The Astronauts: A Polish team gets small to think bigger

Adrian Chmielarz knows how to build a valuable game studio from scratch. He’s done it twice already. The teams he helped build in Poland — Metropolis Software and People Can Fly — became internationally known for games such as Teenagent, Painkiller, Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment.

Chmielarz was able to parlay People Can Fly's success into its profitable sale. He knows how to play the publisher's game, how to gamble against the house and win. It's no accident that he lives in a gated apartment building in one of the nicer neighborhoods in Warsaw. But he also knows just how much it hurts to go all in and lose.

The game was called Come Midnight. Chmielarz says it was a daring cross between a horror game and a narrative adventure, part Resident Evil and part L.A. Noire. And in 2006 his publisher, THQ, unceremoniously cut his studio from its roster.

Adrian Chmielarz

"Canceled for convenience" is the legal term. But what that meant to Chmielarz's team of 70 at People Can Fly was that money he feels they were owed, a sum of nearly a third of a million dollars, was never paid out.

"They gave us some pocket money [instead]," Chmielarz says. "We were basically knee-deep in shit at that point. ... The lawyer said, 'It's going to be 100,000 bucks [to fight this]. This is where you give up. You don't have 100,000 bucks and you don't have two, three years for the lawsuit in the United States.' THQ knew that."

Telling the story now, sitting in his family's modern, well-furnished living room, Chmielarz doesn't get emotional. He doesn't linger or groan. Perhaps it's just his poker face, but it seems as if the memory of the entire episode just slides right off of him.

"This is how I am as a person," Chmielarz says. "I get knocked down, I get up and I continue fighting. I always look way more into the future than dwell on the past."

Now Chmielarz has started his third studio, moving his eight-person team into a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Warsaw. He calls his team The Astronauts, and his next project is the spiritual successor to Come Midnight, a supernatural murder mystery called The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Few people outside of Warsaw have even seen the game in motion, but fans of his work are already buzzing about it.

This time Chmielarz will be his own publisher. This time he will have only his own entrepreneurial spirit and his deep-seated pragmatism to see it through to the end. And he feels that he is ready.

During the fall

The first time Chmielarz acted as a publisher was in 1987. The then-16-year-old had traveled 40 miles 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.

In communist Poland there was no such thing as piracy.

In the West people wouldn't call this publishing. They would call the tapes bootlegs and the act of selling them piracy. But in communist Poland there was no such thing as piracy. The philosophical concept of "owning the rights" to something here is less than 20 years old.

In the 1980s this was the way things were done. 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."

Chmielarz would man his little booth once or twice a week for nearly a year. The goal was to save up enough money for a computer.

Capitalist

In the late 1980s Chmielarz became fascinated by early computer games. He would find them in the back of magazines. These weren't advertisements, they were the games themselves. He would spend hours upon hours in front of his neighbor's PC, painstakingly typing in the lines of code by hand.

Hard drives were rare in the '80s, and since his neighbor didn't have an audio recorder to write the programs to tape, when he turned off the computer his games were gone. Back then playing games was work, and it taught Chmielarz the fundamentals of programming even as it fostered his love of games.

Strangely, while food was expensive and hard to come by, computers were both plentiful and relatively affordable.

Around that same Poland's planned economy began to falter. Food was scarce, and his parents were forced onto the black market to put meals on the table.

"Before '89, the only thing you could actually find in shops was vinegar," Chmielarz says. "That's it. Nothing else. I mean nothing to buy.

"Then you had a delivery of oranges and bananas. That meant a [mile-long line around the block]. People [would begin spreading rumors] because there is something exotic being sold ... In reality, the country was collapsing."

Strangely, while food was expensive and hard to come by, computers were both plentiful and relatively affordable. Poles would cross the porous border into Germany for a few months at a time to work and come back home with some money in their pockets and as many nonperishable goods as they could carry.

Computers and VCRs were in demand. They were also nicely stackable.

By 1990 Chmielarz had earned enough money from his bootleg video sales to finally buy his own computer, and he played as many games as he could get his hands on. He also kept up his business by establishing a regular supply chain with new distributors, the founders of the company that would become CD Projekt in Warsaw. Once a week he would pick up a package from the train station. Inside would be an audiotape chock-full of pirated games.

Warsaw’s Old City

Chmielarz wouldn't just copy the games. To get an advantage over his competitors at the bazaar, he would hack the games, splicing in subroutines to change the number of lives or add invulnerability on the fly. That's when he began to make, and sell, his own games.

As democracy washed over Poland, Chmielarz was learning about capitalism, all because of his passion for games.

"The same country three months [before] and three months after the ... fall of communism ... was like two different universes," Chmielarz says. "When I talk to my wife about this, she says we were actually privileged in a way.

"It's interesting because not everything was bad, clearly. I mean, I am highly anti-communist, but at the same time there were good things about this time. ... And now, of course, it's a completely different time; it's much better. But I had almost [these] two lives."

