The Witcher 2 Deep-Dive Roundtable Interview Part 1

May 16, 2011

By Jimmy Thang

Note: This is part one in a three part Witcher 2 deep-dive interview. To hear more about the humble beginnings of CD Projekt RED STUDIO and why they've chosen to be a PC-centric developer, click here. To hear more about the game's new, improved graphics engine and how the title aims to be the best-looking RPG you've ever seen, check back Wednesday.

Back in the 1990s, the PC used to be a hotbed for exclusive RPGs. With game engines becoming much more multiplatform-friendly over recent years, it's been hard enough finding an exclusive PC RPG, much less a good one. So when an unknown polish developer known as CD Projekt RED STUDIO released their critically-acclaimed The Witcher RPG in 2007, the game delightfully shocked the PC world. Based on the fantastical fiction established by esteemed Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the game was praised for its presentation, mature themes, deep storyline, and wonderfully realized world. With the game's follow-up, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, CD Projekt RED STUDIO aims to make the experience bigger, better, and more polished than ever. had the opportunity to conduct a deep-dive interview with a host of the company's developers including Producer Tomasz Gop, Level Designer Marek Ziemak, Graphics Programmer Bartłomiej Wroński and Technical Producer Grzegorz Rdzany to see how they went about achieving these goals.

In part one of our three part discussion, the team talks about the redesigned combat system, improved loot mechanics, how the sequel will be much bigger than its predecessor, and how players' choices will greatly affect the game.

For players who never played the original Witcher, do you have to play the first game to know what's going on in the sequel?

Marek Ziemak: No. Playing the first part of the game will probably help. You will be able to get a little deeper into the story. But it's not obligatory. It's not something you have to do. The Witcher 2 has its own story. Of course it happens after The Witcher one, but it's not like you have to know exactly what happened. We will remind you a little bit of the story from The Witcher one and of course you'll be able to fully understand the plot and know what's going on. Just playing The Witcher one could be, you know, treated as a nice add on, or if you remember, or if you did already play it… you'll know a little more about its history; the same thing with the books. You don’t have to read them obviously to play the game and you will still understand the game, but if you did read the book, you'll probably get a little bit deeper into the story.

The Witcher 2 will push non-linear game design and will present non black-and-white moral choices.

Will Witcher one save files carry over to the sequel?

Tomasz Gop: It's true that you can use save games from the Witcher one and it's…work that we have aimed towards our most dedicated fans because people were so kind for us to have bought our first game need a reward, in our point of view, and that’s why we give it to them, but what's most important about this thing is that you don’t have to have played the first game to enjoy it. …If you have saved games from The Witcher one, there are places in the storyline of the Witcher 2 that reflect the major choices. Also, you carry on some of the inventory and money… [but] it’s a reward, and it's not an obligatory must do. The changes that you, reflecting the storyline of the Witcher one, will not turn the storyline over. These are not going to be 180 degree changes in the storyline of the Witcher 2, just to communicate it right.

In terms of the story, what is the premise?

Tomasz Gop: …This is not the story [of] the books. If anybody read the books, both of the games take place after the books, like a few years later on. The Witcher 2 is a straight direct sequel to the Witcher one and the main difference between The Witcher one and 2 is the scale is much bigger compared to the Witcher one where there was a rebellion within one kingdom and only within that one kingdom. In The Witcher 2, the whole set of northern kingdom, taken from the world of Sapkowski, are all in danger …players will visit many of them throughout The Witcher 2, so it’s a bigger game and its right after the Witcher one because, as it turns out, the scale of events got bigger.

Expect epic boss battles.

Some gamers like linear RPGs, some like more open-world style games. Where does the Witcher 2 fit here?

Tomasz Gop: On a side of everything I would say. We do not have a generic hero, someone that you make a hero out of nobody, we do have a concrete personality, Geralt of Rivia, and we do have a story we have written. …The main thing about it is that it's really a non-linear story and people have the possibility to find out different endings, different branches, different paths through this storyline and we're pretty sure that after completing The Witcher 2, a lot of people who will be speaking about the game in between, speaking to each other like two friends who finished it will have different experiences playing the game and they will be able to compare… One of them [might have] seen the Dwarven city, the other one [might be] in a huge military camp, a lot of people will kill one character, save the other one, will have different alliances and so on. The main feature of The Witcher 2 is non-linearity and it's expressed in the storyline as much as we could [implement it].

Some people enjoy linear games because they don't think that non-linear games are able to hold your hand to tell you the best tale possible, how do you guys feel about that?

Tomasz Gop: …We're not the developer who wants to do a linear game, there are developers who do that and are happy with it but we do not want to hold the hand of the player while he's playing…

I personally like choices in my games, but I have friends who differ on that matter. It's good to have your perspective on the subject.

