The team behind the Stalker series had nearly 200 members in its prime. Polygon sought out enclaves of former employees, both big and small, in post-Soviet Ukraine.
Sergei Grigorovich was the CEO of the largest game developer in Eastern Europe, GSC Game World.
He and his company were famous for two game series. The first was Cossacks, a set of real-time strategy games known best for its scale, pitting upwards of 60,000 units against each other at one time. Popular throughout Eastern Europe, the series made Grigorovich a millionaire before he was 25 years old.
The second series was called Stalker. Its first game, subtitled Shadow of Chernobyl, was nearly eight years in development when it was released in 2007. An ambitious blend of first-person gunplay and role-playing, it featured elements of survival horror as well as an open world that reacted to the player based on their reputation. It received outstanding reviews, both for its gameplay and its narrative, and became a hit throughout Europe and North America.
In February of 2011, while Grigorovich and his team were busy working on the fourth game in the series, called Stalker 2, Ernst & Young, a multinational financial services firm, named Grigorovich Ukraine's entrepreneur of the year. He was the first member of Ukraine's booming IT industry to earn the honor.
Ten months later, on Dec. 9, Grigorovich dissolved his company. He gave no explanation to the staff beyond "personal reasons."
While the games media flailed for answers, Ukrainian news site Ukranews posted the simple headline, "Kiev company ... decided to self-destruct."
Polygon went to Kiev to map the fallout from the implosion of Ukraine's most famous game studio. From the largest triple-A developers to the smallest indie team, these are the people of the late GSC Game World and the games they're making after Stalker.
Oleg Yavorsky started working at GSC in 2000, just a year before the first Stalker game entered development. More than 11 years later, the soft-spoken public relations manager was there for the end.
"[Grigorovich] just gathered us all up in the presentation hall," Yavorsky remembers. "He said, 'I have decided to stop Stalker 2 development. Goodbye.' ... It was a very short speech."
The staff of GSC was in total shock. People went back to their desks and stared dumbly at their monitors. There was silence for almost two hours.
The cruel irony is that the team had been looking forward to that Friday for weeks. It was supposed to be the first chance for the entire staff to learn about the Stalker 2 storyline. Yavorsky had even helped plan a small party, with pizza and drinks, intended to boost morale. The game had been in development for two years by that time, and layoffs and attrition had shrunk the staff from a high of nearly 200 to a core group of less than 50.
"We were all so passionate about Stalker 2. We were involved with it for two years. It was like a child that we were slowly raising, watching it grow up."
Their last paychecks would arrive in February. After the Christmas break they would all be officially unemployed.
After Grigorovich left the building, Yavorsky went ahead with the presentation of Stalker 2 anyway. It was a bittersweet moment for the staff, who sat viewing a partial trailer that they knew would likely never see the light of day.
"We were all so passionate about Stalker 2," Yavorsky says. "We were involved with it for two years, and the Stalker series well before that, since 2001. It was like a child that we were slowly raising, watching it grow up."
After the presentation, not far from the cold pile of untouched pizza, Yavorsky and the rest of the middle management stood before their staff to discuss the two paths that lay before them. They could each go in separate directions, or they could band together and try to find another way, a way without Grigorovich and without GSC.
"In the end," Yavorsky says, "we decided to stick together."
GSC's remaining leaders worked as quickly as they could to contact publishers in Europe and North America, but because of the holidays no one would talk to them. With time working against them, they began to look for venture funding. It was their first experience trying to find capital, something in short supply in the former Soviet country.
"We went to local investors," Yavorsky says. "We went to Moscow to talk to people in Russia about potential funding, but ultimately we found problems because [Grigorovich] ... seemed to want to continue with the [Stalker] license [on his own]." Unable to come to an agreement over the intellectual property rights, the former staff of GSC resigned themselves to starting over from scratch, to building a new game world on their own.
In Survarium, nature has risen up to reclaim the world.
Survarium's ruined schoolhouse
Yavorsky says that since most investors did not have enough money to fund the entire development process for a multi-platform game the size of Stalker 2, the team was forced to lower its ambition. It settled on a PC-based multiplayer shooter set in a post-apocalyptic world. Survarium would look much like Stalker, but play more like Call of Duty. To reach as wide an audience as possible the game would also be free-to-play up front.
After these modifications potential investors began to come forward.
"It was important to have a partner who was safe enough," Yavorsky says. "You [had] to be sure that, in the worst case scenario, if the game [didn't] work out, that funding partner wouldn't come to knock your head off or something. In the early '90s, after the collapse of the USSR, we really had those gangs around and it was a risky time."
Yavorsky laughs, deeply at first, and then swallows hard. "They could easily kill you."
