Yesterday CD Projekt Red announced a “new saga in The Witcher franchise.” As part of a new multi-year collaboration with Epic Games focused on open-world design, the game will be made in Unreal Engine 5 rather than the studio’s own REDengine. It won’t be The Witcher 4, but that’s what people are calling it in the meantime. And its director swears there won’t be crunch during development, a promise the studio has made, and broken, before.
“I am super thrilled to announce that I have humbly been working to ensure the success of the next big AAA The Witcher game as its Game Director!” veteran Witcher designer Jason Slama wrote on Twitter yesterday (via GameSpot). “Think you could join the team? We have tons of roles open with the possibility of remote work we could discuss!” Someone quote-tweeted him and said he left out the part about “horrible crunch and being treated like a dog.” Slama responded: “Not on my watch.”
Some game companies have taken a very public position against crunch, an industry term for bouts of extended overtime work during game development, especially during the runup to new milestones or shipping the finished product. One of them is CDPR. It reportedly crunched extensively on The Witcher 3. During the production of the similarly sprawling open-world RPG Cyberpunk 2077, the company promised it wouldn’t make anyone work “mandatory” overtime.
“[W]e want to be more humane and treat people with respect,” CDPR co-founder Marcin Iwiński told Kotaku in May 2019. “ If they need to take time off, they can take time off. Nobody will be frowned upon if this will be requested.”
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That pledge was reiterated in June 2019. Then in September 2020 CDPR reneged and ordered mandatory six-day work weeks up through Cyberpunk 2077’s release. Even prior to that, some developers later reported working 13-hour days during the thick of the game’s production. Despite the overtime, the game still wasn’t ready when it finally launched, especially on consoles. Some long-awaited features didn’t arrive until just last month.
Shortly after Cyberpunk 2077’s release, Iwiński apologized to players in a video update, and CDPR once again re-committed to limiting crunch. “Avoiding crunch on all of our future projects is one of our top priorities,” it wrote at the time. The language was aspirational. Slama’s commitment is a bit more definitive, though as game director he is still ultimately at the mercy of CDPR executives and shareholders like everyone else at the company.
The real question will be whether other game developers believe CDPR has actually changed. Yesterday’s Witcher 4 announcement, like so many big game teases these days, was as much about attracting talent in an ever more competitive industry as anything else. The 2022 Game Developers Conference is going on in San Francisco this week after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, and CDPR is already using the new Witcher game for recruitment.
“See the incredible. Create the impossible,” its flyers read. Much more compelling than, “Ruin your personal life in exchange for seeing your name in the credits for The Witcher 4.”