His business was booming. It turned from a little stall in a bazaar into a brick-and-mortar shop where Chmielarz wasn't just selling movies and software, he was building computers to feed the growing businesses in Wroclaw.

"I was on my way to being rich, plain and simple," Chmielarz says. "But then I thought, 'I actually want to have an education, so I'm going to drop all that, and I'm going back to study.'

"That was a huge mistake."

Boom and bust

Chmielarz went off to college, but tired of his studies after just a few years, and never finished his degree. Instead, he and a few friends hatched a plan to take the photographs from his vacation to France and turn them into a video game.

That game was a murder mystery called Tajemnica Statuetki, which roughly translates to Mystery of the Statuette. Few in the West have played it, but in Poland it was a hit. In 1992 Chmielarz sold — and boxed — over 6,000 copies, all in packaging he made himself.

Thanks to piracy just about every gamer of a certain age in Poland has played Mystery of the Statuette. With those initial sales, Chmielarz was able to keep the company going for two full years.

His first studio, Metropolis Software, was born.

His next game was called Teenagent. Released in 1995, it was a critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure that sold well not just in Poland but in Western Europe as well. On the back of that success, Chmielarz and his partner, Grzegorz Miechowski, were able to forge relationships with international publishers. That even included Poland's biggest publisher — Chmielarz's old distribution partner CD Projekt.

Due to a personal conflict with Miechowski, Chmielarz left Metropolis in 2002. Neither man will discuss the specifics of what happened. It remains a painful episode for Chmielarz. The two had been inseparable since high school. Theirs had been an intimate friendship; they had even helped introduce each other to their wives.

"[The partnership] went all Hollywood on us and we had to split," Chmielarz says. "I was very sad because of that.

"There are three sort of views on a story like that; [his] version, my version, and 'I don't give a damn.' For [these] last couple of years I chose 'I don't give a damn.'

Chmielarz actually thought about leaving gaming for a while, maybe forever. He can't remember those months that followed his departure from Metropolis, except to say that he didn't fall into a pit of drunken despair. It's just that the time, he says, is lost to him in a kind of grief-stricken amnesia.

Months passed before he got himself together. When he did, he rallied two colleagues, Andrzej Poznanski and Michal Kosieradzki, and with their help began to shop the idea of a new studio among their acquaintances in the industry. Their goal would be to find a core of people who wanted to reach a larger audience with Polish games, to produce a game that was as good as any other in the world.

That vision of raising the bar for their country's creative output was the foundation for People Can Fly.

"People Can Fly was an umbrella for everybody who was frustrated with what they were doing in game development at the time," Chmielarz says. "Most of the games coming out of Poland at the [early] 2000s were from the ‘So what?' category. ... [Developers] were frustrated."

Chmielarz says he was honest with them all. He didn't have the money to bankroll a project. But he thought that together, with the help of a dozen or so great designers and artists, they could produce something that they could sell to a publisher. They could go indie together.

"Some of them left their jobs [to join me] at that point, that early."

Their first game, a first-person shooter published by DreamCatcher Interactive, was called Painkiller. It would go on to be awarded the Single-Player Shooter Game of the Year Award by Computer Gaming World, beating out titles like Half-Life 2 and Doom 3.

In the eyes of at least one of the major gaming press outlets in the West, Chmielarz had succeeded in making one of the best shooters in the world. He brought Polish gaming its larger audience, and he says he did it with just over 20 people.

Unreal

The success of Painkiller led to a deal with THQ to work on Come Midnight, the game whose cancellation cost Chmielarz more than $300,000. But for a year and a half before the deal went sour, Chmielarz used millions of THQ dollars to build up People Can Fly to more than 70 talented people — talented people he was now unable to pay.

At best Chmielarz had a month before the money ran out.

The team threw out the game engine they had been working on and called up Epic Games for an evaluation copy of Unreal Engine 3. After a few phone calls, it was Epic Vice President Mark Rein who personally got on the line. He was familiar with People Can Fly and he wanted to help.

"It wasn't charity," Chmielarz says. "In a month or a little bit more ... we actually made a demo from scratch, a completely new one.

"We called Epic and asked them, 'Can you take a look because before we send it to the publishers? Maybe we could get your opinion.' And they quickly got back to us saying, 'You did that in a month? Really? Don't talk to any publishers right now. Let's just talk to each other and maybe there's business to be done here.'

Epic recognized the raw talent Chmielarz had rallied to his flag and asked People Can Fly to produce the PC port of the original Gears of War.

"They saved the company," Chmielarz says.

That led to a contract for a game called Bulletstorm and finally Gears of War: Judgment. People Can Fly grew to nearly 120 people.

The same year Judgment was published, Epic publicly announced the acquisition of the studio. It would be rebranded as Epic Games Poland, and begin work on the sandbox cooperative shooter called Fortnite.

But Chmielarz wouldn't be there to see that last title finished. He announced his departure the same day.

