From pen and paper games to multi-million selling titles – the story of the Czech video game industry

01-03-2019

Just this month, Warhorse Studios, one of the country’s most successful videogame studios, was bought by a foreign investor in a CZK 850 million deal. It is the successful conclusion to a project that just five years ago had to resort to Kickstarter to fund its first game. But Warhorse’s game Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not the only accomplished title to be made in the Czech Republic, where pen and paper games, rather than videogames were the hit just a quarter of a century ago.

Warhorse Studios, photo: Pierre MeignanWarhorse Studios, photo: Pierre Meignan Studios in the Czech Republic have created quite a few internationally successful videogames in the past decades. The most famous titles include the critically acclaimed Mafia 1 game, the ARMA series, or the recent Kingdom Come: Deliverance title which succeeded in establishing itself as a highly realistic alternative to modern action RPGs.

But making games is not easy and you do not have to be a software developer to know that. Aside from huge competition, any game has to find a solid equilibrium between its graphics, story and, above all, gameplay, to please the demanding gamer audience.

The success of many Czech titles is not just surprising given the countries relatively small size and market, but also due to the much younger tradition of proper videogame development in the country.

Although the origins of Czech videogames stretch back to the 1970s, those who created their earliest forms during the communist era saw their work more as a hobby than a job. It was only after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that the market and opportunities really opened up to those who were serious about game development.

Even then progress was slow, with the first commercially distributed Czech videogame, Světák Bob, which was released in 1993, only selling a few hundred copies.

Martin Klíma, one of the men seen as the founding fathers of the Czech videogames industry, says that he and others like him were more interested in the old school pen and paper games during the early nineteen nineties. It was only after unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a foreign market for his company’s board games that Klíma and his colleagues decided to found a videogame developer called ALTAR Interactive in Brno in 1997.

“There was this opportunity to go into the game industry and I started a company which was first publishing a game called Dračí doupě [Dragon’s lair] and other pen and paper games. Then in 1997 we decided that we wanted to go into computer games because we discovered that it was a way how to get the games that we created out of the Czech Republic.”

Kingdom Come: Deliverance, photo: Warhorse StudiosKingdom Come: Deliverance, photo: Warhorse Studios A year later, the studio produced the first internationally distributed Czech videogame called Fish Fillets and it was around this time that other important Czech studios such as Illusion Softworks started to take shape.

Mr. Klíma says that one of the reasons behind this boom was the relatively small amount of people it took to program a good videogame during this time.

“When we were starting in the late 1990s, development teams were pretty small by today’s standards. You could have perhaps 30-50 people and you could do a top of the line mainstream. So there were actually quite a few smaller studios like ours in Brno, as well as others that were doing all kinds of games.”

It was during this time that the first truly successful titles started coming out. Hidden & Dangerous, a World War II game that is regarded as one of the pioneering tactical first person shooters was released in 1999 and during the same time the Polda series, which pits the player into the role of a policemen solving a crime in a gameplay style comparable to the episodic graphic adventure genre made famous by Telltale Games, saw the release of its first title. It quickly became extremely popular among the Czech gaming public.

However, it was only after the turn of the millennium that the truly legendary titles started to come out.

Mafia, a third person action-adventure game developed by Illusion Softworks was released to wide critical acclaim in 2002, and quickly gained a wide public following, selling hundreds of thousands of copies abroad.

Mafia’s gameplay and setting was very similar to Rockstar’s famous Grand Theft Auto III released a year earlier. Interestingly enough, rather than being inspired by its more famous counterpart, Mafia’s gameplay concept was developed without the developers being aware of Rockstar’s project, as Dan Vávra, the game’s creative director, told Gameumentary channel in 2018.

