Jason Rubin: Metro: Last Light is the "triumph of an underdog"

Former THQ exec details terrible working conditions for developer 4A Games and "irrational requirements" of THQ

Jason Rubin is best known as the co-founder of leading game developer Naughty Dog. More recently, however, he had the thankless task of trying to overhaul struggling publisher THQ. Rubin joined THQ in May 2012 and while he made a valiant effort to improve the company, the bad momentum was too much and he didn't have enough time to steer the ship away from the iceberg.

As president of THQ, Rubin oversaw numerous studios, including the talented folks at 4A Games, known for the Metro franchise. THQ was to be the publisher for Metro: Last Light until its unfortunate demise. Instead, Koch Media picked up the rights for almost $6 million earlier this year. In this fascinating article from Rubin, the former THQ executive details the awful working conditions that the studio in the Ukraine had to face during the development of Last Light, and he argues that gamers and the industry at large should recognize what 4A was able to accomplish despite major hurdles and adversity.

Here's Rubin's story, submitted exclusively to GamesIndustry International

It is unfortunate that Prof [Creative Director Andrew Prokhorov], Dean Sharpe, and the rest of the team at 4A won't receive appropriate credit for their achievement in releasing Metro: Last Light.

A combination of a complex and secretive industry, a press that lags the movie and music press in calling attention to the stories behind the games, a dysfunctional and ever-changing sequence of producers causing confusion, the inevitable anonymity that comes from being an Eastern European developer, and a new, last minute publisher that doesn't see the upside in doing your team's publicity, will conspire to keep an incredible story hidden.

I am going to try and change that.

To be clear, nothing in this missive should suggest that either 4A or I would like to see any change in the way the game itself has been received or reviewed by press or fans. I know 4A well enough to know that they demand to contest on a level playing field. This isn't golf, and they don't need or want a handicap. Their pride and skill demand that Last Light go head to head with competition on even terms, and I am sure they are happy with the response. 

But now that reviews are mainly behind us, I think it's worth looking deeper.

"4A's staff sat on folding wedding chairs, literally elbow to elbow at card tables in what looks more like a packed grade school cafeteria than a development studio"

Let's be honest: 4A was never playing on a level field. The budget of Last Light is less than some of its competitors spend on cut scenes, a mere 10 percent of the budget of its biggest competitors. Yet it is lauded for its story and atmosphere.  It is built on a completely original and proprietary second-generation engine that competes with sequels that have stopped numbering themselves, with more engineers on their tech than 4A has on the entire project. Yet its tech chops are never in question. 

And all of this is compounded by the conditions this Ukrainian team works under in Kiev. The entire 4A studio would fit easily in the (underutilized) gym at EA Los Angeles' offices. Yet Last Light's Metacritic score blows away Medal of Honor Warfighter.  As undeniably fantastic as competitor BioShock Infinite may be, the team was given whatever resources they needed to make the title. At the same time, 4A's staff sat on folding wedding chairs, literally elbow to elbow at card tables in what looks more like a packed grade school cafeteria than a development studio.

When 4A needed another dev kit, or high-end PC, or whatever, someone from 4A had to fly to the States and sneak it back to the Ukraine in a backpack lest it be "seized" at the border by thieving customs officials. After visiting the team I wanted to buy them Aeron office chairs, considered a fundamental human right in the west. There were no outlets in the Ukraine, and our only option was to pack a truck in Poland and try to find an "expediter" to help bribe its way down to Kiev. We gave up not because this tripled the cost, but because we realized that the wider Aeron chairs would require spreading out people and computers, which would lead to extra desks, and that ultimately would have required bigger offices. Yes, really. 

I truly enjoyed Far Cry 3, which deserved its great reviews.  But how many times did Ubisoft Montreal lose power for hours or days during development? Power outages are the norm for 4A. All developers have deadlines, but I know of few that had to bring in construction generators to be able to work the weekend before final submission because an extra day meant missing shelf dates by weeks. Montreal is cold, but when it gets cold in Kiev it's different.  That's because the government provides all of the heating through a central coal burning facility that pipes hot water to homes and offices. Unfortunately, it breaks down reliably a few times a year for a week at a time.  Then 4A works in their parkas and struggles to keep their fingers warm in temperatures well below freezing. That is unless it snows and they get stuck home for a few days at a time because snow clearing isn't up to Western standards.

