Gameology | Game Development Analytical Media | Conversation with Karol Zajaczkowski
You can listen to the audio version of this conversation on our YouTube channel.
Here we are with another episode of Gameology Conversations. This episode is kind of different than our other conversations, cause it’s not about a particular game or a profession. It’s about a country, suffered by many wars, tragedies and pains but right now, I can only describe it as a beautiful and powerful phoenix, rising from the ashes of history.
We’re talking about Poland’s game industry with Karol Zajaczkowski, PR & Marketing Manager at 11 bit studio the creator of merciless and beautiful This War of Mine.
Poland is amazing because like 10 years ago they weren’t that popular and known in the video games industry, but right now they have games like The Witcher, This War of Mine, Dead Island, Dying Light, Call of Juarez, Bulletstorm, Painkiller, Sniper Ghost Warrior, Two Worlds and so many other great games.
So what happened, what is different in Poland, How do they make such great games, how did they revolutionize the game industry in Poland? There are lots of questions and many great answers in this conversation.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you very much and welcome to our podcast Karol, how are you doing?
Karol Zajaczkowski: I’m quite fine. Fighting through the winter, but it’s fine. How about you?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I’m good. Thank you! OK, first question is very simple. Let’s do this. What’s in the water there man? Why are you so good at making games in Poland?
Karol Zajaczkowski: That’s an interesting question that I hear a lot. I don’t know, maybe because they know Hollywood to call for movies, French people for the poetry and other people took other kind of cultures so we only had games left so we had to do that. But honestly It’s something surprising for me as well, because when you look at Europe there are much richer and bigger countries but surely none of them makes so much games as Poland so that’s interesting. I mean we have a rich heritage of creating culture, things like books, poems and stuff but they were not well known around the world because of the Polish language which is not so common but they were quite good, technically I say and now we have just found a new way to express ourselves by games with all the learnings and skills we had in our country, they are working very well with our games and that’s how it is I guess.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Poland’s game industry is just phenomenal, your games are amazing and inspiring but I think what’s inspiring even more is the industry itself and the community of game developers there. Looking back at the history of Poland’s game industry, I see a great journey from nothing to one of the greatest countries making video games right now and that I think should be a very important subject to study for everyone involved in the video game industry. So what do you think is the most important factor for the success of game development in Poland?
Karol Zajaczkowski: Definitely I would say that the biggest milestone for us was the first Witcher, I would say there is a before Witcher stage and after Witcher stage. You see, I was working on that game and I’ve seen that game changing but working on the very first Witcher with people being part of the game industry we knew that we’ve been making games from 80’s and we had some really good titles but again they didn’t make it out of our country because there were no Polish stuff so it was hard to translate them and hard to sell them in the western Europe and stuff so that was complicated and then we did better, there was the Painkiller from People Can Fly and Gorky 17 from Metropolis. Those games were the first games that were more known outside of the country and then the first Witcher came and that change was different in Polish perspective and world-wide perspective because even here in our country.
I remember when I was working on the first Witcher and I was talking with people who were my friends and family and it was like, “what are you doing? your’e making games? It doesn’t make sense, who plays games? you should stop and look for a normal job and you can’t make games all your life” and right now, 10 years later, it’s totally different, right now people are proud of Polish games and even if someone is not playing those games people are aware that we’re are a great game development company. My parents read about games even if they don’t play it and you meet someone in the street and you can go to a bar and tell someone that you’re making games and people will offer you free beer because people are proud of those games.
From the moment first the Witcher came out, Poland became known outside of our country and a lot of things happened during the time, like Steam and Internet growing and stuff, so a lot of things were important in the process but actually Witcher was the very first game that came out of our country and people said “OK, it’s a good game, where was it made? It was made in Poland. Where is that? Europe? Is it in Russia?” no it’s not Russia. I’ve been in this industry for 10 years and I see that has happened, because when we went to the first Gamescom with the Witcher, no one knew the game, no one knew our country and stuff and when we went to E3 with Witcher 2 almost the same happened because Wither 2 was a different game and not many people recognized the title, not many people knew where Poland is. Right now with Witcher 3 people are like rock stars in the industry but it also works for us, we’re a much smaller company and we haven’t made such a big game yet but still when we go to … you know we are traveling a lot, we go to Asia, we go to Africa, we go to South America, people know our game and they say “OK, you’ve made a great game” so we’re recognizable right now and that’s something totally different because right now, most studios in Poland, like 11 Bit Studios are recognized but in 10 years ago no one cared about you making a AAA games, even something like The Witcher 1, so that’s a big change.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: What cultural elements you think have had big impacts on the success of the Poland’s game industry?
