From pirate to publisher: the Dying Light maker reflects on 25 years in the game
Polish studio Techland reflects on Dead Island, Dying Light and 25 years in the development game
The development of Dying Light hit a brick wall in 2013. Several, in fact – the game’s parkour system, which hinged on level designers creating each scalable structure with a marker, was laborious. And it wasn’t until the team had placed its 50,000th marker that a better solution was found: frustrated, programmer Bartosz Kulon came in one weekend and performed some technical wizardry that allowed the climbing of anything in the world, marker-free.
After Dead Island’s patchiness – the progress-halting bugs, the AI freezes, the constant whiff of a studio struggling to punch above its weight – the studio suddenly had an unimpeded path to success. It was a much-needed breakthrough; despite Dead Island’s monstrous commercial success – five million copies were sold in its first three years on the shelves – and the subsequent growth of the studio, the game’s reception hit the team hard.
“[We got] the feeling we weren’t a respected studio,” Techland producer Tymon Smektała tells us. “Dead Island was a game created by an unknown studio from Poland and was one of the best sellers of its year, but because people didn’t know who we were, they focused on all of the things that we did wrong. We didn’t know how to communicate with people to explain who we are and what we’re trying to achieve.”
It would be another five years until the release of Dead Island’s blood relative, open-world zombie survival game Dying Light. And the public’s dim view of the studio initially persisted.
“A lot of people were quite negative towards Techland,” says Paul Milewski, the studio’s head of PR and marketing. “They had a set opinion and they wouldn’t budge on that. The success of Dying Light and the playability of the game helped prove them wrong, but then our postrelease support swayed a lot more people. All of sudden you had players saying, ‘You guys actually don’t treat us like a pay cheque.’”
Smektała believes that Techland has become much more adept at cultivating its fanbase. “Giving stuff away for free is one way to foster that, but it’s also important to us to have that communication because we want people to understand that we’re good people making games and doing our best.”
That spirit is exemplified by Kulon’s voluntary weekend tinkering, a sense of loyalty helped along by the inherent fun of specialising in games about zombie dismemberment. On tables lay limp silicon appendages, and all manner of melee weapons, including baseball bats, sledgehammers and golf clubs, stand propped up in corners. To record the sounds of broken bones, Techland’s audio designer entered his one-man booth and spent all day focused on the grisly task of breaking shin bones, procured from the local butcher, in a vice. And for the sound of vehicular crashes several employees visited a nearby scrapyard and asked the owner to drop cars from a crane. He happily obliged.
One playtester recalls a run-in with the law when he was picking up his girlfriend from the airport. Noticing him parked in the wrong bay, a policeman tapped on his window and asked him to open his car’s boot. Looking inside, the officer immediately reached for his sidearm. The developer had forgotten that his car was loaded with knives and katanas. Fortunately, there were no body parts to go with them.
You get the impression that this hardy Polish studio could withstand an actual undead apocalypse, too. “We really support each other and we really care about what we do,” Smektała says. “If someone has problems achieving what they need to achieve, there’ll always be someone willing to help him.”
But this familial team all started with one person. As a teenager, CEO Paweł Marchewka would visit Sunday markets in Wrocław to buy Amiga games on floppy disk, which he would then duplicate and sell himself. Polish copyright laws – or, more accurately, the lack of them – made the activity entirely legal. “I needed some money because I was in secondary school, so I went to a shop and said, ‘Hey, I’m selling games for Commodore Amiga – might you be interested?’ That’s how I started. Then I went to another two or three shops in my town… The opportunity was very obvious.”
Marchewka hired staff and secured office space in Wrocław’s centre, graduating from travelling game salesman to company head. Techland was born, but trouble was coming.
Intellectual property rights emerged and Techland found itself under threat. “They announced that within two years there would be copyright laws in place,” Marchewka says. “We were delivering to 30 or 40 shops, so we said to everyone, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll replace all our products with freeware and public domain games six months before [the laws come in]’.”
The company had also begun importing games from the UK, buying their licences, then translating them into Polish and distributing them. Techland was safe for now, but operating on a business model that cost ten times more than the previous one. So in 1994 Marchewka decided to cut out the middle man and turn Techland into a fully fledged game development studio.
It was quite a leap. “[The change] was difficult,” Marchewka recalls. “Nobody really knew how to make games.”
Ignoring this trifling issue, the studio pressed on, improving with each release. By 2000, with the release of the Blade Runner-inspired
Crime Cities, the studio was confident it had made the right decision. “We caught up to the market,” Marchewka says. “We were 30 people then, and it was quite an advanced game.”
