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INTERVIEW: Marcin Iwinski, co-founder, CD Projekt

Sameer Desai
INTERVIEW: Marcin Iwinski, co-founder, CD Projekt

Marcin Iwinski’s love for games and his passion for the work his company does are infectious. Having started out as a publisher and distributor in Poland, CD Projekt announced itself on the world stage with The Witcher series of role-playing games, and then with its ever-popular, DRM-free digital distribution service, GOG.com.

This year, its development studio, CD Projekt RED, is set to release the wildly ambitious The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which floored audiences at E3 and swept the show with over 50 awards. We had a chance to chat with Iwinski at length about The Witcher 3 and what lies ahead for the series; GOG.com and the future of retail; its next project Cyberpunk 2077; DRM and piracy; and a whole lot more.

The Witcher 3 is massive in scope and design, and it uses a new engine, so one of the concerns for PC gamers is the system requirements. How demanding will the game be on PC hardware?

We still haven’t announced anything on the system requirements side. I’ll just say that, if you remember when The Witcher 2 was launched and what it demanded from PCs then, you should expect something similar to that. If you have a one or two year-old PC - on average because people have different computers – it should run pretty good, but if you want to be the best guy in town, go and buy a new card [laughs].

We really believe that RPG games shouldn’t be different in terms of visuals than shooters. They should blow you away. Our aim is not to make a game that works on every single PC. That would be great, but then we would have to sacrifice the graphics. Graphics are an extremely important part of the whole visual experience. At the same time, if you have the strongest PC hardware – which is already more powerful than the new consoles – you will be able to get more out of it. If you remember, The Witcher 2 had an Uber setting, and for that you had to go to the store and buy the new stuff. “Hey can I have the most expensive card?” And then the motherboard, and the processer, and then the Uber mode would work.

You guys tend to do awesome collector’s editions. What do you have planned for The Witcher 3?

We’ll be announcing the editions when we begin the preorders in a couple of months. Our background is of gamers. We are gamers and we started this company because of the passion for games, and we’ve always loved collecting the loot. If you look at the studio working on The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, we’ve got 300 people, and it’s 300 really geeky people, and they spend a lot of money on games. They keep bringing in these boxes – editions of Hitman or Batman or whatever and they discuss and argue about the quality of stuff. So we aim for a very high quality of stuff for our editions. That’s the fanboy part of the whole thing.

The second important aspect, which is the case with The Witcher 3, is that what you get in the box really makes you want to keep the game and not trade it in. It’s a collector’s item so we believe people should be rewarded for spending their money. Whenever I buy a game and receive a naked disc and the manual in a PDF, I’m personally offended. So this is a way, also, to protect against piracy and I think it’s vital in a market like India. In Poland it’s exactly the same. For many years, we were distributing games in Poland - and we still are – and our fight against piracy was always to build the physical volumes.

Like with The Witcher 2, there will be two editions – a collector’s edition and a premium edition, which is the standard one – but I think they’ll be even cooler. For the collector’s edition we are preparing something extremely special, which we’re very excited about.


The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

This is the first time you are working on a game across platforms at launch. Having come from a PC background, can you talk a bit about how the game will fare across platforms?

Well, The Witcher 1 was a very core PC game, and you could see the hardcore-ness in it. In The Witcher 2, we moved away from that a bit, but it still had those elements. The only issue was we didn’t have the resources to do two platforms at the same time, but if you look at how we did the Xbox 360 version, it was one of the best Xbox 360 games and it was really squeezing the machine to the limit. So what we’re looking to do with The Witcher 3 is to push each of the platforms to their limits. For PC, which in theory is infinitely scalable, you’ll be able to get more, but you have to invest. On the consoles, the difference will not be huge because they’re actually brand new PCs. So I think gamers on each platform will get an extremely good experience and they should be very satisfied with the quality.

