If you're looking to make a game that's bigger and more ambitious than The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, then plenty of world building and a memorable design to your quests is a must. When it came to developing The Witcher 3, Polish studio CD Projekt RED knew it had to build something that would break away from traditional action-RPG tropes (including a free DLC program). In the latest issue of Edge, senior gameplay designer Damien Monnier and senior quest designer Pawel Sasko discuss everything from Geralt's perpetual poverty in the Wild Hunt to balancing XP between quests and monster slaying.
Edge: What’s the secret to making a believable world?
Damien Monnier: The first thing we did was create a Living World team to work closely with the Location guys. Location started by creating mountains and lakes in places that made sense. Then they’d look at where villages would go. They’d do their research, understand the criteria that peasants in Medieval times would use to decide where to build villages and settlements. Then the Living World team kicks in, populating the village, then placing everything around it, and that’s where things get tricky. When is it too much? When is it not enough? We knew we wanted a system that was organic, and that means you can’t hard-script things. It took a lot of prototyping. We’d have people around the office playing and one would say, “I haven’t seen anything for 20 minutes,” and we’d know we had a problem.
Edge: So it was all done by feel? You weren’t tempted to use data to handle it?
DM: We didn’t want to create a system that would check that sort of stuff. ‘Have you seen a monster in the last 20 minutes? If not, then we’re going to force one to spawn.’ That’s not what we wanted. The system now is the result of so many iterations – every single area, every single monster, made and placed by hand.
Pawel Sasko: The important thing to add to that is that along the way we failed many times [laughs]. To be honest, I still can’t say if we got it right; we did everything we could to make sure the player was never bored, but not overwhelmed.
Edge: A game based so heavily on choice invites repeat playthroughs, which is unusual for an open-world game. Did that affect the world, or quest design?
PS: We don’t really want players to do that. We want the player to make a choice and stick to it.
Edge: You must understand people won’t do that, though, especially since the consequences of some decisions don’t become clear until much later.
PS: Yes, and that’s intentional. We wanted to reflect a bit of the uncertainty we have in life. We don’t always know how our choices will affect our lives.
DM: I see the game as an adventure. It’s about your story – it’s a roleplaying game. This is what happened to you, now talk to your friends and see how it differs.
Edge: The economy is tightly balanced to ensure you’re never too well off. How did you maintain that?
DM: It’s very difficult! We didn’t want Geralt to be this multimillionaire that just goes around killing monsters. Ultimately, he does it for money; we really wanted you to try to haggle over prices and get more, because you really need the money.
PS: In the books, Geralt was very poor; he was always struggling for money. It was one of the cool things we wanted to keep. There are a lot of funny stories about our economy. A QA tester came to us like, “I’m level ten, and I have 6,000 gold and have nothing to spend it on,” and we had to work out what happened. We’d left a door unlocked to a big villa – he’d robbed it and sold all these expensive swords.
Edge: The XP payout for monsters is small, as if you’re pushing people away from combat for combat’s sake.
PS: You get more XP from quests, yes. For us, this made it easier to see how player progression would work – how powerful a player was going to be [for any given quest]. It was also to prevent you just sitting in the bushes killing wolves, turning the game into a boring grind. You do get a little XP [for kills], and the more powerful the monster, the more you’ll get, but mainly the experience points you get are from quests. And there are 280 of them, so...