For quite a long time, we believed that the first Ukrainian game was King’s Bounty 2 aka KB2, the non-commercial “almost-sequel” of King’s Bounty (1990) from New World Computing, created by Kharkiv programmer Serhii Prokofiev in 1992-1993. But recently we learned that the economic strategy Kommersant (Trader), very popular in the post-Soviet space in the early 1990s, was created in Kyiv in 1991, and was published shortly after the declaration of Ukraine’s independence. We found the author of the game, Kyiv artist, media artist, photographer, poet, and writer Volodymyr Kharchenko, and talked to him about the way it was.
But first, a few words about what the Kommersant game is. This is a fairly simple business simulator of the time of Perestroika, in which you are offered to buy and sell oil and land, “communicate” with bandits and riot police, gamble in casinos and bet at the races, that is, lead the life of a typical trader of the late Soviet or early post-Soviet era. According to the game calendar, the game starts on January 1, 2000.
In 1991-92 in Ukraine, and probably in the entire post-USSR territory, there was not a single computer on which this game was not installed. It was played in scientific institutes, in government institutions, in educational institutions, at production sites, everywhere. Some of Mezha staff also played Kommersant in 1991, but it so happened that only now, 32 years later, we learned that this game was created in Ukraine. So today we will talk about the first Ukrainian game and digital art. Let’s go!
Good afternoon, Volodymyr. Tell us how it all began and how it happened that one of the first games of the post-Soviet period was created in Ukraine. As I understand it, at the end of the 1980s, during Perestroika, you worked as a programmer, and then as a director of Rada Ltd. What kind of company was it, surely it wasn’t involved in computer games? What did you do and what kind of software did you use then?
Good afternoon. Everything turned out very well then. Because at the Rada company, which was a private enterprise, I worked with Americans from 1989 to 1991. There were many directions in which we cooperated, and thanks to this, we had Western computers, which I later bought. When it became clear that the Soviet government was already ending, and it was a Soviet-American enterprise, I created a private company in which I myself developed software.
The board produced only software, and I was the only employee, but that was enough. My software was even sold then on Lenin Street, now it is Bohdan Khmelnytskyi Street, in the first software store in Ukraine. Once the manager of this store told me happily: “Last month, we sold more of your programs than Microsoft!” “Really, and how much?” I asked. “Four, and Microsoft three!”.
And what were those programs? That is, it was some kind of accounting software or something else?
I wrote almost everything then. For the most part, these were, so to speak, tools for developers. Various libraries on Assembler, on Turbo Pascal. By the way, Kommersant was also written in Turbo Pascal. That is, I programmed various tools, and three of them even entered the catalog “Program products of Ukraine” (1993). I also wrote complex, more than accounting programs that fully kept records, calculated possible income, etc.
What kind of computers were they? I understand that you bought this software from the Americans.
XT (meaning IBM XT 286 (1986) on an Intel 80286 processor – ed. note), this was 1991. 386 (PC on Intel 80386 series processors – ed. note) appeared much later. I had a Zhiguli, so I traded it for the 386.
Where did the idea of creating a computer game come from? At the same time, few people had access to Western software and even knew what video games were. And did any specific Western game serve as a source of inspiration for Kommersant?
This is an interesting story. At that time, I had a lot of time to play all the games that came out, and I decided to give myself a “vaccination” by writing my own game. That’s how the game Kommersant appeared.
So you were a gamer?
Yes, if you could be a gamer in those days with all these “Pythons” (one of the countless variations of Blockade/Snake – ed. note), Prince of Persia, and other games of that time. I was a gamer, but when I wrote Kommersant, I got so bored with all the games that I couldn’t play them anymore. About half a year of development to be completely inside the game, it was all too much (laughs)…
So was there any example that inspired you? I checked out some Western business simulators of those years and did not find any direct correlation. Although I know that already in the 1990s there were Japanese business simulators somewhat similar to Kommersant, where you had to trade shares on the stock exchange, etc.
