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Making games under threat of nuclear war

Why Estonian developer ZA/UM is moving its team to the safety of a new London studio

Fears of nuclear war or state occupation is not something I expected to be discussed in this interview.

I met with Kaur Kender, executive producer at ZA/UM, in a Shoreditch hotel to discuss why a developer from as far afield as Estonia was setting up a new studio in London. It didn't seem too strange - after all, major games firms such as Rovio, CCP and Gram Games have recently established a foothold in the UK capital. Perhaps ZA/UM was simply following this trend.

When asked what prompted the move, Kender initially offers several logistical reasons: better access to his company's music and score production partners, superior marketing and sales channels, a more experienced talent pool. But as the conversation continued, darker and more harrowing motivations emerged.

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Kaur Kender, ZA/UM

Currently headquartered in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, ZA/UM is the developer behind upcoming RPG No Truce With The Furies: a politically-charged police procedural title with no combat, and choices that are designed to explore the human psyche.

There are currently 28 people working on the game, with eight or so in the process of moving to the UK. Even Kender has relocated his entire family here as he oversees the formation of the new studio, and he expects the vast majority of his team to follow.

"We have some very good professionals who are also teaching as professors in universities [back in Estonia]," he says. "Maybe they'll want to stay, maybe we'll leave some people there, but most of our people want to move here.

"If we're going to do the bigger game [after Furies], we need to hire a lot more people. It's possible to do so much more in London that's impossible back in Estonia. No-one will travel to Estonia because everyone thinks the Russians will come, that Narva [the city on the Estonian-Russian border] will be next and there will be nuclear war in Estonia.

"No-one will travel to Estonia because everyone thinks the Russians will come, and there will be nuclear war in Estonia"

"Our government is moving all its data out to Luxemborg at the moment, putting all their data on the cloud, so even if the state is occupied, the country can keep functioning. That's not really a situation we want to work in. If the government is moving everything to the cloud, we think we should move - so we're moving to London."

Estonia and Russia have been disputing their border on and off for more than a decade. Both countries have accused the other of espionage several times since as far back as 2000 - as recently as May 2017, a Russian citizen was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in Estonia on charges of spying. Two months prior, the BBC reports Nato deployed the first of about 800 British troops to the region in the hopes of deterring what the alliance refers to as "Russian aggression."

Such machinations will inevitably create a crushing atmosphere that the vast majority of GamesIndustry.biz readers will find hard to imagine. I ask Kender how such a climate affects his team and their morale on a day-to-day basis, and he tells me work on Furies helps distract them from the worst-case scenarios that unavoidably form in your mind.

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'The whole time you feel you should be practising your shooting, or preparing for war.'

"We're creative people, and we're quite political," he says. "[But] it's a mental situation, it's not really good for doing creative work because the whole time you feel that actually you should be digging something, or practising your shooting, or preparing for war. It's not really a video game-friendly situation. [In London] it's so much easier."

Not that the UK - or, indeed, anywhere in the world today - is completely safe. Britain has suffered in its own way this year with several terrorist attacks spread across London and even up in Manchester. Does this not deter ZA/UM from relocating here?

"I was here all these times," Kender says. "It's no problem. It's London, Great Britain - shit happens."

Even so, you would assume the Estonian developers might be equally concerned about Brexit, and how it might affect their rights. The UK's decision to leave the European Union has spread confusion and uncertainty among EU nationals who are already living here - let alone an entire company's worth that plan to move to our shores over the next year. Again, Kender is not worried.

"Without the UK, the European Union doesn't feel like something I would like. If there would be new borders drawn, I would prefer to be this side"

"We think the British government will do the most reasonable thing," he says. "Everyone we're talking with all seem to feel that everything is going to be alright. All those tax schemes and things you have in place, they're in place because you know that's a growth sector, that's the future. So we're here to pay a lot of taxes and I think we'll do very well here.

"Without the UK, the European Union doesn't feel like something I would like. If there would be new borders drawn, I would prefer to be this side of the border."

With the UK arm of ZA/UM now set up in London's Hackney district, the executive producer is keen to look forward at everything his company can accomplish now. Simple things like promoting No Truce With The Furies is expected to be more effective with a British base.

"You can't really market something out of Estonia," says Kender. "The internet is one big lie - if it were true, we'd all be sitting around watching Chilean and Peruvian movies, not making video games.

"If you want to market something, you have to be in London or maybe Los Angeles. There are no other options, and no other places in Europe to do marketing like this."

He adds that the media is much more accessible, too: "Guys like you are here. There is no-one from Eastern Europe that writes about video games in a meaningful way. There are a lot of cool bloggers, but the media and everything else is here: Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer - sites that really mean something to us. Everyone's here."

