Building the future on pen and paper: CD Projekt Red on Cyberpunk 2077 and moving on from The Witcher

Richard Borzymowski, CD Projekt Red

As the upcoming launch of Cyberpunk 2077 looms large in the distance, currently slated for April 2020, it’s hard not to wonder if CD Projekt Red is feeling the pressure. The studio has a stellar reputation, following its astronomical success with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – a hard act for Cyberpunk to follow, which also marks the studio’s first title outside the fantasy novels from which Geralt sprung.

Cyberpunk 2077 is set in a dark future that could hardly be more different from its previous work. It is another adaptation, though, this time of the cult pen-and-paper RPG Cyberpunk 2020 created by Mike Pondsmith way back in 1988. And that presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for what is the most highly-anticipated title of 2020.

While adapting Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy book series for The Witcher was a comparatively smooth transition, adapting a pen-and-paper RPG into an open world game with real-time combat was more taxing, as the game’s producer, Richard Borzymowski explains: “The thing is, every pen-and-paper RPG is essentially turn-based. It’s dice throwing, right? That doesn’t really work when there’s a zillion bullets flying across the screen.”

“We’ve stuck to as much of the original Cyberpunk 2020 as we can, but to keep things enjoyable we’ve had to change some things to make it adapt well into the video game format. From things like character attributes to guns – a lot of it is taken from the core book. We’ve added some new ones, of course, but we’re staying true to what Mike Pondsmith created. It was really important to us to remain faithful to the original, because we know there’s this community of Cyberpunk fans that have been out there since the 1980s. We’re not going to be exploiting the franchise, we’re not going out there saying ‘Hey, this is our game, it’s entirely unconnected to whatever it was before.’ We’re here to enhance Cyberpunk, alongside Mike Pondsmith.”

While stepping into an established franchise with pre-existing fans can be intimidating, as Borzymowski notes, it also allows CD Projekt Red to be more open with fans about what to expect.

“Very often I think, not just in games, but in books and movies too, you see promises being made without actually showing anything behind it – and then you’re building hype essentially based on just your words.
Even if the product is very good, people might feel let down, and be like ‘oh, this isn’t what I thought it was going to be.’”

The pen-and-paper RPG Cyberpunk Red acts as an introduction to the world for those who want to jump in before the game’s release

Enter Cyberpunk Red. The latest edition of the pen-and-paper RPG was released in August by R. Talsorian Games, and provides a teaser of what to expect in Cyberpunk 2077. Set in 2045 – the midpoint between Mike Pondsmith’s original and the upcoming game. The RPG acts as a ‘midquel’, bridging the gap between the two titles – directly linking CD Projekt Red’s game to the original work.

Given the 32 year gap, there are unlikely to be any direct plot threads linking Cyberpunk Red and 2077, but the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit establishes the game’s setting – Night City, and an explanation of the politics of the future, detailing the horrific events known as the fourth corporate war.

Allowing the very keenest fans to get a jump-start on the game’s setting is key to alleviating the pressure to deliver on the hype surrounding 2077. Staying so true to Cyberpunk 2020, going so far as to directly link the titles, is a smart move – both paying homage to existing fans and enticing newcomers to play Cyberpunk Red in the meantime.

“Of course cyberpunk is a genre in its own right, but Cyberpunk 2020 really laid out Mike Pondsmith’s take on what the genre is all about,” says Borzymowski.

“In his particular vision, cyberpunk is all about having this world where there are no real governments anymore, where megacorporations are exploiting everybody just to get even more money and power. You have people living in extreme poverty, being controlled by these corporations, and in between the two you have the people being pushed down into the poverty line, dealing with gangs. And that’s where you are – you’re constantly struggling to know where to go. We want players to be able to create their own personal stories, about freedom and following their own path.”

This feeling of freedom has soaked into not only the game’s narrative, but into the gameplay mechanics themselves. Cyberpunk 2077 is the first CD Projekt Red game not to feature an established main character, and will instead allow players to create their own.

This sense of freedom and player choice in character creation has created headlines in the run up to the game’s launch, as it was revealed that players will not select to play as a man or a woman, but start with a choice between two body types, one traditionally masculine and one traditionally feminine. A seemingly small point to some, but one that potentially allows for players to create gender nonconforming characters, a sensible choice for a game centered around body modification and player choice.

