PC Gamer

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt topped our Top 100 games list last year, and we also heaped praise on its Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions. Today, CD Projekt Red's flare for storytelling and world creation is almost unrivalled, however the Polish outfit started out as "passionate gamers" who "had no clue how to make games".

That's according to the developer's co-founder Marcin Iwiński who, while chatting to Glixel, explains how he and high school pal Michał Kiciński went from selling imported CD ROM games in Poland to starting up a company and eventually falling into games development. 

"I started the company with a friend from high school, Michał Kiciński," says Iwiński. "We started as game distributors, but in all honesty, we weren't very good at distribution. We were very good at games, at picking games and being the first to localize them for Poland. Initially, the big part of our motivation to start the company was that we would have access to new titles. 

"It sounds super silly, but we were gods. We were the lords who were deciding what was being distributed in Poland and what was not. So we were getting access to all this stuff. I found one of the first ads that we placed in a Polish gaming mag, and our hours were from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And I scratched my head and thought, 'What were we doing?' Of course! We were closing early to play games."

Iwiński then explains that he and Kiciński "learned from the other side" as far as videogame development is concerned and that securing the rights to distribute Warcraft 2 sparked the idea to make games. 

"One of the first things we saw at [The Consumer Electronics Show] was Warcraft 2. It was in a corner. Michał was very into strategy games and so he said, 'We gotta have it.' So I started talking to them. I still remember, the first agreement, we imported 300 units from their Irish warehouse. And that's how we started representing Blizzard until we sold off our distribution business two or three years ago.

"We started localizing the 'box and docs,' and then localizing the full games. So we learned from the other side. We had the dream of making our own games. But we had no clue how to make games. It was more like passionate gamers who knew how to run a gamer-friendly publishing business starting to develop games, without any knowledge of how to develop games whatsoever. And that was Witcher 1."

And the rest in history. Iwiński's interview with Glixel is absolutely worth reading in its entirety—you can do so over here.  

PC Gamer

Michał Kiciński helped co-found CD Projekt back in the heady days of 1994, meaning he's partially to thank for The Witcher 3 existing. While he hasn't played an active role at the studio for five years he's still a major shareholder, holding "almost" 11 percent of the company. So you'd expect him to have sunk a couple of hundred hours into The Witcher 3 by now, right? But here's the twist: he hasn't. He hasn't played the game at all.

Kiciński made the admission In an interview with Polish website Gazeta.pl (translation via reddit and Google Translate). Indeed, since he stopped actively working with the company, he's not missed being part of the games industry at all. 

"Generally speaking, I don't miss it," he said. "If there's a small grain of nostalgia, I open up some strategy game on an iPad and that's good enough for me. It's not that I lost all interest in video games. I still like them, but now I have many more interests and activities which are more interesting than playing."

He said that while he used to spend a lot of time with Blizzard games and Counter-Strike, he deliberately phased them out. "Always, when I entered a video game world it completely disturbed my day-to-day life," he said. "I made a conscious decision that there are equally interesting things, even more interesting than games, that simultaneously make me feel better - physically, psychically and emotionally."

As for The Witcher 3, it's just too big – which is a sentiment even the most active of modern games enthusiasts can relate to. "There comes a moment, when you have to make a decision, how you want to spend that dozens of hours of your life. At this stage, at which I am right now, I believe that the real world is just more interesting than the virtual one, even though the latter can also be interesting and addicting."

Another interesting tidbit from the interview is how CD Projekt gained the trust of its audience. Kiciński believes pirates helped them get their attitude right, despite obviously being a financial hindrance. "We had to do everything to gain player's trust and offer them a product, that would be a better deal than a pirated copy. Our philosophy from the beginning was: pirate is just a mistreated client."

The full translated interview is over here, or if you read Polish, here's the original.

