The Warsaw Indies

The building is large and elaborate. It looks like a school mixed up with an apartment complex, and it has, in fact, been used for both of these purposes.

I'm standing in the street in a quiet but slightly dangerous neighborhood in Warsaw. In front of me is a building that has no name, but has lived many lives. Built in the 1970s by the communist government of Poland, it, at various times housed schools, dance studios, libraries, homes and businesses. Now, its lowest floor is home to a small theater. Above, in the middle floor warren of decrepit apartments and rented offices, is the meeting place for one of Warsaw's growing indie game development communities.

The office of Crunching Koalas in central Warsaw is situated in a decaying, Soviet-era building that has been home to, at various times, a dance studio, a theater and a government office building.

The hallways are dark, barely lit with flickering and too-few fluorescents. Sunlight sneaks in from cracks in the painted-over windows. A giant, wide marble staircase passes under a bank of powerful pink lights, backed by a stained glass mosaic depicting nothing at all. Cracks in everything suggest the building's long and eventful life.

Turning a corner, walking down a hall across the corridor from the battered, shared bathroom, I find the offices of indie game developer Crunching Koalas and the workplace of Tomas "Tom" Tomaszewski.

Tomaszewski is an impossibly young, jaunty Polish kid — thin, with spiky yellow hair and a perfect hipster slouch. He's invited me to this place to see his game, to meet his team and to interact with a dozen or so other Warsaw indies, representatives of a community of over 500 individuals in and around Warsaw, all living and working in the relatively inexpensive Polish capital and selling games mainly in North America via the PSN and Steam.

Over the next two days I will speak to a small number of these teams. What I will learn is that making indie games in Poland is both the same and different from making them in the United States, but that with a game development community roughly the size of that in any large American city and growing, the chances you'll be playing an indie game made in Poland are increasing every day.

"The thing that I like is that we still consider ourselves underdogs," Tomaszewski tells me. "Americans were doing games since the beginning, the English guys as well. The Germans are super organized and have lots of money, so their games will be great. We're like the underdogs. Everyone likes it when an underdog succeeds. That's probably what I like about game development in Poland. We tend to surprise ourselves over and over."

These are the stories of the Warsaw indies.

Crunching Koalas

"We were thinking of a name for the studio," says Tomaszewski. He's sitting in the middle of the small but sparse room Crunching Koalas uses for its office. It's the size of a large bedroom with bookshelves along one wall and a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows along the other.

When the Koalas moved into the space it was barren. Concrete walls painted battleship grey, bare floor, no bookshelves. It could resemble something out of a post-apocalypse scenario, which, in a way it is. The decaying building had been passed from hand to hand after the fall of communism, and eventually became a sort of low-rent, all-purpose space, used almost exclusively by small, young companies like Crunching Koalas. Warsaw is littered with these buildings — most are scheduled for destruction and being squeezed for every possible last use before the wrecking ball swings.

Tomaszewski and his co-founders Lukasz Juszczyk and and Kris Lesiecki put in a particle board floor, built the shelves and painted the walls. Then they installed a set of lime green shades in front of the windows, which, on sunny days like this one, diffuse the room in a kind of acid trip green. The effect is at once alarming and mildly exotic.

Tomaszewski is one of a new generation of Polish game developers, raised after the fall of Communism in a country where the idea that you could grow up to do whatever you wanted had suddenly become somewhat normal. Tomaszewski learned to make games at the local technical university in an elite program for game development run by fellow indie game developers and the founders of Thing Trunk, Filip Starzynski and Konstanty Kalicki. After graduating, Tomaszewski entered a business plan competition in which the top four companies would get funding. He placed fifth.

"So I didn't get anything," he says. "We were sure we were going to get it. We already rented a flat, which was bigger. It was supposed to be our studio. When the results came and I was fifth, it was like, oh my God. How are we gonna do this?"

Tomasz "Tom" Tomaszewski spent part of his childhood in the UK, where his father was an importer/exporter.

A few weeks later, he got a second chance. He applied again for the funding, and his business plan came in first. Now all he needed was a name.

