Of course, we were introduced to Serhii Hryhorovych by a person who knew everyone – Alex Ptytsia. The first office of GSC Game World was located in an ordinary apartment on Obolon in the same house where “Bearded Uncle™” lived.
It was September 1998, and the first issue of “Home PC” was still a few months away. Serhii Svitlichny and I wrote for “Computer Review” and in parallel worked on the concept and materials of DPK No. 1/1998, so we, of course, could not miss the opportunity to meet Ukrainian developers.
Even if my life depended on it, today I would not find that house, except for its approximate location. Let the residents of Obolon forgive me, but in 1998, the entire central part of the neighborhood consisted of exactly the same Soviet nine-story panel buildings with individual sixteen-story buildings between them.
That is, it was an absolutely standard Ukrainian panel building of the late 90s. With a smelly garbage chute, a dirty elevator with burnt buttons (never understood that, why!?), broken glass here and there, burnt light bulbs, etc.
GSC Game World occupied a three-room apartment, and I don’t remember which floor. Almost all Ukrainian game studios (and, as it turned out, not only Ukrainian ones, see David Kushner’s book Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture) went through three stages of development – apartment, factory (when studio offices were located in premises former Soviet factories) and the stage of business centers. Not all survived to the last.
A serious guy who looked like a movie star opened the door for us – a neat, almost model-like hairstyle, a knitted sweater, a calm voice, very polite manners. It was Anton Bolshakov, a friend and confidant of Serhii Hryhorovych, and actually, GSC Game World was based on the synergy of these two people.
The head of the company himself was sitting with other employees in the former living room, along all the walls of which there were various tables with computer equipment. Serhii, who was 20 years old at that time, looked like a high school student. A very short haircut, almost a bristle of several centimeters; thin, sinewy physique; a sharp, clearly appraising look, a firm handshake. This guy seemed to know what he wanted.
During the interview, answering questions about education and how they got into hacking and game development, Serhii was clearly bored. He hated Soviet schools and universities, believed that they could not teach something worthwhile and that if a person wants to develop, they should engage in business and self-education. In 1998, Serhii was just planning to take his younger brother Yevhen from school (now Yevhen Hryhorovych manages GSC Game World and takes care of the development of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2) and give him something useful to do in GSC.
Well, in general, Serhii was not very interested in telling something, he wanted to show. So as soon as there was a pause in the conversation, he said, “Let me show you something,” and led us to a computer in the corner of the room. The person sitting at the PC gave way. It was the incredibly modest Andrii Shpahin, the programmer who created the DMCR engine, on which Cossacks and all other GSC strategies worked. Serhii sat down at the computer and started a file.
The entire screen was filled with brown. Sergey called up the control panel, typed some combination and a green orc from WarCraft appeared under the cursor, then another, another, and more… Sergey moved the mouse and hundreds and hundreds of WarCraft sprite characters appeared on a brown background. We have never seen so many units on one screen in our life. The animations of some of the orcs were synchronized and it seemed that even this crowd on the screen was breathing like one big creature.
“There may be thousands of them,” said Serhii Hryhorovych. “And this will change everything. No game company in the world has anything like this.”
“What do you want to do with this technology?” we asked.
“Blizzard’s WarCraft III!” Serhii answered without even thinking. “And I want a million dollars for it!”
Unfortunately, Serhii did not create WarCraft III, at that time Blizzard had already started its own development of the game, besides, they were afraid to cooperate with some strange teenager from Ukraine. But Serhii Hryhorovych did earn his million dollars using this very technology, but that’s a slightly different story.
Serhiy Hryhorovych’s interview titled “WarCraft for himself”, by the way, this is his first interview, was published in “Computer Review” No. 36 (155) dated September 24, 1998. Scans of the original are below in the gallery. By the way, let’s draw your attention to the small, but very rare screenshots from GSC games that never saw the light of day.
WarCraft for himself
Years passed, but the desire to seize lands that belonged to humans did not leave the hot orc heads. During this time, a third high-tech race of aliens appeared on the planet. The aliens were interested in the resources of the planet and began to supply the opposing parties with deadly futuristic weapons, hoping that humans and orcs would destroy each other themselves, and they would become the full masters of this world…
This is how WarCraft 2000: Nuclear Epidemic begins, a remake of the forefather of the RTS genre, work on which is now being completed by the Kyiv company “Ihrovyi Svit” (Ihrovyi Svit means Game World, we don’t know why the literary editor insisted on not translating it – comment from 2023). Continuing to introduce you to Ukrainian game developers, we offer you an interview with the director of GSC Game World – Serhii Hryhorovych.