PC Gamer

When I played Ultima IV as a kid, there was an element of mystery to it, by which I mean my friends and I had no clue what was going on. We took turns being in control and arguing over how best to live up to the eight virtues of honesty—compassion, justice, sacrifice, spirituality, valor, humility, and honor—necessary to adopt the mantle of the Avatar. That's a hell of a thing to ask a group of 12-year-olds. 

When a vision told us it was compassionate to "Kill not the non-evil beasts of the land" we figured snakes aren't inherently evil, right? But if we ran away from snakes, would that count against our valor? The only way to check our progress in the eight virtues was to travel all the way back to Castle Britannia and speak to Hawkwind the Seer, so we were never sure in the moment whether we were doing the right thing. If someone asks you whether you're brave do you say "yes" to be honest, or "no" to be humble? It's a goddamn quandary. 

We didn't manage to finish Ultima IV. Not many people did. Even during playtesting, only its designer Richard Garriott was able to get to the end, as he admitted in an interview in 1986. Replaying it again today I go straight to the FAQs. It's disappointing to learn that the secret behind those big questions we grappled with as kids is just a set of eight numbers going up or down. There are even people who have calculated how easy it is to rob Lord British of all his money, then go shopping and give a blind shopkeeper the right amount of cash to undo that crime. (Everyone who sells spell ingredients in Britannia is blind to make each shopping trip a test of honesty. Do you pay her the right amount or rip her off? They say justice is blind—in Ultima IV so is everyone who sells garlic.)

Even though the numbers underneath Ultima IV's decisions are simplistic, being faced with those big moral questions was novel, even revolutionary, at the time. What's disappointing is that in the 22 years since Ultima IV, the math governing most morality systems in games has gotten more complicated, but it's still math. And it's still there. When our behavior is tied to an equation we've been trained to understand over the past two decades of gaming, the exciting nuance that should lie at the heart of moral decisions tends to disappear.

Behavior by the numbers

The games with moral choices that followed soon after Ultima IV tended to make it immediately obvious when you were being rewarded for good deeds or punished for bad. Quest for Glory II kept its Paladin Points secret but had an Honor stat right there on your character sheet that went up when you did nice things, like being polite during tea. The Adventures of Robin Hood and I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream both explored morality, but rewarded you for 'good' behavior with a meter going up and punished you if it ever went down.

The next wave of games with morality were less focused on being nice. They made allowances for naughtiness as a valid playstyle (though admittedly Quest for Glory II did the same if you played the Thief class). Games like Jedi Knight, Fallout, and Baldur's Gate tracked your deeds and assigned a reputation, having characters react differently or showing different versions of cutscenes based on whether you seemed like the kind of player who would like to arbitrarily murder NPCs.

Knights of the Old Republic made an important step forward by melding the two, with a plot that made a dark-side playthrough possible as well as a meter that went up or down depending on whether you earned light side points or dark. Its sequel kept those meters, but is one of the few examples of a game from the past decade taking advantage of them. KotOR 2 offers probably the most nuanced deconstruction of the Force across all of Star Wars media, questioning the meaning of light and dark, and subverting the distinction between good and bad whenever possible. But a number, your 'alignment points,' still determined what Force powers you'd ultimately be able to use.

Being a mean good guy isn't great for the skin.

Mass Effect tried to be more nuanced by replacing good and evil with Paragon and Renegade, which many players read as new names for the light side and the dark. But in Mass Effect you're really always good, it's just that sometimes you're lawful and sometimes chaotic. Paragon means "by the book" and Renegade means "fuck the rules, I'm right." Admittedly in the first game Renegade was also a synonym for "quite xenophobic" which was odd, but they tried.

Your karma score in New Vegas keeps going up because you accidentally made the world a better place.

Once again there was a simple number underneath, and that number determined which conversation options were available to you. If the number wasn't right sometimes an option would be grayed-out, which encourages gaming the system by going all-out on one or the other paths, rather than judging each situation on its own merits and actually thinking through those dilemmas. Playing the middle ground may have felt more genuine, but the equation discouraged it.

