A few weeks ago, during the course of my daily news cruise, I stumbled upon a press release headline that stopped me cold. It was unusually short, only three words, in fact, and such an irresistibly nonsensical turn of phrase that I was compelled to put everything else on hold while I had a closer look. It was foolishness, it was madness, it was Russian. It was Stalin vs. Martians.
What the hell? Stalin and… Martians? Shades of Red Alert notwithstanding, I wasn’t seeing the confluence. What I did see was a promise of the year’s most bizarre videogame experience, along with a threat to make my brain explode, all courtesy of a strategy game claiming to be a great choice for people who hate strategy games. By the time the press release started talking about Stalin taking personal command of a special “anti-ET” section of the Red Army to kick alien butt, one thing was very clear: I had to talk to these guys.
Fortunately, Alexander Shcherbakov, head of Dreamlore Games and lead designer on Stalin vs. Martians, apparently had some free time on his hands. He spoke with me on a variety of topics, and while I must confess to just a tiny bit of disappointment that he wasn’t the bushy-bearded, vodka-fueled Russian maniac I had envisioned, his insights into both the game and the state of the Russian videogame industry more than made up for it.
I decided to get the obvious question out of the way first: Where does the idea of a game based on an infamous Soviet dictator leading his armies in a life-or-death struggle against invaders from Mars come from? “Just like it happens with many great ideas, we don’t know where it came from,” Shcherbakov told me. “I feel it was given to me and making this game in fact is fulfilling God’s will.”
And the part about it being perfect for anyone who hates the strategy genre, despite it being a strategy game? “It just sounds good, that’s why we said it. Well, and it’s also the truth. Sort of,” he said. “Stalin vs. Martians is about fun, not about… eh… strategy. You can hate strategy games and still enjoy Stalin vs. Martians. It’s like Pac-Man with guns and weird jokes and bears and… stuff!”
“It’s a game with a name that can sell anything,” he continued. “It doesn’t really matter if it is a real-time strategy, or unreal-time strategy, or turn-based strategy or Katamari clone. Who cares?”
Who cares, indeed? Apparently that sort of precisely-articulated vision for success was enough not only to propel Shcherbakov’s company forward on the game, but to attract two other Russian developers, Black Wing Foundation and N-Game, to the project as well. It’s a kind of multi-tiered collaboration rarely seen in American game production, and I was curious how it worked.
“N-Game is doing the tech stuff, while Black Wing Foundation and Dreamlore are doing all the creative and business sides of the project. Everyone’s working in their own field, so the cooperation goes smoothly,” said Shcherbakov. “There are lots of reasons for this, including that we’re exploiting our strongest sides. For example, BWF/Dreamlore are better in the creative fields and producing, and N-Game has good experience in making RTS titles and a great basis to make it fast and without any major problems which inexperienced teams may encounter.”
Dreamlore, according to Shcherbakov, is a “very strange studio,” and this unorthodox approach to game development is one of the keys to its success. “We’re small and don’t ever want to become big,” he told me. “We have a small core of people involved in most of our projects and add some new faces if the project needs it, or outsource some of the tasks. Basically, we think project-wise and are absolutely open for cooperation and collaboration. And it works.” He said there are currently about 15 people working on Stalin vs. Martians, a number he described as more than enough to get things done quickly and efficiently.
“We started production in late January,” he added, “Right now, we already have something that we can show to the public, about six months more and we’ll be ready to release the game and it won’t be a piece of junk, ’cause our pipeline allows us to make production effective.”
It’s fun to think of the Russian videogame industry as a wild and crazy place with an unfettered development environment that can lead to uniquely brilliant gaming experiences, but when I asked him if this sort of off-beat game design was a common thing on his side of the world, Shcherbakov assured me it was not. “Stalin vs.Martians is a big exception,” he said. “The Russian market rarely produces something like that. The developers are trying to be as “serious” as possible, but most of the time they’re exploring the same old clichés and make games that are simply dull.”
He explained that while the PC market in Russia is huge and there are hundreds of developers in the country, there’s only a small handful of publishers and just a few “AAA titles” produced each year. The majority of games produced in Russia are released exclusively to the domestic market at very low prices, and while increasingly these games do reach international audiences, it’s typically via quick-and-dirty deals with other publishers that result in low-profile shovelware releases of games that weren’t terribly good to begin with.
Describing one such deal, Shcherbakov said, “[It was] a cheap and ugly adventure game based on a stupid Russian movie that makes everyone throw up, even in the domestic market. It happened because of the barter deal between Atari and Akella, when Atari gave publishing rights for ex-U.S.S.R. for one of its games to Akella, and Akella gave Atari rights for a few crappy local titles.”
So whether American audiences get to sample this “brainscrewing” real-time strategy game in their native language remains an open question. Shcherbakov said the Asian market is the company’s priority, but added that the impact of rampant piracy in China on Dreamlore’s bottom line is becoming an incentive for increased focus on Europe and North America. Interestingly, he also indicated that the most positive feedback he has received about the game has come from outside Russia. “It’s a little bit weird, ’cause theoretically Stalin vs. Martians should capture maximum interest in the former Soviet Union,” he said. “But after the announcement we learned that most positive responses came from the E.U. and U.S.. So we’re kinda betraying our Motherland right now.”
“Stalin vs. Martians is different because we’re different,” Shcherbakov said. “We have a flawless sense of humor and we’re smart. Actually, I’m so smart and my brain is so colossal that when I enter the room my head sometimes sticks in the doorway.”
You don’t see that kind of intellectual credibility every day, and from where I sit, it makes this a game worth watching. If all goes according to the Dreamlore plan, our Russian gamer brethren will get their hands on Stalin vs. Martians by the end of the year. For now, at least, the rest of us can only cross our fingers and wait.
Andy Chalk secretly wishes his parents had named him Andrei. To get in touch with your own secret inner Russian and learn more about Stalin vs. Martians, check out dreamloregames.com/stalin.