All the problems of Atomic Heart: russian roots, Gazprom money and Ukrainian developers

Atomic Heart will be released in some countries today. Our best decision would have been not to write about it at all: the game was developed by a russian studio, and the money spent heavily smells of russian gas. Moreover, the product can potentially transfer player data to the government authorities of the aggressor country.

But the situation around Atomic Heart doesn’t allow us to ignore this release. First, because the West has been running around the game for several months, sometimes producing exalted reactions. Second, it deals with Ukraine and Ukrainian game development even more than you think. However, let’s see everything one at a time.

Це переклад нашої статті “Як українські розробники причетні до створення Atomic Heart — російської гри на гроші “Газпрому”. З українською версією можна ознайомитися за цим посиланням. Закликаємо усіх небайдужих до ситуації розповсюджувати текст в соцмережах, а також серед своїх іноземних колег і друзів.

What’s wrong with Atomic Heart?

Atomic Heart is a retro-futuristic action/RPG from Mundfish. The events of the game take place in an alternate reality of 1955: the USSR has mastered robotics, achieved technological progress and prosperity, and is one of the leading global powers. The nuances of the plot are not so important to us, so we won’t go into more detail. The only thing worth mentioning is that the main character is KGB Major Serhiy Nechaev.

Of course, the AH setting is one of the most obvious problems. Here, the Soviet regime is glorified with the hits of “Mirage” band and Alla Pugacheva, and a brave pioneer defeats an ill-mannered capitalist with one left hand. But this is not the only question before the game. What else is there?

The first trouble is the developers

Mundfish’s website says that “founded in 2017, by a team of four like-minded gaming enthusiasts, Mundfish is a video game development studio headquartered in Cyprus”. At that time, there were only four people in the company — Artem Galeev, Robert Bagratuni, Yevhenia Sedova, and Oleh Horodishenin. The thesis that this is a Cypriot and not a Russian company has been heard everywhere in recent weeks. Mundfish themselves tweeted not so long ago that they are a global team, advocate for peace, do not support violence, do not comment on politics or religion, and will not tolerate spammers who use hate speech or threats.

However, if you dig deeper, the Cypriot camouflage comes off the Mundfish immediately. In one of the interviews in 2017, Yevhenia Sedova and Robert Bagratuni talked about their professional path. Yevhenia, who is now the CFO of the studio, once owned a modeling agency. She then worked as head of the computer graphics department at Newmedia Stars. This is a russian Internet company headquartered in Moscow. Among its assets are propaganda media, an online game, and a publishing house. It is owned by Kostyantyn Rykov, an ex-deputy of the State Duma of the russian federation from the “United Russia” faction and one of the ideologues of the “For Putin” campaign.

Currently, Sedova’s LinkedIn has been almost completely cleaned. Unlike the Facebook page from which one can find out that she lives in Paphos (Cyprus) and enjoys “those same obscenely delicious gold-covered steaks” in Dubai. However, before the covid quarantine, this lady lived in moscow, which is easy to detect in her posts in 2020 and 2021.

The situation with studio CEO Robert Bagratuni is similar. From the interview, we discover that he also started his career at Newmedia Stars and Trehmer. As the website of the latter reads, it is “Russia’s largest producer of computer graphics in the field of television advertising”. Then Robert got to the well-known, where he worked from 2011 to 2015.

It’s the same with art director Artem Galeev and producer Oleh Horodishenin. Both currently live in Paphos, both previously worked in russia. The only difference is that Galeev is the main ideologist of Atomic Heart: in 2018, he posted short game trailers with remarks “russians are coming”, and in 2017 he wrote that the country needs a “planned economy and labor propaganda to engage the enormous potential of communism”. Before that, he was an employee of the russian full-cycle post-production company CGcompany. Before Atomic Heart, Horodishenin quietly developed the game Heroes of Scene.

Even if you turn a blind eye to where the founders of Mundfish are from and where they worked before, this company will by no means become Cypriot. In such a way, in January, when speaking with a Wccftech journalist Bagratuni noted that they currently employ 130 people from Poland, Kazakhstan, Israel, Armenia, Serbia, etc. But in 2019, he told about the company’s offices.

Robert Bagratuni
, CEO Mundfish

“Currently we have three offices. Two of them are in Moscow. Another one is in St. Petersburg. About 40 people are working on the game, but we hope that the team will grow by another 20 people in the nearest time”.

