Witcher 3 Dev Explains How to Turn a Nation of Pirates into Purchasers

Here’s our full interview conducted by GameSpot editor Danny O’Dwyer with Marcin Iwinski, the co-founder of the company behind The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

You can also check out the complete video series from our trip to Poland to check out the game right here. And for even more in-depth Witcher interviews:

In this interview we discuss the creation and history of developer CD Projekt, how the first Witcher game got started, and how to turn a culture of pirating games into a culture of buying them.

GameSpot: We’ll talk about the Witcher 3 eventually, but you’re actually a founding member of CD Projekt, right. How did CD Projekt come to be? In 1994 you weren’t making video games, right?

I met the cofounder Michal Kicinski back in high school, and our passion was to play games. We were skipping school to play games. I had some contacts in the US, and there was a huge BBS. We were on the local forums and the international forums. At a certain point through these contacts I realized that there was a new thing called a CD ROM. From that, I think you can make a sophisticated guess about the origin of our company name, CD Projekt.

We were probably the first people in Poland to import games on CD ROM. Initially we didn’t really do it for any business reason, we just wanted to play games. We were super excited and hyped. What games was it back then? 7th Guest. Mad Dog McCree. Who Shot Johnny Rock? That kind of stuff.

I still think 7th Guest was pretty good considering today’s graphics. It was a major breakthrough at the time because with floppies, you only had 1.4 megabytes per disk. They were constantly failing, had no audio tracks, limited capacity. You had to fit your game on the media and not really make the game you wanted to make.

Or make a game with 12 disks.

Exactly. Then after you buy the game, maybe a few of the floppies don’t work. CDs were a major game-changer. Initially I started importing them, getting friends to send me one or two copies. I still remember buying a CD ROM reader. I think it was only 1x speed and cost around $500. It was ridiculously expensive. I was the only guy in the neighborhood who had a CD ROM reader, so I was the king of the hill, so to speak.

After a while we thought, “Maybe there’s some business we could do with this.” I was importing one, two units per title. Michal was selling them on the local computer exchange. This took off enormously because people were craving new stuff. We had just emerged from socialism; people were starting to travel and to be interested in new things. Especially with technology, and finally there was access to the technology because the market was booming in a very early and brutally capitalistic way. There was a massive import market for everything. Every week people were going to West Germany, to Berlin, bringing stuff in and selling it on the computer game market. There was a cry for that.

Before, people were isolated. But suddenly you could get your hands on exciting stuff.

What did people play before that?

They were playing games, but there was practically no legal gaming market in Poland. No stores selling games. No copyright law. And if there’s no copyright law, then playing copied games is not illegal. There were no Polish versions. The market itself was very niche, and it was very nerdy. Either you had your PC, you knew how to put it together, and you were an expert, or you had friends who had friends. Then you would exchange all these games on the computer exchange market. That’s also part of my past. I was going there and swapping games with friends.

Were these open-air markets?

They were open-air markets. The historical one in Warsaw where I was learning the ropes was downtown near where the Westin Hotel is. It was in a school courtyard, and this school is still there. Back then, every single bigger city had this kind of market. Warsaw was the major hub for all the new stuff that was coming in, and it was spreading around Poland.

It was like a flea market? But it was also like an entrepeneurialship incubator because people could try things. When I think back to that gaming scene, a lot of the people who had their own stalls, or who were bringing in the first Commodores, Amigas, PCs, graphic cards, or floppy disks. Now those people are the presidents or VPs of the biggest IT and gaming businesses in Poland. They learned their trade there. They realized what they like and what they don’t like. From there they had a chance to build a valuable business because there was nothing else in the market. Nothing. There were no companies.

When we started CD Projekt in ’94 and for the next, I would say, three to four years, there was only even one retail chain selling games.

Just independent stores?

Yeah. Mom and pop stores. The first wholesaler I remember was a guy who’d come in with a red Volkswagen Passat. That was his truck, and he brought the stuff to ten or eleven tiny little stores.

It must have been hard to even have those type of stores in a market that was so used to just copying and pirating.

