Interview for AIN.UA

10 June 2015

How GSC created the new “Cossacks”: interview with Evgeniy Grygorovych.


There has been no news from GSC Game World, the world-famous Ukrainian game developing company, since 2011, when it became known that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was frozen and a part of the team left. Since then several projects of GSC’s inheritors appeared in Ukrainian game development. And in the mid-May of this year GSC again burst into the headlines: the company announced making a new historical real-time strategy game “Cossacks 3”. AIN.UA had a conversation with the head of development studio Evgeniy Grygorovych (younger brother of Sergey, the founder of the studio) about what had happened in 2011, what will the new Cossacks be like, how does the Ukrainian game development feel and whether the fans should hope for a new S.T.A.L.K.E.R.


Why was the studio closed in 2011? What happened?


The GSC Company was not closed completely: sales and technical support continued their work. Only the development studio has been closed for several reasons. The first one was Sergey’s personal decision to “retire”. Second it was long development project, which was associated with many risks. Thus, the development department has been disbanded, but the company survived and still exists. Sergey is still the owner of the company, and all the operational tasks, such as product development, sales, and marketing, are all my responsibility. 


When the studio was closed, several “inheritors of GSC” announced development of games “from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. team”. What do you think about it?


People have the right to declare that, because they really worked on the project. The practice of using other trademarks in advertising campaigns is not acceptable in Europe, but here it’s still common. In general, I can’t see any threats to GSC. Rather it is our advantage, if the brand GSC is used as something helpful to promote others’ products.


Which part of the original team stayed to work with you?


I need to clarify that the teams of the first Cossacks and the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. did not interact originally. Now we have both the “old” and new experts on the team: those who used to work on the first and the second Cossacks, and in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. And new members with huge game development experience, who came to us from other projects. Thanks to the Internet, we’ve thoroughly changed the approach to forming the team. Previously we had to search for talent only in Kiev, and now we can rely on the whole of Ukraine, where the amount of talents is much larger. Now we employ many free-lance designers from Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Yuzhnoukrainsk, even from Nizhny Tagil and St. Petersburg.


When did the idea of making the sequel to Cossacks appear?


The idea of creating the third Cossacks was in the air for a long time. We really liked the idea of reviving the series because it should be “for the spirit”. And three years ago there appeared a real possibility that the idea had a chance to be realized. We’ve prepared all the documents, the vision of how the game should look and be developed; set up the approximate terms. The work on the game itself started in November 2013.


The idea of the revival of the series is perhaps linked to the nostalgia we experienced. The project we’ve created was appreciated in Germany, UK, France and Poland, and of course Ukraine and Russia.


In many ways this feeling is also close to patriotism, we want to create the national game which is associated with our country, to prove again, that Ukraine is able to make world-class products. When Europeans study history at school they hear about Cossacks. In my opinion, for them Ukrainian Cossacks are some kind of “European Samurais”, some fantasy characters, but still historically accurate. It’s a bright heroic image to promote the Ukrainian culture in the West.


At what stage is the work on the game now? When can we expect the release?


The game is 80% ready, but the polishing will take a lot of time. We’ll arrange a closed beta test where the most active official forum and social pages users will participate. The release is planned for the 4th quarter of this year.


Which sales channels do you count on? Who will be the publisher of the game?


The market has come to the fact that Steam makes 95% of sales, the rest is other online platforms. We’ll have retail, but the format will in many ways depend on the local publishers. Several years ago the games retail sales had been, so to say, “dead”, but there has been an explosive growth in online sales. Now retail is gradually recovering: many gamers still like to keep collectible game CDs at home.


In online we’ll do publishing by ourselves. Each country will have the local retail publishers. Who’s going to work in Ukraine and CIS countries, I can’t say just now. We are currently in negotiations. 


What is the project budget for development and marketing? What money helps you to develop?


We can’t name the numbers. I think people that buy the product will appreciate the budget. We develop at our own GSC expense.


The third part will be similar to the first one in many ways. Why so?


People enjoyed the first Cossacks game very much. The second was less successful in sales. This was due to more complex game play. The second game is more measured, less dynamic. It’s more like chess. While the first one resembled Formula 1. With their wallets fans voted that original Cossacks was better. So we decided not to reinvent the wheel, and to revive the series on the on the basis of successful game play. In 10 years a new generation grew up. It’s not familiar with the first Cossacks and we hope they will appreciate what their parents used to play.


