Polygon goes to Poland

Examining Poland's game development scene by looking at the country's history.

For 5 zloty, a little less than $2, you can climb an observation platform along the banks of the Vistula River. In the distance, the city of Warsaw will show you Poland's history.

A few miles away stands the city center where a half dozen swooping glass towers dot the skyline. Another half dozen are quickly rising among them, their huge cranes like arms always in motion. Businesses are growing there like shoots of grass, the result of joining the European Union 10 years ago. They are the end product of a decade of continuous investment.

Just outside that center is a ring with dozens upon dozens of squat, 20-odd story concrete apartment buildings. Each is oriented differently along its street, and some stand out with their garish colors. But all of them seem identical, as if they were made from the same mold. They are the product of communism, the 40-year-old remnants of a time when the country existed along the outer edges of the Soviet bloc. They are from a time when Poland was isolated and poor.

The Royal Castle of Warsaw was rebuilt after World War II. It’s now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Here in the foreground, just below this platform, is Poland as it looked more than 70 years ago. Cobblestone streets fill narrow, winding avenues, some of which trace the same paths they did more than 1,000 years ago. Rich wooden doors anchor the facades of short, quaint stucco buildings. Their pitched roofs are topped with delicate finials and ornate carvings.

And they are not real.

Warsaw's Old Town is a fake. It is a recreation, built in the 1950s, based on paintings and faded photographs. It is the memory of a city that existed before it was flattened by war.

It is Poland's dream of itself: peaceful, ancient and humble.

Warsaw's Old Town is a fake. It is a recreation, built in the 1950s, based on paintings and faded photographs.

The specter of World War II still hangs over this country. Even here on these beautiful streets. Even now, more than a generation after the Nazis fled. But in the distance, behind this facade, past the ring of shabby apartments, is the new Poland. Resurgent. Resourceful. Proud.

Poland is a country that is coming alive, taking its place among the economic and social powers of Europe. Out there in the city of Warsaw, and in other urban places across this broad, flat piece of land are the entrepreneurs, the makers.

Some of them are making games. They are exporting Polish culture to the world through little glowing screens. And they are an integral part of the future, of the identity of this country.

This is Poland.

Poland, the video

What's yours is mine

It's hard to overstate just how much of a raw deal Poland got in World War II.

Everyone knows that they were the first to be invaded by Nazi Germany, and because of that they suffered longer than any other people during that time. But they never stopped fighting.

Wroclaw was one of the few Polish cities that survived the war relatively unscathed.

Poland's contributions to the Allied war effort were massive. Its remaining forces were thrown into battle on both the Western and the Eastern fronts fighting in the Battle of Britain, Monte Cassino and the invasion of Belgium.

Meanwhile, the Polish people suffered.

Many were exterminated in notorious death camps. When Hitler ordered that Poland's capital be razed to the ground, the German military took him literally. After the war, less than 10 percent of Warsaw was left standing. You could fit the remains of the presidential palace into a carry-on.

But the Poles fought on, inside and outside the country. And for their efforts they were abandoned by Britain and the Western powers. Their country was absorbed into the post-war Soviet bloc, plowed under to become the engine of a planned economy.

For the next 40-plus years Poland's communists controlled and regulated the production of goods. They nationalized entire industries, forcibly migrated the population from the countryside into the urban areas and oversaw the distribution of goods — even food.

Spend enough time with them and, as you begin to earn their trust, Poles of a certain age will tell you what it was like during communist times. Artists and businessmen alike will patiently explain to you that there was no such thing as intellectual property, no such thing as copyright law.

Communal property was one of the benefits of the system, after all. An economic model originally designed to empower the worker, to spread modern agricultural and manufacturing knowledge among millions of people, was also a tacit agreement to share bootleg movies and pirated software in street-side markets.

The Astronauts: A Polish team gets small to think bigger

Adrian Chmielarz, one of the people behind The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter.

In 1987 Adrian Chmielarz, the man who would found People Can Fly and later The Astronauts, was only 16 years old. He would travel 40 miles every weekend by train with a folding table under his arm. There, in the middle of a makeshift bazaar in Wroclaw, Poland, he spread out his wares: 10 VHS tapes in a cardboard box, all of which he had copied from a friend.

