Only one-in-six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, according to a recent poll. It’s likely most players have only heard of Ukraine because it’s where 4A Games, developer behind the Metro series, is located.
Ukraine has been in the news lately, and it hasn’t been for encouraging reasons.
Both 4A Games and Roman Vasylyshen, a 23-year-old university student working to earn his diploma in labor law, are located in Kiev. Kiev is both the capital and largest city in Ukraine, and it's been at the center of political and social unrest, as the instability in Ukraine continues.
Vasylyshen contacted me through a private message on Giant Bomb earlier in the week with a few questions, and we started chatting about various subjects. Upon learning he’s living in Kiev, I asked if he’d be willing to chat with me about his experience with gaming in Ukraine.
Given what's happening in Ukraine right now, Vasylyshen does (shock!) present some personal beliefs about the situation regarding Ukraine. Geopolitics don't come up very often here at Giant Bomb, so please be cool about that, should you choose to start typing in the comments.
(Full disclosure: Vasylyshen, who goes by SnakeVSGiant Bomb on the site, does not speak great English, so I cleaned up our email conversation to be more readable.)
Giant Bomb: Can you describe what it’s like in Kiev for you right now? Most people know Kiev because it’s in the news right now.
Roman Vasylyshen: It's interesting in Kiev right now. There are no people running with guns on the streets--most of the time. Sometimes there are certain incidents involving guns, but it's few and far between. Mostly, it's safe now. I mean, it's not February, when it was a little bit scary, to tell the truth. Little by little, we are trying to rebuild parts of Maidan [the central square in Kiev] that were destroyed during this revolution. There a lot of political campaigns from different politicians all over Ukraine. We have secured elections for May 25, but if Putin [the president of Russia] acts like he acted so far, it will be tough to elect someone. There is a lot of false information all over the news, all over the world, especially in Russia. I am not trying to say I know everything, but I know a thing or two about the situation in my country better than most news reporters.
GB: Tell us a little bit about your background. Did you grow up in Kiev? Have you always been playing games? What kinds?
Vasylyshen: I was born in a small town in the southwest part of Ukraine. I moved to Kiev when I was a year old, and been here ever since. Right now, I am finishing my time in university to get my diploma in law, specifically labor law.
I started playing games around three or four-years-old. The first console I played was the Mega Drive, and it was amazing--Mortal Kombat 3 and Desert Strike. Then, about year later, I asked my parents for a console on my birthday. But since it was a difficult time in our country--plus, my parents didn't know anything about consoles--they bought me a "Dendy”. A “Dendy” was an Nintendo Entertainment System, but they were stripped out of plastic and put in other boxes because that how things were at the time. I loved this little beast, and played it every day.
Then, a few years later, I got a PC, which was my main platform for games until about 2006, when I bought a PSP. Now, I have a 3DS, Vita, PS3 (I sold my DS and PSP, Wii, and Xbox 360). I play almost everything, from RPGs to racing sims--you name it. The most recent fun I had with games is probably Dark Souls 2. Man, what a game.
GB: Do you find it weird that people suddenly care about Kiev? Or do you see this as an opportunity?
Vasylyshen: It's a little weird. As far as I know, until recent events, most Americans didn't even knew about Ukraine, and now everybody is head-over-heels about our problems. It's fine with me, but so far, big American and European politicians hadn't made a single valuable move. With sanctions, Russia doesn't care. Signing treaties is the same. I mean, international law doesn't work. As far as an opportunity, yes. We need to utilize our every resource, and be more open to the world. Let everybody see that most of our people are hard working, educated and decent folk. That’s not all of them, but nobody is perfect, right?
"Games are always, in a way, an escape route from the real world and its problems. But it's really hard to play games when some serious stuff going on in your city or country."
GB: I cannot imagine there are a bunch of game shops in Kiev, but maybe I’m wrong! How do you play games in Kiev?
