Polish gamers and developers are in a very good place right now. The gaming industry in Poland grew from US$280 million in 2014 to US$400 million in 2015, as reported by Newzoo. Practically overnight, the country became a huge and important powerhouse for both AAA and indie game development. If you don't know, this is where games like This War of Mine, Shadow Warrior, The Witcher, and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 are from. With an accessible system of education ranked #10 in the world, it's not a surprise Poland would eventually turn this amazing workforce into a top-notch industry.
As we wanted to learn more about what's going in Poland, we talked to Dominik Głowacki, head of the Polish game retailer Kinguin Indie Valley. He has been an active player in the game industry for many years. He started as a gaming journalist at Hyper+ TV - the biggest video games TV channel in Western Europe, a job that "fulfilled my dream of making a living by doing what I love", he says. As a journalist, he has also hosted his own gaming culture cast and interviewed industry’s professionals for the gaming press. He is proud to say that he has talked to Jonathan Blow (the creator of Braid, known as the precursor of the indie movement) and Jessica Curry, who is the founder of the Chinese Room and the author of the breakthrough narrative game Dear Esther. On the Internet, Dominik was also one of the heads of 1ndieWorld, allegedly the biggest Polish website focused on independent games.
Dominik also has an academic approach to games. He claims to consider "games as full-fledged works of culture. Their hybrid nature and capabilities sparked [his] interest in game studies. The result was [his] thesis on the evolution of ludology, terminological intricacies, the most thoroughly examined areas of the gaming medium, such as immersion, and the influence of theorists on developers and players". After that, he co-created the Indie Basement conference/contest at Pixel Heaven in Warsaw, where he managed to connect to many Polish indie developers.
That was when he thought it was about time to switch sides. Instead of covering the industry as a journalist, he started offering consulting services, mock reviews, and marketing strategies for video game studios. Finally, he settled down in Kinguin as Indie Valley’s business developer. "This is where my knowledge and experience could meet my undying fascination with extravagant, unconventional indies", he says.
IndieWatch - Why do you think Poland's game development industry is doing so well?
Dominik: It’s not like something’s just clicked one day and here we are. It was a process. I’d say there’s always been a massive potential in the Polish scene, even in the 80s. It’s actually quite amazing considering the fact that the access to technology was shockingly limited under the Soviet rule. Still, there were people getting an Atari or Commodore, usually brought from West Germany, and they were obsessed with coding. This is how our legendary creators started. Adrian Chmielarz (the one behind Painkiller, Bulletstorm and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter) was one of the guys who first explored programming at that time. People who today run some of the biggest Polish studios were selling bootleg C64 tapes neatly arranged on a portable sunbed in 1990 (when bootlegging was still legal).
So yeah, creativity was there. One of the first big Polish hits, a point-and-click game Tajemnica Statuetki (The Mystery of the Statuette), was made by basically two guys out of photos they took on a trip to France. One of the first Polish FPS games, Target, was simply awful. It was made in the vein of Doom by guys who at the time knew nothing about game design. But here, Target was really something, because it was ours.
And today, we have studios that make quality games like Shadow Warrior because Poles are used to taking what they have and trying to make the best out of it. We’ve learned everything the hard way. We didn’t waste resources. We didn’t try to meet the requirements of a publisher who did a study that said there has to be this or that in order to make the game attractive to the target audience. There were no mentors available, we had no schools of programming.
And you can see how Polish titles evolved and managed to keep their unique character originated in the age of experimentation. Dying Light 2 (from Techland) and Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt RED) gathered the biggest interest from gamers and media on E3 and recently such titles like Frostpunk or Moonlighter got to the top of the sales chart on Steam. And really, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, as Serial Cleaner, Observer, Layers of Fear, 60 Seconds, Superhot, Beat Cop, mobile Timberman or loudly announced World War 3 from Get Even and Chernobyl VR developers are also polish gaming gems.
Today, the Polish gaming market is getting bigger and bigger, and we have ambitions to compete with Germany or England without any insecurities. Now, more than a hundred indie studios intensely and seriously create games in Poland, while attending professionally organized events like Poznań Game Arena with Game Industry Conference, Digital Dragons, or Pixel Heaven. They have exposure and networking possibilities like no others before them. Some public and private universities already started to offer game studies and specializations, and with the government’s support, Indie Games Foundation delegates developers to foreign events.
So a lot of good work is done right here.
Furthermore, with plenty of tutorials and tools available online, getting into the industry has never been as easy, so the game developers community became less hermetic, too. We cooperate strongly with each other and share valuable know-how and case studies to inspire people seeking innovation. We have been also fighting tirelessly to get the status of a full-fledged representant of our culture, mostly combating the mass media, which has pigeonholed video games as a cultural backwater, claiming them to be a potentially addictive medium full of immature stories. Nevertheless, a creative approach, determination, perseverance and courage of Polish developers made us proud of such globally recognized games like Witcher, Call of Juarez or This War of Mine. And that’s the whole story.
IndieWatch - What is Indie Valley about? How long has it been around?
