The Gaming Culture of a City

12 May 2023

In 2016, I had my first encounter with Kraków’s gaming scene. Back then, I was a co-organiser of the Ars Independent Festival in Katowice, visiting the Digital Dragons conference – the largest B2B event in Central Europe.

By Jacek Wandzel

It was the place to play the latest independent games, listen to lectures by experts and most importantly – to do business. The cramped, charmingly old-fashioned Stara Zajezdnia hosted games from all over Poland. In smaller tents guests were feverishly accredited, while the largest one hosted lectures. At the afterparty I went out for a smoke and ended up next to John Romero, the co-creator of Doom: one of the best and most important games in history; what Sex Pistols was to punk, Doom was to shooters. It was a surreal experience, to say the least.

I was there not only to check out the latest games or to listen to and meet with interesting people, idols. I also wanted to see the gaming culture of a city where the industry had already taken its roots. Kraków felt like a place that had yet to cross a certain threshold of industry relevancy, but was very close.

I returned to DD in 2019 – no longer held at the Stara Zajezdnia, but at the ICE Kraków Congress Centre. The PCs had stopped clashing with brick and wood: they were now in a slender, modern glass-and-steel environment. There was more of everything: halls, games and guests, on both sides of the stage: while three years earlier 1100 people had visited Kraków, in 2019 there were about 2000. The atmosphere hadn't changed, though: it was still an unpretentious meeting of the Polish games industry, of mostly recognisable faces. However, these regulars were different, often working on more ambitious projects in larger companies or just for different employers.

This isn’t me bragging – back then, I wasn’t involved with Krakow Technology Park. Digital Dragons was simply part of the gaming ecosystem and thus a reflection of the industry’s growth, especially in Kraków. Growth that is still ongoing. In 2023, Kraków is much more important in the Polish games industry than even back in 2019. It places third in the country when it comes to the number of companies. This statistic only keeps rising thanks to the success of the already existing firms. Currently there are about 70 of them in Kraków – from small companies to massive ones, with hundreds of employees. These numbers will only grow; after all, that's the way things are: success always breeds more success, or at least, more attempts at it.

To make a long story very, very short, the history of the Polish games industry can be divided into two parts: before and after The Witcher. CD Projekt RED’s 2007 fantasy game was not our first critical and financial success; however, the interactive sequel to Geralt’s literary adventures was the turning point which helped spawn many other industry victories. It was as good a “Polish export” as oscypek, apples and the band Behemoth.

Soon, many teams proudly claiming to have “the makers of The Witcher” amongst their ranks started popping up. One could jokingly comment that it was easier to count those that didn't make such claims; but this fact only underscores the studio’s great influence, which was felt in Kraków, too. In 2013, CD Projekt RED opened its first branch outside of Warsaw right here. These two teams were the ones that created The Witcher 3: winner of over 200 “Game of the Year” awards and the 14th bestselling game of all time.

CD Projekt RED is not the only studio in the country to establish a forward base in Kraków. In fact, the capital of the Małopolska region isn’t just on the minds of Poles. In 2017, Infinity Ward – one of the largest and most important gaming companies on the global market ever to exist – opened a branch here. They’re responsible for the hit series Call of Duty, which dominates sales lists every year. Its latest instalment, Modern Warfare II, earned over 800 million dollars in three days; in comparison, Avatar: The Way of Water scored a “measly” 435 million. The Kraków branch serves a very interesting role in the company’s structure: this is where the tech powering the latest entries in the series gets made. The team is also working on a completely new title, divorced from Infinity Ward’s shooter roots; a sign of great trust being put in the Kraków branch.

