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Games of the throne. How the Kremlin funds “patriotic” gamedev

For the first time Russia is pouring government funds into the production of computer games with a patriotic slant. Several projects are already underway, including games based on the Time of Troubles, a Russian private military company in Africa, and two school children named Vera and Foma who travel through Russian history. However, the tender process for these projects is not transparent, with details about the winners and funding amounts being difficult to uncover. The Insider managed to learn about the game budgets and even got a chance to play the government-sponsored games that have already been developed.

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Content
  • Between Tetris and Spetsnaz

  • Games and War

  • State Corporation and State Grants

  • The Time of Troubles, PMCs and Denis Davydov

  • How they are chosen

  • The magic of the grant

Transporting players to 1903, the game Counterintelligence depicts a scene in which a tricolor flag waves above the Winter Palace instead of the traditional tsarist banner. The palace walls are painted green, a detail that did not exist until 1947. Produced using state funds and developed in line with the Institute for Internet Development (IRI) grant competition, Counterintelligence, like its counterparts, aims to teach history and nurture patriotism among younger generations.

Despite the game's utter lack of educational value, it exudes an abundance of patriotism. Counterintelligence portrays valiant pre-revolutionary counterintelligence agents pitted against foreign spies from Japan, Germany, Britain, and inexplicably, the United States. Replication Technologies, a company with no prior experience in game development but with a history of creating projects for the Central Electoral Commission and United Russia, including the GAS Elections system, is responsible for the game's production.

Counterintelligence
Counterintelligence

Regrettably, we were unable to fully engage with the game and become immersed in its storyline. The game's unwieldy interface frequently malfunctions, rendering gameplay nearly impossible. Given these issues, it comes as no surprise that only one thousand individuals have downloaded the game in the two months since its release, and no one has bothered to compose a simple review.

Distributed free of charge due to its financial backing from the state, the exact amount of money invested in the game remains undisclosed. Despite this, Counterintelligence was named one of the winners at the 4th session of the IRI Competition for the development of online content geared towards young individuals in March of 2022.

IRI is a non-profit organization established back in 2015 at the behest of the presidential administration. It was cofounded by the Russian Federation and the Ministry of Science and Education. While the organization's initial focus was on the production of films, blogs, and podcasts, it has expanded its scope to include game development since 2022. During the previous year's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, IRI's general director, Alexei Goreslavsky, pledged to set aside no less than 1 billion rubles ($13,400,000) towards game development efforts in 2022.

Between Tetris and Spetsnaz

Despite the rich history of the Russian game industry and the significant role of government contracts in the economy, there have been few intersections between these two entities. State-supported projects can be counted on one hand.

In 2006, the now-defunct Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation (FSKN) funded two games: the shooter FSKN Spetsnaz Fighter and the quest Antinarkomaniya [Countering Drug Addiction]. Although these games were distributed free of charge to schools and libraries, they failed to gain traction. Alexander Gorbachenko, the former president of the Federation of Computer Sports of Russia, first encountered these games in 2007.

“We were traveling around the country during a nationwide anti-drug campaign that involved organizing cyber tournaments. And our colleagues from the Federal Drug Control Service asked us to review their game Spetsnaz Fighter. It looked awful, to put it mildly. I was disappointed with the quality of the game, despite appreciating the potential of using computer games to spread ideas. That’s because the system of public fund allocation and accountability was quite inadequate at the time. You got the money in March, and then in the fall you had to write a report on how it was used. You had six months and a small amount. Most likely, you only had time to redesign some of the existing games.

Antinarkomaniya, released by Pipe Studio, is believed to have undergone a similarly rushed development process. The company, known for creating the Pilot Brothers quest during the same period, allegedly repurposed one of the episodes and merely changed its graphics. The accuracy of this information cannot be confirmed, but Alexander Gorbachenko shares this view.

Antinarkomaniya
Antinarkomaniya

Another project of those years was devoted to another spetsnaz soldier, albeit of the SOBR rather than FSKN. “The gameplay is quite straightforward, just run and shoot. Four kinds of weapons, a Vivisector game engine, and a silly plot about a conspiracy to betray the Motherland,” wrote the Igromania magazine about the game.

In 2011, Dmitry Medvedev noted the importance of nurturing the game industry. The then president suggested the development of a multiplayer online game, inspired by Russian history, akin to World of Warcraft. However, during his tenure, only the Defense Ministry portal managed to introduce a gaming section. This section contained militarized versions of such games as Tetris, Minesweeper, Battleship, and a quiz that tested knowledge of military ranks.

