'We're running at a f**king wall, and we're gonna crash'—CD Projekt's lead quest designer on big budget RPGs

Pawel Sasko selfie with Cyberpunk 2077 art
(Image credit: Pawel Sasko, CD Projekt Red)

Recent PC Gamer editorial "The cinematic BioWare-style RPG is dead, it just doesn't know it yet" caused quite "a commotion" between the lead designers at developer CD Projekt Red, Cyberpunk 2077 quest director Paweł Sasko said in a recent PC Gamer roundtable interview. "Everyone actually, after reading this article, said: we mostly agree, actually, with the thesis. At least when it comes to triple-A, we are just running at a fucking wall, I think, and we're gonna crash on that wall really soon."

Sasko's comments above kicked off a discussion on the technology behind today's big-budget games and the expectations players have for them. The "wall" Sasko referred to is the ballooning complexity and expense of making games like Cyberpunk 2077. Before it released, I think it's safe to say many RPG players assumed that if CD Projekt had done such a fantastic job with The Witcher 3, it should be able to do the same with Cyberpunk.

But Cyberpunk's more immersive first-person presentation ended up making it a vastly more difficult game to build in ways that aren't obvious to most players.

The triple-A crisis

"Witcher 3 has so many fucking tricks," Sasko said, explaining one in particular—the way it would often cut to black to stage scenes or transition between bits of a quest, letting the developers spawn or despawn objects, and change the weather or time of day. "Sometimes there's a scene of a guy behind a bar, and he's like, submerged waist-up to the terrain because we didn't have animation. So he's just sitting there. But he looks perfectly fine in that scene, and it looks like he actually matches and everything works.

"Then you look at Cyberpunk. No cuts, no black screens, you're 'in' V all the time. Staging is in-person. It got so incredibly more expensive to generate branches. Adding branches to Witcher 3 was so easy in comparison to Cyberpunk. This article really sparked that discussion."

CD Projekt's designers felt strongly that the "no-cuts" first-person perspective was important for the game, but Pawel said they need to find a solution for "scalability of narrative: you want your story to be long, but also be broad, so we try to provide all the branches and choices and consequences." Doing that with their current tools requires an enormous budget. Disco Elysium, he pointed to as a contrast, was able to add narrative branches incredibly cheaply, thanks to the text-heavy, top-down presentation.

Former Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw said the primary challenge, to him, is controlling player expectations. "As soon as you're delivering something that starts to be cinematic, you then are essentially inviting comparison to the most cinematic things. So you are kind of keeping pace with Naughty Dog or Cyberpunk," he said. Laidlaw witnessed the rise of cinematic RPGs firsthand at BioWare, and said that while working on games like Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, they had simple tools for quickly creating most conversations. 

"We would drag a stage into a level and that essentially had lights and cameras and a set of animations and stuff. That became a tool that we could use to put a symbol to a conversation. We would call those 'bronze' conversations, but a 'gold' conversation would be, we'd put some art on it. You get someone to do slow zooms, rotates, and Dutch angles and everything. And you had to budget those, so we would very consciously be looking at our scenes and going 'well how many golds can we afford?'"

"I do think what you guys tackled with Cyberpunk was so phenomenally aggressive and I'm terrified at what that must have done to all of you," Laidlaw said, bringing it back to Sasko's comments. "It was like the unbroken perspective of Half-Life 2 but with all the branching and stuff from all your titles. It was a phenomenal achievement, I think, but I imagine expensive in a deeply personal level on top of the money."

What about procedural generation? 

Laidlaw mentioned Wildermyth as an example of a game that effectively used procedural narrative, pointing out it should be possible to build tools that allow for more effective (and cheaper) procedural storytelling.

"I think we are on the precipice of really figuring out procedural narrative," said Strix Beltran, the narrative director of Hidden Path Entertainment's upcoming D&D RPG. "We haven't done it yet. But there are a lot of people working on it. And I think that is going to be a game-changer."

Beltran predicted that procedural narrative tools will help "crack the code" of pricey triple-A game development by making it easier to tell larger-scale stories, though they won't be a cure-all.

"I love story-forward, story-first content," Beltran said. "That is where I live. That's, I think, why a lot of people love the BioWare style, because we really get to have that. And we have to figure out how to do it cheaper going forward…

"There is a thought trap here that is really easy to just accidentally fall in. Where we just go, 'Cinematics are quality. Cinematics are the best thing. If you have good cinematics, you're the best game.' I think we inherited some of this from when prestige narrative really became the thing on TV. We're like, 'Oh, we're going to take all of that and we're going to put it in videogames. We're prestige narrative too! Look how fancy we are, we're the best.'


(Image credit: Worldwalker Games)

"I think sometimes even as devs we have to take one step back and go, 'Well no actually, prestige narrative 'gold' cinematics are a tool that we can use and not the thing that makes us good.' And I think we've accidentally trained audiences to think that way too—that if you have the best cinematics you're the highest quality game. What is quality? I don't want to interrogate how you judge a game, but there's so many things that make a game good. I prefer to focus on emotionality, like what actually reaches into a person and grabs them and makes them remember Morte, 20 years later, as opposed to, 'Wow, I could see the sunlight off of that water in that cutscene with that waterfall mist.'"

Our RPG roundtable also included Josh Sawyer and Lis Moberly of Obsidian Entertainment, and covered a range of topics, including tabletop systems that videogames should steal from and their favorite NPC companions. You can read more and listen to the whole 80-minute conversation right here.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).