These were really small hobby stores selling hardware and software. I think the biggest change came around ’94. When people started selling software initially, I think the consumers were like, “Hey! Why should I buy something original when I can have it for free?” I think that was still a big deal when we started our company. We wanted to provide affordable prices to Polish consumers, and we brought over fully-localized games with high quality localizations. CD Projekt was known for the highest quality Polish localizations, so much so that pirates started pirating our releases.

We had a, sort of, red seal of quality that let people know what we put out was the professional Polish version. Then pirates would try to put that same seal on games they had pirated but that we weren’t even publishing, because it was increasing their sales.

Starting in about ’97 and going for the next two or three years we introduced a series of important innovations. With Polish localizations, quite often we’d end up with famous Polish actors. We added a lot of physical goodies to the games. Baldur’s Gate had a big D&D book and a map with a seal. The game was on five CDs. It had a thick manual. We were showing people that buying games made sense and had value.

Initially, you had to serve this value in a very physical and touchable way. And I still think that’s important today. If you look at the boxes of our Witcher titles there’s a lot of stuff inside. I think serving the collector in every gamer is very important. Collecting has an appeal. Instead of just getting one disk, you could just go for digital, and this has changed the market. But right now, it’s a very healthy market. People are buying games. Just like they are buying books, and just like they’re going to the movies.

Was it predominantly a PC market? You mentioned the Amiga, which seemed massive at the time anywhere east of Germany.

It was. The heyday of Amiga was pretty much when there was no corporate law and the market was closed. Amiga was selling a lot of hardware, but there was never an Amiga software market.

But the Commodore…

Yes. The Commodore started dying before our market normalized. But I had a couple of Amigas. It’s still, really, my best machine I ever bought. What did I have? I had the 600, then I had the big one. The 1200. There was a chip inside that was constantly breaking. I was spending a fortune on them. Always breaking. If you were connecting something, it wasn’t plug-and-play. You’d connect something, it would fry the chip, and the whole computer would stop working.

The market was predominantly PC. As you can imagine back in the day, nobody really bothered to build a console presence here. We sort of missed the early console era. Consoles here really started with the PlayStation 2.

The Birth of GOG

Is the market still predominantly PC?

No. It’s less now. Obviously, part of that has been our push on consoles, excluding Nintendo which has been nonexistent here since I can remember. We have them, but people don’t know what they are. It’s not selling.

Consoles are roughly 50% of our sales. It’s still very different compared to Western countries where consoles are dominant on the retail side. On digital, PC is definitely stronger.

There are so many exciting propositions for people to play on consoles. But you have to remember that, for PC, we’ve managed keep our price points low. Games were approximately 50% cheaper than, let’s say, in Germany. They were localized, so there was no huge risk of great export.

It made perfect sense. A very similar model was introduced in Russia where PC games were much cheaper than Western countries. The economy of the scale, and the size of the market, made it a perfect, logical business proposition for the publishers. It was a similar situation in Poland and it helped the market grow. Then, when people got more wealthy, they started buying consoles and console software, which is pretty much the same price as it is in Western Europe.

If you look at it today, the average wage in Poland is probably three or two-and-a-half times lower than in Germany. It’s affordable. But if you look back ten years ago it was, I don’t know, maybe six to ten times lower. Back then, buying a console game was a very, very pricey proposition, hence the low adoption. Generally, back in ’84, I’d say people were not able to afford consoles and console games. That’s the main reason.

How did you pick which games to bring over and localize?

It’s simple. The reason we started the whole distribution thing was because we wanted to play these new games. That was our main motivation. So we picked our favorites. Baldur’s Gate, the Fallouts, the Diablos. I played Diablo with my wife back in the day. We’d finish work, and then we’d play games.

I actually found one of the first ads we had. It was a really tiny one. Just a simple black font that said something like “Games, Utilities, Education.” And then, “CD Projekt: best prices and wider selection,” or some general blah, blah like that. But the best part was the listed office hours, where were 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Because we had to close at four to play. [laughs] We were playing like crazy.

We were playing the games, we were following all the news, and we were checking games out. At a certain point we started visiting the trade shows. The first was ECTS in the UK. I still remember the first time we were there was when they were showing the PlayStation, and we were just standing there just dumbfounded. We were watching Ridge Racer, and we couldn’t believe how cool it was.

