created an environment where aggressive recruitment now is also a problem, with many development companies now falling over themselves to hire Ukrainian devs at lower salaries given that there is no competition with actual Ukrainian studios. Why weren’t they hiring them before? They were, but not anywhere near as aggressively.
Menshikov is helping wed Ukrainian developers with projects outside the war-torn country, helping with Visas etc. Even when it may mean that that employee may not come back to their own dev studio.
All of this accelerates the brain-drain. Talent is exiting from the market. Companies are using it as an opportunity to race in and grab talent. Edwards asks “What are some of the long-term effects?” Menshikov indicates that 20 – 25% of the outsourcing around the industry goes to Russia and Ukraine. Money sometimes goes to Russian companies first. Then those companies get support from external devs in the Ukraine. The supply chain is now disconnected. It may leave it as such for a very long time.
Will there be a Ukrainian games development scene when this conflict is over?
Another market factor that is impacted by geopolitical dynamics is inaccurate perceptions that often lead to games companies making uninformed plays. Kot says that “There are many markets that are underdeveloped…Russia is a very small market…it is very overestimated as a consumer”. Many consumers do not have computers, or even electricity in some cases. Those that are gamers, despite sanctions and embargoes, will use VPNs or some other means to obtain their games and may do so illegally, therefore not generating any revenue. Russia is also not a big market for mobile, as many Russian’s do not have the spare change for microtransactions to get over a paywall. In the end it makes the Russian consumer not only unavailable politically, but also economically right now. And yet many development companies worry about game sales in Russia, about their game receiving ESRB-like approval in Russia, while other countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria should maybe receive more focus and attention.
This is one of the most insightful panel discussions of the show. It provides deep insights into the impacts of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine on the games industry. It also reveals cultural factors within Eastern Europe that impact game development and have been for a long time. These industry dynamics are surprising to hear, and another example of how those interested in studying the industry can be better informed by investing in learning from events such as the Summit.
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