How Czech Republic's game dev history shaped one indie studio
The Czech game industry has a long history, though it wasn't until fairly recently that its indie scene began to blossom.
Matej Jariabka of Gamifi.cc, the independent Czech studio behind The Great Wobo Escape, currently available on Android and headed soon to PC on Steam, talks about the how that history has led to the current state of today's indie game development scene and where his studio fits into it.
"Game development in the Czech Republic started around the year 1984 with text adventure games and smaller puzzle games," says Jariabka. "These two genres were dominant in the late 80s and early 90s. In the late 90s, more and more companies began to produce games -- most popular were humorous adventure games, strategy games, and puzzle games.
"At the end of the 90s, bigger and better-known game companies started with the development of 3D games, mainly shooters and tactical shooters," he continues.
A company called Illusion Softworks created Hidden & Dangerous and later became 2K Czech, going on to develop the first two Mafia games. Bohemia Interactive, developer of Arma and DayZ, was founded in 1999.
Jariabka goes on to list a number of smaller studios in the Czech republic including Amanita (Samorost, Machinarium), Dreadlocks (DEX), and Keen Software House (Medieval Engineers). "Most of these are less than 10 years old and started on waves of mobile games and Kickstarter -- I guess the two best things that happened to game development in the Czech Republic."
Mobile games aren't as popular in the Czech republic as PC games, Jariabka explains, but it opened the doors for Czech developers to strike out on their own and form independent studios to create original IPs, gain experience, and move on to developing for consoles and PC.
The Kickstarter for Kingdom Come: Deliverance raised about $2 million USD, setting up Warhorse Studios to be the first large independent developer in the Czech republic. "Money is, of course, not the only measure of success of these projects," says Jariabka. "The generated buzz, all the professional experience, jobs, and community add just as much."
The word Jariabka uses to describe the Czech indie game development scene today is "thriving." He attributes much of the scene's success to the exchange of ideas and techniques at local and international events, as well as to direct access to players. The biggest gaming events local to the Czech republic are Game Developers Session, GameDay, and Game Access.
Gamific.cc is one of the small studios that has arisen in this thriving environment, a four-person studio that officially went into business on September 1, 2012. The first project they started together was a game that incorporated psychometrics. However, they didn't have much passion for it and started working on The Great Wobo Escape three months later.
Their original concept for The Great Wobo Escape was a mixture of Lemmings with robots and 2.5D graphics in a sci-fi setting for mobile devices, but they quickly refined the idea into something different.
"Right after playing our first prototypes, we realized that less crazy action and more stealth would make the game stand out and feel unique, "says Jariabka. "We had to shake all the ingredients several times until we found the whole formula tasty enough for demanding players."
With The Great Wobo Escape having been released first on mobile and Czech gamers being overwhelmingly a PC audience, they've had trouble finding love for the game at home. Like many other indie developers from smaller countries, they've built the game with foreign audiences in mind.
Jariabka thinks that designing The Great Wobo Escape with an international audience in mind helped Gamific.cc avoid problems with their Steam Greenlight campaign. "To pass the Greenlight process we needed a lot more votes than just those from local players which knew about the game and supported it," he says.
"This is probably one of our biggest lessons learned: if you are coming from a rather small country, it might be a good idea to create a universally appealing game rather than a piece of art that requires lots of explanations and cultural contexts," Jariabka says. "I hope it doesn't sound like you have to betray your cultural background in order to be successful. It just might make things easier for you."
Jeriabka's outlook on the near future of game development in the Czech Republic is bright. "I think that even more independent game developers will appear and more companies will release games for mobile platforms, even though the PC will remain as a dominant gaming platform," he says. "I also foresee a rise of several new mid-size indie studios with about 10 - 20 people, which will dramatically improve the quality and quantity of games produced locally."
The best thing about being a Czech developer, Jeriabka says, is that the country's small size leads to smaller companies helping each other out, sometimes even cross-promoting each others' games. "Many great Czech games are a result of cooperation/collaboration and joined resources. This is true also for games-related media, which really support Czech games and their [promotional and crowdfunding] campaigns."