The only thing for which 4A is getting more credit than I think they deserve is the creativity behind the ever frightening, dark, post apocalyptic environment of the game. I've been in Kiev to visit the team, so I know they just stepped outside for reference.  

That last paragraph is a humorous exaggeration, of course, but there's truth behind the lie. One evening when Dean Sharpe arrived at his apartment after a long day at the office a dangerous looking Georgian man and his three-car armed entourage greeted him.  Dean was told that, lease be damned, he had a day to clear out and find a new apartment. 

So there were challenges - why should we care?

"If 4A had been given a more competitive budget, in a saner environment, hadn't wasted a year-plus chasing the irrational requirement of THQ's original producers...what could 4A have created?"

Though any gamer can enjoy Last Light without the backstory, I think the backstory makes it that much sweeter.  It is interesting enough that Pele was perhaps the greatest football player of all time.  But it is even more interesting when we find out that he learned to play bare footed because he couldn't afford to buy shoes.  The Jeremy Lin story was interesting, but so much more so when you find out that he received no scholarship offers out of high school, was undrafted, and played sparingly before he hit headlines. 

If you care about the art of making games then you have to care about more than the final product.  The struggle and the journey becomes part of the story. Like sport, you cheer when the underdog comes from behind, and triumphs in the face of incredible odds. 

That doesn't always mean getting the gold. Sometimes when the underdog comes in second, third, or fourth, it is ultimately more impressive than the story of the inevitable number one. 4A is to developers what the Jamaican Bobsledding team is to Olympic sport. The Jamaicans may not have won the gold in 1994, but they beat the Americans who had far more going for them... like winter coats and bobsledding tracks to train on. 

According to professional third-party game rating estimation groups, this year titles will find themselves with a 3-5 point Metacritic deduction versus the same game two years ago due to the maturity and fatigue in the console cycle. But even without adding those points back in achieving an 80+ score this year for Last Light, accounting for the budget and adversity that the team faced, and considering the size and talent of the teams they are competing with, is a stunning achievement.  

It is a true testament to the raw skill and potential of the team. Ultimately, it is a desire for the recognition of 4A's talent that drove me to write this. You may know that I have a history of talking about developer recognition. These guys need recognition.

If 4A had been given a more competitive budget, in a saner environment, hadn't wasted a year-plus chasing the irrational requirement of THQ's original producers to fit multiplayer and co-op into the same deadline and budget(!), hadn't had to deal with the transition to a new publisher in the crucial few months before final, what could 4A have created?

I can only imagine, and I am looking forward to playing it.

You can follow Jason Rubin on Twitter @Jason_Rubin

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By James Batchelor

Latest comments (33)

Ralph Tricoche Studying MA, CUNY9 years ago
I bought the game yesterday and I like what I am playing so far. But I cant see that there is anything on display that wouldn't have benefit from other markets. Including the WiiU.
I think the current review will support my initial impression of the game.
However, it is a good shooter, with nice atmosphere. I liked the first one as well.
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Richard Gardner Artist, Crytek9 years ago
Nice article, it brings up interesting points about resources available to different developers around the world. I don't understand why you don't get more studios targeting low living cost areas in nice areas of the world. I really find it hard to understand or justify studios setup in the most expensive cities in the world which end up having to pay staff crazy amounts. Whats worst is that high wage doesn't even go in the developers pocket as most goes on high rent and living costs.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Gardner on 15th May 2013 6:03pm

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Robert Tsao Game Designer, Bad Juju Games9 years ago
This was a great article all around, but among the many choice quotes, this one stuck out to me:

"If you care about the art of making games then you have to care about more than the final product."

