Halfway around the world, in an office in Malta, a tired Ukrainian man watched the video as he neared the end of his work day. As it played out, he got increasingly angry. Swearing up a storm, he called for another man in the building to come to his desk and watch.
“I saw a mountain and a river, and I started shouting at my art director,” recalls Andriy “Prof” Prokhorov, a creative director at Ukrainian developer 4A Games. “‘I told you!’ I yelled at him. ‘Please increase the quality of our water!’”
That art director, Sergei “Karma” Karmalsky, waited for Prokhorov to calm down. When Prokhorov stopped fuming, Karmalsky pointed out that the teaser trailer he had just watched was done live-action. It was real-world footage; it wasn’t in-engine. 4A’s own title, Metro Exodus, still looked great. He could relax.
Prokhorov laughs as he shares this anecdote, but it reveals a lot about the studio and the tension that drives it forward. 4A Games is an underdog, but it’s an underdog that bites. It’s a developer that openly and proudly has a chip on its shoulder. That's even baked into the studio’s name. Triple-A is the standard? Well, it has four As. What now?
(For the record, that interpretation of the name is just playful metaphor on our part. 4A Games says the name actually came from the four original founders of the studio, whose first names all begin with the letter ‘A.’)
With Metro Exodus, more than any previous title, 4A Games wants to prove that it deserves a spot in the triple-A conversation, and maybe even above it.
From STALKER to Metro and back again
Metro Exodus was one of the showcase games at E3 this year, leading off the third-party offerings at Microsoft’s E3 2017 press conference. Given its placement and a flashy first demo, unfamiliar viewers would be forgiven for thinking that it was a much bigger franchise from a much bigger studio.
That’s not to say that the Metro games are niche, exactly. But to understand this series and where 4A Games is taking it, you have to start with a much more obscure shooter: 2007’s STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl.
Loosely inspired by two beloved works of Russian science fiction — the novella Roadside Picnic and the Tarkovsky film Stalker — STALKER is a complicated game. It wears the trappings of a traditional first-person shooter, but it features RPG elements that were, in 2007, extremely rare in the FPS genre. It set players loose in a massive series of areas, working through a non-linear story with plenty of sidequests and distractions.
In spite of its complicated nature, STALKER earned a lot of love from critics. It went on to sell over two million copies and led to two follow-up games.
Even before Shadow of Chernobyl launched, however, several key members of the development team at GSC Game World — including Prokhorov — left to form a new studio. This was 4A Games, and its first project would be a title based on another popular Russian sci-fi series: the Metro franchise.
Metro 2033, a title shared by both the first book and game in the series, introduced the public to a compelling post-apocalyptic world. Following a devastating series of nuclear explosions, the aboveground cities and countryside of Russia has been abandoned, buildings left ravaged and the air and water contaminated. Society has instead migrated to the old train station tunnels, where various groups espousing different political and social beliefs vie for power — often violently.
Written by Dmitry Glukhovsky and released in Russia in 2005, Metro 2033 was a breakout success of a novel. Readers were instantly drawn into the world and its squabbles between recognizable groups — socialists, capitalists, Nazis — driven to new extremes. The book did so well that in addition to his own sequels, Glukhovsky opened the Metro universe up for other authors to add to it. As of this year, there have been over 40 novels set in what’s called the “Universe of Metro 2033.”
When 4A Games got the option to translate Metro 2033 into a video game, it was a no-brainer, but it also presented a significant shift in philosophy from what many of the devs there had done while working on STALKER. Where Shadow of Chernobyl was a wide open (if dangerous) world, both the locale and the story of Metro 2033 were linear. This would be a much more guided experience.
4A Games was up to the change of pace, however. Prokhorov says that Half-Life 2 is widely considered the studio’s favorite game, and they took inspiration from Valve’s FPS classic, creating a linear game that was focused on telling a story, fleshing out an intriguing world and introducing constant variety in the gameplay throughout each new locale.
“Players can be sure our games will not be copy-pasted,” Prokhorov says of the studio’s philosophy in general. “Each new location, each new hour of gameplay will be something new, something new, something new.”
That approach worked. Though not quite as heavily praised as STALKER, Metro 2033 still garnered a lot of love and was undoubtedly a more polished and user-friendly experience. It was followed up by an even more highly praised sequel, Metro: Last Light in 2013. The two games have sold in the multiple millions, even more when taking into account 2014’s next-gen Metro Redux re-releases.
4A Games has been successful. There’s no denying that. And yet, it’s still easy to look at its output and see the team as just on the cusp of something much bigger. The Metro series has grown a passionate fanbase, but it’s not a household name yet. It’s not, for example, a series anyone would have expected to be a primary showcase of a major E3 press conference.
Even the developers at 4A were not prepared for the reaction that spot on the stage would draw.