These places were the opportunities to see what was happening, what were the trends, and what were the cool games.

A quick side story about how we started distributing for Blizzard. We don’t run a distribution business anymore, we sold it off last year. But anyway, we saw Warcraft II in the corner of a booth at ECTS running on one computer. At that time Blizzard was owned by Davidson & Associates. Michal and I were walking around looking for games, we saw Warcraft, and we said, “Wow, that’s a really cool strategy game. We’ve got to have it.”

After a few months, we finally signed an agreement with them. And I still remember that we imported 600 copies of the game.

How long did they last?

It sold like that. And then it was Diablo, then Diablo II we localized fully in Polish. And then it went on, and on, and on.

How many games do you think you distributed during that period?

Way more than 1,000. We sold tens of millions of units of legal games, which I think is great. Another thing that really took off that was Michal’s idea to fight the powers. It wasn’t about the competition with other guys on the market or other publishers. That was always important, but the main competition for everybody doing the legal business were the flea markets. We’d localize a game and release it. Then 48 hours later there were pirated CDs of the games we just released. After we put a lot of money into localization and marketing.

That’s when we started with the added physical goodies, the bonus programs. The Polish market was huge even in ’97 and ’98, but they were people who had never played a legal game. To them, gaming meant copying from a friend. We needed to give them a reason to buy.

We introduced a budget range which was a fraction of the price, even cheaper than the pirated game. It was initially called the Low Price and then we called it Extra Classic. These were the back catalog titles. Fully localized to Polish and packaged with a small manual. For a very nice-looking DVD box you were paying 19.90 and pirates were charging 20, which is roughly five bucks, give or take.

Then it took off incredibly well, and we were selling a couple million units of the classics. It was a great revenue maker, but it was also a great way to develop the market. Imagine going to a store, you’ve never bought a game, and you see a title for four bucks. You think, “That looks nice. They offer customer service. I’ll give it a try.” Then you play it, it works, and everything’s great, so you buy another one. Then maybe you go up to mid-price, and then maybe you go up to full price. Step by step, bit by bit.

It’s interesting you talk about pushing physical media and how you packaged that for people. Essentially what you ended up doing with GOG.com was taking classic games and giving them to people, but it had nothing to do with the physical aspect.

That’s exactly what it was. We were thinking, “What can we add in the digital market space?” And we thought we could remaster these classics, bring them back to life, and offer them to people in a hassle-free delivery mode. This has taken off incredibly well.

When we are making the first draft of a plan for GOG, I had a problem. How would I estimate sales on GOG? I took the sales of Polish extra classics, every title. I divided them by four and I said, “Okay, it shouldn’t be worse.” So at least I had some comparison.

At a certain point, in the UK they had a series called Sold Out. That was a similar concept, and it was working really well in the UK. Now it’s pretty much nonexistent. I’m not sure they’re even still in business. The reason for that is that is retailers focused more on the high-margin, expensive products. And all this stuff moved to digital. In Poland, something similar is happening. But I think Sold Out in the UK had a big role in propagating legal gaming among the mass market. That’s really important, especially in Eastern Europe and Poland; people just didn’t know why they should buy software. Software was something free that you got from a friend.

The answers were that you collect it, that it works. You have a manual, and you have support. You spend so much time with these games that it’s good to reward the developer. Of course that wasn’t anyone’s first thought. They didn’t stand in front of the rack at a game store thinking, “I want t give back to the developer. I’m a good person.” They thought, “Hey, this is cheap. I’ll buy that.”

Then after two or three or four games…

Exactly. Then there is a shelf. And then there is a collection. That’s how it begins. We like to collect things. I like to collect things.

What was the impetus behind GOG then? Were you trying to break out of the Polish market? Did you see that the Internet sales were becoming higher at that stage?

We definitely were, and always are, looking for new ways to do things. We really appreciated what Steam did, but we thought that there is a market for all this stuff. We were thinking about digital for quite some time.

Our dream was always to make our own game. We started with Witcher 1. We didn’t start before because we were really excited when we started, but we only had maybe $1,000 or $2,000 of capital and Michal’s old computer. It wasn’t really a very comfortable, well-funded position to start game development from. And it probably would’ve ended after a couple of weeks.

