How Epic’s buyout freed People Can Fly to bring straight-up shooters into the 21st century

People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm was a critical success, but considered a commercial failure.

When Epic’s majority share in People Can Fly became a full acquisition in August 2012, the studio gained floor space, lost key developers and needed a new manager. The departure of founder and co-owner Adrian Chmielarz left space at the top of the Warsaw-based studio, and the position was filled in the most egalitarian manner.

“I’ve never been through anything like that,” says general manager Sebastian Wojciechowski, the man who filled the post. “There were five different stages, including an interview by the entire company. I met all the people here before joining them. They actually voted on who would join them, which is absolutely fantastic.”

The former technology and radio executive brought no game industry expertise to People Can Fly but was given the seal of approval from a team that, even 11 years after the studio opened, still retains more than a dozen developers that worked on its first game, Painkiller. Wojciechowski’s arrival signalled a period of expansion for the studio, with work on Gears Of War: Judgment continuing as walls were demolished, new floors were laid and surfaces were coated in fresh paint. The transformation was a transition from independent developer to Epic’s own Polish studio – the climax of a process that had begun five years earlier.

In 2006, work on unannounced 360/PS3 survival horror title Come Midnight ended with the game’s cancellation by publisher THQ, and People Can Fly was forced to return to its roots, but with new lessons taken from its abandoned project informing development on the next game.

“Every single thing we work on makes us better,” lead level designer Wojciech Madry says. “Come Midnight taught us how to make games like Gears Of War – thirdperson shooters and so on. Come Midnight was the moment we built the studio we’re in today. It was half this space, but it was the moment we went from garage production like ‘Hey, Joe, can you make this?’ to ‘OK, John, please tell your team to…’ The scale [changed]. We are very proud of every single project we’ve made, whether it’s seen the light of day or not.”

“There’s still a lot of pride in [that project] even though it never saw the light of day,” American ex-pat art director Waylon Brinck says. “There are Come Midnight posters up around the office. One guy has a Come Midnight ringtone on his cellphone. Even though it didn’t ship, the guys are really proud of it.”

Facing “some issues” with the proprietary engine used for Painkiller and in search of a new project, the studio approached Epic with its own Unreal Engine 3 demo. “We fell back to how we thought of Painkiller,” Madry says. “We made a short demo [to show what we could do] and when Epic saw it, they were like, ‘We want those guys to work for us’. At first we couldn’t believe that the Epic wanted to work with us, but we started talking and everyone here fell in love with Gears 1.” People Can Fly’s PC port of Gears Of War shipped in November 2007, adding back in a level cut from the original 360 version. Months earlier, in August, Epic had bought a majority share in the studio, effectively guaranteeing its future stability but permanently changing the studio’s sense of self. “We were this Polish studio and we had to adapt,” Madry says. “We were part of a bigger family. We evolved quite a lot and learned quite a lot and there were a lot of changes. But they were more related to the environment culture and not the games, because games were something we did in a similar way [from the start] – quality over all else.”

Working with Epic’s North Carolina studio offered new opportunities for the team, too. “At Epic everyone has creative input,” Madry says. “It’s like everyone is encouraged to be creative, to bring something to the table. Painkiller was more one person telling everyone ‘You do this, you do that’, and it’s been great to actually create something and not just do something.

This was the most shocking thing for me and it’s been the greatest experience ever since. There’s nothing so inspiring as people who are so boldly into what they’re doing that they just don’t stop; they’re working to make every inch better because it’s theirs – their creation – and they’re allowed to push this.”

Bulletstorm, “a loud, obnoxious, ultraviolent shooter.”

People Can Fly assisted North Carolina on Gears Of War 2, but the studio’s next game was undeniably its own. Bulletstorm was a loud, obnoxious, ultraviolent shooter designed with laser precision by a team that understood how to get the maximum possible value from the simplest design. Painkiller was among the first shooters to place such an emphasis on physics, and seven years later that emphasis found its natural conclusion. Bulletstorm’s Havok physics would be the key to making the most of every kill – launching enemies onto spikes, detonating entire crowds with flying hotdog carts, bouncing soldiers into the maws of carnivorous plants – and rewarding players with constant spectacle backed up by a fruit-machine cascade of points and kill-themed awards. It was a critical success but sold just under a million copies; for publisher EA, it was a commercial failure.

