Over the course of the past five years or so, there’s been a rise in hardcore, realistic games coming from Eastern European developers: a shooter with military-grade tactics; a true-to-life medieval times simulator; fantasy RPGs with intricately branching dialogue trees and brutal strategic combat.
To the casual observer, these games are unforgiving and inaccessible, oftentimes requiring months of serious effort to begin to master their intricacies. Yet this fascinating sub-genre perseveres, thanks in part to the passion of the developers and its rabid niche fanbase.
Some of the developers making these games come from storied AAA backgrounds, while others wandered into the industry as fans. No matter how these studios started, they all have one thing in common -- a deeply embedded passion for the types of games they wanted to make. Many had trouble finding the types of games they wanted to play, so they decided to fill that gap for themselves.
Vladimir Piskunov, CEO of Moscow-based Bitbox Studios, the creators of the hardcore medieval life sandbox titles Life is Fedual: Your Own and Life is Feudal: MMO, was originally a fan of intense, all-consuming MMOs like EVE Online. “Back in 2010, I just realized that the last game I was playing was Darkfall, and I felt they failed to deliver what they had promised, especially from a sandbox aspect,” he says, recalling how he got the inspiration for Life is Feudal.
Bitbox Ltd.'s unashamedly difficult Medieval survival sim racked up 100K sales within a month of its early access launch on Steam in 2014.
“I just realized that there was no game that suited my needs, and the worst thing was that there was no game in development that I knew of that would suit my hunger for hardcore gaming," he adds. "And that's how I decided to make Life is Feudal, the game of my dreams.”
Likewise, Nikita Buyanov, COO and lead designer of the Russian studio Battlestate Games, creators of upcoming survival military shooter Escape from Tarkov, wanted to see his dream game come to life. “A reflection of reality of some kind is something I’ve been waiting for computer games to deliver for years, and current tech allows us both to achieve realistic image quality and accurately model any situation that could happen to us in real life,” he says.
Battlestate Games' shooter promises punishingly realistic gunplay, forcing players to account for bullet drop and contend with accurate ricochets and the way that bullet trajectories can alter when they pass through soft objects--like people.
Others stumbled into the hardcore survival subgenre more by accident. Alexander Dergay, CEO of Belarusian studio Aterdux Entertainment and one of the minds behind fantasy RPG Legends of Eisenwald fell into the industry after playing a game that changed his life”
“In 2007 I played a game called Discord Times. After I finished the game, I felt like something important had left my life and I tried to look up who the developers were," says Dergay. "And I found they were in my home city in Minsk, and then I just wanted to meet them and talk to them. To kind of add some more value to my worth, I decided to pretend to be an investor who was interested in making a sequel to that game.”
Certainly an unconventional approach, but Dergay was welcomed by the team, even after they found out he wasn’t an investor in the traditional sense. Dergay threw all of his money into creating Legends of Eisenwald, eventually turning to Kickstarter when the team found themselves strapped for cash.
Aterdux Entertainment's tactical RPG has a very deep combat system
“We kind of struggled in the beginning financially, but then as we went on to Early Access and then we released the game, it didn't become an instant bestseller that we had hoped, but I think it would have been much more financially successful if we were more experienced and were able to shorten our development time,” Dergay says.
Games of this nature might not necessarily be taking Steam by storm, but they do have their own niche following. Most of the developers we spoke to said their audience skewed mainly male 35 and above, the majority of whom were living the United States.
"We found that only one in 10 streamers of Life is Feudal on Twitch did not have a beard. So if you ask about audience, it's 90% bearded males populating our game."
Bitbox Studios uncovered some interesting statistics by visiting Life is Feudal Twitch streams. “Only one in 10 streamers did not have a beard,” Piskunov says with amusement. “So if you ask about audience, it's 90% bearded males populating our game.”
On a more serious note, though, Piskunov also said he was surprised to find that families had found a home in Life is Feudal:
“Truth be told, after a few years I had a lot of interactions with our players and community, and I do know there are a lot of families playing our game together," he says. "You can create your own server protected with a password, and then just live in the world. They come in, they build houses, they plant crops, they raise chickens, and hares, and horses. Just living.”