It's true that we like to see numbers going up, whether it's a high score or character level, but reducing morality to another a number simplifies things a little too much. In Fallout: New Vegas, you earn karma by killing feral ghouls or Powder Gangers, because those are some bad dudes. That means if you're playing a villain and you get jumped by other bad guys, self-defence makes you a hero again. It's hard to keep a low karma score in New Vegas. It keeps going up when you're not looking because you accidentally made the world a better place.

Mega Man Legends 2 (which actually came to PC, though not in the West) is an extreme example of morality reduced to brute math. There's a black market where you can buy sweet gear, but only nasty people can shop there. Mega Man has to go around arbitrarily kicking pigs—that's literal, it's not a joke—to become more evil, as signified by his blue armor turning dark. Once he's punted enough pigs he goes shopping in the black market, then afterward makes a donation to the church to get back on the nice list and turn blue again.

In the late Middle Ages the Catholic Church sold indulgences, which lessened the amount of punishment you'd receive in the afterlife for your sins. If you wanted to be allowed to break the stricture against using butter during Lent you could pay for that, and Rouen Cathedral in France earned so much money from the practice they used it to pay for a whole new edifice that is still called Butter Tower to this day.

That's the level morality systems are at in most videogames.

The Witcher 3 offers a rare take on RPG with no alignment meter and ample hard choices.

Morality tomorrow

Most games, but not all of them. The Witcher 3, for instance, doesn't have a morality meter. As monster hunter Geralt of Rivia you're given options to turn down quest rewards or haggle the payment upwards, but there's no reputation score rising or falling in response. If you want Geralt's rough exterior to conceal a heart of gold you play him that way. If you want him to be rough to the core that's fine too. And there will be consequences for your choices.

Early in the game you meet Lena, a woman who has been seriously injured by the griffin you're hunting. Left in the care of the local herbalist, she'll probably die. You've got a potion that could help her, but it's made for witchers like you rather than normal humans and it might have serious side effects. It may even kill her, and she'll die in even greater pain.

Do you interfere or let things take their course? You're not related to this woman, you're not her primary caregiver. Maybe the potion will save her, but do you have the right to muscle in and jam poison down her throat because of a maybe? I did, and it saved her life. But then, after another 50 hours of Witchering about, I met her boyfriend.

No good deed...

He was stationed in an army camp on the edge of the map, which I only stumbled into because there was a noticeboard there and I wanted to find some more sidequests. He told me Lena had never fully recovered, that she couldn't speak and didn't seem to recognize anyone she knew. She'd been permanently brain damaged by my potion, and he didn't know whether to thank me for saving her or curse me for reducing her to this. Geralt's response was, "Trust me—choice I had to make was harder."

Not every sidequest in The Witcher 3 is as effective as that, and plenty of them boil down to following your witcher senses to the next marker then fighting a monster, but that just makes it unexpected when some of them throw their consequences back in your face—an element of mystery more effective than having to visit a seer in Ultima IV. I made a choice and that choice had an effect. No number went up or down, but a person confronted me and questioned what I'd done.

Bioware has said that Mass Effect: Andromeda won't have Renegade or Paragon points. Hopefully instead we get more repercussions directly resulting from actions—something the series has already dabbled in, to give it credit. In the first Mass Effect I met the Rachni Queen, last broodmother of her kind, whose children had been taken from her, driven mad and turned deadly. Though sparing her meant it could happen again, it also netted me some sweet Paragon Points.

When she turned up again in Mass Effect 3, once again shackled and her children forced to kill, it was a far more effective follow-through than the change in my score. I took a risk and had to deal with the fallout. 

Every now and then games nail that sense of a chain reaction, of inevitable but unforeseen things happening because of how you chose to deal with mad Ekkill in The Banner Saga or who you let through the checkpoint in Papers, Please. In Telltale's games you know immediately that a choice will have an aftermath, because the pop-up tells you that someone is going to "remember that." That's how I want to feel about every choice without being told, or seeing a meter go up—that when I least expect it, the waves I set in motion will roll back to shore and wash up something dreadful at my feet.

