In Wrocław, Poland, a new game studio called Far From Home has some titularly appropriate ambitions of venturing outside its comfort zone. But it's realizing those ambitions by looking for support that's close at hand.
Far From Home's launch was catalyzed by a number of factors in the Polish game development scene, which CEO Andrzej Blumenfeld says has been changing at an "overwhelming" speed over the last decade. Ten years ago, he says, most Polish game developers were just trying to get their games noticed overseas. But now, games from Polish teams are being used as benchmarks by the same studios those teams looked up to years ago.
"This monumental and exponential success comes with particular burdens," Blumenfeld says. "Most notably, that once a company has too much to lose, they naturally start playing it safe, rather sticking with what got them there in the first place. There is more hesitance to really shake up what they create next. They start staffing up to keep their juggernauts rolling, making it even harder to instigate any design or development changes internally. Incremental changes versus giant leaps are now the game plan.
"Once a company has too much to lose, they naturally start playing it safe, rather sticking with what got them there in the first place"
"So you end up with a slew of experienced developers like ourselves inside these companies with that original urge to keep doing something new, who know what they're capable of but are being told, 'Don't rock the boat, stay the course,' when in fact being so daring was what got us all to this point in the first place."
The typical response to this, Blumenfeld says, is for developers to break away and start their own indie studios. But in Poland especially, it's more complicated. The industry isn't a start-up environment anymore, and the enormous expense of making games combined with a lot of experienced local talent mean it is far more lucrative for developers to negotiate offers from overseas, working at established companies on high-quality games, rather than gamble on the rough edges and financial struggles of indie.
Which is why Far From Home is targeting what the studio calls "AA+" development. For Blumenfeld, this means breaking away from the constraints of small budgets and indie seed investments for larger funding, while also retaining the independence and innovation of studios that aren't tied to shareholders.
"Seeing all this and having worked on several successful projects ourselves, we figured out what was missing -- a middle ground for these ambitious people who want to keep trying new things but at a certain quality level," he says. "A team of experts with substantial knowledge and financial backing that allows them to create something new, and most importantly, have an immense influence on the final product.
"For Far From Home, the goal is to create projects of ambition and share the empowerment with each one of the team members"
"For Far From Home, the goal is to create projects of ambition and share the empowerment with each one of the team members. Because apart from being programmers, technicians and geeky people overall, above all we are artists."
On the surface, this sounds like an immensely challenging line to walk. After all, big investors traditionally look for safer bets, not the wild card situation Blumenfeld is proposing. But for Far From Home, there's an answer to be found in an alternative Polish stock market called NewConnect.
NewConnect is run by the Warsaw Stock Exchange (GPW), and acts as an incubator of sorts for the GPW itself. Because it deals specifically with smaller companies, it's far easier to get onto than the GPW, and can serve as a gateway for companies to build track records before they eventually go public on the larger exchange.
Though NewConnect is riskier than the GPW, Far From Home is confident in its prospects on the smaller exchange because of a surge of interest in gaming as a "hot bet." That attitude comes in part from the high-profile success of CD Projekt Red's The Witcher series, but Blumenfeld says other Polish studios have already carved out a niche on NewConnect and paved the way for more companies to follow.
"NewConnect allowed so many teams to flourish, including 11 bit Studios, Creepy Jar or Starward Industries, to name a few," he says. "These were small devs which had no chance to find money elsewhere, established strong and successful businesses off the back of NewConnect.
"As in any business, rejection and disbelief are the most prevalent in financing game development at early stages. Without NewConnect many great projects would never see the light of day. We can say with certainty that it helped Poland to turn into a game dev powerhouse. But the most interesting thing is a feedback loop that involves new investors, and thus, new studios into the virtuous cycle. We're in a critical mass moment."
Blumenfeld says that in addition to allowing the company to avoid restrictive publishing contracts or crowdfunding struggles, there are a number of logistical advantages to NewConnect as well. He cites reduced regulatory barriers and oversight specifically, as well as the chance to work with a community of private investors who understand gaming well.
"People who intentionally choose stocks in these types of companies instead of just investing in mutual funds. These are people who give invaluable feedback, engaging directly with developers as they understand gaming and are themselves successful in various sectors of business. There's also the presence of local institutional investors, who have deep pockets to support successful projects in their further growth.
"...NewConnect also enables establishing Employee Stock Option Programmes as a very fundamental part of remuneration packages for team members. This tends to be a strong motivator that smaller studios don't yet have and a crucial element in enticing experienced developers to join new teams. I think we all agree that the industry has passed the point of early capitalism, where a few risk-takers grab all profits. Now the benefits of success can be fairly distributed among all those on the team."
"We want to build around mature and serious topics and appeal to the type of player who looks at games as a valid medium and not just a casual pastime"
NewConnect is not without risks, of course. Blumenfeld acknowledges that just like any other public market, shares may be subject to speculation, and volatility of share prices can have a negative mental impact on the team even if they don't materially harm the studio.
"Seeing your every move scrutinized and immediately priced-in by the market can be a burden but equally positive," he says. "It gives each member of the team a completely new perspective on their work, even in the pre-release phase. Being a public company also involves several disclosures, sometimes requiring you to say more than you'd normally reveal in terms of what major features are being planned."
With the support of investors via NewConnect, Far From Home is working on a new, unannounced game titled "Project Oxygen" for next-generation consoles and PC. The team plans to work remotely for the remainder of 2020 even as it brings on new team members, though the studio will eventually be centered in Wrocław. Blumenfeld says he feels the city is on the cusp of becoming an equal contender with Warsaw and Krakow as a Polish game development hotbed -- all it needs is more local companies to retain the city's talent pool.
Blumenfeld says he already has a five-to-six-year roadmap laid out for the company that largely revolves around NewConnect funding. If it's successful, he wants to eventually move to the GWP. But while Blumenfeld wants the company to grow, he doesn't want it to become "yet another AAA titan." He wants the studio to keep to its original vision even years down the road, as a viable alternative for experienced Polish developers to come try new ideas without compromising on game quality, wages, or job security.
"With our games, we want to create a name that becomes recognized for creating games that aren't only just fun, but also have some deeper connection and meaning to players," he says. "We want to build around mature and serious topics and appeal to the type of player who looks at games as a valid medium and not just a casual pastime."