Poland's richer for The Witcher

By bne IntelliNews May 18, 2015

Adam Easton in Warsaw -


With “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” due to be released by its Warsaw-based creators on May 19 with a $35mn global marketing campaign, it’s clear that Poland has become one of the hottest places in Europe today for producing video games.

Poland’s video game industry was worth an estimated $280mn in 2014. There are now between 200-300 gaming studios, large and small, employing around 2,000 people in Poland, with Wroclaw’s Techland and CD Projekt among the most established names.

CD Projekt produces the game series that has truly gone global – “The Witcher”. The game took five years to develop at a cost of PLN22mn (€5.4mn), a huge sum for a Polish project. But it has paid off: its first two editions have sold more than 8mn copies worldwide. 

During a visit, US President Barack Obama was presented with “The Witcher 1” as a symbol of Polish innovation, CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwinski tells bne IntelliNews in his smart brick and glass headquarters with its vegetarian-only canteen in the Polish capital. “When he came back for his second visit he mentioned that he’d been gifted the game. We were like wow, that’s a great piece of PR. He admitted though that he never played it, so that’s a pity,” he says.

Stuff of fantasy

The Witcher games are based on the series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and tell the story of monster slayer Geralt. Securing the rights to the series was a dream come true for Iwinski, who read the stories in high school when they were published in sci-fi magazines. “If you’re Polish and you hear the name Sapkowski, it’s like Tolkein in the West. It’s grim and contemporary, but dressed up in medieval clothing. There’s no clear distinction between good and evil, so it’s a bit like Game of Thrones,” Iwinski explains.

“It’s not the usual candy-like fantasy thing. Previously, almost all the PG games were candy-like, like Barbie World, ‘you’re the good guy, go kill the bad guy’. Here we treated a mature audience with respect. It was something new and exciting for them,” he says.

The launch of “Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” on May 19 is called by Adam Kicinski, CD Projekt’s chief executive, the most important event in CD Projekt’s 21-year history. “This marks the first time we have released a game for all leading hardware platforms simultaneously, in collaboration with the most prominent global distributors – we intend to make a really big splash,” he says.

Iwinski started the company with his high school friend Michal Kicinski. They were both passionate gamers, not easy to be in 1980s Poland when most shops didn’t even stock basic foodstuffs let alone personal computers. Iwinski’s father brought him a ZX Spectrum from Germany for Christmas along with games like "Atic Atac" and "Pssst". “I unpacked it and I was just so thrilled. I started playing the games like a madman,” Iwinski says.

In the early 1990s, he and Michal Kicinski began importing games from the US for their own use. One day they decided to try selling them at the local flea market.

The first challenge was to convince Polish gamers to buy legal games instead of the widely available and cheaper pirated versions, which were widespread. To differentiate themselves from the fakes they translated games into Polish, using famous actors for the voiceovers. They added collectible items such as books and maps. But sales really took off when they introduced a budget line of classic games in supermarket chains.

Hard times

Both men had always dreamed about creating their own game and in 2001 they set up their software development unit CD Projekt Red to develop “The Witcher”. It was a worldwide success, but difficult times lay ahead. They outsourced a project to develop a console version of the game to a French company and were unhappy with the results. They lost a lot of money and had to lay off staff.

Many who left went on to start up their own studios. Part of the reason for Poland’s gaming success is that computer programming does not require huge resources. Imagination, knowledge and time are more important. “It’s definitely helpful there are good universities and the programmers are among the crème de la crème of world programmers,” Iwinski says.

But Polish universities are just catching on to the trend and only recently started offering gaming courses, so the country lacks tech graduates. CD Projekt now employs more than 250 staff, but it has had to recruit overseas especially for designers, Iwinski says. English has replaced Polish as the company’s language.

Joining the EU and gaining access to a larger market was essential, and it allowed Poles to tap their entrepreneurial spirit, Iwinski says. “We were in the right place at the right time and we took advantage of the rapid changes in the country. We were lucky. We are hard working and very stubborn, we don’t give up in the face of difficulties. Right now the difficulties are how to break through in worldwide markets, how we address each of them, how we please gamers all around the world,” he says.

“During all this time the most important thing was our passion for games and the belief we really feel in what we are doing. We love what we do,” he adds.

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