PC Gamer

I haven't played The Witcher 3 since mid-2016, but I still think about it at least once a week. Some sidequest or character or bit of storytelling comes to mind, or I play another game, and I think, yeah, that was pretty cool, but it was no Witcher 3. That's mostly thanks to CD Projekt's incredible animation and cinematics teams, who shaped dozens of hours of cutscenes and dialogue and elevated already great writing with the best digital acting in gaming. At a GDC talk on Monday, CD Projekt animation director Sebastian Kalemba put some impressive numbers to those scenes: over three years of development, the animation team had to create 16,000 unique animation assets for The Witcher 3. Adding up every sidequest and cutscene, all the monsters and bosses and NPCs, that was to cover more than 200 hours of gameplay.

For the two DLC expansions, you'd think all that existing animation would've put them on easy street. But that's not how CD Projekt Red works, apparently. Instead, the animation team had only a year of development time, but ended up doing even more work in the same timeframe. For the 50 hours of DLC Kalemba estimated, they created almost 7,000 new animations.

Kalemba's talk was mostly about the obstacles his animation team faced in tackling so much work for the DLC in less time, and how they improved their workflow to make it all happen. Some of that best practices talk is more interesting for developers than us, but other parts felt like glimpsing a tiny piece of the formula that made The Witcher 3's cinematics a cut above.

Having even better back-and-forth communication with the story department was vital for the fast-paced development of the expansions, as it helped them zero-in on how characters and monsters would look and move more quickly. Kalemba also noted that while they had very mature, stable tools, they didn't have a lot of programmer support to draw on—the programmers are mostly busy on Cyberpunk, apparently.

Kalemba under the spotlight.

Spoiler warning: I'm about to talk about some characters and bosses from Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine. 

Kalemba gave a great behind-the-scenes look at some major Witcher 3 DLC characters evolving throughout the animation process. "This guy was a nightmare," he said about Dettlaff, a vampire from Blood & Wine, who took a group of animators six months—double the time spent on most boss fights—which he said really wasn't enough. Nine months would've been ideal. But this was a great example of how the animators needed to work with the story team.

At first Dettlaff looked more or less humanoid with nasty claws. But that wouldn't cut it. Dettlaff was an old, high vampire, and as the final boss of The Witcher 3, they had to go above and beyond to deliver an amazing fight. They worked with story to figure out how Detlaff would change forms, determined how he would spawn wings and how he should move in his monstrous form. 

And then they took it a step further. "We were iterating, and talking to story, and they said, 'let's fight with the construct of his blood in an illusion of his heart.' Like, yeah. How to do that?"

No pressure, but I'd say they pulled it off.

Kalemba also talked about creating Olgierd von Everc, a major boss in Hearts of Stone. Geralt usually fights monsters, he explained, but Olgierd was an immortal man. How do you make him as interesting to fight?

They decided to make Olgierd's immortality show in his animation. He's cocky, always standing wide open waiting for you to attack him. They needed an aggressive fighting style to match, and after a lot of research found a 17th century Polish fencing style called cross sabre that fit perfectly. Olgierd attacks with lots of wide-open overhead slashes—all sourced from a stuntman's motion capture.

Check out some of the animations I mentioned, and others, in this five minute reel Kalemba put together.

PC Gamer

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 301. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

Imagine a roleplaying game in which you aren’t Champion of the Realm, but a homely bystander such as an innkeeper or a carpenter’s apprentice. Imagine an RPG in which you aren’t able to hand-craft your own posse of adventurers, fussing over everything from eye colour to movement modifiers, but must do your best with the character or characters you’re given. Imagine an RPG in which you aren’t there to save the world but simply find your way through it, as cleverly as you can. If there’s a common theme to my discussions with developers about the future of roleplaying games, it’s that the old “pick your stats, level up by killing stuff, decide the fate of the universe” premise is in sore need of an overhaul, or at least some decent alternatives.

