Hi, Marek. Please tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a father of five wonderful kids and have been making games nearly my entire life. As a matter of fact, I was born the same time Pong (the world’s first successful commercial computer game) was released, so I guess you could say that games have been my destiny.
So far as my background is concerned, I grew up under Communism and was around 17 years old when the regime collapsed. A whole new world of opportunities opened up to me then, and I remember feeling like I could accomplish whatever I wanted in life. I also felt extremely lucky to find myself at the very start of the Czech gaming industry. I’d been making games since I was a teenager and had always dreamed of making games professionally. Now here I am, more than 30 years later, still making them. So it looks like my dream came true!
Marek was one of the lucky few in Communist Czechoslovakia to have access to computers and video games
What’s the story behind the founding of Bohemia Interactive?
It started with my brother Ondřej and I wanted to make video games. He was a genius programmer and I pitched in here and there, though I was nowhere near as good as him. A few years later, in 1992, we partnered with a company called JRC – the country’s top video game seller at the time. That’s when I met Slavomír Pavlíček, the big boss businessman who wound up becoming my long-standing business partner. He started selling games and software for home computers like Atari and Commodore. I became a salesman there and dreamed of selling the games my brother made. It took many years for my brother and I to save enough money to go into game development full time, but eventually we did, and began working on a game that would eventually become Operation Flashpoint from the comfort of our own home. We formed a company and got our first publisher on board. At some point the publisher, which was an American company, decided to pay us a visit. We didn’t have an office then, and my brother and I knew it would be super awkward if we held our first meeting in our bedroom, which is where we were working out of. So we decided to find a temporary office and faked being pros for a week. When the publisher left, we realized that we liked working out of an office and have continued growing and improving the studio ever since.
What ideas did you have for Bohemia Interactive in the beginning, and were there any other names you considered using? (@HaukerEhy)
We wanted to make open world games from the very beginning with little side projects here and there. One of our first big games was called Gravon, which you can find in Take on Mars if you’re interested in seeing the kind of games we were into. As for the company’s name, we had a number of them in mind, but eventually we whittled it down to two – Czech Interactive and Bohemia Interactive. We ended up going with Bohemia because we thought it had a cooler ring to it.
Gravon: Real Virtuality is a video game developed by Suma. The game was originally released for the Atari Falcon in 1995
What are your daily tasks / responsibilities as Bohemia Interactive’s CEO?
It’s pretty social in a way because it involves a lot of writing, talking, and meeting people. Making decisions is also a huge factor, as is navigating all kinds of politics and emotions. In fact, bearing responsibility and making difficult decisions is a lot more important than performing any particular task because keeping our company on the right path so it can realize its vision is the most important responsibility I have. It’s hard to explain, really, but finding the necessary energy and motivation to keep going in the right direction, despite any number of distractions, is crucial.
What is your biggest challenge running Bohemia Interactive? @_skolnik
Finding the right people and making sure they can work together over a very long period of time on goals that may seem overly distant or too ambitious.
Which skills and/or traits do you think a successful CEO must possess?
Courage. Persistence. Determination. Everything else is (hopefully) fixable, but nothing big will ever get done if you don’t possess those three key traits.
What are the differences between running a company of Bohemia’s size now, compared to when it was a much smaller team?
We’re well over 300 employees now, so we’re not all that small a company anymore. But we certainly started that way – a few hobbyist developers with a dream. There are several major steps that keep changing as you grow, however. When you have a team of 10 people, for example, there’s not much you need to do, and things run pretty smoothly. But let’s say one day you manage to grow to 30 employees. You still know everyone relatively well, but now you need to create departments in your organization, which means you’re no longer able to treat every individual personally. Once you hit 100 people or more, a new layer is formed – middle management. That’s when it gets trickier because it becomes increasingly difficult to make sure everyone’s interests are aligned. We’re still learning and experimenting as we grow, to be honest, and right now we’re trying to do a lot of things differently again. Something tells me managing the growth of a company and making sure everyone’s on the same page is a never-ending process.
