The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a rare and unique beast in today’s game industry. It’s an enormous, open-world fantasy RPG – the kind of genre we’ve seen countless times before – but it’s been built by the entirely independent Polish studio CD Projekt.
The company was formed in 1994, and initially started as a publisher and distributor of games, and also provided extra services including localisation, PR and marketing. But its founders’ ambition was always to get into games development.
An eye on the future
“I co-founded the company with my school friend Michal Kicinski right out of high school,” co-founder and joint-CEO Marcin Iwinski tells Develop.
“Games were always our passion, and together with Michal we were skipping school to play on our Amigas and then PCs with VGA cards. From the very beginning, we wanted to develop our own game, but we had neither the capital, nor the knowledge. However, we saw another opportunity: we were the first to import games on CD-ROMs – breakthrough new media back in the day. Do not forget that one CD-ROM was able to hold the data of a couple hundred floppy discs.”
The money raised from this business was eventually enough to open its CD Projekt Red subsidiary in 2002, focused on development, and to invest in its first game, The Witcher, a project built on BioWare’s Aurora engine for the PC only. Iwinski says that he had practically no experience in development, but knew how to run a business. This still led to some problems however before The Witcher’s release in 2007.
“We spent almost two years learning how to organise production and how to effectively run a studio,” explains Iwinski. “It was a much slower start than it should have been and that’s why The Witcher took us a long five years to finish.”
CD Projekt was able to fund around 80 per cent of the original title, but negotiated a deal with publisher Atari to get the game over the line. Iwinski says the studio retained creative control, the IP and rights in Eastern Europe, where it handled the release directly. He adds that this was the first step to self-publishing, and ultimately, full independence. And although this deal was necessary for the company, it taught the studio a good lesson.
“It was always incredibly hard for us to accept when somebody was telling us to do something and we were not convinced that it was the right way,” says Iwinski.
“I think the first publishing deal, the only one where we did not have the final say on all the publishing aspects like marketing, PR or what the box looked like, taught us a good lesson. We clearly understood back then, that if we want to deliver truly amazing gaming experiences, we have to control the full process and not only the development decisions.
“How you present the game, what is on the box, what the communication with gamers is shaped like, do we charge for DLCs or not, does our game represent the best value for money. These theoretically might not be the most important things on a developer’s mind, but if you don’t have a vision and act on it, somebody else will and then you might not like it. These days, with information and opinions travelling ultra fast all around the world, your game is what gamers think of it.”
We spent almost two years learning how to organise production and how to effectively run a studio.
Marcin Iwinski, CD Projekt
For The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, the studio spent less time, three and a half years, developing the title while also building up its own technology, the RedEngine. Although it co-published the game on PC, it completely self-published the game on Xbox 360, signing up with various distribution partners.
Going for broke
From here, the studio had regained full control of the publishing process, as well as of the revenue stream, which meant it could now self-fund The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, by far its most ambitious title to date.
The project started with 150 employees working on it, a number that ramped up to more than 250 staff by the end, including an in-house QA team – although some of this was also outsourced.
Like The Witcher 2, Wild Hunt took three and a half years to develop. Iwinski won’t reveal the costs of such an endeavour, but paying the salaries of such a large team for nearly four years suggests the investment in the RPG was significant.
“On top of it, we self-funded a big part of the marketing,” he says. “Most of the costs are on us, but parts – especially the marketing and costs of goods – are up-fronted by our distribution partners. Again, as previously mentioned, our vision of doing business way back from the times of The Witcher 1 is paying back. We can self-publish only thanks to the fact that we had full control of the revenue of our previous titles – especially The Witcher 2 – and the majority of it was coming directly to us and not to somebody else.”
The risks of being independent and developing such a large-scale title, with a team of hundreds, are clear, particularly when the game has to be a success and there isn’t a pipeline of other games to provide a lifeboat should things go awry.
To help hedge its bets, building up anticipation was crucial to give Wild Hunt its best chance, particularly when rivals such as Bethesda, Rockstar, Ubisoft and even independents like Avalanche have their own open-world games ready to take up a player’s time and money.
To this end, Iwinski says there are two areas of competition, first and foremost being: do you have the next big thing? And is it something that will wow the public? Iwinski explains that to this end, it’s important to stay focused on what you plan to deliver and stick to your team’s strengths.
“Yes, we are very ambitious, but – as mentioned before – we started one step at a time,” he says. “The Witcher being PC-only on licensed tech, The Witcher 2 launching first on PC and then on Xbox 360 – both games were heavily non-linear, but still with a closed chapter structure. By that time we knew pretty well how to develop good story-driven RPGs and only then we applied this experience, but this time in an open-world. Rome wasn’t built in a day. In our case, it took over ten years.”
The sweet spot
Finding a suitable release date was also key. Launching at the wrong time and alongside another triple-A blockbuster release could mean attention on your title is lost, and anticipation could dwindle. Finding that sweet spot can significantly increase the chances of success and sales, a factor made even more difficult by the two delays Wild Hunt suffered during development as the team aimed to polish the game for a smooth launch.
“We looked at the release calendar and knew that we would not have to compete for gamers’ time and budget with other major releases,” explains Iwinski. “We probably could, but if the competition is distant from your window, you can get more coverage and attention both in media, as well as in stores.
“Looking at more direct competition, by the time we are out, gamers should have completed the last Dragon Age and the more hardcore gamers should at least be done with the first pass through of Bloodborne.”
It was a really tough decision to push back The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but gamers don’t care about buggy games shipped on time.
Marcin Iwinski, CD Projekt
The delays appeared to have worked out: Wild Hunt surpassed one million pre-orders sales and it’s the biggest UK launch of 2015 so far. In fact, it's now sold over four million copies. The confidence also gained from the postponed release by a wary public burned by launch bugs in recent times is likely to have also been a boon – and at launch there do not seem to be many serious issues affecting gameplay.
Iwinski recognises that, due to the scale and complexity of games these days, exact planning of game development time, including QA, is still “mission impossible”, but there are ways to alleviate potential issues, such as it has enacted with The Witcher 3.
“Looking at our own experience, I would say: set hard deadlines, push for making it happen like there’s no tomorrow, but do not ship until you are convinced the game is ready,” he states.
“It is much easier said than done, as there are lots of external factors like running out of financing, having a publisher pushing you to have it shipped, or hitting your perfect launch window. We were working really hard for the last ten years to have the freedom of deciding when we ship our game and if it is ready or not, and we used this freedom.
“We used it twice, and each time it was a really tough decision to push it back, but gamers don’t care about buggy games shipped on time. They will only remember the very best games they played, and that’s exactly how you build your studio’s reputation. Besides, if your team of 200-plus people was working really hard for the last three years, why not give them an additional three-to-six months if this can mean a world of a difference? We could and we did.”
Now that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is out, CD Projekt Red is looking to the future with new sci-fi RPG Cyberpunk 2077. With such a solid footing in triple-A development, and its own digital storefront in GOG.com, launched in 2008, Iwinski expresses just how important the studio’s roots are. Despite admitting to being approached by companies for acquisition on a “regular basis”, the developer has no plans of losing its independence or development ethos, despite the risks of open-world triple-A and the increasing costs of making games.
“Due to the nature of constant increase of processing and graphical power, we will have to grow in order to be able to deliver true triple-A gaming experiences,” he says, before concluding: “Having said that, we don’t have any imminent plans to suddenly annualise our titles or build a multi-structure studio all around the world. We have to remain focused as, ultimately, we are as good as our last game, and I have no doubt that gamers will be the first to remind us about it.”