The memory of that chaos, a period that Ukrainians call the "Wild '90s," was still fresh on the minds of his team members. They were cautious, thinking it better to disband than to take dirty money.
"We were very lucky," Yavorsky says. "By March of 2012 we met with guys from Vostok Ventures. We found that they were actually looking for a team like ours," he says. "It took us barely two weeks to reach the basic agreement."
Vostok Games was founded that month, and soon moved into its current location, an old industrial park in Kiev just a few minutes' walk from the former headquarters of GSC. The building, dating from the Soviet era, has been remodeled and looks new. Painted a cheerful pink, it stands out from the overgrown industrial lots that surround it. Inside the office Vostok's walls are bare. The conference room is empty, save for a few chairs. Yavorsky says that Polygon is among its first visitors, that until now the team hasn't had a reason to purchase a table for presentations.
But around the floor, more than 40 artists and programmers, the last remaining employees of GSC Game World, are sitting and working on Survarium. They're tapping away on modern computers with dual monitors, creating assets and designing levels. Currently in closed alpha, the game is being played by slightly more than 1,000 Eastern European players.
By the end of 2013 Vostok plans to open the game more broadly to other Russian-speaking countries. Morale is high, and Stalker fans seem excited to see what the team has in store for them. By the end of our visit Yavorsky was beaming, proud of all that he and the other former GSC leaders there have accomplished.
But his team is not the only band of survivors soldiering on after the collapse of GSC. In fact, it is only the most recent.
A half-hour cab ride in Kiev costs about 40 Ukrainian grivna, or about $5. But 30 minutes is all it takes to travel from Vostok Games to the only other triple-A developer headquartered in Ukraine.
The offices of 4A Games are set behind an eight-foot concrete wall glazed with Cyrillic graffiti. An old man sits near a weathered gatehouse behind the entrance to the complex, and inside that wall he is surrounded by industrial debris and rusted chunks of Soviet-era trucks. Stray cats stalk the lot.
Amid the clutter, huddled inside a small gazebo perched atop cinder blocks, a few casually dressed smokers kill time after lunch. Beyond them an unmarked door leads into offices, where the men and women of 4A build a grim but popular series of first-person shooters. This is the home of the Metro series, including Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light.
Like at Vostok, nearly everyone at 4A is a refugee from GSC. The company was founded in 2006, after the first Stalker game was finished but before it was published in the West.
The owner of the studio is a short, powerful man named Andrew Prokhorov. The son of Ukrainian artists, he graduated university with a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering. His boyhood dream was to one day design and sell beautiful aircraft based on his parents' paintings, but when the Soviet Union began to collapse in the 1980s his plans changed.
From 1991 to 1995, during his graduate work, he was employed by one government research center after another, earning a salary of less than $100 a month. He became interested in playing games, and began to teach himself computer graphics as a way to make money on the side. Soon after he discovered GSC Game World was hiring he said goodbye to aeronautics forever.
When Prokhorov came to GSC in 1996 it was only a loosely affiliated group of 15 people in a two-room apartment. The 26-year old Ph.D. was interviewed by their leader, a then-16-year-old Grigorovich.
"It was like a crazy house," Prokhorov says, but the work was intoxicating and the pay was marginally better than what he was receiving from the government.
Throughout the early 2000s, as GSC grew larger on the sales of Cossacks games, Prokhorov and others began to resent how the company's earnings all seemed to go to Grigorovich. Their CEO had stated many times that Cossacks earned the company more than $100 million, but Prokhorov says the wages of average employees remained comically low.
In 2005, six years into the development of the first Stalker, GSC employed 140 people. Prokhorov says that in the parking lot there were only four cars. Three of them belonged to Grigorovich: a BMW X5, a Porshe Cayenne and a Ferarri F430 with plates that read "Stalker."
"We decided to make a firm where the first priority will not be money, but people. We pride ourselves on having created a good team."
The fourth car was a second-hand beater owned by one of GSC's programmers. One hundred forty people worked for Grigorovich, with only one car among them. There is anger, disgust even, in Prokhorov's voice as he tells the story.
Eventually, after a falling out with Grigorovich over wages in 2006, Prokhorov and two lead programmers left the company to found 4A. After the first Stalker was published in 2007, Prokhorov says that Grigorovich fired the entire art department at GSC. Nearly all of them came to work for 4A.
"We decided to make [4A] a firm where the first priority will not be money, but people," Prokhorov tells Polygon. "We pride ourselves on having created a good team. Because if you have a good team, sooner or later you'll earn the money. ... Most of our people own a car." On the day Polygon visited there were perhaps a dozen cars in 4A's main lot, a black luxury BMW among them. The average level of games industry experience at 4A is 10 years. Prokhorov puffs out his chest as he talks about his team, proud of its expertise, its perseverance and how far it's come since leaving GSC seven years ago en masse. Last Light survived the bankruptcy of its publisher, THQ, and has gone on to sell more than the original Metro title.
