Jason Rubin, the former president of THQ and co-founder of Naughty Dog, has lauded Metro: Last Light for its technical and creative achievements while drawing attention to the working conditions at Ukraine-based developer 4A Games.
"The budget of Last Light is less than some of its competitors spend on cut scenes, a mere 10 percent of the budget of its biggest competitors," Rubin wrote in a post on GamesIndustry.
"Yet it is lauded for its story and atmosphere. It is built on a completely original and proprietary second-generation engine that competes with sequels that have stopped numbering themselves, with more engineers on their tech than 4A has on the entire project. Yet its tech chops are never in question."
Rubin joked that the only thing 4A was getting too much credit for was the frightening, post-apocalyptic environment of the game. "I've been in Kiev to visit the team, so I know they just stepped outside for reference."
4A's studio in the Ukrainian capital was small and sparsely equipped, according to Rubin. "4A's staff sat on folding wedding chairs, literally elbow to elbow at card tables in what looks more like a packed grade school cafeteria than a development studio," he claimed. The former THQ executive contrasted the working conditions to those enjoyed by Western developers: "The entire 4A studio would fit easily in the (underutilized) gym at EA Los Angeles' offices. Yet Last Light's Metacritic score blows away Medal of Honor Warfighter."
The studio also had to contend with frequent power outages, and freezing conditions in winter. "I truly enjoyed Far Cry 3, which deserved its great reviews," Rubin noted. "But how many times did Ubisoft Montreal lose power for hours or days during development? Power outages are the norm for 4A. All developers have deadlines, but I know of few that had to bring in construction generators to be able to work the weekend before final submission because an extra day meant missing shelf dates by weeks.
"Montreal is cold, but when it gets cold in Kiev it's different. That's because the government provides all of the heating through a central coal burning facility that pipes hot water to homes and offices. Unfortunately, it breaks down reliably a few times a year for a week at a time. Then 4A works in their parkas and struggles to keep their fingers warm in temperatures well below freezing. That is unless it snows and they get stuck home for a few days at a time because snow clearing isn't up to Western standards."
4A Games creative director Andrew 'Prof' Prokhorov responded to Rubin's piece, thanking him and noting that in the 10 years he worked with THQ (Prokhorov previously worked at GSC on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series) Rubin was the only THQ president to visit Ukraine, and Rubin did so just two weeks after joining THQ.
"It is a fact that our work conditions are worse than those of other developers outside Ukraine," stated Prokhorov. "I don't think anyone can doubt that. Yes, it's true that American and most of European developers operate in a country far more comfortable than Ukraine, and yes, the publishers pay them more." But 4A Games did not expect any special treatment because of this: "The final consumer doesn't care about our conditions. And this is right. We need no indulgence," wrote Prokhorov.
Acquiring development hardware or equipment could be problematic in Ukraine, according to Rubin: "When 4A needed another dev kit, or high-end PC, or whatever, someone from 4A had to fly to the States and sneak it back to the Ukraine in a backpack lest it be 'seized' at the border by thieving customs officials."
After visiting the team, Rubin wanted to buy them Aeron office chairs – "considered a fundamental human right in the west" – but there were no outlets selling them in the country, so they would have had to buy them in Poland, pack them on a truck and drive them to Kiev with an "expediter" who would bribe officials along the way. This would have tripled the cost, but the reason they didn't go ahead with this in the end was because the chairs would have been too wide for their desks, and 4A "would have required bigger offices."
Rubin felt that 4A Games deserved recognition for their achievement, and the studio's backstory was worth sharing. "If you care about the art of making games then you have to care about more than the final product. The struggle and the journey becomes part of the story. Like sport, you cheer when the underdog comes from behind, and triumphs in the face of incredible odds.
"That doesn't always mean getting the gold. Sometimes when the underdog comes in second, third, or fourth, it is ultimately more impressive than the story of the inevitable number one. 4A is to developers what the Jamaican Bobsledding team is to Olympic sport. The Jamaicans may not have won the gold in 1994, but they beat the Americans who had far more going for them... like winter coats and bobsledding tracks to train on."
The former THQ executive criticised his predecessors for pushing the studio to add a multiplayer mode to Metro: Last Light earlier in its development, which was ultimately scrapped.
"If 4A had been given a more competitive budget, in a saner environment, hadn't wasted a year-plus chasing the irrational requirement of THQ's original producers to fit multiplayer and co-op into the same deadline and budget(!), hadn't had to deal with the transition to a new publisher in the crucial few months before final, what could 4A have created?"
After THQ went bankrupt, the rights to Metro: Last Light were acquired by Koch Media's Deep Silver publishing label, which released the game this week.