DISC WORLD
PC Gamer|February 2022
How CD PROJEKT RED climbed to the top of the RPG mountain – and slipped
Jeremy Peel

CD Projekt Red is a phenomenon that could only have occurred in Poland – and only, really, in the ’90s. It’s a time that explains more than the studio’s ludicrously anachronistic title. This was not just the golden age of the CD-ROM, but the golden age of piracy too – at least in the former Eastern Bloc. Under communist rule, without legitimate access to Western retailers or any copyright law to speak of, Polish PC gaming culture grew in the street markets, where games were sold for £3 a pop – according to the excellent reporting of Eurogamer’s resident Witcher scholar, Robert Purchese.

As the iron curtain lifted, local companies – including a pair of skinny young hopefuls named Marcin Iwi ski and MichaÅ‚ Kici ski – could finally, legally import and sell the biggest games from around the world. But in doing so they would have to compete with the Captain Kidds and Calico Jacks who had thrived in their stead.

For its vanguard release, the nascent CD Projekt picked Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate. In its favour was the fact that it came on five discs, reducing the ability of pirates to sell it cheaply. And since it was an RPG, it was built around words, which CD Projekt could translate in full – casting renowned local actors in some of the key roles.

Rounding out the value proposition was every luxury you could dream of in a big box PC game at the time: a parchment map, an audio CD, and a D&D rulebook. Despite the low-price competition, sales were stellar, and CD Projekt learned its founding principle – to overdeliver.

BALD DEBUT

Baldur’s Gate gave CD Projekt more than its first sales success, of course. It gave the company a blueprint for its own development efforts. During that localisation process, it had internalised the Sword Coast’s iron ore crises and dark omens; the way Baldur’s Gate blends social and economic problems with matters of the gods and asks you to sort through the mess. The Witcher took five years and more funding than the business strictly had to finish, but Bioware’s influence was clear to see in the result.

CD Projekt knew Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka well enough to license the Aurora engine, and the two doctors even lent their Polish cousins a corner of their booth at E3. (Make no mistake, Bioware got behind The Witcher; I first saw Geralt when a dramatic piece of art appeared in the launcher for Neverwinter Nights, a space otherwise reserved purely for that game’s expansions and DLC.)

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