From Piracy to Billions — How Poland Became a Video Games Nation

By Dan Murphy on at

A bog-standard office building standing amongst miles of dull Eastern Bloc architecture in the city of Warsaw may not seem particularly interesting to a passerby. It looks like the kind of place where accountants might work. But on the 11th floor is something else entirely: the studio of game developers CI Games.

It’s 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning, but the large office is only perhaps a quarter full. That’s because most of the developers are at home sleeping. Many of them were working until 6AM to get a build of their latest game, Sniper Ghost Warrior 3, done in time for previews. Then when news of certification being granted came through, well, there was good reason to celebrate.

Such a scene, developers celebrating as the release of their game gets closer, is no longer a rare occurrence in Poland. This is a country whose status and renown in game development has risen to real prominence in the last decade, and every year only gets bigger and bolder.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland’s 20th-century history was dominated by two factors: the decimation the country suffered during World War II, and the subsequent decades under Soviet control. Trade with the west was non-existent. Everything was run by a centralised government in distant Moscow, and Poland was virtually cut off from the world. It wasn’t exactly an environment for games, let alone game development, to thrive.

Yet through the 80s western media slipped through the cracks, and was devoured by an eager audience: movies, music and, most of all, games. As there are no copyright laws in Communist states, the hottest new games that children in the West were saving all their pocket money up for were being pirated, shared and enjoyed by Polish gamers for free. Games could even be recorded straight from the radio.

Dying Light 2’s lead game designer, Tymon Smektała (pictured left), recalls how he used to get hold of the latest games: “I remember skipping classes, going to my classmates houses to sit around an Atari 800XL, quietly, without making any sound, so the game could load from a tape without any errors. If someone sneezed, dropped something on the floor or talked loudly – and the loading didn’t finish because of that – he was thrown out of the room and wasn’t playing that day.

“At that time there was literally no way to learn about new games in Poland so each new game, each new title was a potential blockbuster –it added a great deal of tension and expectation to each loading screen. Great, great times – there’s nothing really like it nowadays."

The lack of an official games industry, of course, did not mean there was a lack of industry around getting hold of the latest games.

“There were these so called ‘computer markets’ where you could buy hardware and software," recalls Smektała. "Cassettes full of the newest games for your C-64s and 65XLs, usually with two-three current hits, with the rest of the tapes filled with some no-name titles.

“I have no idea how those sellers – some of whom have grown up to be quite prominent figures in the Polish game industry – got these titles without Internet, but that’s just how it worked back then.”  

Smektała’s colleague at Techland, CEO Paweł Marchewka, has similar memories of getting his hands on the latest games: “Local exchanges where people would meet, talk about games and sell them were extremely popular. You also get new games recorded for you in many shops selling disks and computer hardware.

“Amiga disks and Commodore tapes were being sold there, as well as at small local stores. Aside from games being available to buy and trade, national radio stations would actually broadcast Commodore 64 games as a series of beeps and some white noise. So we were able to record them on tapes, and then load and play them.”

“I have so much nostalgia for the history of video games, the way people shared software news, the hardware available back then, the measures people had to go to in order to buy video games, as opposed to being able to simply get them online... I had to travel to a city 100 km away from my hometown to have access to games I wanted to play. To me looking back brings not only the nostalgia of youth, but also the awareness this is what we grew up on, and this is how Techland came to be.”

When the Berlin Wall did fall in 1989, it soon led to an unrelenting flood of Western media, finally available through legitimate means.

The Witcher 3

Skip forward 29 years, and Poland is now a nexus for the creation of financially successful and critically acclaimed games. A selected highlights list might include CD Projekt Red (developer of The Witcher series and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077), Techland (the Dead Island series and parkour zombie spin-off, Dying Light), Flying Wild Hog (behind the much-praised resurrection of Shadow Warrior), and the aforementioned CI Games, whose Sniper Ghost Warrior series has sold millions worldwide.

In a country with such an embedded culture of piracy, one stifled artistically by the Soviet regime for many decades, what led to the emergence of a booming creative industry?

The two big factors, according to people who lived it, were pragmatic: cheap costs and publishing.

