The Polish Simulator Company Gamers Love to Hate

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.