As war rages in Ukraine, an internal battle is unfolding at Russian gaming giant Playrix. Ukrainian employees of the mobile game developer, which is the world’s second-biggest by revenue – and known for its free-to-play mobile game apps like Homescapes and Fishdom – say they were shocked earlier this week when their posts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine on workplace communication platform Slack suddenly began to disappear.
“In the chat, someone asked how we can help our Ukrainian colleagues,” said a Playrix employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Forbes. But the answers that came in quickly disappeared one by one; the company removed them. “All posts on the subject have been deleted, including mine,” the employee said. “I was recording a video of it all. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
A Playrix producer, born and raised in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, recently targeted by Russian airstrikes, said he was “shaking with anger” watching the posts disappear in real time. He could understand why the company would want to limit petulant political discussions, “But it’s one thing when it’s a political opinion, it’s another when it’s a war,” said the producer, who has also asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “They were shutting our mouths.” The employee resigned in protest; his last day was Friday.
Playrix’s moderation of its employees’ war-related discussions was the first reported Thursday by Forbes Ukrainean independent licensed edition of Forbes. Later that night, Playrix founders, billionaire brothers Igor and Dmitry Bukhman (worth $8.1 billion each, according to Forbes’ estimates) – told workers they had made the decision to shut down some of the company’s mass channels on Slack. Playrix is in a “very difficult situation,” the brothers wrote, according to a copy of the email obtained by Forbes (and translated from Russian). “We are literally between two fires. It’s hard for us to make decisions, but we have to.
Igor Bukhman, who moved from Israel to London with his brother two years ago, said Playrix purging some messages from Slack channels was not political. “We have never censored and never will censor the expression of opinions or the creation of channels to discuss those opinions,” Bukhman told Forbes. “The only thing we ask of our employees during this crisis is that they keep our few official working channels only for professional communication.”
He confirmed that Playrix then shut down those channels altogether, a move he said was caused by increasingly frequent “outbursts of uncontrolled hatred among employees.” “That is why we have temporarily archived several channels and kept open only those intended for work communication and support to our colleagues in Ukraine,” Bukhman said.
Playrix and its billionaire founders are in a precarious situation. The Russian government has declared that any financial, informational or other assistance to Ukraine from a Russian citizen will be considered treason and will result in a prison sentence.
But Ukrainian employees interviewed by Forbes and Forbes Ukraine say Playrix’s actions made them feel censored and left out. The producer, who had been with Playrix for just four months before the war began, said he decided to quit following the incident and Playrix’s overall handling of the war in Ukraine. “I don’t want to work with these people anymore,” he said. Forbes from Kharkov, where he still lives.
Founded in Vologda, Russia in 2004, Playrix saw its business explode during the Covid-19 pandemic, rising from 7th place to become the 2nd largest mobile game developer in the world (measured by revenue) after Chinese Tencent in 2020, according to researcher AppAnnie. Playrix generated more than $2.9 billion in revenue in 2021 and has about 110 average monthly users, including 25 million in the United States, the company said. Forbes. The fortunes of its founders, who together hold a 96% stake in Playrix, have more than doubled since 2020.
Playrix moved its headquarters to Dublin, Ireland in 2014. But the majority of its employees – around 3,000 of its 4,000 employees – are still based in Russia and Ukraine, around 1,500 each. Of the society desks in Ukraine are in Kiev and Kharkov.
The Bukhmans were among the first high-profile Russian billionaires to speak out publicly against the war in Ukraine, announcing in a joint Facebook post four days after Russia’s initial invasion on February 24 that they would provide paychecks supplements to all of their employees across the globe. The company also placed all Ukrainian employees on paid leave and offered to help employees and their families with evacuation plans, according to Igor Bukhman. “It is difficult to remain silent in the current situation because what is happening is a great tragedy for everyone, including our company,” the brothers said at the time, stressing that “violence can never be the solution to a problem”.
Also at this historic time, a Ukrainian employee argued that given the company’s large presence in Ukraine, its founders should have taken a stand earlier and more forcefully. “For five days, Playrix didn’t even call what was happening a war,” the employee said. “I am very angry that the company does not want to call a spade a spade and help employees more strongly, and that Playrix has introduced censorship in the work chat like in the USSR.”
“It was called a ‘conflict’ between Ukraine and Russia,” said another employee. Forbes Ukraine, noting that the company’s refusal to clearly condemn the Russian invasion also made them want to leave. “I know quite a few Ukrainians who won’t want to work here,” the employee said.
Meanwhile, the producer criticized the help offered to Ukrainian employees as insufficient. Employees asked Playrix if they should move their offices out of Ukraine as the conflict brewed ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion, but the company continued to wait, he said. “[The] the absence of a “plan B” seems to me very strange for such a large company. »
Asked about those concerns by Forbes, Igor Bukhman said Playrix’s “unconditional priority” is to protect all of its workers, which in part involves carefully scrutinizing the company’s public response to the fighting. “Internally, we recognized it from day one and our managers started responding to the situation the same day,” Bukhman said. “We employ a number of people inside the Russian jurisdiction, which puts us in a very delicate position: our every move is scrutinized.”
Bukhman reiterated the message from the Playrix founders’ initial Facebook post, saying he and his brother were “devastated by what is happening and we want the war to end.” He noted that they still have many close friends in Ukraine and that “there is no one with ties to CIS countries who has not been affected by the war”.
In their letter sent to Playrix employees on Thursday, the Bukhmans responded to employee comments that they “need to express our public opinion more sincerely.” “We cannot accept a vacancy now because we have a responsibility to our employees and our families,” they said. The brothers raised concerns about the possible consequences of even providing additional paychecks to their Ukrainian employees.
“We can only guess if it’s dangerous. But we cannot not help,” they said.
Playrix isn’t the only company struggling with these infighting amid the war. Wargaming.net, a Belarusian game developer with offices in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Kiev, Ukraine, took a turn in the spotlight earlier this week when the company fired Sergey Burkatovskiy, the creative director of hit game World of Tanks, after he declared his support for the invasion of Russia in a February 25 Facebook post.
Wargaming, which is founded and run by Belarusian entrepreneur Victor Kislyi, said Burkatovskiy’s opinion “categorically does not reflect the position of the company”. On February 28, the company announced that it would donate $1 million to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
But, in most cases, Russia-linked companies tackling the war take a similar stance to Playrix: trying to walk a tightrope of conflicting loyalties, morals, and fears.