Inside the company that made The Witcher
He swings the sword over his head, then down quickly. A little grunt escapes his lips. His form, as near as I can tell, is perfect. Then he holds the pose, sword down, tip near the floor, until the woman manning the computer console tells him to stop. Then he does it again.
We're in the motion-capture room at Polish game developer CD Projekt Red. The man on the stage, wearing black spandex speckled with white dots, is creating animations for the characters in the upcoming mobile game Crimson Trail. Before doing that, he performed all the swordplay in the upcoming game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
He and the woman running the computer are both speaking Polish, but it's easy enough to understand what they're saying. It's the universal language of motion capture.
"Now from the side."
They're running down a list of moves and characters. We're asked to not photograph this list, or the computer screen bolted to the wall, because the characters, monsters and weapons are not yet public knowledge.
The swordsman switches weapons. He's now doing work with a staff, swinging it over his head in graceful arcs, then bringing it down, or to the side. He does a running swing, stopping right on the X taped to the floor, with a grunt.
I heft the sword he's just discarded. It's real. Heavy. Worked steel with a dull blade. Ten pounds, easy. Maybe more. The swordsman has been at this for almost an hour. He will continue all day. This is his job. Swinging a sword, being the Witcher (and other characters).
The games that incorporate his sword-swinging are the most popular and successful video games made in Poland, and the story of the company that made them is — perhaps more than any other company — the story of Polish game development.
As we file out of the motion-capture room, back into the Warsaw rain, we begin to unravel the story of CD Projekt. How this massive game company and publishing house started from nothing to conquer Poland, and in some ways the world. How it went from a shed in a muddy field in Warsaw to this sprawling complex along a highway. How it developed the game that even Barack Obama owns.
The tour starts in the cafeteria. It's fully staffed and vegetarian only (with fish). CD Projekt's co-founder, Marcin Iwinski, is a vegetarian and so his company is, too. If you want meat or grease, you can go down the road, but Iwinski would rather provide something healthier for his employees.
"In a two-kilometer radius there's pretty much nothing [to eat] that won't kill you," he says. "People spend a big chunk of their lives here, so we'd like it to be a nice place to live for part of the time."
The space is large and bright, with brick walls and IKEA furniture. There's a stage where the studio's resident musicians occasionally play. A concert is scheduled for the next day, in fact. A group of CD Projekt developers are in a metal band.
The cafeteria backs onto the glass-fronted lobby. Pull a large, black curtain around the café entrance, and the sounds of eating and chatting inside are almost inaudible. The place fills up at lunchtime. Most CDPR employees seem to be fine with eating vegetarian. Or else disinclined to walk in the rain.
We're in the lobby to meet CD Projekt's business development manager, Rafal Jaki, and hear about how The Witcher world is expanding to include not just video games, but comic books, a board game and Crimson Trail, just announced at this year's E3.
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.
Without The Witcher and its sequel The Witcher 2, there would be no CD Projekt Red.
The video games just happen to share some of the characters. And the comic books, Jaki tells me, sitting in a white pod-like chair that would not look out of place in a space station, are part of a plan to expand the offerings of the Witcher universe into places where video games can't reach. And hopefully bring some of that rich history to Western audiences.
"[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.
The studio is currently at work on The Witcher 3 in many of the cavernous rooms inside the CDPR complex. (The board game, mobile game and comic books are largely created elsewhere.) And there's a small section of the complex devoted to GOG, or Good Old Games, the online distribution service devoted to PC and Mac classics and new indie titles.
CDPR has partnered with publisher Dark Horse for the comic books, which introduce characters and monsters that gamers may encounter in The Witcher 3. The board game is also part of the plan to make the Witcher world accessible to people who may not be into RPGs or comic books. It's just another avenue for CDPR to exploit its devastatingly successful franchise.
The lobby we're sitting in is lined with awards and photographs of CDPR founders shaking hands with luminaries. The prime minister of Poland here. Barack Obama there. The awards cover two entire walls, from floor to ceiling. Another wall is nothing but magazine covers, all featuring The Witcher.
The Witcher did this. All of it. The awards, the photographs, the massive complex of buildings and the hundreds of employees. Without The Witcher and its sequel The Witcher 2, there would be no CD Projekt Red. And without CD Projekt Red there might arguably be no Polish video game industry. At least not one so successful.
