'Strange things began to happen'—how a Ukrainian studio lost its game, saw it botted to hell, and saved it

Robowars combat.
(Image credit: N-Game Studios)
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There are so many games on Steam it's impossible to get your head around the sheer number of them. I look at Steam nearly every day of my life, I check the charts and the new releases, sometimes I dig a little deeper on the data: but there's so much that you could keep going forever. No wonder stuff just gets lost.

Robowars feels like one of those games most players will never hear of. There isn't much exceptional about this old tower defence game (good name though) which is, shall we say, heavily inspired by Plants vs. Zombies and was first released in 2014. There is something unusual about it though: it was seemingly abandoned, then around two years ago it disappeared.

And then, a few days ago, it suddenly reappeared. With a patch fixing all the things players had complained about. What gives? Sounds like the publisher's bank balance did, and maybe more.

"It wasn't easy, but we did it," writes Robowars developer N-Game Studios, which is based in the Ukrainian town of Dnepr and has been operating since 2002. "Several years ago we lost contact with our publisher. It was quite insulting and frustrating to watch what happens with the game and not be able to somehow influence it! Also, we didn't receive any sales reports and royalties for some years."

During this time N-Game was in the dark about what was happening, and later learned the publisher was going through bankruptcy proceedings, as part of which the game was removed from Steam. Now, the studio has been able to recover the rights to Robowars and return it to Steam.

To celebrate, N-Game says, "we have prepared an updated build that fixes several critical bugs and improves game balance and localization." N-Game adds it is "grateful to the Steam team for helping us get the game back on sale." It has also slashed the game's price to a quarter of the original because "it seems to be fair", and no doubt because many of the negative Steam reviews are mostly about the price.

Robowars was published initially by a company called Lace Games, then by a company called Kiss Ltd., not to be confused with Kiss Publishing Limited (incorporated in 2017). Or is it? The old Kiss Steam page is dead but it appears the Youtube still posts the odd video, and the SteamDB entry for the publisher lists games published before and after 2017.

Darryl Still co-founded and was/is CEO of both Kiss Ltd in 2012, and Kiss Publishing Limited in 2017. The bankruptcy appears to have happened in 2017. I've contacted Mr. Still via the most recent company contact address to ask some questions about Kiss (or the Kisses, if you prefer), and will update with any response. He's had 24 hours though, so don't hold your breath.

I contacted N-Game Studios to ask about what was going on, and CEO Gleb Sokolov spoke to us.

"It's really quite a confusing story! All of this started back in the spring of 2014, when I received an email from a Lace Games producer," said Sokolov. "He suggested that we publish our game Robowars on Steam, which at that time was only released as a browser game and only in Russian.

"The publisher took over the localization and promotion [...] Conditions looked good, we signed a contract with Lace Games and started porting the game. It took about six months. Everything was done without attracting any investment or funding. Therefore, some moments looked very budgetary, but we didn't lose our enthusiasm."

This is what life at the coalface really looks like. It's important to remember what an achievement it is to get a game on Steam, and that in this case Robowars was a small studio's chance to reach more players. I used to work in the literary world and indie games publishing works on much the same business model as poetry books: a handful will sell absolute gangbusters, but most won't sell-through an initial print run of a few hundred copies. Every game is a small bet for these publishers, in other words, and lord willing some of them pay off big.

For the developers, and the poets, it's a shot at the big time.

By October that year the game was ready, and had been reviewed and approved by Valve. "The release took place on October 24, 2014," said Sokolov. "But then some oddities began. The publisher (more precisely, the publishers, since KISS ltd was added to Lace Games) interpreted the concept of game promotion in a very peculiar way. In fact, their participation was reduced to the distribution of keys to those journalists and YouTubers who themselves wrote to us and wanted to review the game."

Being lazy about PR is one thing, but things got shadier. "In addition, very significant (in thousands of copies) discrepancies in sales statistics between the official reports (which the publisher sent us in the form of Excel tables) and the popular SteamSpy site at that time were outlined almost immediately. The publisher attributed this to the inaccuracy of SteamSpy, but refused to give direct access to Steam statistics (citing technical difficulties).

"However, even from those sales that the publisher officially showed, we received royalties. Even if not the amounts that were expected, but, in the end, Robowars began to bring us, albeit a small, profit!"

Technical difficulties. I am currently wearing my 'doubt' face. Every so often an indie developer talks about a story like this and, take it from someone who's looked into a lot of them, often it's a bit half-and-half. The developer will say the publisher didn't do X, Y, and Z, then you get in touch with the publisher and they say the developer didn't do A, B and C to get there. But this was a case of a released game where the publisher would have had access to the on-site Steam stats yet, somehow, couldn't share them other than in the form of an Excel spreadsheet.

"Mass distribution of keys to users was organized (some of which were very reminiscent of bots). A lot of strange reviews began to appear."

