PlayWay S.A. is one of the strangest companies in Poland’s booming games industry—and also one of the most successful. The company has built an expansive catalog of strangely mundane games, mostly first-person simulators that let players live out vocational fantasies, such as working in an auto shop, renovating houses, or overseeing a mining site. While the company’s games don’t seem like obvious hits, they frequently land at or near the top of Steam’s global bestseller list—in August, for example, Car Mechanic Simulator 2021 quietly debuted in the No. 1 spot, and a launch-day starter pack add-on for the game tool the No. 2 spot.
PlayWay’s capacity to create hits from such curious subjects has made it even more popular with investors, who’ve driven its market capitalization up to $751 million (2.94 billion PLN). This makes PlayWay the thirteenth-largest company on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, and the third-largest games company—trailing only CD Projekt Red, developers of The Witcher series and Cyberpunk 2077, and Ten Square Games, the mobile giant behind Let’s Fish and Fishing Clash. PlayWay offers shareholders a return on investment percentage that’s 50 percent better than Facebook’s and Alphabet’s, and around the same as Apple’s. And it frequently schedules substantial dividend payouts, including a recently announced distribution of roughly $3 per share.
While other large games publishers have dealt with rising production costs and new competition from the mobile market by cutting their release schedules to a minimum of blockbusters and legacy IP, PlayWay has continuously expanded its output. Over the last 12 months, the company released 28 new titles, and it has more than 100 new titles in development. There’s a first-person president simulator, a wedding planner simulator, an animal shelter simulator, a drug dealer simulator, a cooking simulator, a truck building simulator, a crime scene inspector simulator, a gold mining simulator, a soccer referee simulator, a paleontologist simulator, an autopsy simulator, a moon colony simulator, a 911 operator simulator, a pope simulator, and even a Jesus simulator. There are so many games in the works, even Krzyysztof Kostowski, PlayWay’s founder and CEO, has trouble keeping track. “It’s from us?” he asked when I mentioned Dolphin Trainer VR during a visit to one of the company’s offices in Warsaw this summer.
To make this high-volume approach to publishing work, PlayWay relies on a huge network of external development studios, many of which are staffed by just a handful of people working remotely. One studio, Baked Games, is currently developing three games with PlayWay from its headquarters in a small house on a residential street in Czeladź, an hour outside of Krakow. PlayWay is currently partnered with 120 such studios in Poland—more than a quarter of the 440 total in Poland today. This approach has helped PlayWay maintain its own comparatively small size—by triple-A publisher standards—with just 40 full-time employees, mostly QA testers and some finance and marketing executives. For comparison, CD Projekt Red employs more than 900 people, and EA has over 9,800 employees.
In lieu of lavish marketing campaigns, PlayWay uses free demos and stand-alone prologues to promote upcoming titles, hoping to build word of mouth by giving away free samples of a larger game concept that will become a complete product at some later date. (Over the last year, 12 of the company’s 28 releases have been free prologues or demos.) The company feeds off its past successes by continuously swapping new titles into the recommended slots on the Steam store page for its biggest hits to attract players to its newest releases. PlayWay uses audience feedback from these free demos and prologues, in particular the number of players who add titles to their Steam wishlist, to decide which games should get more funding for promotion and post-release content.
Some players have criticized PlayWay as a kind of pyramid scheme for the attention economy, manipulating players with an endless array of new titles that may never develop beyond rough sketches, clunky collections of environments, items, and task lists. On Polish gaming forums, it’s sometimes derided as a “trailer company” instead of a game publisher, one more interested in producing marketing material than finished games. Kostowski disputes this description, insisting that the company will release every game it announces. And while there may be production delays, he says the company is always as transparent as possible about schedule changes through updates to developer blogs and announcements on each game’s Steam page.
For investors, PlayWay is the ideal model for a modern video game company. Its low overhead costs and distributed network of labor have given it the ability to scour the market for niche audiences capable of driving viral hits, like 2018’s House Flipper—which was made by a team of seven developers and has sold more than a million copies for $19.99 each, with six DLC add-ons and post-release ports to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android.
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“They were one of the first to really hack this mobile games process for PC,” says Borys Musielak, a managing partner at Smok Ventures, one of PlayWay’s backers. “You create something, put it out there, test it, launch a small marketing campaign to see if it sticks, and if it sticks, you push a lot of money into it. As an investor, it’s an amazing strategy.”
Like many in the Polish games industry, Kostowski got his start through piracy, which was prevalent in the 1990s and early 2000s due to some loopholes in the country’s copyright laws. While studying economics at the University of Warsaw, he started selling bootleg PC games to small newsstand kiosks and game shops around the city. Demand was high and expenses were minimal—just the cost of blank 3.5 mm disks and gas money for delivery runs. After a few years, Kostowski decided to drop out of school and focus on games full-time.
