Here's a little something about how gaming looks in Poland - it's a more interesting subject than anyone would think! Some things happen differently in Poland, especially when it comes to digital distribution and respect for copyrights, but we'll get to that. Maybe some of these phenomena are/were common for Central and Eastern Europe, but all of them shaped how gaming in Poland looks now. This still developing country has come a long way.
The history part is pretty much the same as almost everywhere else. The main difference is scale. Truth be told gaming only just became really big in Poland with the current generation of consoles. Before the 360 and PS3 it was a very obscure, PC-focused niche of entertainment. I think it's fair to say that arcades were the first actual gaming spots in the country. What's interesting is that there were very few arcades in the real sense of the word - mostly they were part of something else, like a strip mall or fun park. Basically what you'd have was an entertainment venue and the arcade cabinets would just happen to be there, pretty much at random. It seems that it took people a lot of time to figure out how to make money on arcades. The owners figured out how to exploit the situation - nobody really knew how much is too much for a game of MK1, so the cabinets were modded: you couldn't insert a coin, you had to exchange money for grooved tokens. The price of a token was entirely up to the manager/owner of the place. It's probable that this was because before 1995 the coins in Poland were pretty much valueless, and you couldn't stuff a bill in the machine. Personally I think it was just greed.
In the early 90s home gaming appeared out of nowhere in the form of Amiga, ZX Spectrum, PC, and NES games. This is where the problems started. There were no game stores. Games were mostly sold in computer/electronics stores, and you can imagine how limited the catalog was because of that. Sadly, not much has changed. Games are now widely available and the catalog is decent, however there are still only a few independent game-only stores in the country. You have to purchase your games at electronics megastores, where nobody knows anything about the games, they're just... there. Additionally, there seems to be absolutely no promotion for anything these days. We all saw how everything looked a week ago when Skyrim came out: huge lines in front of game stores, gadgets, people cosplaying, etc. Well, not in Poland they weren't. Skyrim just magically appeared on the shelves on the 12th (11/11 is a national holiday so stores are closed... imagine the frustration). There were no posters, no ads, nothing. Same goes for most games, except maybe titles like Battlefield or Modern Warfare. Those get a tiny standee. Come to thing about it, the only actual promotion I've ever seen here was for The Witcher 2, which makes sense - it is a Polish game. But I digress.
When talking about video game history in Poland you cannot even begin to understand why people still don't buy a lot of games to this day, without knowing a thing or two about polish piracy, which evolved parallel to gaming itself.
Ever since gaming became a thing in Poland, so let's say the 1980s, people noticed that games cost a lot, don't last very long and are not as good of a waste of time as drinking yourself to death. Piracy in Poland in the 90s was a phenomenon of unparalleled size, I'm sure. hishere are two reasons why: first, the games were and are too expensive for the polish buyer, plain and simple. Second, there were no games in stores. Let me paint you a little picture.
A freshly released console game costs anywhere between 199 - 250 PLN. It's hard to translate this value into US Dollars. An exchange rate calculator will tell you that games in Poland can cost up to $75. That's just telling half of the story. People in Poland earn a lot less on average, than Americans and Europeans do. So if you remember that the income is much lower, what in actual cash is $75, turns out to be a purchase worth $110. Spending $75 in Poland is probably like spending $110, maybe more, in the US. So yes, games are really, really expensive. What's interesting though is that PC games (same game, different platform) cost half price. No wonder PC gaming is the focus here. The sad thing is, most people would still rather pay $5 for a PC game than $33. This is where the piracy comes in, and boy, was it a wonder...
As I mentioned above there was also the problem of no games in stores. Even the best computer stores had only like 8, maybe 10 titles and it was amazing that they had oh my god 10 games jesus christ. Remember, this is the 90s we're talking about here, so no internet and no digital distribution. You had to have a physical copy of the game. Alright, so check this out:
You're a teenager in Poland in the 90s, you want to play this rad new game that just came out and you heard about it on satellite TV that gets American stations. The chances you're actually going to find it in a store somewhere are close to none. Even if you did, there is no way in hell you can afford it. What do you do?
You go to the temple of everything electronic, an epic place of trade and amazing deals. The freshly introduced capitalistic heaven: the open air electronics market!! When I first came to Poland and went to one of those I was amazed. These were not mere markets, these were Javas from Star Wars selling EVERYTHING. In most major cities they would be held in parking lots and old stadiums, from dawn till noon, and you could buy anything. I mean seriously, anything. Want a russian radio? No problem. How about parts to build night vision goggles? Pieces of a mortar? A stolen car stereo? You got it. It's really hard to express how much useless junk was there. I bet you could even find a T-14 Hyperdrive Generator there. The sellers were mostly shady dudes in their tracksuits and winter coats, smelling of old booze and engine grease. They had their stands set up in a way that the entire place was like a maze - small children got lost very often. Too often.
