The history of the Russian gaming business is an exciting roller coaster. If in the early 1990s the country was dominated by stolen content, then after a few years the games of Russian developers were officially sold all over the world and were not inferior in quality to the best works of Western or Japanese studios, and yesterday’s pirates became millionaires. We recall the main stages in the development of our game development.
1990s: from the first masterpieces to the pirate harbor
The history of game development in Russia began with scandalassociated with the theft of domestic development. In 1985, the Soviet programmer Alexei Pajitnov developed the legendary Tetris, which soon became popular with programmers from the social bloc countries. The copyright for it was received by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
In Budapest, the game was seen by Briton Robert Stein, the head of a company that sold Hungarian software to the West. The entrepreneur copied the game from Hungarian scientists, and then announced that he had bought the rights to it with the confidence that the Soviet developers would not sue.
Stein sold the rights to Tetris to several companies, but ended up having to buy a license from Soviet developers. The Soviet export company managed to cheat him: Stein received the rights to distribute the game not on all platforms, but only on computers. This version has not been requested.
The most valuable license, for handheld video games, was sold to the Japanese giant Nintendo. Largely thanks to Tetris, the company was able to promote the Game Boy.
But soon another era began. After the collapse of the USSR, the video game market was taken over by pirates who copied and distributed foreign products with impunity. All software was unlicensed in the 1990s – from video games to office programs in government agencies.
In the early 1990s, there were some interesting game developers in Russia, such as Gamos or Nikita. But it was extremely difficult for them to develop normally in this wild market.
For kids in the 1990s, Dendy became the go-to digital entertainment. She was an unlicensed bosom of the Nintendo Famicom – the original was not sold in Russia.
Pirating the architecture of set-top boxes in those years was common, especially in developing countries. Taiwan has become the main manufacturer of such devices. The first batches of Dendy were also produced there, but then production was moved to mainland China. The games for Dendy were also pirated – as, indeed, most games for any other platforms.
Why did the pirates manage to completely capture the gaming industry?
Firstly, the manufacturers of any software then simply did not have the technological capabilities to prevent the theft of their creation. Even if a user couldn’t copy a console game on their knees, it was easy to do in industrial production.
In the mid-1990s, the first set-top boxes that used CDs appeared – the Sony PlayStation and the Sega CD. Copy protection was put on games, but after a while everyone learned to bypass it, using newer writable drives and programs for cutting discs. Another way that completely broke the protection of the software is restoring the system from running licensed software from the image.
The second reason for the dominance of pirates is banal – licensed games were too expensive, and most Russians could not afford them. The disc could cost $50, and the average salary of a Muscovite at certain times could be only $5-10. And pirated games were ten times cheaper.
At first, manufacturers tried to attract citizens for using pirated consoles and games, but this practice was quickly abandoned. By the mid-1990s, the huge pirate market had become virtually legal. Pirated games were often wrapped in quality packaging, so that the buyer might not know that he was acquiring the game illegally.
Foreign companies did not sue Russian manufacturers who openly released pirated games. Moreover, they themselves were interested in this – and this is the third reason for the spread of piracy.
Manufacturers turned a blind eye to sales of only Russian-language localizations. Only English-language discs were of interest to the police during raids on electronics markets. And that suited everyone. The companies were waiting for the Russian consumer to get used to their products and become more solvent.
Even Microsoft had such an attitude – until the mid-2000s, the company calmly perceived the fact that pirated versions of its programs were used everywhere, up to government organizations.
The turn of the 1990s and 2000s: the transition from savagery to civilization
By the early 2000s, the Russian consumer began to gradually switch to licensed games and software. This was facilitated by a powerful economic leap and the efforts of Russian enterprises that brought the market out of the shadows.
Buka played a huge role in this. Founded in 1994, it became the first major Russian distributor of exclusively licensed consoles and games, but after the default of 1998, it focused only on games.
Its management invented a brand new distribution model that made official games much more accessible.
The fact is that in the 1990s, games were sold with a lot of accompanying materials – posters, merch, advertising booklets, brochures, and so on – such sets were expensive, and after 1998 they became completely inaccessible.
Buka was the first to sell games in a radically budget-friendly Jewel Case format — a disc and a box. This made it possible to reduce the price of licensed versions from $25-50 to $7 – pirated copies cost the same. At the same time, the price was set precisely for a single disc, and then games could be released on two or three media – an inexperienced Russian consumer, accustomed to paying for quantity, perceived this pricing model better.
The first game published “in Jewel” was the graphic quest “Petka and Vasily Ivanovich” from the Russian studio SKIF. It was released at the height of the economic crisis. Then there was the most popular Heroes of Might and Magic 3, one of the main games of the generation.
Another key company of that era, Akella, started out in 1993 as a pirate localizer for foreign games. But its products were very high quality – the company invested a lot of money in advertising and promotion.
Akella has become a herald of positive change. It was illegal software, but people still got used to buying quality versions. In the late 1990s, the company stepped out of the shadows and took up official localization and its own game development, and soon became one of the market leaders.
2000s – golden era
The dominance of pirates in the gaming market ended around 2000. An era has begun, which is called the golden age of Russian game development. In the 2000s, Russian studios released many high-quality original games that were also successful in the West. The market doubled annually, and in 2003 it surpassed the film distribution market in terms of volume.
The first big success was Akella’s “Corsairs: The Curse of the Distant Seas” released in 2000 – the game sold well even in America. When the second part of the game was released two years later, Disney Interactive bought it and promoted it along with the Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Other recognized hits followed – “Space Rangers”, “Blitzkrieg”, “Turgor”, “Behind Enemy Lines”, King’s Bounty, “Pestilence (Utopia)”.
The era of rapid prosperity of Russian game development ended in 2008. There were alarm bells before – for example, Corsairs 3, released in 2005, unexpectedly abounded with bugs for everyone, and for many users they simply did not start.
From 2008 to today: the Internet dictates new rules
The main reason for the crisis of the gaming industry was the global financial crisis. And not only in Russia, but all over the world. However, there were others – outdated business models, largely inherited from the pirate past, could not be adapted to the new era of the dominance of the Internet and mobile devices.
In the 2010s, there were fewer and fewer quality releases, and the products of Western studios began to dominate the market. Domestic game development has not died – the first violin in it began to be played by companies that sensed in time which way the wind was blowing, and took up online and mobile games. Among the main Russian gaming achievements of the 2010s are World of Tanks, Allods Online, War Thunder, a shooter based on the novel Metro 2033, and the world-famous smartphone puzzle Cut The Rope.
The dominance of the Internet has radically changed the situation with intellectual property. On the one hand, the Internet simplifies the life of pirates, on the other hand, it provides developers with universal and very effective tools to protect against piracy. Today, it has become much easier for game developers to protect their intellectual property, primarily due to fundamental changes in the way games are distributed:
closed platforms App Store and Google Play almost completely block unlicensed software and protect applications from hacking;
network technologies for distributing games, when you need to connect to the server to run even a single-player mode, make it impossible to copy the code.
How games are protected today
Games today are protected by copyright, which occurs automatically. This mechanism works on pirates who steal and distribute games, but does not affect the individual user. In addition, studios patent original game engines and protect part of their developments as industrial designs. Another way – registration game characters as trademarks. True, this is rather a protection against illegal commercial use of their images.
There are almost no conflicts due to piracy between studios and companies today. Serious firms respect each other – and if a small player tries to steal something, he is quickly destroyed by litigation.
However, piracy has not completely disappeared. On Chinese sites, you can buy hard drives with thousands of modern games for PC and consoles – however, they are not able to offer the full functionality of the original products, such as multiplayer mode and timely updates. In addition, the process of buying original software today is much easier than finding, downloading and installing a pirated version.
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