What do you enjoy about your job, and game development in general?
I think this industry is incredibly unique and perhaps even more challenging than others because you need to find that delicate balance between art, business, and technology. And let’s not forget emotions. They’re an important factor in game development because you can always tell whether there was any emotion involved in the making of a game.
There's a lot I can do for our games on a higher level, and I'm glad to see our projects growing. Mind you, there are moments when I envy my colleagues who have greater opportunities to work on our games directly. But I know they’re so much better and more talented at it than I am.
I love the industry and game development in general because the art of making games is kind of a game of its own. There’s plenty of art that you can incorporate into games, though there’s also the business side of things you need to consider, which is also fun and interesting and kind of a game in its own right. There’s also the technology aspect, of course.
Marek Španěl as fictional character Victor Troska from Operation Flashpoint: Resistance / Arma Resistance datadisk (2002)
Which aspect of game development do you enjoy more – the tech or the art?
You can’t really have one without the other. I personally enjoy the art aspect more. But it’s not as simple as that because the technology you use impacts the art that’s created and vice versa. In other words, you always have to consider the art of technology and the technology of art.
What's your favorite movie, TV show, and book?
My favorite series at the moment is Black Mirror. It gets me thinking about everything that’s happening in our world and what our children may have to face in the future. It’s also a stark reminder how relative the concept of freedom is and how difficult it is to maintain any kind of privacy in our modern society. Freedom and privacy are two values that are incredibly important to me, so it’s been particularly difficult to watch the show during these trying times.
As far as movies go, I really like Magnolia. It’s got a great soundtrack and is really an amazing film – the kind I can watch over and over again and always find something new I hadn’t noticed before.
If I could only pick one book, then it would have to be The Lord of the Rings. I’ve never actually seen any of the movies, so it’s probably a rather different world for me than most people. I first encountered this remarkable book in the late 80’s in the form of “samizdat”, which was a clandestine way of sharing literature that the Communist state didn’t allow. The book was forbidden at the time because the bad kingdom was located in the East, which in their minds was a good enough reason to ban the book!
What’s one of your earliest and fondest memories of video games?
There are tons I could choose from – from arcade classics like Space Invaders and Battle Zone to a catching game called "Nu, pogodi!" that I used to play with an old friend. Pitfall 2 on the Atari 800 had a huge impact, as did other early Activision games like River Raid. Another game that comes to mind is Action Biker. I played that so much that the theme song is still stuck in my head after all these years.
The theme song and open world nature of Action Biker had a huge impact on Marek Španěl
What's your favorite video game of all time?
I guess it’s a boring answer, but I’d have to say Arma: Cold War Assault, a.k.a Operation Flashpoint. I love the setting and the story and have a lot of great memories from developing and playing it. There are so many places in the Czech Republic we drew inspiration from that I still see Operation Flashpoint popping up in the real world all around me.
Who is your all-time favorite video game character, and why?
James Gastovski. I mean, is he good, or is he good? Lara Croft was also very dear to me. She was such a strong character in the first version that it blew my mind. And when the first 3D accelerator came out, the game ran at a much higher resolution, which brought out some game-changing details and made it impossible not to feel close to her.
James Ian Gastovski, main character of Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis/Arma: Cold War Assault (2001)
Who came up with James Gastovski?
Operation Flashpoint was truly a team effort, so it’s impossible to pinpoint who exactly was responsible. It was such an organic process, as a matter of fact, that even our publisher contributed some traditionally English elements to the character. The story evolved a lot over the years, but we always wanted James to be a fully developed character – a special forces operative who also managed to maintain his civilian side.
Any chance we can see some old Poseidon or Operation Flashpoint builds? (@thatpolishdev)
We don’t have much to share actually, as we weren’t very good at archiving our legacy. I know we have data stored on CD-ROMs somewhere, but we’ve moved so many times it might not be that easy to track them down. Poseidon is still floating around the internet somewhere, which might scratch that itch.
