Q: It’s somewhat unexpected seeing a western come from a Polish studio. Is there a tradition of westerns in Poland?
Blazej Krakowiak: There is a tradition of westerns going a while back. I don’t want to bore you too much with the history lesson, but it’s not such a well-known fact. We used to be a communist country/part of the communist bloc, and were almost under a Soviet occupation. There was censorship by The Party, but for some reason, westerns were let through because they were seen as more of a universal tale – man against the frontier. Or sometimes they would be presented as something of a caricature of America, the white man against the indigenous population. Somehow, those were the movies that kept coming through, even when nothing else would.
Of course, as the rules were easing off a little bit, people would see Star Wars or Robocop in the cinema, but definitely you could see westerns on TV, and while I can’t claim to have this sort of memory personally, my parents and grandparents do: those were the up-to-date looks into the world’s pop culture, something that was coming from beyond the iron curtain. So, they treasured those movies very much. Westerns are enjoyable as a whole: they are very universal, and easy to understand without modern cultural context or anything else.
Plus there was this subset of ‘easterns’ or eastern European westerns, mostly from the Balkan countries, co-produced with Germany. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Winnetou, the book and the movie by the Karl May. It’s a funny story in its own right, because it’s one of the more popular western or wild west stories in Poland and Germany and it was written by a German writer who has never been to America. So people kept seeing those things, kept reading stories like that.
If you look at games, other than Red Dead Redemption, all the good modern western games came out of Poland, like the Call of Juarez series including Bound in Blood and The Gunslinger. Incidentally, me and a couple of guys here worked on them, so it’s not like we brought the idea with us [to CreativeForge], but we were definitely familiar, and as people move around in the Polish game dev industry (which is quite extensive by this point), many people have come in contact with westerns as a genre – not just to play but also to work on. Apparently Poland is one of those places that westerns come from.
Q: For those that aren’t familiar, give us the pitch for Hard West.
Blazej Krakowiak: Hard West is a turn-based tactical game set in the weird west. People have been describing it as ‘XCOM with cowboys’, and that’s an easy way to describe it, but of course there is more to it. The ‘weird west’ part is important because it’s infused with some elements of the supernatural. We are trying to keep it more realistic, but there is a little bit of horror, a little bit of mystery, and some straight-up supernatural elements. It’s not high-fantasy and wizards, but more like vampires, cannibals, and some sort of mystical powers that someone is alleged to have.
If you imagine the darker side of the wild west and some legends that people would tell about this person being immortal or someone else making a deal with the devil… and some of those turning out to be true. So that’s the kind of environment we’re operating in. The core of the game is definitely the turn-based combat, where we have some interesting twists to shake up the formula. And it’s always from one to four team members versus an outnumbering enemy. There are many scenarios that can develop out of that. [More below via audio player]
Q: How was your experience with Kickstarter? Could the game have been made without that showing of support/interest?
Blazej Krakowiak: In our case, it was very useful to not only get the visibility of the game up, but also to literally kick-start the production and keep it moving forward. Of course we also funded a lot of it on our side, and the game was never just contingent on getting the Kickstarter money as it would just not be enough. But it was very, very helpful. I would say our experience was very good. Especially in the beginning, it’s always very tense watching the percentage go up. But the outpouring of support we got from some important gaming personalities – designers and creators [including Brian Fargo, John Romero, and Chris Avellone] that tweeted or posted about the game – that was very good for the team as well, sort of validating this idea not just to gamers, but also to people that would see if there was more to it – if it has the depth we believe it has. That was very useful, and also humbling because of course you have more responsibility to deliver in the end
Q: How’s the game’s development fared since the Kickstarter? Has anything particularly surprised you?
Blazej Krakowiak: I don’t want to sound too cocky because we haven’t shipped and we are still working to realise the game’s potential, but I would say that we had a plan and there are people on the team who are very experienced working on different-sized games, so the big things didn’t surprise us, the surprises were in the details. Like when it turns out you have a plug-in on top of a plug-in, or a mechanic on top of a mechanic that clashes with the overall vision. Suddenly you cannot do something the way you planned, because there is a cog deep in the guts of the game that means it’s either one or the other, and you have to make a decision. These sorts of surprises keep happening all the time, and a lot of the job is tackling those kinds of things.
Q: Was console ever a consideration? Could it happen in the future?