Then we were going to the foreign shows. Obviously, ECTS the first two years. Then we started going to other shows and we saw how big the market was. We thought we could take some of the things abroad that had worked very well in Eastern Europe. That’s the concept behind GOG. We added to that the DRM-free factor because that’s how we always wanted to play our games. And it clicked extremely well.

How is GOG doing now? I remember when it first launched, GOG was the home of classic titles, but then Steam started to do that as well. Publishers started putting up their back catalogs on there as well.

Steam became, in a way, the PC digital store. The Windows store.

I think GOG has taken a very specific space for people who value the freedom of their software and the way they use it. They really want to feel the ownership of their games. We appeal to these people really well. Of course, the vast majority of our offering are classics, but we started out in indie games and we’re starting to have new stock.

Very soon we’ll be launching some closed betas on the site. We will be launching the GOG Galaxy, which is another change for us. But it’s our way of adding value. I think we always ask ourselves whether we can deliver something additional that’s meaningful for the games. I think, so far, we are very successful with that.

Creating The Witcher

You say the impetus to start the company, or at least what you wanted to do eventually, was to create your own video game. How did it end up being the Witcher?

It was a lot of luck and I think some good karma or whatever you want to call it.

We were distributing for Interplay. I keep saying it, but the first fully localized breakthrough title for us was Baldur’s Gate. We contracted for 3,000 units, and we thought if we couldn’t make it happen, we’d go out of business on day one. It was such a huge investment back in the day for us. It would take six months to localize, and then we’d implement everything ourselves. That’s the way we signed the agreement with Interplay because the commitment for them, financially it was so small that it didn’t make sense for them to put in any development resources. We fully understood that so we assumed the risk ourselves.

I was personally supervising the localization. My father was a documentary movie producer so he helped me with the actors, and with the studio and everything. Then I handled the implementation with my friend who’s a programmer. Michal was doing the marketing and sales. And by the time we got to day one, we had orders for 18,000 units. In a market where a total game was selling one to 2,000. Nobody could believe that. In the first year or year and-a-half we sold 50,000 units. This really opened the market.

I’m talking about Baldur’s Gate for a reason. Then for GOG, Baldur’s Gate was a major thing when we launched D&D. The traffic doubled or tripled on GOG.

The story with The Witcher actually started with Baldur’s Gate. We were visiting the offices of Interplay just before the company started folding. It was in Irvine. At the time they still had The Matrix in development. I don’t know when exactly when it was, but Shiny was still in Laguna Beach. They showed us the legendary Interplay offices. We met with the guys behind Fallout and we even met Feargus Urquhart, who’s running Obsidian. It was like all these dreams coming true.

Then we went to Shiny. I still remember Dave Perry talking about The Matrix for two hours. Not showing us one, single screenshot but still getting us really excited. Then they showed us Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance. I’m not sure if you remember this game. This was one of the first console-only games from Interplay. We felt like we had a strong PC market and that we could sell a few hundred units of this Baldur’s Gate game. It was looking really great. It was more action, like an action-RPG. But it was super cool.

We asked them, and they told us they weren’t planning a PC version. But at the end of the evening, they asked us if we’d like to make a port. That gave us something to think about.

We went back to Poland and we called our friends at Interplay and asked if we wanted a dev kit. We actually flew to London and smuggled the dev kit back in the back. And we probably still have this dev kit somewhere.

We carried it back and we started working on the conversion of Dark Alliance. But a month or two months in, Interplay called us and said, “Hey, the financial situation here is really bad. We’ll be closing Interplay Europe. Our advice is don’t sign it. Don’t do anything. Stop the work. Keep the dev kit, whatever. Nobody will pay you and they will not release the game.”

But the spark had already started so we started looking at what we could do. We found out that there is a chance to actually buy the gaming rights to the Witcher and we jumped on it. If you look right now at the Witcher it’s kind of obvious for a lot of people what it is. Back in the day it was super famous both locally, and most famous in Europe. Sapkowski, the author, for us he’s like Tolkien. It was a no-brainer. It was an opportunity. We jumped on it. But if you’re looking at the way we’ve built the game and the brand of the Witcher, we had to come up with an English name. We were starting pretty much from scratch, because the brand wasn’t known.

