Stu­dio Pro­file

How the ar­chi­tects of Metro’s wilder­ness are han­dling life in the Mediter­ranean

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ED­WIN EVANS-THIRLWELL

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

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