He eventually became an official importer and began publishing original games, mostly short hobby projects made by amateur designers he met on message boards. While triple-A games could sell for as much as $10-12 (40-50 PLN), he sold the original games for a fraction of the price of triple-A games from North America—the equivalent of $1-2 (5-10 PLN)—to an audience of mostly young kids, who were happy to have something new to play every few weeks and didn’t mind the crude designs and limited production values. Oftentimes, the developers themselves weren’t far removed from childhood. Michał Śmiałko, who made three games for Kostowski, told me he was still in high school when he signed his first official development contract, for the short 2D platformer Karate Panda. Because he was underage at the time, he says he had his father sign the contract for him to avoid any potential legal issues.
In 2011, Kostowski realized his wholesale business was on the verge of obsolescence as Steam and torrenting made downloading games even easier than a trip to the corner store. He decided to transition into digital publishing full-time under the new PlayWay moniker. The company had its first real hit in 2014, with Car Mechanic Simulator, a game built around tinkering with drive trains, transmissions, and exhaust systems, then testing the modifications on a trial course. Players were given 20 different repair orders and asked to sleuth out what specific part was causing the problem, fix it, and then test the fix on the road.
The game had a crude charm that contrasted with the sprawling and heavily scripted best sellers of the period—Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4, and Tomb Raider. It offered a view of the world not as a grand cinematic adventure, but as a workshop filled with simple, solvable problems. There was also a hint of autobiography in its complexity and satisfying representation of cause and effect. Kostowski had taught himself the basics of car maintenance while delivering games around Warsaw, and in the early 2000s he began restoring old cars as a hobby. To date, he has restored more than 400 cars, which he sells through a side business in Warsaw called Black Mirror.
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In 2018, PlayWay had a new viral breakout with House Simulator, which was similarly inspired by yet another of Kostowski’s side ventures, a small real estate operation through which he bought and renovated apartment and office buildings around Warsaw to use as income-generating properties. (PlayWay’s main campus is on a small forested piece of property Kostowski owns in Hornowek, a town outside Warsaw that borders Kampinos National Park.)
You can see hints of Kostowski’s prudence and entrepreneurialism woven through many of PlayWay’s most popular titles. They’re less simulations or puzzles than interactive morality plays that let players put themselves in the role of the yeoman trying to carve out a profit from a series of minor and seemingly unrelated tasks—ones that help keep the machinery of a larger commercial operation running.
It’s an especially powerful fantasy in the games market, which has undergone a decade of upheaval. As the global mobile market has overtaken the home and handheld console market, big publishers have scrambled to consolidate their operations and increase profitability to keep investors from relocating. In practice, this has felt like an enormous cultural deceleration, with publishers cutting their annual release schedules to a bare minimum of battle royales and zombie IPs that have long since outlasted their reason for being. Not counting rereleases, ports, and DLC, EA released 73 original titles in 2010 and just 11 in 2020. Over the same period, Ubisoft’s yearly output went from 47 to 13, Sony’s declined from 59 to 15, and Nintendo’s went from 31 to 10. For companies like PlayWay, these reductions have created a market opening—over the same period, it went from releasing two games a year to nearly 30. Like a new owner taking over an aging walk-up in a neighborhood of glassy townhouses and luxury high-rises, PlayWay has established a business that is custodial as much as it is creative. Its enormous catalog of simulations gives players the comfort of feeling their own market relevance revived, one turned screw at a time.
Another of PlayWay’s recent hits, 2019’s UBOAT—a hybrid crew management and submarine combat game—owes its existence to nostalgia for the early 2000s games market as much as it does to World War II. Development began after Kostowski noticed that Ubisoft had given up on Silent Hunter, a strategy series built around submarine battles the company published in the mid-2000s, which had a small but loyal following in Poland. Even older versions of the game would sell steadily when he stocked them. “Each week, I could sell one box,” Kostowski says. “It wasn’t peaking like The Witcher sales, but it was stable.”
UBOAT is still in early access, but it’s already become a burgeoning franchise for PlayWay. The game has amassed more than 10,000 positive Steam reviews, and PlayWay has announced two new spin-off titles—the tactical combat game Uboat Commander and the virtual reality title UBOAT VR. While it’s unlikely that would be enough for Ubisoft or Activision-Blizzard, it has so far been a steady earner for PlayWay, one of dozens that flow through the company’s coffers each month, creating a spectacle of continuity in an industry that has never finished changing.
“I like stable,” Kostowski says. “I like a stable life.”
Correction 12/10/2021: This article mistakenly named Gas Station Simulator as a PlayWay title. This is incorrect and has been removed.
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