Ad astra

Just a 10-minute drive from his family's well-appointed Warsaw apartment is Chmielarz's new studio — which happens to be another residential apartment. This sparsely furnished two-bedroom, two-bath space is the home of The Astronauts. It looks more like a dorm room than a professional office. The closest thing it has to a company logo is a set of children's puffy stickers in the kitchen, a tiny cosmonaut planting a red flag on some anonymous moon.

In the large front room, smashed against the wall behind desks that are far too big for the space, sit Chmielarz and his co-founders, Poznanski and Kosieradzki. In the adjoining rooms sits a hand-picked team of young, professionally trained designers. Several say that they interviewed with People Can Fly, but when Chmielarz called to offer them a job at The Astronauts they couldn't say no. The opportunity to work closely with him on this unique game was too good to pass up.

All of the personal investment from Chmielarz, Poznanski and Kosieradzki has gone into their staff and into their hardware, including a beast of a machine under Poznanski's desk. It has dual graphics cards, multiple processors and over 100 gigs of RAM — altogether more processing power than several normal computers. It is their secret weapon, the way they hope to raise the bar for Polish games yet again — a method for turning photographs of real-world objects and places into in-game 3D assets.

They're using their stunningly lifelike graphics to get players in the door. The gameplay, and the story, will be what keeps them there. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will have players inhabit the role of a private detective.

The world that The Astronauts are creating is a piece of rural Wisconsin where a young boy has gone missing. The game requires careful observation and hunting for clues, like a traditional adventure game.

The catch is that players are not merely ordinary detectives. They have supernatural abilities, including the power to sense nearby objects related to a crime and an affinity with the spirit world. Players will be able to look back on events that led to a murder, to piece together the scene by gathering the last few conscious memories of the dead. Players will have to put these events in the correct order, much like in a procedural police drama, and be rewarded with in-game cutscenes that reenact the bloody crimes and move the story along.

To hear Chmielarz tell it, his team has the game environments well on their way to completion. He's hesitant to unveil too much of the game in video format. So far there's a teaser trailer and a handful of GIFs. The beauty of the game, when it's ultimately shown off to the world, will get players in the door. While they're wandering Ethan Carter's photo-realistic world, it will be up to Chmielarz to make the gameplay as compelling as the graphics.

After more than 20 years, Chmielarz is right back where he started. Alone, with just a few friends beside him, making games on his own terms.

"What does this mean?" he asks. "Did I fail if I'm back to being with the small team, or is it a success? What has changed when you compare me now and 20 years ago?

"The dream of the developer 20 years ago was to be big, because the only way to sell your game was through the publisher. ... But something has changed. I can be heard now.

"The world was not interested 20 years ago."

Countdown

Even with all his exotic technology, even with the visuals for the game being pulled in directly from photographs of the real world, Chmielarz says that perfection is not the most important thing about this game's design.

While his old studio, now under Epic, is making an open-world style sandbox filled with construction and monsters and multiplayer — all the hot trends in AAA development — Chmielarz is making something more focused, something smaller, a throwback to an earlier time. And to him it's the story that matters most.

"Epic has a certain idea for the future that is not my idea of the future," Chmielarz says, choosing his words carefully.

While Chmielarz doesn't mention specifics, the company behind the Unreal Engine has gone through many changes over the past few years. In 2012, Chinese telecom giant Tencent purchased nearly half of Epic's outstanding stock, adding to its portfolio of investments in companies like League of Legends-maker Riot. Epic also recently sold one marquee franchise, Gears of War, to Microsoft. Another venerable IP, the Unreal Tournament series, will be transitioning to a free business model. Many veterans of the studio, not just Chmielarz, have since left left the company or retired.

"Epic has a certain idea for the future that is not my idea of the future."

"It's not about being right or wrong. Hopefully, my vision of the future and their vision of the future are both valid, because it's actually possible. They're not in opposition to each other."

That's why he left People Can Fly, why he parted ways with his very best publishing partner — because he wanted to tell a better story than he could in games like Painkillerand Bulletstorm, better stories than he thinks a bigger studio is capable of telling.

"I believe that games are, potentially, the most powerful storytelling devices," Chmielarz says. "But so far, the stories most games tell just aren't very good. Yes, we have the exceptions to the rule with great games like The Last of Us, for example. But still, they are exceptions. And I don't want them to be exceptions, I want them to be the norm."

"I think we're hungry," he says. "We are still mentally in the '80s. We want to get rich, and we want to mean something to the world. My generation is still after that, with their teeth and claws and everything."

And so Chmielarz is on his own again, building his studio out of almost nothing but talent and resolve, rallying people around him who share his vision of the future.

"The younger generation, who was actually born after the fall of communism ... some of them don't feel the hunger anymore, or maybe never felt it in the first place.

"But some of them ... They want it. They want to prove something. And I don't even care what that is. As long as they want to prove something, they're welcome to The Astronauts."

Images: The Astronauts, Charlie Hall, Jimmy Shelton and Tom Connors

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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