The Witcher 3 preview: how to build an RPG with 36 endings

Samuel Roberts

Four quest designers worked on the original Witcher. Its more refined sequel had six. The conclusion to the trilogy, which promises 100 hours of content and a 50-hour story, has more than doubled that. “We have about 14, I think,” says lead quest designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz.

Nor have CD Projekt Red simply padded out The Witcher 3's Skyrim-exceeding open world with unimaginative busywork. They've systematically banished fetch quests from the game—or, at least, as much as a team can when making a high-fantasy RPG. It's one of the ways the Polish developers are refining their identity through the creation of The Witcher 3, where quest and narrative design is being meticulously worked and reworked right up until release. The philosophy is, if you need to have a fetch quest, make sure the story does a damn good job of hiding it.

“When we do have these situations, which is rarely, we compensate for it with the narrative,” writer Jakub Szamalek explains. “It'll definitely be an interesting story in itself – you'll be intrigued by the NPC's motives, and where this is all leading. Even when you have a simple structure it's something we're compensating for in the story.”

The reason for abolishing fetch quests? CD Projekt Red don't like them much either. “We are trying very hard to limit such interactions of structures to a minimum because we don't think they're interesting.” Instead, they want to be radical.

The studio's ambition is to further the RPG on all fronts – from big, sprawling decisions that impact the world to the very basic principle of handing an item from one NPC to another. It's a sign that The Witcher 3 could complete the developers' ongoing evolution from rough RPG debutantes to best-in-class.

Mateusz and Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, lead quest designer and game director respectively, list various types of open-world game, including GTA-style sandbox titles, before explaining why Piranha Bytes' Gothic series is the most apt comparison. “It's most similar to our game, I think,” Mateusz says. “A quite perfect combination of storyline and freedom in the open world. It's quite similar, the Gothic series, in terms of quest design and how we organise the story, but our game has a very, very big landscape and Gothic locations were open world...” “...on a smaller scale,” Konrad finishes.

We've written about the size of The Witcher 3's open world in past issues, but it's the detail of that landscape more than the scale that feels unprecedented. Individual blades of grass swaying in the wind, the animation quality of the creatures that bound at Geralt in battle, the sparks flying from his hand during a fire spell and the time-lapse effect of dramatic skies tearing over the monster-killer as he meditates. A lesser PC stands no chance here, and it's not just pretty effects that make The Witcher's world so enticing. The way the game's three regions are shaped by various portions of European mythology and history promise a coherent but still unusual dark fantasy world.

“We have to plan how to cover this big open world with content, which is not easy, because as you know there are some problems with that in openworld games,” Mateusz says. “We want to give worthwhile content to the players in the open world. We have to think about how to avoid repetitive quests, we have to think about how to fill this huge landscape with quests that you will notice and take part in, we have to make the main storyline easy to come back to if you delve into the sidequests, which might be difficult for some players.”

Various activities fill the world outside of the main story, including monster-hunting quests where Geralt plies his trade. Far from the typical open-world filler of recycled character models, these creatures require tracking and hunting down, and each has a backstory. “They involve hunting legendary creatures,” Mateusz says. “They should be tougher to beat than normal opponents. Each encounter contains a unique creature and each of those hunts is unique. They're not repeatable, in the sense that they each have their own plot. You can expect each settlement will have at least one of them, if not more.”

Such 'legendary' creatures can add mythic depth to open-world games, like Skyrim's legendary dragons or Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare's Bigfoot and Chupacabra hunts, where finding them is as much a challenge as killing them. In some cases the idea is to evoke medieval urban legends with the hunts – such tales were the source of several creature ideas for CD Projekt Red's artists. “There were hundreds of Slavic monsters invented in medieval times, and they're all connected to some weird things that couldn't be explained,” says lead character artist Pawel Mielniczuk. He cites the Leshen – the disturbing humanoid tree spirit shown off at E3 – as an example of this inspiration. “The name was quite unique, and we're trying to apply some kind of visual style to how cool the name is. It sounds cool in Polish. I'm not sure if it sounds cool in English.”

Inspiration emerges from other unlikely sources. “I'm not sure I can talk about different games,” Mielniczuk laughs. “But for me personally I love the monsters in Castlevania. They were quite unique, and this game was quite inspiring for me, for example, because these weren't the sort of monsters you'd find in Western games. We're trying to avoid zombies and generic alien things.” When the team needs a specific creature for a quest, the artists work with the quest designers to figure that out. “If the creature has its own unique quest, we need to talk to the people on the quest team.”

Ideas for The Witcher 3's quests come from both the writing team and quest designers, who can butt heads on whether an idea is workable or not. “On the one hand it's nice to have as many different paths and different possibilities as possible, but on the other you have to keep in mind that you have to implement it, think of consequences within the constraints of the budget,” says Szamalek. “The bigger challenge is we think differently about how we tell stories and about the narrative, and I think we concentrate more on the experience and providing the player with something that's unforgettable or exciting. The quest team has a slightly different perspective, because they're the ones who eventually have to make things happen.”