It seems that all the above is more than enough to identify the game as “russian”. But if this is not enough for someone, we suggest an experiment. Go to LinkedIn and search for people from Mundfish. You will easily find out that most of them do not live in the russian federation now, but almost all of them studied in russia or worked for russian companies.

The second trouble is money

Now we can tell about three big investors of Mundfish: Tencent, Gaijin Entertainment, and GEM Capital. The first is a Chinese investment monster, which long ago inserted its tentacles into Western game development. In particular, Tencent owns:

  • 100% of Riot Games shares (League of Legends, Valorant);
  • more than 80% in Supercell (Clash of Clans, Brawl Stars);
  • almost 50% in Epic Games (Unreal Engine, Fortnite);
  • 5% each in Activision Blizzard, Paradox Interactive, and Ubisoft;
  • shares in Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, etc.

This list is incomplete, but the scope is apparent. The company’s stance is also clear. The fact that Tencent invested in Mundfish shouldn’t surprise anyone. You can just look at the statement of the Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Yi, at this year’s Munich Security Conference — the leading Chinese diplomat called russia’s war against Ukraine a “Ukrainian crisis” and a “Ukrainian problem”. If the Chinese government does not speak out against russian aggression, why should Chinese business do so?

The second investor, Gaijin Entertainment, is allegedly a Hungarian game development and publishing company. However, it is as much Hungarian as Mundfish is Cypriot. GE was established in 2002 by four russians and during this time it released several eagerly awaited games (War Thunder, Crossout, Apache: Air Assault) and even participated in the creation of “Panfilov’s 28 Men” propaganda film.

In 2021, Gaijin Entertainment stumbled into an anti-Ukrainian scandal. The Crossout and War Thunder logos were spotted in a video by a russian blogger famous for his “volunteer activities” in the occupied territories of Donbas. After that, GE was accused of indirectly financing pro-russian terrorists. The blogger himself quickly denied ties with the occupation forces and removed the video containing the game logos from the channel. In turn, the company’s management claimed that they do not provide political support to anyone, they know nothing about politics and try to stay as far away from it. Hardly anyone was surprised.

But the most interesting situation is around the third investor — GEM Capital. This investment company is also registered in Cyprus and serves as a smokescreen to cover the russian tail. From its website, one can discover that it has invested in more than twenty studios, and has one founder — Anatoliy Paliy. Three years ago, in an interview with the russian Kommersant, he disclosed several details of his biography. In short, Paliy:

  • graduated from the Financial Academy of the Government of the russian federation;
  • received a diploma from the University of Jean Moulin Lyon-3 in France;
  • worked at PwC (in particular, dealing with the audit of Yukos and Gazprom);
  • was invited to work in Gazprom’s subsidiary structure — Gazenergoset.

Anatoliy Paliy, founder GEM Capital

“It was necessary to consolidate assets in the segments of marketing and sales of liquefied hydrocarbon gases and petroleum products of Gazprom within the framework of one company. At that time, such type of activity was completely unsegmented. We successfully completed this task and I decided to start my own business, using the experience in the oil and gas and financial sectors”, — Paliy adds.

This is seemingly enough — one of the main investors of Mundfish is the manager of Gazprom. But, as they say in a famous proverb, “they knocked from the bottom”. Paliy started his own business by establishing the 1Oil company. Dmytro Zubatyuk and Mark Garber were among his partners. When 1Oil was opened, the latter was a member of the board of directors of Rusal, owned by russian oligarch Oleh Deripaska.

In 2019, Paliy sold 1Oil to another russian entrepreneur, Yakov Goldovsky. From 1998 to 2002, this gentleman controlled one of the largest oil and gas chemical companies in the russian federation, Sibur Holding. Later with the light hand of Gazprom’s management, he spent time in a pre-trial detention center, fled to Austria, and bought several companies in Europe. In a word, the ordinary life of a russian entrepreneur in exile. Sold and done, but why should we care?

Because the russian state bank VTB became Goldovsky’s financial partner in this deal. The European Union froze the assets of this financial institution in April 2022, and it was disconnected from SWIFT back in March. It turns out that Mundfish’s money goes through Paliy to Gazprom, to Deripaska and VTB. One could say full house, but it seems to us that it’s already a royal flush.

The above is just one of the models that the Twitter community constructed. If someone wants to go deeper into the details, the below thread may be useful.

The third trouble is the privacy policy

In late January 2022, it was reported that Mundfish was collecting information about visitors to its website and customers who buy something there. This data includes name, address, email, phone number, location, and IP address. Although the problem is not only that.