It's baffling how little exposure developers (not creative leads or executive producers, who are credited for "creating" the game, whatever that means) get for their hard work and just how little the fans of the medium really understand about development. It is assumed that someone comes up with a story for the game, and then the game gets.... developed. You could do a lot worse than Ken Levine, but rather than forcing him to regurgitate and reword press releases to a dozen different outlets in hyping Bioshock Infinite, it'd have been nice to have seen interviews with concept artists, sound designers, and level designers for their take on how they brought Columbia to life, for instance.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Robert Tsao on 15th May 2013 8:50pm

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Show all comments (33)
Keith Sanders9 years ago
Great work from 4A, congrats on getting this done.

For the record, Ubisoft Montreal (housed in an early-20th-century furniture factory-- electrical wiring was an afterthought) does lose power for an entire afternoon a good 2-3 times a summer. Not quite the same thing as what 4A endured, but it did make me laugh that he chose power outages specifically as the point of comparison to Ubi Montreal. 8^)
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John Karageorgiou consultant 9 years ago
Got goose-bumps reading this article. Rest assured, I am buying my copy of Metro Last Night on Friday, and look forward to the next installment from this talented team of developers. Only true gamers know that art of crafting beautiful games, and the 4A team thoroughly deserve all the accolades that they will receive from the gaming community around the world.
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Jason Rubin President, MorganROSE, LLC9 years ago
Keith, I'm sorry I didn't do better research on Ubisoft Montreal's power situation. I guess I picked the wrong example!
Congrats on a fantastic game in FarCry3. Finished it and truly enjoyed the experience.

Indeed all developers face incredible challenges (it's amazing that any games get done), however from experience I can safely say that 4A has done more with less than most that I know.

It's also worth me pointing out that 4A does not consider their conditions to be "horrible," or "challenging." They are game developers in the truest sense, happy to be doing what they are doing, and proud of what they have accomplished.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
it'd have been nice to have seen them interviewing concept artists, sound designers, and level designers for their take on how they brought Columbia to life, for instance
This. I cannot emphsise how much this.

To add to it, though. Film and TV production is awash with interviews of the creative teams; they're interesting (or at least, the best ones are), and they serve a promotional use, too. They add colour to the stories about the game, and give journalists and reviewers a fresh angle to take. So why does the games industry lag behind an industry (film) that it so wants to be like? Give us stories like Walter Murch's sound design on Apocalypse Now, which not only raises the profile of what a sound designer can accomplish, but also promotes the "legend" of the film.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 15th May 2013 7:34pm

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Alex Podverbny CTO & co-founder, FireVector LLC9 years ago
I think calling 4A working conditions "horrible" is exaggeration.
I'm living in the same part of Kiev as 4A office and actually don't remember really bad problems with electricity last couple of years. Sure it happens, but usually it's like once a 2-3 month for 30 minutes, rarely an hour.
I believe irrationality from THQ side was a way bigger problem :)
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Robert Tsao Game Designer, Bad Juju Games9 years ago
"They are game developers in the truest sense, happy to be doing what they are doing, and proud of what they have accomplished."

Bravo! That's a really wonderful sentiment and it's one that I hope the collective game industry holds onto as the medium continues to mature and everyone finds their place in it.
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Robert Tsao Game Designer, Bad Juju Games9 years ago
Adding to this, there's a great podcast called "Buried in the Credits" that conducts interviews with developers on not just anecdotes in the industry, but also their personal journeys in either becoming a developer or improving their trade. Irrational Games had an awesome podcast, too, called "Irrational Behavior" that got insights from literally almost everyone in the studio on topics ranging from favorite games to influences on their work, as well as my personal favorite, which is how they ended up in the industry.
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Simon Hunter Art Director, Playfish9 years ago
Great to see an article like this. I wish the industry would let the customers see under the bonnet now and then.

Properly revealing the team effort that a game needs, especially the department interdependancies and how we work together to overcome technical and creative challenges, and the emotional rollercoaster of just getting a game finished would be exciting if presented well.

I also think if players knew the struggles that go on EVERY DAY they would be a hell of a lot more sympathetic and maybe some might temper their angry feedback about every little thing wrong with a game.