The big reveal
Since 2014, 4A Games had been completely silent on the Metro franchise. Last year, the studio announced an original Oculus Touch game, ARTIKA.1, a reveal that left many fans wondering if the Metro series would continue. The developers were careful not to respond to any speculation.
“A couple months ago, we saw people on the internet talking about how Metro is dead,” Prokhorov says. “We saw that, and we were like, ‘Yes, yes, keep silent, keep silent!’”
In the lead-up to E3 2017, as various announcements from the show inevitably started to leak, 4A Games got worried. Huw Beynon, the Metro brand manager for publisher Deep Silver, spent his days scouring Twitter and Reddit, looking for even a hint of what the studio was set to reveal.
“This whole thing was top secret,” says executive producer Jon Bloch. “We wanted to make sure that when it did hit, it was a cool surprise.”
While looking for the perfect way to announce the game at E3 2017, 4A stumbled into an unexpected partnership with Microsoft. The hardware manufacturer was looking for a big surprise to show off the power behind its newly announced Xbox One X hardware. Deep Silver and 4A Games were eager to be featured, but they didn’t realize that they would nab such an early and long portion of the presentation.
Microsoft kicked off the show by announcing the named of the Xbox One X and talking about the power of the hardware. Then it showcased a single first-party title, the racing game Forza Motorsport 7. Then Phil Spencer launched into a flattering introduction:
“In 2010, 4A Games worked with [Microsoft] to launch a single-player masterpiece that I played on Xbox 360,” Spencer said. “Now I’m honored to bring them back with the premiere of their next work.”
The extended demo sequence that played next was immediately familiar to Metro fans: a snowy wasteland aboveground; dilapidated tunnels and makeshift weaponry; a main character scavenging for whatever bullets he can find in the wreckage; strange, mutated rat creatures attacking from the darkness. And, in true Metro fashion, it looked gorgeous, running in 4K resolution and with tons of eye-catching effects.
The demo lasted almost five minutes, and the reaction was immediate. The crowd at the press conference cheered, and social media was instantly buzzing with talk of the impressive-looking surprise reveal.
“I haven’t been able to stop myself from grinning since,” Prokhorov says. “We expected for sure that fans of the series would like our announcement, but we didn’t expect that. We’ve always been an underdog. This was the first time in our team’s history when a game announcement was a cool thing like that.”
Prokhorov and his team now find themselves staring down newly intensified expectations. They need to meet the demands of both longtime Metro fans a new and wider group of potential players whose interest has been grabbed. The most pressure, however, may just come from 4A Games itself.
Eying the competition
“We always try to make a small game, but we also want to make the best game in the world,” Prokhorov says, smiling but looking exasperated. “My has a simple explanation: It’s because we’re crazy.”
As Prokhorov said earlier, 4A Games has always been an underdog. It’s a relatively small studio, working in a part of the world that doesn’t have a huge AAA game development community, but it wants to make AAA games. It wants to compete with the best developers in the industry.
“Why have we kept silent for so long?” Prokhorov asks. “Because three years ago, we thought this game was almost impossible.”
Some of Metro Exodus’ ambition is driven by the Metro series’ author, Dmitry Glukhovsky, who is working with 4A Games in developing the scenario for Exodus. Prokhorov describes a sometimes strained relationship but one that always pushes the studio to try new things:
“It’s really hard work, because [Glukhovsky] is very passionate in person. He’s always trying to get us to do more. ‘Let’s do that!’ Well, you know, it’s technically not impossible, but it’s just not possible. ‘But why?!’”
Bloch is more measured, describing the studio’s relationship with Glukhovsky as “a lot of back and forth,” where they work together to determine which ideas are realistic.
Whatever the case, it doesn’t seem like Prokhorov shies away from the challenge. In many instances — as in the case of the Far Cry 5 teaser reaction described above — it is Prokhorov himself pushing his team to work harder, get more done, prove that they can do things just as well as bigger studios with more resources.
He describes another example of this: When Rockstar released screenshots for Red Dead Redemption 2 last month, Prokhorov saw them and flipped out. In particular, he was floored by one picture, of a train crossing a bridge. The smoke billowing out of the train looked incredible. As a game about crossing the country on a train, Metro Exodus needed better smoke.
“We were like, ‘Oh shit, we need to work on this,’” Bloch says.
“In the E3 trailer, the smoke was OK,” Prokhorov adds. He then makes a series of groans, as if to convey how middling the quality of the game’s virtual smoke was up to this point. “It was OK, but at the moment, we already have better smoke.”
Whenever discussing other studios or games, there’s a glint in Prokhorov’s eye, an edge to his voice that teeters between frustration and friendly competition. He admits to struggling with accepting the realities of where 4A Games can and cannot realistically go head to head with other game developers.