CI Games’ senior level designer, Tomasz Pruski, says: “A lot of the bigger studios started out as publishers of foreign games for the Polish market, and acquired resources that were big enough to fund the development of their own IPs.”

Big money was also invested in Polish game development by publishers from the West, who would outsource their own projects to the country to lower labour costs. Jack Orlando, a point-and-click noir adventure released in 1997, was published by the German TopWare Interactive but developed by the Polish Toontraxx. Pruski says that £500,000 was spent on Jack Orlando’s soundtrack alone.

If cheap labour and publishing were the ways in which money began to flow into the scene, and enabled Poland’s games industry to take its baby steps, it was those pirated games which had created a community of players and programmers that were ready to go. Countless young Poles had fallen in love with video games and, as the country opened up more generally, were ready to build their futures in the industry.

Sniper Ghost Warrior 2

“I think that a lot of Polish developers, myself included, simply loved playing games as kids,” says Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, game director at CDPR. “They allowed us to live out adventures we knew we would never have in real life. Later a lot of us wanted to become like the heroes we grew up with. We wanted to make games and, back then, making games wasn’t as complicated as it is nowadays.

“Local demoscenes started forming, with passionate individuals cropping up all over Poland. A lot of my friends currently working at CDPR come from that background.

“We didn’t have access to the tools developers have nowadays, nor the knowledge of where to start. We didn’t know whether something was hard or impossible to do — we would just do stuff. I think this is what lies at the foundations of what we’re now seeing in Poland.”

Those thoughts are echoed by many of Konrad’s countrymen, with developers from very different companies sharing a desire to create their own digital stamp on the world.

“I suppose each company had their own way to success, but what we all share is the passion for games,” says Marchewka. “Even in our early days we never lost sight of our ultimate goal, which was in-house development of AAA games. We were all avid gamers who would do anything to see their dream come true. Today we compete with the best in the industry quality-wise — and beat them in terms of cost-effectiveness.

“When almost 20 years ago we released our first international title, it was proof to many young players that game development is possible in Poland, and that their dream to make their own games someday might actually become a reality.

“Today Poland has an amazing talent pool, while game development is still cheaper here than in the west. You could say that years of dedication and ambition are finally paying off.”

You can certainly say that again. CDPR announced that cumulative revenue for Wild Hunt was more than £200m in its first year-and-a-half of release, with over 25 million copies sold. By the end of the of 2017 the company held cash, cash equivalents and other monetary assets valued at just shy of £127 million, with no outstanding debt, and now makes games that are anticipated globally.

The internal market too is growing: as of 2018, video game sales in Poland are worth around £430 million annually (which ranks it 24th in the world).

It’s not just the AAA scene flourishing in Poland, either. There’s a successful indie scene and Maciej Miąsik (pictured left), a veteran developer from Warsaw, estimates that there are more than 250 indie studios across Poland and probably more, with new ones popping up every week.

I ask Miąsik about the indie life in Poland. “Sometimes difficult, [but] almost always fun. Being indie is tough because making games requires money. Very basic money, for everyday stuff, like living. Quite often your everyday problems revolve around how to cover the basics in order to have time to work on the games. Indie developers don't differ from any other aspiring artist in that regard.

“Very often we make business decisions we regret later, because the passion for making games can cloud our judgement. Sometimes we sacrifice personal life to make our games better, or end with worse products than we wanted because of lack of resources. Being indie requires a lot of compromise.”

Not quite sunshine and lollipops, then. But the important thing is that an indie scene of this size exists at all because, with the types of big development studio Poland now has, there will be serious talent trying to go solo. And there are breakout success stories too, like 11 bit studios' Frostpunk.

There's a wider question behind the indie scene too. It’s still not entirely clear to me why Polish game development has exploded in the way it has, when there are many other nations brimming with people who play and adore games, yet there's little in the way of their own production. Take Russia, for instance. As of 2014 there were more than 46.6 million gamers in Russia, yet the only original game that’s ever emerged from the nation with any global clout, though to be fair it’s quite some clout, is Tetris.

Pruski speculates that it’s perhaps the hard work and ingenuity of Polish people that is helping to set his nation apart. Which may be true, though it also sounds like the kind of thing a Polish person would say.

