The Witcher 3 Interview: PS4, Skyrim And Lessons Learnt
There are a lot of unanswered questions about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. How is it shaping up for next-gen? How will it use PS4? Will The Witcher soften its combat for new players?
We didn’t know the answers so we went straight to developers CD Projekt. Here’s quest designer PaweÅ Sasko explaining everything you need to know…
Firstly, what would you consider to be the single most exciting feature in The Witcher 3, and how did you decide to implement it?
We put so many things into this game that we’ve always wanted to do that it’s not that easy to decide what is the most exciting. If I would have to chose, I would pick the heart of our game: a story-driven open-world experience. We want to achieve two goals – give players freedom and keep them engaged in the story.
In our previous games, we proved that we can deliver capturing story in semi-open world. This time, we won’t take freedom from player in any point of the game and let different plots and subplots progress at any time (or give you the chance to drop it at any moment). Of course, doing so has tremendous consequences.
The last two games taught us how to craft meaningful choices and players can expect even more of that, but this time in a huge open-world. We are players. Games are a big part of our lives and many of us would love to play RPGs with limitless freedom and a captivating story. We’ve found no such game on the market, so we have to make it to be able to play it. And this is exactly what we are going to do.
You’ve described The Witcher 3 as a “next generation RPG”, but is this more than just a reference to next-gen consoles? Or is it more about the game itself? If so, what exactly makes The Witcher 3 such a radical shift in the genre?
Actually, we never dared to brag that it’s a “next generation RPG”. These are the words of a journalist who saw our demo and came up with this expression to describe what he experienced. This made us really proud, though, especially because we showed him only one quest of a 100-hour game.
If I would have to explain what the journalist meant, I would point out our unique approach to the genre. It’s much easier to make a linear game with an awesome plot. But to make an awesome world with an immersive story is even harder and I think that only now are we believing that this can be done by CD Projekt RED. Since the release of Witcher 2, many story-driven games have been compared to it. And we hope that this continues when Witcher 3 changes the expectations we have of the genre forever.
I’d like to know a bit more about the rumours Fallout 3 ‘VATS’ style combat system, that enables slow-motion attacks for specific body parts. How will this work in combat and why did you decide to implement it?
One of our primary goals for this game is to enhance player’s feeling of being a witcher – professional monster slayer, educated and experienced. Our main character, Geralt, is now even closer to his archetype from the novels, so hunting monsters is his primary source of income.
This is why he was created; this is what he is best at. Geralt knows a lot about monsters – about their habits, lairs and their typical ways of killing. That’s why we decided to come up with completely new mechanics for the game, called Monster Hunting. Geralt can use his Witcher Senses to track monsters, examine their lairs, prepare more specific traps and elixirs, craft unique lures, etc. Simply, do everything to make an encounter with a monster possible.
This is when you can use the type of mechanics you asked about. Geralt not only can track a monster – he also knows about its strong and weak points. All of that knowledge can be used in combat. Creatures now have unique and deadly attacks, but players using witcher’s knowledge can perform special moves designed to disable powerful monsters’ attacks.
For instance, player may encounter creature with a poison gland – if he can manage to precisely stab that gland, it will disable the creature’s ability to poison Geralt. Targeting and striking certain parts of body becomes a part of strategy in combat. We honestly believe that all of these features will significantly enhance the feeling of being the witcher. That’s why we decided to implement it and we won’t rest until this feels perfect and satisfying.
Will this soften the combat at all? We’ve seen a lot of more strategic RPGs – for example Dragon’s Age – turn into more simple and accessible action RPGs. Will this be true of The Witcher 3?
We want to improve what we did in The Witcher 2, but not completely change the system. We did implement some major features that we wanted to have and combat is already significantly more responsive and swift. The number of custom, specific animations just for Geralt has increased from 20 to 96. We spent a lot of time tweaking two things: swings of a sword and the movement of camera in combat.
For each of this features we have prepared a few prototypes, let people from different departments of CD Projekt RED play all of them, gathered feedback and picked the best prototype. The pre-alpha combat that we have now is already way more satisfying than fighting in our previous game.
So yes, one of our goals is to make combat accessible, but that doesn’t always mean easy. We know that our players are mature, demand the highest quality and love to be challenged. We will definitely deliver what they want. Be warned – button mashing won’t take you anywhere.
What kind of lessons have you learned from making The Witcher 1 and 2 that have carried over to The Witcher 3 and how has this benefitted the way you’re approaching this game?
Honestly, we learned so much doing two previous Witcher games that I would need hours to sum all of it.
But the most important things are what we’ve picked up from tons of feedback we gathered from our fans. That’s one reason why we’re able to improve this sequel in many areas. The main complaints from players concerned the inverted difficulty curve (the game got much easier as you played) and the high entry level difficulty for newcomers.
