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

Polygon visits the third largest city in Poland, home to the teams behind Superhot and other small games, a city that could soon become home to the largest government-funded game studio in Poland.

Here in Lodz it's late on a Friday. Around 10 p.m. young people start to file into a kitschy, second-floor bar in a converted factory a few blocks off Piotrkowska Street. Outside some are smoking cigarettes around a table made from a spool of industrial wire tipped on its side. Inside others grab a beer and then settle into the mismatched furniture. One of the chairs is made from a sawed-off shopping cart. It looks surprisingly comfortable.

Sebastian Bialek, Investor's service manager and game industry expert for the City of Lodz.

One crowd gathered tonight is by far the biggest group in the place — around 20 men and women, all game developers living and working here in Poland's third largest city. Makers of mobile games, PC strategy games, console games, even experimental art games are all present. This is the cream of Lodz's game development community, out together for a rare night on the town.

Soon the topic of conversation drifts to the Lodz Game Inkubator, an ambitious project to host and grow start-up game developers here in the city. I ask the question that's been on the top of my mind since my first day in town: Why isn't everyone excited about the idea?

People look around at each other nervously. Before anyone can respond, in walks Sebastian Bialek, the city employee responsible for the project. The subject quickly changes.

There is tension between Bialek and the other devs in Lodz. No one comes out and tells me, but I have an idea why.

What happens if you spend $40 million making a studio and it fails to produce a hit game? What if this incubator fails? What if, because of that failure, Lodz becomes a laughingstock?

Some of the people here tonight must think that Bialek is building gaming's version of the Tower of Babel. Some here must think that his failure could kill Lodz's chance at making a name for itself in the game development industry before it's even had a chance.

These developers in Lodz like being anonymous. They like flying under the radar. They like being the outsiders to the greater global games industry. They like being the underdog.

It's humility, but it's also a survival strategy — one that is emblematic of Lodz's past and relevant to its future.

8 Mile Road

In the 1850s this city was a thriving place, home to Poland's industrial heart and the leading supplier of textiles to the Russian Empire. The population was doubling every 10 years. Then two World Wars took their toll, driving people out.

In the 1950s, Poland's communists took what was left of Lodz's industry away from its owners. They began to relocate people from the rural parts of Poland into the city, a village at a time, to fill the now government-owned factories.

In the 1950s, Poland's communists took what was left of Lodz's industry away from its owners.

Lodz was punished for a generation. It was allowed to wither. In the 1980s, as Poland's planned economy faltered, even food was scarce.

In the last 25 years, life there has gotten better. The supermarkets are full and people are making a living wage. Large companies like Samsung and Proctor and Gamble are investing in the city. The place feels metropolitan and full. But Lodz still lags behind economically.

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

"Sometimes they call us the Polish Detroit."

Outside his office is Lodz's main drag, Piotrkowska Street. It is perfectly straight and so long that the curvature of the earth prevents you from seeing one end from the other. Huge sections of it have been torn away, leaving behind dips that threaten to break ankles. Wooden gangplanks bridge the larger gaps.

Bialek could not be more excited about this street because it is evidence that Lodz is being rebuilt. Ten years after Poland joined the European Union, money for revitalization is pouring into his city, and it's Bialek's job as part of the city's Investor Relations Unit to decide how to spend it. His goal is to find ways to bring higher wage jobs to Lodz by finding ways to support the creative and the entrepreneurial classes.

And 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.

Tomasz Kaczmarczyk and members of the BlueBrick team.

The new deal

Bialek is a lifelong gamer with strongly held beliefs about the industry. He is a former employee of CD Projekt, one of the original members of the online games marketplace GOG.com. In fact, it was his personal copy of Fallout that contributed to the codebase when the game was remastered for sale at the site.

"I've seen many things," he says. "I don't like all of them." Bialek seems particularly angry about large corporations driving the creativity out of the games industry.

Bialek seems particularly angry about large corporations driving the creativity out of the games industry.

"Activision and Mr. Kotick — I hate this guy with every fiber of my being," Bialek says. "My only hope is to live long enough to piss on his grave."

But despite his emotional outburst, today Bialek has his civil servant hat on. He's making a presentation on his pet project, the Lodz Game Inkubator.

