The Russian Game Market: Glory to the Motherland

by on August 20, 2013

In this latest international installment we’ll take a stroll down memory lane on a visit I took to Russia 10 years ago to collect texture references and level design ideas for the game Shadow Ops: Red Mercury. I don’t have any insight in the current state of the Russian game market.  Save, that I love World of Tanks and World of Warplanes.  This installment focuses on pre-production and research and reality vs. the perception reality.

Shadow Ops had a globe-trotting story with levels designed to take place in Russia, Paris, the Congo and Mogadishu.  The game received mixed reviews. Some reviewers loved it, and it garnered a few covers on European game mags and a few “Game of the Month” awards in the States.  Other reviewers didn’t care for it and the final Metacritic was in the 60’s and sales were flat.  Making it one of the very rare games of mine that did not warrant a sequel .   However, It did have an amazing “shoot from cover” mechanic that I wish someone would copy.

all photos by John E. Williamson

all photos by John E. Williamson

Much of the criticism leveled at Shadow Ops was aimed at the story.  It felt too much like an over the top, summer blockbuster it was often said.  Looking back through the lens of the Spec Ops reboot, and recent Call of Duty and Medal of Honor story lines, perhaps we were just a little ahead of our time on crazy, supersized stories and villains. (side note: I designed most of the titles in the original Spec Ops franchise).

To Russia With Love

I went  to Russia specifically to visit the Cosmodrome and gather texture reference photos for the missions where our hero sneaks into the Cosmodorme.  It has been known as “Star City”, but its original name “Closed Military Townlet No. 1” has a certain charm to it that hasn’t been equaled.

Scheduling forced me to arrive in January. And it became clear why Napoleon and Hitler both failed in the Russian winter.  It was cold: North Pole cold.  Much of my attire was gear I wore when I summited a fair number of WA state mountains (Rainier, Adams, Baker, St. Helens) in the year prior to this trip.  So I thought I knew cold.  But on many days, I was colder in Russia than I had ever been on the side or top of mountain.

Russians were trying to adapt to the fall of the Soviet Republic, and there was an odd mix of Communist Stagnation and Free Market Wild West. Neither of which was tenable for long, or so I thought.

all photos by John E. Williamson

all photos by John E. Williamson


There is a reason why Russia has the only heavy lift rockets left on the planet. That is how they build things. Big, powerful, ruthlessly efficient.

But that stark efficiency runs in conflict to everyone’s perception of what a space program should be (sleek and modern). Granted, even my behind the scene tours of NASA Houston left me thinking “that is not the high tech I was expecting to see.”

After the first day it became apparent that we could not use the site as is in our game. No matter how retro cool it was.  Simply because no one would believe that it is a Space Facility.  Let alone one the most productive space training program in the world. So in the end, we created a fictitious research facility for our game.  And just like Hollywood, we made it look the way people expected it to look like.

The literal patchwork quilt pattern of the tiles on the floor summarized the Cosmodrome philosophy.  Nothing was to be wasted. When money ran out to replace tiles in the heavily trafficked areas, tiles were “borrowed” from other parts of the facility that were no longer in use.   Like a slowly deflating balloon, the usable area of the facility shrunk every year.  The unused buildings stripped of anything useable.


all photos by John E. Williamson

all photos by John E. Williamson

In the end, the only asset we used, was the design of the centrifuge. Built in 1955, it still tests people and equipment for journeys into space. Nearly 60 years of continuous work. Big, powerful, ruthlessly efficient.

Papers Please

All of the guide books gave the same advice: if you are asked for your papers, do not let go of them.  Hold on to them tightly, or the police will take them and demand a bribe to get them back. So when I was asked for my papers by an eager to impress young officer, smiling, I did not let go.  He smiled back, tugged harder on the papers.  And I held on.

Until he let go with his right hand.  Tapped twice on his pistol with two fingers, then pointed to his hat, then pointed to my papers.  I happily gave him my papers then.

Fortunately my guide recognized the name of the officer in charge and it turned out that they had lived in the same housing project when they were younger.  Attention quickly turned from me, to talking of the old time and “what ever happened to so and so.”  It appeared that several people went on to lead happy lives, but some never made it to adulthood.

No money changed hands that time, but the next day we were trying to gain admittance to a WW2 Museum, and the “guard” with an AK 47 would not let us enter unless we paid an additional fee. One that went in his pocket.  I don’t remember the exact amount, but I do remember thinking, my life is not worth very much if I was just shook down for seventy five cents by a man with an AK and mismatched boot.

all photos by John E. Williamson

all photos by John E. Williamson


After being shook down a few more times and asked for my papers off and on, I became a little wary any time I was on my own. Too many  John  Le Carre’ novels didn’t help.   Any time I would see a black sedan, with a magnetic light on the top and a young man dressed in an equally dark business suit, I had only one thought:  they were an undercover cop.  I would walk to the other side of the street, using a cross walk, of course, so as not to arouse  suspicion.

It turns out that I spent the last half of  my trip running away from dreaded…. Chauffeurs.  A little back story.  Most of Moscow had at least 4 lanes of traffic. The center two lanes were reserved for important politicians and bureaucrats.  When the Soviet Union fell, there were fewer of each, and the center lanes went under-utilized.  Until someone had the idea to sell blue lights and the right to drive in these center lanes to the highest bidder.  Capitalism 101.  This still goes on today, despite years of protests.


Mig Pilot

During my tour of the Space Center, I had a translator and an official guide. The guide was a retired Russian Air Force Office.  During lunch one day, much to the embarrassment of the translator who tried very hard to live down Russian stereotypes, the guide ordered up shots of Vodka at the Star City cafeteria.  After a few shots, he began to tell war stories.

Just a few short years prior, being in Moscow in a secret space facility discussing military tactics with a Russian Officer was only possible in a Tom Clancy novel.  Yet here I was, trading shots in the very facility that only existed due to the Cold War and deep suspicion of the world’s two superpowers.

all photos by John E. Williamson

all photos by John E. Williamson

The most interesting stories he told were of his years in North Vietnam training North Vietnamese Mig Pilots. As fate would have it, those were the very same years my father was in South Vietnam. Where he was stationed as an officer in a HAWK missile battalion in South Vietnam. Tasked with shooting down the students of my new Russian friend.

You never know where gaming is going to take you.

Even if you aren’t Richard Garriot, you can arrange your own tour, even a trip to space.


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