The game will be challenging, but we want to allow you to learn its mechanics more gradually and not shove you in the deep end to start. Also, we took care with smoother introduction of characters and better distribution of crucial information across the whole storyline. The Witcher 3 is a separate chapter, so even new players will have no problem getting what’s going on.
However, we love complicated, multilayered stories and our old players will feel like they’re at home once they see what we have prepared. We are doing our best to link everything together in a way that won’t make new players lost but still bring a smile to the faces of our old fans.
One of the most important lessons from previous Witchers is how important it is to have a well-done inventory system and user interface. This time we won’t make any mistakes fielding this area and have thought it through very carefully already.
Skyrim is a widely-reported inspiration for The Witcher 3, but in what ways does The Witcher 3 compare?
The Witcher 3 is also an open-world game with a fantasy setting, so comparisons will be drawn by fans and critics for sure.
Skyrim is an amazing game and many developers in our studio totally loved it. And there is one thing that Elder Scrolls has managed that is very important to realize – this series, especially Skyrim, brought many gamers to RPGs. People who never considered themselves RPG players started to explore the provinces north of Cyrodill. Besides, I was the one who was listening to Dragonborn’s main music motif, looped for 10 hours.
But Witcher 3 is a different game. It still has the feel of Assassins of Kings, but in a new setting. The screenshots you might have seen come from only one land we created, Skellige. Many journalists and fans drew comparisons from this, while in fact we just stayed loyal to our basis, which are books of Andrzej Sapkowski.
What’s more, we consciously decided not to have a single environment, and the Northern Skellige islands are just one place on a large continent. We drew from other cultures – not only Scandinavian. For instance, the mainland of the Northern Kingdoms is completely different from this chilly archipelago.
But the main difference is that we have created a character-driven storyline to exist in this open world. It takes place in a living ecosystem which goes beyond being just a scenography for the events we present. Our storytelling is unique. We present morally grey situations and each consequence and world change is a result of an action the players undertook.
We want players to have tangible influence on the story we tell and the world. We’ve also proven that we can create memorable characters and, in The Witcher 3, players will get even more of that. For us, a NPC is not a doll that recites lines of dialogue and disappears from player’s consciousness. The bonds between Geralt and many characters will feel real and you won’t forget them.
Similarly, CD Projekt RED claimed that it wants to outdo Skyrim and even described it as ‘generic’ – something fans of the game did not appreciate. In what ways do you believe Skyrim to be generic, and how does The Witcher 3 improve on that?
Bethesda put a lot of work in creating a really detailed world – there’s no doubt about that. The game has limitless gameplay, but there are quests which are automatically generated and we will never agree to have such filler.
Working on two previous games, we spent hundreds of work-hours tweaking our quests to show players that everything is handcrafted and they appreciate the time they put into playing our game. As a quest designer, I treat it as one of my personal goals – each storyline, even small ones, has to be an awesome adventure.
CD Projekt RED is well known for its skill at getting the most out of the platform it’s working on: for example The Witcher 2 on Xbox 360. Now that you’ve confirmed to be working on next-gen platforms, what does this mean for The Witcher 3?
We will take full advantage of our new REDengine 3. With the new renderer we haven’t unveiled yet, we want to achieve CG movie quality for our game’s graphics. Also, players will be able to traverse the world of The Witcher 3 with no load times thanks to our software and the availability of more powerful hardware by the time of release.
Will you be making use of any of the PS4’s unique features and, if so, how?
Sony didn’t talk too much about the new possibilities the PS4 gives, so I will not spoil any of their surprises. The Witcher 3 will be available on all high end platforms at the same moment. As with The Witcher 2, we won’t port the game, we will adapt it. That means that each build will be prepared for to use platform specific features.
By the time next-gen consoles launch, PC games will already be capable of equivalent if not greater visuals and AI capabilities – just look at Crysis 3 as an example. Do you feel this will put next-gen consoles at a disadvantage, or are there greater benefits to these specific home systems?
PCs are a platform with no generation life cycle and they evolve all the time. Even though it’s been a much slower development than it was in the previous decade, PCs have always been more powerful than consoles, so it’s not a surprise that it will happen again. The question is, then, why developers don’t drop consoles altogether.
The biggest reason, probably, is that there is a significant audience of gamers that prefers the style of console-playing to the PC. The fact that your game always works (if it’s done right) and you don’t have to update all your drivers every few months (and download buggy drivers sometimes) has its advantages.
At the beginning of the life cycle of next-gen consoles we won’t see such a big difference between them and decent PCs. We will see it, though, in five years if not sooner. What will happen then? I would love to know.