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Here's our full interview conducted by GameSpot editor Danny O'Dwyer with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt senior environment artist Jonas Mattsson.
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:
- How the Side Quests in the Witcher 3 Can Change the Whole Story -- interview with lead quest designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz.
- Witcher 3 Dev Explains How to Turn a Nation of Pirates into Purchasers -- interview with CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwinski.
- How the Witcher 3 Made Characters Look Unique Without Using Motion Capture -- interview with lead character artist Pawel Mielniczuk.
In this interview we discuss creating an open world that lets you walk anywhere without loading and the game's dark humor.
GameSpot: You've had a lot of environments to art, it seems like in this game. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a pretty vast game.
Jonas Mattsson: Yeah. It was a huge task, absolutely. Especially coming from The Witcher 2, and moving on to something as big as this. It was really quite a challenge to create. We had to change the way we did things as well, because you're working on a much bigger scale. There were points you had to sit down and think about how you're going to solve some things, because in an open world, you can't really control where the player goes.
In The Witcher 2, you had total control over where the player went, and that meant you could spend as much time making really finite detail in the world because you know everyone's going to see it.
But from what we played yesterday, it seems like that detail is still there. How did you manage to figure that one out?
We found solutions. Say we have a forest. How is a forest supposed to look? You can place a tree and you can be done, but it won't really be a forest. You need to connect it to the ground. So you add the little bushes underneath, a little grass, some flowers. And this is the same kind of thinking we use in the game's architecture: how to connect it with the landscape. You apply it on a large scale, and everyone knows the rules and logic behind it. That's how you end up with a really natural looking environment that has that detail about an open world scale.
With some of the villages you in the game you'll find houses built on hills at somewhat awkward angles. But it actually makes it look more realistic. As if the builder was construtcing around the landscape. And then the kids are playing up on top of the hill; I even children playing in little mud streams that happened because of the way the land fell and where the water drained.
It's almost a Grand Theft Auto 5 level of specificity with the game world but in a rural setting. I don't think that's something we're really used to.
I think sometimes in game development, people make the mistake of creating the village first then the landscape. But your example shows that we put the landscape first. Then you build the village based on the layout of the land. It's like somebody came by in the world and said, "I'm making my house here. There's a hill nearby. Maybe I'll put some bee hives or something up there. Make it into a bee keeping area," depending on what the village does.
It was really important to not dig out the landscape. If you make some nice rolling hills, you keep that intact. You keep the view as epic as possible without destroying it.
Tell us a little bit about the make up of the world. Is it one large open world you can walk from one point to the end? Or is it instance-based? Where's there's one area to the east, and then there's a larger area to the west. There's parts in the north, and Novigrad is its own big thing.
Can you just wander around your own, or do you need to fast travel to different parts?
You can wander around on your own, definitely. We have the main land, which is basically Novigrad and No Man's Land where you were playing. You have the big city in the north, the metropolitan are, and then as you move to the south, you come to this war torn, ravaged area,
That's one huge open world. For story purposes, we do have some places like the Prologue Area, as we call it. The introductory area. It's a smaller open world created to make sure that the player understands the rules of the game and get to grips with the controls and so on. It's a mini open world, and once they've mastered how it plays, we just unleash them into the full open world.
Of course, in addition to that, we also have a group of islands off the coast. Way off the coast, actually. You have to fast travel to go between that because the distance is also very large. To travel on a boat, it would take too long, so it wouldn't really make sense for the player.
And the same is the case for The Witcher's forge up north as well?
Exactly. Kaer Morhen. That's a separate small level as well there. But on the full open world, there's no loading time. You can travel and roam around as you wish.
There was a quest marker I found inside of a bar, but even when I went inside, it didn't shut me off with a loading screen. It was almost like World Of Warcraft where you just wander in, and then say to yourself, "Oh, I'm in a pub."
So there there's no loading time at all?
No, there's no loading times. Only when you actually start the game, when die and load the game, or when you fast travel. That fast travel loading time depends on how far you have to travel of course. If you just fast travel a little bit, it's a really short loading time.
