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What The Witcher Taught CD Projekt About RPGs

The team at CD Projekt RED has made a name for itself as a top-tier RPG developer with the release of the The Witcher 2, and as it moves into Cyberpunk the joint CEO and studio head reflect.

July 16, 2012

16 Min Read

Author: by Tom Curtis

Polish studio CD Projekt RED has developed quite a reputation for itself among the hardcore RPG community. Since the release of The Witcher in 2007, critics and audiences alike have lauded the studio for its robust, story-driven approach to design, as well as its consumer-friendly stance on post-release content and DRM.

Now that the studio has wrapped up development on the console version of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, CD Projekt RED has turned its attention toward Cyberpunk, a new sci-fi epic based on the pen and paper RPG of the same name.

In this interview, key staff members from CD Projekt RED take a moment to discuss the upcoming sci-fi RPG, detailing how the studio approaches its licensed properties and adapts them to an interactive medium. Along the way, the team reflects upon The Witcher series, noting what it got right, where it went wrong, and how the games have affected the studio's plans for the years ahead.

First of all, I'm curious to learn more about what drew CD Projekt RED to the Cyberpunk license. What about that franchise attracted you as a studio?

Marcin Iwinski (Co-founder and joint CEO): It was the setting. That's what we're really excited about.

Adam Badowski (Studio head): And we're an RPG-focused developer, so making a game based on a pen and paper game made sense. Those games have always been very important to us.

MI: We're really excited! We really wanted to make Cyberpunk, and when we started digging around in the team, we saw what people were fans of, and it turned out that a lot of people on the team played pen and paper games, so we thought, "Okay, we'll take a look at that."

There were other reasons for picking that license as well, but here the whole mix seems to work extremely well, because the system is almost 5,000 pages over 40 books, and there's more than 25 years of experience, and more than 5 million people playing it over that amount of time.

It's a well-proven base for making a game, and it's similar with what we did with The Witcher. Rather than coming up with the vision for the world, we actually bought the rights to the books, and we're able to focus on telling our story within the world that already has a setting. I think we have a very similar situation here, though it will be even easier on the mechanics side, thanks to the RPG background.

From left to right: Marcin Iwinski, Adam Badowski, Michal Platkow-Gilewski.

I found it interesting that you all chose to make another game based on an existing license after working with The Witcher. Why have you chosen to stick with licenses versus working on a new IP?

MI: Because we are lazy! (Laughs) No, it's really that we want to focus on making great games, and if you also want to create a great world as well, it just raises the bar super high. And here with these licenses we already have an existing fan base.

With The Witcher, that fan base was predominantly in Eastern Europe, because the books hadn't been published in English until the game was out, but we knew that millions of people love it, so if we make a good game, hopefully they'll like that too.

It's similar with Cyberpunk. The setting is already there, and we love the setting, so why would we want to create "CD Projekt Cyberpunk", or "CyberRED", you know?

In Cyberpunk's case, how are you approaching the series' existing pen-and-paper rule set? Is it influencing the way you approach design?

MI: We are not limiting ourselves to using a certain set of rules, but rather we're looking at it as a general [guideline]. We'll use it as much as it makes sense, and of course we'll really rely on the support of [Cyberpunk creator] Mike Pondsmith.

He's a game designer who's also knowledgeable about computer games, and he's been really excited to work with us. We think we can really use his expertise to the advantage of the game, and that's something we didn't have with The Witcher. He's consulting with us on a fairly regular basis.

AB: We'll share ideas with each other, and of course if we have questions about getting the mechanics down or things like that. It's been good, he's really...

MI: He's the oracle.

AB: (Laughs) Yeah, he's our wise man, and I think he's really been a great guide. He's been a really big help for us.

Your studio has always emphasized storytelling, and it seems like Cyberpunk's protagonist will vary a bit from how you approached things in The Witcher. Whereas the Witcher series used Geralt, who had his own pre-conceived biases and opinions, Cyberpunk is letting players customize their characters a bit more. Will this change the way you approach Cyberpunk's narrative?

AB: Well, ideally, we don't want to change anything. The most exciting element is to blend character customization with a story-driven game. It's a challenge, but we're really excited.

So how do you plan to overcome those challenges? Something like Skyrim, for example, has a lot of customization, but its story is less about the character and more about the world. The Witcher's story, meanwhile, really played up Geralt's history, his personality, and things like that.

AB: We're not really sure yet. I mean, there's no one true workflow when making RPG games, but we’re trying to combine things, we're mixing different ideas. But we've been very impressed with Skyrim, particularly in how they've made that game and its content so diverse.

