The Witcher was an unlikely hit in many ways. It was a single-player RPG released only for PC in 2007, when many were questioning the viability of single-player RPGs and PC exclusives. It was based on an Andrzej Sapkowski series of novels and stories that is well known in the author's native Poland, but obscure in North America. And it was the first game developed by CD Projekt RED, the nascent internal studio of Warsaw-based publisher CD Projekt.
Despite all those challenges, The Witcher's critically-lauded storytelling and lore helped it rack up more than 1.5 million copies on one platform. After shipping the game's "Enhanced Edition" based largely on fan feedback, RED got to work on The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings for PC – another example of a "dying genre on a dying platform," as senior producer Tomasz Gop likes to defiantly observe.
The experience of developing the Enhanced Edition of the original game, which was a free update for all existing owners of the game, solidified RED's practices of paying close attention to its community's feedback, and Gop says that mentality carried right over into the full sequel.
In an in-depth interview, he discussed the development process so far, drawing inspiration from many sources, adapting literary works in games, and keeping the fans in mind.
Did you transition right into The Witcher 2 straight from the first game? How far along are you?
Tomasz Gop: We started working on the game right after we had released the first one. It was October 2007. For the first year and a half, part of the team worked on the new engine -- basic low-level stuff and prototyping -- and it was around the time we released the enhanced version of The Witcher that the rest of the team moved.
Since then, it's been a year and a half that the whole team, around 80 people, has worked only on this project. We're about 60 percent done, and we're going to ship in Q1 2011.
Going straight into this project, did it help that The Witcher ended up being a bigger success than some might have expected? Did you expect it?
TG: You always account for that. [laughs] You always wish that you sell a lot of copies. There's a joke that we usually use: we sold one and a half million copies of a dying genre on a dying platform. And over a hundred awards.
But using what we got [from reviews and feedback], we started off doing the enhanced version. This is exactly the case with The Witcher 2 as well. We are trying to enhance on what people say, what media and fans say, our reviews and comments that we get. The Witcher 2 and all of its changes that we've made to the engine are based on what people think, and on the success we had.
We knew what people loved; we knew what people didn't. We didn't get 100 percent scores. We got 86. So, we still have places for improvement, and this is what we've been doing.
With that in mind, what are your main objectives in developing The Witcher 2?
TG: The most important thing that we know is that people still believe good hardcore RPGs are playable. People want to play these. There's one misconception many people have... This is not "action RPG," this is not "slasher RPG." We're trying to really make a solid RPG. We're not trying to make up genres. This is the main goal: telling a story. We're trying to have story, plot, characters, cinematic sequences, and all of that. That was the main reason to rewrite the engine and to make The Witcher 2.
It's interesting you say that about RPG versus action RPG, because The Witcher does have a reputation for having quite a bit of direct-control combat.
TG: Combat plays a big role because [protagonist Geralt] is a Witcher. He's a master swordsman. But still, if there is any feature that we put in front of all the rest in The Witcher, it's definitely the story.
You've moved away from the timing-based attacks. What was the thinking on redesigning combat?
TG: The reason we changed the combat was so that we could keep it a hardcore game -- because there are thousands of RPG and engine mechanisms still lying underneath -- but at the same time make it accessible to people who don't really care about combat and just want to experience the story. If you just want to swipe quickly through the combat, you might do it on easy.
On the easy difficulty level, the combat isn't that hardcore. You have a lot of possibilities, but you're not obliged to use them – systems like alchemy, preparing for combat, and so on, and so on. We of course try to address a wider target [audience] but still maintain all of these mechanisms that make the game an RPG, with stats-based [systems].
Earlier, you mentioned Batman: Arkham Asylum as another example of a game that includes a fairly deep total combat system while still allowing users to take a very simple approach if they wish. Was that game a direct influence?
TG: [Arkham Asylum] has got that great feature. We're not afraid to mention our inspiration; I don't think that's bad. You could do combat mindlessly, let's say, if you wanted to, or you can plan for combat encounters, learn the system and tons of moves, and strategically plan your combat, see your outcome, and have a lot of satisfaction. And I believe this is going to be the case in The Witcher 2.
How much iteration did it require to reach that point?
TG: We're not done yet. We're still not done with focus tests. We're in the alpha stage, as you can see. So we've done prototyping. We're finalizing what features we want and which ones didn't make it into the game, but the final look and final feel of these, the tweaking, the timing, and so on, have yet to be determined throughout alpha and on the verge of beta.
With the first game, you had already basically transformed BioWare's Aurora engine beyond recognition. Why start over and write your own from scratch now?
TG: I think we did quite well with telling the story in The Witcher. I think a lot of people said, "You wanted to tell a good story, and you chose a good means to tell it." But we had a lot more ideas that we couldn't do with Aurora. We believe that people liked our approach to The Witcher, and we have more ideas to do the same kind of thing that people appreciate, but we couldn't do them with The Witcher 1.
So, we rewrote a lot of tools, the whole toolset for storytelling, for non-linear story branching, scripting, dialogue, community subsystems, attitudes [NPCs] have around the world, people reacting to you. All of those have separate editors and debuggers right now, and they're all scripting systems that are easy to use for our designers. Of course there's a renderer as well.
Those kinds of systems have traditionally been what Western RPGs strive for. Can you talk about any of them in more depth?
TG: There are a lot of things, actually. You can see it even just in [this gameplay demonstration, featuring a combat encounter and branching dialogue]. There are systems that let us branch the story because we have more endings to this story than we had in The Witcher. Not one or two more; way more. We have a lot more factors that influence how the story branches and what you will see.