4A Games has grown over the years. Between its new Malta headquarters and its original Kiev studio, the studio employs around 120 people. It’s bigger than it’s ever been, but compare that to a studio like Ubisoft Montreal, the lead developer behind Far Cry 5; it employs more than 2,500 people and has back-up from at least a half-dozen other Ubisoft studios around the world. Not all 2,500 of those employees are working on any single project, but the available resources are on a totally different scale.
“Keep in mind, we are a small team,” Prokhorov says. “But we are ready to fight with anyone!”
Out of the underground
Beyond the game announcement, the Metro Exodus announcement at E3 2017 held one other big surprise, even for long-time fans. Two minutes into the demo, the main character found himself chased out of an underground passageway, through a vault door and moving outside. In a dramatic surprise, he reached up and took off his gas mask, breathing in the air and looking out over an expansive vista — a small village, a crashed helicopter, mountains and a tiny forest in the distance.
As the character studied a map in first-person and took in his surroundings with a pair of binoculars, it became evident that this is a much bigger area than usual for the series. Is Metro going open-world?
Well, not exactly.
“It’s a mixture of STALKER and Metro,” Prokhorov says. “The core team of Metro is the same as the core team of STALKER From the beginning, we decided that it would be sort of us grabbing this experience from one game and this experience from the other and mixing them.”
For 4A Games, much of Metro Exodus’ development has been spent trying to find a precarious balance. The team has bounced back forth, adding elements of greater freedom into the game and then pulling them back when it felt off. Prokhorov says the team wanted to avoid “too much freedom,” that it didn’t want to turn Exodus into a traditional open-world game.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t sacrifice the classic Metro experience,” says Bloch. “We have linear levels and then also non-linear levels. It still feels like a Metro game.”
4A Games’ goal is to take the best of both worlds — the open areas that encourage creative approaches from STALKER and the pulse-pounding (but linear) set pieces that have traditionally driven the Metro games. The hope is that by mixing these two they can appease Metro fans, welcome newcomers and take some of what made Shadow of Chernobyl so successful without making Metro Exodus prohibitively confusing.
Prokhorov describes Metro Exodus’ structure as almost like an accordion, with every level shrinking or expanding depending on what the story calls for.
“Big, small, big, small, big, small,” Prokhorov singsongs, explaining the the size changing from level to level. The small levels, he says, will provide that classic Metro experience Bloch mentioned, while the large levels will give players room to explore at their own pace while still advancing the story.
That story remains a driving factor in Metro Exodus. The game will follow series protagonist Artyom and a group of survivors that are journeying east across Russia in an aboveground train. It takes place over the course of a year, which Prokhorov says will lead to a greater variety of environments, since players will be able to witness the weather changing from level to level.
“Over the course of the year, you see different seasons, and we’re able to do different kinds of environments,” Bloch says. “In the trailer, you saw fall, and it’s already so much different than what people are used to seeing in Metro games, which is winter. So we get to do cool things like that and bring in a bunch of stuff that’s new for fans of the Metro series by default.”
So while the scope has expanded from previous Metro games, both spatially and temporally, it isn’t a full open-world game or a totally non-linear experience.
“I would say one of the things that’s scaring me is how much time we have left to finish the game,” says Prokhorov.
The E3 2017 reveal demo ended with the announcement of a planned 2018 launch for Metro Exodus, but already Prokhorov says he isn’t afraid to delay the game into 2019 if it will help it live up to the standards 4A Games wants to hit. But he also recognizes that the studio is inevitably on a tight timeline.
“We can’t let ourselves take five or six years,” Prokhorov says. “The world of gaming is changing too quickly for that.”
“Polish can be an endless pit,” adds Bloch. “You can just sit there and polish and keep going and going and going and going. We’re trying to make the most of the time we have.”
4A Games wants to make the most of every opportunity with Metro Exodus, and not just because it’s the studio’s most ambitious game. Not just because it’s a dream melding of the STALKER and Metro styles.
“I ask myself all the time why we’re doing this,” says Prokhorov. “It’s not money; it’s not glory; it’s just the fight to win. It’s like in a sport.”
For his part, as one of the few Americans involved with the development of Metro Exodus, Bloch says that the Metro games have always appealed to him for how different they are from other offerings in the industry, and that while 4A is looking to compete with other AAA games even harder, it’s also going to carry forward what makes the series special.
“There’s loads of story-driven shooters out there, but there’s just something about the Metro series that’s always been unique,” Bloch says. “It’s been uniquely Eastern European for sure. I think a lot of other shooters are very Western in design and feel. Obviously, the core of the 4A Games team is from Ukraine. The lives and culture of the team members get put into the product. It’s something that you don’t see a lot of.”
It’s a well-worn cliche to talk about how a game development studio has become like a family, but Prokhorov views it a different way. He sees his crew as a sports team, or even an army.
“I call my team Spartans,” he says, laughing. “Then when it’s really hard, I shout, ‘Spartans! Fight!’”