"I know we wanted a sweet animal, a sweet creature in the name and the logo, because we're making games that are partly casual," Tomaszewski says. "We wanted to appeal to people who like sweet animals."

"Capybaras was taken. There was no studio with koalas, so we took the koalas. We didn't just want to be koalas, though. We needed something more. ... The guys who funded our studio came up with the idea to name it the Crunching Koalas."

Tomaszewski and his partners were "crunching" on games for other studios, putting in long hours and basically working themselves into exhaustion. To the company's investors, this seemed cute. The team members were not just koalas; they were "crunching" Koalas.

"They just looked at us and thought, it's obvious. 'You're nearly asleep. You have these black marks under your eyes. You're the Crunching Koalas.' So we said yes."

The Koalas were crunching because they were working for hire, working long hours making mobile games for other companies and grinding steadily toward being able to eventually make their own. Their first original game was a puzzle platformer, a clone, they admit. Their second is more ambitious, a dungeon fighter in which you attack monsters by correctly spelling words.

"[It's] called WordTrap Dungeon," Tomaszewski says, showing it off on a teammate's computer. It's still in prototype form, but the team hopes that it will soon be able to finish it. "It's a mix of Scrabble and a dungeon RPG, a dungeon crawler. You fight with words. ... You have a book in front of you, and some letters."

Players click the letters on the screen to form words. The words then create a spell, which casts fireballs at the monsters in the dungeon. The bigger the word, the more damage is dealt to the monster. You win by being smart.

After a few years of scraping by, the team will finally have a game with a shot at making it in the competitive PSN store and Steam.

But development on WordTrap Dungeon is currently in limbo while the Koalas work on their other game, MouseCraft. It's a quirky platform puzzler for PC and all PlayStation platforms in which you help navigate white lab mice through a maze in a laboratory. And, unlike WordTrap Dungeon, it's already got a publishing deal. In MouseCraft, the mice follow a path, and you help them by moving platforms and boxes and blowing things up. Make a mistake, and the mice get crushed or killed. It sounds horrific, but the rough edges have a liberal application of almost Disney-like polish to make it fun.

For the Koalas, its release will be something of a coming out. After a few years of scraping by, the team will finally have a game with a shot at making it in the competitive PSN store and Steam.

"Our idea is to make something called crossover games," he says. "It's our idea and our philosophy — games that are somewhere in the middle between indie, casual and hardcore games. ... What I'd like to see in four or five years, I'd like to see that someone plays my tenth game, and he remembers, 'Oh, I played something similar about five years ago. I saw that somewhere.' And he goes back and he sees that he played MouseCraft some time ago. He just sees the connection between these games.

"That would be great. That would mean that we succeeded."

The professors

Filip Starzynski and Konstanty Kalicki are a generation older than Tomaszewski and his co-founders. For the two men, growing up in Poland presented fewer opportunities than in the West for becoming game designers — even for playing games at all.

"The game industry wasn't — it was nonexistent," Kalicki says. "In the 90s I was an avid Amiga player, Commodore Amiga 500. When I wanted to get a game for my computer, I had to go to the — how to translate this? There was this market. A flea market for games? It gathered behind a school on a muddy yard, one school in Warsaw."

"The guy had this bucket of floppy disks and you just paid him and shuffled through."

"Not far from where you live now," Starzynski interjects. He does this a lot, just as Kalicki frequently finishes sentences started by Starzynski. The two have been working together in one way or another for close to 15 years, and it shows.

"You had to go there on the weekend," Kalicki continues. "There were hundreds of stalls and people were selling games on diskettes. It was a fantastic experience, because sometimes you would buy a game and have no idea what you'd gotten, because the guy had this bucket of floppy disks and you just paid him and shuffled through. I bought something called 'Battle of Britain' or something like that. It turned out to be a simulation? You had no idea what you were getting back then. This is how I got into the Civilization series — because it sounded cool. Civilization? I'll check this out ... It was pretty much the same with studios that created games. If you couldn't even sell a game, what was the point in making one? It got much, much better. Now there are computer game development studios popping up everywhere."