No, I did not take a specific game as a model, but the surrounding country, Ukraine. I wanted to capture all this, and I rather treated it more like media, an artistic project rather than a game. But there were very interesting things there. For example, do you remember what the currency was called there?
Yes, that is, the Soviet rubles have become grubles.
In general, when did the game come out? That is, during the times of the USSR, or was it already independent Ukraine? What month was it? Because the Russian Wikipedia says (no longer, Oleg Danylov corrected it – ed. note) that it is a Soviet game.
Kommersant was published just at the end of 1991, sometime in the fall. That is, independence was already proclaimed in August 1991, but the All-Ukrainian referendum on December 1, 1991, had not yet passed (de jure it was already independent Ukraine, but the remnants of the USSR, which formally existed before December 25, 1991, were not ready to agree with this – ed.’s note).
That is, for about half a year, you played the game in your free time from developing other software.
I worked for myself, that is, it cannot be called free time, I just spent half a year working only on the game.
Completely on your own, no one helped? That is, the plot is completely yours, and all these stories, how the OMON comes, how the villains kidnap your wife…
Yes, all by myself, that’s why I say that this is a kind of interactive media art.
Also, when I was programming, I was interested in making the software faster and smaller in size than the analogs that existed at the time. That is, I took the Norton Commander (the popular 1980-90 two-panel “orthodox” file manager for MS-DOS – ed. note) and tried to rewrite it. By the way, at that time I also wrote the poems “Norton Commander knows the Dir command by heart.”
And I tried to make Kommersant more compact. I don’t remember exactly, but it seems that the whole game together with the music took about 42 KB. I used my own designs that made it possible to reduce the size of programs, they were even sold in the store, a kind of selection of blocks written in Assembler that could be inserted into programs. This greatly reduced size and speeded up execution.
That is, Kommersant was created on Turbo Pascal. In fact, I hesitated whether it should be Turbo Pascal or even Fox Pro because the interface was already very familiar. At one time, Turbo Pascal was a tool for business software, so Kommersant is somewhat similar in interface to the business software of that time.
Yes, this is honestly bought in those days Turbo Pascal. And yes, I wanted to show in the game that this is kind of a serious business.
Well, it’s Turbo Pascal, because by that time I had already been working for a long time with it. From the beginning of the 1980s, still on DVK on “Elektronika” (a family of Soviet computers of the mid-1980s – early 1990s, DEC PDP-11 clones – ed. note), and there was also not even Turbo Pascal, but plain Pascal. Back then, I started writing games on it, copying “Python”/Snake and other simple games.
At the same time, in the early 1980s, I was programming the Mandelbrot set, and I only recently found out that I was doing it almost at the same time that people got interested in it in the west (the first visualization of the Mandelbrot set was created on March 1, 1980, in the IBM research center – ed. note). Having found this formula, I was very interested and created a visualization. This is already on DVK-3, which was in color.
How was the game spread? That is, at that time the Internet in the modern sense did not yet exist, but only recently we celebrated 30 years of the World Wide Web, that is, the Web appeared only in 1993. You posted a game in Fido (Fidonet is a non-commercial computer network created in 1984 that could be joined over a telephone line. The first Fidonet node appeared in the USSR in September 1990 – ed. note) and what’s next? That is, was it some kind of instant success or did the game spread gradually? Has there been any feedback from players? Did they write to you?
Yes, everything turned out very well, because at that time I was well acquainted with fidoshniks (users of the Fido network, whose computers themselves created Fido, on peak in the mid-1990s there were about 40 thousand Fidonet nodes in the world – ed. note). We were going to Post Square, it was a very famous joint in Fido, everyone knew it back then. That is, I posted Kommersant not through my own site, but also through a fairly well-known one, so the game spread very quickly.
Later, when the Internet appeared and the first disc of pirated programs and games was released, I look, and in the first place – my game. “Oh, – I say – guys, you are selling my game there! Well, where is the money?”. “No,” they told me, “be proud!”