“I think that any time you’ve done your best and read the critical excitement but it doesn’t translate into financial success, you feel that maybe there’s something you could have done differently,” Madry says. “But that was the most successful new IP that year! The problem is, like with the movie industry, the most money is made by [sequels]. In the end we did everything we could to make a great game, a game that we would want to play, and there’s nothing we were ashamed of or wanted to change. We did everything we could.”

Bulletstorm demonstrated the creative smarts and technical mastery of People Can Fly’s team. Few studios are able to get so much value from Unreal 3, and the Polish team’s work with the engine arguably bettered Epic’s own Gears of War 3, released seven months after Bulletstorm in September 2011. People Can Fly was entrusted with Gears Of War: Judgment, where many of Bulletstorm’s design decisions were vindicated, albeit within the confines of a more bankable commercial success. The initial game design, shaped by creative director Adrian Chmielarz, took Bulletstorm’s score-attack philosophy and forced it upon Gears Of War’s cover-shooter template – in a way that felt so natural that previous Gears games now feel empty without it – but Judgment would have to be completed without Chmielarz’s direction. In August 2012 Epic completed its acquisition of the studio and Chmielarz departed to form The Astronauts with animator Michal Kosieradzki and artist Andrzej Poznanski.

“Adrian was by far the most visible, identifiable [member of the team],” Madry says. “But I can assure you we still have 60 very talented veterans that enjoy working here. This is part of the industry: people moving on, having strong creative visions, trying to create new things, and not necessarily [working] with all the people [they were with] before. I don’t think that we were devastated or anything like that, it’s just a part of how this works.”

“I think all our craziest ideas actually made it in!” Gears Of War: Judgment.

Gears Of War: Judgment was produced in close collaboration with Epic’s North Carolina studio. There would be daily communication via videoconferencing, art duties would be divided between east and west, and the studio was given Gears Of War 3 as a base from which Gears Of War: Judgment would begin. “We were able to start prototyping on day one,” Brinck says. “Our new Overrun Mode was up and running within the first week or two. It was great to build on it, but as it was a side story it was also our chance to bring some of our own ideas for the gameplay and the setting. I think all our craziest ideas actually made it in! We kind of wanted to beat Epic at its own game; make a better Gears game than even Epic had made.”

“We are truly 21st-century companies,” Wojciechowski says. “We’re using means of communication that allow us to collaborate on daily basis even though we’ve got this timezone difference. And it actually sometimes helps because we can share resources and work almost around the clock. There are different [kinds of] investors in strategy – some are just taking care of their dividend rates at the end of the fiscal year, but we’re in touch every day and they’re not only taking care of [finance] but also whether the people here feel comfortable and whether we have enough resources to be efficient and creative.”

Gears Of War: Judgment sold more on one platform than Bulletstorm had on three, but with just over one million copies sold it still underperformed for Microsoft. In the same month, Sony struggled to match God Of War 3’s numbers with God Of War: Ascension, bringing to an end two series that served as landmarks for the generation – technical showpieces on both sides. It’s hard to blame People Can Fly for the modesty of Bulletstorm’s and Judgment’s success: both games challenged the status quo of their genre and pushed UE3 to its limits. The studio has yet to announce its first post-Chmielarz game, and whether the studio will continue to successfully layer classic score-driven gameplay onto modern templates in the face of consumer apathy is uncertain – but for now People Can Fly remains, resolutely, People Can Fly.

“It’s like the younger-older brother [relationship],” Madry says, when asked if he thinks of the studio as Epic Warsaw. “We’re the crazy ones, they’re the experienced ones, and there’s this friendly back and forth. I think I’d always call us People Can Fly, but if we’re the younger brother, the family name would be Epic.”

“That’s a very good explanation. We are the younger brother in this Epic family,” Wojciechowski says.

Brinck laughs. “The younger, more handsome brother,” he concludes.