Aug. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Just as Europe is gearing up to mark the centenaries of epic World War I battles, the digital gaming industry is attracting millions of new players to titles featuring scenes from the conflict that erupted a generation later.
At the Gamescom conference this week in Cologne, Germany, the prevailing theme is World War II. While there are still plenty of games featuring space aliens, urban thugs, and chubby plumbers, the dominant colors at the annual event are 1940s-era camouflage, Nazi red, and the fiery orange of explosions.
Outside the vast convention hall where the event is held, visitors tote bags full of swag such as tank-themed t-shirts and soldiers’ dog tags.
“I love being able to play with gear that’s as close to the reality of World War II as possible,” said David Floehl, a 40-year-old programmer from Cologne. For emphasis, he banged on the armor of an original Soviet tank displayed by Moscow game maker Gaijin Entertainment, which plans to publish its WWII- themed War Thunder this fall.
At the nearby booth of Gaijin’s big rival, Wargaming.net from Belarus, young women strutted in form-fitting uniforms of WWII-era nurses, sailors, and soldiers to promote its titles: World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and soon World of Warships.
Japan’s Bandai Namco earlier this year released “Enemy Front,” a first-person shooter in which an American journalist sabotages the Third Reich behind the lines; Bethesda Softworks LLC has “Wolfenstein: The New Order,” portraying Allied resistance fighters challenging victorious Nazis; and “Sniper Elite 3” from 505 Games recreates the tale of a sharpshooter in North Africa trying to stop Hitler’s wonder-weapon.
Scheduled for next year is Ubisoft SA’s “Furious 4,” which features a dark-humored story reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”
The WWII phenomenon has been led by publishers from Russia and the former Soviet republics, where as many as 3 percent of the population regularly play such games, according to Wargaming.
The legacy of World War II instilled a feeling of prideful sacrifice in many programmers and players, who were born in the 1980s when the Cold War was in full swing, said Igor Matsanyuk, founder of IMI, a venture-capital firm that invests in gaming but hasn’t put money into either Gaijin or Wargaming.
Players in the former Soviet Union “have the cultural experience of the victorious war where their battle tanks won,” Matsanyuk said. “The World War Two settings are less relevant for Americans and Western Europeans, who don’t have this culture.”
A big part of the appeal of the new releases from Gaijin and Wargaming is that anyone with an Internet connection who downloads the game software can play them for free. That allows players to face off against hundreds of thousands of other participants online. The companies earn money by selling access to a broader range of weapons and other digital doodads.
Though War Thunder -- which combines air and ground action between Axis and Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge, Pearl Harbor, and more than a dozen other places -- hasn’t yet been officially released, it’s already got 8 million test players. Gaijin says that about 20 percent of them buy upgrades, and those who do spend an average of $10 per month.
People playing military-themed free online games almost doubled last year and will keep growing, according to Gaijin. Wargaming says players registered for its titles, which feature WWII-era tanks and warplanes, has tripled in the past two years, to more than 100 million people.
“When we began four years ago, our primary focus was on history buffs,” said Victor Kislyi, chief executive officer of Wargaming. “Turns out we also hit the spot with people who enjoy competing online, or just blowing stuff up.”
The WWII games offer players a chance to see war through a lens of nostalgia, in a way that titles based on current conflicts don’t allow, said Gaijin CEO Anton Yudintsev.
“Modern vehicles are no fun to play,” Yudintsev said in a back room away from Gaijin’s stand, which featured an actual Messerschmitt plane in addition to the tank. “You have to destroy things at such great distances that you never see what you shoot.”
And he notes that the turmoil in Ukraine has hurt business because many people have fled fighting in the east, and electricity cuts across the country have made it hard to get online even in relatively calm areas.
“We lost a large number of our Ukrainian users,” Yudintsev said. “Frankly speaking, they’ve got more important things to do than play games. I would much prefer people play games than actually participate in real war.”