Q&A zu Blood and Wine und mehr

Vor einigen Tagen bin ich via Dualshockers auf ein Interview mit CDPR Quest Designers Pawel Sasko and Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz gestoßen. Darin gehen die beiden auf viele interessante Informationen ein, die u.a. auch die bald erscheinende Blood and Wine Erweiterung angeht.

Wie jeder weiß, der mich kennt, bin ich massiver Witcher Fan. Nachdem ich The Witcher 3 zum dritten Mal komplett durchgespielt hatte, habe ich alle Bücher gelesen und es noch dreimal durchgespielt. Bevor Blood & Wine erscheint, werde ich die Story inkl. erster Erweiterung Hearts of Stone nochmal spielen. Wenn mich jemand fragt, wer die schönste Frau ist, sage ich Triss Merigold. Oder Emma Watson, aber ihr versteht was ich meine.

Deshalb habe ich euch das Interview hier eingefügt, weil ihr es mir wert seid. Und weil der Inhalt des Interviews für jeden sich selbst respektierenden Witcher-Fan wichtig ist.

1. How does a quest begin? What are the various stages of the design process? Just how complex is the process of co-ordinating all the components that make up a quest?

MT: “It always begins with an idea, but the origins can be varied. Many times the base idea comes from the writing team, especially when it comes to main storyline quests, but sometimes they come directly from quest designers, as was the case with most of the side quests in The Witcher 3.

Of course, not just any idea makes it into the game – designers list their ideas in one to two sentence pitches, then we pick the ones that have potential to be developed.

After we pick a pitch, it gets rewritten by the quest designer into a full-fledged scenario. The designer comes up with the foundation behind the events, specific scene ideas, what should happen where, etc. Then it goes through multiple iterations – it gets comments from the lead quest designer and writers, gets improved or sometimes completely rewritten, and in some cases we even scrap entire thing at this stage.

Once approved, the quest designer prepares a list of all assets needed to implement that quest in the game engine – characters, locations, items, music, etc. As the other departments work on these assets, the quest designer implements the first draft using temporary assets.”

PS: “The quest designer is also responsible for the overall direction of the mood in the quest – it’s our job to make sure that the lighting, music, ambient sounds, animations, character behaviour and props fit the vision. We have various tricks at our disposal to create a suitable atmosphere for scenes and speak to the player’s imagination on various levels. It’s very similar to directing a movie – all the components have to fit and serve some purpose. It’s not an accident when the drunk Bloody Baron is sitting in the garden and it’s raining, letters from Anna are lying next to him, the wind is blowing, flowers that she planted are in the frame, the music is suitably sad, etc. None of that was a coincidence.”

2. How did the series’ lore limit what sort of quests you could create? Were there any ideas you had to discard, because a witcher simply ‘wouldn’t do that sort of thing’, even if the ideas could have been interesting quests in another game?

PS: “This series developed a unique identity by being faithful to its roots (the books and short stories) while adding fresh concepts that still evolved around its soul. It means that we had to drop dozens of ideas that didn’t fit a Witcher game, for the sake of keeping its precious uniqueness.

However, we are still willing to evolve and try new things, just within the boundaries of our lore. ‘Dead Man’s Party’ from the ‘Hearts of Stone’ expansion pack is the good example – when I came up with the idea it was clear that it’s very on the edge of being Witcher-like. I worked very closely with Karolina Stachyra (who wrote most of dialogs) to retain the soul of our games, but still do something fresh. That’s why the whole quest, despite being quite odd and hilarious, still has multiple elements that classify it as true to its roots.”

3. I understand the Writing Team and the Quest Design Team worked in close collaboration, and the distinction between the two teams may, at times, become blurred. I think it’s appropriate to describe the experience of The Witcher III’s story as being largely constructed by the quests the player completes. What were some of the challenges of adapting, or shaping, the stories into a series of quests?