As long as you had a permit to sell goods on the street — and Chmielarz did — it was perfectly legal to copy foreign films and redistribute them without passing along any of the profits to the copyright holder.

What was shameful was being seen peddling on the street by his friends.

"On that day, I met everybody," Chmielarz recalls. "Every neighbor, every teacher, everybody who I know saw that I was there with that one, goddamned box. But at that same time, on that very day, I sold every single copy.

"The next day I came back with two boxes, and I sold [through] both. And within a month, I actually had this stand where I had 500 movies on offer."

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There was an entire underground industry that evolved in 1980s Poland dedicated to copying and redistributing not just Western movies, but also games. By degrees people got rich. Capitalism began to take root.

Revolution

In the 1980s the situation in Poland became severe. There was little left on store shelves but vinegar. A delivery of fruit could lead to lines that were miles long. Shopping on the black market became the only reliable way to feed a family.

The border with Germany became more and more porous. Poles would frequently travel over the border for work, returning with goods they couldn't find at home. In addition to food, the black markets were full of VCRs and computers. While they were economically bound to the Soviet Union, Poland began to shift culturally toward the West.

Stand atop an observation tower on the Vistula River and Warsaw will show you Poland’s layers.

And then in 1989 something amazing happened. Lech Walesa, the leader and co-founder of the Solidarity party, the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, helped to bring about partially free elections. Almost overnight Poland was a democracy, the first in Central Europe to throw off the chains of communism. And it did so without shedding any blood.

Not long after, the new Polish government passed formal copyright laws. By 1997 the business of bootlegging became illegal.

Many media companies withered and died. But precious few adapted. Some, like Techland, became game studios.

FROM DEAD ISLAND TO DYING LIGHT

Techland CEO Pawel Marchewka.

With Poland's growing economy came new rules and regulations. Pesky things like copyrights and trade tariffs. Techland soldiered on.

Its CEO, Pawel Marchewka, hired programmers. He built a company and made games — eventually.

"We started with some educational products," says Marchewka. "These were the easiest to do. Then some small games, thinking that it would be really nice to one day prepare something of a quality that we could sell abroad."

That one day happened, but when it was depends on your perspective.

You could say it came in the year 2000, when Techland released its first mass-market game, Crime Cities. Or, perhaps in 2003, with the release of sci-fi shooter Chrome, based on Techland's proprietary Chrome engine. You could also say it came anytime over the next several years, when Techland released one of its nearly two dozen titles from that period. But in order to say that, you must have played one of those games — and most people haven't.

A more likely candidate is a day in the year 2006, when Techland released the game that would become its first successful franchise, Call of Juarez. But even Marchewka doesn't set his clock by that one. Instead, he refers to that game as simply "another step on our way to Dead Island."

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The road to global markets was a gamble. But with a Polish audience so used to pirating games rather than buying them legitimately, it was only the revenue from sales outside of Poland that could allow companies like Techland to remain viable.

You would think that would require Polish developers to pander to Western audiences, to make games that ape the most successful shooters and open world games on the market. But that hasn't been the case. The most successful Polish game makers take pride in creating works that have a particularly Central European flavor.

No game series is so rooted in the Polish culture as The Witcher. And no Polish game series has been as successful on the global market.

HOW THE TEAM BEHIND THE WITCHER CONQUERED POLAND

Inside the offices of CD Projekt.

Outside of Poland, The Witcher is known as a role-playing video game that is based on a little-known book. But inside of Poland, it's a different story. The Witcher is part of a rich literary history that, for Poles, is as important as J.R.R. Tolkien's.

The Witcher books and stories by Andrzej Sapkowski feature a half-mutant monster hunter named Geralt. A dark fantasy tale full of mature themes and violence, it's the type of story that has recently become popular in the West. Sapkowski's first Witcher story was published in Poland in 1986.

"[Sapkowski] writes about things that are relevant to people," says Jaki. "It's not just, 'OK, there's an evil wizard you have to slay, and then you save the princess and everything is happy.' It's more dark, realistic and gritty in a way.

