While it was originally meant to be released within the next month, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been delayed till May to allow the widely respected fellows at CD Projekt RED to add the final layers of polish to “the game we have always wanted to make and play”. These were the words of CD Projekt RED Quest Designer, Philipp Weber, whom I sat down to have a chat with about his team’s creation. Later, I got to spend some time playing the near final build of the game.
Philipp’s road into game development was refreshingly enlightening and further solidified the burgeoning reputation of CD Project RED as a developer unafraid to do things that are off the beaten path. The beneficiary of a development competition on mods for The Witcher 2, his work was clearly good enough for CD Projekt RED to put him on their books. I’m pretty sure that most readers will agree that some of the most exciting developments in the games industry come from those who have worked on their own mods or created something on their own. And even if other developers are slow at considering such hiring strategies, it shows that having your own created work is just as important as studying a discipline like game design or even computer science.
Philipp spoke proudly about his role in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and gave me a good idea of what to expect from a Quest Designer’s role. And overall it sounds pretty cool – it leaves a lot of scope for creativity and exploration of the game world. I was a little bit surprised that even with the multitude of quests that will appear in the game, that it’s possible that one quest will have gone through up to 15 people before reaching its final form in the game.
Another aspect that I thought was interesting, was Philipp’s role in creating a believable world that players can immerse themselves in through the design and creation of NPCs. NPC behaviour in RPGs had long been restricted by technological limitations, and despite the subsequent advances, JRPGs were still the brunt of jokes for the cardboard cut-outs prevailing in their game worlds. He explained to me the challenge of populating the largest city in the game (Novigrad) with 1000s of believable NPCs. In particular, the emphasis was on creating a (basic) backstory for every character in the game, so if you followed them around, you could figure out their ‘role’ in the world. An example of this could be a town drunk that you observe lying in a gutter at one point, and then later you find the same drunk in the tavern.
Speaking on advancements for The Witcher 3, it has had a greater focus on being more “open” than either of its predecessors. Interestingly, CD Projekt RED wants to distance themselves from the common use of the term ‘open-world’ just because it’s popular to label a game as such, with a preference for just saying it’s the most appropriate description. Where it was possible for the player to plough through The Witcher 2 with scant regard for anything else that existed in the game world, a challenge CD Projekt RED took upon themselves was to give players as much incentive to stop and smell to roses along the way in The Witcher 3 as possible.
The advances in technology over time and the growing rapport of the developer has allowed for The Witcher 3 to take on an even larger and wider scope than its predecessors. When asked about the potential length of the game, I was given an approximate figure of 50 hours, if the player only has a desire to follow the story. Otherwise, triple digits beckoned for the completionist. Thankfully, there has been smart implementation of brief story recaps each time you reload the game to help the player remember their progress. For a player like me with limited time and memory capacity, hopefully this will help keep us engaged without losing the trail of the story.
Size doesn’t just come in the form of gameplay hours though, as the theorised size of the game world and the amount of time that it would take you to traverse was pretty impressive. The game world is spread across an archipelago, with a variety of environments throughout that are inspired by European – and particularly Slavic – landscapes. The game’s main city of Novigrad is said to take at least 30 minutes to be traversed, by horse at full gallop and in a straight line. However, Philipp also mentioned that they were aware of filling the world with enough activities so that you’re not travelling for 10 minutes with nothing around, and that there is a fast travel system.
During an era where choices in games still return discrete and often ‘black and white’ consequences, The Witcher 2 made the bold move to essentially allow a player to skip an entire chapter if a certain path of choices was taken. A boon for creative freedoms in games – when major developers are too afraid to give a consequential choice and lead to players choosing from blue, red and green – this bold design choice stems from the desire of CD Projekt RED to build a product that will actually have tangible replayability. Furthermore, they set themselves the challenge of making sure their writing allows players to realise the consequence of a choice they made, say, 10 hours prior. I’m really looking forward the grey manner of choices that will be on offer, particularly after what I’ve seen in this preview and during E3 last year.
Upon setting up their ‘booths’ for the upcoming hands-on with the game, the CD Projekt RED representatives set themselves a challenge; each would set up some systems and some displays, and the others had to guess which system they were running on. Despite a lack of true experimental conditions, the apparent result was that even the developers struggled to distinguish between the systems. Aside from those that have the latest rigs and graphics cards, or those who have access to NASA hardware, it seems that the rest of us – even the console plebs – will have an equivalent audio and visual experience regardless of the system that we play on.
Now for the important part – how was the game itself? The opening cinematic was a tad confusing for someone not well versed with the series, but once the game started proper it became clear what an astute piece of work The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had become. The in-game cinematics did a great job of making me feel like they were part of the game, and the opening sequences exuded an elaborate importance for what was to follow. A brief (and optional) tutorial takes place that purely goes into some of the basic mechanics, and will clearly leave the player to discover the further intricacies. This tutorial also introduces us to Ciri, who later appears in the game as a playable character, as well as the ‘Wild Hunt’, the titular group out on the prowl for trouble. And what seems to be the desire for world domination.
The game lets you run pretty freely after that. Chasing the “woman that smells of gooseburries”, protagonist Geralt’s journey this time around is a lot more personal, but one that hasn’t had much given away yet. True to the developer’s word, you are allowed to pursue the game as you see fit. Early on I ran into a griffon that was terrorising the first town you come across and the main mission was to hunt that bad boy down. However, I ended up spending more time confronting petty criminals in the town and solving minor mysteries. Your ‘witcher’ powers are put to good use for these.
The town’s tavern gave an brief look into consequences, as it turned out that using my powers to persuade someone to answer my questions by force were not welcome. The occupants took umbridge to this action were waiting for me outside the tavern. Even though they were not too onerous to dispatch, it was a nice early example of the consequences that your actions may have. At a not too distant point after that, I ended up biting off more than I could chew by trying to take on a pack of wolves. As I spent more play time, I was able to truly embrace the combat mechanics – once I got used to them the combat became sublime.
This preview for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has certainly whetted my appetite for the game more than it had been. I really enjoyed pretty much the whole scope of the package, and the sincere and passionate chat with Philipp. Also, I can happily report that the game is shaping up very nicely, while those who haven’t played the franchise before shouldn’t be afraid of trying it either. There is enough assistance within the game to get you into it. If anything looks erroneous, it would be whether CD Projekt has given themselves enough time to polish this gargantuan title in a way that leave the players with a fully-baked experience.
Thank to Bandai Namco Australia and Philipp Weber from CD Projekt for organising the play time and for the chat.