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A wolf pack of millionaires rule CD Projekt. Still, their history is not all rainbow roses

CD Projekt Witcher Cyberpunk 2077

CD Projekt is like a wolf pack with a pair of the most experienced alphas at its helm. They set up a family, raised new gammas, directed the first hunts. Still, they gave way to a beta which set about defending the territory and maintaining group order. Their strong jaws, strong will, influenced the way the entire wolf pack lives, hunts and whether it will actually conquer the whole world.

The history of the wolf pack is for the most part a story of its two founding fathers, Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński. But the story would not be complete without the one who was only supposed to help distributing some games for sale. “I was the first employee. In fact, my career was that from rags to presidential riches”, laughs Adam Kiciński, today’s president of CDP SA, when we call him to ask for a meeting.

The truth is, it was Iwiński and Kiciński’s younger brother who started off together in the late 1980s, when Poland was still a communist country. They amassed the money, experience, and they came up with CD Projekt. Adam joined them right after the business they had run for several years was registered. Initially, at his younger brother’s firm, he would be distributing CDs with games in a “maluch” [Fiat 126p, a mini passenger car].

Today, however, the younger brother has as much to do with the company as the current valuation of his less than 10 percent stake. The other founder, in turn, is the vice-president for international contacts and the biggest shareholder. Adam made it to the position of a president of the entire CD Projekt SA. His career indeed looks like an American dream come true. “I started off distributing packages”, he reminds in an interview with us.

All three of them are millionaires, sometimes billionaires if you take the company’s capitalisation at its peaks. For instance, when Elon Musk tweets about the upcoming release of “Cyberpunk 2077”, the share valuation will go up by as much as 17 percent.

For years, the same few people have been behind such a success of one of today's largest listed Polish companies. Business disruptions, technological development and managing an increasingly growing team is what the fruits of their rule are.

This is a story about them...

A rainbow CD Projekt

In CD Projekt’s last annual statements a passage appeared typical for reports of such listed companies which want to be perceived as modern. “In line with the Company’s Diversity Policy (…) a measure of diversity [is maintained] which stems from the non-discrimination principle espoused by CD PROJEKT. The Company has consistently implemented a policy of filling executive and managerial positions with appropriately qualified, creative, experienced and educated candidates. The Company regards other factors, such as gender, as irrelevant in this scope”.

Below this smooth statement there is a photo of the board members: Adam Kiciński, Marcin Iwiński, Piotr Nielubowicz, Adam Badowski, Piotr Karwowski and Michał Nowakowski.

Quite apart from the gender mentioned, the whole six looks like its own clones. You may say ironically, the only thing that sets them apart is that some have beards, while others do not. Pointing out to the board being made up of six 40-somethings may seem petty in the context of this company's history. In spite of its clearly masculinised character (on a side note, it is still typical of the whole gamedev), CD Projekt showed it explicitly anyway that the ideas of equality and diversity lied at the company’s heart.

For example in 2020, when Poland was stuck in homophobic sentiments. In June, which is the global pride month (a month of pride of LGBTQ+ people, to commemorate the Stonewall riots of June 1969), the Reds changed their logo to rainbow colour on social media. They also announced in advance that they would not be responding to accusations of being apolitical, because the idea of equality is important to them, end of story. In the autumn of the same year, the company released special t-shirts with the slogan "Rainbow RED", the sale of which supported the Campaign Against Homophobia. Adam Kiciński himself was one of the models.

It was obvious, they would receive as much praise as hate. “Some of the Polish players were outraged, but, after all, the Reds admit themselves that it’s just a miserable portion of their customer base”, laughs one of our interlocutors, a CD Projekt employee. More specifically, the Polish customers account for approx. 4 percent of the company’s revenues. So, it is unnecessary to excessively despair over offending all kinds of feelings of the Polish fans.

Recalling the photo from the annual report is not about finding faults with a lack of diversity. With this photo, and the board it shows, you can see, as if through a lens, what CD Projekt is and how it has developed. The whole six, including Karwowski and Nowakowski with the shortest, barely fourteen and sixteen lengths of service, it is the people working at the company from the time it started transforming from a game distributor into a developer.

What brings them together is also that the most famous Polish tech-company is to a large extent based on a mixture of buddyhood and subordination. As if in a classic wolf pack, with a pair of the most experienced alphas at its helm. It is them that set up a family, raise young gammas, direct the hunts, territorial defence, and they keep the group in order. They have their beta, they may become omegas.

Their strong jaws, strong will, influence the way the entire wolf pack lives, hunts and whether it will actually conquer the whole world.

Wolves of Warsaw

Two alpha males met at a prestigious Warsaw’s Tadeusz Czacki High School. They started the school in a breakthrough year of 1989. Earlier on, Michał Kiciński would have already been dealing at a computer bazaar in Grzybowska Street in Warsaw. Marcin Iwiński would be playing games, hanging around people who tried programming on the then Amigas.

