[In this in-depth interview, CD Projekt Red senior producer Tomasz Gop discusses the development of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and how design influenced engine building, narrative vs. player freedom, and how community influenced the game's design.]
The RPG genre has risen in stature over the course in the past few years. One title that made an unexpectedly large splash on its release, and contributed to the rise of the form is The Witcher.
The original 2007 game, an adaptation of the works of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, was developed in Poland by CD Projekt Red.
That game was later rereleased as an Enhanced Edition which was largely influenced by community reaction and propelled the game to even greater heights of international popularity.
For the sequel, which releases this week, the team has gone back to the drawing board -- starting from the development of a new engine specifically designed to give the designers greater authorial control, to making profound changes that weren't possible with the Enhanced Edition of the first game, the developers clearly hope it's a meaningful evolution of The Witcher's world.
In this interview, senior producer Tomasz Gop discusses the development of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and how design influenced engine building, the need for strong narrative vs. player freedom, and much more.
It sounds like there's a great deal of optional content in The Witcher 2. You've mentioned that people might not even encounter certain areas. There's a lot of expense in building optional content.
Tomasz Gop: There is, there is. Because with The Witcher 1, you had 80 or 90 hours of gameplay. You could do a lot of things, and a lot of that was about running around, because we had a lot of so-called "FedEx quests." So, with The Witcher 2, you definitely get less of these. So, you run less, but it doesn't mean locations are smaller.
It's like we don't have seven chapters anymore; we have five chapters. But we invested this work -- that type of development of the game -- into making it less linear. So, we have optional locations. We have really well-detailed characters that you don't meet within some of the playthroughs of the game, and so on.
There's a certain debate about how much optional content can be in a game and still make it economically viable.
TG: You have to weigh it. You always have to. On one hand, you have to make sure that you have really cool content for people that want to dig deep into it -- but not everybody will. So, we also have to make sure that each single playthrough of the game, even though some things are optional, will be cool, and it will have a fun factor. Yeah, it's not easy.
What sort of value do you think that brings to your audience, that value of optional content?
TG: I mean, I think the main difference between reading an actual book... for example, a book that Andrzej Sapkowski wrote, the author of the previous stories, and actually playing a game, is the interaction.
So, the game is always allowing you to do more than you actually follow by reading the books. So, it's the same with enhancing on it and making the game less linear. So, the main value that we've added is... we wanted the players to feel as if they tell their own story.
It was also one of the reasons we [integrated] this social media stuff, because it actually will feel different for most of the players to walk differently through the game. So, we think it has a value of its own.
You have to look at it in terms of cost/benefit. You know, you have to ultimately to some extent as a business.
TG: We definitely do, yeah.
When players encounter each other, talk about the game...
TG: They get back to the game.
... and people see that conversation happening. That creates word of mouth.
TG: We hope for that. We do, definitely.
There are 16 different endings, which is rather a lot.
TG: It is. I mean, it's more perceived as 16 different states of the world, and not all factors that shape this final state of the world are really, really huge. But if you were to count everything, there are around 16 endings.
Given that there's a lot of potential variation, how much do you handle that dynamically or procedurally? You did some of that in the first game.
TG: Yeah. Obviously, some of the cutscenes were, say, dynamic depending on who you were with and so on. It was procedural. So, it's been extended in the second game, definitely. And it's one of the advantages we get with having our own tech. Because the game looks different in terms of graphics, but I always like to stress that the main reason for writing the tech was doing the tools that allow us to go further with thinking about factors that can actually differentiate the storyline.
They can branch the way we tell a story. We have dozens of tools for scripting the storyline, for doing it like blocks, logical blocks that can actually vary in different places. I think it's really where we can stand out among all the competition to tell the story in our own way. We don't actually like to look back at other RPGs. If we have to, we do, but it's not about comparing. It's more about we always knew what we wanted to do. We just continued doing it.
When you talk in terms of building the tech for The Witcher 2 to increase the capacity of storytelling that you can achieve, how much does the design team have an influence in the direction that you take in the technology?
TG: Most of it. It was the very beginning, the cradle of the process. The day we released Witcher 1, we already knew we would have to write the new tech. Then, for a year or a year and a half, the programmers sat down and started writing the low level stuff. And also within that process, they started writing the construct of the tools.
And every day, they spoke with designers, and said, "Okay, so topic of the dialogue editor. How do you want to have it?" "Okay, so I want to have free cameras. I want to have it in a graphical way so I can decide, graphically, that, right now, he gestures. And in another moment, they could interact. You can just grab someone and try to scare him," and so on and so on. These are features that we wanted from the very beginning, so designers were in control from the very beginning.
How much does it involve things like scripting to achieve results?
TG: It allows that.
But is it more scripting-based? Many developers are moving towards the idea that people who work in design don't necessarily have to have as technical foundation as they used to in the past. So, is that something that's a priority for you?
TG: What we've done, because we've actually faced that problem -- it's quite obvious we would sooner or later. We did. So, what we've done is that part of the design team, actually, the quest implementation team specifically, knows at least a basis of the scripting. And if anyone who is really in good with storytelling or writing dialogue, or whatever, wants any functionality, part of the team can write it for them.
