Maksym Yanchyi, lead Xbox programmer on Stalker 2, lets out a deep sigh. It’s not the first time Mak, as he’s called by his colleagues, steadies himself before revealing the horrifying difficulties the developers of one of the most anticipated shooters of 2024 face on a daily basis. Right now he’s talking about Russian hackers and their ongoing attempts to breach GSC Game World’s security systems, the constant harassment, and even death threats that have come from the theft of personal information.
“That’s a very bad thing,” he says, downbeat.
GSC Game World’s public relations manager, Zakhar Bocharov remembers one of the company’s first security breaches, which took place in summer 2022 and resulted in the theft of personal information, including mobile phone numbers. Anonymous death threats directed at staff are now commonplace, so much so that the people behind Stalker 2 have somehow got used to them.
“You go to your messenger and it’s like, probably you need to look at something for work, even to check whether everything is okay in terms of your working tasks, and there is someone from an unknown number, like, ‘by the way, you should f***ing die.’ And then you’re looking next for what you need to actually do today,” Bocharov says.
Bocharov won’t go into more detail on these threats, but I can tell there are worse, even more worrying examples he could talk about. Such is life for the developers at GSC Game World, who are trying to build a video game in the middle of a war.
Stalker 2 is on Microsoft’s enormous booth at gamescom 2023. Here, for the first time ever, Stalker 2 is officially hands-on (check out IGN’s Stalker 2 preview for more). The game is rough, but it is real. GSC Game World is back in the spotlight with a message of defiance.
“For us it’s like a fuel now,” Yanchyi says. “Like okay, we have this problem, we’ll solve this problem. And the more problems we had from the start of the full-fledged invasion, from the full-fledged war, the more the team became stronger.”
“We taught ourselves to keep the shield,” Yanchyi continues, raising his arm above his head. “We are caring about each other, we are helping each other to find a new home in Prague or Ukraine. We are constantly Zooming with each other. Like, ‘how are you?’ Just these three words can matter to somebody today. Now we really understand through the experience that nothing can break our team, and we will deliver what we want no matter how many problems we have, because we have ourselves. And that’s the point. That’s everything we need to make what we want to make.”
‘It’s important to share this experience’
When I bring up the war in Ukraine, I see a sadness overwhelm both Yanchyi and Bocharov. But they do not shy away from talking about what’s happening, however painful it is. They know they will be asked about the war in almost every interview they do at gamescom 2023. For them addressing the war and its impact on Stalker 2’s troubled development is a golden opportunity.
“We are not tired of this question because we really think that it is important to share this experience,” Yanchyi says. “We want the world to know about this. And of course it is hard because our families… some of my family live in Ukraine, my parents live in Ukraine, and the same situation is with all my colleagues.
“The feeling that your beloved are in constant danger is pretty harming. It leaves a scar in yourself. It shouldn’t be the experience that any human nowadays should have, any child nowadays should have. But this is our reality: asking our colleagues if they’re alive or not each morning when the shelling starts, and ends.”
Over the course of our interview, Bocharov and Yanchyi tell me distressing details about the conditions under which Stalker 2 is made. So it has been ever since Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, displacing game developers across the country. Some of GSC Gameworld’s developers were forced to abandon the studio’s base in Kyiv and set up 1,400km west in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. Some of the staff have family still in Ukraine. Some of the staff stayed in Ukraine, or moved to other parts of the country. Of the 360 or so people working at GSC Game World, around 160 are in Ukraine.
“These 160 people,” Bocharov says, “anything can happen to any of them at any moment.”
Some staff, Bocharov tells me, have joined the fight itself. He calls them “our heroes”.
Bocharov tells me that sometimes, during a Zoom meeting, someone who was down to attend fails to show up on time. They give it a few minutes. After 10 minutes, people start to worry, so they send direct messages. Sometimes there is no answer. A call. No answer. Two, three hours go past. As people start to panic, the person will finally reply to say they are safe, to apologize because they were forced into a bunker after the shelling began, to explain that their phone ran out of battery. People sigh in relief then get on with their work day. The person leaves the bunker and returns to their work, as if nothing happened.
“It’s a stress you get used to because human beings, they tend to adapt, but at the same time it’s adapting to horrific things,” Bocharov says. “Motivation can come from different things, even probably not so bright ones. It can come from anger as well, or from your dedication to show someone what’s your worth, even if they’re making the worst possible conditions.
“So I don’t want to sound too dark, but I don’t want to sugarcoat it either. It’s something unusual happening here. The circumstances are extremely unusual.”
Beyond the emotional scarring, GSC Game World faced a distressing relocation that significantly impacted development of Stalker 2. In January 2022, the studio delayed Stalker 2 to the end of that year to polish the experience. A month later, Russia invaded. The relocation of staff began and work on Stalker 2 was put on hold.
Before the war, GSC Game World used its own motion capture studio in the Kyiv office to help build the game. After deciding to make narrative changes to the game, it had to build a new motion capture studio in the Prague office. Bocharov slams the desk between us with his fist as he recalls the impact the war had on the development of Stalker 2.
“We need a new motion capture studio. We need to build it. When we build it, we need to test it. When we test it, we can do these changes in motion capture. The full-fledged war starts, and we cut off Russian voiceover. Then we decide to dedicate additional time, money, and value to English voiceover. And we decide to hire English speaking actors to do so. We hire them, we need to do the voiceover, we need to have an audio studio, we need to rebuild the audio studio in Prague. We need to start doing it there.
“So we relocated, and it’s a stressful environment, but I can continue working. Some people are trashing us online because of, ‘what about your security measures with all the leaks and stuff like that?’ Basically it’s two different systems now in terms of sharing data between Ukraine and Czech Republic. Your work, it’s much more complicated and you need to protect it at every step. And of course there is much more chance of a security breach when you’re basically separating that between the countries.”
Stalker 2 is a heavily delayed video game. Of course it is. At gamescom 2023 GSC Game World announced another delay, this time to early 2024. Even this new release window feels ambitious. Bocharov says Stalker 2 is now content complete, with a polish period remaining. The studio insists it’s still targeting a level of graphical prowess suggested by Stalker 2’s eye-catching gameplay video released back in 2021. It still believes it can pull this thing off, realise its ambition, show the world what it’s truly capable of. “We are getting there,” Bocharov says, “but there can be certain humps on the way.”
It seems remarkable that GSC Game World has normalised video game development under such circumstances, but for the people at the studio, Stalker 2 is now more than a video game. It is a symbol of Ukrainian defiance in the face of the Russian invasion, something to rally behind, something that tells the world Ukraine is still here, still fighting, still alive.
“After the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine started, working on this project, Stalker 2 Heart of Chernobyl, it became more than working on the project, it became the national product for us, the national idea,” Yanchyi says. “It is what we engineers and artists can do to support Ukraine on the worldwide game development arena, on the entertainment arena, to show the world that Ukraine has lots of talents, lots of professionals, which can bring new experiences to the players. And the main idea is that every Ukrainian now does what he or she or they can do to support Ukraine.
“Some of our heroes are fighting on the battlefields. We have colleagues which are now at the battlefields. And some of us are helping with foundations for the army. And some of us, including myself and my team, we are working hard to deliver this project, which all Ukrainians are waiting, and we want to keep this Ukrainian identity inside the project, for it to tell some of our stories. We are putting our emotions, our hearts into the project.
“So this is more than a business for us. Way more.”
Wesley is the UK News Editor for IGN. Find him on Twitter at @wyp100. You can reach Wesley at email@example.com or confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org.