With a friend from a computer club in the early 90s, he created one of the first Slovak games that were sold in our country. Quadrax was inspired by Tetris, from which, however, it has come a long way, and today it is considered a gaming classic among fans.
A few years later, Marián Ferko together with Dávid Durčák founded the company Cauldron, which was the first in the Czechoslovak space to professionally create computer games.
For more than twenty-five years, they have collaborated on several strong titles with the large label Activision and under the Czech brand Bohemia Interactive.
Today, their studio is called Nine Rocks Games and specializes in hunting games. Its sales grew from 1.7 to 2.5 million euros last year. In terms of economic performance, it ranks seventh in the Slovak gaming industry. Of the studios that make up computer and console games in our country, none has a higher turnover. The leader of the entire Slovak gaming business is Pixel Federation, which has sales of almost 51 million thanks to the creation of mobile games.
Today, the company is finalizing its first title for its owner, the Austrian publisher THQ Nordic. The game focuses on an adult player and will try to get as close as possible to the reality of hunting with realistic physics and experience.
Marián Ferko is one of the team leaders of the studio. In addition, he is the president of the Slovak Association of Game Developers (SGDA) and teaches at the Academy of Performing Arts in the field of Game Design, which he helped to found.
In the interview you will read:
- what the beginnings of game development in Slovakia looked like,
- why the original Cauldron studio gradually moved under the Bohemia Interactive brand and finally THQ Nordic,
- why the domestic gaming industry is still twenty years behind the West.
You developed your first commercial game when you were about eighteen years old. How did your parents perceive it at the time that you wanted to engage in games? Did you know back then that you wanted to continue doing this all your life?
When a person is creative, and I have always drawn and created a lot in the past, it is quite natural that he tries this or that for a while. Parents will always support their children no matter what they do. When you draw, for example, a comic book, you can get to some level, but you will not discover anything new there. Digital creation is interesting in that you can create things there that cannot be created anywhere else. Neither the creations on the canvas nor the sculptures reached the level that could be created in the digital space, plus the works are also interactive, unlike, for example, paintings. In the format of the digital space, the possibilities of creation were constantly shifting. This means that a person can create and can discover something new all his life.
How did you actually get into computer creation before the Velvet Revolution?
When I first encountered 8-bit computers such as the ZX Spectrum in the 80s, they could not be imported into the former Czechoslovakia at that time, even under communism, because we had an Iron Curtain. I was lucky that my brother's friend's father worked on a boat, had the opportunity to travel to Austria and smuggled in some computers.
Back then, it was smuggled in boxes from a bonbon, a person bought a candy bar, took out the contents and put a computer there, packed it up again and could carry it across the border. Alternatively, people hollowed out the inside of the bread and put a computer in it. So the necessary technique came here slowly and gradually, and whoever had it was very lucky.
In elementary school, I met computers such as the ZX Spectrum and later didaktik Gama, which was manufactured by Didaktik Skalica. At first, this company mainly produced teaching aids for physics. However, as a state-owned enterprise, they were given the task of making a computer, although they had no experience with it. They developed an absolutely brilliant computer that made a breakthrough in the IT industry here. After all, many leading specialists grew up on an 8-bit basis.
Computer clubs in the 80s were also important, where the IT community of the time was concentrated. How did they work?
They were under the thumb of the Union for Cooperation with the Army, which paid for premises where we had televisions and brought our own computers. At that time, the children already had Didactics, which cost six thousand crowns, while the salary was one thousand five hundred, so they were really expensive machines. There the kids made games and apps, and when someone made their own game, they presented it in the club and that's when we knew about it. This is how I met David Durčák, who, as the director of Nine Rocks Games, sits a few offices away. He is a programmer who has more of a technical implementation of the work behind him, I am more oriented towards the graphic side.
And with it, you also developed the computer game Quadrax.
With him, we made a Quadrax on an 8-bit platform, and that game came out on tape.
That was in 1993. Then you managed to sell the game?
At that time, the company Ultrasoft was founded, which was engaged in the sale of computer technology and software from several creators in Slovakia. We didn't make the game with a commercial goal, but once we had it and it looked really good, we tried to sell it to Ultrasoft. We signed a contract and waited another year for the game to come out, because Ultrasoft waited for it to collect enough software before multiplying and selling it.
So the game came out only in 1994, quite late, when already 8-bit computers gave way to personal computers.
What did their distribution look like in the early start of the game market in our country?
Before Ultrasoft, there were no distribution companies in our country, although there were already many computers in Czechoslovakia. However, the games that were smuggled here had to get from Pilsen to Košice. People spread applications among themselves through personal contacts and gradually got them from one end of the republic to the other. This is how communication channels existed here. But the games could only be spread by copying them illegally.
