Why have you decided to establish your own studio?
I wanted to have the possibility to use all of my competences. I had a clear vision of the project and I wanted to bring it to life. I reached out to a group of friends of mine, all working in the best game studios like CD Projekt RED, Platige Image, Flying Wild Hog, Techland and CI Games, and I set out to work. While going through private developer groups I found other passionate people and that is how BEAST came to life. There are many people with experience and an impressive resume on the market. You just have to know where to look and have an original idea for a game.
What do you think about the current situation of the game dev industry in Poland?
Making games is not that hard these days. There are many talented people who are just beginning their careers and would like to be a part of the GameDev. The problem is that there are few who can want to train them. Gaming companies usually require many years of experience and employers are rarely willing to send their students to courses like the Game Dev School in Warsaw. They prefer to wait until some other studio educates them so that they can recruit them after the fact. There are relatively few experienced developers in Poland. Most of them is "acquired" by foreign studios. Those who, for some reason, decide to stay in Poland are actually bouncing around from place to place. Every day you hear someone change studios because they received a better offer. All work benefits have become a standard. The same as working in a modern high-rise. All of dev studios in Poland have the same problems: crunch. Bad management or no money. Those with experience agree in unison: there are not many places where you can do what everybody got into GameDev for – making great games.
Games are our passion. If someone is not a gamer they are not going to make games. Playing games is mandatory for us, like having a Master's degree in other professions. Because games are our passion, we would like to do them with passion. We are those lucky few who get to mix business with pleasure. When you are into the project, hard, you don't feel as if you're working. And we spend more than half of our lives at work. And now let's imagine a situation where someone competent goes to work in their field and finally feels that they are about to do what they always wanted to do, even agrees on a lower salary just to get the foot in the door and then gets a dull project where they have nothing to say because the production is run by the marketing department, the boss has no idea how to make a good game, and those in key positions do not have an opinion of their own.
In such circumstances, as it is easy to see, such a game lover can quickly realize that they are surrounded by burnt-out people who are stuck in gilded cages with no way out. They seem to have everything, because those who fight get raises, but on the other hand… they've got nothing. Holidays? Forget about it, there's a milestone to deliver (even though we all know it's gonna get moved) and so on. It's rare to find a studio planning for such things as holidays, time off, people getting sick or any number of random events that may happen. Everything is planned backwards – we need to release the game in a year because there is no money. That is how a typical polish game developing "corporation" looks like.
The document appear only at the beginning – for investors and the publisher. The timeline and the budget are often blurry which results in a "free-for-all" and "squeezing the life out of people". In such cases it is clear to see that the project is too big and there is a delay but nobody is willing to make a decision. This is why people are leaving corpo-studios. We want to change that. We want to take responsibility for the employees, for the team, for the project. We want stability and security. We want to make games we would love to play without fear of being fired.
What kind of problems (or challenges) are young independent studios facing these days in Poland?
The rules behind granting and transferring money. You cannot be sure you will receive support. From anywhere. The banks are reluctant, because the banks care only about your credit score and how long you have been running your business. I was lucky, I had a high credit score so I took out a loan and I've been financing my project on my own. Not everybody is in the same position. When it comes to public money they often go to companies which do not require to be subsidized. If you decide to go for it, you won't get through all the files without a consultant and such help comes at a steep price. I feel like consulting companies have taken a fair chunk of government money. Not only do you have to pay them up front you also have to throw in a success fee. Pure profit because receiving a grant counts as success. It doesn't matter if there is no follow-up agreement or any actual subsidy for the project. I think that many will agree with me that the procedures are too complicated; it's a tough way ahead without a consultant. Maybe it's worth to consider changing the name of the program from GameINN to ConsultingINN? (laughter)
When it comes to investor money, I believe it often goes to companies without a strong project or product. Somebody just happened to know somebody or was somewhere at the right time in the right place and got to pitch a project abusing the fact that few people actually understand the business which has been booming for a while now and then you get another "promising" joint-stock company which becomes a disappointment. Unfortunately, getting money from funds or business angels often (too often) depends on the relations you have built and not on the fact that you have identified a problem and you would like to solve it. In reality nobody will give you money if they don't know you. On the other hand it's hard to say where to look for those mythical people with loads of money. Thanks to the support for the sector there are many funds which cropped up and now are only empty websites. It's hard to find an investor who actually has money and is actively looking to invest. It's even harder in the seed faze. Venture capital funds call themselves "venture" but I do not believe they are actually willing to take the risk. Even if a company has potential and the return on the investment is predicted to be a factor of over a dozen. And what is the hardest of all is to find an investor who actually understands the GameDev business. We've been looking for a big investor, who would be able to secure us financially for a couple years and would prepare another round of investment. Developing the company together. Business mentoring. Money is just a certain formality. What counts most is real help, experience and contacts which could help us on our way to achieving our goals. What I'm saying is we're looking for smart money. I don't know if we can find anyone like that on the polish capital market.