MI: In terms of what you can expect from us, you can expect a rich story, and there won't be any easy shortcuts that say, "Hey! You're this unknown guy..." You know?

AB: The idea for Cyberpunk is quite simple. You have this universe... and it goes back to what you were asking before. The license aggregates all ideas about cyberpunk as a genre. It has elements of Blade Runner, it's futuristic, but it's also a bit retro... there's almost everything in this universe. We have a lot of experience with storytelling after making The Witcher 1 and The Witcher 2, and we have to use it. We're not going to make compromises when it comes to that, and I think what we're doing will surprise our fans.

Speaking of The Witcher 2, I'd love to hear about the lessons you all learned during that game's production. Looking back, what sort of things did you learn from The Witcher 2, and how are you carrying them forward into Cyberpunk?

AB: It's quite complicated, but it all comes down to design. We spent days discussing a general postmortem after we finished The Witcher 2. What we learned is that we need to attract people with a smoother learning curve when it comes to the storyline.

On the other hand, we want to keep that mature setting, and offer something deeper than the usual war between good guys and bad guys.

MI: Just to make sure we're understood correctly by our fans, this does not mean that we are going to simplify our games. That's definitely not the case. But for some audiences, the learning curve should be improved, and particularly the introduction to the world should be improved.

For example, we like to talk about the thing that everyone's talking about: Game of Thrones, the TV series.

AB: Look at the difference between the book and the series -- and there's a huge difference. I love the TV series, because for me, it's a perfect adaptation of the book. You cannot create as complicated story as the books when on TV.

MI: It's the perfect reflection of the book in another medium. They're different forms of expression. You have all of these different characters, and every character has their own story, but they all make sense when presented in either the book or on TV.

And that's what we want to capture. In the game, we want to create a story that is very profound, but the novice players should be introduced to it better than they were in The Witcher 2. Those players should be taken by the hand, but at the same time we would never want to offend the intelligence of someone who is more hardcore.

AB: If you're going to introduce a character to players, we definitely need to offer special quests just for that character, for example. This way, you take time to focus on the character specifically so players can understand them better.

MI: With our next game, we want the hardcore player to be able to get more context, and we need to introduce the game and characters to people more properly. In The Witcher 1, for example, we were throwing people in the middle of the story, and we assumed that players would know what is happening. But a lot of players told us that they didn't really understand this relationship or that relationship.

AB: Also, it's not important, for example, that every city on the game's map have its own story. If you're a hardcore player, however, you should be able to go in and find something interesting. This way, you can create those layers for the new and the hardcore players.

Michal Platkow-Gilewski (Head of marketing): Players should be able to choose how deep they want to enter the story, the plot. If they're really hardcore, they can really dig deeper and deeper and deeper, and if they're just casual, they can still learn about the characters and the story, but they'll do that by going in another direction.

AB: Sometimes you might find some external characters, or some scripts to read that reveal different branches of the storyline, and this stuff is very interesting for our hardcore players who really want to learn more.

MI: With Witcher 2 we hit another problem, where a lot of people came in new to the franchise, and they were like, "I don't even know what happened in The Witcher 1!" So we're thinking about ways to introduce people properly to a complex story.

Take Gears of War. A lot of players don't care about the story, but there is a huge universe around that series. For us, it's very important to attract player and make them want to explore the storyline. If you think of a game has having a gameplay level and the story level, we need to find the perfect mix between them.

While we're looking back on The Witcher 2, I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the game's second act, in particular. You basically designed it such that players would see one of two batches of content based on their previous choices. Why did you choose to design the game that way, considering players wouldn't even see a huge chunk of content unless they played the game twice?

AB: Because we are rich! (Laughs)

MI: And we didn't have to reuse assets! (Laughs)

AB: No, no, no. Really, it was kind of a design experiment. We want to treat our players right. It's true, the story has different branches, and for us, choices and consequence are very important, and that is the proof. In Act 2, we basically made two different acts, and from the production perspective, it was kind of a hell, but we did it.

MI: I mean I think another reason we did it is just because we wanted to play a game like that. We had never seen it before, and we think it's really cool, and it gives the game a lot of replayability options.

Now some people might say, "Oh, but I don't want to have to play it again," but we had a lot of fans who said, "Hey, I liked experiencing things completely differently."

AB: Also, as the creators, it was just fun to do it. For our next game, we have some new ideas that we want to keep secret.

You mentioned that it was an experiment for you. Was it a success? Was there anything about it that didn't go as planned?

AB: For sure it was a success, but probably half of our players didn't even realize that they can choose totally different paths.

