CD Projekt Red: From Polish Bazaars to Conquering World Markets

The video game developer, famous for its series, “The Witcher," has single-handedly turned the Polish gaming industry into a high-tech powerhouse and a global tool of cultural influence.

CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 3
Established in 2002, Polish gaming company CD PROJEKT RED has taken the gaming world by storm with international sensations like The Witcher and Cyberpunk. Photo still from The Witcher: courtesy of CD Projekt

CD Projekt Red, the creator of the widely acclaimed video game series The Witcher, was called into being in the wake of Poland’s political and economic transformation following the fall of communism in 1989. It coincided with the growing popularity of CD-ROMs, but at the time, most CDs with computer games had been pirated and were sold in street markets or bazaars. 

CD Projekt Red. Find us on bazaar!

Under communist rule, there had been no access to Western retailers of computer games, and copyright laws were rarely followed. These were the circumstances in which Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński started their adventure with Polish PC gaming culture. The two had befriended each other in school as teenagers and quickly realized that they shared a passion for games and their virtual worlds.

After a few years of selling copies of Western video games at a bazaar near Grzybowska Street in Warsaw, they started their own company in 1994, importing games for the Polish market from abroad. Soon, they started localizing those games by providing them with Polish text and packaging. Their breakthrough came with Baldur’s Gate, which they were able to bring to the Polish market after discussions with its creator, the Canadian company BioWare.

To make sure that the localized game would become a hit among Poles, CD Projekt Red signed famous Polish actors to voice its characters. It was a smashing success, with more than 18,000 copies sold on its release day

The international breakthrough

CD Projekt decided to follow up on its success by developing its own game series based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher saga. The company acquired the rights to the franchise from “the Polish Tolkien” in 2002 and quickly got to work. Marcin had developed a close relationship with the founders of BioWare, who helped the Poles with a gaming engine, Aurora, and offered them a stand at E3 – the world’s largest trade event for the video game industry. The game drew a lot of attention there and became a hit when Atari finally published it in 2007, presenting it to a global audience. 

It received two follow-ups in the series, with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt breaking records across the world upon its release in 2015. It sold six million copies in as little as the first six weeks from its release.

The action of The Witcher series is set on an unnamed continent that was originally inhabited by mythical creatures and has since been conquered by humans. The titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is a monster-hunting mercenary roaming a fantasy world based on Slavic mythology. In March 2022, CD Project confirmed that they would return with another major game centered around the Witcher saga and then announced in May that it had entered pre-production.

Creating an industry

The success of The Witcher 3 made the company famous worldwide, and CD Projekt used the momentum to list itself on the Warsaw Stock Exchange (WSE), a bourse that was increasingly becoming interested in the video game industry.

Many of the developers that were involved in creating The Witcher have moved on and started their own game development studios. Poland now has more than 450 of them, including such giants as PlayWay, Techland, 11-bit studios, and Ten Square Games. For many, their time at CD Projekt served as a form of university, preparing them how to run their own companies. The sector is particularly important for Poland as it is packed with high-tech solutions –something that is not that commonly found in a country that, until quite recently, was considered a developing economy. 

Altogether, the studios have more than 10,000 employees and have become true cash cows for the Polish economy. Sensing that the Polish gaming industry had reached maturity, the WSE created an index for game developing companies called WIG. Games.

Last year, the President of the WSE, Marek Dietl, stated that it had become the world’s leading stock exchange for developers, with more than 60 gaming companies listed, ahead of Tokyo and Seoul. For a time, in the lead-up to the launch of its hyped-up game Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt was the most valuable company listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, proving just how far the Polish gaming industry has come.

Polish soft power

The gaming industry has also helped Poland increase its soft power and spread its cultural influence worldwide. The success of The Witcher helped move Andrzej Sapkowski’s books into the category of the world’s most popular fantasy books, among such works as “The Lord of the Rings,” “Game of Thrones,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” 

Marcin Iwinski: CD Projekt Red
Marcin Iwiński. Photo: courtesy of CD Projekt

The Witcher also created millions of new fans of the franchise by having been picked up by Netflix as one of the greatest successes in television history. The first and second seasons of the series have now amassed around 500 million hours of view-time each, turning it into one of the most viewed Netflix shows ever. Shooting for the third season started in March 2022. 

This trifecta of The Witcher series, the books, the video games, and the TV series has spread Sapkowski’s Slavic-inspired universe to hundreds of millions of people across the globe. One of the shooting locations for the TV series was the ruins of the castle in Ogrodzieniec near Krakow, where the Battle of Sodden Hill from the season finale was recorded, leading to a Witcher-inspired boom in international tourism. Other Polish gaming studios have followed the CD Projekt path, becoming renowned for their rich storytelling component, and adding to the increased spotlight on Poland, with titles such as This War of Mine, Frostpunk, Dead Island, Dying Light, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Layers of Fear.

Taken together, CD Projekt has helped develop a new and important sector of the Polish economy while also strengthening Poland’s soft power in the world. Even in their wildest dreams, Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński could not have imagined just how far their adventure in trading video games on Polish street markets in the early 1990s would take them.

Adam Starzynski

Political journalist with a special interest in the Three Seas region, Italy and Brazil

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