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How the Witcher 3 Made Characters Look Unique Without Using Motion Capture

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Here there be monsters.

Here's our full interview conducted by GameSpot editor Danny O'Dwyer with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt lead character artist Pawel Mielniczuk.

You can also check out the complete video series from our trip to Poland to check out the game right here. And for even more in-depth Witcher interviews:

In this interview we talk about creating the creatures that populate The Witcher 3, the new technology that went into bringing the world to life, and whether decapitated heads in the game can still talk.

You've worked on all the Witchers. You've been at CD Projekt for eight years. With improving resolutions and way higher fidelity, is it much harder to make detailed characters now than when you started?

Pawel Mielniczuk: Yeah, it's changed a lot. In the Witcher 1, the characters were really simple. We didn't care quite as much about the art direction, the polycounts, the texture resolutions; it was a really small project back then. First of all, we didn't have the experience. We finished the game with about a 60-person team. Right now, we've got 250 people working on this game. So it's an incredibly more complex and bigger production.

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Everything has changed. We have the next generations of the consoles. There are much stronger PC's; in the last eight years, computers have changed a lot.

So, of course it's much more complex. Back during the Witcher 1, we started with low polycount models and then just baked some normal maps in Photoshop. One character could be done in a week or something like that. Right now, we're sculpting every detail on the character with a high polycount version, and using Z-brush. We sculpt every seam, every button, and every buckle on the character. We make a complete sculpture of the character. After that's done, which takes about two or three weeks depending on the complexity of the character, then we're able to create the low polycount version that you see in the game.

Higher computing power allows us to use more vertices. Even the complexity of the skeletons inside the characters is higher. In the Witcher 1, as far as I remember, we used only the thumb bone and rest just looked like a glove. Right now we not only have the exact skeleton of all the fingers, but we also have the bones that are pushing out knuckles here, fixing the deformation of the wrist. Lots of technical stuff.

Do you have to do that for the monsters as well?

Yes. It's even more complex with the monsters because for the characters, we have the one skeleton for each character type: for male, female, child, and so on. This whole range of characters is done on the same skeleton with the same animations. For the monsters, each one of them is custom. We go through the whole process of creating the skeletons, animations, behaviors, and artificial intelligence for every monster from beginning to end. That's way more complex and time consuming.

Does that limit the number of monsters you can put in the game?

We always start with an estimation of what we're going to need, but he game grew so much from its initial concept. I don't know the exact numbers of course, but I feel that the game is three or four times bigger than we initially planned it to be. Also, because of the bigger regions, the bigger maps you explore, you need to create of course more monsters to occupy you during the game. I remember situations like one Monday morning, near the end of the game's production, I got an email that said, "Hey, I know it's late but we need 20 more monsters."

The problem is that the monsters statistics don't scale. A monster you meet at the beginning of the game has the same statistics when meet it at the end of the game. That means you need more monsters to feel the full experience level you got during the game. When you're at level 50, you need to have some enemy that can't just be the same thing you met at the very beginning of the game. It needs to be different. And we also want to make it feel new with a different appearance, and so on.

So the griffin you made at the start of the game is relatively low level?


That's the first monster that you meet in the game, and that battle is relatively scripted. For the rest of creatures that you find, is that mostly main quest stuff? Or do you find them just roaming the world of the Witcher.

It depends. You can also meet different monsters in the prologue. Each of the monsters is a bit different. The fight with the griffin is custom in the prologue because it's divided into parts. Also, during this fight, we're introducing Geralt's new weapon, so it's pretty important. You're experiencing how and why to use the crossbow. That's why this fight is special. But later in the game we meet different types of griffin as well.

What are the types of creatures do you battle on this sort of scale?

Hmmm. Many. [laughs]

You don't want to say too much right?

Well I can say the names, but unless you see them, you don't know much, right? [laughs]

First of all, in the Wild hunt, we introduced flying monsters, which was a big change. In the previous Witcher game we had the semi-flying monsters; it was actually a walk animation just hovering over the ground. It wasn't real flying. Now the creatures are flying in three dimensions, so they can go over the hills, over the castles. They can go away and come back to you.

The Sirens are even more complex because they are flying and diving at the same time. It's the kind of monster that can fight you under the water, on the ground, and in the air. It's pretty complex.

How many of those monsters are there? I don't know [laugh]. Many. We have big, small, and medium-sized monsters. Just a lot of them.

Is there special consideration given to the scale of each monster? The griffin feels like a boss that needs specific tactics to figure out. But if you meet a pack of four Drowners or something, that wouldn't be too different from on of the bigger monsters. It's just that it feels different because it's a pack of them rather than this one thing with a long health bar.

Every big monster and most of the small ones have special attacks or special abilities. That first griffin doesn't actually have any special abilities, it's just flying. And we have other flying monsters that you'll fight the same way. You shoot him with a crossbow or throw a grenade to bring him down to the ground, and then you just fight him.

We also have monsters that spread fire. We have monsters that hypnotize you. We have monsters that can run away or go underground. Every monster requires different tactics. When you fight a Noonwraith, you're not actually able to kill it without using Signs. You create a special region to capture her when she materializes, and only then can you fight her.