They don't have to go to programmers, because they know basic scripting, and it's enough to write like a logical block that you can put in dialogue, or any gameplay situation, and it works. Logically, they don't have to know what's inside. So, with writing the tech from the very beginning, it was possible to get the idea of how we can do it and make it independent for the designers, and it worked. It really did.
Design is the most important function of games, I think a lot of people would agree, but it's also...
TG: It decides upon it being successful or not, I guess.
Compared to other disciplines, it's less codified. Art is very well understood. Programming is very well understood. Design, there's still a fair amount of debate. There's not a complete language for discussing it.
TG: Yeah. Okay. I gotcha. Well, because this is what sells the game. This is what determines whether people find it fun or not. There's no definition of fun, is there? For other people, fun is a different thing. There are even killers who consider fun things that are not fun.
So, I mean, we're not doing a game for killers, but I just got way off here! But what I was trying to say is... I don't think you can code it. Hopefully we will one day, but it's not going to be easy, I guess.
We were talking about players talking about the different choices they made, and you said, with this game, you're integrating social media into it.
TG: It's going to be optional. Don't get me wrong, you won't have to do it. For all these guys that put pictures on Facebook daily, they definitely would like to share their experiences, which would allow them to do that. This is basically the idea.
Which I think is quite cool.
TG: Yeah. I'll probably do it.
What gave you the idea of doing that? Has the team really embraced that?
TG: Most of our team uses Facebook, Twitter, and all that stuff, so it was like... They played Demon's Souls, for example. They always discussed on each of these media, saying, "I like this." "I like this." "Oh, Demon's Souls is so hardcore right now -- don't burden me with this." "Come on! But you can do this and this..." And a few people got convinced into [playing it].
So, what we thought about was -- let's integrate it with the game. Let's do tools that actually do it for you. It's like you can spend your time in discussion. All the publishing and everything, it's just when you play the game. It's simple, seriously. It was quite natural. It flew out of making a game, actually.
When I spoke to you about the enhanced version of the original Witcher, you said that a lot of the enhancements you made came out of community response.
TG: Most of it, yeah.
So, you know you have a strong community, and obviously you found a lot of success outside of Poland with the first game that maybe wasn't anticipated. But now it's anticipated, right?
TG: [laughs] I hope.
So, the point is you know you have this global audience that's paying attention and feeding back. So, how did that affect the design? You started ground-up this time, knowing that you had this community.
TG: I think the key feature and the key point here, is we started on the right foot. What we did with The Witcher 1 is... It was like, "Okay, we know the books. We know who Andrzej Sapkowski is, so we know it's going to work perfectly with a game. But there is a whole world out there who doesn't give a crap who Andrzej Sapkowski is. They don't know who this guy is. Okay, so, please, please, let's not forget about that -- let's make a game that actually will be cool either way."
And yes, since we made it, because of the awards we got, I have a tendency to believe that we made it. So, doing just the same will probably work again, because it's just going to be a cool RPG. I mean, everyone who read the books will get these rewards. He will get rewarded by seeing these tastes, and small things that refer to the books. But if you haven't, you won't feel lost. We have to remember this every day, and we do. I think this is the formula that makes the game universal.
But in specific ways, have you incorporated design choices or changed things fundamentally, in terms of the way this game plays compared to the first one, based on audience reaction?
TG: Oh yeah, definitely. The case with The Witcher 1: Enhanced Edition was you always... I probably have even repeated it to you, because I repeat it always. You always work on a game for like three years, and by the end of that process, you think you see everything. But then like a million people start playing it, and the feedback you get is like thousands of comments on things that you wouldn't think about, and they are reasonable.
So, we got the idea that we had to re-implement some of the things in The Witcher, and we did the Enhanced Edition. And a lot of that was also based for redesigning things for The Witcher 2. We were not able to totally redesign combat in The Witcher 1, but since we have the new tech, the new game, and a totally new product, we redesigned it completely.
It's actually quite an interesting case, because the reactions on combat in The Witcher 1 were dual. Some of the people liked it -- mostly hardcore players -- and some others said, "Okay, you've got a cool story, but combat is only for hardcore players. Don't burden me with that."
Because taking that feedback seriously and doing something about it wasn't easy, so, what we've done is we've implemented the easy difficulty setting in The Witcher 2, which allows you to swipe really easily through the combat. Everything is pretty much optional. But on higher ones, you get at least as much depth as you had [in the first game]. And enhancing on it, we even have the insane difficulty setting unlockable later on when you finish the game. So, yeah.
I spoke to BioWare about Mass Effect 2, and obviously there was a big difference between Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. They sat down and actually filtered community response and made a formal document and picked out what was most needed to be addressed. Did you have that kind of process?
TG: It's tough to say. The way we approach it is, we always have a community manager, at least one person, full-time employed at CD Projekt Red. So, gathering that feedback is like taking the things that that person already knows because it's been there for years, and she knows the constant feedback from the people, and constituting it.
And, yes, there's been a list of the things that we've done. Firstly, the community-related person had to prioritize them, and then developers sit down with it. They also make their own ideas, put it on a list, give it weight, and so on and so on. And we all ended up with 20 or 30 major changes, and all others were addressed in probably a smaller way because, as you said, people, time, money, you know, all comes into play.
