Repka, an arcade machine tucked in the corner of Moscow’s Museum of Soviet Arcades, might be one of the USSR’s oddest games. In it, would-be worker peasants must test their pulling strength by tugging on a turnip that, legend has it, took the might of three communist villagers to extract.
The museum itself, located in the heart of Russia’s capital, has shone a light on early gaming – as the country, like many others in the former eastern bloc, has been gripped by ‘Ostalgie’ – nostalgia for the east.
It is four decades since Repka (‘Turnip’, of course) appeared. In subsequent years the Soviet Union’s games reserved a resolutely strange and kitschy edge – from submarine-hunting shooters to road traffic sign quizzes.
Since communism’s fall, however, modern Russia has been striving to forge a serious, successful gaming industry of its own. Now, with its numbers well into serious territory, that effort has paid off.
Today’s Moscow isn’t just a safer, more prosperous city. It is crammed full of games developers, big and small, who have been busy creating some of the world’s most popular online titles. Russia’s gaming market is now worth an estimated $1.5 billion, almost doubling in value since 2012.
This ranks Russia 12th globally for games revenue, dwarfed by China ($22.2 billion) and the U.S. ($21.6 billion). In fact, the world’s largest country lags behind European neighbors Germany, the U.K., France, Spain and Italy.
But in PC gaming, Russia is the world’s number one. 46.6 million people make up its local market, to which around 10 million Russian speakers can be added from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the CIS, which comprise almost all of central Asia.
The reasons are numerous. Internet penetration, while slightly down 2% from a 2012 high of 63.8%, still hovers at 61.4% according to the World Bank (2013), which, while behind most European counterparts, still translates to over 100 million people online.
Internet speeds have also risen sharply: according to a report last year by Akamai, a cloud services provider, the average broadband speed was 8.2Mb/s, a 44% year-on-year increase and higher than Germany, France and Italy. 27% of connections were above 10Mb/s, a 123% rise on 2013 figures.
40% of revenues come from massive multiplayer online games (MMOs), which are the most popular genre for PCs. Free-to-play (F2P) titles represent 32.6% of the total market. Fantasy titles, such as Allods Online and Perfect World, represent a continuity of a national obsession with fantasy and illusion, that began in the wake of Soviet collapse with titles like 1998’s Vangers.
But as the Soviet edifice has crumbled, and people have been able to cast a more critical eye over what Russians know as the Great Patriotic War, war games have become the premier staple of the local market. From The Truth About 9th Company (2008) to World of Tanks, more open dialogue has helped popularize a flurry of games throwing a sideways glance at official views of Russia’s wartime history.
“WWII is a huge theme for any post-Soviet development – this thing is deeply engrained in any post-Soviet mentality,” Gaijin’s Yulia Shveyko told me at a downtown cafe. “Eastern Europe, and Russia, has a strong history here. In the US the soldiers fought during WWII of course, but this was somewhere in the Pacific or Europe – out of the country. Here, all of it was right here. Almost any family has someone who died during the war.
“Instead of cartoons we had WWII heroes and WWII movies,” she added. “Most people know the names of famous Russian aces, tankers, generals. Half of the streets in Moscow are named after WWII generals. It’s in our DNA. This is why we stay close to WWII simulation games. If you look back seven years of Gaijin, it’s always about WWII.”
Gaijin’s flight sims Birds of Prey, and Birds of Steel, have become huge sellers. The company has even worked with state museums in Russia to preserve and record tanks and weapons used in the war, thanks to its painstaking research – including sound recordings – for War Thunder. The game, which has welcomed over 8 million players since its 2013 inception, even has a Guinness World Record for the most planes in a flight simulation game.
In the early nineties, as the Berlin Wall, then European communism, fell apart, there was a spate of eastern bloc sims, covering everything from village schools to, brilliantly, Wall Street stockbrokers.
Sims remain a hugely popular part of the Russian gaming makeup. One such hit, “Russian Traffic Cop 3D”, has been downloaded over a million times from Google Play, and offers players the chance to crouch behind shrubbery, catching out speeding drivers and issuing fines.
Today sims still account for a large number of Russian gamers. Perhaps that’s why the average age is creeping up, thanks to a wider audience over 35. The average age of a Russian gamer is now 33 – far higher than many other European nations.
The same urban-rural divide that made Repka such a humorous addition years ago, however, is still a big issue in modern Russia. Cat Goodfellow, a gaming expert and PhD student at the University of Manchester, believes it is holding back Russia’s gaming figures.
The national conversation about gaming, too, is years behind those in the west. “The real difference (between Russia and the west) is the concern about ideological messages,” says Goodfellow. “It’s not as pronounced in the Soviet period, of course, but there’s a real worry about the Americanization of Russian youth and a decline in proper Russian values.” This has been a key factor in the flourishing of local, rather than foreign, game titles.
In 2010 Russian MPs launched an attack on gaming companies, many of which they viewed as unpatriotic. Games “simply tend to ridicule Russia with images of bears riding unicycles down the street, and, I mean, come on, this just doesn’t respond to reality,” said Pavel Zyryanov, of parliament’s committee on youth policy.
But above all the Russian gamer demographic is changing – along with the way new games are marketed.
Shadow Fight, made by Muscovite firm Nekki, gained an audience of 80 million people, launched alongside Russia’s biggest social media platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. That was helped in no small part by an upsurge in smartphone penetration, from 25% in 2012 to 55% this year.
Shadow Fight 3 is soon to arrive, and Babaev has been busy forging ties with international firms – Google, Unity, Nvidia – to break fully out of the domestic market. “This is the most valuable experience and most important point for the company at the moment,” says Nekki’s Sergey Babaev.
“The “Russian user” undoubtedly is approaching the same tastes that also European/Western gamers have,” he adds. “There are fewer and fewer projects that are “cranberries”, meaning that they’re working with a specific mentality and national mindset. Clash of Clans, Game of War, Candy Crush are also popular here.”
The entry of huge Russian companies such as Mail.ru, which produces Allods and Perfect World, has not just injected cash into the market, but a renewed optimism that Russian games don’t have to be restricted to their domestic market. Conversely, localizing European and American titles could be another big way to increase the gaming market inside Russia.
Right now, however, there is little wrong with Russia’s gaming market. And with web speeds, penetration and smartphone usage set to soar, there will be plenty more show-stealing MMOs to come. “This is truly a turning point in Russian gaming,” Shveyko said. The numbers are there to prove it.