That, by the way, was my next question. That is, you did not receive any financial profit from Kommersant?
None. It was an art object from the very beginning. I even wrote there somewhere that this is a free game.
And after that, were there any offers to develop other games, move into the game industry? From the Americans, for example.
Yes, there were offers, but I was no longer interested in it. Because I did what I wanted, I painted a picture, that’s it. I did not want to remake it. Although I saw that Kommersant 2 appeared on the Internet later. But this is without my knowledge, I don’t even know who did it.
If today someone wants to restore Kommersant on a modern engine with more modern mechanics, would you be interested in taking part in it? Why I ask this is because I know several games currently being developed in Ukraine, which are somewhat similar or use some of the same mechanics as those in Kommersant, moreover, they are dedicated to 1980-1990 and one some of them even about Ukraine in the 90s. These are the games STONKS-9800: Stock Market Simulator and Great Hopes City.
Well, it depends on what kind of participation it will be, how interesting it will be, how interesting the project itself is, who it is intended for, where it will go, what will be in this project, that is, there are a lot of questions.
As I understand it, in addition to programming and development of the first Ukrainian computer game, you had other interesting creative experiments at the border of technology and art in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Can you tell us about them?
I already told how it all started. That is, it was a Mandelbrot set, also a kind of artistic software. In the mid-1980s, I made a program that I called the Mandelbrot Microscope. There you could take different parts of the set and dive deeper and deeper into the fractal. If you’ve seen what diving into the Mandelbrot set looks like, then it’s actually something fantastic. One day we are sitting at a birthday party and I see that one guest is gone for an hour, two, three. I go into another room, and he is sitting at the computer and is immersed in the multitude.
I also read that you did some music concerts with synthesized/programmed music.
This was also during Fido’s time. Then I wrote sampler music, after all, there were no Sound Blasters, no sound cards. My friend soldered such a first pro-sound card for me and I wrote on a fashionable at that time, and perhaps the only such program at the time, Scream Tracker (the last version of the music sequencer Scream Tracker 3.21 was released in 1994 – ed. note). The music itself was written with samples. That is, you take samples, or record them, or take them from the library, and assemble them into a melody. And then, as I think, I wrote the world’s first Network Concert. That is, everyone posted one or two compositions, and I wrote a whole concert. And its name was… Homo soveticus! It was in 1991.
It was also posted in Fido, and then there were many more, but now there are very few programs that can work with STM format files (Scream Tracker Module – ed. note). I want to somehow restore this concert, to improve the sound quality. I need to do this. But at one time it spread very well.
As an artist, you have always worked on the edge and have always been interested in new technologies, digital photos, photo processing, etc. As I know you have been experimenting with NFTs for some time now. I think I saw your work on OpenSea. Is there any market there, any sales of this work, or is this another soap bubble, interest in which is already waning?
No, you can’t say it’s a bubble, it’s very interesting. And, first of all, it is interesting that the person who created his work signs it. That is, it cannot be stolen, which is the most important thing about NFT. But in order to work with NFT, you need to work a lot not on the work itself, but on promoting yourself and the work. You need to recruit the right people on Twitter to look for collectors… That is, to do not very interesting things. So it’s not for everyone.
So it is no longer about creativity, but about some kind of self-promotion?
Exactly, exactly about promotion. If there is money… you have to work, you have to be interested in other work, you have to buy others’ work, that is, you have to be a part of this community. It takes a lot of time, a lot of time it should take.
Understood. Are there any sales of your work on these resources?
People are interested, but I just haven’t promoted it. I posted it and let it be.
Most of your work has been digital for more than 30 years. What kind of software, cameras or maybe some specific hardware do you use in your work?
No specific hardware. Often – the simplest smartphones, the simplest cameras. What’s interesting about digital media art is that I can take as a basis a very, very bad photo, or a completely uninteresting object, and then turn it into something completely different.