While the Polish educational system, by the time Starzynski and Kalicki entered university in 2002, did not offer much in the way of game development instruction, it did teach computer science — heavily influenced by Soviet interests in science and mathematics. Determined to learn how to make games, the pair and a classmate (and eventual co-worker), Matt Maciej Biedrzycki, approached their professors about creating a computer programming curriculum all on their own — for credit, of course.

"Our institute was very open for student initiatives," says Kalicki. "When they said it was possible for us to start a new program and they would allow it — but we would have to keep a low profile in case it didn't work out. If it didn't work out, we would just be moved to the 3-D animation program or something like that. And we'd never talk about it again. ... We had to teach ourselves everything, because there were people who were good at programming and they were teaching us programming ... "

"Basic things like math," interjects Starzynski.

"But they had no idea about creating games," Kalicki says. "That was something we had to look up for ourselves. Well, there was no program like that in Poland back then. We were the very first. There was no one to ask."

Approximately 12 students signed up for the program, which was to last for just over a year. By the end, only six games emerged, but the institute decided to keep the program. Starzynski and Kalicki graduated and moved on to their master's studies.

"But we started teaching the next students," says Kalicki, "because there was no one [else] that could teach them."

Over the course of the next 12 years, Kalicki and Starzynski taught over 300 students how to make games, some (but not all) of whom went on to found their own companies or work at one of the major Polish game developers, like CD Projekt Red or Techland.

The headquarters of Thing Trunk, like many buildings in Warsaw, is scheduled for eventual demolition. It was formerly a dance studio.

As Starzynski describes the virtues of the company's office (a former dance studio, scheduled for demolition), Kalicki is suddenly reminded of a story from the duo's teaching days.

"This reminds me of the one project," Kalicki says. "It was six students creating a chopper simulation game, something like that. One of them managed to get a girl pregnant in the Polish highlands. Our highlanders, I guess they're like highlanders everywhere. One day, he didn't know he got a girl pregnant there, and her family of highlanders came to him during school and just beat him up and took him back for the wedding. That was the end of his career and education."

"But that was also a problem for the whole project," interjects Filip Starzynski.

"Yeah," Kalicki says. "Because they ended up without a programmer. We had to fill in."

Fast forward to a decade later, and the Polish game development community has at least 300 developers who learned at the lectern of Starzynski and Kalicki and have now moved on to focus strictly on their own games.

"We have our people everywhere, or pretty much everywhere," Kalicki says. "We have good access to gossip from inside the industry. It puts a lot of pressure on us, because we have to create games that — our products have to be very good, because we spent the last 10 years teaching people how to create games. We can't allow ourselves to slip and publish a bad game. We have to have high standards."

In approximately 2010, the duo plus Biedrzycki merged their game companies into one, and called it Thing Trunk. The goal: to revive the spirit of 1990s video game style with modern updates, released for mobile devices.

"Games aren't what they used to be," Kalicki says. "The '90s, for us, were a golden age of computer entertainment. We decided to do something about that and create games that we'd like to play."

The project, fittingly ambitious for the men who taught a generation of Polish game developers, is for several games, released over a period of years, all based on classic 90s game styles.

"We just want to make players nowadays feel the same as we used to feel when we were playing games in the 90s," says Starzynski. "You felt like you had more time. You felt like you were more connected to the game. Not because the game is a 300-hours-long journey, but because it just moves you in some way. You have fun, but on the other hand, you feel somehow connected to it."

Poland's first indie

"You know Soldat? I made Soldat. I'm the guy behind Soldat."

Michal Marcinkowski isn't the oldest indie game developer in Poland, but he was the first. Not yet 30 when I meet him in the Crunching Koalas office space, Marcinkowski was in high school when he released the 2-D multiplayer shooter Soldat in 2002. It was his first commercial game, and also, as of yet, his most successful.

"It was a global success," Marcinkowski says. "It was pretty cool. ... I was indie even before [the term] indie was invented. Nobody called me indie until 2008 or something. [Before that] I was just making games."

Yet ever since releasing Soldat, both before and after he came to be called "indie," Marcinkowski has been chasing the success of that very first commercial game — and, so far, failing.

"Nobody called me indie until 2008 or something."