What differs your studio from others in Poland or even globally?
We're using the lean startup methodology along with design thinking as well as the Scale Agile Framework, the so called SAFe, which tries to solve all problems resulting from scaling up your business. We are organized similar to the turquoise model of management where nobody needs to be supervised at work or motivated with a "stick and carrot". And because we don't have to force people to work, team leaders become real leaders and mentors. Here nobody tells anybody what they have to do and the scope of responsibilities is divided into 4 rules: You do what You can; You do what You need; You are responsible for what You do; You can change what You do with respect to rules 1,2 and 3. Just like Spotify we use departments, tribes, alliances and guilds to run our business to develop globally and without growing pains.
Employees can influence the strategy and the projects chosen by their representatives elected at employee meetings. These employees are shareholders of the company and they behave like owners (we mapped out an ESOP motivational plan). We work 100% remotely, which gives us an enormous edge over our competition. The office is only for those who need it (and at the moment we do not have one since nobody needs one). To minimize alienation we are constantly on Discord (communication app for the GameDev industry – editorial note) and we talk with each other using video and voice chat. Just like Naughty Dog (one of the best Sony video game studios) we do not have producers or HR managers (in a good way). Actually, we do not have an HR department. Every team will have two leads – people who know how to motivate and want to help others; leads do not receive any extra payment for being leads. Every day we use Agile Coach. We focus on brutal honesty in our feedback. Everybody gives feedback to everybody regardless of the position and experience; we talk using arguments but the final word belongs to the person responsible for a given assignment. As the founder I am also the Creative Director and a writer. This allows me to be directly involved into the production, as much as any other team member and I can make conscious decisions regarding the project.
Strategic decisions are made by three people – the creative director, artistic director and technical director – after it being consulted with the team. The aforementioned trio needs to have same vision of the game, they need to nourish and coach the studio and predict the changing expectations of the audience. As the Creative Director I only mark the path of the project – the Epic Stories, which then are located in the Backlog and other team members can refer to them and if they like the idea they can create their own User Stories based on these ides, then they can decide, which features to work on, take responsibility for the and, in the end, define what they intend to do and when. Because everybody knows the budget of the project, they can estimate its scope for it not to get overblown. Those with experience motivate and mentor the less experienced. The experienced developers can start their own projects within the company. We believe that, in order to achieve greatness, we need to take risk and not to minimize it. We are producing our game in a transparent way and players are going to have the possibility to participate in it thanks to Early Access. During this stage of game development players will be able to request features and to vote for them. The project roadmap will be public and updated with community features as it develops.
Our motivation is the result of real passion and love for games. We know how to listen to players and we understand how important their input is. We do not tolerate intolerance. We believe in full transparency. All salaries are public. Everybody has the right to publish their declassified work – as long as the studio and the name of the project are mentioned. There is no place for discrimination. We are all free and strive for freedom but our freedom ends when others' begins. And all this to attract the really passionate people. We offer not only money but a chance for self-fulfillment. We believe that everybody who works in the GameDev industry are enthusiasts themselves and gamers. Games are entertainment, that's why making them should be entertainment. Only this way can we spread the wings of our creativity and start making beautiful things.
How do people, especially investors, misunderstand the industry and its intricacies?
