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Studio co-founder Marcin Iwiński and business development SVP Michal Nowakowski talk about what they've learned in growing CD Projekt Red from a one-game studio to an international powerhouse.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

January 27, 2015

13 Min Read

CD Projekt Red was established in 2002 to serve as the development arm of Polish game distributor CD Projekt, but from the beginning it only had eyes (and budget) for one game: The Witcher.

The success of that game spawned a franchise with global appeal, and CD Projekt Red has managed to scale up its operations to capitalize on that by producing what will soon be three main Witcher games and a slew of spinoff titles.

One of the most interesting traits of CDPR is the studio's penchant for sustained growth -- it's gone from roughly 100-strong at the outset to a headcount of 350 or so, growing steadily beyond "mid-size" during a time when so many mid-size independent studios were collapsing. What can other developers learn from CDPR's success, and how can they avoid repeating the studio's mistakes?

To shed light on the issue, Gamasutra sat down with studio co-founder and joint CEO Marcin Iwiński, as well as studio board member and SVP of business operations Michal Nowakowski, during a recent press event. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

You’re working on The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077, a Witcher board game, a free-to-play mobile MOBA...seems like y’all have expanded quite a bit in recent years.

Marcin: Yeah we have expanded, but the core is still The Witcher and Cyberpunk. We went from doing one project, on pretty much one platform -- Witcher 2 was first PC, then Xbox 360 a year later -- to doing fairly big multi-platform open-world games. I think that’s a huge change in our approach to production, and planning everything.

What is important is with Witcher 2 we’ve already set up the foundation; as you probably know, Witcher 1 was built on the Aurora engine, which we modified so heavily that by the end of the project it was like 90 percent our code, 10 percent original code. We learned a lot, but then with Witcher 2 we decided to do our own tech. We learned a lot there as well, so we were ready to go multi-platform with Witcher 3. It made our lives much easier, because we were able to focus on designing the game and creating an open, living world. We have our own tools for it, so putting the story in place...I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s much less difficult than it would have been if we’d tried to do it using third-party technology.

What was your biggest challenge in trying to build out your tech to handle that open world?

Michal: In my memory, the challenges started when we had to figure out how to be able to tell a really rich and long story in an open-world environment. It’s not an easy feat to achieve; even very successful open-world games have sometimes been weak in that respect.

Marcin: Yeah, we started with the concept by saying “hey, we want to take The Witcher out of chapters -- where it was divided into little islands of adventure, so to speak -- and take it to an open-world. Today we know this is doable on PS4 and Xbox One, but we made the decision when we had no idea what their specs would be; we were just guessing. So we decided to do the game with nothing but a hope that next-gen consoles could run it.

Michal: We were already a little over a year into development before we got official disclosure from Sony and Microsoft about the final hardware.

Marcin: And we were so relieved, because if they had been stingy on the RAM -- and there were those rumors that one of them added some RAM at the very last minute -- then it just wouldn’t run.

So from a strategic perspective, we set a goal and in our approach to development we never try to adjust what we’re doing to fit certain limitations. If the vision is there, we build to hit it. So we’re really happy that the consoles have the specs they have; could be a little bit more, but hey.

And now you're near the finish line, with other projects in the works. What’s your headcount these days?

Marcin: Right now around 450, out of which roughly 330-350 is [CD Projekt] Red.

Michal: It’s the peak right now, because we have some temporary QA. I don’t think we’ll be scaling down significantly though; as soon as this is done, another project sucks up our time.

Marcin: There’s always more ideas to work on than we have people for, yeah…

Michal: You like to laugh that we spend quite a lot of time killing ideas, actually!

As long as you don’t kill the people who are working on those ideas, that’s fine by me. So how do you handle growing the studio in a sustainable way?

Marcin: The core of the question is: how do you stay in business? And I think the answer to that is: we do business. That’s a very important part of our studio.

You of course have the whole creative aspect to game development, but then if you will not have the freedom or the funds, at a certain point you may find yourself doing things you don’t want to do or you may have to scale down and sacrifice to stay in business. With Michal, we’ve been very much focused to make sure that we self-publish, that we talk directly to gamers, and…

Michal: ...and that we shape all of our agreements to match what we say to our audience, all the “Gamers First” kind of rules we have. We even put it into our legal paperwork, to a certain degree.

Marcin: The best way to say it is, we are responsible for everything we are doing, so if for whatever reason a game doesn’t work we’ll take a bullet for it -- there’s no magical publisher shield to protect us from trouble.

But thanks to the fact that we are shaping our relationships and bringing our games directly to market, we have the creative freedom to develop what we like. Nobody is telling us what to do; we have partners, but nobody will come and say ‘Hey, Geralt has to be a female and an elf because of these focus tests.”

Michal: What I think you mean to say is, there’s quite a few small- to mid-size studios that are very focused on creative -- and I don’t want to say just creative, because of course the studio itself is the most important thing -- but by missing out on driving the business themselves, and doing their own PR and marketing, they are very often losing independence and sometimes pretty much the whole studio can be lost because some decisions have been made for them, not by them.

So this is why we feel this is important -- I feel that we have a rather unique mix of people combined in the studio, divided between creative and non-creative. 

Marcin: And it’s been an evolution, a gradual one. Originally, I started a games dsitribution hub in Poland with a friend from high school. It sounds like we were just shifting boxes, but we were really picking the games carefully, localizing the games for Poland, doing PR and marketing for them, that kind of stuff -- solving all kinds of stupid problems. 