"That's why [I'm] doing a sequel," he says. "It should be even better. ... I want to fix the mistakes. I didn't know what I was doing back then. There was just my intuition and luck. I made lots of decisions that weren't good, especially long term, in terms of weapons patterns and things — I think the game could be more fun if I fix those mistakes."

Marcinkowski is fit like a runner, tall, lanky and serious. He has something of an otherworldliness about him. When talking to Marcinkowski, it's easy to get the impression he's seen it all — what passes for success in video games — and that he's on to something else: succeeding at humanity.

"I see games as a tool that can make us better humans," he says. "That's why my company's name is Transhuman Design, because it's sort of similar — my beliefs are similar to transhumanism, which argues that technology might make a better human. I see computer games as a technology that can change a person."

Marcinkowski started programming when he was seven years old. His father bought him a computer when he was four, and he immediately began playing games. After a few years, he got bored with playing games and wanted to make them. So he did, and he has since become an inspiration for many of his fellow countrymen. He is not yet 30 and he has 20 years experience making games.

"Polish people love to study," he says. "We have good schools and universities. We have a lot of technological background ... that's the potential there. A lot of smart people. But not that confident, you know?

"That's what I see, what's the difference between Americans and Polish people. We're not that confident. We have the skills and have the ideas, but we don't have the power to execute, the courage to do it. I have that in me. When people invite me to talk, I try to empower them to know that they can do it, because it's not that difficult if you have the skills."

Marcinkowski had his office painted red to boost his energy while working. He relaxes in the room next door, which is painted blue.

Marcinkowski now works with small teams of game developers from around the world. His office at Transhuman Design, little more than a two-room suite, is in an ancient building in one of the rare historical districts in Warsaw that wasn't leveled by the retreating Nazi army during WWII. One room is a lounge, painted blue, to inspire relaxation. Marcinkowski's inner office is painted red — for energy.

Looking out the window beside his standing desk, you can see a quaint city street with cobbled stones, old store fronts and a few vacant lots here and there where progress will soon be coming in the form of steel and glass buildings. Inside it's all high technology: large screens, computers. This is where Marcinkowski connects with his colleagues on other continents making three new games for Transhuman Design.

One of which, for Marcinkowski, offers a chance at redemption of sorts.

"I think many [successful game developers] can't repeat their successes," Marcinkowski tells me. "Or they don't know why their game is successful. I know that, because that's how I made Soldat.

"I didn't know why it was so good. I didn't know. I play this game today and I learn ... Now I can analyze the game and learn why it did well. I was more intuitive back then."

King Arthur's Gold, he believes, is his chance to apply that learning and prove he can repeat his early success. It's an action platformer with weapons and MOBA-like mechanics. It can be compared to TowerFall, if TowerFall was also Minecraft.

In addition to King Arthur's Gold and the direct sequel to Soldat, Transhuman Design is also making another game, one much more narrative and oblique. It's called Transmigration: Into Darkness Peering. It's the story of a man in a wheelchair, who must navigate a world much like our own, but darker and more foreboding.

In a brief demonstration Marcinkowski brought to the Koalas' meet up, the game looked at once strikingly beautiful and incredibly bleak. The challenges — things like staircases and locked doors — were simple, but attempting to resolve them with nothing more than what a lonely man in a chair might have with him proved infuriating and, in a way, more human than anything I've seen in any other game.

"I want to show that games can be made in a different way."

"I want to show that games can be made in a different way," Marcinkowski says. "Whatever we have in the industry right now, this is not all of it. This is not the end. There's something more. There's a lot of ideas that are still undeveloped. We can make something that is really amazing. I believe games can change the world, in the sense that — they can change people.

"These ideas have been forming in me for a long time. I've had the time to think about it. I really spend a lot of time making games, obviously, so I'm thinking deeper. What do they mean? Why do I do this? ... I question my job every day, and to strive, I have to really motivate myself. I think beyond what I do. I'm not just doing another shooter or another platformer. I'm working toward something more. Anything I do now is just a stepping stone toward something bigger. That's what motivates me most."