According to Mikhail (name changed at his request), producer for a large game studio with Russian roots, before 2017-2018 the Russian government was not interested in the game industry in principle:

“To me, the pivotal moment was when Roskomnadzor released a relatively high-quality report on the gaming market during that time period. It was the first instance where the government began to view computer games in a different light, no longer considering them a societal ill that required rectifying. Fast forward to 2021, when Vasily Ovchinnikov, a government-backed businessman, established the Video Game Industry Development Organization.”

Despite not being a game designer, Vasily Ovchinnikov has made a name for himself in various other endeavors. During the 2000s, he led the Student Community organization, which partnered with RIA Novosti to popularize the St. George ribbon among the masses. Later on, Ovchinnikov served as the CEO of Mosgortur, a state-owned company, and authored a book entitled “The Manifesto of the Right Official.” In the early 2020s, Ovchinnikov came to the realization that it was time to take action, as he has explained to The Insider.

“The idea was to establish an association of the market’s major developers, such as Sbergames and VK, to collaborate on addressing various developmental concerns in the industry with the help of the government's financial and administrative leverage. In the past, high-ranking officials were hesitant to engage with the gaming industry, often blaming it for incidents such as school shootings. However, the mood had changed, and officials were now more willing to support the industry. People were optimistic, and there were plans in motion. Little did they know that everything would change by February 2022.”

Shortly before the war, a new project thought up by government officials surfaced: to introduce a special tax on the most prominent gaming portals, including Steam, PlayStation Store, and Epic Games Store. The revenue generated from this tax would be utilized to develop patriotic games. The plan was to collect 5% of these portals' Russian turnover, with officials from the Ministry of Digital Economy estimating that this would amount to roughly 10 billion rubles ($135,100,000) annually. According to Vasily Ovchinnikov, he refused to endorse this proposal from the outset:

“We expressed concerns that the ultimate burden of the tax would fall on the users themselves. The proposal was presented to the government but was not returned. I believe that the government did not find the proposal favorable. Currently, the idea is moot as there is no one left to levy the tax upon.”

Games and War

The war, according to Ovchinnikov, affected developers in different ways:

“The revenues of studios from games on Apple Store have experienced a significant decline. On the Android platform, many developers integrated payment systems that permitted money to be transferred to Russia. Meanwhile, Russian companies continued to release their products on Steam, with payments collected and transferred to Russia via third-party countries and non-sanctioned financial institutions. This shift has caused less disruption for major developers but has created more significant challenges for smaller ones.”

At the onset of the war, Wargaming - the studio best known for developing World of Tanks - disclosed the termination of one of its senior executives for endorsing Russian aggression, as well as the shuttering of its Russian branch, Lesta Games in Saint Petersburg. Yet, in reality, Lesta Games is still operating and managing the popular tank simulator throughout Russia and Belarus. According to Vasily Ovchinnikov, “the Russian developers are not significantly affected, but the users bear the brunt of the impact - they were once able to play with the whole world, but now they are limited to playing only with each other.”

Ukrainian game developers have created numerous games related to the ongoing war. These games range from simple mobile applications, where players must tow Russian tanks or beat Putin over the head, to more serious endeavors such as the graphic novel “Ukraine War Stories,” which depicts the struggles of civilians surviving in the occupied towns of Gostomel, Bucha, and Mariupol. Other projects in the works include a large-scale game about the lives of volunteers and a shooter where players must fight against Russian soldiers. On the other hand, there have been only a handful of strategy and shooter mods on the Russian side (mods are remade original games with new maps, characters, tasks, objects, and weapons). For instance, an unofficial add-on to the Ukrainian game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. lets players take on the role of an FSB major and engage in battles with the Ukrainian military and the Azov regiment in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Ovchinnikov has been following the successes of the Ukrainian game industry with bitterness:

“Every time a game comes out on Steam originating from Ukraine or any country that supports Ukraine, developers in chat rooms engage in heated discussions about the lack of alternative perspectives on the conflict. While many developers are patriotic, there doesn't appear to be much diversity in terms of the narratives presented in these games.”

Mikhail has a different opinion of the Russian game design community:

“The gamedev community is generally liberal and is hesitant about taking orders from the government. While Ukrainian developers have been motivated to create games about the war, Russian developers have not shown the same level of motivation. However, there have been recent reports that the studio 1C has transferred all of its assets to Russia, suggesting that it may become involved in patriotic projects related to the war if the government chooses to invest in them.”

