Polish developer CD Projekt RED has a distinct fondness for rich, complex game narratives. Its Witcher titles are well known for their morally ambiguous storylines and intricate character relationships, but while the games certainly found a loyal fan base, the team at CD Projekt now believes that their labyrinthine narratives likely scared some players away.
Speaking to Gamasutra in a recent interview, key members of CD Projekt RED explained that the studio learned some very important lessons after the release of latest blockbuster title, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Most notably, it has realized that you can't expect players to readily embrace a complex game world -- you have to ease them into it.
"We spent days discussing a general postmortem after we finished The Witcher 2," CD Projekt studio head Adam Badowski explained. "What we learned from The Witcher series is that we need to attract people with a smoother learning curve when it comes to the storyline."
With both Witcher titles, CD Projekt put players right in the middle of a world already established by a series of novels from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Given the lack of context, some players were left utterly confused, as many events in the game only made sense to those willing to dig deep into the game's fiction.
"In The Witcher 1, for example, we were throwing people in the middle of the story, and we assumed that players would know what is happening! But a lot of players told us that they didn't really understand this relationship or that relationship," said co-founder and joint CEO Marcin Iwinski.
"With our future games, we want the player to be able to get more context, and we need to introduce the game and its characters to people more properly," he added.
With The Witcher 2 finally released on both PC and Xbox 360, CD Projekt has turned its attention toward Cyberpunk, a new video game based on the pen and paper RPG of the same name. Much like The Witcher, the game promises to offer a complex, mature narrative, though the team knows that it has to make a number of changes to ensure things remain comprehensible for the novice player.
Trim the fat, keep the depth
Since the studio is once again using a license as a jumping off point, CD Projekt has looked toward adaptations in other media for inspiration.
"We like to talk about the thing that everyone's talking about: Game of Thrones, the TV series," said Iwinski. "It's the perfect reflection of a book in another medium."
Iwinski pointed out that while the popular HBO series removes content from the books and takes some serious liberties with its source material, audiences still understand the essence of what makes the series great. It keeps things simple, without losing any of the details that really matter.
"And that's what we want to capture. In [Cyberpunk], we want to create a story that is very profound, but the novice players should be introduced to [the world] better than they were in The Witcher 2," Iwinski said.
Of course, CD Projekt still wants to ensure that Cyberpunk's world remains satisfyingly complex for the game's diehard fans. Unlike in The Witcher games, however, the studio doesn't want to jam this complexity onto the game's critical path. Instead, it'll be readily available to players who choose to seek it out on their own.
"Players should be able to choose how deep they want to enter the story or the plot," said CD Projekt's head of marketing, Michal Platkow-Gilewski. "If they're really hardcore, they can really dig deeper and deeper and deeper, and if they're just casual, they can still learn about the characters and the story, but they'll do that by going in another direction."
While CD Projekt isn't talking about specifics for Cyberpunk just yet, Badowski said the team plans to add this depth by creating plenty of optional content for players, spanning everything from "new quests, characters, areas," and more.
By reorganizing the game's optional story elements and creating a more focused main plot, the team hopes that Cyberpunk will be able to attract and hold the attention of a much wider audience, while still upholding the studio's dedication to rich, well-realized stories and worlds.
"Just to make sure we're understood correctly by our fans, this does not mean that we are going to simplify our games. That's definitely not the case," Iwinski said. "But for some audiences, the learning curve should be improved, and particularly the introduction to the world needs to be better."