Stu­dio Pro­file

From pirate to pub­lisher: the Dy­ing Light maker re­flects on 25 years in the game

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY BEN GRIF­FIN

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

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