It's true that there have been attempts to depict previous wars involving Putin's Russia in video games. One such example is Confrontation: Enforcing Peace, a game with Mikheil Saakashvili chewing his necktie on the cover. It had a plot that involved not only Georgia, but also Ukraine and Poland joining the war, so players had to fight with everyone. However, it was poorly executed and did not receive much enthusiasm from players.

“Confrontation: Enforcing Peace”
“Confrontation: Enforcing Peace”

“The trouble is that Enforcing Peace is the same as Confrontation ten years ago, with no changes at all. And that means muddy sprite graphics and primitive tactics by today's standards... Releasing something like that at the end of 2008 is akin to a war crime,” Igromania wrote at the time.

According to Ovchinnikov, the war in Syria inspired a number of Russian developers:

“Several different companies combed through the market looking for funding for the projects, but almost none of them succeeded. Even though it was a pretty successful military operation, and a lot of new equipment was used.”

In the end, the only game about the Syrian War was the Syrian Warfare strategy. Its developers attempted to raise money through crowdfunding, but failed, and when they did release the project, they refused to disclose the sources of funding. Mikhail suspects that Evgeny Prigozhin helped them, but there is no evidence to confirm this.

State Corporation and State Grants

In December 2022, news emerged that the government is in discussions regarding a federal initiative dubbed “The Gaming Industry of the Future.” Leading the project will be Maxim Parshin, the Deputy Head of the Ministry of Digital Economy, while oversight will be provided by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko. According to Kommersant, the plan is to allocate as much as $50 billion towards supporting Russian game studios, which could result in the release of 25 games with a budget of 6.5 billion rubles ($87,815,000) or higher, as well as 40 other simpler projects, by 2030. The new entity responsible for game development strategy is slated to be called Rosgame.

According to Ovchinnikov, the initiative is still in its infancy:

“Dmitry Chernyshenko gave a speech advocating for the allocation of funds towards the development of domestic games. Soon after, a meeting was held at the Ministry of Digital Economy, with information leaked to Kommersant. As far as I'm aware, formal instructions were given to industry representatives to submit proposals. A few preliminary calls were made, during which market players shared their ideas. However, since then, there has been no further development, and a month has passed. Thus, at present, this is merely an idea, and no state funds have been allocated.”

It is important not to be confused: the distribution of grants through IRI has nothing to do with Rosgame. It is an alternative project for providing the industry with state support. According to Mikhail, it is competitive:

“Roughly speaking, the projects are being promoted by two different “Kremlin towers.” One of them is the Ministry of Digital Economy plus Vasily Ovchinnikov and his 'Video Game Industry Development Organization. The other is IRI.”

There has been progress since then, with at least two grant competitions taking place in 2022: one in the spring and another in the fall. Several games received state support, in addition to Counterintelligence, which was known as Secret Service: The Beginning at the time the grant was received. Some games remain shrouded in mystery, with only their names listed on the IRI website. For instance, SSR: Enemy from the Future and Vera and Foma: Let's Go Play! have been listed, though neither experts nor journalists close to the industry are familiar with them.

A brief description for the second game has been found, not on the grantor or grantee's website, but in a job advertisement seeking a narrative designer for the project. The announcement reveals that the game will be a two-dimensional, point-and-click adventure, in which “players will follow the incredible journey of two schoolchildren, siblings Vera and Foma, along with their friend Mikhail Gavrilovich and a wonderful dog named Altai, through various eras.” The game appears to be an ideological extension of the series of comics by the Orthodox radio station Vera [Faith] and the magazine “Foma” [Thomas].

Project producer Stanislav Lauk-Dubitsky told The Insider that the game's plot will focus on significant turning points in Russian history, through which the characters will navigate. However, no details can be revealed until the contract with IRI is finalized, which has not happened yet.

The Time of Troubles, PMCs and Denis Davydov

The most prominent project to receive state support is “The Time of Troubles,” which was awarded a grant in May 2022. According to Ovchinnikov, its success “unleashed the idea of allocating funds for games.”

Although no official announcement has been made regarding the funding amount, Kommersant’s sources indicate that the government grant awarded to “The Time of Troubles” is approximately 260 million rubles ($3,5 million). The game's storyline will be based on Mikhail Zagoskin's historical novel, “Yuri Miloslavsky, or Russians in 1612,” a bestseller in the early 19th century. The game's historical focus will be limited to 1612, despite the Time of Troubles having a broader scope. The project team's patriotism is aligned with the tone of the novel.

