Game on for Ukraine's video games makers despite conflict

Kiev (AFP) - With empty pizza boxes and coffee cups littering the desks of bearded young programmers, Frogwares looks like any other successful video games company, even though this is not California, but Kiev.

The firm's latest game, "Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments", featuring the legendary London detective, was released worldwide in September to positive reviews. Its 80 staff are already working on a sequel.

However as the conflict in eastern Ukraine drags on, employees do so against a backdrop of instability which raises questions for the future of the country's growing IT industry as well as the nation itself.

While the stylised Victorian England of "Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments" is a virtual world away from the war-torn Donbass, a reference to Ukraine's political situation has crept into the game.

It features a splash screen -- a screen that appears when the game is loading -- mentioning the "Heavenly Hundred", which is the collective name for those who died in protests on Kiev's Independence Square, known as Maidan, earlier this year. The action there led into the current unrest.

"When Maidan started, many people at the studio were involved with it," said Frogwares CEO Wael Amr.

"We started to think about thanking the people that gave their lives in Maidan... and so we voted for implementing a splash screen".

That led to its publisher in Russia refusing to release the game there and in a string of other former Soviet states. But Frogwares refused to back down and the game is now available in Russia as a download.

Other than this, the conflict has had little direct impact on Frogwares, said Amr, a 39-year-old Frenchman in a hooded top who started the company in 2000.

But he added: "Of course, there is this constant pressure that we don't know what is going to happen tomorrow."

- 'Keep an eye on the news' -

Ukraine has a strong reputation for talent in the video games industry, thanks in part to its education system's traditional strength in maths and engineering, a Soviet-era legacy, plus the relative cheapness of labour.

It has produced a string of big name hits including the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, set in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986.

But industry figures speak of a sense of uncertainty as they watch to see how the conflict in the east, in which Russia strongly denies any military involvement despite Western accusations, develops.

While big international gaming names such as Ubisoft still have offices in Kiev, 4A Games, one of the biggest Ukrainian firms, moved its headquarters to Malta in May. It has kept a studio in the Ukrainian capital.

Oleg Yavorsky, PR and marketing director of Vostok Games, another leading Kiev studio, said they had discussed relocating earlier this year but decided against it.

"In Kiev, it's calm but we constantly keep an eye on the news," he added.

Sergiy Galyonkin, who has worked in the gaming industry for 20 years and writes a blog on it, predicted that some could leave if the situation gets significantly worse.

"In gaming, most people I know do have a backup plan," he added. "They're ready to pack up their things and leave the country, but it's not like they're leaving right now."

- 'Pick up laptop, grab family' -

Video gaming is part of a much broader, multi-billion dollar IT sector in Ukraine.

One of its biggest names is Ciklum, which develops software for companies around the world and employs some 2,500 staff in six Ukrainian cities.

The firm's Danish CEO, Torben Majgaard, said that figure used to be seven until they left the eastern city of Donetsk in April due to escalating violence.

He is optimistic that Ukraine's IT sector can help the country's economy grow significantly in the coming years.

Majgaard contrasted how oligarchs are key players in major Ukrainian industries such as electricity and gas, with how the IT sector spreads wealth among the middle class.

"I most certainly see the IT industry as being the one that can really help change Ukraine over the next decade," he said.

For the country as for the industry, though, much depends on how the conflict develops.

And Galyonkin argued that, even if the situation in Ukraine does worsen significantly, it will not be talented individuals working in gaming and IT who suffer most.

"In creative industries, you just pick up your laptop, grab your family, move abroad and find a new job," he said.

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