Dergay says the Legends of Eisenwald audience is men between the ages of 30 and 35 with an affinity for old-school RPGs like Heroes of Might and Magic 3, King's Bounty, and Disciples. The game has also seen a huge influx of Chinese players following the release of the game’s recent Mandarin translation, now taking second place behind the U.S. in overall sales. Dergay expects China to become the top demographic for Legends of Eisenwald in the future.
Legends of Eisenwald
When asked why these sorts of games strike a chord with a very particular set of players, most of the studios could pinpoint exactly one reason.
“There are people who like or even need challenging combat in order to enjoy games. Simply clicking on enemies and watching them explode doesn’t fill their hearts with joy anymore,” Vince Weller of Iron Tower Studios, the creators of hardcore fantasy RPG Age of Decadence says. “They don’t care about cinematic, visceral combat and they don’t care about accessibility.”
"I think if these games were done better, even ours, this niche would be bigger. The thing is, since we were not a very experienced team, we might have made some questionable decisions about the game regarding the mechanics."
Piskunov refers to this phenomenon as an evolution. “There are certain stages of evolution for gamers because playing the same types of games, eventually they won't entertain you anymore. And you're looking for something more complex, more advanced. More interesting," he says.
"Something that can hold you for longer. And that's your evolution. Everyone considers our type of players as niche players, and that's true, but on the other side, there are a lot of niches and a lot of players in those niches, and many players are sitting in a couple of niches also, because they have evolved.”
While there seems to be a need for games of this sort, most of these games have very small but passionate fan bases, and the studios behind them often struggle to branch out to a wider audience. It's a testament that fans are so passionate about them despite technical imperfections.
Most of the indie developers creating these types of games do not have a lot of experience, or are working with small budgets, and do not always use pre-existing engines or hire a QA team.
Alexander Dergay at Aterdux Entertainment elaborates on the issue: “I think if these games were done better, even ours [Legends of Eisenwald], this niche would be bigger. Maybe it would find popularity. The thing is, since we were not a very experienced team, we might have made some questionable decisions about the game regarding the mechanics and also the technical problems we were unable to resolve."
"It's an issue, because if we had enough funds, I would definitely hire some kind of QA company that would run the game on different configurations and different computers and different setups," he says. "But those services are expensive -- usually a lot of indie companies can't afford them, so that's why there is this kind of reputation of projects not feeling entirely polished.”
Life is Feudal: Your Own
"All the promotional materials explicitly state that the game is hard to master, and that discourages a significant percentage of players. We do that on purpose, since our goal is not to conquer the market and sell hundreds of millions of copies, but build up an audience."
Marketing and promoting games that fill such a specific niche serves as another obstacle. For “hardcore” games like Dark Souls, this hurdle is much lower thanks to Bandai Namco’s familiar name and huge marketing budget. Many indie projects like Legends of Eisenwald or Age of Decadence cannot afford promotions, or fail to gain media interest.
Funding or no, Piskunov says the biggest challenge in promoting Life is Feudal is the overall scale of the game. “People are trying to simplify things, but if you're simplifying our game, you're losing a lot of richness, “ he says.
“And since you cannot pitch it in a few sentences or a few minutes, it creates a huge wall of interaction with the other person you're talking with -- influencer or media, or just other players.”
Some developers, like Battlestate Games are less concerned with pulling large numbers of fans, however, instead seeking to weed out certain types of players. Buyanov, notes:
“All the promotional materials explicitly state that the game is hard to master, and that discourages a significant percentage of players who are not fond of these kinds of games," Buyanov notes.
"We do that on purpose, since our goal is not to conquer the market and sell hundreds of millions of copies, but build up an audience that is really devoted to this type of game, to get a following of not just any gamers, but people who are really enthusiastic about the genre and this particular game.”
Games that revel in hardcore realism have yet to find a footing in the mainstream gaming industry, but from the start, these have always been works of love. Many of the people making these sorts of games are living their dreams, no matter the cost. “In all seriousness, the five years of making Legends of Eisenwald were the best years of my life,” Dergay recalls fondly. “The two years after that, they're still very good because we're still doing fun stuff.