MT: “Like I mentioned before, ideas for quests often came from the writers, especially for the main storyline. The biggest challenge in that is you often get stories that can’t be told to the player in any way other than very custom cutscenes or dialogues. This can be done of course, but it results in long, boring sequences without any action or gameplay in between, which we try to avoid. In order to “translate” these stories into the language of the game, quest designers talk extensively with the writers to understand the core idea behind their story, so it can be adjusted in a way that won’t kill that original idea but will make the quest work better in terms of game mechanics.”

4. To what degree did the main narrative’s story determine, or shape, which quests you could include in the game? How did quest design shape the overall narrative? 

MT: “It’s two totally separate questions as I see it. The main narrative is crucial for the setting of entire game – the fact that there is a war obviously implies that we need side quests that relate to that event, etc.

Quest design shapes how the stories are told, using the tools we have, which in turn changes the way we and writers think about stories.”

5. Was it ever a challenge to balance gameplay versus cut-scenes, so the player would still be an active participant, rather than just passively watching a movie?

PS: “In every game that revolves around a plot, finding balance between story exposition through dialogs and gameplay is challenging. In our case, we always try to eliminate all gameplay sequences that have no meaning and break pacing of the narration. That’s why all activities are tied into the plot, even when it means that we need to craft a custom sequence to make the story more interactive. The Bloody Baron botchling quest is a great example of this – I spent lots of time changing it over and over again to find a good balance between narration and combat. My goal was to give meaning to what the player is doing – casting Axii to calm the botchling, fighting wraiths and escorting the Baron. It was also challenging on technical side, because it had to be scripted with custom mechanics to make it work.

Finding a good pace for narration is not easy. All the information has to be given to a player in a clear, concise way, topics can’t be switched too often, and we have to find space for subtlety in the conversations. This can easily end up as a lengthy, boring sequence, so we have to watch out. It’s not uncommon that some dialogs take literally hours of brainstorming to figure out the most impactful way of presenting facts in the scene to the player.”

6. Since Wild Hunt has now brought the Series into an open world, where the player is relatively free to pursue his own, less linear path, how did this affect quest design? Any special challenges? Any lessons learned?

PS: “This is a topic I could literally talk about for hours. The skill level of our team is nowhere close to where it was 4 years ago when we started – we would wander around problems, not really knowing how to tackle them. It starts from technical knowledge and our implementation tools, and goes all the way to the design prowess of quest designers and writers. We did improve on every possible field, which you can see in the ‘Hearts of Stone’ expansion pack, where we raised the quality bar again. And we are hoping to do it once more with ‘Blood and Wine’.

Openness of the world dictates a specific design approach: from the very beginning we have to think about all the possible paths and unusual ways to finish the quest, and have it all secured and working in logical ways. It’s unbelievably easy to screw up at this state – any change of asset, location or scene may cause some unexpected consequences in the quest (for instance: suddenly there is new path that allows a player to get to a closed location through diving or climbing). In such cases our approach was always focused around supporting more paths than blocking them – but this is consuming in both time and assets, so we have to be very precise.

Our open world also affected our Cinematic designers in a tremendous way – we had to foresee what angle certain NPCs could be approached at, so that cutscene fit well with gameplay. The same applies to weather, wandering animals or strange times of the day that the player decided to show up and talk to the character – all of those small things we had to take into consideration. Our embedded and proficient QA team helped us tremendously here by spotting all the small issues and fixing them. Currently we have a pretty clear idea of how to do such things, but it took us years to figure out.”

7. What was the most difficult quest to design, in terms of either writing or technical aspects? Were you pleased with the final product?