Their classmates recall the latter as not a very ambitious student. “In general, with Iwiński I had the least to do. I wondered how he passed his exams when he was sitting at the last desk with his headphones on all the time", one of his schoolmates wrote on the NaszaKlasa portal. “The headphones is something that automatically comes to my mind, too. There must be something to it”, adds another man when Iwiński writes on the school forum he is not aware of anything like this. He may not necessarily remember, because he was not the school’s frequent visitor. He preferred truancy to listening to the teachers. Same for Michał. Both would play games and try to figure out the ways to make money on it. It wasn’t the only thing they had in common, though.

As early as in his teenage years, Marcin Iwiński went to the US. In the 1980s, when a trip to western Europe was like flying into outer space for an ordinary citizen of communist Poland, a trip to the US was like flying to the moon. It was easier to get there having family in the United States and a worldly father, Stanislaw Iwiński, a documentary film maker with contacts in the film industry. It is Iwiński senior that brought for his son the first computer from the West, he would take him by car to the first foreign demoparties (parties of teenage hackers from all over Europe), and was CD Projekt’s important associate in the company’s early days.

Iwiński junior came to be known as S.S. Captain. “He was go-and-getter, he was fun and talkative. He would travel a lot, not only around Poland. In this environment, he was someone that mattered. Mostly, he built his authority based on what stuff he had”, recalls one of his bazaar friends.

Marcin Iwiński i Michał Kiciński in their school times (fot. nk.pl)

On the other hand, Michał Kiciński and his five years older brother, were taken under the wing if professor Krzysztof Kiciński, a sociology expert from the University of Warsaw. One of his books is “Poglądy etyczne młodego pokolenia Polaków” [“The Ethical Views of a Young Generation of the Poles”] Published in 1977 with professor Jacek Kurczewski. When this book is released, his son Michał is three, and Adam, eight years old. A few years later, the younger one will start dealing pirate game copies. There will be no questions about ethics, because neither video games nor software will be provided for in the copyright law.

“They knew the market, the people, they had savings from the bazaar dealings, because you could make some good money there. Plus, they came from nice background. Those were not poor families, not like ‘from rags to riches’’, recounts Ryszard Chojnowski, a games translator, with CD Projekt from 1997 to 2003.

A man we call, for the purposes of this text, a veteran of the Polish gaming scene, who has known the founders of CDP from the company’s early days and has cooperated with them to date, tells us: “Back then, there were no elites as we know them today, but Marcin and Michal stood out. Educated families with a certain amount of both financial and social capital related to the people around them, a good high school … Marcin would be travelling abroad as early as a teenager. It was exciting you could bring a lot from each such a trip. Not so much money, as rather ideas, concepts, contacts”.

But he goes on to add that it was not only about money: “You could tell they wanted to make a use of it. When they started dealing in games, it wasn't just a cold calculation, but rather a need to do something interesting. And that’s how they remained for years. They always wanted to do big, high-profile things, and if they can earn money in the process, that's good, too.

They made it, because copying games and software grew downright addictive with time. And Iwiński, in his room on the second floor of his flat in Warsaw's Grochów district, spent his days downloading files using a USRobotics Courier HST modem, which was super-fast at the time. His friends from those days recall: "he was good at these things, he had foreign contacts and superbly managed them”.

This is why he abandoned school over time. High school’s third grade ended in a last-chance exam in maths. Iwiński passed it. Kiciński failed, and consequently he ended up at the so-called Sorbona. It was the most ill reputed school in the capital, a high school for adults, with classes three days a week only, in the afternoon. But thanks to this, Kicinski finally has time to play, deal, and plan for the future.

Years later, Czacki High School will put both of them in the gallery of notable alumni anyway. Those days, however, left them with valuable contacts.

Alpha and alpha, which is Majki and Iwi

Marcin and Michał are opposites which complemented each other perfectly, we hear their former colleagues say. “Majki would be hanging around, always with a bunch of people around. He was a preacher people were attracted to. Iwiński would contribute an outside perspective, a maximum sharp vision due to his foreign experience, and the ability to point out to things, to assess, what is crucial, where the mistakes are and what to do next”, recalls the gamedev veteran.

The same goes for CD Projekt later on. Kiciński’s favourite role was that of an inspirer. Particularly when CD Projekt opted for creating their own games. “He epitomised chaos in the positive sense. He would have millions of ideas, it’s a very creative person. And sometimes, in the negative sense, too, which you could tell by the first “The Witcher”. He would require that people implement all those ideas, not only the good ones”, recounts Ryszard Chojnowski.