Admittedly the major issue with all this honesty is that publishers will not come out of it well on many occasions. Many times key issues spawn from miscommunication and ill considered decisions by higher management. With much of it not done maliciously it might be hard to capture these problems in a balanced way, someone always ends up being the badguy in these situations.

I'd certainly love to document the process more, especially the unsung heroes of game dev, i'm still thrilled when a new development problem turns up and the team steps up and kicks ass.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Simon Hunter on 16th May 2013 12:50am

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Jason Rubin President, MorganROSE, LLC9 years ago
I'm a little surprised about some of the response I have gotten to this article (mostly on twitter). A sizable minority or responders spent time nitpicking facts (I was reminded that the governments plant burns natural gas not coal) or trying to point out how "not special" one or other aspect of 4A's achievement was because another team has dealt with the same problems, or faced different ones.

I agree with those saying 4A’s working conditions are actually good by Ukrainian standards. And I didn't mean to make them seem insurmountable or inhumane. There are many teams making games all over the world in varying conditions.

But few of those teams are competing as successfully in the AAA Console/PC platforms, let alone the FPS genre. That is arguably one of the most competitive genres on the most demanding platforms in the business.

Whether the conditions are “horrible” or merely “worse” than North America and Western Europe is kind of irrelevant. I don’t believe most North American and Western European developers would accept employment under 4A’s work conditions.

I also believe that the first thing they would say, were they asked to do so, is that it would have negative impact on their creativity and productivity. If that argument is valid, and I do think its fair statement, then we have to accept the flip side: that achieving under those conditions is a laudable act.

At the highest level of any competitive endeavor ALL differences are massive differences. Again to use the Olympic analogy: Small technical advantages in shoe, or bike wheel, or custom swimsuit make a huge difference that can totally change the outcome.

4A overcame more than just incredible budget differences with their competitors. More than just differences in work environment. More than just a challenging relationship with THQ. They overcame ALL of these.

For that I believe they deserve this article and praise.

Having said that, nothing in this article diminishes what any other team has achieved on their respective titles. If there are others teams that deserve the same type of praise I am giving 4A, then lets give them that praise. I will be at the front applauding when other teams get their moment in the spotlight.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago
Thank you Jason.
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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations9 years ago
Unable to get chairs? BS call. Sorry guys, I live in Poland and have tons of friends to the East, and the situation with the customs office that Jason describes might have been true back in the 90s. Nowadays it's simply gone. You just buy armchairs on eBay and have them sent by e.g. UPS to Ukraine. Everything's fine. There's a bigger picture here and someone must've misled you Jason.
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Jamie Knight International Editor in Chief, Playnation9 years ago
"I'm a little surprised about some of the response I have gotten to this article (mostly on twitter)." :) lol

welcome to the wonderful world of the internet! where every man is a genius, with perfect punctuation, grammar and literary skills. They are sexual power houses who have women swooning at the very sound of their mouse clicks. They are encyclopaedic in their knowledge of the trivial, unswerving in their attention to every ridiculous detail and blinkered in their belief that they are, in fact, the bastard love children of Einstein and Carol Vordermann

Geniuses, ( genii? )to some.........but mainly just GIMPS to the rest of us sane types :)

GREAT article, Jason,.
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Mike Arkin Co- Founder, Pixelbionic9 years ago
I met Jason a few times when he was at Naughty Dog and I liked him and thought he was pretty classy, but this pretty much takes the cake in terms of class. He's out of THQ, but he didn't forget to give props to what is clearly a very talented dev group. Good for you Jason, very very classy.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes9 years ago
Not classy at all Mike. I have the greatest admiration for Jason and his comments about 4A and Dean Sharpe, who is an incredible individual, but the fact of the matter is Jason wasn't privvy to ANYTHING early in the development of Metro : Last Light. He can claim no ownership of it, nor the creation of it. THQ didn't force these circumstances, nor was looking at MP "irrational", in fact it was supported and instigated by the team because churn hurt sales of the original. It's a petty swipe at his predecessors pre-empted by misleading information I suspect.
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Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory Ltd9 years ago
Thank you Jason for doing this for the 4A team. There are more underdogs out there than people imagine going up against games that are multiple times their budgets. I only wish there was more flexibility in retail pricing so that smaller independent devs didn't have to go head to head with multi-studio behemoths. Digital distribution may very well address that.
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Andrew Prokhorov Creative Director, 4A Games9 years ago
Thank you MAN!!!!:). PROF. 4A Creative Director..and all our team:)
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Alexander Bereznyak Lead Technical Artist, 4A Games9 years ago
Jason, thank you. Greetings from Ukraine.
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Andrew Prokhorov Creative Director, 4A Games9 years ago
Hello everyone,