Hitchhiking to Gamescom

Tom Tomaszewski is showing me pictures on his computer screen. It's the three Crunching Koalas in various places and vehicles. They're photos from the team's recent trip to the Gamescom conference in Cologne, Germany.

The koalas had no money for airfare, so they caught a ride to the edge of town and then hitchhiked the rest of the way.

"We made signs and stood by the highway," Tomaszewski says. "Here, some guy took us for the first ride. It was a really good experience. I got to ride a truck. ... I had, how do you call this, a blazer? I wanted to look professional."

At Gamescom, Crunching Koalas showed off its games to prospective publishers and almost immediately got a deal. Before Gamescom, it had been selling an alpha version of MouseCraft on its website, shortly after it would have a deal with Sony to release the game on Vita.

This, in spite of the fact that Crunching Koalas missed its first meeting with the Japanese mega publisher.

"The Sony guy just told us, 'Get inside and we'll be there,'" Tomaszewski says. "'OK.' We went inside, but we weren't from the press. We didn't have a booth. So we weren't allowed inside. ... I managed to find his telephone number, somewhere on the internet, and we just met under some trees in Cologne, just sitting there and smoking cigarettes and talking about the opportunities and how we could develop for PS4 and PS Vita."

Crunching Koalas passed on a deal from Sony, initially, but eventually partnered with publisher Curve Entertainment, who negotiated a PS4 and Vita release for MouseCraft on Crunching Koalas' behalf. The deal will expose the small team to a greater reach and marketing support, as well as reduced subscription rates for the Unity engine, which, for PS4, can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Suddenly, the young college graduates had a publishing deal.

"It turned out our games are good and people wanted to take them," Tomaszewski says, almost as if he can't believe it. And even though much of his company's current success is due to his own efforts, he acknowledges that he — and Polish developers in general — have an almost national handicap when it comes to making games.

"There are really good programmers in Poland," he says. "There are still not so many artists and designers, but the programmers were always very good because of the technical universities.

"After the success of [Polish developer CD Projekt Red's] The Witcher, people believed that it's possible to make really good things here. But at the beginning, it was funny, because no one was sharing their knowledge here. Everyone kept their knowledge to themselves, because it was so hard to learn without universities, without experience. Everyone held their know-how for themselves. There were no meetups, no forums to talk about game development. It was all dark, shady. There were just people in their basements doing games."

The Warsaw indie scene is now 500 developers and growing.

Now, thanks in large part to the Koalas, that's changing. The Warsaw indie scene is now 500 developers and growing.

"I think Polish people have a really interesting history," says Marcinkowski. "They can bring a lot to the table. We think differently. We feel differently. We have a different history. We approach things differently. We're not that optimistic. ... We aren't that confident. All those things, I think, we can bring that personality to creating games.

"For example, Nintendo games are all happy and cheerful. There's mushrooms and princesses. I think Poland can bring the other side, like maybe something sad, something depressing, something that isn't so cheerful. There's a whole spectrum of emotions that we can present. I think Poland is a unique character that can bring something new and refreshing to the table."

As the meeting at the Crunching Koalas Warsaw office breaks up, someone produces a bottle of vodka flavored with quince fruit. It's sweet — almost too sweet — and goes down with an aftertaste almost like cough syrup. It is a quintessentially Polish drink. And, much like the Polish games on display, takes some getting used to, but leaves you thinking about it long after it's gone.

Images: Russ Pitts / Vox Media

Polygon goes to Poland

Polygon's features team traveled to Poland in the first half of 2014. Over two weeks we covered more than 300 miles. We visited some of the largest and oldest cities in Poland. We met with nearly two dozen teams, and spent time in the homes and workplaces of the individuals making games in the heartland of Central Europe. Check out all our coverage here.

Polygon goes to poland THE ASTRONAUTS: A POLISH TEAM GETS SMALL TO THINK BIGGER FROM DEAD ISLAND TO DYING LIGHT HOW THE TEAM BEHIND THE WITCHER CONQUERED POLAND THE WARSAW INDIES POLAND'S DETROIT: LIFE AND GAMES IN POLAND'S THIRD LARGEST CITY
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