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When I interviewed Pavel Izotov, creator of the mobile game Rebuild Ukraine, he paused several times to wipe the tears from his eyes. That was very human and understandable, because he was playing his game in the middle of a war zone.
Izotov lives with his wife Irina in central Ukraine in the city of Cherkasy. Fortunately, many of the battles that devastated other parts of the country, such as Kiev, Kharkov and Mariupol, were spared. They haven’t been evacuated from the city, but it’s still been a terrifying place to work on a game.
Despite those hardships, Izotov has managed to put the Android game, which revolves around the reconstruction of the country Ukraine, building, monument and statue all at once. Proceeds from the ad-based title, published by PubRev+, will go to humanitarian charities that help Ukrainians, such as World Kitchen.
“Every step we take is about how we can best serve Ukraine,” he said in an interview with GamesBeat. “I want to help my country, help my people and do all I can do.”
A statue from the 2014 war in Cherkasy: a Ukrainian soldier guards the White Tree of Gondor.
The title is just one of the countless ways game companies are helping Ukrainians disrupted by the war. Levvvel estimates that gamers and game companies have donated more than $195 million to charities related to Ukraine, including $144 million donated by Epic Games and Fortnite players alone. And while Izotov’s contribution is relatively small in that big picture, not many people can say they helped under the same daily pressures and wartime.
When the war broke out, Izotov was stunned and wanted to find a way to help. But he could not join the army for health reasons. For the first week, the horrors of the war on the news were so disturbing that Izotov was unable to do any work. He and his wife spent time chatting with friends in different parts of the country and following the news of the invasion. They knew people in several places who had become the center of the fighting. And they had friends who had become soldiers for the Ukrainian army.
“It’s been really emotional. And we’re talking to our neighbors about how, if the Russians come to our city, we’re going to defend it,” Izotov said. “And some of my friends have left town.”
Working in a war zone
Pavel Izotov works on his laptop at a shelter in Cherkasy, Ukraine.
When the fighting started on February 24, Izotov already had a mock-up of the game while working on a hopscotch title. After the war started, Izotov was unable to concentrate for a week. But in the end he had a phone call with his publisher and they decided to do something to help Ukraine. Izotov decided to turn the hopscotch game into a building game.
“The decision was quite quick. We decided to make the game to help Ukraine and we changed our direction from commercial to charity,” PubRev+ CEO Charles Castell said in an interview with GamesBeat.
Izotov worked on the game himself, along with his wife Irina, who he said has always been by his side in testing the games he creates. Izotov said it was still very difficult to maintain control and stay focused at times. Another friend helped with the game design.
“It’s a lot of emotion and stress, but this has inspired me to work more and be strong,” he said. “I realize that our friends at the front and the army are so strong. I had to do something. I didn’t feel like I needed rest. I was inspired.”
Izotov and his wife chose to remain in their home city of Cherkasy as rockets flew over to hit other cities in Ukraine. They moved to an underground shelter during the early days of the war.
Izotov said: “I worked from the shelter for two weeks. When work started, we always came down. So every time the alarm went off we had to go outside and to the shelter. And there was no internet. We sat on the chairs and my computer was on my knees. I was working on this game.”
To get internet access, Izotov had to go to his apartment building. It still had internet so it went back and forth as needed.
Irina and Pavel Izotov in happier times.
“After the first week, I felt like I had to do something to help,” he said. ‘I had to, how to say, ‘contribute’. I just can’t sit in one place. I came out of the stress. I started working day and night without sleeping. I have worked a lot. We were so emotional, inspired and motivated.”
One problem was that the apartment building was one of the main targets the Russians attacked. So for a time, Izotov and his wife moved out of that building and slept in a safer work building. Moving from place to place, Izotov wrote the code for the casual game.
The reconstruction of Ukraine benefits charities such as World Central Kitchen.
The war front is hundreds of miles away, but missiles can instill a lot of fear when flying overhead.
“I think Cherkasy is the safest place in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s pretty quiet. It is a lot quieter than Eastern Ukraine.”
While he was doing so, his wife went looking for bottles for Molotov cocktails. They had a cute dog and the kids at the shelter played with it. In general, it is still a surreal experience for Izotov to work in a war zone.
A focus on reconstruction
Life in an underground shelter in Ukraine.
The game has more than 100 levels and 10 cities (Kiev, Kharkiv, Mariupol, etc.). The game takes users into the reconstruction, where they tap stones on the screen that fly away to rebuild Ukrainian houses and monuments. This mechanic educates users on the need for long-term reconstruction and takes care of the placement of in-app advertisements, from which 100% of the net proceeds will be donated to those charities in Ukraine.
The game also includes direct donation links for people who want to give more. Later versions will include collectibles for in-app purchases. Users can purchase the digital equivalent of specific items that will be used for the reconstruction (bricks, parts of monuments, etc.)
Castell said he and his colleague Ben Green got shivers when they started thinking about the idea and started talking to Izotov. The title tries to gamify charity. Castell’s PubRev+ company is a boutique development and growth agency for in-app mobile and connected TV.
And in addition to running the company, Castell has been active in the social justice movement and has spent a number of years working with organizations and government agencies to bring about positive change in the US and the world. Without their counsel, Izotov said he would never have been able to finish the match.
One of the central tenets of the company culture is the idea of service and making sure that the resources and talents are used to help the less fortunate, Castell said.
Eating meals underground in Cherkasy.
An iOS version of the game is still pending approval. In the long run, PubRev+ hopes to use the same play mechanism to raise money for reconstruction efforts in other countries, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and to help address some of the major social challenges we face here in the US .
Fortunately, Izotov didn’t have to be online all the time to do the programming. But he had to go back to his house to search for various assets and information he needed. After about two weeks it became easier to work as life in Central Ukraine remained fairly normal. Still, there were signs of war everywhere, as some anti-aircraft weapons in the city destroy missiles aimed at other cities. Some rockets fell in Cherkassy, but no one died, Izotov said. The internet is stable for the most part in the city.
As for the rest of the game development community in Ukraine, Izotov believes that as many people as possible are working.
“They are going back to work and people are returning to areas because the Russian soldiers have fled,” he said. “The developers are working together like never before. They do things like make nets for the military. I am more optimistic now.”
A soft launch
Children loved to play with the Izotov dog in the shelter.
Castell said the Android game is on a soft launch and hasn’t seen much feedback yet.
Since neither the shelter nor the office has a shower, the Izotovs return to their home to shower and then return to safer locations.
Izotov has about eight years of game making experience, mostly as a freelance or indie game developer. Izotov said he got some warnings from friends before the fighting started, so they prepared backpacks and had a car full of gas. The closest the Russians have come so far is a few hundred miles away.
A girl loads a gun in Ukraine.
Izotov said he had a friend in Mariupol and he doesn’t know how that friend is. That city has been flattened by Russian attacks. He knows others whose friends or relatives have disappeared elsewhere in the country.
Izotov plans to add updates to the game that capture moments in the war, such as the Ukrainian soldier telling a Russian warship to fuck off over the radio in the early days of the war.
“We believe this is a great way to combat donation fatigue because there is no actual donation,” Castell said. “Just by spending time playing a casual game, you’re contributing, helping, even if you’ve played for five minutes. That money comes in and goes straight to the people of Ukraine. We focus 100% on the reconstruction, because the reconstruction will take decades. It will need help all the time.”
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This post Making Rebuild Ukraine mobile game in the middle of a war zone
was original published at “https://venturebeat.com/2022/04/15/making-the-rebuild-ukraine-mobile-game-in-the-middle-of-a-war-zone/”