Tomasz Gop: Don’t' get me wrong. There is an audience for both kinds of games. Some prefer The Witcher 2 and others might enjoy, oh, I don't know, Uncharted, for example, which is a linear game.

Going back to choices in the game, how much do your choices affect the outcome of events and the overall story?

Marek Ziemak: Because choices are very important to us, they pretty much affect the whole plot. When you make a decision, you can be sure that you will take the consequences and the consequences will probably be applied into many different layers of the game. That’s how we usually code that because once you make a choice, you usually get the consequences right away, and those are the most basic ones. You can see the effects of things you've done, like you killed someone or not. [A person's] dead or not. So those are like the first consequences but later on in the game, usually you have to face some deeper consequences that affect the whole plot, like let's say you decided to kill someone, he won't be able to help you farther in the game. Maybe you won't get some information, maybe you wouldn't know about places if you spared his life, if you talked to him. I can't [reveal] too much of the details of the story because I don’t want to spoil anything, but the effects are pretty big and impressive and it's for sure players will see them. It's like, Tomasz gave you an example of a location depending on the choices you make in the game, you actually see one of two different second acts of the game so that's a huge difference, its about 30% of the game or something and we're sure that half the players will see one of the locations and the other half will see the other one, so you can replay the game, see some extra stuff you didn’t see before. That’s one of the biggest consequences.

Uncharted 2, a critically-praised game from Sony, is a nonlinear game. CD Projekt RED feels like there's room for both linear and nonlinear types.

Because you have to design extra work for non-linear games, do you ever feel like that extra effort might go unappreciated for someone who just plays the game through once?

Marek Ziemak: It is a lot of extra work, but we've prepared our pipeline to prepare the game in a non-linear manner. We have all the tools. We have our thinking, prepared the way to produce those quests and all the different parts of the game in non linear ways. Of course it takes up efforts, more cut-scenes and more dialogue, and players who play through it once won't see everything, but I think that's the price of getting to true nonlinearity in the game. So if you, you have to show players something, you have to take something away from them, they’ll have this feeling they're not seeing everything. They’ll feel like their decisions really feel like they mean something and I think that’s cool and that’s our feeling of making the game.

Tomasz Gop: Adding to what Marek said, from this developer point of view, it's always worth remembering, that as a developer, we wanted to invest in non-linearity from the very beginning. It was the principle. It was one of the ideas when we actually started to do this game and this is why decisions like this are easy for us. Seriously, if we think about, we will be doing extra content for people who will not see it, but still, it’s the main feature of the game, we did not hesitate to do that.

Like the original game before it, expect to encounter a deep, mature storyline.

One of the key features of the original Witcher was that it didn't feature black and white moral choices. Will the Witcher 2 continue this trend?

Tomasz Gop: Oh yea, definitely. So much. Especially with a nonlinearity level, and with a new engine that we have it will definitely be possible to, because one of the primary reasons for writing this engine was scripting, or you could not even use the word "scripting," but let's hold on to this …with that level of non linearity and tools for this, we were able to base choices on the game on more factors that we had than the Witcher one. So right now, the more things, if our designers, like the quick implementation team, for example, have an idea for scripting quests based on not really regular and typical things for a quest, they just…either script it with a visual tool that we have or write script in our own scripting language and they do it and it's possible to actually implement a quest that is really cool, fun but not typical. It's not "bring me five dead bodies and I'll give you 10 dollars." It's something more, with the tools that we have it’s a reward for players.

Without giving away too much, can you give us an example of a morally ambiguous choice players might have to make?

Tomasz Gop: Sure. The simplest one is the one I always refer to when speaking why our game is for mature audiences. In most games when you decide you want to kill somebody or not. It's mainly a decision of whether or not you want to be good or bad, or whether you are driven by revenge or getting loot or something. In The Witcher 2, it's going to be more than that because the decisions are prolonged in time. You will see that killing or sparing the life of somebody will unlock totally different paths in the game, but not only this, it will also give you the results that aren’t possible to proceed for people who think, let's call it, a mature way, could think "Okay. He was an ally of this guy, they like each other, and that guy would have helped him if he was here, so it's probably against me or for me, with me in the future," and this is the kind of consequences. So it's not always about good or bad. It's more about, if this world existed, really, if there were dwarfs, elves, and magic in the real world, would I really do that? The idea that we have is to try to force people to think that way and it’s a brand new kind of fun.

The world of The Witcher 2 will be roughly two to three times bigger than the original game.

Regarding the game's world, how big is The Witcher 2?

Marek Ziemak: …It's hard to compare to The Witcher one, but it's two or three times bigger probably than the world of Witcher one. So it’s a lot more exploring the world, running around, buts it's not only bigger, but it's also more intense. It has many more landmarks, interesting places, caves, and all that stuff.

