You're wrong about Russia.
We might be jumping to conclusions, but you probably think of Russia as a games market ruled by PC, with Counter-Strike and World of Tanks the most popular titles and piracy flowing as freely as vodka.
That may have been accurate once, but Russia has since moved on to pastures new, with console and mobile gathering momentum and free-to-play business models beating back piracy. Although, PC remains as popular as ever.
Consoles are just entering the market,” says Max Chuvalov, product marketing manager for World of Tanks at Wargaming. Mobile is quite okay, but the core – 80 to 85 per cent – is PC.”
Yasha Haddaji, GM of Nintendo Russia, agrees: Home consoles are niche and handhelds are the niche of the niche.
Mobile gaming here is huge. It's the seventh-biggest mobile market globally. Consumers start learning to play games on smartphones.”
Maxim Maslov, GM for hybrid event Igromir/Comic Con Russia, believes an influx of new gamers has transformed the market.
What's the biggest change in terms of how people play games?” he asks. It's not people switching from PC – it is the industry gaining a lot of people who have never played games before. These people choose either mobile or console. The PC audience is huge, but it's stale.”
Russia's games business is often viewed as notorious due to its affliction with black market games.
The PS1 market was nearly 100 per cent pirated,” recalls Sergey Amirdjanov, marketing director at local distributor SoftClub. Consoles and games were sold on flea markets, not at retail.”
While the illegal provision of titles remains a problem, Wargaming's Chuvalov says that Russian consumers are becoming more receptive.
The mentality of people is changing,” he says. They have learned how to pay for games because of platforms like Steam.”
Comic Con's Maslov agrees that the black market is shrinking.
Piracy isn't a big issue like it was five years ago,” he observes. You cannot pirate on a console and you cannot pirate on PC because of either free-to-play or Steam.”
Chuvalov posits that the increasing number of titles translated into Russian has encouraged players to spend, rather than steal.
In the past, we didn't have comfortable paying methods or platforms,” he recounts. We didn't have the retail distribution network like in North America or Europe, so it was hard to find official copies of games. We didn't have localisation, so everything was in English, Chinese or Japanese. People didn't feel that they needed to pay for it.
Right now, most of the games come localised, with good distribution models. It's very easy to pay, and you get the satisfaction of a localised game. That changes the mindset little by little.”
Olga Lazareva, MD of Ubisoft Russia, echoes the argument.
We localise all our games into Russian and that is the key influence of success for us,” she says. When we talk the Russian language with our gamers, then we are perceived differently.”
While the accessibility of digital platforms like Steam has played a major role in countering the black market, demand for physical products has also helped, as SoftClub's Amirdjanov details.
Russian gamers love peripherals,” he enthuses. We saw big success with EyeToy at the time. It helped in combatting piracy, because it is a physical thing that you cannot pirate. For a number of years EyeToy was the top-selling game in Russia.”
"The Russian industry is like the global market five to seven years ago"
However, Russia is a predominantly digital market.
There are not many retail chains,” explains Chuvalov. We usually buy online, because it's easier. Previously, when online retail wasn't so widespread, it was very hard for us. The level of piracy was high.”
Make no mistake: physical retail is remaining steady in the face of Russia's turbulent economy. And they're taking valuable lessons from the West, says Amirdjanov.
Russian stores are at a European level of development,” he reveals. We flew retailers over to London to show them Virgin Megastore, GAME and HMV. At that time, the UK games market was incredible.
The UK games market has deteriorated from that time. I can honestly say that some Russian stores might be better than UK ones. Not all of them, obviously, but some are very, very good.”
Indie retail is flourishing, too.
Russia is too big for even the biggest retailer to cover,” Amirdjanov explains. Indies will always have a big place for a very long time; we will not see a situation where a single retailer occupies 40 or 50 per cent of the market.”
From home-grown beasts like World of Tanks to Western success stories such as Counter-Strike, the shooter remains Russia's favoured pastime.
The most popular genres are the ones that were the most popular in the 1990s,” says Chuvalov. So real-time strategies, turn-based games and, for core gamers, shooters. It's just in our DNA.”
But these are not the only genres to have struck a chord in the country.
Fighting games are quite big,” reveals Amirdjanov. The biggest one of them all is Mortal Kombat, which has seen incredible success.”
Lazareva comments upon Ubisoft's own experience bringing Western hits to the territory.
It's surprising that the same franchises are popular as everywhere else,” she says. Assassin's Creed is our number one brand, but Far Cry is also hugely popular. Watch Dogs was super successful as a new IP.
You might be surprised that the Rayman franchise is big in Russia. Russian markets are often perceived as hardcore, but when we see our sales results Rayman is always at number four or five in our back catalogue.”
Nintendo's Haddaji was also faced with the challenge of introducing franchises outside of Russia's traditional hardcore interests to the region.
When you start from scratch, you can really see which brands are still strong,” he recalls. The Pokmon TV series only aired in Russia in 2000 or 2001, before being cancelled. There was nothing Pokmon for 12 years. Then we opened a local office and Pokmon's best-selling titles, X and Y, together were even higher than Zelda. Pokmon is our number one brand in Russia.”
Like in the UK, the launch of Amiibo has similarly inspired sell-out success at Russian retail.
Amiibo is overperforming,” observes Haddaji. One of our media posted on Instagram that the Samus Amiibo gets you into the subway, which is a weird thing that we tested and, yes, it's true. It went viral all over the world and the day after we were out of every single Amiibo. This was just ahead of Christmas and we were like: ‘Thank God.'”
Russia is too big for even the biggest retailer to cover.
Indies will always have a big place for a very long time;
we will not