The Witcher 3 employs a new engine – REDengine 3, and you’ve also announced that you’ll be releasing the REDkit modding tools for The Witcher 3 much sooner after release than you did with The Witcher 2. Can you talk a bit about the scope of what’s possible with these modding tools and what you’re hoping to see from the community?

We don’t really expect anything (from the community); we just want to make them happy. It’s funny because for The Witcher 2 the REDkit was released too late to make it as big as it could have been. We were totally aware of that, but we were just not able to put the tools together sooner. And we can’t just release pure development tools because people will have problems figuring it out. Right now the plan is to give people the tools early on in order for them to share their adventures with their friends.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many people we have and how good they are; they will never invent the stories that the gamers have invented or that they have in their heads. That’s very exciting because they will be able to share their own Witcher adventures or Witcher-inspired adventures or adventures just set in the Witcher world with the rest of the gamers. That’s amazing, and from our perspective, that’s the goal. We really hope people will like it and that they will start using their imagination with our tools and something cool will happen.

Will there be a way for players to discover in-game the mods that other people have made?

Yes, we’re looking to do that just to make things easily accessible. We have some really cool ideas. We would like to create an environment where people can access the mods very easily, and maybe rate them. This is a story-based game in an open world, but it will come to an end. So after a certain point we would really like to give it replay value with the mods. We’d love for people to discover mods that are ten-hour adventures in themselves that someone has spent months creating.

It’s quite impressive what you have managed to pull off with the REDengine 3, with the massive open world, no loading screens, etc. So do you have any plans to lease out this engine to other developers?

We are definitely thinking about it, but first we have to ship a multiplatform game, and then we can talk about it. But yes, we would definitely like to help people to make RPG games. We’re not paranoid and afraid of the competition – that someone will license the engine and make a better game than ours. That’s great! I’d love to play that, honestly.

There are a lot of great RPG games, but the problem we faced when we started working on The Witcher 1 was that there was no technology to make an RPG game, so if you wanted to make an RPG, you were in a pretty tight spot. We were lucky enough to license technology from Bioware, but after that they didn’t really go into licensing, and the engine was super-old and there is nothing much you can do on it for current standards. If you license CryEngine, Unreal or even Unity, you just get the basic stuff, and the whole creation of the RPG elements, like character development and quests, is missing and you end up writing it. So instead of spending time on using your imagination to create a beautiful story, you’re playing around with the code to make it work. You want to make people’s lives easier, and ultimately, we will definitely be looking at licensing our engine.

There were rumours circulating about a possible PS3 port of The Witcher 2. Is there any chance of that happening?

No. We definitely would have loved to, but The Witcher 2 on PC was so big that making it work on Xbox 360 took us a year. The Xbox 360 was a more powerful and easier-to-code-on platform than PS3, so that would have taken us another year or year-and-a-half. Would it be so exciting for people to wait so long? And also, this would delay The Witcher 3 because we would have to put most of the team on it. We’d already made some sacrifices in the graphics for the Xbox 360 version. If you look at the Xbox 360 version launch time and compare it to the PC specs of that time, the difference is big, but if you were to add a year-and-a-half to that and compare PS3 specs to the PC specs of that time, the difference is huge. It’s mission impossible.

It’s similar in many ways to the other question we get asked – ‘why isn’t The Witcher 3 on PS3 and Xbox 360?’ It’s impossible. It would have to be a different game – a smaller game, not an open-world game, or with terrible loading times, with sacrifices in graphics.

What are your plans for The Witcher once Geralt’s story comes to an end with The Witcher 3?

I don’t know; time will tell. Let’s focus on The Witcher 3 for now. We want to conclude this story, but I’m a huge fan of the world and Andrzej Sapkowski’s books. In fact, he just released a new book in Polish, so it will be translated to English soon. The book is really cool; I probably read it in a day and a half. I swallowed the story [laughs]. I think it would be great to tell some new stories in the Witcher world, but time will tell. If people like The Witcher 3, we’ll definitely work on it.

So guys, if you like it, don’t pirate it! Go and buy it!