We've worked with THQ for 10 years (as we are the guys who made Stalker, too), and Jason is the only THQ President who visited us in Ukraine. And he did this on his second week in THQ. Keep in mind that he only had few months to somehow fix the situation. Alas, that didn't work out.

It is a fact that our work conditions are worse than those of other developers outside Ukraine. I don't think anyone can doubt that - yes, it's true that American and most of European developers operate in a country far more comfortable than Ukraine. And yes, the publishers pay them more. This is clear: the more "reasonable" the country the less the rrisks. And we don't want to be all dramatic about that - after all, better conditions are earned, and we strive to do this as soon as possible :)...

And we are thankful to Jason for his article.

Jason, please don't blame Deep Silver for not having our logo on the game site... just like us, they ended up in a harsh situation and had to do a lot of things in two months, which was definitely a very hard task. I don't blame them for letting the logo thing slip. They are trying hard.

After all, it's our game that matters and not our logo.

Also. We did want to make a multiplayer. Though if it was excluded from the start, a lot of precious time wouldn't be wasted and we'd make an even better single.

What else& We deserve the ratings we get. After all, the final consumer doesn't care about our conditions. And this is RIGHT. We need no indulgence.

PROF and all Ukrainian bobsled team:)
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve9 years ago
Well done guys, it's quite an inspirational story. I can't wait for my pre-order copy to unlock on Steam so I can start enjoying it!
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Well, lets look towards more from 4A. Hear hear!
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Pablo Dopico Client Partner Console & MMO Gaming - EMEA, Facebook9 years ago
I sincerely admire your talent and your attitude. What you have achieved at that studio deserves to be known. I am ordering a copy of Metro: Last Light right now, because this is nothing short of outstanding.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pablo Dopico on 16th May 2013 3:24pm

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Jason Rubin President, MorganROSE, LLC9 years ago
Thanks Prof,

I didn't mean to indicate that Deep Silver was operating in any way that was intentionally harmful to 4A. I meant to point out that many third party developers find themselves in the challenging situation of not controlling PR, yet reliant on that PR to tell their story. Often the publisher has no ill will towards the developer, but when deciding between pushing the game, or the team behind the game, its easy to chose the former. I have no reason to believe that Deep Silver isn't going beyond the call of duty.

My comments about logos on the website were not part of the article, nor did I mention Deep Silver except indirectly in a single sentence. The twitter comments were a knee-jerk reaction to being called out rather aggressively by the company on twitter. I regret the comments, and am putting that in writing here for any who want to know.

I have always known 4A as professional, proud, and humble, but I stand behind my efforts to get you the credit you deserve-
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Maarten Brands Director, Cook & Becker9 years ago
Very cool of Jason to write this article and good luck to you guys at 4A!
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 9 years ago
Loved the first one so am looking forward to this. I'm glad the team kept their great development ethos and created such a great game. I'm also glad that they have lived what I have been trying to say for years (some of you probably remember my rants about the nonsense budgets AAA games claim to need these days).

Far too many AAA games actually go down the drain due to publisher input. 20 yes men each trying to get input into the game so that they can justify their existence. Sadly when they are holding the purse strings the developer is usually at their mercy and so ends up over staffed and in possession of a very expensive lemon.
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Private Industry 9 years ago
Nice article didnt pick the game up yet ubut its on the list. Interesting to see under what conditions they managed to work, that deserves kudos.