Despite this progress, Techland’s most
“IT WAS ONE OF THE BEST SELLERS OF ITS YEAR, BUT PEOPLE FOCUSED ON ALL THE THINGS THAT WE DID WRONG”
lucrative release at the time wasn’t a game at all, but a language-translation tool. Profits from those sales allowed the team to concentrate on its passions, leading to games such as Chrome (2003), Xpand Rally (2004), Call Of Juarez (2006) and Nail’d (2010). Meanwhile, Techland also kept up its publishing arm, putting out Sniper
Elite V2, Payday 2 and The Walking Dead in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Techland’s somewhat premature birth into the world of blockbusters came in 2010, when the hype generated by Axis Animation’s moving Dead Island trailer clattered into the reality of what was a poorly optimised game. Despite Dead Island’s tremendous sales, creative differences with publisher Deep Silver – which owned the IP – prompted Techland to cut ties and team up with Warner Bros. Thanks to the negotiation of better terms, Dying Light generated much more revenue for the company, despite shitfing similar numbers.
Today the studio is twice the size it was when making Dead Island, and siginificantly more credible in the eyes of both consumers and critics. Those additional resources, and the increased appeal, have placed Techland in an ideal position to develop young talent – and the studio’s already benefitting from that relationship. “A bunch of university students came in for a month and we were like, ‘Well, what do you guys want to try to do?’” Milewski says. “They basically replicated Don’t Starve in Dying Light. Now we’re going to release it after The
Following, so we have time to do justice to what these, essentially, kids put together for us.”
The studio also hosts game jams which, as well as fostering the creative spirit within the studio, provide a good way to meet potential employees and absorb new ideas. Game director Adrian Ciszewski compares it to Ubisoft’s internal experiments, which gave rise to games such as Grow Home. “We’re doing [something similar], but only on paper right now,” he says. “We’re designing a lot of different things. Sometimes they’re just small games; sometimes they’re big, big ideas.”
Techland now has studios in Warsaw and Vancouver, and a finance hub in Ostrów. Its main premises in Wrocław sport several chillout areas designed to inspire creativity (each also referred to as a confessional, suggesting an absolution of past game development sins), and inspirational quotes from the likes of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs adorn the walls alongside others from employees (‘This evening I’m going to be incapacitated’, reads one example).
The studio’s new-found success comes at a cost, however, and some longer-serving staffers rue the loss of the community spirit that defined its early years. “It used to be one floor in the city centre, and it was like 50 people, and we all knew each other,” says Ciszewski, now in his 12th year at Techland. “It was a family. Now it’s hundreds of people, and it’s really hard to know everyone’s name, everyone’s face.”
An inevitable result of the additional manpower required to produce a game such as Dying Light, perhaps, but a price most seem willing to pay. And while the operation is considerably larger these days, it’s far from a faceless corporation. Ciszewski, Smektała, Marchewka and Milewski all use the word ‘family’ to describe the team.
Techland is one of the industry’s strangest success stories, then, growing from a one-man disk-copying operation to a world-renowned developer. And while the studio initially experimented with genres in the same way it did business models – dabbling in arcadey quadbike racers, western firstperson shooters and even the world of colourful 3D platformers – it seems to have found its calling in the land of the undead. Dead Island and Dying Light have given the company some breathing room to focus on hiring additional talent, building goodwill with fans, and developing new ideas.
So what’s next? Everyone we talk to has a slightly different view, but they all share the same unchecked enthusiasm and ambition that has driven the company from the start. “We have three studios, so maybe we’ll create three games,” Ciszewski offers. “That’s doable in our current position but, still, it’s 99 per cent [certain] we’ll stick with zombies.”
Smektała? “We might not have the resources of other high-profile studios but we’re getting there. So people should wait for our next game with crossed fingers and huge expectations.”
And finally CEO Marchewka: “In general, I think open-world games, mainly in firstperson, will be our main direction for the next five years at least. I can’t see a reason to change it.”
Given the studio’s experience and now robust tech, that makes sense. But if there’s one thing Techland has proven, it’s that it’s perfectly prepared – and able – to adapt.
“OPEN VIRTUAL-WORLD GAMES, MAINLY IN FIRSTPERSON, WILL BE OUR MAIN DIRECTION FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS”
FROM LEFT CEO Paweł Marchewka and game director Adrian Ciszewski have been at Techland for 30 years combined
ABOVE In one of Techland’s larger spaces there’s a team of ten working on VR projects. LEFT One of the rare examples of a conservative working area. Disembodied rubber limbs, moulting Christmas trees and 1:1 cardboard zombie cutouts are just out of shot