"For example, you have racism in the Witcher world. The elves and the dwarves are discriminated against because of their race. This is a topic that's very up to date here and now. Even though it's elves and dwarves, you can relate to the problems they're having."

For CD Projekt Red, the game development side of CD Projekt, that relatability has made The Witcher an engine that's driven the entire company.

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By the people

The passage of copyright laws was just one step on the way to Poland formally joining the European Union, which happened in 2004. But instead of being a panacea for the lingering economic difficulties left over from decades of communism, it was an event that threatened to destabilize the entire economy.

The reason is simple. Once Poland joined the EU, travel restrictions were largely lifted. The cream of Poland's young workforce, educated largely at their government's expense, left en masse for higher paying jobs abroad.

The Polish Consulate in Chicago tells Polygon that as many as one million people left for places like the United Kingdom and Germany.

But since the global economic downturn in 2008, many opportunities for workers outside of Poland have dried up. Some are returning, while the current class of graduates are less inclined to leave the country to begin with. And just like here in the West, these young people have helped spawn a culture of indie game development.

THE WARSAW INDIES

Crunching Koalas co-founder Tomas Tomaszewski.

Here in the offices of indie game developer Crunching Koalas sits Tomas Tomaszewski, 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 Apple App Store 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."

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But Poland's youth aren't the only ones spurring on the game development industry. The Polish government is getting in on the action as well. In one city, once the jewel of Polish industry and home to its wealthiest citizens, there is even a plan to take millions of dollars in EU funds and create a game development incubator.

Poland's Detroit: Life and games in Poland's third largest city

Sebastian Bialek, Investor's Service Manager and Game Industry Expert for the City of Lodz.

"Warsaw gets over three quarters of its [tax revenue] from ... companies," says Sebastian Bialek, a bureaucrat from the city of Lodz. "Here three quarters of the budget of the whole city is from taxes taken from the people.

"Sometimes they call us the Polish Detroit."

Bialek thinks games are the solution.

Lodz's biggest assets, he says, are its universities. Nearly 25 public and private schools bring more than 95,000 students into the city every year. But those students rarely stay, especially those trained in high tech skills like information technology. There are few jobs here for them that can pay the kind of wages they will make overseas.

Bialek thinks that he can keep them here by building a games industry. He wants to turn Lodz from Poland's version of Detroit into Poland's version of Austin, Texas — into a playground for creatives and a hotbed for venture capital.

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Thanks to progressive securities and exchange laws you can even buy shares in indie developers. The Warsaw Stock Exchange, the largest in Central Europe, features a parallel market called NewConnect. There, investors can purchase shares in small companies like 11 Bit Studios, maker of the Anomaly series and the upcoming title This War of Mine.

In the last few years the Polish embassy, in cooperation with the ministry of the economy, has begun to lead missions to places like the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, E3 in Los Angeles and the Tokyo Game Show in an effort to broaden the market for Polish games.

The government support for the Polish games market goes all the way to the top.

State gifts

During an official state visit in 2011, the prime minister of Poland gifted US President Barack Obama a copy of The Witcher 2. It made for a funny little side note for the gaming press at the time.

France gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty, a gigantic monument to freedom and sacrifice. Poland gave us a video game.

But for the Polish people it was a big deal, a gift as meaningful to them as a colossal bronze woman holding a torch. Through The Witcher, a very modern kind of artifice, the Polish people were telling the leader of the free world about their country's deeply held truths. They were telling President Obama, and everyone in the West, the story of their past, and also the story of their future.

During a two-week journey, Polygon went to Poland to learn more about their story. This feature is only the beginning. Each of the stories excerpted above represent part of the whole picture we found. Taken together, they are our attempt to bring the games industry of an entire country into focus.

Polish game makers are some of the most passionate we've met. We hope that you'll take the time to read their stories and join us in our fascination with the artists and businesses helping move Poland toward the future, toward sharing dreams that have long been deferred.

Images: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors, Charlie Hall.
Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors, Caleb Green, Phil Pasternak
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