Borys Nieśpielak, a gaming expert and author of the film “Wszystko z nami w początku” [“We’re Alright”], shares the opinion. “The young Kiciński would make a lot of mess, change his mind, and he did the wrong thing in formal terms. Normally, his suggestions were right, he knew how to diagnose problems others didn’t see, but the solutions he put forward were rarely the right ones. It's him that initiated at CDP a trend that you are confident and emphatic about a game that doesn’t exist yet. He had this incredible marketing and business acumen.

“Michał Kiciński had, and I can say it right now, because he said it himself, a conviction that he wanted to make games. But, in fact, he never wanted to make them in the sense of poring over the screen. He would come up with great marketing campaigns”, recalls Maciej Miąsik, the head of production of “The Witcher”.

He remembers Kiciński in the same way as the others: “He would report some comments, sometimes right, sometimes wrong ones, and he would expect us to work out a solution. And when we did, he would go like: ‘I don’t like it, come up with something new’”. Over and over again. It would very often happen that after such a screening, a rather mediocre idea would be approved. The designers got frustrated, they drank lemon balm and expected the worst, and then Michał would vanish and it all got back on track until the next meeting”, adds Miąsik.

The need to be close to people was also manifested in some less invasive ways. “He would always be nice and caring. He would get to work in shorts, riding a broken-down bicycle”, recalls Michał Gembicki, now a president of Klabater gaming studio, with CD Projekt between 2006 and 2010. He emphasises Kiciński’s resourcefulness, too. “He would be brainstorming unusual ideas. He once, for example, was thinking to announce in a newspaper obituaries section that some game series were dying. It really did have an impact on players’ emotions”, he argues.

Iwiński was yet on the other side of the emotional continuum. “Type of an emotionally colder, strict and demanding boss. His contacts in the world’s big and serious companies were impressive”, says Gembicki. Chojnowski is of the same opinion. “More of a low-profile, orderly, downright pedantic. His desk was always in order.

While Michał would forever help, create and inspire, Iwiński was doing business. It was him to travel around the fairs and “work out” contracts with the key companies. Among other things, he made friends with Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, the founders of BioWare, thanks to whom at 2004 E3 fairs CD Projekt had an opportunity to present the demo of “The Witcher”.

His colleagues are joking that it is because of Iwiński’s dreams to surf in Los Angeles that CD Projekt opened up its office there in 2016. Why an office there? ‘Well, we’re at Venice Beach, and it is the homeland of bay watch’”, so went the Reddit joke by Rafał Jaki, a business development director at CDP Red, when the company’s fans spied the office four years ago.

Anyway, the very building in Wavecrest Avenue was Iwiński’s own choice. That was less than a kilometre on foot to Electric Ave where he bought himself a house. In the past, when he wanted to leave the office, after 650 metres to the left he would reach the Cadillac Hotel. It is where CD Projekt’s partners would always be put up for the night. Not any more though, because ever since the hotel’s manager had a homeless person killed, the company changed its favourite place to stay. Anyway, it is a good indicator of the surrounding climate and explains why CD Projet employees do not like travelling there. Because it is expensive, dirty, dangerous, with lots of homeless people and tourists around.

Back then, and it is the past decade we are talking, Marcin Iwiński, as the vice-president for international contacts, would travel a lot in general. Testers and programmers working on the second and third part of the White Wolf’s adventures recall that he was actually almost never to be seen around the company. He even spent a few months in China around 2014 and 2015. It is not perfectly clear if the idea behind was to learn Chinese or to do some business on the spot.

Stefan Batory, the founder of Booksy and iTaxi, who met Iwiński, an already prominent businessman, three years ago, emphasises: “It’s not an ordinary situation for one of the company’s key persons to move to the other side of the world for a year”. CD was aware you cannot succeed in such a culturally distant market like the Chinese one without getting immersed in the eco-system. And it is not something you do through home office or once in a while.

It is visionary capacity that was the two alphas’ strongest bond from the very beginning. “As early as around 2000, Marcin Iwiński told us that, in his view, being a game distributor alone wasn’t enough. I gave him a strange look then, because how come a company being the market's biggest distributor is looking for new ideas?”, emphasises Chojnowski. And hardly had the first game been released was Kiciński spinning visions of entering the stock market. “His reasoning was as follows: today’s gamers will be adults in a few years’ time, with jobs, savings, and instead of playing computer games they might want to play the stock market”, recalls the veteran of the Polish gamedev.

Intuition also comes in handy in creating pop-culture trends. “After all, when they announced ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ almost nine years ago, the world was rather more into fantasy, it was around the time ‘The Hobbit’ premiered, and they suddenly come up with such a sort of rusty cyberpunk. And yet, they didn’t know a new ‘Blade Runner’ would be released, another ‘The Matrix’, ‘Altered Carbon’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and that Keanu Reeves would be back. Much as, theoretically, he should now be retired and play in some warm romantic comedies”, analyses Marcin Kosman, a journalist and the author of a book “Nie tylko Wiedźmin. Historia polskich gier komputerowych” [“Not Only The Witcher. A History of the Polish Computer Games”]. “Many companies would’ve simply followed “The Witcher 4”, and they suddenly went for a game set in a totally different universe”. It was a high risk.