MT: “I’d say that from a technical perspective it was the Battle for Kaer Morhen quest, from a writing standpoint I would point out the Bloody Baron quest line which we spent loads of time on. Actually Paweł worked on both, so he might deny or confirm my view on that. ”

PS: “I do have to agree with everything what Mateusz said. In 11 years of my career as a quest designer, I have never implemented such a technically challenging quest as ‘Battle of Kaer Morhen’. From the early state of paper design we knew that it was going to be a huge and complicated quest – and it turned out to be even worse than we expected. Players could have between 9 and 16 characters supporting them, depending on all other things they did – and those characters could appear in any possible combination, plus some of them had to have additional separate scenes (for instance: the dialog with Roche and Ves confronting Letho). I had to make sure that every player who brought a unique set of characters had a quality experience that would stay with them for a long time.

Another level of complication in ‘Battle of Kaer Morhen’ was with the gameplay mechanics – each character has something unique to offer that I had to design and implement, while some of the mechanics had to have synergies (for example: if Zoltan is in Kaer Morhen, he brings his explosive barrels; if Roche and Ves are there, they are shooting flaming arrows – but if they are all in Kaer Morhen, Roche and Ves shoot the explosive barrels first to ignite them and blow up the Wild Hunt). All scenes and gameplay situations were designed to give the player a reward from what they did in all the quests before. At the end, I was proud of what we managed to achieve and I’m grateful that I was working on it.

In terms of writing, the Bloody Baron storyline took a lot of time to get it right. The topic we decided to tackle was difficult and ambitious and required special attention. Karolina Stachyra, who did all the writing, spent lots of time with me dealing with nuances. Both Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz and Marcin Blacha offered lots of feedback and ideas to improve the writing – we wanted to present mood of Velen through the character of Baron and sketch the similarities between two fathers who lost their daughters (Geralt and Baron). This whole effort turned out to be worth it, because this quest won Golden Joystick Award 2015 for the Best Gaming Moment.”

8. What is the quest of which you are the most proud? What aspect of its design do you consider most outstanding? What is your personal favourite quest or story? Why?

PS: “There were numerous ‘top 10’ rankings of best quests in Witcher 3 and there are always a few that appear there often, and I personally like them a lot. It’s ‘Family Matters’ and ‘Return to Crookback Bog’ (for its unique story and custom features), ‘No Place Like Home’ (for the hilarious drinking party with fellow witchers) ‘Battle of Kaer Morhen’ (for the feeling of an epic battle with all supporters fighting arm to arm), and ‘Through Time And Space’ (for its incredible visuals).

From side content I personally love ‘The Last Wish’ (because it’s a romance story with Yennefer, that was hard to pull off both technically and dialog-wise) and ‘The Tower Outta Nowhere’ (because it’s a pastiche and critique of DRM). The ‘Hearts of Stone’ expansion pack contains some great quests as well, but for me personally the best is ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ (for its unique design of puzzles that tell the story) and ‘Dead Man’s Party’ (for the absurd idea that worked unbelievably well at the end).

But to be fair – there are so many amazing quests that it’s impossible to mention all of them. After all, this is what we love to do – craft unique stories with components that cannot be found anywhere else.”

9. Although many people worked together as a team in the creative process, what were the quests to which you personally contributed the most? Which are „your quests“? 

MT: “I worked on only a few quests from the game, as I spent most of my time reviewing the work of other quest designers and providing them with feedback. The things I worked directly on were the main narrative quests in the prologue up until reaching Velen, gathering allies and getting Ciri from Isle of Mists, the last quest in the Hearts of Stone expansion and one of the epilogues of the main game, which everyone hopes not to get.  ”

PS: “Four years ago, when we started designing Witcher 3, there were only 4 quest designers working at CD PROJEKT RED and I was one of them. That means I designed way more than I managed to implement myself – though the production team was growing and some approved designs were passed to new members of team to finish.