To Borzymowski, the introduction of a character creator is a representation of CD Projekt Red’s evolution as a company.  “With the first Witcher game, we were establishing the studio, establishing our style of storytelling.  In the Witcher 3 we added the open world to ensure that Geralt is able to have the freedom to explore and to have some side activities.”

“When it comes to Cyberpunk, we don’t have an established character like Geralt. You are not this particular monster slayer with those particular two swords. You create your own character and you choose how you want them to play. I call it ‘open gameplay’, customising a character for the exact style of play that you want. You can go out there and be this Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator kind of guy, running in guns blazing on every mission. Or you can be – and I don’t have a better expression for this – a cyber ninja, attacking guys from the shadows.”

Of course, this commitment to player freedom creates game design headaches that the team didn’t encounter in the Witcher games. Without a universal main character, with a single style of fighting, the game had to be structured from the very start to allow for playstyles of all kinds: “It’s very challenging. It’s not like we came up with this developer track that ‘oh yeah, we’ll just design it in this way, so it will be easy to accommodate all those playstyles.’”

“No, for every mission that we derived from the overarching plot that was written down in the very beginning, we had to shape and scope them in such a way that each single approach can not only finish the mission, but also have fun doing so. We’ll have players choosing to be a cyber ninja with a ton of cyberware, sure. But you can also play as a guy who claims he doesn’t even use cyberware, and is just this… vanilla human. We had to ensure that those players would still have fun with the game, so we had to have generic paths while ensuring that every single mission, every single beat is enjoyable for players of all kinds.”

The game’s stunning concept art demonstrates CD Projekt Red’s commitment to making Night City as detailed as possible

Although, with the wide array of cyberware available in the game to customise your character with, it’s hard for us to understand why players would want to turn it down in the first place.

One point of particular interest to us is the use of multiple languages in the game, requiring a translator implant in order for subtitles in the player’s language to appear on screen. “The universe of Cyberpunk allowed us to develop a believable gameplay mechanism that allows you to hear all sorts of different languages, while still being able to understand what is being said,” says Borzymowski. “It’s not just a game setting hidden away in the menu, you actually have to purchase this thing in order to understand people.”

Character creation and customisation is not the only thing that’s new in Cyberpunk 2077, though. As the game is such a departure from their previous Witcher titles, a whole new engine was required to produce the stunning visuals seen in the gameplay footage released so far. The new engine, titled REDengine 3, promises to deliver state-of-the-art visuals forming vivid environments, realistic expressions of emotions and character interactions. Big claims indeed, though there are more practical reasons behind the new engine, as Borzymowski explains: “first and foremost, we wouldn’t be able to develop Cyberpunk on the exact same engine as the Witcher. The benefits of the new engine are that we are able to develop Cyberpunk in the first person perspective, with all the verticality of the various buildings and skyscrapers around the place.

“Another thing,” he continues, “is when it comes to doing global illumination. When we are creating anything, in this example the city, you have to have two versions of it: you have daytime and the nighttime city. And at night, you have all those neon lights in the city, especially after you know, rainfall or something like that. You could just develop the geometry for the buildings, and add the neon lights on top of that. You have the shader of the water dripping off, but this wouldn’t give you as big an impression as having global illumination as well. So while developing, we always wanted to ensure we have this wow factor.”

Of course, talk like this does nothing to temper the astronomical hype surrounding this title, which brings us back to the pressure CD Projekt Red are under right now. While undoubtedly a talented team, they have suddenly found themselves about to publish what is bound to be one of the biggest releases of 2020. As the April release creeps ever-closer, the pressure from their ravenous fanbase is building.

“We are feeling under pressure,” says Borzymowski, “but we are taking it as encouragement and we are lucky that what we’re showing to the community is well received. They have given us a certainty that the vision that we had is the right one, is a good one. The approach here is to be transparent, we are not creating an illusion out of words. We’re sharing what we’re up to, and ensuring that we are on track to do something that will be well received.”

Borzymowski seems confident then, despite the enormously high expectations for the game – though this confidence seems to be based not on the assumption of reproducing their prior success with The Witcher, but an acknowledgement of the work that has gone on behind the scenes over the game’s long development. Still, we can’t help but ask if he’s feeling worried.
“Worrying is not the word,” he says. “We know that people are waiting for this game, and the only thing we can do – the very same thing we did on The Witcher – is to pour our heart and soul into it.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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