Even CD Projekt's critics, people who ended up working there exhausted, who berate the company for mismanaging people, still more or less defend their time spent there. “The management board of the Reds are not some dodgy dealers. They’re not unscrupulous capitalists who oppress their employees for the very sake of oppressing. Quite the opposite. If they appreciate somebody, and the person just doesn’t fit in at the very spot, they first attempt to find some other spot for the person. These are not bad people. They may not be perfect. And that’s the problem, because they’re pretty much like all of us”, says Miąsik.

For many employees, though rather those in senior positions, working with Kicinski and Iwiński remains one of the most important points in their lives. This is how Michał Gembicki remembers it: “When I joined CD Projekt, I was 26, so they were really impressive figures to me at that time. I worked with Michał a lot and he really taught me all the basics. Many things I do today, I do thanks to him, working with text, process analysis, creativity”.

Tadeusz Zieliński, today with Nova-Tek/Red Square Games, remembers 2014 and E3 fairs in Los Angeles. His was supposed to make a presentation of “The Witcher: Battle Arena”, a mobile game. “In the evening, we were sitting in the hotel lobby. Iwi opened my presentation and he said: ‘First of all, no more than twelve slides must remain out of those thirty-six’. And we got down to work: ditch this, shift that, shorten this, emphasise that. We were done forty-five minutes later. I was truly impressed by how professional he was and how quickly he handles things. It wasn’t that they pulled off just by chance”, he recalls.

Beta, Kiciński’s elder brother

Adam Kiciński, today’s president of the whole group, joined after being persuaded by his brother Michał in 1994. His task was to pack packages with the game CDs. Every day Adam would take them to the post-office and send all over the country. He had just graduated from a physics department at the University of Warsaw, much as he never defended his MSc thesis. Anyway, neither his younger brother nor his pal have graduated in any fields which, in the eyes of developers and programmers, as they readily and ironically point out, would have given them game making qualifications. They both studied … management and marketing. Iwiński at the University of Warsaw, and the younger Kiciński at Kozminski University. But the truth is, all the three of them were entering adulthood and starting a business at the same time, while management and marketing they were studying in practise.

Adam soon took over distribution and management not much after. He was supposed to be the one responsible for overseeing production well before the release of the first “The Witcher”. Michał fostered creative atmosphere, Marcin was doing international business, and Adam took charge of business as usual.

However, after the Polish localisation of “Baldur’s Gate” took off at the turn of 20th and 21st centuries, the fledgling company realised the financial side had to be taken care of. They would fill in the first invoices themselves by hand, make a mistake, fill them in again and so on. At the turn of the centuries, the company was already too big for that kind of thing. And then Piotr Nielubowicz joined. He got the company finances in order he has been seeing to today. But it is not that he came from nowhere. Nielubowicz is Iwiński’s close man. They went to the primary school together. Shortly afterwards, in 2001, another old pal joined as director of business development. Artur Sawka, Kici and Iwi’s high school classmate.

When CD Projekt were facing bankruptcy in 2009 and were seeking bailout from Zbigniew Jakubas, Adam Kiciński and Nielubowicz were the frontmen. It was with them that Jakubas, as he tells us himself, kept in touch with the most. That was just the moment when an upcoming upheaval was growing increasingly apparent in the team.

How come Adam took over everything and he is today the whole company’s president and its face? “Indeed, Michał had a vision and Adam would be getting his hands dirty with the packages and production. But it’s Adam that has the skill of easily taking emotions out of the business, which is necessary in managing a big company”, argues the veteran of the Polish gamedev.

The skill is apparent in the response to an email from one of the dismissed employees who complained about unfair treatment. He crunched properly (which is, worked without a single day off) for over a month, he also took over others’ tasks. As he was leaving, he felt embittered and he shared all of this in a long mail to the company’s president. Adam Kiciński does not seem to be bothered. His answer is short: “Thank you for the information, the wishes, I also wish you every success.”

Adam is said to be easier to communicate with than his brother. Plus, his language is plainer and he uses cultural codes. “Sober, down-to-earth, no bullshitting. A simple and modest guy, but with an open mind - we hear from the staff. On the other hand, he can make a spontaneous decision or slip out something about the game, reckless of the consequences. He specializes in suddenly assigning extra tasks to marketing and the developers”, CD Projekt people laugh. For instance, such was the case when, before the “Cyberpunk 2077”was about to premiere, he assured that the game worked perfectly on older consoles, and the developers were toiling day in, day out, a dozen hours a day, for his words to have anything to do with the truth.