What this has given us is, first of all, a lot of confidence and an amazing world where we could just tell the story. The story’s fully ours in every single part from one to three. We had this world with all this history with seven books. Right now it’s eight, because he just released a new one, a prequel. That was a very important foundation for the whole company. For CD Projekt, the guys who developed gaming in Poland as a cool thing. We’re known for high quality work, for high quality localization, for looking after the gamers. And now we’re working on the coolest Polish brand. It was much easier for us to get people to come and work on the project. All in all, it just took an incredible amount of luck.

Essentially what you were doing for so many years was taking English-speaking games and then bringing them into Poland. What you ended up doing was taking this storied franchise…

After you work for a long time on somebody else’s stuff, you develop a, I don’t want to say a complex, but it’s like, “I’d like to have something of my own.” Initially, when we started releasing games here, people just let us do whatever we wanted. We could come up with really cool ideas and just make them work. The more organized the market became, the more they took our toys away. They started doing things themselves.

At a certain point the role became: Ship the stock to the store. That’s not really what Michal and I signed up for when we started the company. The Witcher was really a place where we could unleash all of our creativity and show that we could do things differently. I think we proved it.

How did you get the rights to the Witcher at that time?

There was some game that was developed, but it wasn’t finished. So we just made a deal with the author.

Did you approach him?

Yes, we approached him. We heard that the rights were probably available, and it was a fairly quick deal. I’m not what he thought about it, but a lot of people both in the industry and outside were like, “Okay. Some other guys, they are going to try to do Witcher.” Then after a short five years of blood, sweat, and tears the first Witcher was released.

You have a massive amount of creative license with the franchise. The author seemed to be okay with your guys just taking a story and running with it.

We wanted to have creative freedom. So we bought out that part of the world, and we had full creative freedom. I think a lot of people could or would betray it in one way or another, take a shortcut. I think the fact that we have this freedom created sort of a paranoia. We thought, okay, we have these Eastern European fans who really know every single piece in the game. For example, I think it was Triss, she had her neck always covered in every single book. But in the Witcher 1 before one of the patches she had sort of a V-neck. We were just killed for that in the forums.

From the very beginning we were planning the game for worldwide release, but we put even more effort into make sure that we stayed true to the heritage of the book. For us, it’s a national treasure. We want to give it justice and at the same time make this game interesting for a wider audience. The whole ambiguity, the lack of distinction between good and evil. The shades of gray which is probably not very popular.

After some time I came to find out about George R.R. Martin’s books, A Song of Ice and Fire. I was actually surprised by the similarities. Of course, they are different worlds and different settings. But they are both pretty much a contemporary world dressed up with a medieval fantasy theme that appeals to a more mature audience. That was also one of our very early decisions, that it would be a game for a mature audience, because there were almost no games for a mature RPG audience. I’m talking about RPGs back in there, almost like …

Was it successful on your end? Financially successful?

It was financially very successful, but consider one thing. We were actually raising the bar for sales every single year we were in development. Initially we though we’d finish the game in two years. I still remember the first design document, it was so thick. But, in the end, the first Witcher game probably used just one-third of what was in there in terms of the systems we had time to incorporate. We didn’t realize what it really meant to transfer a vision to reality in a game. It’s a problem with every single developer. It’s usually too deep and then you have to cut. It’s too huge. That’s probably our problem. The games are big.

Looking at the Witcher from this perspective, we had to make a lot of very hard decisions during the development process. I still remember when we were cutting content. We cut The Witcher two or three times and people were crying. We started development with five people; we finished with 18. With the initial scope of what we planned, we probably would have needed 250. But then we never would have been able to afford to finish it.

The ambition initially was gigantic. We pretty much just said, “We have no bloody clue how to do this.” But we were finding out along the way. We had licensed Bioware’s Aurora engine, again kind of the ghost of Baldur’s Gate showing up. I remember we went over to Edmonton to meet with Ryan and Greg and we showed them the game. They thought, “Hey, we can help these guys. We can invite them to our booth at E3. It was our first E3, and we had a tiny little corner. I’m still very grateful to both of them for this opportunity, because it really helped us to put the game in front of journalists from all around the world.

