2007. The final instalment in the Halo trilogy is set for release. Exciting new IPs including Bioshock and Mass Effect are about to be introduced to the world to instant critical acclaim. And among them is a game based off a series of beloved Polish fantasy novels. And no one could have predicted what the series would go on to become.
The Witcher took over five years for little known Polish studio CD Projekt to develop. The expected manpower required ballooned, and the budget was also underestimated. But after years of hard work, the game finally released – to positive reviews. Highlighted in several reviews were the game’s moral choices, and their complexity. Many games settle for simply giving you a good and a bad option, one extreme or the other. But CD were less interested in that. Evoking the darker nature of the books they were adapting, they decided to go for the more difficult route. Something that they’ve always done, and are still doing.
Buoyed by the success of the original, production quickly began on a sequel. However, adversity struck. The company decided to focus on a console version of The Witcher, in partnership with Windscreen Games, a French company. The project was soon cancelled after a dispute unfolded between the two, and the company faced bankruptcy. In the face of all this, CD Projeckt stuck to their guns, just as they’ve always done. They focused their efforts on finishing their sequel, which released to critical acclaim. The narrative, writing, immersive nature and visuals were all reserved for special praise, and the game was noted as an improvement on the original. Staying the course had worked for CD again, with the game accruing several end of the year awards. Despite all this success, I’m not sure many could have predicted the massive impact that the Witcher 3 would have on the industry as a whole.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt began development soon after the release of the second. The team were keen to ensure that its successor couldn’t just be an incremental improvement. They wanted it to be better in every way. And boy did they succeed. Astonishingly, CD only spent 3 and a half years making the Witcher 3, which is surprising given the absurdly high quality of the finished product. To me, it felt like the culmination of everything that the studio had been working on for the previous decade. They had made their masterpiece, and they had done it for the fans.
Now, I am slightly biased, as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my favourite game of all time. I can’t think of a single game I’ve ever loved as much. It’s so complete, so rich, so alive. It’s such a well-oiled machine, with an abundance of complex systems coexisting in perfect harmony with one another. The open world was enormous, vast, but richly detailed and bursting with vivid imagery and gorgeous visuals. The narrative was thrilling, complex, winding and satisfying. The character development was superb, and the writing sharp. Real weight lay behind your decisions, with significant aspects of the game’s world changing depending on the actions you decide to undertake as Geralt. The combat was weighty and varied, providing a wide range of ways to kill both humans and creatively designed monsters, many of which have specially designed weaknesses that the game encourages you to exploit. Customisation was deep, with a variety of upgrades available to both Geralt and your weapons and armour. There are a lot of moving pieces at play in The Witcher 3, but they all work in perfect synchronisation with one another. Never has a game provided so much value for the money you spent on it. And that includes the DLCs. Especially the DLCs.
One message that was clearly transmitted by CD Projekt around the time of release was gratitude towards the fans. And a promise to reward them for spending their hard-earned money on the game. And reward they did. Following the release, CD consistently provided players with free updates, which were usually either new quests, or extra pieces of weapons or armour. Two substantial DLC packs were released, both of which rank among some of the best expansion content I’ve ever played – ‘Hearts of Stone’ and ‘Blood and Wine’. They kept alive the spirit of the game, delivering beautifully told stories in exciting new environments and worlds. CD promised exactly what they delivered, and they never wavered, not once.
Backing up their commitment to the fans were the sales figures. The Witcher 3 sold six million copies within the first two weeks, a remarkable number. And this came about because of the trust they had established with their fans. This is what happens when you stick to what you believe in. No overcharging customers ridiculous amounts for bonus items or expansions. There are a few studios out there who could learn a thing or two from this, but I’m not here to name any names.
And now, nearly four years on from the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, we look ahead to Cyberpunk 2077. While the release date is unconfirmed, there is strong speculation that the game could finally release in 2020. Now, with some games there’s often a feverish clamouring amongst the fans for a game to release, but this is different. Fans of CD know that the finished product will likely be of an exceptionally high quality, and are patient enough to wait. At least, I am. I have full faith that when the game comes out, it will be extraordinary.
Now, I say that the fans are calm, but there has already been some controversy. Some were a bit baffled when an announcement was made regarding the game being first person. But how can it be first person? The Witcher was third person. Well, let’s remember, this is a very different world to the one inhabited by Geralt of Rivia. This is a futuristic dystopia, like an alternate version of Blade Runner. The Witcher was the ultimate fantasy world. Let’s try not to compare them. Instead, let’s just let CD Projekt get on with things. The scope of their evolution and growth into one of gaming’s most beloved studios is remarkable. They’ve triumphed over constant adversity and setbacks, when odds seemed against them. Let’s give them a bit of leeway.
They’ve earned that, right?