However, the city isn’t just a place where you open up a branch. Video games have a longstanding tradition here: these were the headquarters of (the now defunct) TopWare Programy, later known as Reality Pump, fathers of the strategy game series Earth. In 1998, the Kraków-based studio Drago Entertainment was established – one of the first to catch the recent wave of demand for simulation games, by releasing the hit Gas Station Simulator in the pandemic’s second year. Many may find it surprising, but titles whose gameplay consists of mundane activities like harvesting crops, managing a gas station or fixing houses can be quite profitable. Their charm lies in that very mundanity: the ability to perform such tasks without the stress that tends to go along with them in real life can be quite relaxing.

Primarily, the last 15 years in Kraków have been about companies whose success had little to do with The Witcher. The first example were One More Level, the makers of Ghostrunner. In this cyberpunk game the player controls a cyber ninja, tasked with freeing a grim futuristic city from the yoke of its despotic rulers. Its neon aesthetic isn’t the only thing setting it apart. Another is its high level of difficulty: you die in one hit. Success requires you to train completely new reflexes. One More Level made a game very unforgiving toward a typical gamer, but the risk paid off. After critical (Best Polish Game at Digital Dragons!) and financial (500 000 copies sold within a week) success, the studio is currently working on a sequel and is on the path to becoming an industry leader in Poland.

The second Kraków success story was Bloober Team. Piotr Babieno’s group unexpectedly carved itself a niche in 2016 by releasing the horror game Layers of Fear. Bloober grew with every release, until it became a powerhouse in the genre. Getting their fingers in this pie wasn’t easy (interactive horror had always been a highly competitive genre), yet Bloober became a name respected globally. In 2021 they made Kraków the setting for their hit The Medium. With this uniquely “Polish” game, they have achieved their biggest commercial and critical success yet. In barely 24 hours it earned more than 7 million euros, recovering its budget; a year later it won Best Polish Game at Digital Dragons. Kraków’s studios just don’t give critics any other choice.

Polish creatives are growing ever more eager to utilise our native culture. Marek Markuszewski, one of the founders of CD Projekt RED Kraków, has opened his own studio „from the makers of The Witcher” for this very purpose. His Starward Industries is currently working on a project quite familiar to many citizens of Kraków: The Invincible, based on Stanisław Lem’s novel with the same title. It won’t be a “hard” adaptation of the text – the planet Regis III will be seen from the POV of astrobiologist Yasna: the player will learn through her eyes what happened on the planet, just like readers unfamiliar with Lem, only now discovering his legendary prose.

All this merely scratches the surface of what Kraków has to offer to the world of gaming. Interactive entertainment is growing in importance: the Krakow Film Music Festival has begun to appreciate video game music and has started to include it in its programme. Success of existing studios results in the opening of new ones; the Digital Dragons Incubator and Accelerator programmes give opportunities to creators who a few years ago wouldn’t have dreamt of releasing a game. KrakJam is organised here annually as part of the international Global Game Jam: the young, the old, amateurs, professionals and beginners gather to make games on a strict time limit. KrakJam is the largest such event in the country, having brought in about 200 participants this year. In the future, many of them will surely find themselves working on bigger projects. Kraków is also a growing research centre. Two scientific conferences were held here in 2015 and 2016, respectively: CEEGS (Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference) and GamesLit (Games and Literary Theory Conference), devoted to ludology and game studies. The city has also commissioned research into the games market of Kraków, the conclusions from which will surely result in the industry’s further growth.

I can’t promise that in a few years Digital Dragons will be able to directly reflect the growth of Kraków’s gaming. Last year we were visited by over 2300 guests. To catch up to the games industry, the event would have to be held not even in Tauron Arena Kraków, but on a cruiser floating over the city, not unlike those found in Lem’s prose.

Jacek Wandzel
Game industry specialist at Digital Dragons, coordinator of the Digital Dragons Awards, Indie Showcase and KrakJam competitions. Editor at Ustatkowany Gracz. He’s been into games since he was 6 years old and shows no signs of stopping.

Photo: KrakJam 2023 by Agata Kaputa, courtesy of Krakow Technology Park

The article published in the 1/2023 issue of “Kraków Culture” quarterly.



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