By the way, the release won’t put an end to development. We’re going to build the whole platform around the game to support the modding community. Right up to writing fragments of code to help them in making great gameplay changes. We are working on convenient service to connect mods, giving modmakers all the tools with which we create the game. I can say that Cossacks 3 is going to be sort of a semi-open source project. On the basis of tools, given to modders, they can create almost any game. 


The game will have a multiplayer mode. Have you thought about the online project?


Online is a delicate matter, implying a change of game play and, in many ways, its simplification, when the player is transferred into the mode “wait two days until your farm is built”. It’s good for getting profit, but not very interesting from the point of the development process. We follow the classic PC games scheme: buy the game, install it and play. No need to wait and buy anything else. You are provided with support and you are not tied to time.


What new can you promise to gamers?


From basics – there will be historical single-campaigns for different nations. We create them from scratch, searching for interesting historical events and periods. Partially Cossacks are meant to make people interested in history.


We base them on a true history, but do not reproduce events authentically. We just take history as a basic canvas and then the player makes his own decisions. We don’t force him to act as it was in reality.


What specific events and periods we will reproduce, I cannot say yet. But no doubt, they will be the most critical and recognizable, and sometimes not so famous, but interesting moments in the history of different countries.


What does the Ukrainian game developing market feel like today? What’s happening with the strategies development now?


Now many Ukrainian companies are becoming internationalized. One of the game companies has moved to Malta with almost all its team. As for the market of non-mobile games and strategies in particular, PC games gradually fight back the market. In many ways it’s a merit of Steam, which made the buying process much easier. Before you had to go to the shops, looking for a new game, install it, download the latest upgrades and hope that the game wouldn’t crash after that. And now all you need to do is to click “Buy”. A qualitatively new level of service.


This lowered the prices for the PC games a lot. Before the normal cost of the project could cost $50, now it’s $20. Previously retailers could take, relatively speaking, half the cost of the game, but now there is no such loss. That’s why the developers reduce twice the price and earn more. Now, for example, at the CIS market, which is highly exposed to piracy, you can see a simple rule: if you sell the game, for instance, for the price of several meals at McDonald’s, the user will buy it. But if it’s more expensive, he’ll use torrents and just download it.


I can’t announce our prices yet, but they will vary from region to region: more expensive in USA and Europe, cheaper in CIS. We are cardinally against selling victory, against pay to win policy. DLC will be purely substantive, visual – new campaigns, new nations. With this the main part of DLC will be free. The main income we see in selling the game itself.


What can you say about the PC strategies market?


At some point there was a “crisis of the genre”: the amount of fans of these rather complex intellectual games had decreased. In stores strategies have been displaced by shooters. About 5 years ago the situation had changed with the strategy fans audience and is now growing. But classic strategies are now made by only a few companies in the world. We are relatively the third or fourth on this list.


Interesting detail: the historical strategies (such as Total War, for instance) are focused on the middle Ages, Antiquity, Napoleonic Wars, but not on the period we work with – XVII-XVIII centuries. In my opinion, this period is the most interesting from the approach of game play. Here melee weapons and bows combine with the new – muskets and artillery. As the result you get a fantastic jumble of tools which the player can combine. I mean you don’t play the Rock-Paper-Scissors type of game, but you use dozens of different variations.


You started to develop the game simultaneously with the beginning of the revolution. How has the business environment changed in recent years?


We’re quite isolated from what is happening in the country, as far as we work for the international market. As for the staff, there have always been talented people in game development, and still are, they can be found. Of course, the events in the country affected us personally and emotionally, but not the working process. It affected the developers market in a way that some companies decided to leave the country and to make games remotely. I think it was due to the foreign investments. For the western people with money it’s difficult to agree to invest in a company from the country where the military operations take place. It’s easier to put conditions for relocation than to run risks.


Who now owns the rights to TM S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? May the fans hope for the second part?


I can’t tell the fans what to do :) Personally I don’t want to be sprayed on several projects. That’s why I’ll focus on the Cossacks, trying to do my best for this project. What’s coming next, you will see.


TM S.T.A.L.K.E.R. still belongs to Sergey Grygorovych.