Blazej Krakowiak: We’re looking at it. Nothing specific to announce yet. It would be good to do, but it all depends on a number of considerations. But as a game, it has to work best on PC for now – that’s our absolute priority. So until that’s a reality, we’re not looking at anything else. Because of the support we got on Kickstarter, we have to get the PC release just right, and then we’ll be looking at different things. It’s both Steam and DRM-free depending on what people prefer – we’re doing both.
Q: What do you think it is about westerns that continues to appeal to people almost a century after the genre gained popularity?
Blazej Krakowiak: What I mentioned about the universal stories is still true. Part of that is that same appeal is that in post-apocalyptic games: the inherent escapism. There are no huge crowds, there is no support infrastructure. It’s you and the people you can recruit to you cause against the people your enemy can recruit to theirs. This lawlessness in part may be included in that appeal. Westerns are also very adaptable to different genres and IPS: we have samurai westerns, we have space westerns. So somehow, this ethos of being whatever you want to be and minding your own business but also carrying a big gun and protecting what’s yours… this is something that it’s hard to deny appeals to many different people.
One reason we don’t have it is we evolved social rules – there is a social contract about protecting those who cannot do that or are unwilling to do that. At some point we agreed on rules that have to work for everyone, so there are people who enforce those rules. But if you could get away with it, there are many people who would treasure this kind of freedom and lifestyle. And I don’t mean in the – if you pardon the expression – in the redneck kind of way, in pretending this is still a thing. Rather, just actually enjoying it. Also the back to nature part appeals. A little less city and concrete, and more about the wilderness and locations sprinkled over the map.
Q: It seems that more and more games are coming from Poland. What’s the development scene like? Is there a Polish style or tone you can put your finger on?
Blazej Krakowiak: One major factor, something that takes part in the whole reception of the Polish product abroad, is the perspective we have. Again, we had a very rapid crash course in capitalism. When in 1990 everything suddenly became available (although it wasn’t affordable), it didn’t come gradually. It was almost all at once, and people were suddenly looking at modern products, modern games with an eye not yet used to that. Plus, many of the big names in Polish games that you keep seeing – they are people who are self-taught in the years before the fall of the Soviet Union and so on.
So they are very motivated, they did it completely out of passion and with very scarce resources. Their position right now is hard to describe. It’s not people who made it all the way through IT college or computer science classes. Probably they were lucky to get their hands on a computer like a Spectrum or Amiga, and they started working with manuals translated sometimes using a dictionary, because English wasn’t very widely taught then. That’s part of it, and those people still influence especially the more senior companies like The Astronauts or Techland or CD Projekt or 11-bit.
The younger wave, the younger generation in Polish games started looking up to those guys, and also the global scene. They were more used to modern hardware, games being available on consoles. But they were always looking up to those people who proved that you could do something even against very stacked odds. I would say right now the Polish industry is still very determined, it’s still very passionate in this way that you really want to do it if you do it. It’s not so easy, and there aren’t any huge global corporations present yet in terms of development. So the scene is start-up indies like ours, or those three big established names: CDP, Techland, and CA Games. The industry is still rather Polish in terms of who works here. That means our world view, our cultural mix is prevalently those games.
Sometimes it works better, sometimes there is some sort of translation required, like with The Witcher’s depiction of certain social issues I would say. Everyone would have an opinion on that, but you have to remember that this is still a different reality slight. My guess is that with time, those differences and any unique style will start to fade slightly as more and more people are recruited from the West to come and work in Polish studios, and as development focusses more and more on the global market, which is becoming more globalised and homogenous than ever before. But for now, it’s a division of a very few very influential people that keep the style together.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Blazej Krakowiak: Thanks for your interest in Hard West. We’re hoping people will enjoy it as much as we are enjoying making it. I know it’s probably what every developer thinks about their games, but I honestly believe there is a lot of depth and a lot of little things hidden in the game, from the way shadow spotting works, or the way we handle certain cover issues like how you can flip a table in a very Hollywood movie kind of way – these sorts of things makes you be constantly aware of the environment. You keep watching out for objects to ricochet bullets off – a stove here, a bucket there – and also those dynamic things, maybe a doorway you can open or a well cover. This is a pretty big game, we have 40 missions with a strategic maps in-between, and every single one of those maps was built manually. We don’t generate maps or reuse the environment because we are focussing on telling a certain story, and that was important to have control on what players see and hear.
Hard West is expected to release on PC in the next couple of months.