Fantasy is back – and not just on the big screen. Alongside a revival in movies, and with Game of Thrones leading the charge on TV, it’s seen something of a renaissance in recent years – and in gaming too. We’ve always had the Elder Scrolls series, but recent years have seen other blockbuster series emerge, from Dark Souls to Lords Of The Fallen, carving out their own niches in what was once Tolkien territory.
Then there’s The Witcher trilogy of RPGs, set around the fantasy series of the same name written by Andrzej Sapkowski, best described as Europe’s answer to George RR Martin. Starting in 2007, Polish studio CD Projekt Red has built the series into a blockbuster franchise of its very own, and with next year’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, it’s about to burst onto next-generation consoles - Xbox One and PS4 - and PC.
After all, “how can you make next generation RPGs on old generation hardware?” quips Miles Tost, one of the level designers on the game. He’s got a good point. With more than 230 employees at the Warsaw studio, and most of them working on the new game, CD Projekt Red are betting big on the new generation of consoles. Trost says that though the previous installment came out in 2011, work on The Witcher 3 began much earlier.
“Regarding the start date, it’s really hard to pinpoint an exact time as there have been concepts for stuff flying around the studio well before we launched the Xbox 360 version of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings,” he tells Red Bull.
The story picks up shortly after the events of the previous game. “Nilfgaard is attacking the kingdoms of the North, and (monster-hunting protagonist) Geralt is now untangled from the political grip from the previous chapters and can do anything he pleases. He’s a witcher after all.”
Not that this should put newcomers off. “We’ve managed to write the story in such a way that you don’t have to be familiar with the previous games to have fun playing it, and long time fans will still see it as a natural continuation of events,” Trost says, adding that some context will be provided for those who want to know more about the backstory. “We’ll definitely prepare something special for those gamers, who want to know more about the plot of the previous titles.”
This time round though, combat has been tightened to focus on the tactical. It’s no longer good enough for Geralt just hack away repeatedly at monsters – you’ll have to measure their movements and duck and counter appropriately.
“The pacing of the encounters is now less chaotic, less ‘slash and roll’ and way more ‘predict and dodge’,” Tost explains, adding that you’ll also have to put more thought into which monsters you choose to attack. “We’re also including the monster hunting quest mechanic – something that reflects Geralt’s witcher profession. There are monsters within the world Geralt will get contracted to kill. You can also stumble upon them by yourself. Defeating them is extra tricky and requires a lot of preparation.”
“When using Witcher Senses, Geralt’s ability to hear and see increases. First you have to find the monster, then you determine what kind of monster it is, you combine various mixtures and oils that will help you to combat it, and – finally – you go in for the kill.”
Of course, what the switch to next-gen really enables is the sort of vast scope the fantasy series demands – and for the first time, CD Projekt Red have opted for a huge open world environment that’s yours to explore as you wish.
“We knew we had a really good RPG on our hands and a really dedicated fanbase to support that, but we still wanted more. That’s where the open world element kicked in – we always wanted to make a truly open world RPG but, for various reasons, we couldn’t fully accomplish that goal until now,” Tost says.
“We want to combine the strong pull of closed-world RPGs story-wise, with a world where you can go anywhere and do anything you want. It makes the whole experience more lifelike. Geralt’s a witcher, a travelling monster hunter for hire – there’s nothing more exciting that letting him loose in an open world and giving him a meaningful and captivating story to be part of.”
How big are we talking? Try 35 times bigger than the world of The Witcher 2. That’s what all those hundreds of developers and creatives are needed for: this isn’t so much a canvas they’re painting this time around, but a mural – the size of an aircraft hangar. And they’re not taking any shortcuts doing it either.
“The team are actually making everything by hand. Yes, we do use middleware to help us with certain aspects of the game, but quests, for example, are always done by hand – special cells within the studio create them, test them and see how fun they are. There’s no random generated Fedexing in the game, everything is as meaningful as it can.”
That’s also likely part of the reason for the game’s delay. After targeting a 2014 release, CD Projekt Red pushed the game back to February 2015, but Tost says it had to be done to clear the high bar the studio has set for itself. “Quality is something that we put a lot of focus on. Releasing a game that might not represent that quality, just for the sake of releasing it, well, it’s not us.”
It’ll be worth the wait, for PC gamers especially. CD Projekt Red also owns the game download store GOG.com, similar to Valve’s Steam store in concept. The store started out as a place to buy classic games, but its USP is that every single game is DRM (digital rights management) free.
You know those annoying restrictions designed to prevent piracy, but inevitably end up bugging the people who legitimately bought the game instead? Yeah, GOG doesn’t allow them, and the company’s own The Witcher series has proved the perfect vehicle to show they do little to stop piracy. As if to prove a point, The Witcher 2 was released DRM-free on GOG – but it was a cracked rip of a store-bought disc copy that wound up on illegal filesharing sites. Tost confirms that The Witcher will be available on GOG at launch, no rubbish “You can only install this game on X number of machines which must be connected to the internet at all times” nonsense.
“You’ll be able to purchase The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for PC on GOG.com from day one. We believe that DRM does more harm to legit gamers than good for the gaming industry, that’s why the game will also be completely DRM-free.”
Tost declines to talk about DLC (downloadable content) for The Witcher 3, saying it’s too early to be talking add-on material for a game that isn’t out yet, so as our interview draws to a close we try a different tact. If you weren’t working on The Witcher 3, what would be your dream game to make right now?
“We’d be totally working on a game set in a cyberpunk future, with lots of guns and psycho chicks and dudes with blades in their hands,” which sounds awesome. And also alarmingly like the other game CD Projekt Red has in the works right now, an adaptation of a popular table top roleplaying game that’s headed to next-gen consoles in 2016.
“We’d call it Cyberpunk 2077.” Ah yes – Tost may tow the company line, but at least we’ve got that to look forward to as well. Even if The Witcher saga ends on a trilogy, CD Projekt will still keep fans under its spell.