Seeing Red: The rise of CD Projekt and The Witcher

Seeing Red: The rise of CD Projekt and The Witcher
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 15th 2016 at 1:07PM

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt developer CD Projekt Red took home four prizes from this year’s Develop Awards, including the coveted Studio of the Year title. Game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz tells James Batchelor how the team has evolved with every game it releases

The Witcher series began as a PC exclusive, and has eventually become more console-centric. Has the shift to console changed your approach to development?
The Witcher was PC exclusive not because we decided it was going to be, but rather because as a studio we always choose to take on new endeavors one step at a time. Back then, simultaneously creating a game like The Witcher for all major platforms was something that only the biggest studios could afford, having huge budgets and access to resources at their disposal. When we released The Witcher in 2007, we hardly knew how to make games – let alone have the budget and know-how to develop a game for consoles, which are a different thing entirely.

But with each game in the series we released we kept learning new things. With The Witcher, it was how to make games in general, what the process looks like with a small team, and how to use the Aurora engine we were licensing from BioWare at the time. We ended up finishing the game five years later with a team of around 80 people.

When development on The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings started, we had the knowledge needed to create a game and we could use it to create a bigger version of that which made the original a success. But we didn’t want to just make a bigger version of the original game. We wanted to take it up a notch, because that’s just in our nature. So, we created our own RedEngine and made a game that we took in a different direction, focusing on storytelling, giving players an opportunity to make tough choices and dealing with the consequences.

Staying true to our nature, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt was more than just everything we learned up to this point, featuring a huge living and breathing open world.

Regardless of how big we end up growing in the future and how our workflow changes as a result, our identity and ideals we have worked hard to establish over the years will not.

How else did the studio and your practices evolve over the series? Did growing to a larger team change the atmosphere?
Tremendously. As we were finishing up development on The Witcher III, there were already 350 of us on board and we opened a second studio in Cracow. We’re still growing, expecting a total of 500 people to be under the CD Projekt Red banner in the not too distant future. 

Obviously a lot of things had to change. Growing a company from 15 people to 500 means you need to rethink a lot of things about optimising the workflow to account for bigger numbers.

Right now we’re still working through a transitional period and learning a lot of things, which is to be expected. But regardless of how big we end up growing in the future and how our workflow changes as a result, our identity and ideals we have worked hard to establish over the years will not.  

The Witcher was a relatively unknown IP – at least, globally – before CD Projekt’s games. Are there opportunities out there for developers to make their name with little-known franchises?
The Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski have been successful in central and eastern Europe and even more so in Poland, where fans of the genre often see them as equal or above Tolkien’s works.

We want to create the best RPGs and give gamers what they expect, which sometimes sees us doing a lot of things that have been long forgotten or are not common practices in the industry anymore, but that’s just the way we are. Having a goal, a good idea, and lots of hard work can take you very far – we’re a good example of that.

What impact have the games had on the Witcher franchise as a whole?
The success of the Witcher games definitely brought the universe and books created by Mr. Sapkowski out into the spotlight and proved that video games can help books reach a bigger audience.

At the same time, many people who played The Witcher read the books, but never played a game before, which shows the relationship goes both ways.

The Witcher III was delayed several times in order to polish. Why was this so important?
Delays are always painful for everyone on the team and the decisions behind them are often influenced by a number of equally painful factors the world will never learn about. There are no golden rules to follow that help avoid delays and turn them into a guaranteed success. Were they important for us, though? You wouldn’t be asking me this question if it wasn’t. 

CD Projekt has said The Witcher III’s success proves devs don’t need to annualise franchises. Are yearly releases holding the industry back from the chance to evolve the games medium?
I don’t know, and the reason I don’t is because we fought hard to become an independent studio that can freely decide the business and creative direction it wants to take. We always wanted to have full creative control over the titles we’re creating.

Our attitude for making games has always been to challenge ourselves, create awesome things and innovate. Doing this takes time. But there are a lot of things and decisions that happen that we might not know about. I’d like to see other developers always work on games that allow them to artistically fulfill themselves.

Gameplay is a tool we create to help tell the story. If it’s there to help tell the story, it can’t be hindering it at the same time.

CD Projekt countered player cycnicism over DLC with more than a dozen free add-ons for The Witcher III. How would you like to see the industry handle DLC – free or paid – in the future?
We believe in the old school way of doing additional content, back when developers added new maps and weapons in patches without even considering asking gamers to pay for that kind of stuff. But that was then, and this is now. 

Game development has become significantly more expensive than it used to be, so to a degree I can relate with developers charging extra for their additional work – as long as you don’t make gamers feel like they’re being duped. Sure, creating an additional set of hairstyles for Geralt or outfits for his companions is a big deal, but not a huge expense when you look at it through the scope of the whole project. We believe that gamers are entitled to small, meaningful things like this as a thank you for spending their hard-earned money on the game. 

Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine offer an additional 50 hours of epic adventures and quests combined, plus a whole new area to explore and new items and gameplay mechanics. Keeping in mind that creating this additional content will be an expense from the development side of thing, we still wanted the price to be fair for the content the expansions offer. We believe this is something that we managed to achieve and this is how we would like the industry to look like.

How do you balance building an open world with plenty for players to explore while still trying to tell a narrative?
Story is the most important element of the game. Not just the central arc, because The Witcher III has many more stories to tell through side quests – some as deep and meaningful as the main one. 

How do we balance that against a huge open world? We make it the central element. Whether it’s by wrapping it around hubs, making the dialogues cinematically push the story forward, or small things like giving gamers a recap of the most recent events on loading screens. Gameplay is a tool we create to help tell the story. If it’s there to help tell the story, it can’t be hindering it at the same time. 

What are the biggest challenges in creating a title that appeals to the mainstream, while still pleasing hardcore RPG fans?
Making a title that as many gamers as possible will enjoy is the biggest challenge in and of itself, but nothing is impossible as long as you work hard enough. So that’s what we do. We listen to players and work very hard to create a title that all of them will enjoy. 

There are gamers who want to experience every detail of a story, and those who don’t need to focus on all of its nooks and crannies. So during dialogues, we distinguish between the options that progress the story and those that provide additional details. 

What gamers want has always been key to our philosophy as a studio but, at the same time, each and every one of the games we made was something that we ourselves wanted to make. 

We fought hard to become an independent studio that can freely decide the business and creative direction it wants to take. We always wanted to have full creative control over the titles we’re creating.

What learnings are you bringing from The Witcher III into Cyberpunk 2077?
We made a huge game and launched it simultaneously for all major platforms; it’s amazing to look back at all the hard work we’ve put to achieve that. For us, that experience is the most important learning we’ll be taking with us to Cyberpunk 2077 and wherever else the future takes us. 

You’ve previously said you hope to model the studio on Rockstar. What’s the next step towards that
Work very hard and very humbly on our next game. Never stop listening to what gamers want. And always be a rebel.