“There have been dozens of attempts to reinvent the RPG story, but the heart of the gameplay is always bodding from one combat to the next, gathering rewards that make you better at combat,” says Alexis Kennedy, creative director for Failbetter’s acclaimed Sunless Sea, who now divides his time between the forthcoming boardgame Cultist Simulator and freelance design work for major studios like BioWare. “So characters tend to be warrior-adventurers and stories tend to have a big showdown fight conclusion and generally you’re combing the countryside for things to fight. That’s a really compelling core, and it’s been perfected, but I like seeing other activities emphasised in RPGs. There are other loops than these.”

“I feel like in spite of what some people have been saying, there’s been a lack of really amazing RPGs for a few years now,” says Katherine Holden, a Cumbria based manga artist and designer whose projects include the RPG series Vacant Sky. “I’m sure that’ll be an unpopular opinion, but I feel like all these ‘create your own character, run around doing busywork in a sandbox and meet NPCs who all fall over themselves to give you power and authority’ games get a little tiresome after a while.” Holden points to 2015’s incredibly accomplished but slightly uninspiring Dragon Age: Inquisition as evidence of this stagnation. “Inquisition wasn’t bad, but it was such a shallow, toothless game compared to Dragon Age II, which featured deeply flawed, yet likeable characters and also a very timely story about refugees, prejudice and religious tension.”

Subverting well-worn approaches to RPG design is both artistically desirable and profitable, says Tyler Sigman, the co-president of British Columbia developer Red Hook and designer of the masterfully unpleasant Darkest Dungeon, a game that uses psychological modifiers such as paranoia and claustrophobia to unsettle the otherwise familiar turn-based party combat. “People are quite open to new experiences that make them think about the whole party-building and dungeon crawling thing they’ve been doing for 30 years, but in a new way. Remember Ultima IV? It totally did that at the time: suddenly putting the burden of morality on the player, whereas other games had sort of assumed that since you are The Chosen One, you can do whatever you want.”

Go with the flow

The perennial answer to the question “how should X videogame genre evolve?” is to add more choice—more unlocks to pick at, more variables to explore, more ground to cover. “Roleplaying games nowadays allow players to immerse themselves in the game world, but that immersion is still plagued by numerous constraints,” says Marcin Blacha, narrative director on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at CD Projekt RED. “Sometimes the story forces particular behaviour on the character and you need to surrender yourself to the flow of events to advance to the next chapter. There are a lot of things that aren’t interactive, and the systems fuelling the RPG elements are full of limiting conventions that we decide to turn a blind eye to in the long run.”

Blacha doesn’t think every game needs to be as gargantuan and packed with opportunity as The Witcher 3, and notes that credible, stirring character relationships are just as important as breadth. But he suggests that the key difference between RPGs today and those ten years from now will be the sheer quantity of options. “Because roleplaying gamers love to have options available to them. Just ask anyone who spent hours creating their perfect avatar over and over again before even touching the story. The Holy Grail developers will be striving towards will be a game in which, upon reaching the top of a mountain, you see a breathtaking vista and revel in the thought of the possibilities that await you—as far as the eye can see and beyond.”

The Witcher 3 is a tremendous game, and several of my interviewees cite it as an inspiration and a model. But it’s worth noting that CD Projekt’s achievement rests not just on its number of choices, but on having specific options in specific narrative scenarios—an assortment of deftly told side-stories with multiple endings that revolve around the villages and towns you’ll visit while scouring troubled kingdoms for your adopted daughter. The game may be a sprawling epic, but it’s an epic composed of brilliantly directed moments—tiny decisions that add up to more than their sum. “I think that game has set a new standard for making all quests dramatically meaningful,” notes Tyler Sigman. “It’s amazing how much care and attention seems to have gone into every single sidequest.”

