Recently members of the casual games industry convened in Kyiv, Ukraine, for the 4th annual Casual Connect Kyiv conference. The Casual Connect conference series is sponsored by the Casual Games Association and brings developers, publishers and distributors of casual games together for three days of presentations and meetings. Other Casual Connect meetings occur throughout the year in Seattle and Western Europe (historically Amsterdam or Hamburg).
What makes the Kyiv show unique among the Casual Connects, however, is the attendee list. More so than any other casual games conference, Casual Connect Kyiv has a very high percentage of developers in attendance. Other shows have a higher percentage of publishers, distributers and ancillary business development personnel (covering areas like payment processing, marketing optimization and other distribution channels). But Eastern Europe has recently emerged as a hub in the development of casual games. What four years ago was a region most known for “cloning” games (copying popular games with little variation) has become a global leader for developing top-selling original games.
This success is due to two factors: easy accessibility of technically talented personnel and much lower costs of development. These two factors have led to strong partnerships with U.S.-based publishers who in the last couple of years have become increasingly focused on developing games for lower budgets. When the average cost of a Ukrainian game developer is roughly one-fifth that of a U.S. game developer, and when that Ukrainian developer usually has a graduate degree in computer science, it is easy to see how a game would benefit from being developed outside of North America.
However, for U.S. publishers it isn’t a simple matter of just picking any game studio abroad. While programming skills are universally translatable, the creative side of game development (specifically game design, writing and art production) is influenced by where the game is developed. As late as 2007 many games that came out of Eastern Europe and Russia tended to be logic-based games. Also, the artistic style of these games was extremely ornate and almost Gothic, compared to the much simpler style of top-selling games in the Western market. When you factored in in-game writing that was often stilted and clearly written by a non-native English speaker, as well as touchy geopolitical issues around racial and gender stereotypes, the overall effect became known by the unfortunate pejorative as “Renglish style” (for “Russian-English”).
Here is an example of a game from a Russian developer, circa January 2007:
While a game released the same month from an American developer looked much different:
To compensate for the effects of outsourcing, Western publishers had to spend time working with their developers abroad to ensure that the games they were creating had global appeal in story and writing, art direction and game design. Generally speaking, the results were less than ideal at first, but over the past couple of years, Eastern European developers have greatly improved their craft. Their creative abilities now match their technical abilities in the development of casual games.
In fact, Eastern Europe game developers have been so successful that at the Casual Connect Kyiv conference I found myself introduced time and again to a small studio out of Russia or Ukraine that, much to my surprise, had created game X for U.S. publisher Y. The games were so well-done that I thought they had been built by the publisher’s own internal studio.As the director of digital distribution for RealGames (the games division of RealNetworks), Jeremy Snook manages the content acquisition teams responsible for sourcing casual and core games for Real’s worldwide games services to over 45 million monthly users. Jeremy holds a B.A. from the University of Washington and is currently working on his graduate degree in digital media from the UW.