Making the Rebuild Ukraine mobile game in the middle of a war zone

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When I was interviewing Pavel Izotov, the creator of the mobile game Rebuild Ukraine, he stopped several times to wipe away his tears. That was very humane and understandable, since he was playing his game in the middle of a war zone.

Izotov lives with his wife Irina in central Ukraine in a city called Cherkasy. Fortunately, he has been spared much of the fighting that has devastated other parts of the country, including Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol. They haven’t evacuated the city, but it’s been a scary place to work on a game.

Despite these difficulties, Izotov managed to publish the game for Android, which is about the reconstruction of the country of Ukraine, one building, one landmark and one statue at a time. Proceeds from the ad-based title, published by PubRev+, will go to humanitarian charities helping Ukrainians, such as World Kitchen.

“Every step we take is about how we can better serve Ukraine,” he said in an interview with GamesBeat. “I want to help my country, help my people and do whatever I can.”

A statue from the 2014 war in Cherkasy: a Ukrainian soldier guards the White Tree of Gondor.

The title is just one of the countless ways game companies are helping Ukrainians affected by the war. Levvvel estimated that players and game companies have donated more than $195 million to Ukraine-related charities, including $144 million donated by Epic Games and Fortnite players alone. And while Izotov’s contribution is relatively small in that big picture, not many people can say they helped under the same daily pressures and conditions of war.

When war broke out, Izotov was stunned and wanted to find some way to help. But he was unable to enlist in the army for health reasons. During the first week, the horrors of the war on the news were so disturbing that Izotov could do nothing. He and his wife spent time talking to friends in different parts of the country and following news of the invasion. They knew people in multiple places who had become the center of the fight. And they had friends who had become soldiers in the Ukrainian army.

“It’s been really emotional. And we are talking to our neighbors about how, if the Russians come to our city, how are we going to defend this,” Izotov said. “And some of my friends left town.”

Working in a war zone

Pavel Izotov works on his laptop at a shelter in Cherkasy, Ukraine.
Pavel Izotov works on his laptop at a shelter in Cherkasy, Ukraine.

When the match began on February 24, Izotov already had a mockup of the game while working on a hopscotch title. After the war started, Izotov was unable to concentrate for a week. But eventually, he had a call with his publisher and they decided to do something to help Ukraine. Izotov decided to adapt the hopscotch game into a construction game.

“The decision was pretty quick. We decided to make the game to help Ukraine and changed our direction from commercial to charity,” said PubRev+ CEO Charles Castell, in an interview with GamesBeat.

rebuild ukraine

Izotov worked on the game himself, with his wife Irina, who he said has always been by his side testing the games he creates. Izotov said that sometimes it was still very difficult to stay in control and concentrate. Another friend helped with the design of the game.

“It’s a lot of emotion and stress, but this has inspired me to work harder and be strong,” she said. “I realize that our friends on the front lines and the military are very strong. I needed to do something. I didn’t feel like I needed to rest. I was inspired.”

Izotov and his wife chose to stay in their hometown of Cherkassy as rockets flew overhead to hit other cities in Ukraine. They moved into an underground shelter during the first days of the war.

Izotov said: “I worked for two weeks in the shelter. When the work started, we always went downstairs. So every time the alarms went off we had to go outside and go to the shelter. And there was no internet. We were sitting on the chairs and on my knees was my computer. I was working on this game.”

To get Internet access, Izotov had to go to his apartment building. He still had internet service, so he came and went as needed.

Irina and Pavel Izotov.
Irina and Pavel Izotov in happier times.

“After the first week, I felt like I needed to do something to help,” he said. “I needed to, how do you say, ‘contribute.’ I just can’t sit in one place. I got out of stress. I started working day and night without sleeping. I worked a lot. We were so excited, inspired and motivated.”

One problem was that the apartment building was among the kinds of prime targets the Russians were attacking. So, for a while, Izotov and his wife moved out of that building and slept in a more secure work building. As he moved from place to place, Izotov wrote the code for the casual game.

Rebuild Ukraine will benefit charities such as the World Central Kitchen.

The war front is hundreds of miles away, but rockets can be very scary when they pass overhead.

“I think Cherkassy is the safest place in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s pretty quiet. It is much quieter than eastern Ukraine.”

While he was doing that, his wife searched places to find bottles of Molotov cocktails. They had a cute dog and the children from the shelter played with it. Overall, it’s still a surreal experience for Izotov to work in a war zone.

A focus on reconstruction

Life in an underground shelter in the Ukraine.

The game has more than 100 levels and 10 cities (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, etc.). The game transports users to the rebuilding efforts, where they tap on screen flying bricks to rebuild Ukrainian houses and monuments. This mechanic educates users about the need for long-term reconstruction efforts and allows for in-app advertising placement, from which 100% of net profits will be donated to those charities in Ukraine.

The game also includes direct donation links for people who want to give more. Later versions will include in-app purchase collectibles. Users will be able to purchase the digital equivalent of specific items to be used in rebuilding efforts (bricks, monument parts, etc.)

Castell said he and co-worker Ben Green got chills when they started thinking about the idea and talking to Izotov. The title tries to gamify charitable donations. Castell’s PubRev+ company is a boutique agency for the development and growth of mobile applications and connected television.

And in addition to running the firm, Castell is active in the social justice movement and has been working for several years with organizations and government institutions to create positive change in the US and the world. Without his advice, Izotov said that he would never have been able to finish the game.

One of the core tenets of the company’s culture is the idea of ​​service and making sure to use your resources and talents to help those less fortunate, Castell said.

Eating underground in Cherkasy.

An iOS version of the game is pending approval. In the long term, PubRev+ hopes to use the same gameplay to raise money for reconstruction efforts in other countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and to help address some of the major societal challenges we face here in the US.

To do the programming, Izotov, fortunately, did not have to be online all the time. But he had to go back to his house to search for various assets and information that he needed. After about two weeks, it became easier to work, as life continued somewhat normal in central Ukraine. Still, the signs of war were everywhere, as some anti-aircraft guns in the city destroy rockets aimed at other cities. Some rockets hit Cherkasy, but no one was killed, Izotov said. For the most part, the Internet has remained stable in the city.

As for the rest of the game development community in Ukraine, Izotov believes that as many people as possible are working.

“They are going back to work and people are going back to the areas because the Russian soldiers have fled,” he said. “Developers are working together like never before. They are doing things like making nets for the military. Now I am more optimistic.”

a soft launch

The children liked to play with the dog Izotov in the shelter.

Castell said the Android game is on a soft launch and hasn’t gotten much feedback yet.

Since neither the shelter nor the office have a shower, the Izotovs return home to shower and then return to safer places.

Izotov has around eight years of experience creating games, mostly as a freelance or independent game developer. Izotov said he had some warnings from friends before the fighting started, so they packed backpacks and filled a car with gasoline. The closest the Russians have come so far is a few hundred kilometers away.

A girl carries a gun in Ukraine.

Izotov said that he had a friend in Mariupol and he doesn’t know how he is doing. That city has been devastated by Russian attacks. He knows others whose friends or relatives have disappeared in other parts of the country.

Izotov plans to add updates to the game that capture moments from the war, such as the Ukrainian soldier telling a Russian warship to “fuck off” over the radio in the early days of the war.

“We think this is a great way to counteract donation fatigue because there is no real donation,” Castell said. “Just by spending time playing a casual game, you’re contributing, you’re helping, even if you played five minutes. That money comes in and goes straight to help the people of Ukraine. We focus 100% on rebuilding, as rebuilding will take decades. You will need help all the time.”

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