At Gamescom in Cologne last weekend, I sat down with the CD Projekt RED studio head Adam Badowski to discuss the Polish studio’s upcoming RPG sequel The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Preceding our interview, I saw an impressive 45-minute live demo from the game. Look forward to my impressions in an upcoming article.
— Before we begin, can you please introduce The Witcher universe to our readers who might not be familiar with it?
Badowski: The Witcher is based on the prose and stories of Mr. Andrzej Sapkowski. We exploited that, as often stories written for games tend to be shallow. We, however, have a rich pool of character backgrounds, the characters’ fates, friends, and past events to build upon. This was a very nice starting point. We are consistent with the character and consequences of choices as we know what Geralt would have done and would not have done in a specific situation. Mr. Sapkowski was a great aid in that regard. The game stars “The Witcher,” slayer of monsters. They are a rare caste. They used to be more popular in the past as there were monsters roaming everywhere but now only a few of them remain. People were asking them for help as monsters attacked them but they [the Witchers] have always been a caste of outcasts because they were different due to their mutations, emotionless, and acting according to their Witcher Codex. Those actions were considered anti-social.
Right now there are only a few Witchers remaining in the world and the most famous one is Geralt of Rivia. He is quite famous and infamous simultaneously. He’s famous because he often participates in important events, visits castles, and takes care of important business. He does not actively pursue it—he is instead approached by the denizens of this [The Witcher's] world. He is infamous as he is nicknamed the Butcher of Blaviken and he has done a lot of deeds deemed questionable by other people. Witchers are trained monster slayers who know lots of tricks. A Witcher tries to utilize his knowledge of monsters to effectively slay them. Furthermore, he uses mutagens, which are used to prepare for battle but are poisonous to mere humans.
Witchers have been trained since early childhood, consequently only a few of them survived the harsh training. There are also other trials like sucking out poison to become immune to it. Geralt is unique as he’s 80, 90, or even 100 years old. His actual age is never disclosed, but he lives longer than humans, similar to witches, due to his training. He possesses unique magical abilities. It’s not like the magic used by mages, it’s a kind of magic mages would be ashamed of using. They are small battle signs that are utilized to deal with monsters more efficiently. That’s the general gist of it .
— Thanks for such an elaborate, extensive introduction. So this is the final part of the Trilogy. I read that this is more of Geralt’s personal story so it’s not necessary to know the story-line and events from The Witcher 1 and 2. So, considering The Witcher 1 wasn’t on consoles and The Witcher 2 was only on Xbox 360, are there any plans to produce a summary of their events for consoles?
Badowski: Well, it’s a trilogy. We labeled the first game The Witcher 1, then 2, and soon 3. We can’t go back on that. We’re aiming at giving new players a smooth introduction into the game, and we’re not necessarily talking only about tutorials, but also how the game works and how Geralt thinks, who he is and his unique character traits. That introduction is not only aimed at new players, but also at the ones who are familiar with the franchise because those moments were the player discovers the world for the first time are very unique. It’s important for the player to build a relationship with the player character as it’s not as impactful if the player character is already fully equipped and leveled up [when the player first assumes control of him]. We like those introductions.
Regarding informing players prior to the game’s launch, we definitely want to inform players about the events of the first two games and introduce familiar characters as well. We want to do it in a simple matter as there are many unique characters in The Witcher universe and we don’t want to barrage new players with too much information. It’s important for us to convey that playing The Witcher 3 works perfectly fine without having played the previous games. Afterwards, new players might want to delve into The Witcher 1 and 2 but our third game will be the best one in the series, with the best visuals and a truly open world. The story will begin simply, but afterwards extraordinary things are going to happen. After The Witcher 2 we learned that it’s important to give the player a smooth and simple introduction into the world.
— Cool, so anyone can delve into the world of The Witcher 3 without having to worry about not understanding the story and characters. But concerning the story, I would like to ask, how much creative freedom you were given by Mr. Sapkowski in writing your Witcher universe?