Regarding western standards of snow removal, visit Ireland when there are 3cm of snow :D
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
I really admire how Jason Rubin handled the whole mess at THQ. Even if the company is no more, alot of the games, and developers found new homes. Alot of the IP stayed with there original creators. And Im glad Metro can see some success from the ashes of THQ. Metro: Last Night is defenitly a game on my "to purchase" list.
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JT QA, Rockstar Lincoln9 years ago
Insightful article indeed and thank you 4A for making some of my favorite games, please don't go anywhere :)
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Mariusz Szlanta Senior Producer, Natural Motion9 years ago

you might want to try Stalker games made by the same guys. Both Metro and Stalker share unique atmosphere that's hard to find in any other popular games.

It would be great if 4A was given a chance to develop another and hopefully more story-based game in Strugatsky brothers universum.

Last but not least, it great to see developer in the lights, thanks for this.
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Andrew Olejnik Finance Executive 9 years ago
Hi all,
I was treading this thread and I just couldn't stop myself from responding. Great article Jason! Hats off for going out of the regular comfort of California and taking the energy to visit Kiev instead of taking other people's word for how it is. Impressive! I wish more managers would act like this!

Andrzej Wroblewski - I am also from Poland. But I have spent the last 8 years of my life living and working in Kiev. And unfortunately I have to tell you - you are completely wrong. I don't know if you did this on purpose or you were misinformed but truth is - you are wrong. Yes - Ukraine got a bit better a couple years ago. But under the current regime which is in place for the last couple of years things got way worse then they were even 5 years ago! The business is taking a beating. Getting ANYTHING through customs is just a nightmare. All retail businesses suffer from the lack of goods in the country because of the robbery which is happening on the border. It is fairly normal to have your goods being held for months if you refuse to pay a bribe. Also - noone gets surprised if it simply gets stolen. And thats only one of the minor problems hard working people face in Ukraine. I could write a book about this but i dont want to blur Jason's message. This team made a very decent game, on a very high level in conditions and budgets which can not even be compared to most of the teams they are competing against! Not even the Polish one's although Poland is just a 1000 kms away. Thats a fact. And some people might hate them for this. Its ok. But that doesn't change the fact that they deserve to be respected for this. Why? Because as Jason points out- the consumer still cares about the result, but people who understand the industry should know about this amazing "Slumdog team" story. We all know the gaming industry is under a lot of pressure. And if you ask me, although i am not an expert, but i believe one of the main reasons is that people got too comfortable, greedy and lost what is, or should i say was, the essence of the gaming industry: fun, passion, the continuos drive to provide great entertainment. Seems like a lot of people lost that spirit. 4A didn't... And I will be looking forward to the continuation of this story. Because I am absolutely sure that this is only the beginning. 4A will only show what they can really do. Lets just hope there will be smart people to give them the support and funding they deserve.

To sum up: 4A - you guys rule! Jason - it's amazing to see that there are still people out there who would tell the truth just because it needs to be told!
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Feri Zsolnai Design Counsellor / Educator, 25/7 Design Studio8 years ago
For the Eastern European ear, this article sounds very positive in intention, but way too American in tone. It is the same why we in Europe see almost all American movies that deal with minority-related problems false (like when gay people who pursue their love and achieve it in an opposing environment are displayed as heroes, instead of simple people in love and with a spine.)
People who live and work under bad conditions and in poverty compared to bigshot game developers in Canada and the US are not heroes. They are people in bad luck, and their need is not to be raised on piedestals but to get better salaries so they can lead better lives. This is where it gets false, when these people get credit not for their hard and good work, but for their hard and good work while dealing with their everyday lives. Everyone's everyday life is normal to the person who leads it. And everyone wants a better one. Even the bigshot artists who work for bigshot companies like EA for (I guess) bigshot salaries. That's not the point. The point should be, that if we really appreciate these Ukrainian guys' work so much, then let's offer them a good job with better conditions. Because heroes - lest we forget this - usually don't get paid, and tend to die young.
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