Karol Zajaczkowski: Again talking about The Witcher is a great example. We… like eastern Europe is different than western Europe and that’s not only in terms of behavior or the history, but also about cultural elements like, we’re Slavic and the mythology used there in western is very typical Nordic, German and you know, Scandinavian and everyone knows Odin and everyone knows elves and German mythology and then when we came here with Slavic stuff, it’s totally different there are different creatures and different behaviors, different tradition. If you’ve played Baldur’s Gate, If you’ve played Icewind Dale and actually all the RPG games of history of gaming and they are mostly based on mythologies that the west knows already, most Nordic or German mythology and then The Witcher came and it was something completely new and people learned that actually there are other mythologies and they are very interesting cause they are very fresh and I guess that was something refreshing for the people because when you’re playing games like Morrowind or any other western RPG you see that some elements are repetitive, because Elves are always Elves we know from Baldur’s Gate and they are like kind and stuff like that and the dragons are bad and there are like certain patterns that are visible in every RPG games and then something comes from the east and it is different because we have different creatures, different traditions and that works very well because I’m from here and I was playing The Witcher 3 and I learned so much about our country and I’m living here, there are so much stuff I haven’t heard about and after finishing the game I was reading a lot of books that were inspiration for the game and you realize that even when you’re living here, you don’t realize how rich your history is in terms of fantasies and stuff and for someone from the west, it’s even more surprising and it’s because of the history and different approach to many topics, our games speak for themselves.
We look at things differently from for example people from France because of the different history and different taste and our Eastern-European look and certain things is totally different and again it’s something refreshing because sometimes you don’t expect such things happen again and that was used for This War of Mine. The war topic is different for Polish people because we had war in our country and it was destroyed during World-War 2 heavily…actually the last 300 years for Poland was mostly being under reign of some foreign country or fighting for the freedom and it’s a different story than for example people from France and they didn’t have to do that. In Warsaw, where we’re living, it was destroyed like 90%, the city was torn apart, flattened to the earth by Nazi Germany, so we know how a destroyed city looks like because we have buildings from that time here but for other countries it might be fantasy or sci-fi that they have never experienced.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: How much do you think the following factors have been helpful to push the game industry of Poland forward: government support, support from local people, support from local development community or maybe some other factors?
Karol Zajaczkowski: I think the game development in Poland is something that was created from the very bottom. People started making games for many, many years, 20 or more years, then other people realized it’s happening including the government, I’m glad someone noticed that. Right now we can get money for traveling, for showing a game around the world and we can get foundations for showing the game at the Expos and that kind of money can actually help a lot of small companies, especially for like indie people to be a part of this, which is really hard because if you want to go to GDC in San Francisco that cost like five to 10 thousand dollars for accommodation, flight, calls and stuff like that and when you’re a game developer, it’s hard to get that kind of money from your parents for example and here you can get it from the government right now and that really helps them and I’m really glad that’s happening but we don’t need that so much because we’re doing quite well with our games already and sometimes when we see an opportunity we try to use that government founds as well but we don’t need it as much as small indie companies do and I’m glad that someone can help them because when we were working on This War of Mine, like four years ago there wasn’t something like this out there. you couldn’t get any money for traveling to Games Com for example, like E3 in California, not to mention like 10 years ago no one paid any attention to this but the time was different because right now games are like one of our biggest export things from Poland.
Some people knew our shopping, classical music, some people knew great movies and movie directors like Andrzej Wajda but there were certain elements that not many people are actually aware of and games are actually in the mainstream culture right now and we are part of that and when you say that these games have been done in Poland, it actually means something right now. Even the fact that we’re talking about this right now, it means that people are aware of Poland that they make all the good games, for me it’s a wonderful perspective for the next couple of years because I believe it only gets better and stronger and we’re going to make more great games and I’d like to see that one day, games made in Poland is almost a trade mark that when it comes from Poland it’s a decent quality game.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: For me it is right now.
Karol Zajaczkowski: Oh! so it’s already happening. See, that’s great because in countries like France and Germany, they are much richer countries and they have less developers there and smaller number of well-known titles there, like in France it’s like Quantic Dream and Ubisoft there and they it’s a big country with traditions of comic books and stuff and they should be able to actually create games and they don’t do that and Germany is the same, there aren’t many companies there, there are not many great games from this territory. Suddenly there is Poland, opposite to all the problems we may encounter, all the things blocking us but we’re doing a great job and it’s great to be a part of that actually.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: That’s inspiring. Is there a big local game market in Poland? Are there developers that rely only on the local market?
Karol Zajaczkowski: It’s growing bigger, that’s for sure. When you look at the sales, obviously they’re not as big as in western countries, but then again we’re big enough and the sales are big enough for example to the companies like Blizzard to localize all of their games, all the Playstation 4 titles are being localized to Polish, fully localization with actors, dubbing and stuff, that means the games are selling here because otherwise Blizzard wouldn’t pay any attention to localization for Diablo 3 or Overwatch if there wasn’t money here and actually Overwatch is fully Polish with great actors playing and stuff like that and some western countries don’t have that like Italy or something.