You described your approach of starting out with The Witcher as the ‘black sheep strategy’ - how you went against everything that you were told was expected from a triple A game at that time. Would you say that Cyberpunk 2077 is more conventional in that sense, since it appears to have shooter elements and perhaps even multiplayer?

It’s really not a shooter; it’s an RPG. We haven’t talked a lot about the game, and we’re still not at the stage where we’re ready to talk about it. I think what people should really focus on, in terms of their expectations, for Cyberpunk 2077 is that it will be a really deep RPG first and foremost. And we haven’t confirmed that there’s multiplayer in the game. What we’re really good at is creating immersive worlds with great stories, and we’ll stick to that. There’ll be no surprises.

There will be new elements because this is a great new area for us to explore. For how long can you play with the medieval swords, shields, bows and arrows? It’s an exciting theme, but some people would want to do some cool things with guns now, and maybe implants and stuff like that. We’re doing it because we find it really exciting. We’re big fans of Philip K Dick’s and William Gibson’s writing, and so the idea came from the people who were making the game. It’s not like we thought that, ‘hey, this is possibly a big brand so let’s do this’. We don’t work this way. There’s no big research we did or found that there’s an expectation from the market for this sort of game. I read recently that some big company did this massive research and found that steampunk will be popular. And I’m thinking, ‘why?’

Cyberpunk 2077 is more like what we would like to play. The whole initial announcement and the teaser CGI trailer were sort of a ballot to see how it is received and to see if people like it or not. We were overwhelmed by the response. We’ve had over 10 million views of the CGI trailer, which far exceeds any video material we’ve put out before.

Do you any ideas set within the Cyberpunk universe that you think could expand into additional games?

We’ll see. There is definitely potential in that world.

You’ve been staunchly against DRM for a long time, but do you see a future for DRM-free games the more we move towards digital distribution?

Of course. Generally, if you see, PC gaming is now largely DRM-free. If the game is multiplayer, it exists on a server so the concept of DRM doesn’t exist and I’m fine with that. I’m getting something from it – all the people online and the connectivity, but if it’s something that’s artificially stuck on top to combat piracy, it’s bullshit because it’s not fighting piracy and that’s been proven. Whatever copy-protection is used is crap and it gets pirated on day one, or usually earlier because discs are stolen from the pressing plant, and then the legal gamer has an inferior experience than the pirate. It makes no sense so I’m firmly against this and I think the industry is slowly moving this way as well.

If you look at the music industry, it’s mostly DRM-free, although they realised this quite late. Look at the movie industry. It’s funny - the torrent sites were showing the most pirated movie titles and the titles which are most pirated are the ones which are not available for purchase in any form; even DRM form. So even with DRM, if there is a legal way to watch these movies, there is a group of people that is willing to pay. So imagine if it was all DRM-free; it would be even better.

I think games are at the forefront because there are already DRM-free games and people are talking about it. The movie industry is the one that is having trouble, and television too. In Poland they tell you, and probably in India too, to wait three months for TV shows. I mean, come on! The internet is talking about what’s going to happen in the next episode of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, and you’re telling me to wait three months? I want it now. In three months, I’m watching something else. So they need to catch up with people’s expectations, and when this happens, the market will prosper.

How have you managed to stay independent all these years and self-publish these games. It seems like quite a risk?

We didn’t always self-publish though. The Witcher 1 was published by Atari even though we owned everything, but now we self-publish. It is a risk, but you know - no risk, no reward. But that’s one part of the business. The other part is publishing games, but doing it in a very different way. We publish games from a gamer’s mindset. I really like the good old slogan from Interplay – By gamers, for gamers – it’s pretty much what I feel we’re doing and I think this is what is getting us a good name in the industry, at least that’s what I see in the comments online.

People generally like us because whenever we do something, we think of what the potential reaction of the gamers might be and how they would feel if we told them ‘you can do this, but you cannot do that’. It sucks and we shouldn’t do that. We don’t have strict structures or big corporate discussions. We do what we think is right and if it’s wrong, we say sorry and correct it. In publishing, this is very important because this way we can shape the product.