What’s a random fact about you that few people know?
During the early days of Operation Flashpoint, nobody believed we’d be able to finish the game, let alone turn it into a success. To make matters worse, our first publisher (Interactive Magic) went out of business and was bought up by Ubisoft. We didn’t really fit in with what they were doing at the time, so we found ourselves suddenly without a publishing partner, dangerously low on funds, and with very little support to speak of. Nevertheless, we were convinced we had something special on our hands and decided that we’d push through no matter what and release the game in the Czech Republic.
There were some interesting game and IT fairs held in Brno back then, and we decided to promote Flashpoint in a rather unique way. So we rolled up to the security gate at Invex – one of the bigger industry events at the time - in a T-55 tank. You should’ve seen the look on the security guard’s face. He refused to let us in, but I eventually persuaded him to call the fair’s director to confirm that our tank was indeed part of the show. Some of the locals were already familiar with the earliest iterations of the game and they got a kick out of playing it alongside a genuine military tank. I remember sitting in our stall next to the tank later that evening, looking out at Brno and dreaming about releasing Flashpoint one day. Two years later, that dream became a reality. That show wound up being incredibly important to us because it helped us to fight another day and convinced us that the game was well worth all the struggles we’d faced.
Marek Španěl atop a T-55 tank which was used to promote Operation Flashpoint during Brno's Invex video game fair in 1999
It’s well known that Operation Flashpoint had a long and problematic development cycle. Was its eventual release the greatest moment in your life?
Well, other than the times when each of my amazing five children were born, I’d say yes. The development process was tough, right up to the last minute. My brother was the lead programmer at the time and lived with his wife in France. He was working remotely over dial-up and uploaded some last-minute fixes the night before we were to deliver the gold master to our publisher. I was incredibly relieved and headed home for some much-needed sleep. Later that day, however, I got a call from our publisher saying that the game was stuck on a cutscene in mission 17. So I went back to the office and wound up working it out myself because nobody else was available. It was an extremely stressful moment, but I managed to fix the problem and uploaded the game again. The internet wasn’t as reliable as it is today, but the publisher got the game, and it went on to become a huge success. So, yes, that was definitely one of the best moments in my life.
Early days of motion capture shooting at Bohemia Interactive. Even the CEO had to lend a hand...and his body
What’s your most memorable moment at Bohemia Interactive so far?
When two of our colleagues were detained in Greece on suspicions of espionage. It was such a crazy misunderstanding that I flew over there to see if what was happening was actually real. If it was, I expected I’d be thrown into prison as well as the head of a spy organization. I wanted to explain what had happened, so I went to court where I was interrogated, and everyone seemed super friendly and casual. And then, out of the blue, everything changed. Suddenly we were told, “OK, you guys go back to jail and you (me) get out of here.” I walked out of that court in a daze and just stood there for a while trying to make sense of everything. It was kind of like being in a bizarre movie.
Ivan Buchta (left) and Martin Pezlar (right) after their return to the Czech Rep. from a Greek prison
What do you think has been the most important shift in the industry since you started?
Definitely the internet. There was no world wide web when I started in the industry. Back then it was all about magazines and word of mouth and borrowing games from friends – good old human relationship stuff. Then the internet happened, and both the industry and our lives changed quickly and dramatically. Games are obviously faster and more dynamic now. And because we’re all connected, nobody goes over to a friend’s house to play anymore. It’s a massive change and one that obviously affects our company because we have a much wider reach now that wouldn’t have been possible in the old days.
Why isn’t game development in the Czech Republic supported by the government like it is in other countries (i.e. Poland)?
Probably due to history. Games had a rather bad image here for some reason. We are currently working with the Czech Game Developers Association to improve the image of games in the country and gain more recognition from the government. It won’t be easy, but we’re in it for the long haul.
