The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt carries the weight of expectation, considering the strong, story focused, really good previous installments in the series. With The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt coming out sometime this year, we took the opportunity to speak to Michał Krzemiński, senior art producer at CD Projekt RED about how the game plays, how monsters play a part in the open world, and what it’s like developing for next generation platforms.
As with previous Witcher games, Wild Hunt is taking a strong approach to narrative. Continuing on after the events of Assassins of Kings, with the Nilfgaardian Empire invading the Northern Kingdoms, we find Geralt free from that particular political mess and striking out on his own once more. But Geralt is not out of danger yet, with the main enemy force being “The Wild Hunt, a group of spectral riders in pursuit of someone who’s very dear to him. And it’s taken its toll on Geralt, with his rougher appearance reflecting that “[a] lot of heavy stuff is happening and Geralt also becomes more rugged as a result of that.” Geralt’s rougher look and shaggy beard “doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of time has passed”, though.
Krzemiński was very clear, though, that previous knowledge of the series was not necessary to enjoy The Witcher 3. “[I]t’s really important to emphasize that you don’t need to play the previous games to have fun right off the bat in The Witcher 3.” Krzemiński told us. “The game is constructed in such a way that new players can treat the story as a standalone tale, while anyone who played the previous games will feel like it’s a natural continuation of what happened before.”
“It took some effort,” Krzemiński revealed, “but we managed to make it really entertaining without leaving anything out.” If you haven’t played the previous games and you still want to know the backstory, the team are also preparing a story recap to fill in the blanks.
As to whether The Witcher will consider as a game series or not, Krzemiński told us that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will definitely be the “final installment” in the series. “All great stories have a beginning, a middle and an ending – a conclusion is needed to complete the circle and it’s no different with The Witcher series.”
When we asked about the creator of The Witcher novels, Andrzej Sapkowski, and how much influence he’s had on development, it seems that there has been no direct collaboration on The Witcher 3. “Mr. Sapkowski created the whole universe and gave life to Geralt’s character. He did that over the course of several wonderful books, so when we decided to make the game much of the initial work was already done for us.” Krzemiński said. “On the other hand, the books sometimes leave blank spots or describe monsters only as “horrible” and these are the places our imagination and creativity can really kick in.”
Those monsters themselves play a big part in the Witcher mythos, and The Witcher 3 is set to entrench them more firmly into the world than ever before. At the forefront of this is the living ecosystem approach CD Projekt RED are taking to monster interaction. “[m]any of these ecosystems are based on mutual dependencies.” Krzemiński said. “For example, if you rid a village of drowners, its inhabitants will start to fish on a larger scale, which may have repercussions elsewhere.” Beyond that, monsters are embedded firmly into each location. “Some [monsters] are even worshipped and considered local deities.” Krzemiński told us. “The backstory that comes with every monster truly makes them a part of the place they inhabit. Villagers will tell you stories about them, children will fear them and so on, so you’ll never have the feeling that we just made the game spawn random beasts in random places and made Geralt hunt them.”
“We’ve done extensive research into fantasy beasts and worked with people who research Slavic mythos for a living. We also relied on the Slavic bestiary and really tried to get into the shoes and hooves… of the beasts we put into The Witcher 3. How would they impact the local environment? What tales would villagers tell after a century of living near them? You won’t see a necrophage – a monster that feasts on corpses – where there are no humans around.”
As a Witcher, Geralt’s job is to hunt and eliminate those monsters. As such, a lot of work has been put into the hunting side quests. Krzemiński explained that “it’s not your typical go-and-kill-monster-X-to-receive-reward-Y type of quest; it’s way more than that.” How this plays out in game involves a number of steps. First is to determine the type of monster that you will be hunting. Then you must find out what its weak points are, and “only after that you can go for the kill and collect the bounty if you succeed.”
The combat system has received some changes over its predecessor, too. According to Krzemiński, “[t]he combat is way more intimate and tactical this time around. We wanted to give players complete control over Geralt’s blades; that’s why one button press now equals one sword swing. This enables players to string precise hits and develop their own tactics based on the behaviour of the monsters he or she fights.” To keep the flow of combat going, The Witcher 3 has new “next-gen” combat animations, and a total lack of quicktime events.
All this monster fighting happens in a massive open world. We asked Krzemiński what he was most excited about with The Witcher 3, and it all came back to the world. “[What I’m most excited about is the] story and the open world that it’s set in! The way we managed to combine how you can explore the world with the intensity of storytelling is really unique to The Witcher 3. The narrative is as intensive as in closed-world games but you get a huge open world full of stories to explore as you wish.”
And it’s a massive world, too. “It’s about 35 times bigger than what you saw in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.” Krzemiński said. “The main story arc is about 50 hours and there’s an additional 50 hours of side-quest gameplay in the game as well.”
CD Projekt RED have a fantastic track record with supporting their Witcher titles post-release. Both the original Witcher and The Witcher 2 received substantial support, with patches and an entire free update with a slew of new content and improvements with respective Enhanced Edition releases. Krzemiński assured us that, while nothing has yet been announced about post-release content, “[CD Projekt RED have] not changed our policy to support our games after launch, so don’t be afraid about that!”
The Witcher 3 is aiming squarely at the next generation. “Our aim is for gamers to say to themselves, “OK, so this is how next gen looks and plays” when they first launch the game.” said Krzemiński. To this end, CD Projekt RED are utilising a number of advanced features in their own REDengine 3. Being a proprietary engine, REDengine 3 gives the team “the comfort of fiddling with anything, anytime.” This allows the team to be on the “cutting edge” when it comes to changes in graphics tech, and gives the team a lot of flexibility to make changes. Krzemiński gave us an example of their graphical progress – “What you saw when we revealed the game was captured on the old renderer, and we’ve also started using some cool external tech like Nvidia’s FurTech and SpeedTree. Just watch the VGX Trailer and see for yourself.”
It also helps that REDengine 3 was used for their last Witcher game. “We spent a lot of time developing The Witcher 2, and almost every day brings both new challenges and solutions to problems we encounter.” Krzemiński told us. “I’d say that we’ve gained a tremendous amount of experience, which will ultimately make The Witcher 3 a great game.”
These changes are more aesthetic and technical, rather than gameplay focused, though. “When it comes to gameplay, we have a very clear vision of how the game should play, so we haven’t made too many changes; I’d rather call them tweaks based on internal testing feedback. We have a roadmap and we’re sticking to it.”
We asked Krzemiński what he thought made The Witcher 3 a next-gen title. “I think that it’s the way we combine the story with the world and the graphics that power that process.”
Krzemiński was a little cagey on specific next-gen features, though, only saying that “[The Witcher 3 will] definitely take advantage of the features next-gen hardware offers us”.
And, as a format, we’re growing up. Krzemiński thinks we’re seeing a maturing of games, in the way we tell stories, and the stories we tell. “We’re heading into mature territory. Games are growing up as a medium and so are the stories being told in them. I think that there are going to be more and more games that break the rules and introduce new elements in genres that have not seen innovation for a while now. It will be a great generation for storytellers!”
Oh, and CD Projekt RED haven’t forgotten their other huge RPG project. “Cyberpunk 2077 is on track and being actively developed. We’ve got a million ideas and we’re not afraid to turn them into an awesome game. But let’s focus on The Witcher 3 for now.”
Thanks to Michał Krzemiński for his time. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is coming “this year” to PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One, distributed in Australia by Namco Bandai. As one of our Big 12, we’ll definitely be keeping track of all the new details on The Witcher 3 as they emerge.