People don’t only love CD Projekt RED because The Witcher 3 was great. The company released 16 DLCs for free, talked openly about the game’s budget and profits, and included a “thank you” note in the box. It might be brilliant PR, but after speaking with the studio’s co-founder, there’s something else there, too.
“We feel there are quite a few people in the industry who consider us crazy, strange, you name it,” said said co-founder Marcin Iwiński. “But at the same time, there is lots of curiosity and afterthought—especially after the success of The Witcher 3. Our actions were quite often disregarded and considered as something that could not work on a larger scale—both The Witcher and The Witcher 2 did not have such massive reach as Wild Hunt. We heard this was a naïve, fanboyish approach.”
Unlike other independent developers (like Valve), CD Projekt RED is a publicly traded company. This means the studio is required to disclose certain pieces of financial information every so often. Now that CD Projekt RED has become one of the world’s premiere game developers, it provides a welcomed insight into how much it really costs to develop, promote, and release a big game in 2015.
As reported by Gamasutra, CD Projekt RED recently said it cost $81 million to create and promote The Witcher 3 over three and a half years of development. In the first six weeks, the game sold more than six million copies, which propelled CD Projekt RED to make up development costs and earn $62.5 million in profit.
As it turns out, the studio didn’t need to release all these details—it wanted to.
“One of our core values,” said Iwiński, “is to be open in communication, both internally and externally, and we do not see any reason why we should not extend it to finances. Yes, we are a publicly traded company, so we have to publish certain financial data, but we have decided to share significantly more than we were obliged to. I do believe it is important to show both the gamers and the industry that by being fair and honest with them.”
Specifically, it was important for Iwiński to demonstrate to players and the industry that CD Projekt RED’s approach to communicating with players wasn’t just for faves and retweets on Twitter; it actually translated into real profits.
CD Projekt RED was embroiled in controversy when The Witcher 2 was released, thanks to DRM in the retail version causing the game to run much slower. The studio was also tracking who was pirating the game, at one point logging more than 4.5 million illegal downloads, and sending some players legal papers.
The DRM was later stripped out via patch and they stopped monitoring piracy.
Not having DRM in The Witcher 3 was made part of the studio’s contractual agreements with various parties, Iwiński told me in an interview from 2013.
“It seems to me that the industry as a whole knows DRM doesn’t work,” he said, “but corporations still use it as a smokescreen, effectively covering their asses, pretending to protect their intellectual property in front of bosses, investors, and shareholders. I’ve actually had quite a few discussions with high level executives who admit they know DRM doesn’t work, but if they don’t use it somebody might accuse them of not protecting their property. Whenever policy trumps common sense, the best interest of gamers is lost in the process.”
“The best interest of gamers” is a common refrain from Iwiński, and by both walking the walk and talking the talk, he’s inspired players to believe him.
When CD Projekt RED announced The Witcher 3 would get 16 pieces of free DLC after launch, it was easy to roll your eyes. Enough publishers had taken advantage of players with microtransactions and disappointing season passes that offering anything for free would come across as Good Guy CD Projekt RED.
But as Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton pointed out in ranking the content, not only was some of the free DLC solid, a few pieces substantially added to the game.
Iwiński said the free DLC was part of the plan “early on.”
“I strongly disagree with the argument that we left money on the table,” he said. “From what we see in the sales figures, I would argue that by offering post-launch support in the form of 16 free DLCs, as well as regular patches and updates, we were able to keep the sales on a higher level, as gamers were happier and recommended our game to their friends. Not to mention that in the world where you are being charged for every tiny bit of extra content, we got great PR coverage by simply being fair and offering post launch support. I am still quite astonished with the fact that by thinking about your customer and not trying to squeeze the last dollar out of him/her you can stand out so much. Our industry does have a lot to learn in the field of customer care.”
Giving The Witcher 3 a proper New Game+ mode was the most substantial piece of free DLC, and it was actually delayed a few times internally. The company didn’t realize how much the change would impact other parts of the game.
“It required way more testing and balancing than we could have possibly anticipated,” said Iwiński.
Development on the free DLC didn’t start until the main game was finished, but it forced CD Projekt RED to try and predict what players would want ahead of time. The studio studied reddit, Witcher message boards, and other places on the Internet for feedback about the DLC released by other companies. They wanted to know what players liked and didn’t like, then tailor their own DLC around it.
Not everything about the game’s launch was rosy, however. It’s easy to forget how much vitriol was directed at CD Projekt RED for supposedly mischaracterizing the game’s visuals. Players dug up old trailers and pointed out how certain aspects—foliage, lighting, textures, etc.—were “downgraded.”
This video has a good outline of the arguments being presented back in May:
It’s true The Witcher 3 did look different in trailers, but it’s also true most people forgot about it when they started playing the game—which was still gorgeous. Still, Iwiński called the debacle a learning experience.
