Igor, left, and Dmitri Bukhman, founders of Playrix Holding Ltd.
© 2019 Bloomberg Finance LP
Update (April 1, 2022): An extended version of this story can be found here.
As war rages in Ukraine, an internal battle is unfolding at the Russian-born gaming giant Playrix. Ukrainian employees at the mobile game developer, which is the second largest in the world by revenues—and known for free mobile game apps like Homescapes and Fishdom—say they were shocked earlier this week when their posts about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the workplace communication platform Slack suddenly started to disappear.
“In the chat, someone asked how we could help our colleagues from Ukraine,” one Playrix employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Forbes. But the responses that rolled in quickly vanished one-by-one; the company was removing them. “All messages on the topic were deleted, including mine,” the employee said. “I was recording a video of it all. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
A producer with Playrix who was born and raised in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, a recent target of Russian air-strikes, said he was “shaking with anger” as he watched the posts disappear in real-time. He could understand why the company would want to limit testy political discussion, “But it’s one thing when it’s a political opinion, quite another when it’s a war,” said the producer, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “They were shutting our mouths.” The employee quit in protest; his last day was Friday.
Playrix’s moderation of its employees’ war-related discussions was first reported on Thursday by Forbes Ukraine, an independent, licensed edition of Forbes. Later that night, Playrix’s founders–the billionaire brothers Igor and Dmitry Bukhman (worth $8.1 billion apiece, according to Forbes’ estimates)—told workers that they’d 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 difficult for us to make decisions but we must do it.”
Igor Bukhman, who moved from Israel to London with his brother two years ago (they hold both Russian and Israeli citizenship), said Playrix purging certain messages from the Slack channels was not political. “We have never censored and will never censor the expressions of opinions or the creation of any channels to discuss these opinions,” Bukhman told Forbes. “The only thing we’re asking of our employees during this crisis is that they keep our few official work channels solely for business communication.”
He confirmed that Playrix went on to shutter these channels altogether, a decision he said was caused by increasingly frequent “outbursts of uncontrolled hatred between employees.” “That is why we have temporarily archived several channels and kept open only those intended for communication about work and supporting our colleagues in Ukraine,” Bukhman said.
Playrix, and its billionaire founders, are in a precarious situation. The Russian government has said that any financial, informational or other material help to Ukraine from a Russian citizen will be considered treason and result in prison time.
But five Ukrainian employees interviewed by Forbes and Forbes Ukraine say Playrix’s actions have made them feel censored and left behind. The producer, who had been working at Playrix for just four months before the war started, said he decided to resign over the incident and Playrix’s general handling of the war in Ukraine. “I just don’t want to work with these people anymore,” he told Forbes from Kharkiv, where he is still living.
Founded in Vologda, Russia, in 2004, Playrix saw its business balloon during the Covid-19 pandemic–jumping from the No. 7 spot to become the No. 2 biggest mobile game developer in the world (measured by revenue) after China’s Tencent in 2020, according to researcher AppAnnie. Playrix brought in over $2.9 billion in revenues in 2021 and boasts about 110 million monthly average users, 25 million of whom are in the U.S., the company told Forbes. The fortunes of its founders, who together own a 96% stake in Playrix, have more than doubled since 2020.
Playrix moved its headquarters to Dublin, Ireland, in 2014. But a majority of its employees–about 3,000 of its 4,000 person workforce–are still based in Russia and Ukraine, about 1,500 in each. The company’s offices in Ukraine are in Kyiv and Kharkiv.
The Bukhmans were among the first high-profile Russian billionaires to speak out against the war in Ukraine publicly, announcing in a joint Facebook post four days after Russia’s initial invasion on Feb. 24 that they would be providing extra paychecks 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’s 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, emphasizing that “violence can never be the solution to a problem.”
Still at this historic time, one Ukrainian employee argued that given the company’s significant presence in Ukraine, its founders should have taken a stand sooner—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 established censorship in work chat like in the USSR.”
“This was called a ‘conflict’ between Ukraine and Russia,” another employee told Forbes Ukraine, noting that the company’s refusal to clearly condemn Russia’s invasion has also made them want to leave. “I know quite a lot of Ukrainians who will not want to work here,” the employee said.
Meanwhile, the producer criticized the assistance offered to Ukrainian employees as insufficient. Employees asked Playrix whether they should move their offices out of Ukraine as conflict brewed before the Feb. 24 invasion, but the company continued to wait, he said. “[The] lack of a ‘plan B’ looks very strange to me for such a large company.”
When asked about these concerns by Forbes, Igor Bukhman said Playrix’s “unconditional priority” has been protecting all of its workers, a part of which involves carefully considering the company’s public response to the fighting. “Internally, we recognized it from day one and our managers started responding to the situation the very same day,” Bukhman said. “We employ a number of people inside 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 are “devastated by what is happening and we want the war to end.” He noted that they have numerous close friends still in Ukraine and that “there’s no one with ties to the CIS countries who hasn’t been affected by the war.”
In their letter sent to Playrix employees on Thursday, the Bukhmans addressed feedback from employees that they “had to express our public opinion more sincerely.” “We cannot take an open position now because we have a responsibility to our employees and families,” they said. The brothers highlighted concerns about the possible consequences of even providing extra paychecks to their Ukrainian employees.
“We can only guess whether this is dangerous. But we can’t not help,” they said.
Playrix isn’t the only company grappling with these internal conflicts in the midst of the war. Wargaming.net, a Belarusian game developer with offices in both St. Petersburg, Russia, and Kyiv, 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 Russia’s invasion in a Facebook post on Feb. 25.
Wargaming, which is founded and run by the Belarusian entrepreneur Victor Kislyi, said Burkatovskiy’s opinion “categorically does not reflect the position of the company.” On Feb. 28, the company announced it would donate $1 million to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
But, in most cases, Russian-linked companies addressing the war are taking a similar position to Playrix: Attempting to walk the tight-rope of their conflicting loyalties, morals and fears.
Additional reporting by Forbes Ukraine.