One of the goals we had was to keep the experience as fluid as possible. When you play, you don't want to have the loading screen because it takes you out of the game a bit. We wanted to make sure that it was as smooth as possible, one big experience. For us, that was really important. I think we achieved that because, as you said, just going in and out of a building, there's no loading time. Nothing. It's just creates this really nice experience.
Tell us a bit about the different types of environments. Obviously, this is an open world, and one of the cool things about an open world is finding the different types of flora or fauna. Finding different types of tundra, and experience weather conditions and what not. Tell us about this sort of variety of areas that you'll find in Wild Hunt.
Around Novigrad, you have more rolling hills. Farm land. It's quite nice, quite picturesque. But if you move further south, it becomes more swamp-like. It has more dangerous atmosphere.
As you go along, you have different trees as well. For instance, in the rolling hills, you have smaller bushes and little groups of trees. It's all very nice. We took a lot of time to research the look and feel of the little areas within these regions. If you go to the Skellige Islands, which is this Nordic influenced environment, you'll find it full of tall cliffs very much like Ireland and Scotland. A very epic setpiece with more pine forests. More rugged. More harsh winds that shaped the landscape and its people.
It's really important that the people are a reflection of the landscape in terms of accents, how they dress, and how they behave. It all comes together when you create a region. Is this a hunter's village in Skellige? How do they behave? What are they talking about? How does the village look and where's the village placed? You want to create an identity for a village when you create it.
When creating this world, did you always want to keep it so that there was so much going on? A thing that lots of other open world games do is that they have these big, sparse areas in between villages. But in Wild Hunt, everything is quite close together. It's big, but there's a lot going on.
Well we wouldn't want the player to be bored, of course. But it's also important to give the villages the space they need. When you create a village, you do have a bit of empty space for farms that support the village by growing food and so on. When start to construct that way, you find that there's a village here close to a quarry. And then there's a village here close to the river. And then there are neighbors that travel between the two and interact with one another.
It also depends on the landscape. No Man's Land, before the big war happened, it used to be quite friendly for farming and cultivating. Whereas in Skellige, it's much more wild. It's harder to tame the landscape. As a result, you have fewer villages and harsher people. Only the strongest survive there, and it's kind of the opposite on the mainland.
That played in mind when we were creating this. We didn't want to have a circus attraction to have everything going on all the time. But we wanted to create an experience like: you ride on your horse, you stop, and you see something's over there. You want to go there. You want to explore and see what you can find there. Maybe you come across a village on the way. Maybe there's a monster hunting quest. Things just happen, and this is what we wanted to have with the game when you explore the open world.
From the first trailer, people seemed to have an appreciation for just how beautiful the game is. Obviously, it looks fantastic on PC from what we've seen. Can you speak too the environmental effects in Wild Hunt? For instance, I was playing at one stage and a blustery storm came in and it started to thrash the trees around, and Geralt's hair was going all over the place.
We have this full, dynamic day and night cycle. We have lots of different types of weather, and that depends on where you are. So in the mainland, you don't get snow. But on Skellige, you get quite heavy snow. There's more fog and it's colder. It was important to us to have these varied atmospheres, depending on where you are.
It's important to note that this is not just a cosmetic effect. It has an effect on the game's community. When it rains, they'll look for shelter. When it's night time, people pack up their things from the market square and go home.
Also some monsters are affected by the weather. When you go monster hunting, depending on the monster, you have to pay attention to what time of day it is.
Another aspect of The Witcher games is, of course, the world of the Witchers. There's magic and the idea of realms within the world. Like in one of the books where a magician has created this massive, fake landscape that's all contained within a tower. It's almost like Oculus Rift.
Magical realms are an important part of The Witcher, so can you speak to some of the magical areas that you might go in to in the game?
I don't really want to spoil the story, but there are certain places in the world that you will come across as quite unnatural and odd looking. It's really cool because you play the game, and sometimes you come across something completely different. It kind of throws you off, a real "Wow!" moment.