“If we’re talking about this, the nature of development is something what needs to be considered,” he said. “The game is constantly changing and what could have worked in a smaller area of the game early on in the development process, might not work at all when you put the whole game together. Looking back at the past, yes we’ve made a mistake, but it was never intentional. Next time, we will triple check what we show at expos and make sure what we release in trailers can be achieved in the full game.”
I suspect the trailer detectives will hold you to that, Iwiński.
One reason The Witcher 3 changed over development was the ambitious plan to release simultaneously for PC and consoles. Once a a PC-only franchise, they did create an (excellent!) Xbox 360 version of The Witcher 2 long after its release. Further complicating things, CD Projekt RED started making The Witcher 3 before the specs for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were even available.
“Making a PC-only game automatically removes a significant part of the revenue from the equation,” said Iwiński. “Had we decided to make The Witcher 3 a PC only game, it wouldn’t have had the scope it has now. We are PC gamers at heart and we come from a PC background—it is still the dominating platform here in Eastern Europe, so we do not plan to abandon PC or dumb down the PC versions.”
Visuals weren’t the only controversy the game courted, however.
Towards the end of Polygon’s review, critic Arthur Gies questioned the game’s portrayal of women and its representation (or lack thereof) of people of color.
Other moments are truly worthy of eye-rolling — as when one male character criticizes a woman for going into battle with her shirt hanging open, which is really the snake eating its own tail of video game sexism in a game where a significant portion of its speaking female characters are similarly and impractically exposed. Even Ciri, a daughter figure for Geralt and someone revealed to be incredibly powerful in her own right, walks around with her shirt unbuttoned in the middle, with a pretty clear view of a bra underneath — even when her attire changes to feature a fur-lined collar in colder climates.
Also, while I did not by any means see every city, burg and outpost in The Witcher 3’s world in my 70+ hours spent within it, I don’t recall a single non-white humanoid anywhere — not in Skellige, Novograd, Oxenfurt or anywhere else. Once I realized this I couldn’t stop looking for any example of a person of color anywhere, and I never found it, unless you count naked monster women sitting at the feet of a boss like a slightly more awkward tribute to a Frank Frazetta painting. But maybe they’re in there, somewhere.
This section of the review caused a firestorm online, prompting a lengthy response from The Vanishing of Ethan Carter designer Adrian Chmielarz:
I wonder if the reviewer would complain that a game based on a Norse mythology, one about a warrior fighting his way through the frozen Scandinavian lands, featured no Asian people. I wonder if it would be a problem for him that a game mixing aliens and Maya mythology featured no African Americans. I wonder if it’s a problem for him that Yakuza 3 features, like, just one white guy and he’s kind of an asshole.
So yeah, the fact that a post-modernist remix of fantasy and the Polish folklore made by Slavs does not feature non-white characters, is a non-issue.
Note that I am not sure that adding “strangers from the strange lands” to the game would solve anything for the chronically offended. Based on everything I learned about them in the last year, and I learned a lot, if you put a person or a few from any non-white race, they would be called “token characters”. It is the Token Minority trope after all — and, as we know thanks to the megaphoned dilettantes, tropes are bad, mmkay?
Polygon explored this even further in a later opinion piece by Tauriq Moosa, which caused its own set of intense reactions online.
It was most definitely A Thing for a little while there.
“We do not shy away from sex,” said Iwiński, “as it is part of Sapkowski’s [Witcher author Andrzej Sapkowski] world and it does play an important role in the storytelling. Having said that, we are continuously improving the way of presenting it and I hope that you can agree that we came a long way from the first part, from the controversial sex cards, to how romantic relations and sex is presented in Wild Hunt. I do not think that we present sex much differently than Game of Thrones the TV series does—it is just part of the role and part of the story, so why shy away from it.”
The Polygon review was not mentioned in my question, but he alluded to it.
“As for the heated discussion started with one of the reviews,” he said, “our role is not to judge, but to listen and embrace every opinion. Whether it has any influence on our future creations, you will be only able to tell by playing them.”
Moosa recently tweeted out a thumbs up towards The Witcher 3’s new expansion, Hearts of Stone, for having several people of color in the game.
All of this—race, sex, graphics, consoles—have Iwiński thinking about the future. CD Projekt RED’s next big project is Cyberpunk 2077, which by all accounts is at least a few years off. The studio hasn’t ruled out returning to the world of The Witcher, but they’ve said Geralt won’t be the central protagonist.
“The financial success is great,” he said, “because it allows us to have even more freedom with our development plans and take more creative risks, which hopefully will result in better and more immersive experiences for gamers.”
But when asked about the recent past, all Iwiński could to is mull over what he might have done differently with The Witcher 3.
“‘Wish we could have done that better’?” he said. “You should never ask this question to a developer, because it might result in them telling you that they would redo half of the game. From my perspective, I would love to have more time to rework the UI and make it smoother and more intuitive. The second thing, which I would love to add, is combat on sea—this is probably not a major improvement, but could surely add more excitement to your sea travels.”
For now, CD Projekt RED has shipped one of two major expansions for The Witcher 3. The second and final one, Blood and Wine, is coming next year.