Spending some time with The Witcher 3 level designer Miles Tost we were able to put some of our immediate questions to him after playing the game for over 4 hours.
"That sense of improvement doesn’t happen if the monsters around you remain the same strength, there’s no sense of achievement."
Tost is a relaxed chap, clearly comfortable with the press and talking about a game he's dedicated years of his life to. This roundtable was conducted with other journalists and as such is a little scattershot, but I thought it worth printing verbatim. It's worth noting that no one else from the company or the publisher was present, highlighting a confidence in the product and the team rarely seen at press events.
You've delayed the game twice. Are you now confident about meeting that May release date?
Miles Tost: Yes. We're putting it into people's hands to play right now. There's no real limitations, you can go where ever you want. Content-wise, we're complete.
I've found the gameplay very accessible, but the menus were very confusing. They seem cluttered and a little baffling. Are you doing any more work to refine the menus and interface?
Miles Tost: I do know that there are things being worked on. There are a few problems we're aware of - alchemy being a bit hidden, for example. And some other stuff I can't talk about right now.
The enemies in the game don't scale in relation to the player character levelling up. Once you leave a particular area what reason is there to come back to the regions full of level 1 or 2 monsters? Does it mean that area will become redundant?
One challenge is to not only kill the creatures but also find things hidden in the world. You might not have found that one cave that was hidden away that has some cool stuff in it. But certainly there's a degree of being able to complete the world, which I don't necessarily think is a bad thing. Ultimately an RPG is not only about being the best but the journey to become better. That journey to getting better is a larger part than being the best. That sense of improvement doesn't happen if the monsters around you remain the same strength, there's no sense of achievement. "I got the legendary armour and the best sword and I'm level 5 million and yet this wolf just killed me". That shouldn't happen to a seasoned warrior.
Will regions change when you come back later in the game - will people's attitudes be different?
Miles Tost: Yes. You might find yourself interested in returning to the prologue area on multiple occasions in the game. Not because the game tells you to but just to see what happens.
You've said the you want to make The Witcher 3 accessible to newcomers. How much of that is a challenge when you're giving players such freedom to begin with? Once the basic combat tutorial is over there are only a few pointers - beyond that you're free to do as you chose.
Miles Tost: It's a balancing act. But at the same time we don't feel like we have this open-world game and we're not giving you access to it because you're a beginner. The whole introductory area is not just about the mechanics but also how the game play will work. You get introduced to how it feels to explore the world. There's quests but there's also loot here and you can go dive in the lake - all of this happens in a relatively safe environment. But the prologue also has some challenges for the player where you might have to come back later. We teach the player very quickly about exploration because it's a very important part of the game. You are encouraged to venture off the beaten path. Sometimes it will help you overcome tougher problems. General exploration is good for you to get fitter and then come back for a bigger challenge.
Side quests felt like a real introduction to the world and the atmosphere, not just about learning the ropes of gameplay. I was impressed with the storytelling in that felt very natural, not forced.
Miles Tost: The introduction is more far-reaching than just the mechanics and an introduction to the open world. It's about the atmosphere and the feel of the universe. You'll see some people will spit at you as you ride by because being a professional monster hunter, you're feared. You're an outcast. You perform this very dark service, killing creatures that plague the people, and they pay you in coin. But it's all out of necessity. You're ultimately an outcast. We also use the side quests early on to paint this picture for the player. There's some touching on the politics of the world but it's more about telling the player what state the world is in.
"Consoles with more horsepower means bigger worlds, more NPCs and better AI. The technology has ultimately reached the level that The Witcher 1 wanted to be."
Previous Witcher games have been linear. Has it been a difficult process to turn this into a fully open world game?
Miles Tost: The wish to make an open world game was always there at CD Projekt, it was always the ultimate ambition. But the team always found itself hindered by technology. Now, with their knowledge experience, it's grown. It's been a constant iterative process.
Environmentally, is there any dynamic weather across the land? I noticed some strong winds but it was always sunny - and it looked beautiful, I might add…
Miles Tost: We have all levels of rain to blind rain, rainstorms, snow, blizzards…
Is that region specific?
Miles Tost: Snow you'll find in Skellig. Rain is more likely to happen in the boggy swamps. And it does affect the gameplay and the people living through it, they will seek shelter when it rains for example.
Has developing on two new home consoles made much difference to your work on the game?
Miles Tost: In terms of improvements to gameplay, smoothing it out, this mostly stems from gained experience over the years. There are afterall two Witcher games prior to this and multiple patching that has significantly improved the gameplay. The consoles with more horsepower means bigger worlds, more NPCs and better AI. The technology has ultimately reached the level that The Witcher 1 wanted to be.
How does importing save files work? If you've played The Witcher 2 on PC there will be something extra when you play The Witcher 3. But is there anyway that those elements will be seen by console players?
Miles Tost: There's a mechanic that we have for that with consoles. How it works is the game on consoles will ask you whether you want to simulate a specific state of the world according to previous games. If you choose yes then you will have a special conversation with a character in one part of the game about the adventures of Geralt of Rivia. You can basically deny or confirm whatever he has heard. We wanted to built it into the experience and not just have the player answer a checklist.
This applies as much to people who have played the previous games as to those that have read the books. If you've read the books you'll have one or two more smiles at the very beginning with Ciri. If you're new to the series you can still understand what's going on, it will all make sense. There's also loads of references to previous games, so characters from previous games will remember how they met Geralt.
Does playing as Ciri change the narrative tone of the game?
Miles Tost: Maybe there's some confusion as to how this is implemented; it happens more in a set of flashbacks. Geralt is looking for Ciri and through his journey he'll receive information. In some of these segments you might get to play [as Ciri] and see things from a different perspective.
Do we see these segments from both perspectives or just the one perspective?
Miles Tost: From another perspective, how Ciri experiences it.
When you play as Ciri is that more linear?
Miles Tost: It depends on the situation. I would say it's more linear because it's more of a narrative tool.
But you have to stick to the objectives here, you won't run off with side quests?
Miles Tost: Yes. That's not the intent of how we're going to use Ciri in the world. I can't go into too much detail because I might end up ruining the game and story. Ciri has a very predefined character in the books and we're following that lead.
Are the books still inspiration after three games? You haven't gone in a different direction?
Miles Tost: Yes, that's basically what we're still doing. Obviously the games take place after the books so the tales are alone but based on the source material. I think we've become much better at conveying the source material to those that haven't read the book.
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