Badowski: Well, Mr. Sapkowski spent some time reading our script as we were writing and developing The Witcher 1 and shared his opinion on it. We adjusted the script accordingly to his suggestions and afterwards he said ‘yes, that sounds great, continue in that direction.’ Our story starts after the books’ story, so we do not narrate the books’ story. We are using heroes, events, places, and history that happened in the books, before our story, but our original Witcher story starts after the books’ events. So Mr. Sapkowski said, ‘go, children, and evangelize the word.’ Mr. Sapkowski does not criticize the game as he is a writer, 100 percent prose writer. The game’s world is a completely different, alien world to him. It is our job and responsibility to develop the characters in the game and make sure they stay in-line with the books’ characters. Our writers and the whole development team have read the books a dozen times over. I believe we have the best experts on Sapkowski. We always have those internal struggles—’is this okay? isn’t that too hardcore?’—for example, in [The Witcher] 2 we cut out almost all of the kings.
— So this is your version of The Witcher universe based on Mr. Sapkowski’s prose and characters. Obviously, you are game developers so the game has to be fun to play. I liked the first two games rather well and I noticed that you’re constantly improving. It’s shocking how good the games look, especially The Witcher 2 at the highest settings. The writing is top notch as well, considering, in my opinion, there have not been that many well written western RPGs in recent years that appealed to mature audiences. Your writing tends to be deep and appealing to said audiences. Based on what I’ve seen, this third game is a natural evolution of your franchise. It’s a mix of cutting-edge technology and great writing. With new consoles on the horizon, you are certainly not as restrained on PC anymore, as well. How was that transition for you, considering you have traditionally been a PC-oriented studio?
Badowski: Well, we already ported The Witcher 2 to Xbox  one year after the PC release, so we had already gained some console know-how by then and how to work with closed, slightly limiting hardware. Consoles have certain technical rules that can be bent on PC. But once we gained early access to Sony’s and Microsoft’s new tech our interest was piqued. We were wondering whether we had to change and modify a lot as we would like to release on all three platforms [PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One] simultaneously, and we discovered that the underlying tech and performance is very similar on all three platforms. That was awesome. I believe that a lot of barriers for developers [who wanted to release on console but were intimidated by the complicated architecture compared to PC] have disappeared. PCs are evolving faster, as consoles have fixed hardware. But I believe that consoles, whose primary purpose is to play games, have higher performance than similarly spec’d PCs. Developers will have to get to know the console hardware during the first year of their life-span, but afterwards they will start squeezing out lots of performance from them.
So, the difference, even if new [graphics] cards are released [for PCs], will be negligible for some time or consoles might even surpass PCs. That’s a great opportunity for us who are huge fans of PCs due to their lack of limitations. Besides, our company is not a tech-company, but rather a content company, so to us storytelling and writing are much more important than being at the cutting edge of technology. That, however, does not mean we do not want to optimize the game. We want to optimize it to squeeze out even more performance. What you saw at the presentation was just the beginning (Roland’s tease: it looked as good as the in-engine trailers released so far). The game looks significantly better by now, because that was the first step as we re-wrote the renderer from DirectX 9 to DirectX 11. So just now, work on the visuals has begun. What the guys responsible for the renderer have on their computers right now is unbelievable. We are still changing things for the next couple of months. The game is already looking much better right now.
— What I saw during the demo looked fantastic. It’s difficult to believe you are focusing on content over technology. At E3, you already gathered many awards (best RPG, best visuals, game defining the next generation, etc.), but we’ve only seen a few trailers. This was the first time I’ve seen it running live and it looked, again, fantastic. So, naturally I was shocked to hear that comment.
Badowski: I do not want to have an exaltation, but right now this is not the final state and we already know that we can still keep on going and pushing to further improve [the final product].
— Shifting gears a bit, I would like to talk about regeneration and combat.
