“We started from a small apartment just to show our investors from the US that we were able to assemble a team and start a studio,” Vogster Entertainment’s head of development Maxim Novikov tells me while he gives me a tour of their Kyiv studio. “Our first big idea was to create a GTA MMO.” The studio’s new two story office has CrimeCraft posters everywhere, housing 86 people while 15 others are located in the New Jersey office on the other side of the world. Looking down on the Kyiv skyline, we sat down and talked about the lessons learned from making CrimeCraft, housing US developers in Kyiv and why the Ukraine needs its next blockbuster since S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
The CrimeCraft project itself proved quite the struggle for the young Ukranian team and constantly evolved inside Vogster’s Kyiv studio since its inception. “We tried to see how we can apply these technologies to our needs,” Novikov says. “But then we found out that had to make changes to our design because our goals were too ambitious. We’re still a young company.” Shortly after, Novikov and the CrimeCraft team quickly discovered the real challenge of using the Unreal Engine, building a fool-proof server infrastructure and blending FPS and RPG together.
Vogster released CrimeCraft in open beta this August, which also convinced them that it was the right choice to prepare the game for long term support. While making CrimeCraft, Vogster also took on different side-projects, working on their own Robocalypse multi-platform franchise as well as Unbound Saga, a side-scrolling beat ‘em up to be released in early December on XBLA. Some Vogster developers who would end up getting tired with working on CrimeCraft could switch between projects that way and not have to instantly give up their jobs.
East meets west
Many companies in the Ukraine have US offices that facilitate certain legal and financial issues that studios have to deal with in their own countries. Vogster is one of them, being a venture-funded independent game studio with its headquarters in New Jersey. “The idea was to use the best that both countries can offer,” Novikov explains. “But we need good designers and this is why we work with a number of producers from the United States.” Novikov spent almost four years of his life in the US and Canada, having worked at 3DO and EA. In his time overseas he did not only build an extensive network of experienced developers and discovered the ways in which both the east and west can best compliment themselves.
“The reason I came back to the Ukraine, is that I wanted my children to grow up here, get the education I got and become as ambitious as I am.” Novikov admits. “Eastern Europe, and Ukraine in particular, has great technical people. We have very good art schools, but we have a really poor understanding of design.”
According to Novikov, there are two reasons for this.. First, Eastern European design is not internationally oriented. “If you want to design a game for Western costumers in Ukraine, you need to think like they think,” Novikov explains. “And it’s really hard for someone here to understand that Western mentality.” Second, Novikov blames the limited local retail market in Ukraine that is being plagued by piracy.
A ticket to Kyiv
The experienced producers Vogster found in the US did not only stay at their New Jersey office, but actually ended up coming over to Kyiv on a regular basis. This posed some challenges to Novikov and his team. The first one was the fact that all the game’s documentation was in Russian. “Even though all our leads understand English, it’s not that easy to communicate. So we started to have English courses for our employees.”
The second thing was the problems with remote communication. “It’s not the same if you have a person to person communication,” Novikov says. “So once in a month, a producer comes over to our Kyiv office.” Now that Vogster is currently working on two projects, two American producers would come by once a month. “Before we launched CrimeCraft, we even rented two apartments for a year and always had somebody in Kyiv,” Novikov admits. “The producer who was in charge of CrimeCraft in that period, ended up spending 4 months in Kyiv.”
Novikov couldn’t stress the need to have experienced producers on site enough, but it wasn’t easy to accommodate them either. “If you know many people from the United States, they’re not used to travel long distances or stay in countries like this for a long time,” Novikov says. “For us it was a challenge to make sure that they feel good here, to make sure they have everything they need, so that they feel fine and it’s not like we forced them to come here.”
“For our people, it’s great to have experienced people coming by,” Novikov argues. “To have somebody to learn from. These people have their quality bar much higher.” As mentioned before, Novikov is one of few Ukranian game professionals that has had the privilege of having lived in the US, which has given him a better perspective on his country’s own strengths and weaknesses. He sees a lot of possibilities in the development community of Ukraine, but the country is still mostly known for GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. “That’s pretty much it,” Novikov says. “When you’ve done nothing that’s really big, you can’t be trusted to do something that can become triple-A. That’s why we need people that have this triple-A experience. We can only find them in the US.”
But the experienced producers from the US that Novikov is flying over aren’t complaining. Aside from enjoying the studio’s full support to get accustomed to their new environment, they are welcomed by curious Ukranian developers with an immense thirst for knowledge. “When they come here for one week, it’s the most productive week that they’ll ever spend,” Novikov argues.
The cancellation of APB and its failure to draw strong enough subscriber numbers came as an unpleasant surprise to the CrimeCraft team. “We really felt sorry when APB went down,” Novikov says. “We are not exactly like them but we share some similarity. They had ambitious goals as well. They had more veterans on the title than we had, but we still wanted to be better.”
Today, some gamers still describe CrimeCraft as ‘APB without cars’. “For us right now, it’s proof that our assumptions were right,” Novikov says. “When we released, we knew we needed to be prepared for the long-time run for several years.”
The project was restructured to prepare for a long term strategy, longer support, minimizing costs and keeping the game alive with a core team. “That’s a procedure APB wanted to go through, but it looks like unfortunately wanted to support them,” Novikov says. But even CrimeCraft had it’s launch problems that the team are still fixing on a daily basis. “The game was not ready when we shipped it,” Novikov admits. “We shipped under our internal pressure because we wanted to know what people would think about it.”
CrimeCraft has not had a big marketing push yet, keeping a low profile. Partially because of APB‘s recent release, but also because Novikov and his team want to make sure the game is ready for the international MMO market. “Our user base has started to grow,” Novikov says. “It started slow, but right now we have a stable and loyal core-base. We now see it grow each month. We keep growing, which keeps us believing we are on the right path.”
During its development, CrimeCraft not only faced the massive challenges of an expensive server infrastructure, shaving the Unreal engine to fit into an MMO design and changing from a subscription-based to a free-to-play model. “We were so lucky that we had this learning curve,” Novikov admits. “I’m happy that we didn’t sink like APB did. That’s because we were prepared for the long run and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to make the game better.”
Novikov apparently is also one of our trusty readers! “I saw an interview with Romero, who was saying that all he does is the iterative approach,” he adds. ”If you want to do something good, you need to do as much iteration as possible: to polish it and fix it, make it better through the community. “ Unlike other less fortunate investment-funded projects, Vogster had the full support from their investors to improve CrimeCraft’s earlier shortcomings. “They trust us,” Novikov says. “We keep down all our expenses and asked if they would be able to support us for a longer period. We were lucky they said yes. When our employees grow with the company as a professional, they grow with the culture, and they carry on this culture. The longer we stay in the business, the stronger we become.”
Vogster Entertainment’s CrimeCraft has experienced a steady growth of users since it was released on August 25th, 2009 by and it ain’t going anywhere soon.