In 1986, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski entered a short story titled Wiedzmin (‘The Witcher’) into a competition in the local magazine Fantastyka. It won third place.
29 years later, on May 19th 2015, the third in The Witcher series of video games was released. It sold six million copies in its first six weeks on sale and became the biggest game launch of the year at that time.
It was quite the achievement for the sprawling fantasy world that Sapkowski had created almost three decades prior. It was equally the accomplishment for CD Projekt Red, the Warsaw-based studio formed in 2002 that first brought the tale of titular monster hunter Geralt to virtual life in 2007.
"The Witcher 3 is really the game that CD Projekt always wanted to make."
Jose Teixeira, CD Projekt Red
The Witcher wasn’t always destined to become one of gaming’s greatest RPG franchises.
The first instalment in the series – a PC exclusive – was CD Projekt’s first game, and received high review scores. But by 2010, the outlet was struggling financially as the economic crash claimed smaller studios across Europe, leading to multiple cancelled projects.
In 2011, a sequel was released, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and reversed the company’s fortunes. The game earned countless awards, glowing review scores and went on to sell more than 1.7 million copies. It even earned a mention from US President Barack Obama when he visited Poland in 2014 and was gifted a copy of the game by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
For CD Projekt, it wasn’t enough. It knew The Witcher deserved mainstream attention and, earlier this year, it was proved right.
“Witcher 1 and 2 were popular, but were still niche,” recalls visual effects artist Jose Teixeira. “We were hoping Witcher 3 would do well and were so happy that fans, for the lack of a better term, ‘got it’.”
The Witcher stands out as a shiny silver sword among a market saturated by muted gunmetal. It’s in many ways the antithesis to what many assume to be the core elements of mainstream hits; it has no multiplayer, a story that stretches gameplay time into the dozens or even hundreds of hours, complex sword-based combat and layered dialogue exchanges.
“This wasn’t about capturing objective Alpha, Bravo, Charlie or Delta before something explodes,” explains Teixeira. “It’s a single player experience – you enjoy the game. It’s exceptionally well-written; you get to know the characters, you get to know the story.
“A fan once said that the reason The Witcher is so interesting is that it’s neither an American RPG, which tend to be more action-orientated and in which the morality of choices is often very black or white, or a Japanese RPG, which have their own distinct art styles, story structures and types. It’s somewhere in-between. It’s neither one nor the other; it brings something totally different.
“We are still amazed at how many people played The Witcher 3, because it’s a game style that is usually reserved for hardcore audiences. People actually loved it, especially more in the casual audience, which we’re really impressed with.”
“In the beginning, it was all about PC,” Teixeira says of The Witcher’s beginnings as a single-platform IP.
Following a failed attempt to create a console port of The Witcher in 2009, a deal with Microsoft saw the franchise brought to console in 2011, with The Witcher 2 landing on Xbox 360. The Witcher 3 completed the series’ expansion, hitting PS4, Xbox One and PC.
“Naturally, we wanted to get as many people playing as possible,” Teixeira explains.
“For The Witcher 3, it was this mood where the studio finally had enough people and technology to create the game for all three platforms. Previously, we just couldn’t spare the people. It was finally the first time we were able to get the game to everyone and no-one got left out. Of course, we love PC gamers, but we wanted to get it to everyone and let everyone have this experience.”
The Witcher’s roots on PC and among a hardcore audience could go some way to explaining its contrasting factors to the majority of games released today. Chief among these is the title’s truly epic scope, requiring hundreds of hours of gameplay to see every corner of the world. Yet this time investment didn’t deter the millions of consumers who have picked up the game.
“If anything, The Witcher 3 proved the point that players are more interested in longer games,” argues Teixeira.
“Now, especially, you hear so many people talking about how the triple-A games industry is there and nobody wants that experience anymore, and here you go – a nice, well-written single-player experience. There’s no multiplayer, there’s no microtransactions; you get a game, you play the game and enjoy the game, and it’s a great success.”
The scale of The Witcher 3 has been made even grander with a variety of extra content released over the last four months. The first of two planned major expansion packs, Hearts of Stone, landed this week. Containing a level of content comparable to many standalone games, the £7.99 add-on stands out in a market flooded by single item micro-transactions.
“There’s definitely people asking for game expansions,” says Teixeira.
“We were very happy to prove that there is still a market for these types of things. Some of the comments we’ve had from players after playing the first expansion is ‘you guys totally broke the system – you’ve just released something that has more content than many full triple-A titled releases for a fraction of the price. It’s crazy.’
“We want to make sure everyone gets their money’s worth. This is an expansion, after all, so it’s fairly priced. That’s one thing that we are very adamant about: making sure everyone feels their money’s well spent.
“Having expansions is very old-school. It’s very rare to see, which is sad. If it’s good, it’s worthwhile and it has an interesting story, why not do it? It only adds even more good to an already good thing.”
"Expansions are rare to see. Why not do it? It only adds more good to an already good thing."
Jose Teixeira, CD Projekt Red
The Witcher 3 is the keystone in the foundation CD Projekt built its castle upon back in 2007. Although the franchise was popular before, Wild Hunt has taken the series to completely new heights – this applies to its literary source material, too.
“Before, there were some hardcore fans who read the books out in the West, but very few,” observes Teixeira.
“The Witcher 3 really opened up the floodgates. In a way, Sapkowski’s benefits are from the success of The Witcher 3 and the other games. He benefits from the mass appeal of the games, because a lot of people have opened up to his books. We’re very happy it worked both ways; the hardcore fans made the game possible, and now the game has brought fans to the books.”
CD Projekt may be leaving The Witcher behind (See ‘Cyber Excitement’), but the fantasy world remains. So where does The Witcher universe go from here?
“I have no idea,” Teixeira admits.
“We’re very happy with the way it ended. The Witcher 3 is really the game that CD Projekt always wanted to make and we’re happy that people were positive about it.
“If this is the end, then it ends on a good note and we’re ready to move on. But, apart from that, imagination is the limit. You can do anything with it. Maybe some day someone will pick it up for another form – not even a game, but something totally different. One can hope.”
CD Projekt Red has already revealed its next ambitious project after The Witcher 3.
Titled Cyberpunk 2077, it’s another adaptation – this time, of the Cyberpunk series of tabletop role-playing games.
Set in a sci-fi world akin to Blade Runner, it’s a far cry from the swords and dragons of The Witcher. But the games may be more closely linked than it may first appear.
“Cyberpunk 2077 is a totally different style,” details CD Projekt Red visual effects artist Jose Teixeira. “In a way, The Witcher helped Cyberpunk quite a bit, because the game got so big and so complex that it really taught us.
“Cyberpunk is far bigger than anything else that we have done before. Far, far bigger. We’re really stepping into the unknown in terms of complexity and size and problems we encounter. We really didn’t know what was going to happen.
“It’s going to be a lot more dense. For The Witcher, I had the clouds, the rain, the petals of flowers and things like that. Cyberpunk is going to be everything; it’s going to be explosions and fire and lighting effects and everything happening all at the same time. It’s going to be a mess of effects.
“I’m very much looking forwards to it. It’s going to be a challenge. Our ambitions and expectations about the amount of visual information on-screen at any given time is going to be pretty brutal.”