The Witcher 3 has been released to widespread critical and commercial acclaim but whilst the gameplay is varied and the scope is grand, I'd like to focus on some subtle design decisions which ease user experience throughout the game world.
A Tale of Two Swords
Staying true to the narrative lore of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, Geralt (our hero) is equipped with two swords; one made of steel for dispatching humans, the other is made of silver for slaying monsters. Both swords deal some damage to all enemy types but the output can be optimised by using the right tool for the job. The player can be forgiven for forgetting this simple rule during the heat of battle, however, the designers decided to introduce two features to help prevent this. First, on approaching a group of enemies, Geralt will automatically draw the correct sword relative to the foe he is about to face and keep it in hand until they are all dead. Second, the player has the ability to override this function by pressing left or right to draw/retract a sword from the corresponding position on Geralt's back. This can be useful for a scenario where a steel sword is damaged and the player may want to use the silver one instead or one where they are fighting against both humans and monsters, wanting to maximise the amount of damage they deal to each.
Geralt is a Witcher which means he has both a heightened sense of sight and smell. At any point during the game, the player is able to utilise these senses and see the world through a filter which highlights important information such as footprints or scent trails in bright red or yellow, depending on the context. However, key quest items such hand written letters or objects are clearly flagged without the use of Geralt's senses. They glow with a mild blue aura and are generally placed in positions which aren't obscured from view, clearly demonstrating that the designers want the player to be able to progress. This decision doesn't undermine the Witcher senses ability because it is used as a significant challenge numerous times elsewhere in the game but doesn't provide an additional barrier for those who just want to progress along the golden path.
I'm a big fan of being able to skip cut scenes in games, stale narrative elements can bloat the experience or the hooks just don't pull me in. The difference with The Witcher 3 is that the story is very well written with lots of interesting characters, devastating consequences and surprising twists. But what if the player doesn't have time to appreciate all of that? The solution is elegant. The player has the ability to skip any cut scene or dialogue choice to the next available segment. This allows a player to get the jist things rather than dismissing a conversation or sequence completely. It's also extremely useful for skipping familiar patterns of speech such as with a vendor or for the passing over intimate encounters which could lead to embarrassment.
True to the lore and heritage of the world, there are different types of currency which can be acquired through treasure hunting or as a reward. The problem is that only one currency, Crowns, is commonly used for purchase of goods and services across the land. The other types of currency, Florens and Orens, must be converted to Crowns in Novigrad - the world's largest city. A sole NPC by the name of Vimme Vivaldi is the only source of this transaction and comes equipped with an infinite fountain of cash. It might seem strange then that the player acquires redundant finances only to be directed to a single world location where they can be made useful, why even have them at all? I think the lesson here is that, the designer's recognised this would be a minor chore for the player and restrained themselves from adding additional complexity such as: fluctuating exchange rates, multiple payment options, currency weight, transaction thresholds and so on. If this feature was missing, nobody would bat an eyelid but because it does, it adds an additional layer of plausibility to the world's existence.
Due to the enormous expanse of the environment the player can become anxious, not wanting to move to far away from their current position and similarly it can be overwhelming to have a mass of locations pre-discovered on the map. In regards to this, the designer's made some good decisions in gradually introducing content and motivating the player to explore at their own pace.
First off, there are three ways to populate locations on the world map; explore on foot, read notice boards or talk to NPCs. This diversity alone means that the player isn't locked into doing one task or another, each providing a unique method of acquiring varying amounts of information.
Second, map markers are added even if the player briefly passes by a location whilst on a quest. This behaviour helps break down barriers between the core progression and free exploration, it can also lead to chaining whereby the player completes a quest and starts at, or immediately warps to, the location they just discovered when they return to free roam. Although subtle, the difference this makes for motivation is quite significant. Every location found is like a jigsaw piece; you can't complete the picture without them all and can very quickly become a compulsive addiction with very little player input.
Lastly, there is collectible card game featured in The Witcher 3 called Gwent. The rules of the game are beyond the scope of this post but suffice to say that the player must acquire new cards to improve their deck. Cards can be acquired in two different ways: by beating NPC players or by purchasing them from vendors, both of which are scattered throughout the world. The "collect them all" meta game associated is another reason for the player to want to go in search of a rare or prized item. However, the contrast here is that the compulsion to hunt all of the cards is more deliberate and engaging than accidentally finding locations as mentioned above.
So there we have it, I think it's important to focus on the subtleties in games, especially those of the scale of The Witcher 3. Often the best design decisions are the ones that nobody notices.
I'm keen to do more of these articles so please feel free to feedback any suggestions in the comments.