When someone wanted to do business with games, it was difficult, because everyone was used to not buying them, but only copying them. So, first, the company had to convince people that copying was theft. Alternatively, be able to protect your product against copying. We have a very clever software developer who has done such copy protection on Quadrax as well. It was very difficult to remove, and in fact it was possible to order a tape recorder only from that trader, because the tape could not be digitally copied.
So then you sold it like that through Ultrasoft.
A few years later , in 1997, you founded your own studio, Cauldron.
When we finished Quadrax, we wanted to try something different, so we started creating a game, not on an 8-bit computer, but on a PC. We decided to do something we already know and based it on the Quadrax system, because that system was original and similar games were not created. And so we made a version of Quadrax on PC and during this time we got the opportunity to start a company.
Did you start the company with the capital you had from the sale of that original game?
We earned about as much from that original sale that we could afford to buy mineral water in a restaurant. Only a few tape recorders were sold because the platform was in retreat. If we had released the game a year earlier when we invented it, it would certainly have been different.
So we didn't have capital, but we had contacts and we also went to clubs. It was then that a friend came up with the fact that he had an acquaintance who was already in business, had some capital and would like to invest it. So Peter Rjapoš was our "angel" investor. We met and founded Cauldron, a company that had the goal of professionally producing games in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This is how the first company was created in the Czechoslovak area, which was founded only for the creation of games. Few people believed it at the time.
Then you have developed quite successful games like Spellcross or Chaser. What was it like with publishing when you already had your business?
It was very exciting. When we founded Cauldron, we knew we had to head to world markets. And the problem was that when you set up a bakery, for example, you have income from the first day you bake the rolls, because you sell them right away. But in our country it is a little different, because we bake the game for quite a long time, about a year and a half, and only then we start selling it. So we had to have the capital to bridge the long period. There were three of us working there and four after a while, while Dávid Durčák, myself and the screenwriter did not receive any salary. We were fed by our parents. All we paid for were premises, lighting, electricity, purchase of computers and software. That was the whole investment.
We knew that when a product comes out, it must be successful, because if we bake the product badly, we would end very quickly. We would not have any more capital. So we planned our one shot well. We did detailed research on what games are sold, what games are successful, and there was careful planning that we followed. We invented spellcross, which was such a military strategy with the theme of contemporary military technology and magic, a combination that had not been used anywhere before.
You operated under the Cauldron brand from 1996 to 2014. In the meantime, you've done quite a few titles. What was your business model?
We then worked with various companies and finally with the big publishing house Activision, for which we made many titles for the North American market. Activision has given us licenses and boundaries within which the game is supposed to move in order to apply it to the market. We made a game for them, which they then placed on the market. The hunting games we worked on were some of the most valuable titles they had.
After eighteen years, Cauldron passed under the brand name of the Czech publisher Bohemia Interactive. Why?
We worked with Activision for a long time, but in 2014 there was a worldwide problem in which all game developers suffered, and that was the alternation of game platforms. Previously, whenever the Playstation platform ended, the Xbox platform remained, and vice versa, when the Xbox platform changed, the one from Playstation was stable. Then there was a time when both platforms were changing architecture and hardware at the same time, and it wasn't clear how many titles would be sold on the new PS4 and Xbox one platforms that were coming, and how much would be sold on the old PS3 and Xbox 360. So none of the investors wanted to invest in new titles because they didn't know how they were going to sell, so they preferred to wait. We had signed contracts with Activision for other titles, but those contracts fell through.
So we also had a plan B, but it was such a bad time that no one wanted to start a new title with us. The only option left was to quickly take advantage of Bohemia Interactive's offer. They worked in a slightly different way at the time. They developed the DayZ title, which became unexpectedly very successful, and they knew they needed to develop it. But they weren't adapted to capacity and needed a team to adapt the game to the Playstation and Xbox gaming platforms. We had a lot of experience with this, so our cooperation was logical. Bohemia Interactive was founded in Slovakia and the whole team from Cauldron got a job there.
You worked with them until about 2020. Why did your collaboration end?
Until then, we were used to making one game for Activision every year, sometimes even making two top-quality titles in a year. The work pace was crazy, unless we were working until five o'clock on Sunday nights, then at Activision they were nervous about how come they weren't getting new data. But with DayZ, it was different, and we worked on that project all the time.
Together with the teams in Prague and Brno, we changed the technology under the hood there, so the game had to work on servers, but we had to replace everything there. We specialized in certain technologies with which we had experience. It should be imagined as if you had to replace all parts on an aircraft during the flight, from the wings to the seats to the engines, without the plane having to land. People in our country began to get tired of it. Over time, key people in Bohemia quit, and that was the impetus for the founding of Nine Rocks Games. However, I can't say a single crooked word about Bohemia, they helped the Slovak gaming industry a lot.