As he begins his spiel, he points out that the European Union has earmarked $136 billion for Poland's revitalization. Some portion of that money sits in Poland's federal reserve right now, and three billion of that is for Lodz's region alone. Bialek wants just a small part of that pie — some $30 to $40 million — to build his Inkubator.

His presentation is glossy and well practiced. And it should be; he's been pitching it for years now.

The plan is to create a space complete with computing resources, a professional motion capture studio, a rendering farm, fast internet connections and capable support staff — everything you could hope to have at a world-class game studio. A partnership with IBM — to the tune of $25 million — could provide support for 10 to 15 medium-sized game companies.

With that kind of infrastructure, his Inkubator would be able to support a dozen small game studios or more. The city could grow its own crop of indies; it could create the right atmosphere for the next great multiplayer game, mobile game or even for the next Minecraft to emerge.

What makes Bialek's idea unique is the associated venture capital fund. The fund would select from its own crop of small studios: one to double down on, one to elevate to AAA status when the time is right.

"And then," he says, leaning out over the conference table and gesturing wildly, "if you want to make another [Grand Theft Auto] or whatever, $100 million is no problem. Money is not a problem."

And it all sounds possible.

BlueBrick

At the table for the presentation is Tomasz Kaczmarczyk, one of the creators of a game called Superhot. In the past few months, his team members have dropped out of college and gone to their families for money and support, all in pursuit of making their game.

You would think that he would be jumping up and down, just as excited as Bialek is, about the potential for this much investment in Lodz.

Instead he's sitting on his hands, smiling politely for the duration.

That's because he doesn't need this incubator. His company is becoming one on its own.

On the second story of a nondescript building just a few miles from Piotrkowska Street sit the offices of BlueBrick. They specialize in software outsourcing, hardware R&D and a healthy dose of technology consulting. Inside is a cramped office space filled with computers and audio visual equipment, but also oscilloscopes and all the makings of a top-notch hackerspace.

Tomasz Kaczmarczyk outside his apartment in Lodz. The high-rise was once the tallest building in the city, reserved for the families of Polish communist party officials.

It is a young company, barely six years old. The original founders, Tomasz Kaczmarczyk, Dominik Stozek and Martyna Borkowska, all met in one of Lodz's elite computer engineering programs. They built BlueBrick to showcase their own talents, but also to act as a catalyst for other skilled technology workers in Lodz.

Part of the reason for their success is the low cost of living here.

"One of the key components of what we are doing," Kaczmarczyk says, "is that we are able to offer these services at lower prices than people in [the] home countries of our clients. Basically, if we compare our ... consulting prices to just [the] regular salary of [a] software developer in Denmark or Sweden, we're still a little bit cheaper — and we've got [a] 50% markup [on our services] right now.

Still in their mid 20s, Kaczmarczyk and his partners are starting to make a name for themselves. Their portfolio of work includes projects for mobile phone manufacturer Ericsson, Swedish automobile manufacturer Scania AB and a medical device maker here in Poland. And that's just the work that they can talk about.

The main reason for their success is the scope of their expertise. To hear them tell it, Kaczmarczyk and his team can build anything.

Need a website with a stable e-commerce solution? BlueBrick's done it. Several times. Want a video-based educational platform? No sweat.

How about a custom-built supercomputer to run scientific simulations in an academic setting? Almost done with one here in Lodz; please take a number. Fancy a custom-built micro-processor array while you wait? They've got a guy.

They've also got a guy who makes games.

Super. Hot.

One of their newest hires is a tall, boisterous game designer named Piotr Iwanicki. He was brought on to complete a project — still under a nondisclosure agreement — in Sweden. He's just barely 30 years old, but he's been doing game design and game development for the past eight years.

It was his idea to have the entire company take a week off and make a game with him. It would be a sort of field trip to game development, and then back to work the next Monday to pick up where they left off. Kaczmarczyk and the other founders thought it was a great idea. They called up all their clients and said they were going on holiday.

The result of that week-long holiday was Superhot, a first-person shooter where time moves only when the player does.

Superhot's Kickstarter closed in mid-June and earned the team more than $250,000.

It's still in development, and the gameplay shown so far is simple. Bright red humanoid enemies armed with guns are scattered around a white, nearly featureless interior space. As the player takes a step forward, those enemies take aim and fire. But when the player stops moving, the enemy bullets stop as well, hanging motionless in midair. Take another step and the deadly missiles begin to move again.