The fact that The Witcher 2 box had all those bonus collectibles inside was our choice and not the choice of our partners. We think it’s right and so we do it; we spend additional money on this stuff, and the gamers like it so ultimately it works. The risk is there, but as long as you’re true to gamers and you make good games, it’s minimised.

The Witcher and Cyberpunk are both licensed IP that you’ve taken on. Do you have any plans to develop your own IP and do you think it’s important for a company to have its own original IP?

We’ll see as we go. There is a lot of great stuff out there in the world that fits into games, like literary works or pen and paper games or movies. By the way, I’m not saying we’re working on a movie IP. We are definitely not working on a movie IP! NO! [laughs] When you’re creating a game, obviously the risks are high. It’s a complex process and hundreds of people are working on it for many years. So if you add an additional layer to that and say, ‘hey, let’s invent the world and make it bullet-proof and make sure everything fits and everyone loves it’, you just increase the risk. This was the thinking behind The Witcher. With Cyberpunk, we just loved the idea so we said, ‘let’s go for it!’ I’m not excluding this [possibility of original IP], but I’m not so intrigued about it right now either. Maybe somewhere down the line.

GOG.com was quite a niche when it started out, since it specialised in classic games, and it still is in many ways. Do you see a future where bigger publishers start releasing newer games on GOG while being completely DRM-free?

Yes, we’ve already started with newer games, and they’re mostly indie games, but the bigger games will be coming. Obviously this year there will be The Witcher 3, but we’re looking at big publishers joining. I definitely see GOG.com as the ultimate place for games without DRM and one day I would like to have all games there for people to play the way they want to play and really to feel like they have complete ownership.

With the big companies, the concern is always that, ‘hey, they might pirate it’, but they have to understand that people can pirate regardless; it’s one click away. People buy games because they want to, not because they have to, and this is very much what GOG is about. It’s freedom - freedom of the way you play, where you play, and how you play. At the same time, right now we’re working a lot on the convenience of...I can’t talk about it just yet, but there will be lots of things happening over the year with GOG. We’re working on something big that we’ll be announcing in the first half of this year.

CD Projekt has its roots in publishing and distribution, and with GOG, you’re now also pushing into digital distribution. Do you think retail and digital will be able to coexist in the future?

Of course. There’s a lot of fear attached to this debate, and you hear lots of dramatic proclamations, like ‘retail will die!’ etc. People like to buy things when they touch them and smell them and they have a nice box like this [pointing at The Witcher 2 box]. Does all this fancy swag excite you? When it’s digital, it’s very convenient. You click on it, and it’s yours. But we were just talking about the growth of e-commerce in India. You can have this box shipped to your home on day one, so what do you want? How do you want to play? You have the choice and you’ll continue to have the choice.

Still, retail really has to catch up and be competitive. So what do they offer? Is the store nice? Do you see lots of goodies and swag there? Is the clerk knowledgeable? There are some stores where the service is terrible and there are others that you really connect with and you’ll want to spend your money there. For instance, I love buying books and I buy lots of e-books, but still, if I go to a good book store, I get lost in there and I will spend money. It’s the same with games retail. I think they can definitely co-exist and there will just be different sets of people. Retail will always be there for the hardware and the collector’s stuff, but things are changing and retail will have to adapt.

Finally, can you tell us when we’ll all be able to get our hands on The Witcher 3 and do you plan to launch it in India?

We will definitely be launching The Witcher 3 in India. As for the date, we’ll be announcing that soon. We’ve said this year, so it’ll be this year. We’ll launch preorders at the same time that we announce the date. We want to make sure that we don’t over-promise and that we deliver on the date. We’re working very hard and the team is working virtually non-stop, so expect to hear from us quite soon.

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Tags: Retail , Distribution , Development , Publishers , digital distribituon , MCV India

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