As the war in Ukraine enters its third week, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion force is tightening its grip, despite setbacks, on key cities. With the nation’s capital Kyiv under siege, game developers in Ukraine tell Polygon that their employees are taking up arms to defend their country. Others say they are sheltering in place, either unable or unwilling to leave their homes amid artillery barrages and airstrikes.
Tymur Solod, marketing manager at Pingle Studio, has spent much of his time working to find safe passage for his team trapped in the city of Kharkiv, which has been shelled indiscriminately by Russian forces for days.
“The city is being burned to the ground,” Solod told Polygon over the weekend. “We managed to evacuate almost everyone. [...] There are few people left, and we [are] organizing an evacuation for them now.”
He said that a core group of developers will be heading west, toward the relative safety of the region around Lviv. Others, meanwhile, have made the choice to stay behind.
“Some people of our team volunteered to [join the] regular army and territory defense units,” Solod said. “The company [keeps paying a] salary for everyone, especially those who joined [the] army.”
Yaroslav Singaevskiy, lead game designer at Red Beat, said members of his team have volunteered for the territorial defense, or TD.
“One of our devs [...] is in Chernihiv’s TD,” Singaevskiy told Polygon. “Basically, that’s a paramilitary force that acts as a backup for main army forces. Yet TD units often take part in combat too — and they are pretty effective at it thanks to high mobility and general knowledge of the area. [...] We hope and pray that [they] will be okay as well as Chernihiv’s citizens.”
Meanwhile, developers are doing what they can to keep paychecks going to their employees. Wael Amr, CEO of Frogwares, said that while work inside the country has come to a standstill, some team members who reside outside Ukraine are helping to keep the lights on.
“We have some versions of previous games which we lined up weeks ago to release so we are working on them how best we can,” Amr wrote. “But the main focus of our team as a whole is on helping where we can with info, organizing transport or evacuation for those who require it, and checking in on everyone two or three times a day.”
For the two-person team at Kyiv-based Weasel Token, Alex Molodkin and Anastasia Kuznetsova, the situation is a bit more precarious. Molodkin and Kuznetsova tell Polygon that they are sheltering inside their apartment building, along with Molodkin’s mother and grandmother. They spend most of their time in the hallway, away from windows and outer walls that could be exposed to explosions or gunfire. Molodkin says he’s doing what little he can to keep their game project going using the city’s damaged cellular network. He says they are sleeping in shifts so that there is always someone awake and listening for an air raid siren.
“Both leaving the city and living in some shelter for a prolonged period of time is not an option in our case due to various health-related issues, especially my grandmother’s legs,” Molodkin told Polygon. “However, our evacuation bags are packed up, so we’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
“It’s still very hard to concentrate on anything for more than half an hour,” he continued. “No one really prepares you for war in the 21st century, so it’s very hard to just get accustomed to it in a few days and go on with your regular business. Your mind just constantly goes back to the topic of madness happening all around, and there’s no escaping it.”
Multiple developers told Polygon that they are deeply concerned that Russian forces have captured nuclear power plants in the region, including Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — the largest in Europe. Many also called on NATO and the United States to enforce a no-fly zone in the region, a move that western leaders say could lead to open conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries.
Nevertheless, like many of the developers we have been in contact with, Molodkin remains hopeful.
“Currently, we just focus on surviving and supporting those we can. It’s very hard to predict anything beyond, as the war’s outcome isn’t really something we control,” Molodkin said. “Everyone here is very optimistic about our armed forces’ chances of victory. We are proud of our people — they are putting up one hell of a fight and clearly will never give up. That goes for us too.”