Are there lots of monsters that have never appeared in previous Witcher games?

Yes, there are a lot. Monsters from The Witcher 2 were redesigned and remodeled with new behaviors. We have monsters that appeared both in The Witcher 1 and The Witcher 2, but also lots of new monsters.

But as we all know, the truest monster is man himself. The Witcher 3 has no shortage of dirty looking people and young looking people and old looking people. There's an incredible amount of variety in terms of the human characters. In the villages, everyone's wearing different clothes; there are kids with different hair colors and different faces. It must be incredibly taxing to try and include such breadth of diversity.

That was actually the biggest challenge. As I mentioned before, the game was growing constantly, so the demand not only for monsters but also for human characters was growing constantly. It was good luck that, at the very beginning of the game's production, we invented the component system for character creation. We said, "We won't be able to just create hundreds of different human models and spread them across the world." We decided to just create the components for them. We made different torsos, arms, legs, shoes, equipment, helmets, hair, and hundreds of hats. Then we were able to mix and match them.

Because of that we were able to scale the system. When the demand for new characters grew, or whenever the quest designers wanted to add some special-looking characters, we were able to do that. That was a good choice.

How did you do the facial animations? It's a game that has lots of dialogue-heavy cut-scenes, but you have lots of unique characters and facial animations.

We couldn't use motion capture because the game is just too big. We have thousands of lines of dialogue, and we translated them into several languages. So that was just impossible. We could have done motion capture for the English facial lip syncing and then just added subtitles, but we didn't want to do that. We created the lip animations from scratch for the characters. But the system was very flexible; it would take three to four days to create a completely new face that has the same motion capability as any other character.

There's no difference between the main characters, secondary characters, and crowd characters. They all represent the same quality. It needed tweaks for the 3D software engine to make it work, but it worked well overall.

After you decapitate somebody does the head still have the ability to animate?

No, unfortunately not. We have situation like that, but only in a cut-scene. It's controlled.

Is it becoming increasingly difficult to make these types of games on current-gen systems and PCs? It seems to that the difficulty has scaled, but the technology has scaled with it. If making a character used to take a day and now it takes two weeks, that must make your job way harder.

Yeah. The demand keeps going up for better graphics, for a natural living world. But it's the open world, that's the thing that's incredibly difficult to make work. You have to be able to see everything out to the horizon, all the land, the people working there, and the houses hundred of meters or half a kilometer away. There are a lot of assets that need to process at the same time. We need nice-looking particles like dust, clouds, and the sky system. We need hair waving in the wind to add life to everything. And the grass is also moving. To make the complex and believable view of the living world, it's extremely time consuming and technologically demanding.

Did you have some sort of crazy new technology for the hair and the fur and stuff?

Yeah, that's a bunch of different technologies. We use a different system for the trees, different one for the grass, different one for the hair of the characters. We have our own system for hair animation and also for dynamic animation as it interacts with the wind. That's our own internal technology driving the low poly hair. We also have the Nvidia fur implemented the game, so when you're playing on PC, you can switch the Nvidia fur option on, you have the realistic hair simulation. That also took us a lot of time to process.

Is that TressFX that was used in Tomb Raider?

No, it's not. We are using Nvidia effects technology and Nvidia Fur. Nvidia media helped us a lot in implementing the software for us. While we were creating the hair, they also helped us. Whenever we needed some new tools or some new feature for the system, they provided it to us. It was really a nice cooperation.

Out of all the creatures that you created, which is your favorite?

Tough question. There are so many of them. We have the three Witchers that have exceptional design, but I'll treat them as a main character. They are not truly monsters because they have voices and you spend a lot of time with them.

Picking from the common monsters, I think my favorite is the Grave Hag. It also appears in the Witcher 1, but it was completely redesigned for Wild hunt. I love it. It's like an old, twisted witch whose mind has been completely mixed up by black magic. It looks great. For example, I especially like one version of this monster, she's carrying a small corpse on her back. It's a poor man she ate or killed, or maybe it's her husband. She's carrying this corpse, and talking to him. It's great, so original.

What is it like creating this rich world with all of these different monsters but knowing it's an open world where people might play the entire game and never see 50% of your work?

Well, they can play twice, right? [laughs] That's the fun, that everybody has a different journey through the game. Everyone gets a different ending. Everybody learns different facts that are going on during the game. I don't know. That's fun, that's freedom.

Are you looking forward to having it finished and out there for people to finally see and play?

Of course! I was pretty impressed with how the game looks, actually. I've been working on it since the very beginning, but you cannot know every aspect of the game until you play it, until it's finished. When everything's there. I knew the plot, more or less. I knew some of the endings. I made all the characters and sea monsters, but I didn't have the opportunity to experience everything working together. That's something I was pretty surprised by, really. It's a great game.

CD Projekt used to take in English games and translate them for Polish audiences. Now the company is creating a Polish franchise and exporting it to the rest of the world. Are you proud to tell your family that you're working on The Witcher? Is that something they know about and something that they care about?

Of course, that's a big deal actually. The game is way more complex and bigger than any movie can ever be. I feel it's a part of Polish culture that we're promoting outside our country, so that's a big deal for me.

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