There was this thing called ethics which is like typical set of localizations for Europe, like English, French, Italian, German and Spanish and those are the must have languages before but right now Poland is among them, like if you make a AAA title in Europe and you want to be 100% sure it would be localized to Polish and that means something, I don’t know the numbers yet but I think huge games like The Witcher can sell here like hundreds and thousands of copies which actually is quite a lot for this kind of country. But games like FIFA and games from EA are selling quite well here and even our game, I can’t give you the number are selling well in Poland, I can’t give you an exact number but it’s a big part of the income we have. So it’s getting bigger and 20 some years ago we had a big problem with pirate copies and stuff but we’re changing right now, if you look at those, like torrents and stuff you can find Polish games but games in Poland can sell five or to thousands copy and numbers are bigger right now and I think people believe that’ve got richer because of it and they can afford games and they learned that actually it’s worth to pay for a good game to allow the developer to create even better games in the future.
I remember when I was in high school, everyone was playing on pirate copies and stuff because no one could afford the original one and the time was different. For sure it’s also because of the consoles which are getting much stronger in Poland because piracy on consoles are much harder to do so people prefer to buy a console and then buy a game. We also have a strong market for the second hand copies like people buy the copy, they are the premier, they play the game and sell it further and that’s quite strong here in Poland because again, people want to play the original game but they don’t want to pay 60 bucks for that, so if you have the original copy of the game, you can sell it, it’s your right and you’re not pirating anything, so that’s happening in here. Steam is very popular here and Poland is one of the top countries in Europe to use the Steam, so it’s changing and we’re learning that good game must cost some money but if you do that you can be sure that developer will deliver even more good games in the future so it’s worth the investment, if you copy, if you pirate it today you won’t know what will happen in the future.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Exactly! How is the new workforce being trained? How much do you expect the local developers to help the industry as compared to foreign developers joining in?
Karol Zajaczkowski: For many, many years, Polish industry was heavily, like 100% Polish workforce for us and in first Witcher there were only Polish people, and we had the same case with Witcher 2 but then it changed because the growth of the market and the industry in Poland is so huge that actually even right now we have a lot of universities, they schooling people to how to make games, programming, arts and stuff like that but it’s still not enough because the industry is demanding more and more people and CD Projekt right now I think is maybe 1/3, ¼ foreigners, or even more right now. So they realize that they can’t find all the force they need, especially in terms of the experienced people in Poland so they had to start look abroad and that’s actually is happening in 11 Bit Studios, we are a smaller studio but we’ll have the same problem one day and we will need people from other countries because we can’t find anyone in Poland because they are all taken now. If you’re a skilled graphic artist or a programmer, every single studio would like to hire you because there are never enough programmers, never enough artists here.
I wish I could be a programmer and I’m realizing it right now because it’s so easy, everyone is looking for programmers and art guys. Still, most of the employees of the companies here are Polish but more and more foreigners happening. Although we’re taking people from west, from big studios like Rockstar, Ubisoft and EA, they are coming to work in Poland but also we’re hiring from east, like people from Ukraine, there are a lot of skilled programmers out there and we have people from Russia and after few years we can offer them competitive benefits and money for their work because before that Poland couldn’t compete in terms of salary because the games were too small to afford that kind of people but right now it has changed and we can find a lot of people from foreign countries that prefer to come to Poland because they can get really good money here and they like our life style I would say, and there are certain cities that are the hubs for developers which are like Warsaw, Krakow, Roslov, those are the hubs. They are great cities and people like living there and it’s different than for example western Europe.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: In Iran, we always feel that we are missing great mid-level managers and leaders in our game industry, people with close to I don’t know, 20 years of experience for example. Was Poland able to overcome this issue when it started? Where people brought in from abroad or did you have to learn it yourselves the hard way?
Karol Zajaczkowski: Actually, most of that thing was just learning by experience which means making a lot of mistakes. The oldest people in our industry are like in their 50s right now but when I was drawn into the industry 10 years ago I was 20 and actually the CD Projekt back then in the time of Witcher, the average year of people making Witcher 1 was 23, 24 and they were like bunch of young people that had desire to make a great game but they didn’t have experience and actually some problems were caused because of that because they were bunch of youngsters, full of will to make something but they didn’t know how to do it and we didn’t have others that have experience creating such games. It was a lot of improvisation and free-styling and the came out well and we said OK, just learn like that. Now everywhere you can find people that used to work on the first Witcher because that was the origin of the people here and today we’re at our 30s or some years old and we actually have some experience which means we know some stuff, finally, after so many years, but we’re like 30s in the industry and it means you are the veteran of the industry because usually when you’re 30.