It's not only dialogue choices. For example, you want to take care of who you stick with throughout the game, your companions and so on. We also have companions in the battlefield. You don't command them directly, but they are independent guys or women who can help you, and they can change the outcome of a battle.
You have communities, societies. A lot of things are going on inside the cities, inside the places you will visit, and they're often independent of your actions. There are things that are going on that don't always wait for you to see them. Dialogue looks more lively. People can join in or join out of the dialogue. There's no limitation towards number of participants.
You mentioned Batman. Any other games you've looked at recently that you've drawn inspiration from or found particularly interesting?
TG: Well, we try to play all major games that come out and discuss them in the studio. But as far as games that inspired us, for example, I thought the sex in Heavy Rain was something that fit the game. It wasn't, like, for 14-year-old people who want to see naked women. It was a story of two people getting together. That was one of the things that inspired us to change the presentational aspect of sex in The Witcher 2. You don't have collectible cards anymore, basically. It's more story-driven, cinematic.
You probably have seen that dialogue is streamlined now. Some people see this and think Mass Effect. Yeah, of course. That was good and interesting, but we don't do what they do in Mass Effect where they suggest to you which one is good and which one is bad. You have these blue and green [dialogue choices], from what I remember. That's not the case in The Witcher's world. You don't have that. Moral choices are more difficult.
How do you approach designing or writing moral choices? More and more games these days are trying to include that kind of situation, but most of them do it with numbers or scales.
TG: Yes. You know, I have to start with saying it's a really comfortable situation for us to be able to draw from the world that was created by Andrzej Sapkowski, the guy who wrote the books The Witcher is based on. We don't have a generic fantasy world, which is great. I can tell you that's one of the major sources for the gray morality system, because he created that.
The main principle is that you don't think about [morality] when you're making a choice in the game. It's a matter of whether the game wants you to recognize that you're good or you're bad, or if it just wants you to think about what you should do if you were the Witcher. It means that all of these choices have consequences, but they're not based on whether you're good or bad. They're based on what you want.
Do you work with the author at all?
TG: He's not a computer game fan. He doesn't play games himself. But during The Witcher, around the time we were closing the content of the game, we consulted with him multiple times to make sure we were consistent. For example, the first map of the world of The Witcher was created by us. Nobody did it before. The bestiary, the directory of characters, of stories and plots, of monsters, for example -- all of that is consistent. It's quite possible that we will do the same with the second game.
The story is our own -- don't get me wrong. It's our own story. It happens after the books have ended. We're trying to stay consistent, but we definitely have a lot of ideas to tell the story, and we do that.
So you feel like you have a fair amount of narrative freedom?
TG: Yes. We don't complain about it. If we want to introduce something, [we can]. For example, Vernon Roche, [a character in the upcoming game], is not even mentioned in the books, while Triss, the sorceress, is. I think it turns out well.
How does the writing process work? This is an early demo, but the English dialogue seems very natural. You don't write it in English first, do you?
TG: You would be surprised. Actually, at first, we think about "hobs" -- blocks of the story that have to happen. We call them hobs. Some of the major, important parts of the story have to happen, and the designers sit and think about them. Then they think about the dialogue, and we pretty much simultaneously write in Polish and English. So, English is one of the two first languages. The guys who write the game think about the approach to the dialogue, write it, and at the same time they consult our translation guy, and they do it together.
So you have dedicated writers on the team?
TG: Definitely. Some of them have spent 18 years writing scripts for television or for movies. They've done a lot of that. So, we've got quite a few people.
Does that feel like a luxury? It's still not standard to have that.
TG: It depends. I mean, for example, we might not have some luxuries in other aspects, but since this is a key feature of The Witcher, we definitely had to approach it in a more professional way. So, we try to hire people who really will do it right with the first approach.
When you talk about not having luxuries in certain other areas, where do you make those calls? At least visually, it looks like a game with pretty high production values. Where's the trade-off?
TG: That's not what I'm saying. I mean that this is the only game that we're making right now. This is our main project. And we definitely want to reach higher than with The Witcher.
But what I'm trying to say is that we definitely know what The Witcher is. We don't define this game as, "Well, if you're a slasher fan, it might be a slasher for you. If you're an RPG fan, this will be an RPG for you." We know that we address the game towards the people who love RPGs and storytelling. That's why we know that in certain areas, we can't be wrong. We can't make mistakes. And those are the most important ones.
We're not putting anything down. We're not trying to, I don't know, make the graphics look crappy. I think you've seen that they really look good. It's just that, at the beginning of the production, we spend most of the time thinking about our vision of the game and its story, and so on. Then everything comes together.
Do you feel like you know your audience pretty well at this point? As you said, this is a platform and genre some people keep saying are dying, but you managed to carve out a good chunk of people nonetheless.
TG: Well, we actually we already did while releasing The Witcher, and it turned out that after releasing the game, we had tons -- millions – of comments that inspired us to do the enhanced version, which means you never know what people think unless you release the game and really take the time to get feedback. We're curious this time, and we're careful, because we believe we put more effort than most studios do towards getting feedback and implementing it back.
So, in this case, yes, but we're being more careful than we were before, We still want to do a lot.
You gained a reputation for that receptiveness when you distributed the enhanced edition free for existing owners.
TG: That's one of the priorities for us.
Does it feel like that earned you some credit with the fans, that you can use to try some other things?
TG: We're not spending credits right now. [laughs] This is not what we're doing. Definitely no. We want to stick with our principles and rules. We never had any doubt that this is one of the most important things for us to do, to listen to fans and implement their feedback. This is like a bloodflow for us, a natural thing to do. It has to happen this way, and this is the way we're doing it.