According to CD Projekt Red, without The Witcher game, there wouldn't even be The Witcher at all. The stories were popular in Poland, but the video game turned main character Geralt and his universe into a worldwide sensation.
"We weren't buying The Witcher," says Iwinski, referring to CDPR's purchase of The Witcher rights from author Andrzej Sapkowski. "We were buying a [story] and then we turned it into The Witcher, which became known all around the world."
CD Projekt Red was founded in 1994 by Iwinski and his then business partner Michal Kicinski, although Poland at that time was such a different place that the creation of the company wasn't so much a founding as a gradual evolution. One day Iwinski and Kicinski were selling cracked and localized Western games on CDs in a Warsaw marketplace; the next they were a business.
"When you say founding CD Projekt, it sounds so serious," Iwinski says. We're sitting with him in the company's "medieval room," where they do Witcher interviews. It's wallpapered in a faux brick, with wrought-iron sconces holding low-wattage bulbs. On the ceiling is a map of The Witcher's world, as depicted in the video games. "We were just fans of games. We wanted to legalize our business."
"A regular game in Poland was selling at the time maybe 1,000 or 2,000 units. On day one we sold 18,000 units of Baldur's Gate."
Like so many other companies in Poland, CD Projekt started as a direct result of the collapse of communism. Poles were suddenly left to fend for themselves, and many like Iwinski saw the opportunity to build businesses, something that was denied to ordinary people under communist rule. He calls the years following the 1990 change in government an "incubator of entrepreneurship."
CD Projekt's version of entrepreneurship involved capitalizing on Poland's lax copyright laws and Western games companies' general disinterest in the Polish market. When the copyright laws changed, CD Projekt changed, shifting into licensed localization, distribution and, eventually, game development. But it all started simply as an excuse to play new games before anyone else.
"We had access to new games," Iwinski says. "How silly does that sound as a reason for founding a business? But I think it was quite important. ... We were doing the first localizations in Polish. We did PR and marketing campaigns. In the beginning, the market was quite wild. No retail chains selling games. In the first few years we were just selling to mom-and-pop shops. [Customers] were coming up with a Volkswagen and filling it up with games and selling them in small stores all around Poland."
The success of CDPR's early efforts convinced Iwinski that he wasn't the only one who wanted to play games, and that most Polish people wanted to play them in Polish. CDPR became the first company in Poland working directly with Western companies to localize games in Polish, hiring famous Polish actors to redo the spoken dialogue. Suddenly the world of game development broke wide open. CDPR could offer Western companies something no one else was offering.
Iwinski developed a relationship with game publisher Interplay and began networking with game companies and attending events around the world. In one case, he met BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk and pitched them on localizing the popular RPG Baldur's Gate for Polish audiences. BioWare agreed, with one caveat — CDPR would have to do all the work.
"We said we'd take the risk," says Iwinski. "Of course, the decision was very hard for us. We worked six months on the localization. I was working on it. My father was helping, because he was a producer on movies at the studios that employed famous Polish actors. This was a game that established totally new standards.
"A regular game in Poland was selling at the time maybe 1,000 or 2,000 units. On day one we sold 18,000 units of Baldur's Gate."
CDPR had to rent a separate warehouse just to hold copies of Baldur's Gate before it shipped. Ultimately the team would sell tens of thousands of units of the game, a blockbuster by the standards of the time.
The project was so successful for CDPR that the team immediately began another: A PC port of the Baldur's Gate sequel, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for Interplay. The game was still in development, but planned only for consoles. CDPR would have the lock on PC development for Western audiences and for Poland. There was only one catch: Interplay was falling apart.
"Our friends at Interplay called us ... and said, 'Hey, it doesn't look too good,'" Iwinski says. "'The company is having financial problems. Don't do this port. Nobody will pay you for it. It'll be tough for you.'
"It was like, 'OK? We started the development, so what should we do now?'"
CDPR began discussing what it could do with the code it had developed as part of the Dark Alliance port. With the content of the game itself now completely up to the Polish developers, it turned immediately to Sapkowski's The Witcher.
"The Witcher was on the top of the list," Iwinski says. "We started researching whether we could get the rights. It happened that we could, and we actually acquired the rights and started working on The Witcher. So it all started, in a way, with Baldur's Gate.