The Times of Troubles
The Times of Troubles

Alexey Koptsev, the head of the Novosibirsk-based studio Cyberia Nova, which was granted funding, in a recent comprehensive interview with Game World Navigator expressed his views on patriotism and opposition to the West. When asked about the game's plot selection, Koptsev responded with the following:

“There were several reasons behind our decision. On the one hand, the current geopolitical situation bears some resemblance to the events of the 17th century. Geopolitics, in general, does not change, the location of resources remains the same, and the East-West confrontation persists. <…> The Time of Troubles is an extremely fascinating and crucial historical period not only for Russia, but for all of Europe. During this period, there was a significant risk of losing our national identity, which could have led to a loss of the reigning dynasty… There was a good chance we would no longer be truly Russian. Therefore, it is crucial to study this period in depth. For example, I want children to confidently answer historical questions such as what the 4th of November represents when journalists approach them on the street.”

The interview ends with him saying that all of us should unite today, following the example of the Minin and Pozharsky militia.

The game will require players to participate in the storming of Moscow and witness the crowning of Mikhail Romanov. They will engage in speaking, shooting, and fighting bosses, as well as disguising themselves as a prince, robber, or even a skomorokh, the latter of which will allow for throwing bombs at enemies.

According to Koptsev, the project involves 45 in-house staff and a significant number of outsourced workers. The team also includes five science consultants, some of whom have academic degrees and experience in historical reenactment. In the past, Cyberia Nova primarily focused on providing graphic outsourcing services to larger game developers, and has not previously developed large-scale games independently.

Details of several other games that received funding after the fall grant competition have emerged. One of them, with a budget of 50 million rubles ($680,000), will focus on the partisan leader of the War of 1812, Denis Davydov. Unfortunately, the developer, genre, and amount of budget support for this game are unknown. Another game that won a grant of 100 million rubles ($1.35 million) is an adventure game called Trains, which explores an alternative history of pre-revolutionary Russia. The most successful winner of the competition is Sparta, with a budget of 200 million rubles ($2.7 million), although the amount of the grant has not been disclosed. The story revolves around a Russian private military company (not Wagner) fighting in Africa. IRI assured the reporters that “the game would have not links or attribution to reality, as it focuses on the story of brave Russian fighters battling evil in an African country.”

The project will be undertaken by a studio called Lipsar, which has previously focused solely on developing mobile games with simple gameplay. The studio's name is unfamiliar to all of the experts we have interviewed, but interestingly, it can be read as “Raspil” [embezzlement of government funds in colloquial Russian] when read backwards.

The project's website is not yet operational, and the Vkontakte group associated with it has only 12 members. Additionally, there is a Telegram channel with 400 subscribers called @lipsarstudio, which has only one post so far, which announces: “We are working on a turn-based tactical RPG, similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Jagged Alliance 2.” Both of these games are timeless classics that were released in 1993 and 1999, respectively. Alexander Gorbachenko believes that, given the application, particular attention will need to be paid to the game's story and design.

“Producing XCOM in 2023 is not a difficult task. The success of the game will largely depend on factors such as scripting, level building, gameplay, and design. However, it is worth considering a different angle. The actions of the Wagner PMC are currently a source of pride for many Russians, and Africa is an important strategic location. Now there’s a competition for Russian game content, and a proposal to make a game about a private military company may seem like a good choice. It's also possible that someone from the Wagner PMC reached out to support the project.”

Indirectly this version of events has been confirmed by the developers' comment to Kommersant: “Several of our writers, who are working on the game, participated in hostilities in Syria.”

How they are chosen

Watt Studios' Trains was a unique winner in the competition as it doesn't solely focus on history. Instead, it is set in an alternate past where Nikola Tesla's experiments resulted in successful extraction of electricity directly from the air, but this caused natural disasters, particularly electrical storms that could only be traversed by trains. The game follows a student, who is also the inventor's daughter, as she travels by train through an alternate-history Russian empire before the revolution, seeking to uncover the secret of the perpetual motion machine her father had invented.

