Poland's world-beating video game industry, by Tristan Rutherford
Metro, January 2018
Poland’s world-beating video game industry has inspired a new Netflix show and leads a major event in Washington, D.C. this January. But it had a low tech start.
“Under communism we couldn’t visit our European neighbours. Let alone the United States,” says Maciej Matyka, a physics professor at Wroclaw University. “So computers imported by Polish relatives, like Commodore’s VIC-20 or Amiga, became our passports to another world.”
Cassette games were posted from abroad. Radio stations broadcast squeaks of code, which could be recorded then played as video games. In lean times users had to develop their own titles using rudimentary code. In this socialist network, the seeds of Poland’s coding revolution were sown.
Out of a population of 39 million, 12 million Poles are now gamers – nearly a third of the nation. Each spends $65 per year on video games, 30% of that on mobile.
Those figures are dwarfed by global sales. The Polish gaming business nets 95% of its revenue from exports abroad – as PlayStation discs, Xbox games, PC downloads or mobile apps.
The most successful of these is The Witcher from leading Polish developer CD Projekt. A phantasmagoric cross between Game of Thrones and Tolkien's The Hobbit, the game’s most recent version clocked millions of sales per week, topping charts in most of the 100 countries it was released in.
Like other Polish creations, The Witcher is as intelligent as it is entertaining. Our hero Geralt of Rivia (imagine a morally ambiguous Thor with Donatella Versace’s hair) conducts insightful conversations with zombiefied children. Years were devoted to voice recordings alone, while the movie-style soundtrack was recorded in Germany by the Brandenburg State Orchestra.
In short, gameplay isn’t only about slashing orcs with swords, although The Witcher has its fair share of blood, mud and homicide. The writer of fantasy drama Daredevil, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, signed up to produce a series of the show for Netflix.
Dr Matyka claims that tech teaching has placed Poland in the global gaming league. “Our math, computing and physics courses are genuinely among the best in the world.” In the global HackerRank, a worldwide programming league table, Krakow's Jagiellonian University comes a close second to a Russian science school, far ahead of Cal Berkeley, Georgia Tech or any Chinese and Indian colleges.
The economics of Eastern Europe also assist Poland’s 330 game development firms. The average Polish salary is $900 per month. It’s $3,300 in the US. Entrance to Poznań Game Arena, one of Europe’s
largest and most riotous video game festivals, costs $7. Tickets for the more sedate PAX gaming event in Boston cost $53.
Poland also hosts the Intel Extreme Masters, the largest eSports event in the world. Here combined crowds of 100,000 spectators watch players battle over a $750,000 purse in a digital universe during a three-day geek fest, held in the city of Katowice.
The Embassy of Poland in Washington, D.C. evidently sees video games as an export star. That’s why it’s flying Dr Matyka and his computing colleague Grzegorz Juraszek to MagFest this January.
The offbeat tech fiesta features video musicians and gaming historians, as well as demoscene demonstrations. The latter is the art of producing audio-visual shows on basic computers using the rawest of code. And Juraszek is a demoscene demigod.
The demoscene movement has its roots in the pre-WiFi world of home computing – the programmable IBMs and Amigas that Poles were still using when the US had the latest Nintendo consoles.
The same anti-establishment ethos is purveyed by Indie gaming companies in Poland’s leading tech cities Warsaw and Krakow. A case in point is This War of Mine by 11 bit studios, released to global acclaim on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One last year.
Based on the Siege of Sarajevo in 1990s Bosnia, the strategy game controls civilians dodging hunger, snipers and other atrocities in a war-torn city. UK newspaper The Guardian called it "gruelling but beautiful". Like the rest of Poland’s most intelligent industry, it’s a long way from the thoughtless slaughterfest of Call of Duty.
Kathryn and Tristan regularly write travel stories about Eastern Europe for The Times and the Daily Teleraph