Will there be a fast travel system as a result of the increased size?

Marek Ziemak: No, no. We don’t have an actual system, but we don’t have Fedex quests so we wanted to protect players from stupid running around through the location and playing the mailman or something.

Tomasz Gop: We will keep them busy nonetheless.

Marek Ziemak: So if you have to go somewhere, there's going to be a lot of action on the way. You won't need to fast travel. That was the idea.

For RPG enthusiasts who are craving a heavily loot-driven game, will they find a lot to like in The Witcher 2?

Tomasz Gop: In the Witcher one, you had two kinds of weapons, I don’t know whether or 10 or 15, I don’t remember them exactly, and like three or five armor throughout the whole game and in The Witcher 2, if you count items, weapons, there's over 600 and what's even cool about a lot of that is that it's also craftable. So you will find craftsman all around the locations in the game and you'll be able to create unique items in the game. We have a rarity system as well so we've gone to great lengths to expanding this feature with The Witcher 2. Don’t get me wrong. Crafting isn't a revolutionary feature for RPGs. I know a lot of games have it already, but this was not the case with The Witcher one and that’s why were really proud we've gone really far with this.

Some players took issue with the complicated inventory system of the original game. Has the interface been streamlined?

Tomasz Gop: We definitely tried to simplify it in a good way. We tried to make sure there are tabs in the inventory so they could filter things. You can also browse through things and find descriptions of anything that you have in there so I think a lot of people who suffered from issues of inventory from the Witcher one will be relieved.

The Witcher 2 will feature a much more action-oriented combat system.

Another criticism with the original game pertained to its click-and-wait combat system. How has the combat changed in the Witcher 2?

Tomasz Gop: Well it changed in two ways actually. The first one was some people complained about the entry threshold being quite high with combat in The Witcher one because it was more or less turn-based. It required you to click at the right time to perform sequences, wrong clicking broke your sequence. It was complex, hardcore in a way. I mean, hardcore players loved it, but speaking about these more casual players, we wanted to give them something slightly easier...You will be able to play in a very easy way. You are not forced to use magic, not forced to use alchemy, any advance features of the game. That was one change and the other one was to keep the hardcore players, to have them still attached to our game, that’s why we have the customization features and skills. We have more skills with The Witcher 2 than we had in The Witcher one ….So it's kind of a dual way we have enhanced combat, but it was probably the biggest change from The Witcher one. Combat has been redesigned completely

Was there hesitancy to making such drastic changes in the combat?

Tomasz Gop: No. We rather really wanted to think out and plan out the way we're doing it because the main reason why we redesigned the combat so deeply because was that the audience and fans after The Witcher one were split in half between guys who thought it was too hardcore and guys who thought it was really good and we should add more to the complexity so it was really difficult to pull it off in the right way. We think we did it right, but you know, it requires a lot of work.

I've had a chance to play an early build of it myself, and I think the combat is fantastic and you guys did the right move. The control scheme seems much more friendly to the mainstream action gamer and feels like it would work well with a Xbox controller. Does it support that?

Tomasz Gop: Yes. It's already implemented. [It's] one of the reasons a lot of people think it's simpler… It's already working with the Xbox controller on the PC and even on some of the presentation, it was not exactly for combat, but mostly for controlling your camera, I was actually using the Xbox controller while playing The Witcher 2 because it was easier for me to move around to make moves and transitions and looking at things, but if it comes down to combat and you want to use advanced tactics and options, its definitely better to use mouse and keyboard. With the final build of the game, we have everything customizable, so a lot of people who played early versions did not get a chance to customize everything themselves and it will be available in the final game. It's still hardcore. It's still a PC game. It’s a treat for PC gamers.

Some review sites playing preview builds of the game said The Witcher 2 proved to be quite difficult at times. Considering a lot of RPG gamers play games for the story and not necessarily the challenge, might the game be a bit difficult for them?

Tomasz Gop: No. I have gathered the feedback from most of the media that have previewed the game and I know that most of them played on Medium. …The game was a challenge at times, sometimes, if they chose Easy, they would not have too much trouble with the fighting, if they chose Hard, oh, man! Not even too many people here can finish the game on Hard. And there's also the Insane difficulty which is a whole different story.

How long can gamers expect the game to last on their first time through?

Tomasz Gop: Well, obviously, with such a deep non-linearity game, it will depend on the play through you choose yourself. But we're estimating around 40 hours for the main quest.

To hear more about the humble beginnings of CD Projekt RED STUDIO, the reasoning behind being a PC-centric developer, and how they feel about being at the forefront of the so-called "PC gaming movement," click here.