And that knowledge remains, so when we started game dev we were thinking ‘Hey, how do we sell this game? How do we make an attractive proposal for the game?” And at the start with Witcher 1 we actually did have a publishing partner; we self-financed 80 percent of the game, but the last 20 was getting it to market because back in the day in 2007 there was practically no digital distribution.

So we know how the publishing world works, and I think developers these days...they do not realize how lucky they are that they can self-publish. 

So you think your roots as a distribution business better prepared you to survive as an independent studio?

Marcin: Yes, absolutely. Also, coming from Poland where the market was really growing as we were growing, and emerging out of socialism into early capitalism. Being creative, and looking for shortcuts.

Michal: It still pays off. There are regions of the world that are now economically where we were in Poland in the late ‘90s, and I think we’re better prepared to do business in these regions because we recognize certain patterns which are difficult for someone who has always been based in the U.S. or the U.K. to understand.

We hear things from our local partners in other regions that we understand and can respond to better because of our experience, and because we’re a small company and not a giant corporation.

I’d like to hear some specific examples of stupid problems you faced in the early days of distributing games in Poland.

Marcin: When we started distribution, our first stupid problem was that there were no game stores in Poland; we were dealing with wholesalers. We didn’t have software to print invoices, so we were writing them by hand. We were packaging the packages ourselves and there were no courier companies in Poland, so were delivering games in our small Fiat to the train station and shipping them via train.

I don’t want to say it’s like working up the ladder at McDonald’s, but it’s kind of like that; we’ve done a lot of these things ourselves, so we know how it tastes.

We go with Michal regularly on retail tours to show our games to retailers. We know how retail works, we know how retail thinks, so I think that makes us the best guys to excite them about our game.



So you guys go directly to retailers in other countries?

Marcin: We don’t sit on our butts comfortably in Poland, if that's what you mean. We try to be the ones to speak about our own game, because we stand behind the game and we believe in it. This is also very important, I think.

A recent GDC survey suggested most developers want to get their games into foreign regions like Western Europe, China and Japan. Any advice you can share on how to do that well?

Michal: It’s quite simple -- we go to all these places. We spent 24 months traveling literally the whole world, trying to go everything.

Marcin: I mean of course we do proper research first; it’s not like ‘Hey, let’s go to Bangladesh!’

Michal: We look for markets with histories of success, we analyze what was behind that success, then we go down there physically and try to speak with local retailers and local offices for Sony and Microsoft. We even meet with local media in a place like Brazil and ask them about what does well in their region.

Just to give you an example: we went out to the Middle East, and basically there is a booming market there. The games that have started selling are mostly racing games and sports games, mostly console-centric; not a lot of people play PCs down there, and everyone tells us that our game won’t do well there because RPGs don’t sell.

But we remember that back in Poland in the ‘90s, games like RPGs weren’t selling because they were in English and not many people spoke English; they spoke Polish.

Marcin: And there was a lot of text so they don’t understand it, they don’t buy the game…

Michal: Nobody bothered to localize games into Polish because Western companies saw that nobody was buying their games in Poland…

Marcin: It was like a vicious circle.

Michal: Exactly. And that was exactly what was happening in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia and Dubai and the other emirates. So we started telling retailers there that text-heavy games won’t be enjoyable if you can’t understand them; it’s different with racing games or shooting games, you don’t need a proper understanding of the language to enjoy them.

We found a partner that actually believed us, and now we’ve actually already finished our Arabic localization -- just the text layer, because there’s so many variations of spoken Arabic that it would be difficult to get the VO right. I believe that region is about to get the first test ever for a localized game of this scope, and we’re getting a fantastic response from the Arabic players so far.

Marcin: I think we have 15 localized versions so far, and this comes from our experience in Poland. I was personally knocking on doors for several years before I started localizing games, and one of the first ones I was doing myself was Baldur’s Gate.

So when I sit in a meeting and someone is saying “no it won’t work, it doesn’t make good sense,” I ask questions and I very quickly realize they probably don’t understand what they’re talking about. Sometimes I will advise them about what we did in our home market and they seem surprised.

Michal: Plus we’re not afraid to take risks ourselves, which to be fair I think may be very difficult for developers at larger corporations where decisions are spread across many different people and departments. It’s easier for us because we’re small, and in our meetings we can just make quick decisions.

And I don’t want people reading this to be like “hey these guys have money, they can afford it but we can’t.” You don’t have to do everything; Witcher 1 initially had maybe...six or eight language versions? And there just weren’t many other studios who were doing that for RPGs at the time.

Just look at the markets, look where you have funds and you have promising feedback. Maybe it makes no sense for you and your game, but if it does I think it will make a huge difference.

We had the first RPG that was fully localized into Brazilian Portuges with full VO; nobody had done that before, and it worked out great. I went to BGS, the Brazilian Game Show, and people seemed genuinely really excited that we cared about them.

Marcin: You don’t have to start by traveling the world; you might not be able to afford that if you’re from a small studio. There are smaller steps you can take. 

If you’re from the U.S., go to Gamescom! You’ll find out a lot about Europe. Frankly speaking, Europe is a very challenging market itself; it’s like the size of the U.S. and you have so many different languages and cultures and retailers and...it’s tricky. But it’s a good place to start.

Does it pay off? How does all this investment in localization and VO pay off in terms of sales?

Marcin: Yes. Yes, to a great extent. It’s not just sales either; it’s building the brand, and laying a foundation. A great example of going local very effectively is Blizzard; I always admire what they’re doing, and they’re one of the key Western companies that are being successful in China.

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