Ubisoft Romania became famous because of Silent Hunter 3 and Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Romanian developer Fun Labs made a name for itself with the Cabela games. Serious Sam‘s place of birth is in Croatia, Mafia is a Czech product … I could go on and on with examples such as these to prove that Eastern Europe not only exists, but is also very active in the international gaming industry. But what does that give you, other than a few names and “Did you know?” trivia best suited for a quiz show? Yes, we code. We have proven that Eastern Europeans are able to create competitive products very much appreciated by any gamer. But knowing this, you still have no idea about the reality of the Eastern European gamer; you don’t even know we exist, and I’d wage you never even thought about it.
It may come as a shock for you to find out that one of the biggest World of Warcraft guilds was established by Romanians, one of EVE Online‘s most notorious pirates is Romanian, and World Cyber Games first prizes have gone to Eastern European players. How did this happen? How is it possible for Eastern Europe to establish such a powerful name in gaming? And you didn’t even know about it; you, who are the prime target of every game distributor and developer; you, who have access to the latest hardware and software technologies; you, who are rich and benefit from the power of freedom and information; you, the gamer every gaming magazine writes for.
The Americans dominate the videogame industry. Numerically speaking, this will be true for many years to come, due to the simple logic of economics. But what the Eastern Europeans lack in numbers is compensated with quality, passion and unity. We don’t want to be the biggest, but we intend to be the best. The amazing success of online games uncovered our hunger for electronic entertainment, and surprisingly enough, it also showed we are no longer poor, nor closed minded, nor uninformed. In fact, what the American gamer should fear is our ambition and our enthusiasm; we offer fresh faces and our gaming market isn’t glutted. We’ve stepped into a world where the American gamer is already bored. We’ve reached a point where we feel we have to make a statement: We’re just as good as you.
And as surprising as it sounds, the turbulent shift from a communist nation to a capitalist one has given us numerous advantages in catching up to the rest of the world.
Advantage number one: piracy.
Until 1996, Romania was one of the so-called most favored nations due to our economic collapse under communism. Our new government lacked many of the regulatory laws required to balance a free market. More to the point, we didn’t have a copyright law, so possessing and distributing pirated software, including games, wasn’t a crime. Pirated games flooded into the market and is how games became popular in Romania.
Discovering games was like getting ice cream after a terrible flu. In a situation like that, I can never get enough goodies; I want more and more until I make myself sick again.
While copyright laws have been introduced, old habits die hard – we still have a very high piracy rate. Once you get your hand in the cookie jar, it’s hard to stop, especially when you truly can’t afford to buy many cookies. But still, 20,000 pirated Lineage 2 accounts say a lot about our interest in games.
But we’re not all bad. Despite the huge amount of pirated copies, 1,300 copies of Lineage 2 were sold in Romania, and 300 people have preordered Guild Wars: Factions.
Advantage number two: ambition.
Let’s talk about EVE Online. It’s a game that requires an awful lot of time and patience, but tickles your ego in such a pleasant manner, you become obsessed in no time. It is also a game where it’s very hard to become important. But Gavroche is an ambitious 23-year-old Romanian who wanted to show the world that all it takes to make a statement about his homeland’s potential is passion and courage.
He was talented enough to become a pirate with a 1.6 billion ISK bounty on his head – meaning he’s one of the most notorious characters in an online world that currently numbers over 100,000 subscribers. His first battle ended with him killing 10 people, and the taste was so sweet, he never left that way of life. He is now a representative of the Romanian EVE Online community, working hard to enrich and promote Delta Team and Romanian Renegades, two well-known organizations. “It makes me feel so good to know that Romanians unite for a single purpose,” states Gavroche. “As a nation, we have a bad name, but I think that now we stand a chance to show our real value, at least in EVE.”
Advantage number three: unity.
Vlad Dracul is Dracula’s Romanian name. But Vlad Dracul is also the name of one of World of Warcraft‘s largest guilds. Established by five Romanians who first became friends playing Asheron’s Call 2, Vlad Dracul had over 1,000 members at its peak. Of course, not all of them were Romanian – only 20 percent of the peak membership were born and raised in Dracula’s land; but they all thrived under Romanian leadership. I don’t think I need to explain how hard it is to manage 1,000 people in an MMOG. It takes a great deal of leadership skill and patience to keep and entertain your members.
But Romanians did it. One of the founders, a 35-year-old gamer who calls himself Smaker, told me the secret of success: good coordination. Currently, Vlad Dracul’s leader is a Croat, although the leadership is still Romanian in majority, and they are one of the few guilds able to organize simultaneous raid groups for Molten Core and Blackwing Lair, two organization and manpower demanding end-game instances.
Advantage number four: money.
It is true we were poor and oppressed while under communist rule, but that was 15 years ago; things change. In 2005, Romania’s first nationwide internet provider, RDS, offered affordable prices for broadband cable connections. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, in 2006 there will be approximately 5.5 million Romanians connected to the internet. This is possible not only because of competition among providers, but because the average monthly salary in Romania reached approximately $270 in 2005, in comparison to around $200 in 2004. That’s $50 more per month to spend on, well, anything.
Only this year, three of the most important players in the gaming industry expressed interest in the Romanian market: NCsoft, Vivendi and Valve, who stated that “this is an emerging market and it matters.” The situation is even rosier in other Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, where the average salary showed even bigger growth since they joined the European Union.
But this is only the beginning. We have no government restrictions on what we can play and when. How could we, when coders are a rather wealthy segment of our population and when the internet is widely available to the masses? Besides, everybody has a chance to prosper, since Eastern Europeans offer a new challenge, a new and fresh culture, a lot of enthusiasm, and the willingness to overcome new boundaries and preconceptions.
I am Romanian; I know my country. I know its ups and downs, and I know how it feels to be a gamer here. It feels damn good.
Laura Bularca is a freelance writer from Eastern Europe. She’s making her English-speaking debut in The Escapist.