CD Projekt on The Witcher II
Despite problems surrounding the graphic cards needed for their game's demonstration today, Senior Producer Tomasz Gop and Level Designer Marek Zimak look positively chilled on their large white sofas at the Eurogamer Expo. And why shouldn't they? CD Projekt's The Witcher was a great surprise in terms of reception and sales, players the world over enjoying the unique combat and unusual maturity of witcher Geralt's bloody adventure. Of course the guys aren't fazed.
Three years on from the first game's release, The Witcher II is gathering up steam as CD Projekt look to build upon that success. But the studio hasn't been prepared to sit on its laurels, with wholesale changes around things like the engine and the combat ensuring that the game will be a completely new beast. But along with all that has come renewed controversy about the game's sexual content, resurfacing the criticism of the first game's 'sex cards' in particular. So as I settle in on my own large white sofa, I ask Tomasz and Marek about all these things and more about The Witcher II, and also touch on their thoughts about CD Projekt subsidiary Good Old Games.
How surprised were you guys by the critical reaction to and the commercial success of The Witcher, and in particular the staggering sales of 1.5m for a new IP on PC?
Tomasz Gop: I think that every starting developer has the thought that he could do well with his game so we weren't totally taken aback by the success. But yeah, we're happy, we're extremely happy that everything worked, the pieces came together, and that we pulled it off, actually. It's great, but we're not thinking that a miracle happened; we really worked hard for this.
CD Projekt is based in Poland, which is interesting as there are only a few Polish game developers involved within the mainstream industry. What has the success of The Witcher done for the industry in Poland? It must have had some impact.
TG: The entering threshold is still really big because you have to invest quite a lot of money to get a triple-A title anywhere in the world but especially in Poland. If you want to do a triple-A title you have to invest money at prices counted as they would be in Poland, and it's even more money than you would think of any other product that is Polish. But the mindset and the awareness of media and of everyone in Poland have changed. People recognize The Witcher, and many people don't consider games as kiddie-play right now, so it is good. On the other hand, investing money in Poland is still... we'll still need a few years before people start investing huge amounts of money.
So you're here at the Eurogamer Expo promoting The Witcher II. Which areas from the first game have you targeted as needing improvement in the sequel?
Marek Zimak: The combat system is one of the main features we've changed. The things connected to the storyline were improved but they were enriched - they were already good...
TG: They were good, and we didn't want to mess around with them.
MZ: Yeah, we didn't want to mess around with them too much. But the combat system, some of the people didn't really get it. It wasn't something we wanted to have in The Witcher II. We believed we had a better vision of it so we redesigned it and we recreated it in The Witcher II. It's different and it's a little bit more dynamic. It's easier to use and maybe harder to master, but it's what we were looking for. So that's one of the systems for sure that's been totally redesigned.
TG: For example, some people complained about The Witcher's combat being too hardcore or not intuitive, but at the same time there were a lot of people who liked the combat in that game. So we thought, "OK, let's keep the depth, let's keep the system that is rich in features, but at the same time let's try to not make everything obligatory." So, for example, you'd don't have to do time-based clicking in combat in The Witcher II. But still, if you want to play on a higher difficulty setting, you have to utilize advanced techniques like combining strikes, combining magic with strikes, doing your own combos, building up things that are insane. But the entering threshold is lower for combat.
So there's a bit more scope now, you can appeal to a bigger audience.
TG: We definitely take into consideration everything the community says. So if there are some people that tell us it's not intuitive enough, it's not easy enough, then let's have an option to have it easier, and actually in The Witcher II you might be able to make your way through the combat through just button mashing.
In terms of the first game, there was a lot of controversy about its take on sexuality. Some people really liked it, other people were really turned off by it, and in particular the sex cards which were criticized for being misogynistic. You've taken the cards away in The Witcher II, but is there anything else you've done to ensure you don't get the same reaction this time around?
TG: We've extended the storytelling. I don't know about all of them, but definitely most of the romance encounters in the game are told properly and driven towards the player so that whenever he sees the naked woman, I don't know, sometimes making love with the Witcher, it actually it means making love, and not "I want to see nipples!"
Building from that, the recent Rock Paper Shotgun preview was quite critical of one particular scene from The Witcher II you demonstrated for looking pornographic, and then in a later interview with The Cynical Brit you admitted that that reaction had made you reconsider how the scene was handled. Is this something the teams' having to get used to in terms of realizing there is this reaction to the content out there?