Meaningful choice, he goes on, should take precedence over scope or variety for its own sake. “Skyrim blew my mind with all the emergent things, the great open world—I played it many times with different characters and never even came close to finishing it. I just wandered around and created my own stories. But I think the next level of achievement in games like that might be to slightly reduce the amount of things that you can do, but make each one a little deeper. I’d rather have fewer NPCs simulated, for example, but for each one to be more meaningful. It kills the immersion when you murder someone, and their buddy comes in to sleep and doesn’t even notice the body.”

Another of The Witcher 3’s accomplishments is to walk the line between a character you define and an existing character with a past and a given purpose. A taciturn mercenary, Geralt of Rivia is dispassionate and detached enough that you feel able to make your own decisions about his actions in most situations, but his gravelly personality bleeds through to the player over time, colouring your approach. By the end of the game, acting just as Geralt would in any given situation feels as important as acting freely. It’s a reminder that, for all the talk of “maximising interactivity”, one of the most entertaining, enlightening things an RPG designer can do is guide or even require you to act a certain way. 

“I really like how, in Japanese RPGs, you don’t make a character—you are given a role to play,” says Kate Holden. “Whether you like it or not, that’s the person you’re playing and you need to empathise with that to get the most out of the game.” 

RPGs should do more to inspire this kind of empathy, she adds, rather than letting players customise their protagonists as they please. “There’s so much to learn from stepping into the role of somebody you’re not, or at least, don’t think you are. Wearing that mask can help you to discover so much about yourself.”

Holden points to Dragon Age II, again, as an act to follow here. “From the beginning, it sets you up as a refugee, an immigrant, and then it forces you to work with people who are really cool, really nice, really strong, but who hold some ideas and prejudices that are actually kind of terrible. Merrill is an absolute sweetheart who just wants to be loved and to see her people, the elves, stop being abused and marginalised, to have some pride in their heritage. The problem is, she embraces dark forces beyond her comprehension to this end, and stubbornly ignores the warnings she is given about the risks.”

Local hero

There’s something to be said for telling a story on a more modest stage, too. In casting you as a saviour or destroyer of worlds, many RPG stories sacrifice a sense of credibility and intimacy. For Michelle Juett Silva, one half of Salt and Sanctuary developer Ska Studios, narrative-driven adventure titles such as Dontnod’s smalltown sci-fi drama Life is Strange have much to offer developers like CD Projekt. “RPG lends itself to fantasy a lot, we see a lot of fantasy or cyberpunk, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of ‘slice-of-life’ fiction,” she says. “I would really love to be able to see day-to-day kind of stuff, maybe diving into relationship issues, just things you deal with on a daily basis. A closer view on individuals, rather than ‘you are the hero, you are the Inquisitor who saves the world’.”

Another way of encouraging players to empathise would be to take the emphasis off battle for narrative and character progression. Asked about specific areas for innovation, Alexis Kennedy points to “non-combat, long-term activities—finding or making your place in the world”. That might mean intrigue, training, base-building, choosing sides, or growing old, he says. “Things which are commonplace in novels or even board games, but tend to be plot-driven or absent in games. 

“There have been dozens of attempts to do this, and some have been pretty good, but generally it tends to be ‘downtime’—a base or hub you go in between playing the actual game, to move furniture around or hoover up resources. It’s a genuinely hard design problem to crack, especially alongside the current gameplay focus, and I wouldn’t say it’s been neglected—but there’s tremendous opportunity for innovation.”

“I think we have thoroughly explored combat,” adds Chris Payne, a Traveller’s Tales veteran and managing director at Welsh indie Quantum Soup, which was formed to work on original narrative-driven games. “So much combat! Don’t get me wrong, good combat is fun, but there’s a limit to how much story you can tell with it.” Evolving away from fighting as a narrative device is tricky, he adds, because it’s relatively straightforward to model—a primarily physical, inherently dramatic affair that produces digestible binary outcomes. “I’m hoping to see more studios experimenting with new forms of character interaction, but the trouble is you’re moving away from a physical model of weapon range, damage, and bullet trajectories into a much woollier psychological model, where it’s harder for the player to understand the effects of different choices.