One evening we were sitting in a pub with, I think it was Greg. I said, “Greg, we have 15 people. If we had five more we could finish the game.” Then he said a phrase, I still remember it, he said, “Marcin. You only see the tip of the iceberg.” I said it was like that. We finished the game exactly as they did with the Baldur’s Gate plan. Around 80 people on board in ’85.

Are you proud of that when you think back now?

Yeah. I’m really proud. Especially that we delivered the game we wanted to deliver. We financed it ourselves until it was about 70% ready, and then we really needed a partner. Don’t forget that we were running a distribution operation. Our background was predominantly business and probably less gaming. We’re passionate about games. We knew games inside and out, but we also knew how to sign deals, how to make agreements.

When the publishers started coming and looking at the game it was just crazy. We got tons of advice from researchers. “Change this, change that.” Blah, blah, blah. “Maybe the hero could be an elven female.” We couldn’t believe it. If our situation had been different, we’d be running out of money. Quite often there is a decision where a developer says, “We have to sign this deal or we close the studio.” They would have to change their main character into an elven female. But then it wouldn’t be Witcher anymore, and you can think of all the consequences. I think a lot of games are destroyed this way.

I’m really proud that we delivered on our vision. And that’s what we’ve been able to do with every single game. Since Witcher 2, we’ve self-published. So it is much easier because we are responsible for it. We take the risk. That allows us to do stuff like in Witcher 3 with the 16 free DLC packs. Normally with a big publisher, after they’ve given you the money, they’d say, “If you don’t charge for each of these, do you know how much money we’ll lose?” That leads to some really hard discussions. With the Witcher 1, we had a lot of those discussions.

With Witcher 2, what was the thing that you took from the first game and then decided, we want to innovate it in this direction?

The Witcher 1 was just a total proving ground. First of all, we learned how to run production. How to deliver things, how to make them on time, how to calculate the time required, or at least estimate it. In games, as you know, nothing is really precise and definite.

With Witcher 2 it was about putting it all to work, and then having a console version. It was our big vision. There’s a lot of people going to be suing you. We knew we could pull off PC development. So we decided to do our own technology. There were a lot of big things like that. A tried a different kind of storytelling. More smooth, more cinematic.

Despite the whole story and the hundreds of hours you can spend in it, there’s no reason the game should look worse than an FPS. It should look amazing. It should suck you in. I think Witcher 3 will be a testament to that.

Of course, Witcher 3 is another new start. At its base, we wanted to make an open world. We made this decision a long time ago when we had no idea what the specs on the new consoles were going to be. But we made a bet. I think It was a good bet.

We’ve talked a lot about innovation today. Obviously, back in 1994 you guys were innovating in terms of the market here in Poland in incredible ways and you continue to do so in terms of game development. You guys were worried about the tip of the iceberg before, but just from the four hours or so of The Witcher 3 that we played this morning, this is a way bigger iceberg than those previous icebergs.

Yeah, it is. It is. We are becoming iceberg specialists. I think it’s easier.

Are you intimidated by the scale? Obviously, the game’s almost finished now, but the decision to make the game open world must have been difficult.

It’s still difficult for us to estimate how big it is, and it’s always much bigger than we estimate. Although we estimate much better than we used to do back in the day. At a certain point, it is scary, but we are learning. We are fast learners. I think we’ve taken this to the next level. We have amazingly talented people who are just able to do, well, magic.

Is the console market a big deal for you guys? When Witcher 2 came to consoles, it had the addition of all the extra content.

Don’t forget that that was a year later than the PC release. So it was more a test for us more. Can we deliver commercially? It was good, but it wasn’t perfect. To be honest, it’s very hard to pull off a big marketing campaign, a PR campaign, and get the game into stores and show it to gamers all around the world if you don’t have it on console. Obviously this market is important. I think we are very lucky that we are where we are with the next gen. This is a good time and the machines are very powerful. People are excited about them. There are actually other people in the industry who were surprised at the level of excitement that’s still out there for console games. It’s a great moment to bring the game to console, because it will look almost as good as on PC.