“We didn’t have a clue that there was something like GTA being developed until like a year before the release. Then we started seeing presentations to the press. I was in Germany making a presentation next to the computer showing GTA III, so I saw the game as we were developing ours. So I thought ah, we are doing this better and they are doing that better, so we should add that. But it wasn’t like direct competition, or that we saw GTA before we started working on our project. It was absolutely not connected, just a spontaneous coincidence.”

Mafia, photo: Illusion SoftworksMafia, photo: Illusion Softworks A year later, the same studio in collaboration with another Czech developer created the tactical first-person shooter Viet Cong, which did not reach the same international acclaim, but was widely popular at home.

That the tactical shooter genre was something Czech developers excelled in was proven at the same time by another studio, Bohemia Interactive, which released Operation Flashpoint in 2001. The game would have two further instalments until the studio released its spiritual successor, the realism based ARMA series, which has sold millions of copies worldwide.

The passion of Bohemia Interactive’s staff for this project was proven in 2012, when developers Martin Pezlar and Ivan Buchta were arrested by the Greek police on the island of Lemnos for photographing military facilities near the border with Turkey. They said that they were merely interested in checking out the spots their colleagues had used in ARMA III, but their curiosity nearly landed them a 20-year jail sentence.

As Czech titles started to gain wide popularity abroad, their studios also became a subject of interest in the eyes of larger foreign investors. For example, in 2008, Illusion Softworks was acquired by the American holding company Take-Two Interactive.

Not all studios were successful however. The relatively small local market and fierce competition challenged even established veterans such as Martin Klíma.

“Ultra Interactive is probably as good an example as any and I can talk about because I know my studio very well. The game we developed was I think a good game and it has a loyal following still today, but it didn’t sell well because of various reasons. The company that published it was going through a very difficult period at the time. It went bankrupt shortly after publishing, which was nothing to do with us, it was part of long term process. So we were quite unlucky and I think this is a good example. Some of the games that were published in the Czech Republic might have been a bit unlucky in timing or specific design or might have been more buggy or facing more competition.”

Warhorse Studios, photo: Pierre MeignanWarhorse Studios, photo: Pierre Meignan This synergy of events created a vacuum with many experienced developers looking for a new project.

It was around this time that established veterans Dan Vávra came up with the idea of creating a hyper-realistic medieval RPG that would contain many of the old-school challenging components of the genre, which AAA titles had shed in favour of making their games accessible.

He and Martin Klíma teamed up and managed to secure investment for their new project – Warhorse Studios. Three years later they launched a unexpectedly successful Kickstarter campaign, which enabled Warhorse to truly go ahead with the project.

While the resulting game, Kingdom Come: Deliverance was criticised for containing many bugs upon its release in 2018, the title’s powerful story and unique gameplay resulted in commercial success, with more than two million copies being sold in the year since it was launched.

The studio has followed the fate of many of its successful predecessors being acquired by Austrian publisher THQ Nordic in February for more than EUR 33 million.

The success of Warhorse Studios has been portrayed as an example worldwide that Kickstarter projects can bring high quality titles when they are based on a good idea and a dedicated team. However, Warhorse was able to draw on a pool of experienced developers through their founders’ web of contacts and initial investment.

In light of this fact and the increasing number of staff to create high quality titles, I asked Mr. Klíma if there is still any chance for young Czechs who dream of developing their own project.

Warhorse Studios, photo: Pierre MeignanWarhorse Studios, photo: Pierre Meignan “I think that a smaller team has two key advantages which we didn’t have. One is the possibility of going direct to market, not having to use a publisher, so that the whole publishing process can be done online; the second advantage are the hardware capabilities. The hardware today is much more capable. So if you are making a small game and are a team of five people you can’t make another Call of Duty. You would be making a smaller game but you can get tools and game engines that are perfectly suitable to this task very cheaply, usually for free or for some licensing fee which you only pay if the game is successful, so there is very little technical knowledge required.”

For those who would rather place their bets on first gaining a reputation in an established company there is also hope, as Warhorse Studios continue to expand their staff.

01-03-2019