Tadeusz Zieliński, the one who made the presentation on “The Witcher: Battle Arena” with Iwiński, once talked about the game with Adam Kiciński himself. “That was a mobile game and one skirmish would last 45 minutes. I tried playing it on a couch, but my neck went numb. I went to the bathroom to play and my legs got stiff”, he recalls. At last, one day he made at CD Projekt, as he put it himself, the elevator pitch of his life. “I was quite straightforward: ‘Adam, nobody keeps on shitting for 45 minutes, we have to shorten the skirmish.” He laughed, but admitted I was right and the time was shortened to 10 minutes”, recalls Zieliński.

Omega must leave

That CD Projekt handles crisis management very well, is repeated like a mantra by everyone associated with the company. Borys Nieśpielak: “Crisis is a part of their DNA. I would often hear people say they're risk addicts. It's when they work perfectly, no mistakes whatsoever.

The most serious crisis, at the turn of 2008 and 2009 when they sought bailout with Jakubas, almost brought down to their knees not as much the company, as its founding fathers. It was a close call for the company, but they managed to arrange for a loan, enter the stock market and release ‘The Witcher 2’. Anyway, the market welcomed the game, while Iwiński and Kiciński would be receiving awards, one after another, in company or entrepreneur of the year competitions. Everything was looking up again, but it turned out that not only the crunched employees were exhausted.

In the autumn of 2010 news broke out: the founders of CD Projekt are leaving. It turns out then it was just holidays which lasted a couple of months. Among other things, they travel together to the Far East to meditate. It helped only partially: Iwiński is back for good, Kiciński - for a few months only. “He burnt out. It was sixteen years of roller-coaster ride. It’s a very long time. A vein popped after ‘The Witcher 2’”. His fits became legendary, how he would behave at meetings, that he was able to expel somebody for having a ham sandwich on Friday, because he had just gone vegan”, recounts the gamedev veteran. A former CDP employee, today a high-profile manager in gaming, is very blunt about those days: “Majki was just working his butt off. It can't have ended well.

When it comes to food issues, at that time almost the whole board pivoted anyway. Each of them turned no less than vegetarian”. “At some point, in the staff restaurant they only had vegetarian or vegan dishes, I don’t remember exactly. And yet, a developer’s second name is Steak, and the the third - Pizza”, laughs one of CDP’s former employees.

Kiciński's own recollections also show maximum burnout. “I turned thirty, I started having some chronic issues, my throat was gone, skin problems, terrible fatigue on top of that. After some time, a ligament in my knee frayed, although objectively there was no reason for that. Quite a lot of pain and a feeling that I’m not doing what is feeding me, what makes me happy. I was growing increasingly detached from my work”, he said in “The Forbes” two years ago.

After a few months of holidays, he came back completely rejuvenated. “For no apparent reason, he would call a journalist and say something and the company had to issue a disclaimer and back off", says one of the people working for the company at the time.

The company itself changed, too. Stock market requirements introduced a new reality. “For coming to the rescue after they almost went bankrupt, they were left with a company in which they hold a minority stake and a whole lot of stock market requirements to meet. This contributed to them finally breaking up as a duo", the veteran tells us.

Out of two alphas, one remained. As if in a typical wolf pack, the other one had to leave and become an omega. How the deal was made with Kicinski to step aside is a mystery. Still, he remained the second-largest shareholder of CD Projekt with almost 10 percent of the shares. Only Iwiński has a larger share.

A brotherhood of wolves

Following personnel changes, the elder Kiciński turned out to have the most strength and it was him who eventually took over the management of the pack. But it does not mean, he keeps an iron grip on everything there. Conversely, the management model developed through the years, instead of absolute power approximates a court: with spheres of influence and coteries.

The veteran of he Polish gamedev: “There is something like ‘the elders’. Marcin and Michał were among them from the very beginning. They shared a secret mental and business understanding, but a few times they were verging on a breakup. To survive, they let a few more people in. The sure bets were Adam Kiciński, and then Piotr Nielubowicz and Artur Sawka. In the first decade of 21st century, everything was done by the five of them and everything was decided by the five of them.

Artur Sawka, a high school pal, joined CDP in mid-2001, which is, just before the decision to release “The Witcher”. First, he was the development director in charge of establishing subsidiaries in the then Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. He then managed them until the end of 2010, when the company closed down its foreign entities during the crisis.

It was the time when the old arrangement collapsed. “They split with Sawka, then Majki followed and three of them remained. Four, to be precise, because after ‘The Witcher” was released, they let Adam Badowski in, a guy they got to work on this very game”, say the people associated with CD Projekt.