There seems to be a lot of frustration among console owners around the number of quality games that have come out. Especially open world games.

Exactly, but people want more powerful machines, and then they forget that, if you have a more powerful machine, it takes way more people and time to make great experiences. Gamers are not the ones to blame, but it is harder and it takes longer. Teams just keep growing to a larger and larger scale.

When the first Witcher came out obviously you had to sell the idea of what this was to the world, and then when you released the console versions you had to sell it to the console players. Do you think now that you have a base where people know what the Witcher is? Where you can just have Wild Hunt be a new start?

We started with the 3 but at a certain point we realized that that might be isolating to a lot of gamers who come to the store and will say, “Hmm, I haven’t played the Witcher, and this is the third part. If I don’t know the first two, I probably don’t want to buy this.” With Wild Hunt…

Is that official? Is that what you call it?

We’ll use both. Witcher 3 and Wild Hunt. We cannot remove the 3 that was already there. But this game is fully playable on its own. You don’t need to know anything to get into the story. You can take some decisions from the previous game. But that’s optional. You don’t have to. Everything will be explained; the whole setting, the whole world. This is really the message we want to put across.

Having said that, we have a huge community of faithful fan. For them, we have a lot of stuff in store. For PC you can load the saves from Witcher 2. You can take the choices at the very beginning and share your story as you would be playing the Witcher 2. Then in the game, if you know the lore, if you’ve played this game, you’ve read the books, or any of this you will have a lot of small, different flavors here and there. You will understand the exact detail.

I think it’s the best of both worlds. Both the fans will appreciate it and they will go a little bit deeper. But the newcomers will also think it’s cool. Maybe they will be willing to read the books or replay previous games. The whole concept with the Mask of the Wild Hunt looking like a numeral three, it’s not to intimidate newcomers to the franchise. We definitely would like to welcome them with open arms.

The prologue feels very well-paced in terms of exposition, and in terms of the way in which the gameplay opens up. The way the tutorials and the battles weave together with the story was wonderful.

We come from a very hardcore PC background. Witcher 1 is kill or be killed. Witcher 2, at the beginning, had some balancing problems, especially in the initial version on the PC. With Witcher 3, we really wanted to do the tutorial right. There are a lot of games coming out, and if they are not introduced properly players will just lose interest. If you play a game and it didn’t really explain how to use alchemy, magic, or whatever, that’s frustrating. It will feel boring because you don’t know how to play the game.

With time, we learn to design better, we learn how to improve. We do a lot of testing groups with gamers. We invite them here, we see how they play games from different countries. We really want to better understand how to make something easy to play but hard to master.

In a way, this is sort of a new start for the Witcher. When I was playing it, I thought it kind of felt more like Red Dead Redemption, or something. Just a big, open place to explore. Does it feel like a very different type of Witcher to you?

To me, one word that comes to mind is freedom. I like that. It is different than The Witcher 2 where the chapter’s closed and that was it. Once a chapter was done, you couldn’t undo it. Here you have the option to just run around like crazy. The weather effects, the water, the rivers, the random encounters. I love that. That was probably one of my favorite parts of games like Fallout I and II. I really loved the random encounters. Of course, it was to the very old school, but I still like to play those games. Giving people this freedom gives them a totally new experience.

Having said that there is freedom, the predominant and most important part is the story. Of course you can go around and just look at things, and do crazy things, and kill enemies and animals, and not follow the story. But that’s not the full game. I think this is the best of both worlds.

When I was playing once, I just did part of a quest. And then I got into a discussion with an old lady, and some old chapels were destroyed, so I started running around. Then there was some encounter. And then somebody in-game told me about the story again. The story’s really waving at you at different places in the game, and I think that’s really cool. Ultimately it’s about the storytelling, but in an open-world setting. No, it’s not a sandbox. It’s the other way around.

Are there any stories from your time with Wild Hunt, any crazy stories that have happened over the past couple of weeks?

