Sean Cleaver talks with Robot Gentleman's creative director Dominik Gotojuch and art director Juliusz Zenkner about the studio's quirky culture and how the growth of a smaller scene can lead to greater things
When you think of the Polish games industry, you probably think of the companies that dominate that landscape like CD Projekt Red and Techland. However, the Polish game scene is growing outside of Warsaw and Wroclaw and Robot Gentleman is a studio in the middle of that growth in the city of Poznan.
The developer of 60 Seconds! and the recently announced 60 Parsecs! has grown from a small team of five to a small team of ten. That might not sound like much but when you are a small developer, any number of team additions can be difficult or, as creative director Dominik Gotojuch puts it, “terrifying.”
“We were working in big teams before, but now we had to be the people who were making the team bigger, sharing the responsibility that we had before,” Gotojuch says.
It's all about embracing your identity and origins
Dominik Gotojuch, creative director, Robot Gentleman
“We were doing stuff together and everybody knew what was going on,” adds art director Juilusz Zenkner. “Sharing the responsibilities, the new things like the delegation board, was very difficult. To come to your board and say ‘you have to do that’, and the first moment you actually tell someone to do something, it was really fresh and new and disturbing.”
“It's pretty weird,” says Gotojuch. “Because we had this feeling of being in each other's heads before when it was two or three of us and the communication lines were very short, it was almost instantaneous. And as we expanded we brought new people in, we kind of had to learn the ropes of communicating with them. They had to learn how to communicate with us. And it's still ongoing, to a certain degree. So we're integrated at this point and it's great, which is fantastic. Because we were worried it can explode in a number of ways. We still have the responsibility of being the decision makers all the time and it's a fairly new experience.”
The quirkiness of the studio and integrating into that is a key factor for Robot Gentleman. To set the scene, I spent a day with some of the team in Poznan and at the announcement of 60 Parsecs!. You can identify a member of the team from their top hats with Steampunk style goggles and white shirt with a waistcoat.
“During the job interviews one of the most important questions we ask is ‘how do you feel about wearing a top hat’,” admits Gotojuch. “And the funny part is most people who applied were super enthusiastic about the whole culture of doing a show with top hats and the fancy dress and expressing this identity as a robot person.
“But everyone seems to be fairly happy. It kind of gives them the extra motivation, the extra feeling of belonging. Because it's very difficult to create a studio culture and to preserve it, especially in difficult times. We're very lucky to be in a very privileged position where we're not worried about budgets, much, or about timeframes, which makes it easier for us. But because of all the new challenges, it is still a bit of a rough time for us.
The challenges that Gotojuch alludes to are the challenges of being a small independent game developer in a very large market. To the west of Poznan is Germany, which does still have a large development presence despite recent closures. To the east is the capital, Warsaw and to the south is Wroclaw. Attracting talented people to the relatively new tech area of Poznan is a challenge but one that Robot Gentleman is tackling by being an approachable and community-focused studio.
“It's all about embracing your identity and origins,” says Gotojuch. “And we can't compete with the big boys in terms of budgets, the scale of productions or anything like that. And we don't want to because we're doing something else that we like. But we can definitely compete with them in terms of our personality. Because we're not a faceless corporation with 500 people, and they're all talented, creative people, but they're hidden behind this façade of machinery and just being a singular cog in the wheel that's doing a great job, but you don't really see that on the screen. It’s kind of hidden somewhere between the layers.
“With us, we can say that Juliusz did that trailer for 60 Parsecs, or Agata, our artist, drew these people on the screen and you can talk to her about how the process went, how she did it and what she was thinking. You can talk to any of our developers. Now that we're a bigger team, we try to push people slowly so they interact with the audience, it's not just one person or a talking head. It’s everyone.
That's if they want to, of course, because some people prefer not to interact with the audience, and that's perfectly fine. But if someone is willing to talk about their work and is willing to present it to an audience at an expo or online or whatever channel, that's ideal because we want this to be a very human endeavour.
BUILDING A SCENE
Poznan’s entry into the video games development scene is relatively new, despite the area quickly gaining momentum as a hub for technology development. But with the Games Industry Conference and the Poznan Games Arena this year attracting big crowds, the local audience and talent is there and can recognise that the industry can grow in Poznan.
“Poznan is an interesting example because in some other cities like Warsaw, Wroclaw, which have Techland and CD Projekt, you can say that a lot of the development of the local gaming community came from these studios,” says Gotojuch. “Because people were leaving, rotating, or they were starting their own studio. So there's an interweaved story throughout the city of game development being spawned by this one studio.
"We don't have that in Poznan because we have never had a successful studio, a big one, that would preserve itself for a number of years and produce talented employees that would then go on and do other things. It's all bottom-up, it's all indies either coming from completely different backgrounds, or coming from a game development background, but starting something on their own. You know, like uncharted territory.
“Over the last two or three years, it's grown dramatically. It's almost from nothing happening to this bustling and very creative environment and it's expanding every year. We're pretty happy because we're a part of a bigger collective right now with many other developers like Black Moon Design and Monster Couch.”
“We really want to attract more and more people,” says Zenkner. “We are looking for a new studio in the office right now, and want to have like a place where people can actually come in and talk about, sort of like a bar, but invited people from all over the world that can come to us and talk about games with us.”
“And we know for a fact there are more talented people,” says Gotojuch. “There's a lot of people who are eager to prove themselves, and I think that's one of the reasons the hotbed of tech exists here. People are very hungry for success and want to pursue their passion, but they also want to show off to the world they can do something. And all the successes that the Polish game developers are having is very encouraging for everyone.
“Someone asked me if I could name any Polish achievements that are like economical products that are known worldwide, and their comparison was to IKEA and if we have our own IKEA or something. It's games. There isn't much apart from games. We're doing games in a brilliant way. We have these couple of really big hits, but also a number of smaller indie titles that are getting a lot of good impressions all over the world. And people are very happy to join the bandwagon because they see it's possible. It doesn't have to start in the United States and you don't have to be in LA or somewhere to join that bandwagon. You can be in Poland.”