The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – we track down the studio building a hugely ambitious next gen RPG
An open-world game is a huge undertaking for any studio, let alone a Polish independent with a track record in story-driven RPGs. But CD Projekt Red is no ordinary indie. Together with its sister companies – the Good Old Games download store and CDP.pl, a localiser and distributor of English-language games in Poland – the group is listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange. The studio’s inauspicious offices, tucked away at the back of an industrial estate, hold 160 staff at present, but the team’s still hiring. Just 89 people work on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt directly, developing nearly everything in-house with proprietary tech. It’s by far the studio’s most ambitious project to date.
But CD Projekt Red isn’t only building a world, it’s working to improve just about every aspect of the series’ mechanics, and seems fully aware of the mistakes it’s made in games past. The Witcher 2 assumed players were familiar with the original, so the initial PC release threw them into a warzone and just let them get on with it. A tutorial was added to the console version that followed, but went too far the other way, presenting players with an avalanche of information about its combat system. “The introduction to the game’s world will be really smooth this time,” gameplay producer Marek Ziemak assures us. “We had a lot of feedback from players after Witcher 2 about the beginning of the game, both in terms of gameplay and storyline. We really want to improve the very beginning.”
That, we’re told, will mean no overt tutorial, with mechanics gradually introduced in the game’s opening hours instead, although managing director Adam Badowski insists it will be done elegantly. An external QA firm, one of very few outsourcers on the project, worked closely with CD Projekt’s artists and designers in preproduction to ensure Wild Hunt’s start will be much smoother. “We’re going to incorporate small tutorials into the quests,” Badowski says. “We’re trying to avoid the situation with Red Dead Redemption, for example: that very generic beginning. It blocked me for a while. A month [later], I started again, and that game is amazing. We’ll have a small learning curve, and all those small combat tutorials we’ll build into the quests as part of the world.”
Even old hands will need those tutorials, because the combat system has been changed significantly. The dodge is the first thing you notice, The Witcher 2’s clumsy barrel roll cast aside in favour of more balletic moves that, lead gameplay designer Maciej Szczesnik tells us, are more respectful to the series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski on which the games are based. “We were always thinking about having those pirouettes, because Sapkowski, the original author, wrote about Geralt’s combat in that way – always using those moves, like he’s dancing with a sword. Now we really want to execute it properly.”
‘Execute’ turns out to be a smart choice of words when we watch Geralt Of Rivia cut swathes through a group of bandits who foolishly set upon him in a forest. Later on, a morale system will give him the chance to spare them instead, and you can loot them either way. But today he’s in a killing mood, and the action is more methodical and precise than ever. Both Geralt and his opponents move at walking speed, and the camera zooms out a little so you can see what’s going on behind you. “The combat now is much more intimate, more intense,” Ziemak says. “It’s closer, more personal, and a bit more bloody.”
It’s more natural, too, a consequence, Szczesnik says, of many of the development staff being real-world swordsmen and women themselves. “Lots of people in the company fight in brotherhoods – you know we have them in Europe? They take part in battle re-enactments. They’re kind of freaks [for] medieval armour and swords and all that stuff. We want to make it really believable.”
Geralt is a monster hunter by trade, however, which means many of his enemies will be too large or feral to wield swords. Our demo concludes with Geralt and an NPC companion taking on a giant in his lair. Enemy AI has been improved to the extent that our foe is aware of his surroundings, ripping stalactites from the ceiling to swing at us with abandon. Were we to move the fight outside instead, his attack patterns would be different. Using Witcher Senses – a new ability, clearly building on the Arkham series’ Detective Mode – you’ll be able to identify enemy weak points. Target them and you won’t just be depleting a health bar, but a moveset; hack off an arm, for instance, and your foe might lose his most powerful attack.
Witcher Senses are used outside of battle as well. We see Geralt turning a corpse and a bloodstain into a ghostly replay of the events leading up to them, then tracking a murderous giant back to its dank lair.
And while not entirely new, alchemy has also undergone refinement. Long-duration potions that buff stats and grant powerful boons are still brewed off the battlefield, but they can now be used during combat. “You trigger the effects of those potions whenever you like,” Szczesnik says. “We’re experimenting with that right now, so it’s not confirmed 100 per cent, but we plan to have those potions not wear off. You’ll just be replacing them when you drink another one.” Reading between the lines, it seems the change is being prompted by many players barely indulging their inner alchemists at all: “It’s a huge problem in every game I know. People tend to not use potions because they stack them – they try to keep them for later.”
Almost everything, then, has changed, including the world. You’ve seen the headlines by now: Wild Hunt’s map is 35 times the size of The Witcher 2’s, and 20 per cent bigger than that of Skyrim, although Ziemak stresses that size isn’t merely a matter of geography. “Skyrim, which I think we all love, is a rather short game in terms of the main storyline,” he says. “If you just want to focus on that element and you’re not that interested in exploring the world, it’s not that big. But that’s the core of The Witcher 3: the main story. It’s 40, 50 hours, plus the open world.”
CD Projekt Red claims there will be another 40 to 50 hours of gameplay in the wider world, and that all of it matters: there will be none of what Szczesnik calls “Fedex quests”. Much of it will come from the series’ stock-in-trade system of choice and consequence, which will now see the results of your actions ripple across the world. Local communities, each with daily and nightly routines, will react to you in different ways depending on choices made elsewhere. “You can expect that each of your decisions will have serious, meaningful consequences,” lead quest designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz explains, “but at the same time it’s not obvious what those consequences will be.”
It adds up to a series that only seems to be gathering momentum, with around 75 per cent of the team that worked on The Witcher 2 and a third of the original game’s development staff still on board. Meanwhile, Badowski is hiring from all over the world to help realise the team’s ambitions. And with mid-tier studios bearing the brunt of big publishers’ risk aversion globally, there’s an obvious attraction to a growing indie studio that owns its IP and is so confident in its abilities that it was among the first to tip its next-gen hand.
CD Projekt Red’s confidence also extends to its in-house tech. Badowski candidly admits that neither the BioWare Aurora engine used in The Witcher nor the RedEngine 2 that powered its successor were up to the demands of the job, but “now the technology is fully capable and it’s ready to create an open world”. There’s an improved facial system, with the addition of 40 bones to power more expressive NPCs; another in-house program gives artists the power to change the fabric, pattern and colour of NPC clothing with a few clicks. And how many indies do you know with a mo-cap studio in the basement? (“We do everything in here,” Badowski says, “except the horse. He wouldn’t fit through the door.”) Everything has been set up to enable CD Projekt Red to create content and make changes quickly. The day before our arrival, it upped and moved a mountain.
Yet the team is mindful of its roots. The Witcher 3 is, like the two games before it, an RPG first and foremost. Badowski sees all these improved elements – the gentler introduction, the combat, the climate and communities, the scale of it all – as a means to do one thing more effectively. “We don’t want to build a sandbox experience; we want to keep storytelling as the main goal,” he says. “This studio will develop RPG games forever. We are storytellers.” If CD Projekt Red can pull it off – if it can take on some of the biggest videogame companies in the world at their own game and create the next generation’s first great open-world game – it will be the greatest story it has ever told.