We founded a new company, wrote out advertisements for new jobs and everyone from Bratislava's Bohemia applied for them.
You founded the new studio under the roof of the Austrian publisher THQ Nordic, which belongs to the Swedish Embracer group. How did you get to them?
We already knew the people from THQ Nordic, we worked on the Chaser title with a company that is also currently in THQ Nordic. In our business, when you put on Linked-in that you are free, and important people notice it, they will ask you if you happen to be looking for a job with them. At the time, THQ Nordic was looking for where to invest, buying out existing teams and starting new businesses. We were ideal for them because we had experience, predatory and key people were unemployed.
What autonomy do you have under this publishing house and how does the Austrian company finance you?
We decided to continue developing hunting games because we had many years of experience in this as a team, we knew what we wanted to do, we had a dream game that could be realized. We did some market research and knew that there were quite a few customers and there were quite a few titles, so it seemed like the least risk to us. We have some milestones to which we have to complete specific tasks, and these must be approved in the THQ Nordic. Every month we receive money for development and everything is controlled by the publisher. But the design of the game, as well as the story, was up to us. This is precisely the advantage of being able to choose what we want to do. However, it is not our company, so calmly one day the decision may come that we will quit or that the game is not being sold, and we have to work on something else. But this will not happen. We know that the title we have is the best on the market and will be successful.
At what level is the gaming industry in our country compared to the surrounding countries?
Communism has done terrible damage here, which is reflected in all sorts of things, and this is also the case in the gaming industry. We are still twenty years behind the West. This is because there was no access to computers, and people who are currently in management positions do not understand games. I see a great demonization of computer games in our country. It is something that is considered very bad. In the West, people who grew up playing games as children are now in key management positions. If you look at the support programmes and subsidies that are abroad, they are on a completely different level.
Until that changes here, the generation must change, otherwise it cannot be done. I was at a school in Belgium that focuses primarily on game design, where one thousand three hundred students are admitted to the first year. We accept barely eight of us at the Academy of Performing Arts. And it's always about people. If you don't have them, you can't build a strong enough industry. It is one thing that people must be educated, and it is another thing that they must stay in Slovakia. At the moment, the most talented people leave to study abroad, and few return. We have a large outflow here, which does not need to be stopped, but to make our environment attractive enough to return. And that is linked to everything, to the judiciary, to politics, to health, and if this does not change, so will all other forms of business, not just the gaming industry.
The Czech Republic and Poland were also communist, and Poland is quite prominent in the gaming industry.
The answer is in their number. The problem is that you need a very specific person to create a game. This cannot be done by any person, it is technically very difficult. If it is connected with artistic expression, then you need to have both artistic sensibilities and technical thinking there. There are really extremely few such people on the market. Poland has the advantage that there are a lot of them, so there are statistically more talented people. The more likely they are to meet there. The same goes for the Czech Republic.
The biggest profits in the gaming industry in Slovakia and the world are the studios that make up mobile games. Have you ever thought about switching to this platform as well?
Yes. In addition to Cauldron, we also founded Top3Line, where we also tried to make mobile games. But if you want to be successful in this, you need to really devote yourself to it to the fullest and not devote yourself to anything else. We just didn't keep up with it in time, and the mobile games we created weren't that successful.
So the process is so different from developing games on PC and console?
It's more fun to create games for consoles and PC. Mobile games earn a lot, they are very successful, but they are not attractive enough for us. It is not a challenge for us.
You lecture at the Academy of Performing Arts, how did you get into it?
When I employed people at Cauldron, when we needed to expand and I hired someone, no one had any experience in game development. We had to train each employee for quite a long time. So I wondered why schools and the state could not do this for us. When several gaming companies in Slovakia were established here, everyone had a problem with qualified people, and each studio was also an educational center. The solution is that experienced people from the industry must go to school and educate the new generation. So when we founded SGDA, wonders began to happen and, among other things, we established cooperation with several universities in Slovakia, which already involve the creation of games in their programs.
How was the establishment of the association relevant?
The association already acted as an authority, so we began to communicate with the Ministry of Culture. And we started working closely with the Arts Support Fund, where we developed a programme to support the development of computer games, which is now bearing a lot of fruit. And it will certainly be brought by education in the field of computer games at the Academy of Performing Arts. Behind it is Professor Ľudovít Labík, who for years created a program of education in visual effects. With him, we also founded the study of game design and we already have students who are going to the third year of bachelor's degree. I also lecture there on interactive visual effects.