From The Witcher 3 to Cyberpunk: The evolution of CD Projekt's quest design

We caught up with the quest director of Cyberpunk 2077 to learn more about how his team has adapted to making content for a nonlinear RPG.

The Witcher 3 is known for its great quest design, but developer CD Projekt Red promises to evolve this tried and true approach in its next game, Cyberpunk 2077.

At E3 2019, quest director Mateusz Tomaskiewicz told us about what he's learned directing the quests of Cyberpunk 2077, and the challenges of designing a more nonlinear RPG. 

What has changed for you in your life as a quest director since Cyberpunk 2077 was announced?

A lot has changed, I moved in from Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, and I had to get up to speed with everything going on and what we have, assumptions, goals, and so on. And what's really special for me about this project specifically compared to The Witcher 3, for example, is that no longer are we only trying to combine a rich branching narrative with an open world - this time around we would like to add a layer of nonlinearity, which is gameplay nonlinearity.

So, we're adding this whole layer related to the skills that you choose as you play, to the life paths you choose as you create your character. We implement all of that within the range of the missions. 

You saw that this year we focused on showing this specific thing. That's why we spent so much time in the mall, so we showed you guys what are the different ways of solving these missions. You can stealth your way through, you can shoot your way through if you choose so.

There're different paths you can unlock based on the skills you've invested in your time in. There are different dialogue options based on the skills you've invested your time in, and the life path that you've chosen. And this impacted our design.

What do you think your team of quest designers has learned implementing quests based on systems they aren't overseeing?

First of all, it's a big shift in how we're thinking about quests and how we're approaching guiding players, and how we're implementing these missions. Specifically, not only do we now have to think about the possible paths the players take in terms of the story - which is what we focused on in The Witcher 3 - now we have to think about how to build these encounters and sequences that provide interesting, divergent paths for different skillsets that players decide to go with. This isn't something we did in The Witcher 3.

For example, in The Witcher 3, combat sequences were like black boxes that you inserted. You just spawned NPCs, and the rest was just happening there. It was just fighting them with swords, signs, or bombs, but the outcome was the same. 

This time around, it's more interconnected with other departments - the level designers or the encounter designers of gameplay. In terms of what kinds of devices can we use, [we consider] how we can build the level so it's interesting and [clear] about what kind of paths you can take, and how to combine this with the narrative, and how to make it work in a way that you don't break the game's story. 

A cynical person might say that leads to a slowdown in workflow. What's helped you overcome any logistical challenges working on that? 

I think the most challenging thing about this is that these teams have to start working together really closely. In The Witcher, the quest designer was an owner of a chunk of a game. They implemented almost everything in that section. They could own it - not many people could impact us. If the whole level changed for artistic reasons, this impacted their work, but gameplay designers wouldn't break it often for them.

If you do this very close cooperation where the work overlaps, so in this case the mall in the demo shown today, [that] was worked on by a quest designer, encounter designers, and level designers. So whenever each of them do their part of the job, if they don't communicate properly, they create issues for each other. 

So I think the biggest challenge here is proper communication in coming together and creating this part of the game together, and to not break each other's work. It might sound basic or simple but in reality, it's not. It requires a lot of effort from all the teams involved to get it done and get it done properly.

How often do your teams check in with each other? Are there more meetings in the schedule, do the teams have to schedule more check-ins arbitrarily to make sure they're on the same page?

We tried a few different ways to approach this. Daily standups were one of the ways that our strike teams were doing this. Then I think at some point we decided not to do the daily ones because it was too many meetings. Another thing we did was to put the people from strike teams together in the same room so it's easier to communicate with each other.

We have weekly meetings where people talk to us [about] what are the problems they encounter, is there anything global that needs to be fixed between the teams, so I can help people with that. Aside from that, we encourage people and organize playthroughs of these missions for the strike teams. 

So they sit together in one room, and they play this whole thing and talk about issues and what they would like to do and so on. These are some measures we have taken. The most important one is day-to-day communication between them - putting this thought in people's minds that anytime you change anything, it might impact other people. Inform them, even if - worst case scenario, it won't be important to them. Best case scenario, they might see something that might be problematic or important to them.

And again, it sounds obvious, but it's not. There's a lot of tendencies in people's mindsets to believe that something is obvious for other people, or something might not be important for other people because they don't see the cascade of consequences. But when they start talking to other people, it becomes clear "oh, this changes a lot, it's super important to let people know."

Death is still a point of failure in Cyberpunk 2077, but have you thought about other ways you can still let players fail and still move forward? That's sort of a feature of the tabletop RPG design of Cyberpunk

This was a rule for us in all of our projects. We always had this rule in the main storyline - we never fail the quest based on choices. We treat those things as outcomes. The only way to fail them is if the player dies.

It's quite limiting when you think about it when you start designing. What comes out of it is something pretty interesting. The game feels more organic - we have to think about all these different possibilities and outcomes. It doesn't feel limited, it feels like it gives players more freedom in what they're doing. It creates this impression that the world reacts to what you're doing instead of saying "oh no you shouldn't do that, it's not the right way to do that."