By planning ahead, players can weave their way through a deadly hail of gunfire, even turn to watch the projectiles spin as they pass inches from their nose. They can then fire back at their assailants, or even move close enough to reach out and snap their necks.

Superhot's Kickstarter closed in mid-June and earned the team more than $250,000. Here in Lodz that's a lot of money, roughly equivalent to 10 years pay for the average software engineer. People are excited about this game, and the support the team of eight behind it will make the game bigger and better. They're even planning a version for the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.

One of their backers likes the game so much he donated $2,000 for the right to co-design a level in the game. That person was celebrity developer Cliff Bleszinski, the man behind the Gears of War franchise.

An early screenshot from Superhot. The original prototype was built in seven days as a team building exercise for the staff at BlueBrick.

What began as a fun way to blow off steam now has the potential to become a high-grossing indie gaming phenomenon with a personal tie to one of the largest gaming franchises in the world. All because Kaczmarczyk and his partners started a consulting company in a run-down corner of Poland's version of Detroit.

But Superhot isn't BlueBrick's end game. Not by a long shot.

Kaczmarczyk's plan is twofold. First, keep making amazing products, including games and hardware. Maybe, if they're lucky, they'll be able to spin those products off as their own companies. Superhot could be the first in a long line of successes. Meanwhile, the plan is to focus on what's been paying the bills — contract work for international clients, meaty deals that are both challenging and lucrative. His clients are happy, and there's no reason to stop taking work.

Kaczmarczyk doesn't need Superhot to succeed. BlueBrick is already a success, and Superhot can be a success as well. The two projects are not dependent on one another. BlueBrick was formed to let smart people work on things that are hard. A popular video game is just a natural by-product of that process.

So BlueBrick doesn't need a game incubator because it already is one. It's a small business incubator unto itself. The office here in Lodz can be the headquarters.

Maybe one day soon BlueBrick will even have an office in the U.S. Maybe even in Detroit.

South by southwest

Aaron Ethridge's first Kickstarter campaign was a disaster.

"A massive failure," he says from his home in Jackson, South Carolina. "Really. Truly. Mainly it was due to graphics."

The game as shown in the Kickstarter video looks awful, at least a decade out of date when his campaign launched in 2012.

The owner of Wastelands Interactive, a small, independent game studio, was curious if Etheridge still wanted to make his game.

Ethridge pays the bills with a website called Console Classix that he started with his friend Jonathan Cooper. It's a novel service where customers can pay a fee and, so long as they remain connected to his servers, play emulated versions of old video games. Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx-16 and even ColecoVision games are just a subscription fee away.

The service maintains a tenuous legality. While Nintendo of America is aware of it and even went so far as to issue a cease and desist letter, so far it has not taken him to court. Etheridge, for his part, maintains that his service is legal. He has a vested interest in seeing it continue. It's been the sole source of income for his family of eight for over a decade.

But Ethridge always wanted to create a game of his own, and one day in 2012 he and Cooper hatched a plan to create the spiritual successor to the 1994 MicroProse hit Master of Magic, a strategy game set in a magical fantasy world. So Ethridge took a good portion of his savings and dumped it into development, purchasing software and equipment.

When his Kickstarter failed, he thought he had lost that investment.

"I've had a pocketful of ideas for years and years and years," Etheridge says. "From a design point of view I know what needs to be done. Taking the ideas that were presented in Master of Magic, bringing them up to date with what's going on in gaming today, kind of fleshing them out? I know how to do that."

Without the money to support his time on the endeavor, it made more sense to go back to making Console Classix the best service it could be. Etheridge licked his wounds and moved on. Cooper quit the project and went to work designing cars for BMW.

But soon after his Kickstarter failure Ethridge got an email from Poland. It was from Leszek Lisowski. The owner of Wastelands Interactive, a small, independent game studio, was curious if Etheridge still wanted to make his game.

Worlds of Magic will feature a turn-based battles as well as a large-scale, trans-dimensional strategic map.