How do the quest team see the relationship from their side? “It can be rough at times because we have to discuss those things over and over with them,” says Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz. “It differs on specific cases – sometimes the input comes from them, so they give us very broad scenarios of what's going to happen, and we're supposed to add those details and design it in a way that will fit the game, that you can actually implement it. They're writers. They don't, at times, understand what you can and can't do in a game, so we have to do that.”

That feedback between the teams works both ways. “We also design from scratch and talk it through with the storytelling guys so they know what's in there,” Mateusz says. “They have to give us opinion on if they are able write good dialogue for that, if they see potential in this quest.”

That back and forth is something all agree is healthier for the creation of The Witcher 3. “I think they structure the stories in a slightly different manner and think about the story as a series of logical events that have to tie in together, and I think we're slightly less systematic in our approach,” says Szamalek. “That would be the biggest difference, but working together, it works out for the best in the end.”

The writing team's remit is to avoid a repetitive quest structure or a branching narrative where the outcome can be pre-empted – Szamalek explains how some quests will trick the player into making a seemingly good or bad choice, then be shocked at the consequences. But it's a trick they try not to repeat. “We wouldn't like the player to figure out how we do things after doing several quests. So in each quest, no matter how small, we're trying to come up with something surprising and original. Of course, sometimes, we make you feel that you suspect there's a good and bad option, but there's a twist where it turns out you were wrong. I don't think we abuse it – so it's not like we're teasing the player each time there's a choice to make.”

Then there's the scary but exciting notion of the game's 36 endings. At the time of my interview, work on each unique finale is ongoing – and the team obviously have their preferences over how they'd like Geralt's story to come to an end. “I think I had an influence over a fair share [of endings],” Szamalek says, “and I've spent the last few weeks working on that part of the game. And of course I do have my own favourites – when the game comes out I will definitely be shaping it in a particular way.”

I ask Mateusz if some endings require more work than others. “Yeah, I say they do... I can tell you that some endings were easier for us to design, there are some that were tougher, but all of them took us a huge amount of time.” This is a world where an action in one town can affect another, where the humans in settlements can eventually end up dead. CD Projekt Red will keep tweaking the outcomes up until release. Keeping consistency over so many variables is an ongoing challenge. “It's really easy to outrage fans with endings they won't like.”

The beginning and end of The Witcher 3 provide a similar challenge, according to Mateusz. “I think they're the most difficult parts to create... The beginning has to make you interested in the entire game, and the ending is important because you can't leave the player disappointed.” Konrad Tomaszkiewicz agrees. “I think we redid the beginning of The Witcher six or seven times, and The Witcher 2 four or five times.”

There's a lot of mythology to relay from the last two games, but they're hoping to circumvent some of The Witcher 2's storytelling weaknesses. “We know in The Witcher 2 we were criticised for heavy exposition and the fact you get told about a lot of the background, a lot of the context and the lore at the same time, and it might be very overwhelming to players,” says Szamalek. “It might discourage them from delving into it because they might feel like they can't catch up. So that's something we try to change, and I think we succeeded in ensuring you have a smoother introduction to the world and its characters. There are very experienced writers on the team and they're making sure what the newbies do makes sense.”

The increased number of quest designers on The Witcher 3 is indicative of how much CD Projekt Red have had to expand to make a game this big. “When I was here the first time it was 40 people,” Mielniczuk tells me. “I joined the team two years before the release of The Witcher 1. For me the company that has been working on The Witcher 1, 2 and 3 is a totally different company. It's changed so much because of how the studio looks, how many people work here and how the production is organised.”

They mention that the studio is now composed of 20% non-Polish developers, compared to just one on The Witcher 2. “We stick to our values, I think,” says Mateusz. “We're not going corporation-style – everyone is friendly to each other, everyone has a say in the designing process still. But of course it's a much bigger team than it was, and there has to be some changes made.”

The game has captured attention in what has been a fairly quiet time for big singleplayer RPGs. For the audience who have witnessed The Witcher's curious transformation from early roughness to a potential genre leader, seeing out Geralt's story in such a lavish and maybe even groundbreaking fashion will be a reward in itself. In the continuing absence of a non-MMO Fallout/Elder Scrolls game, and while Dragon Age: Inquisition is still a way off, this is CD Projekt Red's opportunity to shine.

“We want to create games for really mature players,” Szamalek tells me. “These aren't games for everyone... We have particular ambitions about what we want to achieve. The games that we make have a complex story you have to work a bit to fully grasp, and I think avoiding bad and good options is also a part of addressing and catering for this large audience, which demands the same treatment they'd get from movies or books.

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