Bohemia Interactive supports the Czech gaming industry as an independent studio and as a member of GDACZ
A lot of long-time developers have left the studio recently. Why? (@Vigilant42)
That’s a tough one to answer because no two developers are the same. Some left because they wanted to make different games. Others left because they wanted to work in a different country. And then there are those who wanted to try making their own games or didn’t like the direction our company was heading in.
This past year saw some radical changes within our company, but I think that’s a product of how quickly we’ve grown in the last decade. And while we certainly miss everyone who’s left, I think the change has been also good because it allows us to step back, reassess, and rebuild in a way that helps us evolve in a positive direction.
Any chance of Real Virtuality becoming open source in the future? (Florian R.)
I really like the idea of making the RV engine expandable, even though we don’t have many internal resources allocated to it, but we’d have to explore the best way to achieve it. We only have a small team of brave and dedicated developers working on RV at the moment. But figuring out an effective way to allow the community to contribute would be amazing.
Will Enfusion always remain in-studio like Real Virtuality? How many Enfusion projects are in development or being planned? When can we get more details regarding the next Enfusion-based project? @Jacob_MangoR)
At this point, the plan is to use Enfusion in-house for the foreseeable future. We do have one game we’re developing with its core technology, and I hope to share a lot more news soon. Stay tuned!
Can players expect a new game from Bohemia that showcases a completely different approach and/or genre?
We really want to continue nurturing our existing games (Ylands, Arma, DayZ, Vigor), but we also want to keep experimenting from time to time. So, yes, you can expect something completely different from us in the future.
Free DLC Arma 3 Apex: Old Man (2020) is a perfect example of our new approach to our existing games and development in general
What else would you be doing if you hadn’t pursued a career in game development?
I’m afraid I’d be in serious trouble because I never wanted to do anything else. I did toy around with the idea of becoming a computer music composer when I was younger, but I was never good or dedicated enough to pursue it seriously. Before that, I had hopes of becoming a writer, so maybe I would have spent my time telling stories. But in all honesty, I needed games a lot more than they needed me because I truly have no idea what I’d do with my life without them.
The art of game development is Marek's lifelong passion
What advice would you give to people who are looking to work in game development?
Dream big but try to build your dream one step at a time. Finishing and releasing a project is key, regardless of how small the project or audience happens to be. Making a small game or mod your friends and family can enjoy is far more valuable than a large document describing an open world MMORPG that you dream about but never becomes a reality.
And finally, the question everybody’s been waiting for – any news regarding Arma 4?
The one thing that’s certain about the future of the franchise is that the limitations found in some of the core Arma 3 technology makes evolution no longer a viable option moving forward - something we’ve been aware of for many years now. So our biggest task is to redefine the very foundations which the future of Arma can be built upon. That’s why we’ve been spending a tremendous amount of time and effort in developing our next generation game technology called Enfusion. It’s far more powerful and versatile than anything we’ve used before and will feature a wide variety of user-friendly tools and resources for developers and modders alike. Our aim is to build our most dynamic engine to date, which in turn will allow players and creators to build anything and everything they can dream of.
But it is also double-edged sword because Arma’s success and evolution is mainly due to its incredible community that formed over the decades around Real Virtuality. As we take this exciting step into the great unknown, we’re looking for the best way to enable our user community so it can actively become part of the journey. We know what Arma users, as well as the broader gaming community, want from us. And we’re working harder than ever to give that to them and then some. But let me be clear: we’re going to need you, your support, and your creativity to be able to collectively transition the Arma community to newer and better technology as it is going to be a long and sometimes windy road.
Our next featured Bohemian is right around the corner, so keep an eye on our social media pages for the latest updates. Until then, feel free to learn more about working at Bohemia Interactive by checking out our Careers Page. We may just have the perfect job for you. Until next time...
*Operation Flashpoint® is a registered trademark of Codemasters