The privacy policy mentioned the possible transfer of this data to russian state authorities. In particular, the tax administration and FSB. Among the laws underpinning the privacy policy, there are russian laws on mobilization and military service, under which the aggressor state sends soldiers to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the document was initially available only in russian, but on January 24, IT guy Ilya Pyshnyak published screenshots of the privacy policy in English, which also included points about the FSB. However, very soon both pages disappeared from the Mundfish website. To understand the situation, GamesRadar sent a request to the company. The answer was expected.

“The game and the website do not collect any information or data. This statement is outdated and incorrect and should have been removed years ago. We have closed up an online store to reassure our fans of the integrity of our studio and products. We apologize for any confusion on this matter”.

The “privacy policy” page on the developers’ website is currently unavailable. But can we say that people who hide their russian roots are sincere about the issue of privacy? We don’t have an answer to this question, but we must ask it. Especially realizing that the “Cypriot” company scheduled the release of its game on the anniversary of putin’s signing of the decree on the recognition of the so-called “DNR” and “LNR”.

If it’s so bad, why are we talking about this game?

After such arguments, the question is quite reasonable — why mention this game at all? Isn’t it a direct road to the Streisand effect? If someone doesn’t know, this is a social phenomenon whereby an attempt to remove information from the Internet only leads to its spread. And if it was a small game that only avid gamers and connoisseurs of russian game dev pay attention to, then Atomic Heart would have to be ignored. But, again, the situation is a bit more complicated.

First, AH is included in the selections of most gaming Western media

If you look up lists of the most exciting releases of 2023 from IGN, GamesRadar, PCGamer, GameSpot, PCMag, Polygon, and a dozen others, you’re bound to see Atomic Heart there. Moreover, some of them held playtests of the game in January and released paragraphs of joyful pig squealing. Here are a few examples:

“Atomic Heart left me at the peak of my curiosity and my pulse racing! Maybe it’s worth the wait”, — IGN.
“Hot damn did Atomic Heart get my adrenaline flowing! The game looks freaking phenomenal”, — GamesRadar.
“Atomic Heart altered my brain chemistry! I fought this giant spherical robot and loved every moment of it”, — Eurogamer.

Among all the reviews, only Polygon journalist Oli Velsh clearly outlined the origin of the game and Mundfish’s silence on the issue of the war in Ukraine. In contrast to him, columnist Joshua Volens from PCgamer even scolded the developers for their aimless exploit of the Soviet setting and that they have no love for “historical soviet socialism” at all. It turns out that while the Ukrainian community is trying to explain what’s wrong with Mundfish and find clues to sanction money, the Western press is actively promoting the game.

Second, Mundfish itself invests pretty well in marketing

Last week, a live-action advertisement for AH was released with Supernatural and Boys star Jensen Ackles. Before this video Atomic Heart was ranked 38-39 in Steam’s Top Sales chart, while after it took the 22nd place in the chart and the tenth place in the most wanted list. In addition, the French company Focus Entertainment, which promotes and distributes the game in most of the world, showed off an advertisement for AH in Times Square on Twitter.

Third, gamers may be attracted by the names of people who worked on the game

In particular, Richard “Levelord” Gray, an American game designer who created levels for Duke Nukem 3D and SiN, was involved in the project. He currently lives in russia, and in 2019 he took a video tour of one of the Mundfish offices.

Another example is Mick Gordon. We already wrote about him, but for those who missed this topic, we will remind you that Gordon is a famous game composer and sound designer. He worked on several parts of Need for Speed, was a composer for Wolfenstein, and also composed music for Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal (2020). He was also involved in Atomic Heart, although he kept silent until recently.

Last week, Mr. Gordon presented his vision of the russian-Ukrainian war, but this is a case where it would be better to remain silent. According to the composer, he will donate the funds received from Atomic Heart to help Ukrainians. Through the Australian Red Cross. We want to remind you that a month after the full-scale invasion, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, went to the russian capital and discussed with the head of russian diplomacy, sergey lavrov, the opening of office in Rostov-on-Don. Gordon also noted that:

  • On February 24, putin’s army began escalating the war in Ukraine;
  • the russian people did not decide anything, the authoritarian regime is to blame for everything;
  • the world should demand an end to this aggression and stand in solidarity with Ukrainians;
  • two years ago he was asked to compose music for Atomic Heart, a game with a “unique aesthetic”, and it was an “exciting creative opportunity” for him;
  • he is grateful to the team that took part in this project.