Badowski was young and ambitious. He soon figured it out who the key players were, whom to string along, and he got promoted himself. Thus, the coterie system persisted and it got even strengthened with some new gammas. The alumni who owed everything to the creators and the company itself. This is how Piotr Karwowski and Michał Nowakowski joined the top management after several years.

The former started working with CD Projekt as early as in 1998, initially as a web designer. He was responsible for the design of Gram.pl., a combination of a shop and a game portal. He then left for Blizzard for a few years, but returned in 2011 as one of the co-founders of the GOG.com shop. For over five years now he has also been board member. With his experience in making game magazines in big publishing houses, Nowakowski is in charge of the whole group’s selling and publishing policy.

“They know how to build a team, gather very talented people around. Marcin knows that he doesn’t know it all himself. And it is the essence of success. They understood that in gaming it is the people that are behind the success, not procedures, financing or the stock market. As trivial as it sounds, I still see that people in various places around are afraid to employ persons smarter than themselves, and Marcin is not”, rules Batory. He also points it out to the company’s executives’ broad horizons: “The Polish companies will normally fight for those five experts available on the home market, whereas CD Projekt attracts many talents from abroad: the US, Asia, Western Europe. Marcin told me once that as they were looking for a marketing person, they attracted the best expert from Hollywood.

But the skills of the employees, however great they may be, are still no more important than the position the people have managed to reach in the wolf pack. Were you a delta with adequate access to gamma or even alpha from the board? Or did you at least enjoy good relations with such deltas? And, most importantly, how do you get the contacts? First of all, not warning that something may fail.

“It’s a company where a positive attitude is very appreciated. That is, I would even go as to say: an overly optimistic attitude is very appreciated. The board refuse to hear about bad things”, says Miąsik and points it out that it was just the case of “Cyberpunk 2077”. “The board didn’t want to hear things were hopeless, because it wasn’t a nice thing to hear. And I actually understand that. If you’re a billionaire, you don’t want to spoil your mood”, he adds in a scornful tone.

The coolest badass

Adam Badowski is one of the figures which made it to the top thanks to, among other things (as he is first and foremost an outstanding artist), such an attitude. Born in 1975, a philosopher by education, has been with CD Projekt since 2002 when he worked on “The Witcher 1” as a graphic designer and an animator. Heading a studio at a game producer company is what automatically qualifies him as one the key figures of today’s CD Projekt. When, in 2013, President Bronisław Komorowski decided to award the company with the Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, it was Badowski who received his medal alongside the founders, Iwiński and Kiciński. Adam Kiciński did not have the honour, despite heading the entire company for three years already and having been with the company a few years longer than Badowski.

And, as we hear the gaming people say, it is Badowski that was largely responsible for what the consecutive parts of “The Witcher” looked like, and, in particular, “Cyberpunk 2077”. It was also in his and Rafał Jaki's head that the idea for “Gwent”, “The Witcher” card game, was born. At game making, it is Badowski that is the number one on a daily basis as the game director. What does such a person do in gaming? The very person concerned answers the question in “Mistrz gry” [“A Game Master”], broadcast aired by Polsat Games (15 min. 30 sec.):

His company nickname is “Badas”, derived from his last name and the English “badass”. However, his employees do not remember him as a bad boss at all. Nobody mentions him in the bullying context, either. In general, he is liked and respected, which was perfectly apparent in 2014.

“The Witcher 3” was on its final stretch then, meanwhile, Adam Badowski was going through a horrible personal drama. Karolina Grochowska, his partner, had been struggling with cancer for a long time then, and the disease was progressing rapidly. Badowski would be leaving the company for long weeks to have his loved one treated and saved. “People in the company knew that, but everyone was perfectly understanding. People felt for Adam and kept their fingers crossed for Karolina”, recalls a developer working on “The Witcher 3”. Grochowska was known in the industry, because she worked herself as a producer first at CD Projekt and then at Epic Games.

In the autumn of 2014 she lost her fight. “A terrible story, hard to go back to it. They must have known in the last months that the end was near. They even went somewhere to America to take ayahuasca, to experience the last exaltation together. When Karolina died, Adam got engrossed in work. He was like a machine, that was his way to unwind”, adds our interlocutor. Grochowska was commemorated in the credits of “The Witcher 3” - it was in her memory that the game was dedicated. Epic Games did the same, dedicating the now famous “Fortnite” to her, which she worked on toward the end of her life.

There’s no CDP without Badas today, further interlocutors tell us. And it’s not necessarily because he normally spends the entire day in his office. “Sometimes we laugh that we should be walking around with t-shirts saying ‘Adam, do you have a minute?” There is always a queue of people who want to talk to him. The easiest way to catch up with him is around 7 PM, when some people are gone already", says one of his studio employees.