Gleb Sokolov

Despite the game not being a big "success story", Sokolov says, the team was happy it had made a good product and released it on a major platform. Then shortly afterwards the publisher went completely dark. From summer 2015 onwards, the studio stopped receiving sales reports (which in the contract were supposed to be delivered every month). The publisher's staff stopped responding to emails.

"A few months later, I managed to contact the former accountant of KISS ltd, who told me about the liquidation of the company and the dismissal of its employees," said Sokolov. "We tried to take back control of Robowars, but it was decidedly not clear with whom to negotiate."

N-Game remains a going concern now, and so there was other work to be done. After not making any progress in trying to re-acquire the rights, Sokolov and his team had to move it down the priority list and focus on the future. But, of course, they kept an eye on it.

"Interestingly, strange things began to happen to the game later," said Sokolov. "The new (but is it new?) owner of the publisher's account dramatically increased marketing activity. Mass distribution of keys to users was organized (some of which were very reminiscent of bots). A lot of strange reviews began to appear. Keys also appeared on sale on third-party resources. But, since the publisher didn't have source codes, it still couldn't support and develop the game without our participation (and didn't want to, apparently)."

Sokolov says the team was "very disappointed with all this", particularly the fact it couldn't improve the game, but "life doesn't stand still [and] for several years we forgot about this story."

Then in the summer of 2020, Robowars disappeared from Steam entirely.

"This prompted us to take decisive action," said Sokolov. "I did a real investigation and found out who is the legal successor of our (now definitely former!) publisher. I found the contact of this person in the social network and contacted him. I told him the whole story and offered to solve the problem in the following way: they return the rights and control over the game to us, and we will not bring claims against them in connection with the violation of the contract terms. So, we came to an agreement and Robowars formally returned back to us, its creators."

The game was still, however, tied to the Kiss Ltd. Steam account. "Fortunately, the Steam team was sympathetic to our situation," said Sokolov. "They helped us transfer Robowars from the former publisher's account to our own account without losing player data, stats, etc. By the way, thanks to this, some more curious details surfaced: for example, we learned that the former publisher created more than 200,000 (!) activation keys for our game. We can only guess what happened to the game all this time."

I suspect Sokolov can do a lot more than guess, and it's easy to see why Robowars may have been an attractive bait for what looks like something like cheap mass ad campaigns and questionable botting support. The name alone kind of works. Robowars may not be the kind of game that jumps out at you. But imagine you'd made it, and were watching all this happen.

"After all these strange years, the game is back on Steam. And it feels like maybe we are back with it."

Gleb Sokolov

At least, for those who did make it, there's something of a happy ending. "This year we finally decided it was time for Robowars to return to Steam," said Sokolov. "It must have been some kind of inspiration. In addition, we have been thinking about developing a sequel to the game for several years. Therefore, we didn't simply return the old build "as is". We had community feedback and our own thoughts on what could be improved in the game.

"Therefore, for the return of the game, we have prepared an updated build. Then, we contacted Valve again, as they had to return the game to the sale. And it finally happened."

Robowars has returned, after a drama that most of its lifetime players will never know about, better than ever. The Steam reviews over the years for an unsupported title have been, unsurprisingly, somewhat negative: though a lot also say they enjoyed it but found it too expensive for what it was. The new version and lower price should help with that, at least, even if a 2014 tower defence game is unlikely to make a grand comeback.

"Surprisingly, despite a large amount of negative feedback on the game's page, the overall response from the community was positive to the return of Robowars," says Sokolov. "After all these strange years, the game is back on Steam. And it feels like maybe we are back with it.

"Here we have such an unusual story."

It is an unusual story, and thanks to Gleb Sokolov for telling it. Players think about the games industry in a slightly skewed manner, which is understandable because these are the stories we are told. Everything's a success or it's a disaster. In reality most of the stories are in the middle, they slip under the radar, and no-one pays much attention to a licensing dispute about a tower defence game from some eastern European studio. But perhaps the way Kiss Ltd. acted around this suggests we should: after all, how many other Robowars are out there?

Business is business and there's no suggestion that Kiss or any of its decision-makers did anything wrong in going through bankruptcy and re-starting: this kind of thing happens a lot. What does seem off is how N-Game was left in limbo by the publisher, how the deal it signed meant it had no control over what was happening with the game, and above all else those sales reports. No one is likely to see any justice here though.

When I first looked at this story, watched the Robowars launch trailer and downloaded it and started poking around, I admit I was dismissive in that way we sometimes are about something a little generic, something we've seen before.

Now I'm looking at the little Robowars icon in my Steam library (opens in new tab) with a smile, and feeling like I should meet it halfway. Every creation is someone's baby, after all. And when you hear how Sokolov and N-Game fought for it, and returned so many years later, you can't help but be more enamoured of a game that someone out there really cared for.

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."