The last couple of weeks were really crazy. I think people are working extremely hard to finish it. Right now it’s way better planned, it’s way better set up. The scale and the complexity of things is much bigger, but I think we are getting a very good grip on finishing the game and delivering it to the gamers through our distribution partners all around the world. There is the whole publishing logistics thing. We are just not only a developer, but we’re also responsible for a game going live in every single country.

And on console and PC at the same time.

Oh, yeah. On two consoles, and on PC at the same time. With all of our publishing partners. There’s a lot happening. It’s good that we’ve taken it one step at a time. When the Witcher 1 released on PC, we had some crazy stories. Things exploding, and debris, and it was on the Aurora engine. We had written 90% of it, so it was pure magic to cook a build for four hours, and then nothing would work. Why? I don’t know. Then we were hacking through code to try and fix the problems.

Now we have our own technology. That’s the technology for RPGs. It’s written by us, so we really know it inside out. There are fewer less surprises. The surprises come from the complexity and from the sheer scale of the world.

Are you confident about putting this out? Are you excited to have it out there finally?

I will be confident when I see the gamers enjoy it. I love it.

Tell me about the DLC plan for this. It’s an interesting sort of tactic.

It’s free. What we have said many times is that we do believe that the smaller bits and pieces should be free. If we ever decide to make… I really think the word “DLC” has become devalued. There are some DLCs that are good old expansions. I would prefer to call them expansions, like the Baldur’s Gate expansions.

Or like Brood War.

Exactly. That was probably a whole new game. Blizzard had a different strategy, like with all the Diablo expansions. [laughs] Meaningful 10, 20, or 30 hours of game play, for me, that’s for me an expansion. That’s what I’m ready to pay for. If it’s DLC, if it’s a new hairstyle, weapons, or armor. Horse armor maybe. [laughs] This should be for free. This is our way of saying thank you to the gamers for buying our game. Also we want to encourage them, show them that we have something more in store for you. We really care when you buy our game.

Something to look forward to.

Exactly. I won’t name any names, but… I haven’t been playing as many games as I did in the past. But when I pay full price, 60 bucks or 60, 70 Euro, and I see that the developer, publisher, or whoever is asking for another five Euros, I think “Oh, really guys? Why? I just paid you. That’s not okay.” If it’s free to play, that’s fine. Milk me as much as you want because I didn’t invest anything. Right now I think there are quite a few places getting it wrong, and it shouldn’t be this way.

You shouldn’t spend $60 on a game and then feel like you bought the cheap version.

Nothing should be ripped out from your game and sold on the side just for an additional dollar. It really looks good in an Excel spreadsheet, but in reality, people are smart. They see that, they comment on it. It’s just not okay.

Its seems like you’re doing the same thing you did with the boxes a long time ago, sticking in all this free stuff.

Of course. Because, honestly speaking, what does it cost us to make a set of armor. I don’t know, several hours? Maybe one, two, three people. Considering the scale of the game and considering the investment people will be putting into the game, spending their hours. I want to make it more fun for them. I think it’s kind of obvious. I would like to get such stuff for free. That’s what we were doing here.

Your operation here has doubled in size in a number of years. How has that happened? Is it because you’re taking all this console development? What is it about the Witcher 3 that requires all of this extra people-power. It’s 300 people now in this office, isn’t it?

It’s actually 450. Close to 100 is GOG. Then we have the whole management staff, accounting and internal publishing. It just takes more people to make a huge, open world game in HD. Then to test it and put out 15 different language versions and whatnot. It’s a really gigantic and very complex project.

Even if you look at the Witcher 1 which was PC only, it was 80 people. We had five, maybe six languages for it. After that, I think it’s really scaling up project by project. And don’t forget that we’re doing Cyberpunk 2077 as well, so part of the staff is focused on that. We have the Witcher Battle Arena on mobile. It’s a tiny group, but it’s still here. It all adds up.

You also put a free card trading game into the Witcher, as well.

Yes.

Did that start out as just a mini-game and then somebody just went crazy?

Yeah. I think the design just totally clicked. We noticed that a lot of the developers, when they were testing the Witcher, instead of actually testing the Witcher they were playing Gwent. They started adding stuff, but I think that’s what’s really going on. People here are passionate about games. If they like something and it makes sense, we make sure that they have all the freedom to run with it.

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