With The Witcher 2's May release fast approaching, producer Tomasz Gop speaks to VG247 on BioWare, a commitment to discs, recommended specs and not making a "crap" console version.
The world of triple-A fantasy RPG development is a dangerous place. Gaining a foothold in a space so completely dominated by BioWare is as difficult aesthetically as it is financially; despite the popularity of the genre, startlingly few companies are prepared to even try.
Luckily for fans, Polish developer CD Projekt Red has balls as big as its ambitions. The Witcher, originally released in 2007, is universally applauded by the RPG core for its dark take on straight genre fantasy and epic plotline, which follows the silver-haired Geralt of Rivia.
An "Enhanced Edition" released a year later. A full sequel was announced last April, to run on new tech.
The original was built on a modified version of BioWare's Aurora Engine, ironically so, as the big budget RPG genre is often seen as a straight-up shoot-out between CDPR and the EA super-studio. It's an uncomfortable comparison for Witcher 2 producer Tomasz Gop.
"All be honest with you; it is a difficult question," he says when asked how he feels the Witcher stands up against Dragon Age.
"I don't even know what the answer is. We don't compare ourselves. If anyone ever says that we're better than Dragon Age in any aspect, then we're happy. It's impressive."
Impressive it certainly is, and despite the fact many of the genre's staunchest fans openly prefer the Witcher to Dragon Age, Gop is modest about the company's achievements.
"I think Dragon Age is a really good game," he adds, saying there are probably as many people that prefer Dragon Age over the Witcher.
"Comparing these two things is one of the most difficult parts of my job."
While the first Dragon Age and Witcher games were closely aligned in terms of content, it seems the sequels will be more identifiable.
BioWare has unveiled a new, apparently less gritty look for Dragon Age II - which releases on March 8 in the US and March 11 in the EU - while the second Witcher title remained as hard as it is heavy.
Gop acknowledges there may be more distance between the newborns than with their parents, but is reserving final judgement for now.
"Before I play Dragon Age II for myself, I won't be able to say for sure that they actually did it," he says on the subject of Dragon Age II's "cartoonification."
"But for the Witcher, the story has always been the top feature, and the most distinctive feature about this feature is actually being dark and morally ambiguous. It wasn't possible at all to change that aspect of the game: that's what makes the Witcher the Witcher.
"That's why I'm curious as to why BioWare changed that, if they did. Maybe it wasn't the main feature of the game. In this case the games might get more disctinct than they were previously."
Comparisons with DAII aside, The Witcher 2 will be considerably bigger than the original, thanks to a giant amount of fan feedback and new technical capabilities.
The Witcher 2's new engine is a hodgepodge of bespoke code and middleware, which Gop says is necessary to fulfill the game's meaty requirements. An off-the-shelf package, such as Unreal Engine, couldn't do the job.
"Unreal engine is probably one of the safest engines on earth at this time, but it doesn't have enough RPG features for us," the developer says.
"I mean, we would have to write quite a lot of code ourselves anyway. That's why it would be a tricky idea. On the other hand, we didn't want to reinvent the wheel; we wanted a good start with physics and animations, interface and everything. We have a lot of features to write RPG-wise.
Witcher 2 3D will be "fully capable and working on day one".
"I'm not saying anything wrong about Unreal, because it is a great engine, seriously, but it wouldn't be enough for us."
With bespoke tech and four years over the original Witcher release, Gop and his team are able to go bigger both in terms of footprint and narrative. Little is known of the plot as yet - although it does start directly after the first game and the strapline "Assassins of Kings" is a bit of a giveaway to anyone familiar with the story - but you can rest assured there's going to be more grit.
Gop says the game will "definitely" be darker, and will benefit from "less linearity."
He adds: "There are more aspects of how the game branches, and, actually, the decisions get more difficult, because the burden is on you this time, and it makes you think, 'Oh gosh, if I make this choice many more things might change than in the Witcher 1.'"
While the Witcher 2 will pack a more involved plot, PC gaming is never just about the game itself. CD Projekt is beloved by the PC faithful for its commitment to the format. Bonus round: you're getting 3D support out of the box.
"We're implementing some features that make it sure that it's going to be fully capable and working on day one," says Gop.
With smart features come smarting price tags, though, and the developer is yet to go public with a recommended spec.