It is Badowski who is responsible for the main visions, he has the experience and the last word in discussions. “He’s very authoritative, he decided every issue with ‘The Witcher’. It’s a virtue and a vice at the same time. On the one hand, there’s no discussion, on the other, it’s good you have somebody keeping people on a tight leash. And even though, they always had some delays in the work after all", adds the developer.

Today Badowski is in a happy relationship. Three years ago he married a friend from CD Projekt’s HR department. Their son Kosma was born during the works on “Cyberpunk 2077”. Badowski is the studio’s manager, but he cannot boast a particularly abstract fortune. He holds barely 0.15 percent of CD Projekt’s shares.

March of the wolves

It is different though with the founders, Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński. You can go so far as to say that they are both rentiers today, much as they do not want to rest on laurels. They have millions on their account, a sea of possibilities and still a long way to go anyway. After all, they are only 47-year olds. They are also surrounded by people enthralled with the visionary ideas and the authority of “the founding fathers of the Polish gaming”.

Marcin Iwiński travels a lot, because that is also his role at the company. In addition, however, he has created a circle of Polish technology leaders around him, for whom he is a mentor and authority. What springs to mind is the Thursday dinners by [Stanisław August] Poniatowski, a Polish king: for more than two years now, everyone has been meeting approximately once a quarter to discuss the current issues, challenges, topics related to running a business. The meetings are normally held at CD Projekt’s main office. They were initiated more than two years ago by Iwiński and Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, a former Prime Minister of Poland, who is now heading the Partners Board at EY Poland.

It is an informal group, it has no name nor a structure. Usually, there are 20 to 30 persons of various industries at the meetings. There are many people from the tech-industry, but not only this. They are mainly e-business founders. “Before a meeting we agree on a topic, for instance, how to recruit/ promote people at C-level. Sometimes someone has a problem in the company and it turns out that another person had a similar one, but has already solved it. So, we discuss a wide array of topics”, recounts Barbara Sołtysińska.

“Not always is an issue important enough for a meeting to be organised. The group has a chat on one of the communicators through which we communicate”. “The main objective of our group is the exchange of knowledge, experience, and self-development", says Sołtysińska.

“It’s interesting, because I find new inspirations, solutions, but it clears your mind, too. When it turns out others are facing up to similar challenges. It is also interesting to get various perspectives of various things. The meetings are totally relaxed and Marcin is an absolutely fantastic person. Intelligent, modest, eager to share. To me, he is a definition of incredible intellect, courage, experience, devoid of ego”, recounts Barbara Sołtysińska, the only participant of these meetings who agreed to reveal her name. Next to her, the group includes co-founders or heads of companies such as Netguru, ZnanyLekarz.pl, Booksy, PizzaPortal.pl, DaftCode or Tylko.com.

As everything is simply … kept secret. And the trust in the group is so high that it was at one of such meetings Iwiński revealed how it came about Keanu Reeves was hired for "Cyberpunk 2077". However, no participant is willing to share the details. The activity of the informal group is so mysterious that even Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, the Prime Minister, refuses to talk and he sends us to Iwiński. Who is not responding. If he is not travelling the world, he spends his time with his wife and three kids. Or two, as one of his daughters, based on her Facebook account, is studying in … China.

Michał Kiciński, the other co-founder, is yet somewhere else. Since 2012, apart from his assets, he has had nothing to do with CD Projekt. He is pursuing a business career, yet in other areas.

He feeds vegan food at Wegeguru restaurant. On Openbooks.com he provides books based on a free open license. Strefarozwoju.pl, in turn, is a portal where you can explore the spiritual secrets of your body and mind. Halodoktorze.pl is a ranking of medicine doctors. Id’eau company is a producer of mineral water. Spółka Literacka creates AI solutions for the book market. Kiciński has yet many more businesses of various kinds, but sometimes an alpha wolf is simply missing the forest. Last year he partnered with Retrovibe, a company which is supposed to … release old video games.

He runs everything from the very heart of Warsaw. A few years ago he bought the historic site of Fort Traugutta for 3 million zloties [0.9 million dollars] and set himself up there. He created the Żywa Kuchnia restaurant there and is planning to open up a relaxation and tranquillity centre. Assisting him in this, as president of Fort Traugutta, is Artur Sawka, the same high school classmate who once worked for CD Projekt.

Stil, Kiciński is most associated with yet two other businesses. “We’ve met at my place several times and he told me about his plans to build a meditation centre near Wyszków. A very interesting person who maintains money isn’t everything”, says Zbigniew Jakubas, the millionaire who bailed out CD Projekt with a loan thirteen years ago.

The meditation business is being created as if by the way. For Kiciński this form of relaxation is almost a life philosophy. “In Peru he is also putting up a centre of broadly defined meditation. The demand for such services there is tremendous. Also on the part of American clients. At the same time, it will be an incredible injection of good through an investment and a development of the local communities who will work there: from room maids, through engineers at the meditation centre”, tells us his former associate.

