CD Projekt RED burst onto the game development scene with The Witcher
-- a hardcore, PC RPG that explored the depths of what a Western-style storytelling RPG could be. The team followed it up with an extremely successful sequel that also made it to the Xbox 360, growing the series' audience dramatically.
Now, the team is developing The Witcher 3
, which is due not only on the PC but also the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Gamaustra speaks to gameplay producer Marek Ziemak about how the company scopes its ambitious RPGs, and how it has retained its culture while expanding the games, their audience, and the team over the years.
Most games are very system-driven, but RPGs in particular have a lot of gameplay systems. How do you scope?
Marek Ziemak: Woah! That's a tough one, because there's a huge amount of different systems. It's very easy to overdesign, or spawn too many ideas. Because basically, I think RPG is a genre that can have an unlimited amount of features and it will still be okay for the whole game -- because it's this type of a game.
The more options you have, sometimes, the more fun for some players. Except 90 percent will not use half of them. But still, the game will not be broken because of the new options you have in the game.
I think it's difficult, but we have some experience. We always base it on the experience from our previous titles. It was much tougher in the times of Witcher 1
, when we had to experiment a bit, when we had to create our own way of thinking. Now we have a basic amount of features that we know we must and we want to deliver. We are always adding a bit more, a bit more, a bit more every installment. So that's how we're working.
How do you protect against feature creep in those instances?
MZ: To be honest, we are not a very big studio, but we are doing a massive game. Feature creep is usually a feature that is not absolutely needed, but someone wants it. And once we get delayed with something that's really important, feature creeps are the first ones to get out of the plan. So, actually, life is making a decision here.
So if we set the priorities well, the feature creep thing will always be at the bottom of the backlog. And it will instantly jump out of the backlog at the first delay. It's impossible to plan everything perfectly, so they're constantly being cut here and there.
You also alluded to the possibility that you might put in features that 90 percent of the audience might not use. I know that's something you want to avoid, but how do you determine that?
MZ: Whenever we're deciding on delivering a feature, we want to connect it to other game elements. If it actually creates some coherent experience, if you're reminded that you're using it -- it's useful here and there, and it's quite cool -- then it probably increases the amount of players using these features.
And of course it has to be usable. If it's not balanced well, if it just makes no sense to use a feature, then players will just not use it. Usually feature creep features are useless most of the time, or they just fit a particular situation, so we're trying to get them out of the scope. And the ones that we are leaving in the game are supposed to be fun, and that there's a big budget to develop them, so they're not being perceived as something not worth using.
It would be much tougher if we had all the manpower in the world. Because then we'd be creating dozens of features, and we would have to have some sophisticated mechanisms of controlling it. But because we don't, we focus on the things that are really important.
It sounds deliberate. I don't know about your financial situation or anything, but the games seem to be quite successful. Do you deliberately keep the team at a certain size that makes sense for the kind of games that you want to make?
MZ: Of course. We are still a quite small studio. Remember that we're independent, getting money for ourselves. We have to pay our bills. Because of this, we are trying to keep them on a quite, quite low level, obviously. Because we're not usually getting any income when we are developing a game -- only from selling the previous titles. So it's tough.
And also we believe that when you get over this particular size -- it's hard to define it -- you become much more of a corporation, it's much harder to control it, to make sure that people share the same vision, that they're all working on the same product, that they all feel what it should look like, they're all communicating in the proper way. So we're trying to.
It's very hard now, because we're already quite big -- in our opinion. We can't compare ourselves to studios that have many, many different divisions on different continents. We have around 180 people for both projects, Cyberpunk
And we're trying to keep this garage development climate. It's very hard at this size, but it brings us a lot of positive elements. People have more freedom to make decisions, and it's more crazy to work in an environment like this.
I interviewed your co-founder, Marcin Iwinski, and I got the sense that he doesn't want to lose what the company should be by growing, or doing projects that don't fit.
MZ: It's fascinating somehow, because we have an enormous amount of freedom, I think, in the development studio. So it's not like people responsible for business -- having the money -- are coming to us and then telling us what to do and how to do it, and constantly forcing us to change direction. No, that does not happen. And somehow, we share the same vision. Somehow we know what to do and it pleases the people who are responsible for the money side of the game.
I think maybe because the company was so small when we were working on The Witcher 1
, and we all have the same roots, we all share the same concepts, so now when there are people that remember how it all started it still goes the same direction. Maybe, that's somehow it. We don't feel forced to do anything, and somehow that's okay.
If you have that core vision that's been with the company since The Witcher, how do you get the new hires up to speed? Do you hire fans of The Witcher?
MZ: Not only, not only! Many of the people hired in CDP are fans of The Witcher
; they joined the project because they wanted to be part of the team, but to be honest we don't have a very good method of sharing the vision with newcomers.
I don't think we have any method to do this. It's just happening somehow. Because they're just joining a very creative environment that's usually very loud and a lot of things are going on, and somehow you become a team member, suddenly. You just sit there, you listen, you're asked to do things, you get feedback, and it just happens, and after some time you just have the same way of thinking -- and that's surprising, but it works this way.
It seems like there's definitely a desire to stay true to what you've been doing all along, while also pushing the studio's ambition further along.
MZ: Maybe it's because we think it's safe, or maybe it's because we think also that it's right. We did not have any signals that the path we've chosen is wrong, so why should we modify it? We're comfortable doing what we're doing. We don't have to lie. We do what we want to do. It's a very comfortable situation, so there's no need of changing the direction.
I think the difficult thing for a lot of companies is to keep sight of what got you where you are. That's what companies can lose track of.
MZ: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that once you cross the [certain] size, I think it changes the way of thinking. If the company is older, it's probably also easier to lose control over where you're heading, or maybe it's changing over time. Right here, the company owners, the people who created CDP, they're still active, so the vision is constantly being delivered, the direction is constantly being corrected.
We're not so old not to remember our first product; we still have a lot of people who used to work in CDP since the Witcher 1
. I'm an example of one of them, so I guess the soul of the company is still there.
Maybe it will change with time. I hope not! But I can imagine that if we suddenly will have over a thousand employees and 50 years of tradition behind us, this probably will affect us somehow as a company. But we are not there yet, and I hope we will find out ways to protect ourselves from changing into something that we don't want to be.