People put an IT label on GameDev: "You make games so you're an IT guy, right?" – they ask. Games have long become an independent and mature medium, like and unlike literature, music or film. Not to mention it combining elements of every other art. Making a game is a deeply complicated process. Some compare making games to making movies but it's more like an interactive TV show than a film. Games are not created by one programmer but an entire team of people. It is teamwork of music composers, scriptwriters, artists, designers, producers, salespeople and a whole marketing department. To understand the process one needs to have at least fundamental knowledge of all of these aspects. And to play games. But passion for playing itself is not enough. You also need to love making games. Because being a consumer and a creator are two different things. It is a common misconception that getting into GameDev is easy, all you need is to be a gamer or to have a gamer as a friend to understand the issue. But, alas, it is not so. And there is a lot of stigma around games being "child's play". However it couldn't be further from the truth if we consider the data from 2016 where the average game player's age in the world is 31 and it is going up. A generation of people raised on games has grown up and they are expecting new, appropriate experiences. That is why the game industry is constantly changing. There are hundreds if not hundreds of thousands new games made every day. And the technology is constantly changing. One needs to have a lot of tenacity, will and time to keep up with the changes and to be up-to-date. The game industry, especially the video game industry lights a fire in investors' hearts, but without understanding its intricacies it will be hard for them to find a common language with developers. This is a creative business combining elements of art and craft, an investor should resemble more an art patron than a stone-cold businessman. But as we all know, there are few art patrons in Poland… Maybe because there are no people, who could show us how a good relationship between an investor and creator should look like.
Does every young studio need to consider becoming a public company?
I don't think so. Going public means changing your company into a joint-venture which means freezing assets in the form of share capital and having high costs on the legal, accounting and financial sides. Just preparing the documentation is time and money consuming. Being a public company is also connected with many regulations and restrictions breaking which can lead to dire consequences. On top of that there are reports and a very specific information framework. You need to hire additional experts from outside the GameDev industry to protect our interests. Why would a young studio want to go through all this trouble? It is not the developers themselves who go public but their investors, who see this as the only way to have return on their investment. It's not that a young studio is eager to go public right before or after releasing a game. It is more that the agreement with the investor forces them to do so to "monetize" the investment as quickly as possible. From my experience the actual reality inside the studio or the potential of the product does not have any bearing on the share prices. In my opinion the stock exchange is a parallel universe. It has its own rules. What's more the stock exchange kills open communication with the players. Usually people talk about what a joint-venture is obligated to say, from a legal point of view and concerning their investors but usually they forget about the players. I believe that the downsides of being a public company far outweigh the upsides. I think that going public is something that should be considered but only in the long run. And then it is worth considering where to go public exactly. A game is an international product. I wouldn't limit myself to the Polish stock exchange when we are creating a global enterprise. And it is also worth mentioning that if the first game is a success in reality it is the only game which would require outside financing. The most important thing is not to give up and to keep working until you reach your goals.
In your opinion, what are the perspectives for further development/growth of the Polish GameDev industry in the short and long-run?
I can see some global trends which are going to affect the Polish GameDev. The biggest problem is still the fact that there is no big foreign studio in Poland. I cannot understand why Ubisoft, Activision-Blizzard or Electronic Arts haven't opened a production studio in Poland yet. I can only speculate. We need foreign capital professionalism and open-mindedness to change the existing environment. I believe that such a branch could have a positive influence on the Polish industry and maybe change it by leading by example and sharing innovations on the company culture and international experiences. Another thing is the union of Game Developers. In my opinion, a union should be created as fast as possible and it should start cooperating with international institutions like Game Workers Unite. The rules regulating salaries and work ethics should be normalized. You cannot have a situation where people with similar skills and competencies earn different salaries holding the same position. You also cannot have a situation where people are not paid for overtime, for working on holidays, weekends, at night. And it can't be that… creators receive no royalties.
I believe that the way of the future is not only worker unions but also employer unions, based on partnership, having two studios cooperate on a project. There are only either great companies or tiny ones. There are no mid-range studios creating AA+ games, which some call indie premium.
It's about making independent, high quality, original games with a short interesting story and characters directed for a mature player. Such games cost usually about 40 USD, and half of the profit usually goes to the distributor. If the budget of such a game is several or a dozen million PLN including marketing it's easy to imagine how many units you have to sell to reach the so-called break-even point (sales threshold after crossing which the studio starts earning money – edit. note). Cooperation between studios could reduce administrative costs while maximizing quality.
In your opinion is the GameDev industry in Poland a friendly supportive environment or is more competitive?
It's hard to say how it looks like outside of Warsaw, but here it is more like one big group of friends. People know each other, they support each other, especially if they used to work together. There is no sense of competition rather solidarity. Every year Digital Dragons opens and Game Industry Conference closes the industry conference season in Poland. It's always a great opportunity to meet and exchange experiences. It's a shame that it's always the same faces (laughter). It would be good to see some fresh blood in the GameDev industry. A great example of the fact that the industry is tight-knit and that there are no divisions is a YouTube gaming channel called "Przegrani" run by Tomasz Gop who invited everybody to his end-of-the-year summary reports regardless of their corporate colors.