I won’t mention quests that I partially designed or implemented, only those that were made from beginning to end by me: ‘Family Matters’, ‘Ciri’s Room’, ‘A Princess in Distress’, ‘Ciri’s Story: The King of the Wolves’, ‘Ciri’s Story: The Race, ‘Ciri’s Story: Out of the Shadows’, ‘Hunting a Witch’, ‘Wandering in the Dark’, ‘Magic Lamp’, ‘Destination: Skellige’, ‘The King is Dead – Long Live The King’, ‘Broken Flowers’, ‘Battle of Kaer Morhen’, ‘The Last Wish’ and ‘Dead Man’s Party’ from ‘Hearts of Stone’ expansion pack. And there is more to come in upcoming the ‘Blood and Wine’ expansion”

10. It’s often been claimed that one of the goals in The Witcher III was to eliminate ‘fetch quests’. By most accounts, there are hardly any of these in the game (with the exception of ‘A Favour for a Friend’, with Keira Metz’s shopping). There are, however, a number of ‘follow quests’, wherein the player must simply follow highlighted clues, and the objectives, in order to complete them. How successful do you think these were as a replacement? Was there ever a concern there might be too many instructions leading the player?

MT: “I wouldn’t consider witcher senses or following clues in general to be equivalent to “fetch quests” or a replacement for them. Yes, we have declared war on “fetch quests”, but as I’ve read comments about that, it occurred to me that the term itself is understood differently by different people, so I believe it’s worth specifying what we interpret it as. When I think of “fetch quest” there’s a picture of a shopping list in my mind – get me 10 bear pelts, 5 eggs, 6 candles, etc. Quests with little to no story around them, quests that don’t engage player at all and are there just to add some extra hours of gameplay. It doesn’t mean, mind you, that no NPC in our game will ask you to *bring something* for them – that’s not the point. I don’t mind at all, if I have to bring an object to an NPC, if the fact of bringing that item triggers an interesting conversation, a choice that feels impactful, uncovers some secret that the NPC was hiding, etc. I believe that we managed to get rid of most quests that fit in our definition of fetch quests, and I think the game benefited greatly from this.

As for handholding, which is basically the essence of your other question, it’s complicated – personally I prefer games with less handholding. I loved, for example, how original Gothic games made you find places based on directions from the dialogue. We discussed this many times in the studio, however we considered two issues with this approach applied to our game – first of all, it requires stellar level design and a guarantee that our levels won’t change significantly during the production process, so that the information in the dialogue won’t become obsolete and misguiding. For example, if an NPC tells you to turn right by Mount Doom, it would be awfully problematic if the artists moved Mount Doom at the last minute because it didn’t fit the composition, wouldn’t it? Things like this were not uncommon in our projects, so it would be risky. Secondly, we had to consider the gigantic scale of the world in The Witcher 3.

PS: “I won’t add much here, just a remark: at some point we did figure out how to satisfy people who don’t want too much handholding – all the UI elements can be turned on and off in settings, so players who expect challenges and want to search for everything themselves still can do that.”

11. How did you decide how and where to incorporate the witcher senses into quests? Do you feel they were ever overused?

PS: “The idea for ‘witcher senses’ came out from our game director, who wanted us to figure out how to use them in the game. The topic was handled by our quest designer Danisz Markiewicz and me. At first we prepared a design and figured out multiple ways of how ‘witcher senses’ could be used – this included tracking physical, audible and olfactory clues. At first it was heavily underused – there were just few spots in the game where ‘senses’ proved to be useful, so we started an iteration process on our quests to incorporate them even more. At this state we developed multiple unique ways to use the senses and place clues in unusual spots. The sequence in Tamara’s room, in the ‘Family Matters’ quest is the very first one [we created] in the whole game.

After multiple revisions we ended up with the state that we currently have in game – some quests use it a lot, while others don’t have it at all. In most situations, when we felt that it was overused, we cut or shortened it, but because of the non-linear nature of our game, players can experience quests in very different orders. This meant in some situations ‘witcher senses’ could stack next to each other and that’s where I feel we could have done a better job editing.”

12. On the one hand, it’s important not to design quests so tricky they force players to consult a game guide after one attempt; and, on the other hand, however, it’s equally important to make quests challenging. How do you test whether you’ve achieved a satisfactory balance?