Badowski: Geralt is going to regenerate up till a certain threshold unless he receives critical wounds. In that case, taking medicine or potions with healing properties is necessary. I like how different other games’ regenerative health works and I’m pleased to see that the game design has evolved and is progressing. I like the system where the player character has a protective barrier. While the barrier is regenerating, if we receive further damage, then it has to be treated by potions, etc. I like that system and we are going to feature something similar.
— Tell me a bit about the game’s meditation system.
Badowski: We have various options regarding the meditation system. You can prepare things at the campfire, you can advance time. You can further use elixirs, deadly potions before battle (Roland’s note: sounds similar to the mutagen system in The Witcher 2) etc. There are some other things and changes, as well, but I do not want to talk about them yet.
— The flow of battle looked very satisfying. Geralt looks like a dancer now—he’s dancing with his swords. It looked fluent and elegant, and tactical and deep. What are your plans regarding balancing at the highest difficulty levels? I remember the highest difficulty level in The Witcher 2, including the patch, was unforgiving and relentless. You are renowned for your challenging combat.
Badowski: We made too big a challenge in The Witcher 2 and we have to improve it [the balancing] now. As game designers we want to experiment and discover new things. We decided to remove auto-balancing [in The Witcher 3]. Auto-balancing makes the designers’ work easier, but increases the challenge to players who, consequently, might lose interest in the game. It’s much nicer to return to a previously extremely powerful monster once you’re fully equipped and turn the monster’s lair into a slaughterhouse.
In The Witcher 3, we are taking the following approach: we are gradually introducing more challenging adversaries throughout the main storyline. The script shall not hamper the players’ progress by introducing an extremely challenging foe too early. As this is an open world, however, the player might encounter quite a challenging foe outside the main storyline. Without certain exploits it’s gonna be tough. Then the player either has to level up or search for a different solution. But once you progress somewhat in the story and strengthen your character, you can return to it at a later time and harm it. That’s obviously a balancing issue. There’s always a margin for error. There are certain players who build and level up their character first and tackle the main storyline later. We have to take those players into consideration and find a solution. We are conscious of all the limitations of a system that is not auto-balancing.
— I am pleased with how everything is turning out, and applaud CD Projekt RED for their successful evolution over past 10 years. You’re using your own proprietary tech and you’re writing the games yourselves.
Badowski: Yeah, that’s our own tech. We are an independent company and we are maintaining our independence. We are independent financially and creatively. Our IPs are not based on foreign licences and we do not rent ourselves out. Those are our own IPs, titles, and licences. That allows us to make decisions to go in a certain direction. Everything doesn’t happen suddenly. We used to have small booths and offices, now we have bigger ones. I’m hoping it’s going to continue in that direction. Our driving force is the desire to develop games. Okay, everyone wants to earn money, but it’s most important to think what one wants to do with his life. The rest occurs naturally. We want to develop games.
— I was delighted to read your consistent anti-DRM stance, as I’m personally not a fan. And that’s why I feel as if CD Projekt RED is presented as sort of a ‘superhero’ to the development community, and just one of the reasons why you’re extremely popular with consumers. You come off as very nice people who are passionate about making games, and it shows in your products. Now that you are producing multiple games simultaneously, was it difficult for you to transition from a single-project studio to a multi-project one?
Badowski: Well, the most difficult time was when we grew from 50 members to 100 members. Once we learned that we should not run the company as a corporation, but rather as a nice place to develop games at, everything went much smoother. Now growing another 50 to 100 people should not be an issue anymore. We know how to make games and Cyberpunk  is developed within a smaller team with core members from The Witcher team (Roland’s note: The Witcher 3 is being developed first, then focus changes to Cyberpunk 2077]. Thanks to that we are researching a new, improved approach to game development: we would like to develop the game so it can enter full production once we have all the details finalized and know everything about it.
— Any final words for our readers, Adam?
Badowski: I hope we do not tire players out with high expectations and that they have enough patience to wait for new materials concerning the The Witcher .
— We’re all exciting for CD Projekt RED’s future titles. Thank you very much for the interview, and enjoy the rest of Gamescom!