Dominik: The idea to make Indie Valley a separate entity existing within the Kinguin marketplace focused solely on providing independent developers marketing support and exposure, came about in late 2016. The store opened in January 2017, however, I took its reins only in September 2017.
IndieWatch - What value do you think Kinguin Indie Valley brings to the indie game scene?
Dominik: For an indie developer, participating in Indie Valley means retaining full control over their game. Thanks to Indie Valley independent creators become official publishers of their products, manage all prices and price reductions on their own, and - what’s most important - reach directly the +7M Kinguin customer base, without any corporate middlemen.
We live in the age of Indie Apocalypse, when a lot of valuable productions, with innovative gameplay, electrifying narration or design, fade into obscurity when faced with a constant stream of triple-A mainstream titles. Titles that are often imitative and safely kept to a well-known formula, but at the same time have a huge marketing machine behind them.
We also live in the age of Indie Paradox. Indie creators willingly surrender their independence and cooperate with publishers, who take over decision making on the level of finances, sales, and often game direction itself.
Indie Valley’s mission is to return creators their independence while offering free promotional support among all channels of communication we use. Our partner developers take part in free and frequent sales campaigns, increasing their games’ exposure. The exclusivity of sales (no other merchant can offer their games on the marketplace) and unrivaled revenue share gives them a chance to maximize their profits.
IndieWatch - Why is Indie Valley better than other stores out there?
Dominik: I appreciate all digital stores that want to support independent creators. However, indies should be aware that by diversifying their sales with Indie Valley, they get a unique chance to sell directly while keeping full control over their product. They can create offers themselves and upload keys - as many of them as they need at any given moment. This makes Indie Valley more akin to e-commerce platforms than stores. It’s not me who sells the games. It’s not Kinguin. Independent studios do it themselves while getting additional exposure, such as being featured in a newsletter we send to millions of our users.
Moreover, in Indie Valley developers see their sales numbers in real time. Using this data, they can optimize they pricing policy and offer more than any other online store while getting a better revenue share. At any moment they can cash out their accumulated capital. Everything is quick, easy and clear.
You seem to have very competitive prices. Can you give us an example of a popular game whose price at your store right now is better than in the competition?
The prices are indeed competitive at Indie Valley - thanks to the independent creators, who successfully combine their high market awareness with the freedom of choice. The most attractive prices, of course, are available when we do a dedicated or real-time marketing campaign like we did for TopWare classics or ESport Manager. At those times we suggest that the indies lower their prices as much as they can, so the ads we provide have the highest possible conversion rate. If a price stops being attractive to consumers - perhaps because the developer forgot to update it - we provide advice and try to encourage our partner to act.
IndieWatch - Why should a developer sell their games in your store?
Dominik: Imagine you are an independent game developer. You pour your heart into your project, sacrifice sleep and social life, and make it to the finish line. Great, but what’s next? You made a cool game, but no one’s heard of it. Not many indies have a budget for marketing, and while you can score a bullseye on social media and just get noticed, it’s not a common situation. There’s a lot of indies out there and everyone wants gamers’ attention.
So, will you go to a publisher? Some indies do, even before release, just to secure the financing and finish their project. But if you do it, the publisher will have the last word. He could request significant changes to your work, which creates a paradox where some indies actually lose their independent status in order to get their games on the market. Not to mention that under a publisher, they don’t have a say about the pricing policy. You could try to sell your game anywhere, I guess, but without exposure, how far do you think you’ll go?
We’ve created Indie Valley precisely to let indie creators overcome these issues. Here, we give you a platform designed for this type of games only. Join, and you are the boss. You put out the CD keys. You control the prices. You bow to no one. And you get exposure.
We give you access to Kinguin’s +7M customer base, as well as our marketing support. Your games will be featured in sales campaigns, promoted in social media. There are no additional middlemen between you and gamers. Still, you keep the control, and this is why you can only gain.
IndieWatch - Based on your experience, what do you think to be the worst mistake a game developer could do while trying to promote their game? What are the most important things he should do to prevent such mistakes and successfully sell a game?
Dominik: Let’s remember that in order to spark gamers’ interest, you need have something worth talking about. You should consider it as early as in the concept stage. Developers often compare their ideas to things that are already out there, but in my opinion, saying that your game is like this other game is like giving up your parental rights.
There’s a lot of games founded on rehashed ideas, so it’s good to add a twist to your game. Create something never seen before and describe it with a single sentence that opens the gamers’ minds and sells your idea. Use it as your marketing slogan. The developers of SUPERHOT - who come from Łódź, a city in Poland, by the way - presented their prototype as “An FPS game where time moves only when you move”. It told you absolutely everything you needed to know and it was extremely intriguing.
We live in an age of social media and iconography, in the midst of infotainment and tabloidization, in a consumer society craving entertainment but overwhelmed by information. We are constantly distracted by new messages and it’s very hard to get our attention, so when you have hundreds of games released every day globally, a perfectly edited trailer is the ideal tool. Holistic advertising also requires a well-designed website showcasing the game’s features, as well as your presence among gamers - in communities, at gaming events (which should be considered milestones in your marketing strategy and development process).
And this is just a drop in the ocean.
Thanks for your time and questions!