Transcript: Global Lessons In Polish Multimedia Publishing

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With Krzysztof Biedalak & Jakub Szamalek

Recorded at BookExpo America 2016 – Global Market Forum

For podcast release Monday, June 13, 2016

KENNEALLY: The rise of global media devices, smartphones and tablets presents a fascinating, perplexing challenge. We insist on calling our industry the book world, even as today’s event is a book expo. The digitization of media, however, transports the book from the page to a screen, where it is adjacent to every and all other media. How well the book can get along with its new neighbors is a question we will look into in this session.

Innovative global successes of Polish multimedia and transmedia publishing – we’ll discuss two projects that successfully merge literature and education with gaming, film, animation, interactivity and state of the art technologies. Olive Green is a groundbreaking combination of an interactive feature film and an educational application for learning English. The film’s script was created from scratch to meet the requirements of an engaging story and gradually increasing level of language competence. Olive Green employs games, decision making, speech-driven interactive dialogues, massive learning content and spaced repetition to provide top-quality edutainment. The Witcher – Wild Hunt is a story-driven open-world role-playing game set in a visually stunning fantasy universe based on a series of fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Our guests this morning will share insights and lessons learned from their explorations of these new worlds. Consider them like astronauts returning from an interplanetary mission who have much to tell us about the direction of publishing in the future. I’ll introduce them to you briefly. To my right is Krzysztof Biedalak. Welcome. Krzysztof is one of the founders of SuperMemo World, a company established in 1991 which started the global trend of applying spaced repetition in computer-aided learning. He holds a bachelor of science in computer science from the Pozna? University of Technology, specialized in artificial intelligence and natural language processing. So clearly, not a literature major, but very much a scientist. He is the coauthor of several publications on the SuperMemo algorithm, and since 1998 is manager of the PWN Polish Scientific Publishers Group, one of the biggest school, academic and scientific publishers in Europe, and we heard about their rise as a private publisher in the last section.

And then further to my right is Jakub Szamalek. Jakub, welcome. Jakub is an award-winning video game writer and novelist born in Warsaw. He has a doctorate of Classical Archaeology at Oxford and studied as well at Cambridge University. He is the author of a series of crime novels set in Ancient Greece, and since 2012 he has worked for CD PROJEKT RED, the Polish developer behind The Witcher franchise. He co-wrote the story and dialogues for The Witcher 3. He is listed among the 100 young leaders of Central and Eastern Europe by the Res Publica Foundation.

We’re going to turn first to Krzysztof.

BIEDALAK: Hello everybody. Thank you, Chris, for the introduction.

In our case, the whole project starts from the idea, which we realized needed a film script. I must say, interestingly, we had a similar problem here as you did. We started professional script authors, and it appeared that we cannot get the right product from them because the impact with the language requirements for this script is so heavy that you need, really, language teaching competence in order to understand and somehow combine the story with the language requirements of the course. So we ended up with one of our multimedia course authors who is a fan of film, of cinema, and he used to do write some scripts himself, not as a professional writer, but actually he did. We didn’t know that about (inaudible). And we found him to create outstanding scripts, so we were very lucky in this.

And speaking of books in our case, of the (inaudible) of books in our case, it’s simply, again, one of the requirements of our clients. They often, despite having the multimedia, the interactive technological content, still need something physical. They want to have a book for reference to be able to see this, to go back to this dialogue in some physical carrier. They want to be able to refer to the grammar descriptions and other details. That’s why, when the books which we see staying here – it’s an example of one of the forms how we publish. This one includes, actually, apart from the multimedia content from the access to the online service, it actually contains paper books for reference. So that’s (inaudible) saying that we ended with the book in the process here.

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s really fascinating, and Jakub, I think, interesting – even though you’ve admitted to us that you used the original works as inspiration, Sapkowski’s works have now taken off on their own, and so the gamers have gone to the books, and now they’re bestsellers in the U.S. and around the world.

SZAMALEK: This is actually something that’s probably worth emphasizing, because video games are often perceived as a danger or competitor to books, and, well, the research here is not conclusive, but from what we are seeing, it seems that this is not the case. In Poland, there was a study which found out that people who spend a lot of time on computers are also reading more books than your average Pole. I’m not sure whether this replicates in the U.S., but there is definitely (inaudible) in Poland.

And the books by Andrzej Sapkowski were quite successful, very well known in Central and Eastern Europe, but they never quite managed to grasp the attention of the English-speaking reader, and a few of his books were translated into English, but then the interest kind of tapered off, and the full saga of Geralt of Rivia, his main character, was never translated in full. But after our game was released in 2015, his first collection of short stories suddenly rocketed to second place on The New York Times list of best-selling books. So evidently, there’s a connection, and gamers, after finding out there’s this amazing world and experiencing it, wanted to consult and familiarize themselves with the source material, and they bought the book. And now all of Andrzej Sapkowski’s books are being translated into English or were already released into English.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s what selling 6 million units in six weeks gets you, I think.