Wastelands sits in a sparsely furnished loft on the fourth floor of an office building on the edge of Lodz. The peaked roof in the studio makes it feel a bit claustrophobic, and the skylights let in more light than his team of 14 programmers and artists would prefer. It's not ideal, but it's home.

Wastelands Interactive specializes in turn-based strategic wargames. Until they reached out to Ethridge they had only ever made World War II-themed games. But Lisowski saw something in Ethridge's Kickstarter video — a kindred spirit perhaps, but also talent and passion.

Twenty years ago it might have been Ethridge propping up a tiny, fledgeling game studio in Poland with money and expertise from the States. But today the opposite is true; a little studio from Poland's Detroit is helping build a business in the American South.

Lisowski loaned Ethridge some of his staff. First an artist and then one programmer, then another. Before long almost his entire team was working on building the prototype of Ethridge's game. Together they decided to change the name to Worlds of Magic and launched another Kickstarter. In May of 2013 it was successful to the tune of nearly $80,000. So was their second Kickstarter, for the same game in the same year, which netted an additional $34,000. They were building a fan base, thanks to a lot of polish and the hard work of Wasteland's skilled team.

After earning nearly $100,000 for development, more than a year later Worlds of Magic is nearing completion. The game is huge, with procedurally generated maps that span "7 planes of existence," multiple unique factions and a robust system for creating spells. Ethridge's dream of making a game of his own is about to come true, all thanks to a little company from an obscure city in Poland.

"I put money into Empires of Sorcery and I lost all that money," Ethridge says. "But it's alright because it led to this."

After the game goes on sale, Ethridge and Lisowski have plans to support it with expansions. New factions and new features are already on the drawing board. They even have an idea for what their next game could be.

Ethridge admits he was hesitant going into a business with someone from a former communist country. "I grew up in the Reagan years," he says. "I grew up [thinking] Russians are the bad guys, OK? The game is called Rush'n Attack because we don't want to put 'Russian Attack' on there. But I'll tell you what; the guys you're fighting are dressed like commies and we all know it.

"Things have changed. ... We fought wars with the British too, man. We got over that. We moved on. ... We've got cultural ties. I think the same things are happening here, the same things are happening in these [former] communist countries. And one of the amazing connectors is video games."

Once Worlds of Magic goes on sale, Ethridge plans to open his own game studio. He'll call it Lucid Dreamers. And it's all because of his partnership with people in Lodz.

His first hire will be his old partner, Cooper.

Boom and bust

While the rest of Polygon's team traveled to Wroclaw, I only had a couple of days before other interviews pulled me back to Warsaw. But 48 hours was just enough time to begin to see the differences between Lodz and Poland's capital.

In Warsaw I drank vodka with cold herring and rubbery, fermented pickles. I sat inside bars where the walls were pasted over with scraps of union newspapers from the 1950s. Grim-faced bouncers stood by the doors.

Here in Lodz the indies and I are drinking unpasteurized local beers, mixed drinks and chichi neon shots rimmed with cupcake sprinkles. One club is open to the street, filled with black lights and dubstep. Another is up a flight of stairs in an apartment building, a modern kind of speakeasy filled with the work of local artists but otherwise empty, save a cramped bar just off the back porch.

Lodz is a city playing against its own stereotype, trying to reinvent itself at every turn. While young people build their young companies, the city planners have given up trying to refurbish the old buildings. In the center of town they've bulldozed 250 square acres of urban blight in order to start over with a clean slate.

At the end of the night I say my goodbyes. Bialek, the city employee, left us hours ago but the indies will be out drinking long after I'm asleep. And when they're through, they will all go in their separate directions, away from the revitalization of Piotrkowska Street and down the cobbled side streets to their homes.

I try to bring it up again, but I can sense their reticence to talk about the Lodz Game Inkubator anymore. Perhaps their parents have instilled in them a healthy fear of a government that says it merely wants to help them.

"This [Game Inkubator] is the biggest hope of my life," I remember Bialek telling me in his office, just the day before. "This is true from my heart because, what is the base for this idea? To [allow] young people [to] have the chance to make the game they want to make, not something some man with a tie [forces them to make]."

In the end, he doesn't need their help. And they don't need his. They're busy doing the hard work of trying to make Lodz a little better for those that come after them, each in their own way.

Images: BlueBrick, Wastelands Interactive, Charlie Hall, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland

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.

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