But that's one of my favorite parts of the game, and again, I don't want to spoil it. I want the player to discover it for themselves.
So much of The Witcher is about the little things. Little settlements, villages, and people having their own little communities and farms and all that. And then you see Novigrad, and it's just a massive, bustling metropolis with lots of people walking around.
Can you tell us about the challenges of making a place like Novigrad?
We didn't want to create a game that was just landscapes and villages. We wanted to have one really big city. And actually, we have two. The smaller one is called Oxenfurt. But the bigger one, Novigrad, we really wanted to do that seamless transaction between landscape and huge city. There's so many people there, and there's so much to do. There's a bar, there's thugs, there are quests.
Constructing it was, of course, a challenge, as you might have expected. But we also wanted to create different districts. As you travel through the city, you feel like it has a certain history. But we wanted to create variation as well, and to have different types of people living in different parts of the city. It took a lot of work and it has so many layers in to it. It's almost like a puzzle fits together perfectly, both above ground and below ground.
I don't want to spoil too much in terms of quests and story, but it's amazing how many layers there are to the city. At first glance, you see everything on the surface. It looks fantastic. But there's so much below to explore, and it's really cool.
I know there are bars and brothels and stuff. But are there lots of buildings you can go in, or are there quests that happen just within the confines of Novigrad?
Yeah, absolutely. So many quests happen in Novigrad and there are lots of buildings you can go in and explore. Of course, you can't explore every building. That would be too much, I think. But there's a lot to discover.
Just go in to a house, see the people that live there. Are they poor, rich, et cetera? It's very different from the rest of the open world, and I think that's nice, to have. After you're on your own, Skellige and you've done some monster hunting quests deep in the forest. After you kill the monsters, and you get your payment, you might think to yourself, "I could do with a little bit of civilization now."
Fast travel to Novigrad, go into a tavern, play some card games, go brawling or whatever, or do some mini quests there. I think it's a perfect balance between the wild of the Wild Hunt, and the metropolitan city life. It creates a nice balance.
You've obviously created many different environments within this game. What's a personal favorite of yours.
I have several. One for instance is the war alley in Skellige. It's this huge open valley with a river coming down from the mountain side. It's quite warm so you get these heat particles rising up. The bears gather there. You can see really far. It has a history of war and there are some ruins. It's very beautiful.
Every time I'm on Skellige testing something, I try to get some time just to look at it because it's so beautiful and dangerous.
I think another part is the swampy area in No Man's Land. You're not sure what you can find there. There's danger on every corner. It's beautiful and mysterious.
And of course, Novigrad. Being up on top of the city using the road that leads up to one of the huge temples. You can stop there and look over the harbor. You see almost the whole city, and it's beautiful when you have the sun coming in. You see the rooftops and everything. It's just, "Wow."
One of the most interesting things about The Witcher are the crazy stories that happen to you in-game. The ones you just want to tell people about. What's been your craziest story that's happened, without going into too many spoilers. What's one of your favorite quests?
I have no idea. [laughs] That'd be spoiling the story, right?
For me, sometimes you play a quest and it has funny dialogue that just gets to you. There's a flashback when you play as Ciri, and she's sitting close to a campfire talking. There's a dialogue option from one of the guys talking about, I think it's a blister on his ass or something like that? [laughs]
The dialog just makes you go, "What?" And I just have to laugh at it.
There's a lot of dark humor.
Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of quite cynical, dark humor. Dry humor as well. It fits me perfectly. There are so many moments like that in the game to pick from. It's really tough, actually. Like the frying pan lady in the prologue, the way she just talks and talks and talks. It reminds me of my grandma. Like when you call your grandma, she just talks and talks, and I'm like "Yes, yes, okay, Grandma. It's your frying pan. I know. It's your frying pan. Okay." [laughs]
The humor behind it, how it's written and the voice acting, is just so good. Actually, if I have to pick one moment, it's the frying pan lady.