The minimum requirements were outed in a dev diary last December and have now been published on Steam: you'll need at least a dual core 2.2 GHz CPU, 1Gb of RAM for Windows XP and 2Gb of RAM for Vista and Windows 7, and a GeForce 8800 512 MB or similar.
"These are not too high," says Gop. "They're OK. I think most people have at least computers like this."
The producer wouldn't confirm a recommended spec, however.
"With high-end machines? I don't want to name detailed specs, but if you consider a high-end machine with at least one of the best, if not the best, graphics card or processor on the market, you will be able to play the game with full detail and full HD and is going to be smooth. At least, like, I don't know that, 30fps."
The console question
The conversation naturally leads onto unified tech and the ever-present question of a Witcher 2 console version.
A console version of the first game, White Wolf, was previously planned, with Widescreen doing the conversion work. The arrangement unraveled bitterly and publicly, with accusations of missed payments. Gop, understandably, is wary this time out.
"I definitely want to make sure that is doable and that it's bound to happen, and then I will say that you can expect the game," he says.
"Until we have anything solid to show or to say, I'd rather keep my mouth shut. But we're doing everything we can, I can promise that."
A console version will probably happen. Namco's handling the PC version and is currently resurgent. The fact 360 and PS3 gamers are likely to be able to test-drive one of the most involved RPGs in existence is good news enough: better is the fact that, according to Gop, the game won't take any kind of graphics hit.
Any Witcher 2 console version will contain no "visually noticeable" difference over the PC SKU.
"I wouldn't say is going to be visually noticeable," he says. "Of course, what I say can't be too official, but from the tests that we've done so far it's possible to do a game that looks as good as what you've seen on trailers, and it works on consoles smoothly.
"It's doable to make a game that won't be crap."
While Gop and his team stick their toes into the world of console developer, however, the Witcher 2's PC release is nearly upon us, as is the inevitable Torrent leak. In a November 2010 interview, CDPR said it was prepared to take pirates to court over illegal downloads, and there's been no change in position.
"We're working with legal companies that have capability, that have the legal means, to check if somebody downloads a game illegally from the internet, that he is doing it himself that is not as neighbour or anyone else," says Gop.
The question over the validity of being able to specifically pinpoint a user for downloading a title has previously been raised, and Gop sounded unsure as to whether or not it's going to be possible: note the "if".
"If it's possible to prove that somebody did something that might be offensive - especially as by releasing the game without DRM, at least on GoG - it's fair play for us. In that case, I think a lot of people could be aware of the possibility of a legal letter is quite real."
You shouldn't steal this game. Treat yourself and buy one of the pretty editions; there are three of them. In fact, there isn't a standard edition. CD Projekt Red is a huge believer in discs.
"We come from a part of the world that is always believed in physical content," says Gop. "Part of CD Project group is the CD project publishing company. We've been publishing games in Eastern Europe for 15 years now, and we have done a lot of editions of games. We know what makes players excited.
"These days, a lot of people prefer to have games not only on the shelves but on hard disks, so we wanted to allow them to choose a digital version of the game. We have that as well, but even more important is that there are still at least as many people that believe in buying the game in a box, and having a lot of cool, exclusive digital content. And that's why we don't have anything that you could call a standard edition."
And for this company, at least, physical media isn't something that's going away any time soon.
"Almost all of us prefer buying games in a box."
"As long as people like me and 90 percent of the people the work of CD Project Red believe in physical content, it's going to happen. Almost all of us prefer buying games in a box."
While Gop prefers his games on DVDs, though, he can't ignore DLC. DLC comes down a pipe. People buy DLC. There's an obvious question.
"I can't say anything specific, I can't promise anything for sure, but what I can say is that if at any point in the future we will be announcing and then releasing DLC for the Witcher 2, it's definitely not going to be a sword pack or anything," says Gop.
"If we're ever going to do this it's going to be something bigger, and if we want people to pay for this is going to be definitely worth the money. So, if it does happen in the future, it's going to be more of a campaign."
And when the extra content's done, there'll be the third game. Right? Gop laughs here.
"The outro from the Witcher 1 already showed you that there would be a Witcher 2," he says. "Anybody that played the Witcher already knew what we had in mind from the very beginning. Wait and see the Witcher 2 at the very end. You will know whether or not the Witcher 3 might or might not happen, but I promise you that obviously we know that already.
"And if we're going to do it, were already gathering ideas."
The Witcher 2 releases for PC on May 17.