There's always a sort of tension, particularly in Western-developed RPGs, I think, where the tension between creating a story that has an authorial hand and having a defined character, and then offering up freedom. You're based on a novel series, so you have some elements of that. You have a defined main character. It's not create-a-character, but you do offer freedom.
TG: Yeah, we do.
That's an interesting creative tension.
TG: I don't know if it actually is a tension. It's like the game that we always wanted to do was about stories. I don't know if you know this, but we spent a lot of time, way before we did The Witcher 1, choosing the main hero. After being really inspired about doing the books, we were thinking about doing the game about some other Witcher, not exactly the same guy, so we took like a year and a half designing his look, designing his gameplay features, and so on and so on and so on.
And after that, it was like a week when we tried to prototype things, we had seen it, we had thought about it. "No, it has to be Geralt. Sorry." If you want to have a character that's cool to play, it has to be this guy. It all changed within days. I don't think it's a problem, because if you think about it and if you weigh everything, you have a really solid hero where you can create personality, and still be able to give a lot of freedom to players.
Well, it's interesting because there's also the audience. People have different feelings about that. I personally like defined characters and defined scenarios. Some people want to see themselves as the character. Some people want to inhabit another character. Some people just want to hear a story.
TG: Yeah, but it's just a matter of, where do you invest your work? We invest lots of it in the story. Other people have to share, split it between character and story, and that's okay as well. It's just, you know, we have to make sure the story is good enough to draw everybody.
You talked about the side quests being elaborate, complicated. You know, if you talk to people who play Fallout or something, there are so many other RPGs these days, you'll hear, "I spent so much time on side quests, I barely even touched the main story."
TG: That's how I played Fallout 3.
That's interesting, right? Not just that, but you hear the side quests are way more interesting than the primary story sometimes.
TG: But we probably have to remember that it depends on the game.
TG: I mean, The Witcher is a game ultimately driven by a story. It is. In that way, side quests are cool, but you wouldn't finish a game doing only side quests, and you wouldn't like see all the locations doing only the side quests. It is like story has its hubs that you have to complete, and you can go because we still believe like... Have you seen the presentation where you get out of prison?
It's one of the quests in the game. It's one of the main quests of the main storyline. There are four ways to get out of the prison. You could do it on your own. You could meet one character. Or if you killed that character previously in the game, you meet another character. And yet depending on other factors, you leave the prison with help, or without their help, in different directions by different exits.
So, it totally looks the same, and this trailer addresses this fact. It's like two people arguing on how actually Geralt got out of the prison. It really looks different whether who is telling the story. And at the end, it comes out still to the same part of the game, because it still is a quest about exiting the prison, about escaping from it. It's just that it plays totally different for different people, so you can actually make a single-player story-driven game, and it feels different for different people.
I like the idea you mentioned -- if there were dwarves and elves in the world, how would they realistically act?
TG: You have to put yourself in that position. This is cool in a game. I really like that.
I do, too. That's a more nuanced way of looking at it than it has been looked at in the past.
TG: There are a lot of, obviously, factors that helped that, that aided that. For example, graphics; it's easier to feel that with all the things that you have. But still, depending on how you approach it, the story has to be consistent as well. We always believed that it was obvious for us.
RA Salvatore, the author of the Drizzt Do'Urden books, which are in a similar milieu The Witcher said that he modeled the Drow society on The Godfather and the mafia, and just sort of adapted it so it would have a framework that makes sense. And I think that's the kind of thinking that's going to, at least for me personally, make things like fantasy games function. These are elaborate, large productions.
TG: They are. You know, I have to tell you that I have a really good example picturing the concept that you just touched on. It's like because we have a non-generic fantasy world, and because Andrzej Sapkowski spent a huge part of his life writing these books, it's like when our designers sit at the table, and when they think about, "Okay, let's think about a cool twist in the story," it turns out they feel like, "I know. Let's put an elf guardian soldier in here."
They don't waste time thinking whether it's a guy on a dragon, or a guy in black on a dark horse, because you know that it's the second one, because you read the books. So, it's comfortable to us because we have a non-generic fantasy world, and in this case, you said about the consistency, it worked for us because of that.
It's interesting that these are based on books, because I have the impression that the author is not into games. He's not a gamer.
TG: Not at all. I mean, all we've done with him is consulting with him, things like maps, like glossary, and everything, names of places and monsters and so on and so on. It worked well, but in the end, he's not into playing our game.
He's more like... This guy is really old school. I mean, I recently exchanged emails with him, and all of the emails I got for him, they were as formative as you would form a real sheet of paper. Like, "To Tomasz Gop, CD Projekt Red. Regards to topic of something, something, something." I was like, "Wow."
Certainly you need some literacy with games to get into a game like this, so if he's not a gamer, then it's not really possible.
TG: That's why we have our own story. That's why we didn't even think about doing a game on a story that he has written. That is one of the things obviously because of his attitude towards games. And the second one is we wanted to adapt it because it's different media, the book and the game. We had to do it our own way.