The Witcher Q&A - Making a Fantasy Role-Playing Game for Grown-Ups
Chief designer Michal Madej discusses this upcoming fantasy role-playing game about a morally ambiguous hero.
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Slaying monsters is pretty straightforward in a lot of role-playing games. You play as the good guy, and the monsters are usually completely evil. That's certainly not the case in The Witcher. In this upcoming single-player role-playing game based on the works of Polish fantasy novelist Andrzej Sapkowski, you'll play as the antihero Geralt of Rivia, a magically mutated assassin trained from birth to hunt down and slay monsters in a medieval fantasy world where there are no black-and-white decisions. Polish developer CD Projekt hopes to capture the moral ambiguity of Geralt and his world in the game, which will have you making a myriad of tough decisions that will affect the story. To learn more about the game, which is due out in September, we turned to Michał Madej, chief designer of The Witcher.
GameSpot: Aside from the March update and last year's Leipzig games convention, we haven't seen The Witcher for almost two years. Can you give us an update on where the game's currently at in development, and have there been any major changes in the past year?
Michał Madej: We learned a few lessons about development in the last two or three years. We have learned from our mistakes, but now CD Projekt Red is running like a well-oiled machine; everything goes according to the plan. We gained a lot of experience, and I can say that the game is finally what we wanted it to be.
The Witcher has essentially reached the beta phase, and everything is going well in terms of production. We have tight development schedules, and quality tests are being done both by us and by Atari's quality assurance team. We're now polishing everything and are focused on testing, testing again, and more tests.
GS: This is a very mature role-playing game, and it deals with a lot of adult themes. This is partly because it's based on a popular Polish fantasy series, but how have you approached this in the game?
MM: First of all, we established that we want to treat gamers seriously. We don't want to sell them a cheap story about some great hero saving the world. When we made this decision we didn't realize how serious a step it was going to be. We had to work out every detail that would make our story "mature." In his books, Andrzej Sapkowski never avoided harsh topics like violence or racism. We decided not to change his style, and to make The Witcher a more mature game. We want to get the attention of gamers who are interested in a deep story and the consequences that come along with making tough decisions throughout the game.
GS: How open-ended is the world in The Witcher? Will players be able to go off and explore anywhere you want at any time, or will you tightly restrict where players will go?
MM: As for the gameworld, after some discussion, we came to the conclusion that an entirely free world, as seen in games like Oblivion, wouldn't exactly suit our plans for the game. Hence our decision to somewhat limit the player's freedom, naturally in exchange for huge, original, and intriguing locations full of interesting non-player characters.
Moreover, if you look at some of the games known for their entirely free worlds, you'll find that the dynamic and smooth advancement of the plotline is sometimes difficult. That's why we've focused on creating a world with some limitations to freedom, but with huge locations, where the player will always discover something new to do or see.
A large, free-roaming world is great for massively multiplayer online games, but in single-player RPGs it's better to do something to keep players interested all the time with changes in the story, locations full of interesting NPCs and events, and so on. But, I want to say it once more: The world players will enter in The Witcher is big enough that they'll be able to spend many hours just exploring.
Making Choices with Consequences
GS: One of the game's most intriguing aspects is that it will give players lots of hard choices that have short- and long-term consequences. Can you give us a new example of how this choice system comes into play in the game? How challenging is it to create all the possible story outcomes?
MM: You can't really make a good RPG without giving players the ability to make choices. The Witcher is no exception. One of our original goals for the game was to provide the player with great liberty of decision, and to ensure the player's choices would have a significant impact on the plot. The world of The Witcher is one where there is no clear distinction between good and evil, so the player must occasionally make very difficult decisions. One of the newer features we've implemented is a flashback system that conveys to the players some of the decisions he's made to trigger recent plot events. It's proven to be a great way to show players the impact of their actions.
I'd really rather not provide any new examples, as flashbacks are generally very important to the plot and we don't want to say too much about the story; we want players to make these decisions themselves. I can assure you that you'll find many opportunities to make meaningful decisions and see the consequences in The Witcher.
GS: Just how flexible is the story? Are there still the multiple endings? How much replayability is there? Can you have dramatically different experiences if you play through the game and make different choices?
MM: The Witcher has three separate endings, and the ending you see will be tied to the choices made in the game. Differences between the alternate endings are huge and concern many aspects of the gameworld. The player will have to make a lot of tough choices that will put the lives of friends and foes in danger; and in the end, the player's allegiances and decisions will determine more than just Geralt's destiny.
In a single play-through, it's only possible to learn about 60 percent of Geralt's available skills, giving players the opportunity to enjoy the game in a different way in subsequent adventures. The differences in character "builds"--the different ways you can customize your character--are very visible. But this is just an additional feature. Replayability, above all else, is based on the possibility of making different choices each time.
GS: The Aurora Engine that you licensed from BioWare barely looks recognizable in The Witcher. It looks pretty amazing. How much work did you put into the engine, and what are the enhancements that you've made?
MM: Step by step, we have modified over 70 percent of the engine, mainly on the rendering side (which makes use of DirectX 9), game mechanics (combat, character development, and so on), as well as the toolset, which we call D'jinni. The graphics engine now matches the level of modern first-person shooter games--we have all of the state-of-the-art technologies such as pixel shaders and normal mapping.
We had to make modifications to the engine in order to implement real-time combat and the specific characteristics of the Witcher. The D'jinni toolset is a brand-new tool that could be the subject of an entire interview. All I can say is that we have managed to create a modern and powerful tool. All of the operations connected with the development of the game are now done with the use of just one application. What's more, the implemented changes can be observed in real time while actually playing the game. This really is a cool tool.
GS: What sort of system requirements are you looking at to run the game smoothly?
MM: The hardware requirements will be announced very soon, but I can already say that The Witcher's hardware demands are reasonable. In order to fully appreciate the game's visual potential, however, higher-end equipment will be necessary. Such is the inevitable compromise, in order to have a product both accessible to the average player and one taking advantage of brand-new computer technology.
GS: Finally, is there anything that you'd like to add about The Witcher?
MM: We will have some new gameplay videos very soon to show everyone how the game is progressing and how it actually looks in motion. Interviews and screenshots are great, I know, but there's nothing like seeing the game in motion.
GS: Thank you, Michał.