The only challenge left to Prokhorov is finding enough people to help his studio grow. He says his darkest moments come during those rare instances when employees leave, because there is no one in Kiev with enough experience or the right skillset to replace them.
4A's art department
Humans must answer
When companies like 4A and Vostok Games look for talent, they are ultimately drawing from the dozens of independent studios now popping up in and around Kiev. For that reason Prokhorov and nine other industry leaders spoke at Kiev Games Night this past April.
The event, organized by Russian journalist–turned–business developer Sergei Klimov, was billed as an opportunity to network, a way for aspiring developers to learn the secrets of the trade. But in reality it was a stage for the big developers in Kiev to promote themselves as good places to work.
More than 250 people packed the tiny coffee shop in Kiev, while half as many more were turned away. Most were doing work in the mobile space, but one team in attendance was nearly finished with its first PC game.
SumomGames is composed of two men, Denis Matveenko and Evgeny Yatsuk, formerly playtesters at GSC. They left their jobs in July 2011 to become independent game developers, just five months before GSC closed down.
Yatsuk is 30 years old. He graduated from university in 2007 with a degree in technical physics. His area of study was electro-optical devices, like infrared motion scanners and CCDs. Unable to find work in his specialty, he took a job as a playtester and eventually came to GSC.
Today he lives with his mother, father and grandmother in an apartment the family was given by the Soviet government after World War II. A similar apartment, he says, would cost him more than $1,000 a month to rent.
Yatsuk never made more than $900 a month working at GSC.
Matveenko is in his 20s and dropped out of college in the mid-2000s. He wanted to study computer programming, but found the materials and instruction at his public university to be more than 20 years out of date. Before working at GSC he dabbled in eSports. As a member of the Kiev-based Defense of the Ancients team Explosiv, he placed first in Ukraine and fourth in Russia, but gave it all up in order to make games with Yatsuk full time.
Their shoot 'em up (SHMUP), called Humans Must Answer, is the first Ukrainian game funded through Kickstarter. With the help of a partner in England, they launched a campaign in March that closed the same day as Kiev Games Night: April 12, 2013. The men earned 5,519 British pounds.
They would use the majority of that money to pay for their living expenses over the next four months.
Matveenko's one-bedroom apartment is the closest thing Sumom has to an office. His building, which overlooks Kiev's busy Industrial Highway, is a five-story structure dating back to the 1950s or earlier. In the entryway, which is painted a dark military green, the lights are broken. The remains of some hasty rewiring tumble from an open junction box near the ceiling.
"We can do this! We made this! It's very important for us."
Outside, in the rain, Matveenko's neighbor is picking greens from between sections of broken sidewalk. She is washing them in the stream of water falling from her umbrella and handing them to her son, no more than 8 years old, who dutifully places them in a plastic bag. These greens will be part of tonight's dinner.
Inside, at a desk pressed up against a dirty blue wall, Matveenko is using a pirated copy of Photoshop to make a SHMUP that is reminiscent of the 1987 classic R-Type but with chickens. It seems absurd, but in reality this type of entrepreneurship is desperately needed in Ukraine, and the skills Sumom is learning are invaluable in creating the next generation of Ukrainian game developers.
"We want to make a SHMUP," Yatsuk says, "but with some additional elements that haven't been seen in other SHMUPS, including weapon combinations and tower defense elements."
"There are many damage types and armor types," Matveenko quickly adds. "There are many different combinations." Their enthusiasm is contagious.
While Yatsuk paces off his nervous energy, moving the length of the tiny apartment, Matveenko shows off their compiler, which takes the easily manipulated Photoshop files and converts them into game code. By altering the image they can build spectacular levels, filled with secret passages and intelligent enemies. It is a good place to begin, but they admit they have a long way to go to learn how modern games are made. For them, this is just the first step.
Humans Must Answer was released in July. So far Sumom has sold a little more than 1,300 copies. That's including the 372 copies it gave away to donors of its Kickstarter.
For Matveenko and Yatsuk, it's not about sales numbers or profits. It's about the act of creation. SumomGames has begun working on its second title. It will not be a SHMUP.
"If [our first game is] not very popular it's no matter to us," Yatsuk says. "We can do this! We made this! It's very important for us. ... It means that, for the first time, we achieved something.
"It's more important to us than finishing high school, or finishing university," he says. "It's about making something."
Image Credits: Vostok Games, Charlie Hall
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan