Gamescom: The Ukrainian video game makers who kept working in a war zone

By Laura Cress
BBC World Service

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Gamers at GamescomImage source, EPA
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Game developers and fans have flocked to Gamescom in Cologne this week

Like many colleagues in the video game industry, Iryna Bilous and Nika Avayan recently arrived at the world's largest gaming conference, Gamescom in Germany, to show off their latest title to fans. But for these two Ukrainians, the road to the trade fair has been anything but a normal journey.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Ms Avayan, chief operating officer of the Frogwares studio, decided to leave her small village near the city of Bucha.

She and seven family members, including her 76-year-old mother, bundled themselves into a car, driving for six days through queues of traffic and across country borders to make it to Germany. While there, her brother learned that his house had been hit by Russian artillery strikes and completely destroyed.

Ms Bilous, Frogwares' release manager, fled from Kyiv to France along with her pet cockatiel Blinchik (Pancake).

But, like many of their team members, after some weeks passed, and finding the situation around the capital to have stabilised at least to some extent, both returned to their home country, determined to carry on office life - and their latest project - as normally as possible.

While the two women have been allowed to leave Ukraine for their own safety and now to visit Gamescom, their male colleagues are mostly banned from leaving the country under martial law. Four members of the team even signed up to join the Ukrainian armed forces as the invasion began, and is still helping out with them today.

Image caption,
Iryna Bilous (left) and Nika Avayan had an arduous journey to Gamescom

People travel to Gamescom in Cologne from all over Europe and the world to seek out the latest video game trailers and hottest new demos. The event, which is normally visited by almost 400,000 attendees over several days, doesn't just attract the casual gamer.

Its Opening Night Live evening, held at the beginning of the trade fair and hosted by Canadian presenter and games journalist Geoff Keighley, has been seen as one of the biggest nights in the video gaming calendar in recent years for games companies to reveal what they have in the pipeline.

This year, the night, also watched digitally by hundreds of thousands of fans, has been especially important considering the major US gaming conference Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) failed to appear once again as an in-person event, for the third year in a row.

With every airport in Ukraine destroyed, Ms Bilous and Ms Avayan hoped to take a train to Warsaw in Poland, then catch a flight to Frankfurt in Germany and move from there to Gamescom. But with so many people desperate to travel out of Ukraine, rail tickets from Kyiv tend to sell out in seconds.

The only solution was to take a bus and wait for 11 hours at the border between Ukraine and Poland. Luckily, the pair's flight to Frankfurt was delayed too, meaning they could still attend the event on time, despite the anxious wait in between.

Image source, Frogwares
Image caption,
Frogwares its launching its new title, Sherlock Holmes The Awakened

With roughly 80 employees, Frogwares wouldn't be considered by most in the industry to be a very large studio compared with the likes of video game giants Electronic Arts or Ubisoft. But supporting their staff during the war has still been a huge task for everyone.

"In the morning company meeting, we have a Google doc where everyone comes in and writes that they're OK or says if they've changed their location," says Ms Avayan. "Some of our employees still live in Kherson, [which is] occupied by Russians, and the communication is very bad. Sometimes they don't have internet and we do not know… are they safe or has something happened?"

Somehow, despite it all, office morale at Frogwares hasn't appeared to decline - except for, perhaps, in the initial period after the invasion. "The first two weeks were like hell - I couldn't work because of the stress," says Ms Bilous.

But she adds that, as more team members have returned, there have been office reunions and even the reappearance of the usual office banter. "We make a lot of memes," she laughs. "It's like, the only way to laugh now is to create memes and to joke."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Gamescom is billed as the world's largest event for computer and video games

On 4 August, Frogwares announced a fundraiser for the game it has been making during the invasion. Renowned for its series of adventure games based around fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, the studio's latest title isn't too far from what it knows best.

Sherlock Holmes The Awakened will be a remastered version of a previous game the studio made, and is described as "a Lovecraftian adventure into the heart of the Cthulhu Mythos" - a reference to horror writer HP Lovecraft and the world he created.

In just six hours, the fundraiser met its goal of €70,000 (£59,000). It has now raised more than €200,000 (£169,000), with over a week before it closes.

"Maybe the news annoys the public because there's a lot of news about Ukraine," says Ms Bilous, sitting in a booth passed every second by throngs of chattering Gamescom visitors. "But we want to tell people what it's like to be there, in the news. So that's why we came here."

Ms Avayan agrees: "We don't want the rest of the industry to forget about us."