Vasylyshen: There are a ton of piracy. It’s not as bad as 2000 or so, but still. I mean, imagine that only way you could get a game is buy it in a official store where it was burned on a disc 15 minutes ago. Now, there are some magazines that resell games that they buy either in the US or Europe. In Kiev, there are two GameStops, but they are mostly bad when it comes to games. Consoles? Yes. Games? Not so much. Most of my friends are pirating games, especially on Xbox 360 and PC. PS3? Not so much. And I am no saint. I used to do it to, but it was the only method to get games. Nowadays, I mostly use Steam and PlayStation Store to buy games digitally. Recent price drops are doing their thing.
GB: In Kiev, do you have a chance to connect with other gamers? Do you guys meet up and play games together, or just huddle online?
Vasylyshen: I met my first friend, who I’ve known for 17 years, when we exchanged cartridges for our "Dendies.” As far as connecting, I am not really a super-social Internet dude. I don't like online games. I don't have Twitter, Tumblr, or even an Instagram account. I am not a social outcast, and I like to spend time with my friends or new people face-to-face. Recently, we started tournaments on the couch, with Samurai Gunn being everybody's favorite.
GB: You try to buy some games legally through Steam and PlayStation Network. What do your friends think of you doing that?
Vasylyshen: Not a lot of my friends play games, but the ones that play games are 50/50. Some approve, some disapprove. Because of the recent growth of free-to-play (mostly due to DOTA), a lot of them started to use Steam. Some even buy games. The main problem is that minimum wage is $200-a-month for most working folks. For example, right now a new PlayStation 4 game costs around $80. And on top of that, right now there is a crisis. Prices are getting higher, pay is not. All of the games I have now, I legally own them. Having studied law for six years, and being a normal human being, I know that I have to pay for my products, whether it's games or movies or whatever.
GB: Can you talk about what platforms most people play on? My suspicion would be the PC.
Vasylyshen: Yes, PC all the way--most pirated and most played. Next, I would say PSP, PS3, 360, 3DS. After that, probably PS1 and PS2--yes, people still play those in my country.
GB: Do you find that games are an escape for you, given the political turmoil in your country right now?
Vasylyshen: Yes and no. I mean, games are always, in a way, an escape route from the real world and its problems. But it's really hard to play games when some serious stuff going on in your city or country. As I wrote on the Giant Bomb forums, the first thing I thought when all of this started to happen is to leave and go somewhere else. Then, I thought about it and decided I should probably stay. It's not super bad over here, and I love my country too much to leave it. Maybe later but not now.
GB: Looking at the list of games made in Ukraine, there’s a certain theme: war, fighting. Why do you think that is?
Vasylyshen: There are a lot of war-influenced games made in Ukraine, that's true. But almost every one of those game have a special meaning behind them.
Take Cossacks, for example. It’s a game about a democratic semi-military people who fought for Ukraine. (If anyone cares to read up about our history, there is always someone trying to invade us or kill our people.) We are by no means aggressive or violent people, but when your neighbors are taking parts of your country (like Crimea), you have to think about what you going to do next.
Last and not least. my favorite is Metro. Enough has been said about this game by many game journalists before me, and I have only one thing to add: it was made in Ukraine.
GB: You told me privately there’s a bit of an indie scene in the Ukraine. What’s that like? Any games we might know?
GB: Do you think there is a future for video games in Kiev and Ukraine? What’s that future like?
Vasylyshen: I think there is a future for video games in Ukraine. A lot of our games are good but buggy, since there is not really a lot of testers or money. There are not a lot of big-time companies like 4A Games, but there some smaller ones. Most of the games are being outsourced or developed on mobile platforms. Many of our guys are working in big companies across the world. My hope that is with rise of platforms like Steam, and with Microsoft and Sony trying to be more open, more games will be made. One of the biggest problem is there are almost no game journalists in Ukraine. There some amateurs or sites, but most of them are Russian, and most of them just stealing the news, or just translating games.