In the side missions, we can let players fail them, but again we can do it as an outcome. So it's not the case that you failed it and now you have to restart, it's more like "you fucked up." Say you were supposed to escort someone, and they died, and it has consequences. It makes the game feel more organic, and makes the player say "yeah that's how it would have went if this was pen and paper." The GM wouldn't say "yeah you killed a main NPC you have to restart the adventure." They're trying to go with it, and see how it would continue. 

Choice and expression have been a big selling point on this game. Quests are both a tool for game designers to let players integrate with the world, but also express themselves with choices and other experiential moments. How, as a quest designer, have you adapted the sense of expression and identity? 

There are multiple ways. There is of course, through the dialogue, this is the most obvious one. There are different problems in the game as you interact with different quests and go through them. You can have a stance on those problems.

Some of them are flavor, so choices, some of them are meaningful decisions that impact different things. Another guideline we have for quest design in our company is to make the distinction between the two as blurred as possible. So you should be asking "is this decision a flavor or will this have far-reaching consequences?" If you do it like this in our observation, people tend to pay more attention to all of the choices because people don't know which ones are the important ones and which ones are the cosmetic ones. 

That's one thing. The second thing is - this isn't quest design per se, but it's the possibility to customize your character as you play through the game. As I mentioned, this time around we have this other layer, we added this thing we called the life path. It's like the origin of your character. At the beginning of the game when you create your character - are you a street kid, are you a corpo, or are you a loner? 

These life paths give you different advantages and disadvantages throughout the game. For example, when you interact with corpos, you know how they operate, you know how to talk to them to gain an advantage over them. On the streets, as a corpo you don't have many advantages. 

Cyberpunk as a genre deals with the concept of transhumanism, about consciousness and humanity going beyond what we understand. We saw a brief jump to cyberspace in the demo. What tools did you find effective for creating a proper sense of what it's like to go beyond what we think of as traditionally human?

The concept of cyberspace itself is pretty interesting in our game, because the general idea is that everyone who interacts with cyberspace sees it differently. You might imagine that the thing you saw in the demo is how V - the player character - sees cyberspace. But some other character like Brigitte, she sees cyberspace totally differently. 

The general idea is that cyberspace is such a vast amount of data that your brain, in order to not go mad, to make some sense out of it, it uses known symbols, its own knowledge and references to create some kind of sense out of it. This is one way. We have multiple threads in quests that touch upon different facets of transhumanism.

And of course a lot of it we show through the dialogue. We show it through environmental storytelling, throughout the city, throughout different stories about different characters and how they cross certain boundaries, and how they move forward with transcending what it means to be human, so to speak.

The setting of cyberpunk itself is different in this regard in that a lot of things that would be quite alien or bizarre to us today - the ease with which people can replace their legs or hands or other body parts with cybernetics is totally normalized in this society. This is a subject we put a lot of attention to as well throughout the whole game.

To do this, we do it in the standard narrative in different stories. We also have video content that touches heavily upon this subject to tell you how this society works and how normalized these things are. And of course the commercials, the ads in the game that you might find, you saw many of them in the demo in Pacifica. We have produced a lot of content to show this message to players. 

There's a follow-up question we'd like to ask about that. This may be a little outside your specific of your purview, but there's one in-game ad that specifically has sparked a lot of conversation from other developers in this space. 

You know the ad right? The soda ad that says "Mix it up?"

Yeah, yeah. 

We haven't seen the full character selection screen, it's not finished yet. The team said it wasn't finished last year. There are still many changes you all are making to the game. Has the team thought about giving players that kind of choice over their character, to give themselves similar representation? 

And if they're not, has the team considered the gap between portraying characters like that, and limiting what you can have your players represent themselves as?

Of course. It's a very sensitive and important subject I believe. We have put a lot of thought into this. One of the things we want to do in the final game - which we couldn't show in the demo yet, because as you mentioned it's a work in progress - is to give the players as many options of customization in the beginning of the game as we can. 

For example, we want to do this thing where, as you create your character after you choose the body type, you can, for example, use physical traits as you build your face that could be assigned to a man or a woman. 

Or nonbinary? 

Or nonbinary. The idea is to mix all of those up, to give them to the players, as they would like to build it. Same goes for the voice. We wanted to separate this out, so the players can choose it freely. This is something we are still working on. It's not as easy as it sounds. 

This is one part of it. In terms of how we depict the characters within the setting itself, of course, yes, we are paying a lot of attention to it. We do not want anyone to feel like we are neglecting this, or treating it wrongly. 

Last year Patrick Mills told us he loved looking over his own life and tastes for great inspiration for quests. Do you have any similar stories about that, way outside Cyberpunk, way outside this world that inspired a quest?

I personally get inspired mostly by other works of fiction. I watch loads of movies and I play a lot of games, board games, etc. That's where most of my inspirations come from. Sometimes real life is much weirder than the fictional situations that we come up in. Many times I've had situations in my life where "if I proposed this as a quest in our game, I would be laughed out of the room."

People would tell me "that doesn't make any sense," or "that situation could not occur." Sometimes these things are nice snippets you can use to build up a bigger story out of them. My preferred way of working about these things with the designers is to give them the opportunity to do these short pitches, in which you're looking for a glimpse of something interesting, something we can build upon. It doesn't have to be a huge long story, but it needs to be something memorable, something we can put in the game. 

It's less of a specific inspiration, more like a method of inspiration. 

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