“And if you expose the mechanics—like Fable’s opinion modifiers popping up like damage reports—then it kills the illusion of interacting with real people. There’s a lot of work to be done there.” Payne’s hope is that the increasing sophistication of videogame acting will help subtler kinds of encounter take priority in RPG design. “I’m pleased to see Ninja Theory’s amazing performance capture work, because a good actor can communicate a lot about what’s going on in their character’s head. As game characters get better, we can rely more on performance to convey the mechanics of character interaction—reading a character’s face to see if they liked what you did, instead of text messages saying ‘Solas approves’.”

Can new technology such as virtual reality play a part in all this? Possibly. Payne thinks VR has a lot of untapped potential. The sense of being present “applies to characters as well as places,” he says. “When I first played the Oculus Rift intro experience, and you’re spawned face-to-face with a photorealistic alien—that was quite a shock. Having a character like that inside your personal space, looking directly at you is incredibly powerful. Imagine a character equipped with AI that responds to your virtual body language, so it might step back if you get too close. Or it might not, and just look you in the eye and demand you back off.” Again, this could support better performance-driven storytelling and dispense with clunky interfaces. “There’s definitely potential to get away from the trusty multiple choice dialogue selector in VR.”

Ska Studios’ James Silva is less impressed, noting that enabling player movement without confusion or discomfort is still a “huge barrier to feeling present in a VR world, and being able to explore it”. This is a problem all first-person VR games share, and in theory RPGs are an easier fit because the pace is slower. But RPGs also typically involve more to-ing and fro-ing, and it’s hard to imagine roving the moors of Skyrim comfortably using a look-and-click teleport-jump, let alone the Vive’s room-scale motion-tracking. 

In a perhaps telling show of how transformative VR really is, Ska Studios’ founders have spent a fair chunk of their time in virtual reality playing Dungeons & Dragons via the AltspaceVR platform—poring over a lovingly recreated simulation of the classic table-top game. “It’s this crazy ouroboros of technology where we all want to be there in person playing this analogue, real-feeling game —none of these icons on a battlefield or anything like that,” says James Silva. “So we’re going to do VR and now we’re all present again, but none of it is real!”

Engine room

Katherine Holden also confesses to feeling “a little leery” about VR’s applications for RPGs, commenting that the bigger tech revolution for indie developers, at least, is the current plethora of free, high-quality game engines. “Unreal Engine and Unity in particular allow even a small-time dev to be on even tech footing with the big kids,” she says. “Mostly I develop lower end kind of games, so unless tech is viable for Joe Average on their serviceable but long-in-the-tooth i5 machine, it’s often not really relevant for me.” InXile CEO Brian Fargo also talks up the lower bar of entry for underfunded teams who are looking to make a splash alongside the likes of Bethesda. “We’re making gigantic strides in presentation and immersion,” he says. “And as hardware improves this becomes more accessible too, meaning even non-AAA developers can make some amazing-looking games.”

Gloomiest of all on the subject of VR is Alexis Kennedy. “I’m going to make some preposterously specific predictions,” he says. “Half-hearted VR support will start showing up in some big RPGs, and generate forum threads full of people angry that it’s only half-hearted. There will be some carefully budget VR-first indie RPGs which are in other respects extremely traditional, and which will do OK. There will be a high-profile indie Kickstarter by AAA veterans for, approximately, VR-first off-brand Skyrim, which will make like a million dollars on a half-million ask despite commenters pointing out that’s not remotely enough money, and ride the hype train right off a cliff.”

Kennedy does allow that “better pipeline technology—voice synthesis, say, or better content tools, or smart use of procedural generation to create raw material for creators to customise—means the cost of RPG content will gradually drop off in real terms, and the sophistication of content will continue to improve.” But he also argues that roleplaying games are too heavily rooted in convention and nostalgia to benefit greatly from injections of exotic hardware. “RPGs are a bundle of beloved traditions. If you radically change one tradition, the others suddenly make less sense. The games which are transformed by technology will be more innovative forms which have repurposed RPG mechanics and are no longer really recognisable as RPGs.”