MI: And that's actually something we could improve in terms of communicating with the player -- telling them that there is such an option in the story. There were so many people who only found out about the choice over the internet or by their friends, or they never found out at all. So in that case, you can say that all the work we put into that other area of the game went to waste for those players.

AB: But we don't want to tell people, "Okay, this is a special moment where you have to make a choice," or you'll lose something. In Act 1, we had a few of those moments, but maybe we could do it a bit differently.

MI: I think we didn't successfully communicate it. To make it a more appealing feature for players, we didn't make it visible enough.

AB: But I don't know how we can communicate that without spoiling things or destroying the immersion. It's very tough, but that's why it was an experiment.

MPG: Everything is about choices and consequence. For us, it was natural, because we had Iorveth and Roche, two strong NPCs, and if you stand against one of them, you should get a different story.

MI: I also think it was a very bold statement for us in terms of respecting the fan base. A lot of companies would put that in and be like, "Hey, that's perfect for an expansion set. Charge 20 bucks, more revenue!" But that's not our way, we like it like this. You can be sure to expect more experiments from us. (Laughs)

Speaking of which, I've found it very interesting that you guys have remained so committed to updating The Witcher 2 post-release without charging anything for existing players. At any point did you sit back and ask yourselves something like, "Hm, what if we did charge 5 dollars for an upgrade to the Enhanced Edition?"

MI: Well, we had a lot of discussions with The Witcher 1's Enhanced Edition. It was a bit different then because we had a publishing deal whereas now we have distribution deals. When we had that publishing deal, we went to the publisher, and said, "So we have this idea where we make all this stuff, all this new content, and you don't pay anything for it, we give it away for free. How about that?" The publisher went all big-eyed and said, "Whoa! Let's charge 10 dollars! 10 Euro!" But we believed that we would sell more units if we put it out for free.

And when we put it out for free, we saw a boost in the sales with the Enhanced Edition because it just created good will, and it refreshes the product. You can always do it from two angles, and sadly I see the industry trending toward over-exploiting the gamer, and I think this will come back to the publishers that are doing that, and eventually, people will stop buying their stuff. That's just not the way things work.

Jumping off from The Witcher's Enhanced Edition, let's talk about the recent console version of The Witcher 2's Enhanced Edition. As your first real console game as a team, what went well, what went wrong for you all from a production standpoint?

AB: I'd say we're all very happy about it, because right now, the whole studio is multiplatform, and we've completely rebuilt our pipelines and procedures. Everything is set right now.

We're happy because it took, I don't know, half a year, maybe a little bit longer... nothing special. I expected a lot of big hurdles, but before we knew it, it was done.

MI: (Laughs) He's so smart right now, but when we had discussions, it really didn't look like this, so don't take that for granted.

AB: (Laughs) Okay, yeah, it was challenging, and also stressful, of course.

MI: And we are PC gamers, we love PC gaming, during production there is a certain point where you can develop a sort of stigma, where you think, "Wow, maybe we can't do console games." But when you make a game so successful and it scored so well and it was so well reviewed, and one of the best-looking games on the 360, everybody was just super proud, and I think it really built the confidence of the team.

AB: Another thing I'm happy about is that we are the owners of our own technology. It was very challenging in terms of how to prepare it, how to develop the engine from scratch, and right now it's working, it's ours, we're independent... it's awesome.

And how has the console version performed financially?

MI: We're very happy with the game overall. It's selling very well, and I think we've really shown that we can do a AAA RPG on consoles as well. Obviously, our heart is still on PC, but we want to have more and more people knowledgeable about the franchise and enjoying the franchise.

AB: We also built a strong relationship with Warner Bros...

MI: Yeah. It's been very good for us. We've built up the PC version, the 360 version, and there's also a Mac version coming, so we'll have even more people playing Witcher.

AB: But with that we're going to change some habits. I'd say some bad habits. Now, we're going to try to attract Mac users to become regular gamers, and not just with small, indie games...

MI: It's still off the radar a bit, but because there are more and more people that only have Macs, and The Witcher 1 did very well on Mac and it came out five years later. We hope The Witcher 2 will just do even better.

Looking ahead, are there any other platforms you have your eye on?

AB: Yes. We'll be releasing the visually-stunning Witcher 2 on Android! (Laughs)

MI: (Laughs) No, no. When the time comes, we'll be talking about the new stuff, but as you can imagine, we're looking to really push the boundaries of the next generation of platforms, so that's pretty much the place for us.

AB: This is why we developed our own engine.

Speaking of which, after going through all the hurdles to make your own engine, do you have plans to license it out to other developers?

MI: We're thinking about it, but it's far too early. We'd have to prepare the tools in the right way... We have some ideas of course, but we can't talk too much about them now. Stay tuned...

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