If we met thanks to WarCraft 2000, then let’s talk about it.
We set out to create this game with several goals in mind, one of which was to test our new engine. We didn’t want to develop something of our own for this, so, based on the history and units of the WarCraft world, we invented a plot and made a game for internal use. Our game engine allows you to create pseudo-3D landscapes, real shadows, supports resolutions from 800 × 600 to 1600 × 1200 at a frame rate of 25-40 fps and fairly moderate system requirements, giving each player the opportunity to have up to 8,000 units on the screen. It currently works in 256 colors, but a little rework will allow it to go to 16-bit color.
In the story, we have high-tech weapons, so we introduced units such as nuclear missiles, satellites, howitzer, anti-nuclear defense, bomber, and some old units not used by Blizzard into the world of WarCraft. New mage abilities have also been added. By the way, the graphic effects of the spells were visualized anew, however, like all the others – a fog of war, smoke, and fire. Significantly, compared to WarCraft, artificial intelligence has been strengthened, it analyzes your actions, looks for weak points in the defense, applies a siege, and fights for resources. There will be no missions and campaigns in WarCraft 2000 – the game was conceived as a network with the participation of up to eight people, and the only thing that can be offered to a single player is a skirmish mode against seven computers. Among other things, we have implemented in Nuclear Epidemic all modern management ideas in real-time strategies – selection of unit types, assembly points, patrolling, and much more.
Essentially, there is nothing left of the original game except for the world of orcs and humans, as well as the unit sprites.
How will the game be balanced due to the appearance of new types of troops and so many units?
We have been playing WarCraft 2000 for about three months now. Experience shows that a balance has been achieved. It’s just that by the time you have nuclear weapons, the enemy will probably have anti-nuclear defenses so that the use of bombs does not upset the balance. In addition, we have completely rebalanced all troops and units, buildings have more hit points, and the ratio of attack and defense of troops has changed significantly, although many old units go into battle as cannon fodder. We have implemented something that has never been seen in any other strategic game – the army. In a normal state, battles are fought in squads of 1,000 to 1,500 units.
What strategy and tactics can be said about such a number of soldiers? Rather, it will simply be a slaughter.
I think it’s the opposite. The limited number of troops has a bad effect on the game process. When in Age of Empires you are fighting with 10-20 soldiers (there is a lone catapult crawling somewhere, and two centurions are passing by on the right…), it is not normal. Another thing is 500 archers, 500 grants. In our country, the war is not fought at the level of individual soldiers, we are already talking about commanding armies, restraining an onslaught, a siege, that is, catapults are pushed forward, resources are slowly taken away – this is a long process. If in WarCraft a surprise attack could be the key to success, here a positional war is being waged on the front line. Essentially, the game turns into a long siege in which the attacker spends 20-30 times more resources than the defender.
How does all this fit with nuclear missiles?
According to the plot, aliens supply humans and orcs with modern weapons so that both races will destroy themselves. In principle, nuclear weapons are used quite rarely, and mostly for tactical purposes, since cities are equipped with means of anti-nuclear defense. As a result, tactics change.
Subversive activity is gaining great importance. For example, teleportation. WarCraft didn’t have this, but here you can move 100-150 units to the enemy’s base, disable air defenses and launch a nuclear missile. The second example is the “wings” spell. It allows you to lift units that do not fly into the air, and also move them to the rear of the enemy.
In principle, a nuclear war begins when you cannot impose your tactics on the enemy: a quick assault did not work, and the siege dragged on. With a cost of 60,000 missiles, it makes sense to create them only if there is a fully equipped base, a large number of units, and an anti-nuclear defense. Only then is it worth starting a nuclear war.
Tell us about computer gamers. Are they “smarter”?
We tried to bring the computer construction algorithm to perfection. The sequence of erecting buildings and transitions to the next level has been checked, that is, the computer starts upgrades only when it has built everything on the previous level. Completely rewritten pathfinding algorithm, in other words, it is now possible to get one soldier or group inside another group. Or, for example, when five hundred units go to meet each other, they calmly disperse, without getting confused and without stopping. The same can be said about moving through difficult terrain after a nuclear explosion.
The behavior of the troops has also changed. Now the troops both attacking and retreating shoot back, trying to be at the optimal distance from the enemy. Or, for example, computer dragons try to fly around the base from behind and hunt for villagers, that is, you have to defend not only the walls but also the rear. Catapults are hidden behind the line of troops, etc. We tried to make the computer use the same techniques that people use in a network game.
What was your goal in creating WarCraft 2000?