By the way, I started working like this long before Photoshop appeared. For example, in the 1990s it was PhotoStyler (Aldus PhotoStyler (1991–1994), a graphics editor, the main competitor of Adobe Photoshop, after Adobe acquired Aldus, the product was closed – ed. note) Media art is actually like the painting by an artist, there is a canvas, there are paints. I took a photo or some object and processed it, made it what I wanted to get.
For me, the creative process is always almost like a meditation. I just work, and the work comes into being. When it says “All right, I’m complete”, I say “OK” and the job is done.
That is, the source photo is like a kind of canvas, a sketch on which you draw your work?
Yes, and in the end it may not be at all like what it was in the beginning. More often than not, this is what happens.
Do you print your work? Does it exist in the physical dimension? And what was it like in the 1990s, when there were no photo printers?
I have had more than 60 exhibitions in 18 countries. That is, I printed on all types of material – on paper, on canvas, on plastic, on fabric, on many things. As soon as the opportunity arises, I print my work. But yes, at first it was impossible and I was very happy in the early 1990s when I bought myself a color printer. It had only three colors – black, red, and green. It was a matrix printer that printed through a special tape. At the time, there were almost no scanners or printers, so we had to make something out of nothing.
By the way, I remembered something else interesting related to the computers of those times. In the early 1980s, I worked in a laboratory that created deep freeze refrigerators. I programmed the physicochemical properties of the mixtures that were being cooled. So I wrote what I believe to be one of the first self-taught programs. That is a kind of artificial intelligence of the 1983 model. Then even a small scientific article was published where I described it.
That is, the program calculated the parameters of the mixture every day, while the temperature and pressure changed. At the same time, the parameters of the same mixture were calculated for the ES (ES EOM – Single Series of Electronic Computing Machines – a Soviet series of computers produced from 1971 to the mid-1990s. They are clones of IBM System/360 computers and IBM System/370 – ed.note). About 2-3 weeks later, my program on a small DVK began to calculate parameters 3-4 times faster than ES. Because it studied, watched or calculated it before and took from the database what she had already saved before.
As I understand, you still continue to be interested in IT technologies and even work with them, offering SEO optimization of sites.
Yes, I have never stopped doing it, that is, since the Internet appeared. This year I have a kind of anniversary, it’s already 25 years since the first website I made in 1998. Then I started to promote it and there was no information on how to promote sites. Completely empty. And somewhere in 1999–2000, I created the first full course in the CIS on website promotion. That is, it was a kind of course for 20 large lectures, but at the time there were no systems for learning at all. So these were simple Word files, and then I accepted the exams via email.
In addition, in 2001, I published the article “Development of a website, first steps” in the magazine “Computers+Programs”, No. 4/2001.
Well, Volodymyr’s company has been operating for 25 years. It turns out that it is one of the oldest in this field, so if you need site optimization, contact them. The company is called PRlab.net.
In general, how can one person coexist with such different aspirations and interests as creativity, writing, poetry, drawing, photography, SEO-promotion of sites, game development… What is your secret?
I don’t know. I study the world. In addition to everything you mentioned, I am also an expert in parapsychology, and I used to be invited on television very often on this subject. I wonder how it is all working, what is inside. That is, it can be said that it is a kind of scientific research work to explore the world through image, through words, through music (I am also a composer).
It often happens that when people are engaged in one thing, one field, they burn out after a while. You have been around IT technologies for 40 years amd you are still not tired of them?
This is the secret. When I get bored with something I’m doing, I just do something else. I still have a lot to do. That is, no, I never burn out.
That is, you are such a multi-vector, multi-disciplinary person.
Well then, good luck to you in your creativity, more different technologies, hobbies and everything else. And victory to all of us.
This is definitely the most important thing.
The Kommersant game can be played even now through DOSBox or even online on some sites. Unfortunately, these are Russian sites, so we do not provide links, but Google knows everything.
Media art and photos of Volodymyr Kharchenko; photos of Serhii Mazurash and Elena Kimelfeld and screenshots from the Kommersant game are used in the material.