A success story written in pixels

Poland’s capital is home to a growing video games industry. A look at the city and its inhabitants reveals: Video games are much more than a sheer pastime. They are a modern cultural artifact and a contribution to overall economical growth.

‘We are a growing community. The popularity of video gaming in Warsaw is rising steadily’, says Filip Batogowski, an employee at World Games and Consoles, a small video game shop in Warsaw. He glances at all the shelves filled with countless video games, including notorious titles such as Battlefield, Grand Theft Auto, Uncharted or The Witcher.

The store is situated in Mirów, a neighborhood in the centre of modern Warsaw. The streets nearby are filled with finance buildings and luxurious skyscrapers. In the middle of this landscape, an old building with a small door pops up.

The inside of ‘World Games and Consoles’ in the center of Warsaw

The entry to the store does not reveal much of what is inside. In order to get to Filip’s counter, one has to take narrow, scruffy stairs to the first floor of an old building. Behind an ordinary wooden door, Batogowski – skinny, dark-headed, and a bit pale due to the lack of sunlight in the room – greets his customers. Although the entrance is not easy to find, the store does have a large clientele.

“We have a lot of buyers here. There are certainly many gamers out there in Warsaw. Obviously, most of them are male teenagers. But we have seen a rise in female gamers and older gamers as well,” he explains.

Like most of his friends in Warsaw, Batogowski has a huge passion for video games. “I remember my very first gaming console. It was an old Nintendo console.” Nowadays he enjoys more sophisticated titles ­– especially role-player-games, so-called RPGs, action games, and online games.

And although Poland’s gaming community (an impressive 13 million gamers, a third of the country’s total population) has access to all of the world’s video game titles, it has not always been as easy to have a grasp on them in the past. And this has to do with Poland’s history.

A humble origin story

The country’s path to today’s flourishing gaming culture is a rocky one. In the Soviet era, imports from western countries were banned. And for most gamers, the Russian developers did not produce as appealing titles as their western counterparts.

But shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, video game fans began importing games from Europe, Asia and the United States. It was the first step towards opening the markets to western imports, but often the games still lacked in quality. They were distributed without license and without Polish translations.

“There was a lot of exchange going on. We used to buy used games, which often were fake or cracked, meaning they were pirated,” Batogowski remembers. But this changed during the 2000s. As Poland decided to join the European Union in 2004, games became cheaper and more affordable. This paved the way for developers to create their own games.

A more regulated market sure contributed to a higher quality in sold games and to a better overall gaming experience.  “Today, gamers prefer to buy original copies of the games over pirated ones,” observes Batogowski. He also notes that the PlayStation 4 console has gained more and more popularity.

A matter of politics…

Following an increase in sales and revenues, politicians have started to look at videogames in a different way, seeing that there is potential to this new art form on a national –but especially on an international level. A creative industry, comparable to the Polish film industry.

The government has given the green light to a series of special financial project for developers, which were set in consultation with the Polish Games Association (PGA), the representative of the Polish video game industry. The PGA consists of board members employed in the industry.

And although their functions do resemble those of an NGO, the members explicitly insist that they distance themselves from politics and do not actively try to involve in lobbying.

… and numbers

GAME INN is the most recent and the most notorious funding project. In 2016, the Ministry of Science and its minister, Jaoslaw Gowin, granted a total of 116 million polish zloty, almost 28 million euros, for various game developers across Poland. In 2017, the amount was slightly less: 100 million zloty, around 23 million euros. This support scheme is aimed to be continued in the years to come.

For the most part, the funds were provided by the Intelligent Development Operational Program, a project co-financed by EU funds and part of the European Regional Aid.

The investment in the electronic arts department is also in accordance with Poland’s ‘Smart Growth Programme’ which would see an ideal spending of 1.7 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Some critics have comprehensively noted, that the European funds could have gone to other areas of innovation considering that video games are no more than a form of entertainment, not essential to health and social needs.

Furthermore, most of the fund’s money went to bigger developers, such as the fantasy video game developer CD PROJEKT RED, which namely received a grant of 30 million zloty in 2016 alone, and which would seem unnecessary to many critical voices seeing the company’s high revenue due to international sales.

Although it is often thought that most of those funds went to bigger developers PGA calculated that the split is almost equal between micro and small companies (they have the numbers) vs medium and big firms (they have the size).

The PGA states that, although smaller companies and start-ups could use the money, more often they fail and would waste a large part or the entirety of the grant without enhancing the industry, thus making their funding obsolete.

The PGA notes that, grant institutions like National Center of R&D or EU’s Creative Europe tend to look at start-ups less favorably because they often have no proven track record of previous achievements. This translates to higher risk and probability that such funding would go to waste.

According to PGA, industry members are now campaigning at various events in order to raise further awareness. The next step would be to impose special tax relief programs for developers, similar to those experienced in the United Kingdom or other European countries. The industry aims at a tax cut of 19 percent on eligible production costs.

A Polish Pride

Batogowski and his fellow gamers share a passion for one particular type of video games: RPGs, short for Role-Player-Games. And there are quite a number of games in this genre. Upon asking which one is his favourite, Batogowski does not have to think about it for a moment. ‘The Witcher 3!’ he smiles.

The Witcher 3 is not only the most acclaimed RPG worldwide, it is a product of Poland’s gaming industry. It is the country’s most notorious example of success in this field. And there are a couple of reasons why.  

“The Witcher 3 is produced in Poland. My friends play it. I play it. It is extremely popular in Warsaw.” The video game’s main character Geralt of Rivia and his story arc were based on a series of novels by well-known Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

It was a smart decision to adapt an already well-known fantasy series into a video game.

Though the game’s success has quickly passed the books, so far that there is the saying amongst young polish gamers: It was not the video game production company, CD Projekt Red, to adapt The Witcher into a game, but rather Sapkowski adapting the game into a book.

But for Batogowski, the fact that The Witcher was created in Poland is not the sole reason for liking the game. In fact, as many other game fanatics, it is the game’s quality that has caught his interest. “Other fantasy RPGs like Skyrim are enjoyable. But the Witcher is by far better than Skyrim. Everything about it.”

It can be noticed, that games are slowly gaining the same attention and appreciation as other art forms. Gamers like Batogowski do not look at video game as popular pastime, they rather see their artistic value in it. They appreciate games as a form of art.

And as many other young passionate gamers in Poland and all around the world, Batogowski will continue to enjoy video games. He will do so while continuing to work in a hidden gaming store in midst the capital of Poland.