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Even if the Estonian studio's first title doesn't perform as well as expected, the team is planning for a future in London

Of course, London isn't the only city with access to the media and the means to market your product. So why choose London specifically?

"It's really difficult to move to the States, first of all," Kender says. "There are so many reason why [we chose] London. You can start with all the talent, all the people who live here. It's so much easier to hire."

"We're creative people, and we're quite political. [But] it's a mental situation, it's not really good for doing creative work"

Certainly the UK capital is home (or at least accessible) to plenty of talented game developers, but with Rovio, CCP, Gram, King and countless others already hunting for the freshest recruits, ZA/UM may find it tougher than expected to attract new staff.

"Absolutely not," Kender disagrees. "All these video game companies with 2,000-plus people, they are in the UK because it's possible [to find new talent], not because it's difficult. It's like a street full of restaurants - if you have lots of successful restaurants together, everyone's doing better. I think it's the same with video games companies. For example, Rovio - they let go of a huge amount of people recently, so that talent needs new places to go, new challenges to work on. So no, I think the more big companies that set up here, the better for us."

Video game tax relief is also crucial to London's appeal. This week it emerged that tax breaks have paid out 119m to developers since being introduced in 2014, and Kender is hoping his firm will benefit from this as well.

"The tax situation is so much better than anywhere in the world," he says. "Maybe Austin, Texas offers something similar but tax-wise I think London is the best place to be. You have this great scheme of video game tax relief. We don't have that for this game, but maybe we can apply for our next one.

"There is nothing you can do better from Estonia that you can't do from London. We will succeed or fail here - it's as simple as that"

"If you compare it specifically to Estonia, payroll taxes are so high that we as a company will save a lot of money paying the same amount for a top professional. People will receive so much more money."

Even without the political concerns back in his home nation, Kender believes the UK will better facilitate growth for his studio. No Truce With The Furies is the company's first game, but ZA/UM already has plans for three more, each growing in scope.

"If people love our first game, our next one will definitely be bigger," says Kender. "If you want to do something bigger, if you want to raise more money for your game, you have to do it in London.

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ZA/UM aims to make No Truce With The Furies a politically-themed RPG - but one that does not make any statements to its players

There's a danger the company's Estonian exodus could lead to associations between ZA/UM's home nation and the content of No Truce With The Furies. The game is set in a dystopian city where only one law is enforced: property law. The result is anarchy, but Kender is quick to stress the setting is entirely fictional. Rather than a comment on Estonia, he says the core of the title is about geopolitics, politics and ideologies. It's a brave move given the very vocal consumers that believe politics have no place in video games.

"There are no statements in our game," Kender assures. "You can play whatever cop you want: alcoholic, feminist - you can play anything. We don't try to make any political statements in our game. But the themes we're dealing with are the same ones that are all around us.

"We've actually seen really chauvinist types of guys who prefer to play a feminist cop, because they really want to know what it's all about. In the game we have something called a Thought Cabinet - it's like an inventory for your thoughts. So you can develop thoughts there and that changes the dialogue and actions in the game. Each time you play you can develop a different type of character with totally different ideas."

This, too, is admirable, but while there is a broader industry call to see more viewpoints and lifestyles represented in video games, how can any developer ensure they are authentically represented in their titles? Did ZA/UM already have feminists on the team?

"We have all sorts on the team: feminists, liberals, entrepreneurs, socialists," Kender says. "We're still all human beings, we're not all that different."

It's a promising title to be sure, and moving to London may well set it up for a better chance of success. But countless ambitious games struggle to meet their potential in today's market. If No Truce With The Furies is unfortunate enough to be included among them, and if the team's worst fears about their homeland go unrealised, do they at least have the option of moving back to Estonia?

"There is nothing you can do better from Estonia that you can't do from here," Kender concludes. "I think we will succeed or fail here - it's as simple as that."

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Latest comments (4)

David Lee Chief Concepticator, Concepticate4 months ago
Yeah, I get it, Estonia and the Baltic states hate and fear Russia. But to posit that nuclear war or invasion from Russia is likely is ludicrous. It's one thing for the developer to state it in an interview but it's another for GamesIndustry.biz to validate it in a headline as if it's a fact.

Having said that, I wish the studio best of luck in their new location.
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Martin Mets Executive Editor, Geenius Meedia4 months ago
Agree. Probably the reasons for moving are valid, but the developer has history of making controversial statements and it seems GamesIndustry.biz swallowed the hook and made it headline.
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Armchair western politologists trivializing the russian threat, so typical
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 3 months ago
It's not implausible at all - after all, Russia actually DID invade Ukraine just a few years ago, there have been numerous dodgy "training exercises" in the area, and multiple intelligence agencies across Europe have reported Russian tampering around their electoral processes.

Seems like it's not just 80's style entertainment that's making a comeback - the politics are here again, as well.
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