Kiciński’s other most widely talked about project is Mudita Pure telephone. It is a minimalist device with no internet access, a classic numeric keypad and low electromagnetic absorption. The point is to slow down, free from the intrusive notifications from your phone and find peace. Much as Mudita has been talked about for two years now, the device has not yet seen the light of day. “But he believes in the project. After all, Mudita expressed this entire transition of his to the off-line world. Anyway, we believe in it, too. It is hard NOT to believe when your boss comes in and says Elon Musk likes the idea, too. Michał and Musk know each other, he’s supposedly delighted with Mudita, says one of the current employees.

Kiciński himself is a different man today - calm, subdued, with other priorities. He has a flat in Warsaw and a house in Wrocław where his partner lives. “When it comes to investments, hang of the global stock markets, he has his head on straight. He has the money, knows people … But he is not a classic businessman, a loud go-and-getter type. He is absolutely confident about his visions, but not arrogant. He is very calm. When would come to the office, he would say ‘hi’ to everyone, take a look at the prototypes. Take his watch off, sit down with his legs crossed or do the lotus pose and talk with us. You grow calmer with him around”, recalls his former associate.

His current employee adds: “He has his house, a garden and he’s relishing his slow life. He switches the phone on in the evening, once in a few days. It’s best to text him, so he may somehow get back to you. But in general, Michał doesn’t want to be disturbed and he’s of the opinion he doesn't need a phone with all the notifications and messages.

Epilogue

Today, CD Projekt is a 27-year-old company with enormous success and an ambiguous image to its credit. The founding fathers are no longer the driving force, as Marcin Iwiński himself seems to be moving away from the company with each year. Adam, the third one of the initial three and the president of the whole group, is now mainly preoccupied with investor relations. After work - a family, a house near Warsaw.

Our interlocutors point it out that CD Projekt’s DNA was largely Michał Kiciński's idea. They claim that the present turmoil shows that everything Kiciński contributed at the level of concept and vision, finally begins falling apart. Which a little bit reminds me of, says the veteran of the Polish scene, Apple and Steve Jobs. When Jobs died, Apple had some fuel left to go on, but then it had to reinvent itself. “With the Reds you can tell that there is nowhere to get that intellectual drive, love of games, energy from", says our interlocutor.

Janusz Tarczykowski of Rock Square Thunder adds: “They started off aiming high and, like a snowball, with each project they became increasingly ambitious and could not stop. At some point, they believed it was the way to make games, they didn’t give themselves a chance to slow down. And a pause is just what they need”.

The veteran: “I don't think they will ever be more famous, fulfilled, richer or younger again. What the Reds are lacking today, is a clearly identifiable face. People aren’t quite sure who the leader is, who will promise things will get better. There is no Jobs or Bezos for that matter that you may love and hate”.

As we have been working on these series for the last three months, CD Projekt’s press office has turned our meeting offer down on several occasions. What’s more, we never received a reply to any of a few dozen questions sent by mail. One of the steps we took was calling Adam Kiciński directly. We showed him a broad outline of the CD PROJEKT. NO FILTER series, we identified some of the topics to touch upon and we asked for a meeting. With himself only or with him and Marcin Iwiński. The next day, after consultations with his associates, Adam Kiciński informed us, however, that the interview would not take place.

“And maybe it’s a good moment to appear in the media, exonerate oneself, apologise for the wrongdoing and start off anew? CDP Red dead redemption, Mister President”, we suggested on the phone.

“We have a great deal of work ahead, some new patches for “Cyberpunk 2077”, implementation of a new strategy. It’s not a good time to talk. We have exhausted the limit for verbal promises, it is time for our actions to speak to the players", said the President of CD Projekt S.A.

THE END

Publisher: 
Jakub Wątor

Authors: 
Jakub Wątor,
Sylwia Czubkowska,
Marek Szymaniak,
Matylda Grodecka

Graphic:
Patrycja Lewandowska
Intocollage.pl
photo in graphic:
Adam Tuchliński/Tuchlinski Studio

Photos (in order):
CD Projekt board in 2020, from annual report 2020;
Baldur's Gate, from CD Projekt;
Michał Kiciński, Marcin Iwiński, enterpreneurs of the year 2008 by EY, fot. press pack;
Adam Kiciński, fot. Adam Tuchliński/Tuchlinski Studio;
Marcin Kiciński, fot. Adam Tuchliński/Tuchlinski Studio;
CD Projekt board in 2016 r, press pack;
Prime minister Ewa Kopacz visiting CD Projekt, in the middle of the photo Adam Badowski fot. M. Śmiarowski/KPRM;
Marcin Iwinski, 2018, YouTube;
Michał Kiciński, Mudita, press pack.