Can you tell us more about the vision and culture of your studio, what are your goals, what is your target audience?
We have known each other for a long time. We have lived through sorrow and success. We cried together and then motivated each other. We create a unique culture and atmosphere which makes the personality of our company. Our work environment, mission, values, ethics, expectations, and goal are reflected in our games. We do not make games, we want to create intense experiences and tell our players exciting stories. We want our game to leave a lasting impression on our players the same they do on us. We need to constantly update our values to admit new members to our team because we want develop aggressively without losing our identity. The culture of a company that is always growing is malleable and adapts to the circumstances. The best company culture is the one which makes all employees feel comfortable and appreciated and never uncertain. We focus on teamwork and transparent communication, competitive atmosphere, which bases personal development on benefits coming from making games. Such an approach is essential to the way we run our company.
When it comes to our target audience we are making a game for You, about You. For everybody who feels they are being torn from the inside by the Beast (laughter). We are making an innovative transmedia RPG. It will encompass all online and offline media: from a tabletop RPG, a skirmish miniatures game, to a video game for all platforms, comic books, books and in the future potentially even TV shows and movies. Using the mobile application enables players to transfer characters, story and game progress between the media. The game is inspired by the East Orthodox Church, Roman-Catholic Church, Protestant Church, and other religions. The game takes place at the end of the sixteenth century in Carpathian Ruthenia but the events in the game even though inspired by actual history are a certain metaphor, for what is going in the world at the moment. The game BEAST is directed towards all those interested in cultural, social, philosophical and religious groups in search for truth. The game we are creating has a global character and is for everybody but especially for fans in USA, Canda, UK, and Europe. Our product is for mature players aged 21-35.
Where are you with the production of BEAST at the moment?
We want our game to stand out among other titles. We want it to be more coherent, have a straight message and to be homogenous artistically. We want to promote Polish culture, its history, music, creators, and not only video game ones, but also in the fields of literature, music, and art. We believe that a high-quality video game is a perfect tool for that because it can reach a wide audience and get them interested in such content.
We expect the player to want to reach for other pieces of Polish culture after playing our game. This game is going to be a calling card for our studio and it will guide us along the artistic path we chose to follow. Releasing this game within the next dozen or so months is going to show that a good team consisting of experienced developers who have known each other for a long time is able to cooperate effectively to create a high-quality product, and any other games coming from our studio are beautiful, mature, evoking strong emotions and carrying an important message. At the moment we are in the process of getting an investor and publisher. We have a functional and playable prototype (i.e. advanced enough to play the game) and we are working on a demo, which is going to show elements of the final game. In the video game jargon, such a version of the game is called a "vertical slice". It should show a cross-section of the most important game mechanics, show the main concepts that make our game different, so-called unique selling points, the atmosphere, and the graphic style and, in part, show the characters and the story of the game. There are 36 people engaged in the project: programmers, 2D, and 3D graphic designers, 2D and 3D animators, 3D character modelers, sound designers, a music composer, scriptwriters, level designers, art designers, game designers, a cinematic designer, producers, etc. We also have people responsible for marketing, PR, community management, finance, accounting and legal. At the end of January 2020, we are planning to release a PC version of BEAST in Early Access on Steam and the full version of the PC game and on consoles will be released by the end of 2020.
To wrap it up: are you able to point out a specific legal or business challenge or obstacle important for your organization?
Fortunately, we have many people who help us, advise us, and support us on our way, although experience has taught me that young studios need to be wary with agreements. It's always easier to get someone with GameDev experience and pay them to prepare and/or check the agreement than to draft one yourself even with the help of a lawyer who has no experience in the field. Publishers, developers, investors, all have different kinds of agreements. These agreements are often complicated, long and more and more often written in English. Regardless of whether you are an employee or an employer the situation looks the same. Agreements are to be negotiated. You can't sign anything you are given without learning about potential risks and responsibilities resulting from the agreement. There is a huge disproportion of negotiation power between the employer and employees. It's the same between the investor and the founders, publisher, and developer. Of course, there are many workshops and legal courses, but they usually just skim the subject and real problems are usually in the details. At the moment we are facing a decision on the choice of offer and signing an agreement with an investor and publisher. I know that meetings and talks and negotiations and signing are two completely different things.
Thank you for the conversation and we wish you luck and many successes on your way!