According to Yegor Tomsky, head of Watt Studios, this is exactly the case when a good project lost funding after the war began:

“We conceived Trains at the end of 2021 and presented to various publishers, some of whom showed interest, including the Polish 11-bit studios. However, after February 24, all potential investors withdrew. The team learned about the IRI grants in the summer, during the White Nights gaming conference. The contest had specific plot requirements, which included games about war and history or games that popularized scientific and technological knowledge. Trains met the latter criterion and even garnered interest from the Polytechnic Museum as it presented an opportunity to educate children about electricity through gameplay.”

It took the studio team a week to prepare an application and a business plan. Then the projects were examined by experts. According to Ovchinnikov, many other applications did not even reach the experts:

“It seems to me that IRI was simply unable to process them all. Half of the projects remained at the stage of document registration.”

On the other hand, Mikhail says that the grant competition team members were still actively inviting applicants at the end of the summer:

“An old acquaintance of mine, who has extensive experience working with the government, recently contacted me in search of potential projects for IRI. He mentioned that the organization was willing to provide funding of up to 100 million rubles ($1.35 million) for eligible projects. This may indicate either a lack of suitable applicants, or the fact the ones they had were so crappy they had to hire a recruiter.”

The final stage of the selection process was a pitching session held in Moscow. Tomsky says there were twenty industry professionals present in the auditorium, none of whom were in uniform or wearing cassocks:

“After I presented the game, everything seemed to be going well. But then problems arose. We wanted to work like we usually work with publishers: we would submit stages of work every few months and receive payment accordingly. The plan was to use the grant money to create a demo version and then seek additional funding. But IRI had different ideas. They insisted on paying the full amount but only after specific conditions were met, particularly reaching 100,000 downloads.”

The game developers say the game costs 160 million rubles ($2.2 million). The studio needed to raise an additional 60 million ($810,000) needed for the game's development. However, securing financing at the concept stage can be challenging, especially when compared to presenting a nearly finished product to potential investors. According to Tomsky, the studio attempted to secure a loan.

“We were unable to secure a loan from any Russian bank, and our attempts to communicate with IRI were met with little success. We requested a meeting to discuss conditions but were only provided with answers from higher-ups through their representative. The only agreement we reached was that we would receive the first 30 million ($405,000) after seven months upon completion of the internal demo. However, this did not address our funding needs and, ultimately, we were unable to finalize a contract with IRI. We are not concealing this information as we are seeking publicity.”

The original project had to be shut down. Instead, a graphic novel will be released by the end of the year. It is easier and much cheaper to make such a game.

The producer of the game about Foma and Vera, Stanislav Lauk-Dubitsky, believes that the Watt Studios team is to blame for everything:

“Initially, they made a mistake by selecting an incorrect approach when they could have clearly communicated their preference for upfront payment. Such an option was available. If opting for a phased approach, one must accurately select the checkbox for advances.”

Michael is sure that this story is a good example of how people in the game industry don't quite understand how the grant system works.

The magic of the grant

The creators of The Magic of Knowledge: The History of Russia project, namely VK, the Ministry of Education of Russia, and the Russian Znaniye [Knowledge] Society, are clearly well-versed in the workings of government contracts. All the three organizations usually themselves offer grants but in this instance they acted as grant recipients.

It is unknown exactly how much money they received from IRI. But one can see the result at магиязнаний.рф. The game went live on December 21, so this is the latest state-funded gaming project to date.

The Magic of Knowledge: The History of Russia
The Magic of Knowledge: The History of Russia

The story's plot is complex. It centers around a magic school that has been seized by an evil force comprised of Baba Yaga, Koshchey, Kikimora, and, curiously, Barabashka. After being expelled from the school, the Learned Cat seeks assistance from the character you will be playing for, the child.

Despite the ability to select clothing, hair color, and eye color for your hero, he will still resemble the little boogeyman Kuzya from the scene in the cartoon where they washed him clean. In order to defeat the evil, the player must wield a cloven sword that is imbued with the power of knowledge. This knowledge, however, is quite unique. The initial thirty minutes of gameplay will introduce the player to a range of historical facts, such as Prince Rurik's wearing helmet with horns, rowboats carved from solid tree trunks, and the use of plantain for medicinal purposes, as well as traditional Dymkovo toys played by Russian children in ancient times.

“Dinner is ready! Let's eat, put away our toys, and go see our father off on a journey,” the ancient Slavic girl says to the hero and the Learned Cat. At this point the game crashes.

The game crashes, but state support continues. As early as this year, The Magic of Knowledge promises to add sections about the tsars, the USSR, and modern Russia.

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