“Poland is known around the world for its hardworking and competent employees. It's no different in game development, and so the combination of a great talent pool and relatively lower production costs makes for a good environment for development.”

Dying Light

Pruski also believes that the fact it’s now so much easier to develop and publish your own game makes a significant difference.

“With the rise of the digital market and a lot of development tools going free, a lot of people took interest in making games and turned it into a career, so the talent pool grew considerably and the barrier of entry was lowered for newcomers. Those conditions helped foster a quickly growing industry bringing in a lot of revenue.”

Another interesting outcome of the Polish game industry’s origins, specifically with regards to growing beyond a culture of piracy, is the way Polish developers listen to their communities. The studios either willingly give things away for free or, when they do charge, ensure that the product is great value for money.

When The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was released in 2015, a new piece of DLC was given away for free for 16 weeks. When CDPR did release some paid content, expansions Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, they were massive packs with hours and hours of content that, to use a worn but deserved cliche, could probably have released as stand-alone games. The same goes for Techland and its own massive expansion for Dying Light, taking the game from the cramped, decaying city of Harran to the vast, luscious countryside of The Following.

“Another reason why Poland is seen so favourably is that it listens to fans,” says Marchewka. “With games like Dying Light and other Polish big hits, we’ve changed the relationship between developers and fans in the industry for the better.”

It's not just a commercial thing either, a question of charging for DLC, when there's evidence of a wider commitment. In 2015 Techland memorialised David Acott, a 17-year old lover of Dying Light who died of cancer, by patching a touching mural of him into the game.

Do the Polish people simply have a higher work ethic and a natural affinity for game development? Probably not. But as a nation Poland does have substantial and clever government support that has helped grow the industry, which provides schemes and grants to help developers of all sizes.

Stan Just (pictured left), research and development manager at CDPR, says: “Currently we have several supportive instruments in place that work quite well.”

“The biggest is the R&D grant programme called GameINN. The first contest was for £240,000. Then there are many smaller activities like micro-grants from the Ministry of Culture for prototyping, as well as support for trade missions to participate in trade fairs.

“There are acceleration initiatives to support start-ups and many game jams and contests for student projects. Together with other game development non-profit organisations, we try to work with governmental agencies to provide good conditions for further industry development.”

Stan Just is a board member of the Polish Games Association, another way in which Poland sets itself apart from the rest of the world: a professional, developer-led body that is intended to act in the interests of the Polish industry. It brings together the biggest companies in Poland, including CDPR, Techland and CI Games, in a spirit of co-operation.

It’s quite friendly,” says Marchewka. “We meet and discuss very often at industry events, both in Poland and abroad.”

Lords of the Fallen

I would say we have a strong bond and a sense of kinship,” adds Tomaszkiewicz. “We’re a family, where everyone looks out for one another, often providing a much-needed perspective.”

“Our main goal is to improve the competitiveness of Polish game developers in the global market,” says Just. “My role as a board member and a ‘frontman’ is to recommend certain actions to the CEOs of those companies, represent the industry internationally and co-ordinate specifically targeted projects.”

This attitude can probably be credited with much of the contemporary Polish scene. The Polish government now offers a dedicated grant for game prototype development, as well as a promotional grant called “Go To Brands”, there’s financial support from the country’s sectoral programme, from the European Union, and from general research and development tax relief. The Culture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, Piotr Gliński, is pushing for tax breaks for games that promote a positive image of the country and take Polish culture out to the world.

As Gliński told newspaper Rzeczpospolita: “I would like our young developers to be more daring in reaching for Polish cultural motifs.”

He’s not an isolated voice within government, either. Just see what Poland’s Minister of Science, Jarosław Gowin, has to say: “The Polish government will support game developers, they are the future. We want to modernise Poland, we want to modernise the Polish economy. Our activities are for our economy to grow far more dynamically, especially in those areas where we have the greatest intellectual and creative potential."

Video games is certainly one of those areas. Through passion and determination, the Polish gaming scene overcame the Iron Curtain and outgrew a political environment that was almost entirely hostile to creativity. The country as a whole now fosters one of the fastest-developing gaming scenes on the planet. With the government on their side, and some of the greatest games of recent times hailing from Poland, the future for this eastern European nation has never looked brighter.