Your entering this word he doesn’t have experience and he’s just learning his role and being 30 in this industry means you’re veteran, you’ve seen stuff and you’ve done stuff on a lot of games and that’s good cause I see many, many years ahead of me, of creating great games and I know that after me, many people would fall because each year more and more young people join the industry, like in their 20s because they have seen the Witcher, they have seen This War of Mine, they’ve seen all the other great games that all were done here and they wish to be one of them and it feels like being in the game industry is like being in the movie industry, some years ago everyone wanted to be actor or actress and play movies and be in like Hollywood for money, splendor, cars and all the cool stuff from the entertainment industry and right now I think games are making something like that because when you talk with young kids which are like 10 or 9 years old and often ask them what do you want to do in your life or what do want to do when you’re old, and many of them would tell that I want to make games and that’s like their dream job and many of them actually joined the industry.
I know people that played the first Witcher 10 years ago and they were in high school and they wanted to make games like that and 10 years later I meet them, it’s funny for me because I’ve been making that game and I talk with someone who was inspired by that to join the industry and that’s great because you’re doing something more than just making money, you create stuff that inspires people and that’s really great. I meet many of those people cause I’m also teaching and have some courses and giving lectures and many of those people after the course tell that It’s funny that when I was a kid, I was playing this game and that was the moment I decided to be a game developer and today I meet you and that’s funny. I had the same thing 10 years ago when I met Maciej Miąsik who was like one of the veterans of the industry in Poland and he made game “Electro Body” in 90s so I was like five or six years old and I was playing that game in my dad’s office and it was a really great game and then like 15 years later I meet Maciej and I was so surprised and actually Maciej is making a game that we would be publishing.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: WOW!
Karol Zajaczkowski: So 25 years ago I was playing his game and I couldn’t imagine that I could meet that guy and today we’re making a game together and we will be the publisher of this game and it’s called Beat Cop that we publish this year, so it’s funny how the life works.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah! That’s an interesting story. Lastly, what kind of advice would you have for Iranian developers?
Karol Zajaczkowski: I would say, we’re traveling a lot and when I meet developers just trying to create great games and get in the market, the biggest problem for me is that they want to recreate the games that are already there. For example when I went to Brazil, I’ve seen a lot of people making great visual games, great mechanics but all those games were copies and clones of the games already out there. There was Angry Birds and everyone suddenly wanted to make Angry Birds. There was Flappy Bird game and everyone was making that. So I say why are you wasting your time making a game that wouldn’t work, because the Angry Birds is already out there, people are playing that game, you wouldn’t be able to repeat the success with a game that says exactly the same. So you have to invent your game because people are looking for something new, something they haven’t seen before and that’s how so many people got lost in the early stage of creating games that they don’t have ideas for the games or they’re afraid of pursuing idea of a game they have in the head.
When we were making This War of Mine, no one knew that it would work so well and there wasn’t a game like that back then, like a game that’s about war and it’s totally different than the games that are in the market, some people said it was a stupid idea and no one would like to play that but we said it’s OK, it’s a game that no one has done yet, so let’s try, let’s be the first one that actually make it because that’s how you change something in the industry, cause you make a game that would be an example for people to follow and that’s the only way you can actually achieve success, both in… I would say in the master and the subject way, so if you want to be a good game developer, you have to create stuff, you have to invent things and make them happen, not just follow other people’s ways. That’s something that would guaranty your commercial success, if it’s a clone of a game, no one would like to pay for that because they have already seen that game. It’s like a movie that you have seen five years ago in cinema, no one would pay to see that again. If you follow your…not dreams…if you follow your intuition, if you follow your guts that tells you to do something different, maybe something that hasn’t been seen before that’s for me I believe is the highest chance of success. So my piece of advice would be to follow your guts and not to be afraid of creating stuff that’s not out there, because at some point, there were no FPS games, no RPG games there was no Grand Theft Auto thing, someday, someone said, OK, let’s make something different, create a game that is about a guy shooting Nazis in Wolfenstein. Let’s be the first 3D perspective game because no one has done that before and no one know if it would work but that’s how you expand the game industry. So don’t be afraid to create stuff and do a game that you want to play yourself, even if you didn’t make it and that would work.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: It’s a priceless advice. Thank you very much Karol. You guys, especially at 11 bit studios are making magnificent games and I’m such a fan of This War of Mine and I can’t wait for Frostpunk…and what a bad ass name this game has.
Karol Zajaczkowski: Thank you so much. Actually if you’re looking forward to that game, I can tell that in the next few weeks we’re going to announce a lot of new facts about the game and a lot of new info and a new cool trailer so stay tuned because more and more will be revealed in the upcoming days.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Man, I can’t wait for that. Thank you so much and I wish you guys the best.
Karol Zajaczkowski: Thank you so much for having me and have a great day.