"It's a story of dreams, persistence and luck, or good karma, or whatever you call it."
The tour continues. We're shown two floors of where The Witcher 3 is being made, all furnished in reds and chrome. Porthole-shaped windows and glass walls round out the decor. We're asked to not take pictures of any of it (to save from leaks about the game), and we're not taken anywhere remotely close to where CD Projekt is making its other big game, the dark science fiction tale Cyberpunk 2077.
The studio is immense and well-appointed, but in almost every respect it looks essentially like your average large, successful video game studio. Except for one thing: CD Projekt is Poland's ultimate successful video game studio. It is, in multiple respects, the pinnacle of the industry in Poland, where most people working in games hope to eventually land.
Most of the company's hundreds of workers grew up wanting to work here because of the company's resemblance to the flashy, successful video game companies in the West. Not just "in games," as in the U.S., but specifically at CD Projekt, and for many of those working on The Witcher 3, specifically on that game. CD Projekt is one of the most diverse workplaces in Poland, with employees from all over Europe and elsewhere. The company has adopted English as its official language, just so teams can function.
We move on to the large, back section of the main building, where CD Projekt still runs a robust game-distribution business, moving games from companies like Disney Interactive, Blizzard and Konami into Poland, alongside those from smaller European studios like Larian and Astragon. And then it's back to the lobby to talk with Lead Quest Designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz. He's working on The Witcher 3.
Tomaszkiewicz says there are two sides to building a game from such a deep, established world as The Witcher.
"There's a good side, where we have a base on which to build, a whole universe that was created by Sapkowski," he says. "We have a lot of characters that we can use, source materials we can use. We have rules by which things like magic work. We have political connections, a whole scene we can work on. That's good, because we have this large library we can use. We can add to it, but we don't have to build things from scratch."
"The books, I know they have many fans, and we don't want to upset them by doing something improperly."
The bad side: Some of those well-established characters can't change.
"Geralt can't do some things that players might like to do. Geralt won't ever kill the innocent. The options for being the bad guy in this game have to be pretty limited, in ways that would fit the character. All the quests we do have to take that into consideration."
It's a symptom of the company's greatest success coming on the back of opportunistic accomplishments. In a way, just like the company's name: "CD Projekt." It harkens back to the earliest days, when the business was selling CDs loaded with other people's games. Then it began distributing other people's games. Then, localizing and porting them.
That The Witcher itself started out as someone else's world is just one more piece of that same puzzle. Successful game, but someone else's world.
"The books, I know they have many fans, and we don't want to upset them by doing something improperly, so to speak," says Tomaszkiewicz. "We try to be very careful in translating this whole experience into a game. We try to be as close to what Sapkowski established in the books."
You get the sense that the company is poised to take the next step and start making some of that success from its own ideas. That in spite of all that it has achieved, there's still more waiting over the horizon — whether it's the new IP Cyberpunk 2077 or something yet to be created.
"I can't stop smiling when I'm sitting at a table in the [cafeteria]," says Iwinski, "and I talk with people who are smarter than me and who build this really extreme stuff, which I then see in both GOG and the builds of The Witcher 3. I'm expecting a third baby, but actually I tell my wife it's the fourth, because CD Projekt was my first one."
Yet in spite of CD Projekt's massive success and near single-handed vitalization of Polish game development, Iwinski avoids describing CD Projekt as an ambassador for Poland. He prefers to see the company's success and that of The Witcher represent a form of love letter to the rest of the world, from deep in the Slavic heart of Poland.
"Poland's history is tied up mostly in wars between its huge neighbors," he says. "That is reflected in The Witcher, because it was reflected in the creation of Sapkowski. But I think where we went really deep, ... [was with] the visual representation. ... Yesterday we had a meeting session outside of Warsaw on a lakeside. We're driving back through forests. The managing director, Guillaume — he's French — he says, 'Wow, it looks like The Witcher.' And I said, 'Yeah, that's The Witcher."
"All that surrounds us — the castles, the forests, the countryside — that's The Witcher. It's very Slavic. ... For me, this is where I'm coming from. I hope that for foreign players, the majority of players, this is something interesting, but at the same time, it's real. Because it is real."Images: CD Projekt Red, Vox Media
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