SZAMALEK: Yeah, so it really did help the books as well. And I think something that also is worth pointing out in this context – that our success would not have been possible without the books. The production cycle of a video game is three, four years, maximum, and Mr. Sapkowski took 20 years to create this world, and this is what is truly the biggest asset of our game, is this amazing world which feels like a real place, which has its own history, its own culture (inaudible), and we would never be able to create all that within the constraints of a production cycle. So we needed the books that could then be created in a slightly different environment with other pressures and other constraints, and we needed this material to create the game that we did. So rather than being a rival, I’d say that video games and books can complement each other and help each other.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, in fact, as a final set of questions, then, I want to ask you about this relationship of books with the rest of the media worlds that you both live in, and the potential here for partnerships. I’m thinking a book publisher listening to you both speak would think, well, maybe I’ve got something on my list that could work in this other medium, whether it’s in education or whether it simply is a game. But it’s not as easy as just saying, oh, I’m going to make a game, right? Can you both offer us some suggestions for what’s going to make such a partnership, a book publisher working with a game developer or a publisher working with others in the media world – what’s going to make that relationship, that partnership successful?

BIEDALAK: Well, I must say that the Olive Green project is a big experiment, and in a lot of areas, while thinking about (inaudible), we were simply improvising, so, unlike – the book market’s an established market, and I would say I’m not very proficient in gaming, but I’m a bit of a gamer myself, and I think we’re speaking here about a market which is well-established, it’s a big market, actually. While we were trying to create something new, a new combination of media coming from different areas, I would say that technology creates great opportunities today, but I don’t have one ready description. We would have to look at each type of content, each type of media independently to think about what qualities we can get out of this and where such a project, in what way it could be marketed.

KENNEALLY: Yeah. Jakub Szamalek, what about that, the potential for partnerships? You learned a really important lesson working with Sapkowski yourself, which is, at some point, you have to admit what you don’t know, right?

SZAMALEK: I think that collaboration can eventually be very fruitful, and both parties can profit from it. But turning a book into a good game’s very difficult. It’s easy to make a very bad game out of a book. But making a good game is another cup of tea, mostly because it’s hard, or I’d say it’s not a good idea to take a story from a book and then basically tell the same story in a video game.

KENNEALLY: Very briefly, and to close out, the Global Market Forum here at BookExpo is kind of a cultural exchange. In this case, this year, between Poland and the U.S. But your products are very much global products as well, and you aren’t just working in the U.S. market and the Polish markets. You’re working in markets around the world. Can you tell us about the intersection, then, of story and technology and culture, whether working in a marketplace more exotic than the U.S. and Poland presents its own kind of challenge? Krzysztof.

BIEDALAK: Speaking of the foreign markets, we have to mention different forms of this product. First of all, there is the online form, which is global by itself, so it’s hard to copy this model or license this model in another country because it’s global already. Then we are speaking of a release like this one, where the product is combined with offline applications and the books, and this is the product licensable locally in different countries, so that’s why we are here. We were in the London Book Fair, and we go to places like this to find partners for this type of licensing and publishing.

And then there are other forms. We probably don’t have time to expound on those, but there are of course other forms that this type of product can be marketed to.

KENNEALLY: And Jakub, I know there was a warning at the beginning of your preview about the gore and everything else. Certainly, that’s something that is imposed, I believe you’ve told me, in the Polish context and in Germany as well, not so much here in the U.S., and certainly other countries might be more averse to that kind of thing. Is that the challenge, that the content may be seen as unsuitable, or is it just other issues?

SZAMALEK: Well, The Witcher is very much a global brand, and the Polish market constitutes just 3% of our sales, so actually the U.S. is the biggest market for our game, but The Witcher was released in 16 different languages, including Arabic and Japanese, and Eastern markets are quite difficult to access, and they also required some slight adjustments to make sure that we did not offend any cultural sensibilities. For example, the Arabic version is likely censored so that some elements were either removed or slightly sanitized, let’s say, and the same goes for the Japanese market. We had to make some small changes to make sure that the game passes the certification process. So yes, we have to be aware that the game we create will be sold to very different people all around the world.

KENNEALLY: All right, well, I want to thank you both for a really interesting discussion today. Krzysztof Biedalak, who is the founder of SuperMemo World, as well as manager at the PWN Polish Scientific Publishers Group – thank you, Krzysztof – and Jakub Szamalek, award-winning video game writer and novelist and working with CD PROJEKT RED on The Witcher – Wild Hunt, thank you both very much indeed.

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