TG: You know, that's a really important thing - you've read the Rock Paper Shotgun preview and listened to the Cynical Brit chat (laughs) - people have started writing e-mails to us, a lot of them, saying, "You have stated in a chat that you are thinking about redesigning the scene. Please don't cut out sex from the game. It still needs to be a feature." So, some people did not really understand what I was trying to say. We were thinking about this particular situation in the dungeon, so we were thinking about how to signal to the player that you won't actually have sex with the women; the naked parts of her body, it's immature to signal that might be a sex scene. So we tried to rethink that, but not to remove sex [from The Witcher II]. We would probably never do it as it's much a part of that world of The Witcher as anything else, as much as the violence is.
So you've departed from using the Aurora engine you used in The Witcher to use your own in-house engine. The new engine looks fantastic, but there must be more it's bringing to the table than just visuals. So what else has the new engine given you that Aurora couldn't?
TG: If I wanted to generalize and say it in a really simple way, any designer or artist in our studio right now can do three, four more times things without actually talking with the programmers because he already has the tools that have been designed for him. So if a designer that scripts the storyline wants to invent a new type of quest, on Aurora you'd normally have to have written certain mechanisms for the game, mechanics for checking conditions and so on. Right now [with the new engine] that designer can script it himself. More things are possible and all employees at our company are less dependent now.
It's interesting how having your own engine does give you that much more flexibility...
TG: Well, the main reason for this is because- I don't want to be bullish - but probably role-playing games are the most complex kind of game that anyone would want to make. Not to take anything away from the shooters - shooters are my favourite genre of game - but RPGs are more complex.
One of the big things you guys have been talking about is how The Witcher II will have more cut scenes and more storytelling than the first game. How do you guys feel about narrative and cut scenes, given that gaming seems to be taking steps away from cut scenes in many respects?
TG: There are two things. First thing is that we have more cut scenes than in The Witcher because the story is less linear, you won't be able to see all of them within one playthrough of the game. This is the main reason why the number is bigger. The second thing is that I'm not afraid to say is that, with having a game based around the story, cut scenes are one of the important tools that we use. If we want to introduce a character, giving the player freedom over the camera during that time might make him miss something really important.
MZ: Moreover, sometimes we show the players things that the character in the game doesn't actually see, so the cut scene is the only way we can do that. You don't always see everything that Geralt does. Sometimes we show a different aspect of the situation and we have to use a cut scene there. He's the main hero of course, the game's following him, but then again it's just like in a movie or a book, sometimes you know more, sometimes you know less. It's a plot trick but it makes the game deeper and more fun.
Lastly on The Witcher II, then: what would you say is its unique selling point, the thing that separates it from other role-playing games out there?
TG: I think maturity was what separated The Witcher from other games at that time, and I'm pretty sure we're taking it to another level with the scale of the game, with the way we tell the story, it's still going to kick ass.
MZ: For me, it's also the story. Even if you don't think about the non-linearity, it's a really good story, right? It's something that suits the genre perfectly and it's a very strong part of our game. So I think our story is hard to beat.
So obviously it hasn't got much to do with The Witcher II, but of course CD Projekt is also the team behind Good Old Games. I understand it's a separate team working on that site, but is CD Projekt a happy place to work at right now or are things a bit tense given all the controversy of last week surrounding the shutdown publicity stunt and everything else that happened?
TG: Hmm (pauses)
It must have been a shock...
TG: It's a tricky question because actually it was a shock for me, seriously. I didn't know anything until the very last moment I was seriously speculating whether or not Steam is going to buy them because I didn't know. I mean, we are separate companies in a way. We live in the same building and we work in the same building but...
MZ: Their secrets are not our secrets.
TG: Yeah. How it worked out... I don't know, maybe strategically I would think of doing it differently, but from what I've heard from comments in the community some people hated it but some other guys said, "OK, I didn't know GOG up until this time. Now I know, so they've got my awareness".
Any publicity is good publicity?
TG: No, no, no. They probably would not do it exactly the same way if they could do it again, but I just think... I don't know. I'm not part of GOG so I don't want to speak on their behalf. I just think, you know, maybe they will do it a different way next time.
Fair enough. Thank you for your time.
TG: No problem.