Anyway, you got your 10 PLN bill in your pocket (15 later on) and you're looking for the guy with nothing on his table. If he had nothing, he was selling illegal copies of games. If you were lucky, printouts of box art of the newest releases were taped to the table. So you come up to the dude and he hands you a list of games available for purchase. There is a number next to the title. You tell him what you want, give him the money, and in exchange you get what looks like a blank CD in one of those white square CD envelopes. Now, the number which should be on the disc is actually on the envelope only. There is no telling whether you're actually getting what you pay for.
This is how it worked in the 90s for PC and all the disc-based consoles. But the software is not the only thing that was fake. The hardware was also fake. I've never seen an authentic, Nintendo-made NES or SNES in Poland. I've seen fake NES and SNES. They looked similar, they played the games, but they were russian imitations. Yeah, they used to make those, I don't know how. It must have been really hard to get your hands on an actual console then. So yes, hardware piracy. The PC had this advantage over the consoles: it would play illegal software. When the original PlayStation came to Poland, people quickly came up with these chips you'd have installed in your console to make it play copied discs. They still do that. You can mod your 360, sure you can.
The era of ridiculous piracy ended when broadband home internet became widely available. People started making their own illegal copies. The open air electronics markets also died, because of megastore chains. Law of the markt. It's not like the law had anything to do with it, because even though everybody knew they were selling illegal, stolen stuff in those markets, nobody cared. Nobody. I'm not exaggerating any of this.
- Other problems and the present.
Even though the age of piracy is probably around 10 years gone, there are other problems the game market and industry are facing in Poland. One of them is the still very small catalog of available games. Nintendo suffers the most here: DS and Wii games and hardware are practically nowhere to be found. In the game area of an electronics store you can find up to 15 DS games, and maybe 7 Wii games. It's like this in the entire country. You have to import everything, if you're a Nintendo fan. I asked a distributor about this when I bought my 3DS and the response I got was that apparently nobody buys Nintendo products (but you can get a DS card writer online). To be fair, the AAA titles do come out, however up to about 2 years ago nobody seemed to care about release dates. Games became available a week, or sometimes a month too late. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. The biggest problem with availability now is getting games that are not AAA titles. For example, you can't get Catherine here. Can't get Persona 4.
Another issue is that games and consoles are still considered to be toys and nothing else. This is why gaming is viewed as a children's thing, and that's why nobody pays any attention whatsoever to game ratings. Parents don't care, store clerks don't care. Hey, it's just a video game, right? It's a toy, how harmful can it be? I once saw like an 8 year old kid nagging his mom to get Dead Space 2 for him. The nagging worked and the mother took a copy of the game from the shelf and put it in her cart without even looking at it. I stopped her and asked if she knows that it's an M rated game and her kid really shouldn't be playing it. She looked at me like I was crazy and said that it's just a video game. I told her that it's gonna cause her kid to have panic attacks and other disorders (hell, Dead Space 2 scare me, and I'm almost 30), and walked away. The store owners only now begin to put up game rating info, but it's really gonna be a while before anyone starts caring.
Digital distribution, and by this I mean Steam is another problem. Or, to rephrase, it's having problems. Steam has to charge the international price for games, which is 50 Euros. That's over 200 PLN. Why would anyone pay that much for a PC game, when they can get the disc copy for half? To have steam achievements? Yeah, right. The only area where digital distribution seems to have success is mobile gaming. People do buy those Android and iOS games.
So that's pretty much it - being a devoted gamer in Poland is hard. It's hard, because there's just nothing a regular person can do about the state of things here. Spending 1/4 of your paycheck on ONE game is hard enough, not to mention how much more you're gonna have to spend if your taste is not in the mainstream. If you're a fan of Japanese games you're probably better off moving. Still, there is progress. Ever since the late days of the PS2 era things have started getting better. Slowly, but it's an ongoing process. It's going to continue being hard for some years to come, but hey, maybe it all makes people here appreciate games more? No it doesn't. But at least you can go and get yourself a game.
The real hope for Polish gaming lies with the Polish developers. Polish games are starting to get really big. The more money they make, the more the market situation will improve. The fact that CD Projekt RED in owned by one of Poland's biggest game distributors can't hurt. We shall see.
Thanks for reading!