If RPGs are bundles of beloved traditions, there’s plenty left to achieve within the ambit of those traditions. There will always be a place for RPGs in which you don the armour of a legend, mix-and-match abilities to create devastating class builds, and make decisions that shape the story without interference as you tour a vast, opulent landscape. But my conversations with developers reveal a hunger for more provocative, directed and personal experiences, that aren’t as beholden to the old stereotypes or notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘fantasy’—games in which ‘choice’ doesn’t just mean reshuffling your party composition, or trying to work out which dialogue responses will lead to the greatest reward.

“I’ve always found the definition of a ‘roleplaying game’ a bit frustrating myself, because the actual mechanic that defines the ‘genre’ doesn’t reflect what makes a great RPG to me,” Katherine Holden says. “The actual definition of an RPG seems to be: you have numbers that represent your abilities, you gain a resource called experience for doing things—usually, for making stuff die—and that makes your numbers go up. I’ve always felt this is a million miles away from the actual experience of playing a role, stepping into the shoes of another person.” 

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

our EIC Graham performs his noble duty

By the power of Grayskull, it’s only the weekly Steam charts! These are the games which sold best on Steam last week.

It’s all gone a bit 2015-2016 in here again, I’m afraid, but fortunately cavalry of a sort arrives in the pendulous form of some big ol’ swingin’ dicks. … [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

It was obvious as we hacked and slashed our way through The Witcher 3 that the in-game card game, Gwent, was a bit special. There were monsters to slay and a world to save, but instead we spent hours in the pub playing cards with scruffy strangers. We loved it so much that we investigated how Gwent was made last year.

This card duelling game, set in the gritty low-fantasy world of The Witcher, is now a standalone game. Want to play? Simply follow the instructions in the widget below and you'll receive an activation link via email.

We have 10,000 keys today, which will be distributed on a first come, first served bases. Don't worry if you miss out, though. We'll be giving away closed beta access with copies of PC Gamer magazine in the UK, which goes on sale March 9.

PC Gamer

Back in December, we reported on a NSFW Witcher 3 calendar that was full of steamy cosplay photos of characters Geralt, Yennefer, and Triss. Now, someone has gotten Geralt cosplayer Maul Cosplay to star in a fan film, and it's actually pretty dang rad (via Game Informer).

Produced by Erika Rodgers, The Witcher follows Geralt and Triss as they chase an armoured, spooky man. Geralt and the man engage in battle, and the way Maul moves as the seasoned witcher is impressive. It'll definitely look familiar to anyone who's spent a decent amount of time with the games. You can watch it for yourself in the video at the top of this article.

Rodgers, who plays Triss in the fan film, is a New York-based filmmaker who mostly produces rope-suspension and pole-dancing videos. The editing is exceptional and the shots are incredible. You can check her out on YouTube here.

This isn't the first time Maul has appeared in a fan-made Witcher film. Last year, he starred as Geralt in The Witcher 4 - San Andreas. It's silly but definitely worth a watch, especially if you want to see Geralt school Eredin on the blacktop. Check it out here.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

CD Projekt RED, the makers of The Witcher, are warning that unknown naughty people gained access to an old forum database of theirs in March 2016. RED say passwords were stored in a way that should keep them obscured but do say, just to be safe, that if you used that same password on other sites you should probably change it. (You know better than to reuse passwords, don’t you?)

I myself didn’t know I’d even registered for their forums — I couldn’t tell you when or why — so perhaps you did it yonks ago yourself. Be warned! … [visit site to read more]

Announcement - Valve
Today's Deal: Save 40% on The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt!*

Look for the deals each day on the front page of Steam. Or follow us on twitter or Facebook for instant notifications wherever you are!

*Offer ends Wednesday at 10AM Pacific Time
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