At first, we thought about just creating a good WarCraft for ourselves and we achieved this goal. In addition, they wanted to unite the team, test the engine and declare themselves as serious developers. We are not going to sell or modify this game, that is, the company does not violate any clause of the copyright law – this is a non-commercial project.
Most likely, WarCraft 2000 will be put up on FTP for free download, including all the source code for the game. Maybe we’ll post it on the Blizzard site. But the company has not yet responded to this offer. In general, our immediate goal and dream is to create WarCraft III for Blizzard using our engine.
I really want to make WarCraft III, and implement my ideas that have not yet been implemented in this game: three-dimensional maps that affect tactics; three-dimensional units that really move and really turn, obeying the laws of physics; night, day, weather effects, waves. Many of the above will significantly affect the game – the same terrain or night. We are interested and will continue to communicate with Blizzard. If nothing works, we will continue the development on our own. (As we know, it didn’t work out with WarCraft III, but it seems it was for the best because otherwise we wouldn’t have seen Cossacks and who knows how things would have turned out with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – comment from 2023)
Are you only interested in strategies?
Of course not. We are also currently working on 3D-action. The driver is still under development, although it already surpasses Quake II, supports all technological innovations, 16-bit lighting, and more. According to the plot, we will have a team of ten people who can be given orders. The fact is that the topic of Spec Ops is currently popular – this can be seen from the number of similar projects that are presented on the market. For this game, we will be looking for a publisher in the West, because it is impossible to release it even in Russia. We allocate about fifteen months to the project, including final testing. (This tactical shooter is not related to Oblivion Lost, the prototype of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., most likely Serhii talks about Venom. Codename: Outbreak, but in this case, the concept of the game changed radically before the release. On the other hand, the development of Venom apparently only started in early 1999 – comment from 2023)
Our other project is a three-dimensional quest that combines 3D pre-rendered plans with moving between locations using video inserts. According to the plot, this is a space adventure on an abandoned spaceship, a kind of interplanetary “Titanic”. The main character is an inspector, the second to be sent to a drifting ship to investigate the situation on board. Many details of the project are still unclear, although there is a demo version of a simplified engine and a script. Perhaps the result will be a game similar to The 11th Hour. This is a big project, the implementation of which will take a lot of time and will require painstaking work to create the quest part. (GSC Game World never made this game, concentrating on strategies and then on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The author of the article does not even know which of the developers was behind this project – comment from 2023)
Another quest project is a game based on the morphing of one scene into another, something surreal (like Sanitarium), with near-cinematic graphics, this is what many quest fans like. The game is based on a method that guarantees the acquisition of fast typing skills on the keyboard, learning the “blind method”. (We don’t even know what Serhii is talking about. This game didn’t happen either – comment from 2023)
The third quest, which we are going to do with the involvement of “Kyivnaukfilm” animators, is based on the plot of the famous cartoon “Treasure Island”. This is a purely animated, hand-drawn quest, in the best Sierra tradition. There is already a script and people are working. Many people believe that it is the easiest to do a quest. Yes, a bad quest is easy to do, but a good one… it’s like writing a book. (Treasure Island quest from GSC Game World never came out, but it was made in 2005 by another Kyiv studio – Action Forms, authors of Chasm: The Rift – comment from 2023)
So many projects, and developments, are you not afraid of failure?
No. We firmly decided to get a foothold in this business, because software is what we can and want to create. If we fail with game projects, we will move on to the implementation of custom and special software, I think we will be able to cope with this too.
How many people are currently working in the company?
For a software development company, our team is quite large. Excellent artists, programmers, and animators. In principle, several people work on each of our projects, because I believe that to develop a good game you don’t need huge budgets and hundreds of people in the staff, the main thing is the desire and ability to work. (Oh, innocent times. Serhii says about a dozen workers, and now hundreds and even thousands of people work in Ukrainian companies that develop games and software – a comment from 2023). We are growing our staff ourselves, raising their professional level, so, we hope, success in this difficult business will surely come.
Well, Serhii Hryhorovych turned out to be very stubborn and, despite the refusal, or rather the ignoring of Blizzard, success did come to GSC Game World. And it all started with this game, WarCraft 2000: Nuclear Epidemic. It can still be found on some ftp servers and torrent trackers. Most likely, WarCraft 2000 can even be run using DOSBox (by the way, the latest stable release of this utility took place in 2019, and recently a Linux patch was released), so you can try the first game of GSC Game World. Sure, the graphics and some of the gameplay mechanics look archaic, but it’s a pretty fun game, in which, upon great desire, you can see the future Cossacks.
Other archival interviews with Ukrainian developers:
Chasm: The Rift – 1997-2022