How the architects of Metro’s wilderness are handling life in the Mediterranean
How Metro architect 4A Games Malta is handling life by the sunny Mediterranean Sea
Rising out of the ocean between Sicily and North Africa, the island chain of Malta has seen generations of settlers, traders and invaders come and go, its architecture a confusion of styles from across two continents. Take a stroll along the beaches of Sliema, one of its oldest towns, and you’ll spy open-air Roman baths spread out near fortifications constructed by the French Knights of St John, shadowed by blocks of holiday apartments. Inland, you’ll find terraces and art-nouveau houses erected during the island’s spell as a British colony. You may also stumble upon the headquarters of 4A Games, the latest addition to Malta’s cultural mosaic, which relocated to Sliema in 2014 following a revolution in the developer’s native Ukraine.
Much of the revolution – which led to a full-blown civil war in Ukraine’s easternmost provinces – unfolded just down the road from 4A’s original premises in Kiev; according to Deep Silver global brand manager Huw Beynon, team members would take part in anti-government protests after work, before the bullets began to fly. 4A’s California-born CEO Dean Sharpe insists, however, that the decision to move, in itself, had nothing to do with avoiding the violence. “Certainly, that may have affected the timing, but it was always part of the plan. Just in general, try moving a company some time! You’re talking about families, kids, school, trying to find apartments for people, visas, residency permits – it’s a really complicated process. So it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, war broke out. Let’s bail.‘”
Life in Ukraine had its challenges before the crisis, in any case – the country is one of the most corrupt in Europe and suffers from an ongoing healthcare crisis. 4A’s hope in expanding to Malta was to attract partners put off by the thought of doing business in its homeland. For all that, around 80 staff still work at the Ukrainian studio, and 4A remains a Ukrainian developer in its heart of hearts. The company’s new headquarters – a copiously air-conditioned openplan studio with its own recording facilities and parasol-dotted veranda – runs a 24/7 live link to the original office, allowing for an informal working relationship between teams hundreds of miles apart. There are also dedicated phone booths for calls home, and on the veranda, a creeper vine sprouted in Ukraine and carried to the island in a paper bag.
4A’s expansion has certainly borne fruit. It now has two announced games in production between Ukraine and Malta, the predictably sumptuous Metro Exodus and wintry Oculus Touch shooter Arktika 1. But relocating to Malta has created new challenges, too, as company executives strive to foster collaboration between far-flung teams while allowing for a certain amount of productive disagreement. “Most of the original 4A guys have worked together their entire lives, their entire professional careers,” Sharpe says. “For probably 60 to 75 per cent of the entire company, this is the only job they’ve ever had. They’re more like family than co-workers. So a big part of the reason we needed to make another studio was that we needed a place where other people could come in. And Ukraine was not that place.”
Sharpe speaks from personal experience, having moved to Ukraine in 2005 while employed by now-defunct THQ to serve as executive producer on Metro’s spiritual predecessor, STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. “I might as well have been a leper back in those days,” he says. “It was really bad. My first days at GSC Game World they put me in this – I’m not exaggerating – 300 square-foot room, all painted white, a single desk, and that’s it. By myself, sitting in this room! I was an outsider coming into their very family-oriented nucleus, and they didn’t want any part of it. I was the person in control of the purse strings, so they had to put up with me to some extent, but it certainly didn’t mean they had to be nice. Ukrainians are not welcoming people, initially – they’re ridiculously open once you break through that wall, but at first they’re like, ‘Stay out, we don’t want anything new.‘”
Designer Yevhen Fedorets certainly seems happy about the studio’s transformation. “Right now I’m working with people from Italy, Malta, Mexico, France, the United States, and it’s very, very interesting,” he says. Jonathan Bloch – a Turtle Rock alumnus who joined 4A Malta in 2015 – is equally enthusiastic, if cautious of making grand claims on behalf of non-Ukrainian team members. “I wouldn’t say that everyone in the company before [the move] thought the same, but there’s definitely been a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of brains that have come in to stir up the pot,” he says. It’s fortunate that 4A’s original and new employees enjoy working together, because there’s a significant degree of crossover between sites and projects. Arktika 1 and Metro Exodus are being developed by the Ukraine and Malta offices in parallel – Fedorets and Bloch serve as lead game designer and executive producer respectively on both titles – with all development disciplines represented in each office.
This is tacitly sold to us as a flexible structure that empowers individuals to take the initiative, but it also suggests a developer that is still a little in flux, still thrashing out the balance of power between the old guard and the greenhorns. “We do have people that are mostly assigned to one project or another,” Bloch continues, “but at the same time, especially since we’re sharing the same engine across all of our products, the programmer that wrote that feature we used on a couple of different products, maybe he’s got to work on this project for one week and on that
“FOR PROBABLY 60 TO 75 PER CENT OF THE ENTIRE COMPANY, THIS IS THE ONLY JOB THEY’VE EVER HAD”
Executive producer Jonathan Bloch (left) joined 4A from Turtle Rock; Yehven Fedorets is a designer on MetroExodus