MT: “Every quest goes through an iterative process of reviews – first the lead quest designer and lead writer play the quest, providing feedback to the designers. Then the project lead and other department leads do the same. Every quest goes through reviews like these multiple times. Striking the right balance is difficult and very subjective – what feels simple to you can be super challenging to someone else. I’d say there’s no golden rule for that, it’s specific to each case – we always try to take into account all opinions and find middle ground.”

13. There are a handful of quests which seem as though they could have been developed just a bit further, an extra step. For example: ‘Fencing Lessons’ with Rosa var Attre, ‘The Nobleman/Soldier Statuette’, ‘From a Land Far, Far Away’ (very curious about this one!), ‘Witcher Wannabe’, ‘A Greedy God’, and even ‘Fools’ Gold.’ How did you decide when and where a quest should end? Was there ever a case where a quest had to be cut short?

MT: “We decided to stick to the following rule – think about the element that makes your quest interesting, focus on highlighting that element and remove everything around it that’s not necessary. In some cases the elements “around” the core of the quest were worth keeping, in some cases they were nice but not essential, so they got simplified.”

14. There were a number of characters from the previous games who didn’t quite make it into The Witcher III, and others who did. Was there ever a specific case where a character had to be dropped because he or she couldn’t be incorporated into a quest? Would certain quests have worked just as well with another character? 

PS: “There is one interesting and unique game design lesson that we learned during production – some characters are so important that they need whole stories to be told about them, otherwise it’s better to remove them completely. There were characters in the past instalments of the series that we were considering, but it never really worked out well and we have been struggling to pull it off in a meaningful and satisfactory way.”

15. Was it a challenge to strike a balance between quests featuring well-known and newly introduced characters?

PS: “It is extremely tempting to use characters from the books and bring back some big names from the previous instalments, but there are also plenty of dangers in doing so.

Some characters are so important that parts of story have to revolve around them. So if there are many of them, there is less and less screen time we can give to each one without making each quest extremely long and packed with information. That’s why we needed a good new cast to fill all the gaps, introduce new elements to the story and keep it fresh, especially for players who are fans of the series.”

16. What were the obstacles (limitations?) in designing the playable Ciri quests? When compared to Geralt’s, hers are a bit simple. I know you had to scrap the ice-skating concept, because it introduced a new gameplay mechanic far too late in the game. Were there other ideas for playing as Ciri that had to be discarded for similar reasons? 

PS: “That is quite a complex topic that we had been tackling throughout most of our production time. There were lots of pros and cons that we had to consider when designing sequences for Ciri – she is an awesome new character, but not everybody wants to switch from their main playable character. When a player puts dozens of hours into playing as Geralt, they get attached – not only emotionally, but also gameplay-wise (to his gear, combat style, bombs, elixirs, to his horse). All of this is suddenly put on hold when Ciri steps in. So the biggest challenge was to make it not feel like a regression in any way (emotionally and gameplay-wise). That’s why lots of time went into development of her combat style, and situations when we play as Ciri were carefully designed.

17. On a related note, Ciri’s final confrontation with the White Frost strikes some of us as anticlimactic – there’s something missing . . . . Was the potential to play as her during that mysterious encounter ever discussed?

MT: “We spent a lot of time discussing what this scene should look like, and in the end we decided to leave it mysterious on purpose.”

18. In the gameplay preview from 2014, we saw Geralt hunting a griffin for Dijkstra. While on that quest, he defended an herbalist in Crookback Bog from deserters. To my knowledge, neither this contract from Dijkstra nor the Herbalist made it into the final game – although the deserters, and her hut, are still there. What was the reason these were cut? 

MT: “The Dijkstra dialogue from that demo didn’t fit into final version of the story, so it didn’t make much sense to keep it in, same with the herbalist scene which was tied to it. We could have kept it as a minor thing that occurs in the world I suppose, but we didn’t feel it gelled well with the final version of the story.”