Fourth, none of the platforms abandoned Atomic Heart

It will be available on Steam and the PlayStation Store and will appear on Xbox Game Pass on the day of the full release, February 21 (in Vancouver and Los Angeles, the game will be released at 3 PM on February 20, and at 6 PM in New York). The situation is further complicated by the fact that Mundfish’s hardware partner is NVIDIA. It turns out that the game is being promoted not only by Western game media, TV stars, and respected game creators — the world leaders of the game industry also indulge in the pleasure of sipping a russian product.

Fifth, Mundfish does everything to encourage Ukrainian gamers to buy their game

Initially, the developers added the Ukrainian version to their site. Blogger OLDboi noticed this in his Twitter back in December. He suggested that the company is thus preparing the Ukrainian localization of the game. Recall that at that time Mundfish still did not speak about the war in Ukraine. And quite recently it became known that the game will still have Ukrainian. It was also noticed on Twitter that Rozetka is selling activation keys for AH. However, the game was removed from the marketplace in just a few hours.

What’s the deal with Ukrainians?

However, Atomic Heart relates to the Ukrainian game dev not because of localization. About a month ago, one of the representatives of our community drew the editor’s attention to that several Ukrainians work at Mundfish. Since then, we have tried to contact them, to ask about their choice, but we have received three totally different reactions. We will tell about each of them, although we will try to keep the anonymity of these people.

The first was a mocap animator. After our editor added him on LinkedIn, the guy cleaned his page — skills, jobs, education, and photo disappeared. This decision seems a little strange since his Facebook page has remained unchanged: there you can still see where he is from, where he lives, where he studied, and where he worked before Mundfish.

Two more people even added our editor as a friend — an environment artist and a 3D animator. However, they did not respond to any of the messages, although the editors’ position was quite clear: we wanted to know the stance of these people without value judgments, hate, and prejudice.

In fact, the only response we got was from a VFX specialist who left Mundfish in December 2022. We provide it anonymously, without editing.

“Good afternoon, I really don’t want to answer you, but my professional ethics force me to answer at least one letter. I really don’t like what you say in your posts, I’m fed up with the war in my country, my parents lost their home and peaceful life, I lost peace and the opportunity to work quietly and live where I feel comfortable, not at my wife’s parents. I condemn what you write there in the posts about atomic heart. I am a hardworking person, I have been doing my job for 12 years and I don’t want to add hostilities to my favorite business. I was born and raised in Donbas and speak Russian, Ukrainian, and English and pay taxes only in Ukraine. Don’t bother me anymore please”.

That is, in his answer, the person did not outline guilty of this war. Moreover, so far the situation looks as if the developer is justifying himself with problems that are familiar to millions of other Ukrainians. What do you think about his answer? Share your thoughts in the comments!

What shall we do with Atomic Heart?

However, we are sure how to deal with Atomic Heart. First, it cannot be bought under any circumstances. There are plenty of reasons to ignore this game, although we’ve listed just a few. Second, Ukraine as a state can and should react to this release.

We will remind you that back in 2020, Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Oleksandr Bornyakov pondered the idea of creating an effective mechanism for banning video games. According to him, some titles can harm the national interests of the state. This was his reaction to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was released in 2019 — there were locations in Donbas among the missions within the cooperative mode.

Upd. Bornyakov later noted that the Ministry of Digital Transformation will send requests to Valve, Sony and Microsoft. The authorities will ask to ban the sale of digital versions of this game on the territory of Ukraine.

“We also call for limiting the distribution of this game in other countries due to its toxicity, the potential collection of user data information and the possibility of their transfer to third parties in russia, as well as the potential use of money raised from the purchase of the game to wage war against Ukraine,” — said Bornyakov.

Although in the case of Atomic Heart, inventing some new mechanisms is not even necessary. This is already stipulated in the law of Ukraine “On the condemnation of the communist and national socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes, and prohibition of propaganda of their symbols”. The norm added Article 436 to the Criminal Code of Ukraine “Production, distribution of communist and Nazi symbols and propaganda of the communist and national socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes”.

According to it, the distribution of communist symbols can be punished by restriction (or deprivation) of freedom for a term of up to five years, with or without confiscation of property. That is, the very setting of Atomic Heart, its glorification of the Soviet regime and the KGB, may be illegal in Ukraine. The only question is whether the authorities will take this issue seriously.

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