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Gamescom 2014: An Interview with Peter Gelencser about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

On my last day at Gamescom I was fortunate enough to have a deeply insightful conversation with Peter Gelenscer, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s Senior Level Designer. We discussed everything from the importance of community, the delicate balance between maintaining player choice while not forgetting to insert a landmark here or there to keep their conscious and subconscious minds oriented and the possibility of the series appealing to Eastern tastes as much as it has Western ones.

Without further ado here is the interview in full.

Why open world?

Because it suits the kind of story we wanted to introduce in the Witcher 3. That possibility only opened up with the new generation of consoles. We felt like we had such a grand story to tell that it would suit it better if we gave it some room to breathe. We also wanted to explore Geralt’s profession as a monster hunter, and we wanted to include that properly. We also needed an entire territory dedicated to exploring the lore of the world.

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A map of the Witcher 3’s world

How difficult is it for you to maintain narrative consistency throughout the game despite many player driven choices completely changing how the story will play out?

It’s because we have an extremely dedicated quality assurance team that is paying very close attention to that. We have very good people that are very familiar with the lore and with the previous titles that have made it their mission to maintain that narrative consistency. Our quest designers are constantly reviewing their work as well as their peer’s work to make sure everything stays in line and nothing is overlapped by something it shouldn’t.

Are you in direct contact with Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the Witcher novels?

No, the Witcher is inspired by one of the novels, short novels. I don’t know the specific nature of the contract but while maintaining the lore of the books we are pretty free to create any kind of content that we want surrounding Geralt.

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You seem to carry that independent line of thinking like a badge of honor, and the players have responded to that in an overwhelmingly positive way.

We wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for the people we are making the game for. We try to maintain a relationship with them.

The notion of wanting to maintain a relationship with your community seems to be getting more and more rare, corollary to the rapid growth of the industry.

Money is very important of course, but then again, check us out, like we are completely forgoing DRM (copy protection). We want to treat our customers as players, not as customers and they seem to be responding nicely to that. If you remember we had a minor leak and our community were deleting every trace of it as fast as they could by themselves, without any request on our part to do so. That couldn’t happen to just anyone, at least I would like to think so. It’s amazing really.

People come to us after presentations asking us: “can I hug you, can you please sign something” and it’s really nice.

How do you design missions around the fact that players can approach objectives from any angle?

We try to strongly hint instead of control. Linearity is something we exchange for an open world approach. There are slight hints of what a player can do, that they can follow if they want to, but they are not obligated to.

Can those hints be turned off?

No, because by hints I mean shaping paths, and the overall composition of the level that your subconscious might recognize and turn you in a certain direction, instead of us saying GO HERE GO HERE! It’s all in the terrain, it’s all in the landmarks, just like that. Things that help them navigate.

By default they are looking for convenience and will move fast, get to high ground, look around. So we will leave subtle hints that tell them they can go one direction and they will be rewarded for that. Of course they don’t have to.

It’s really interesting. Sometimes we decide, we go for those hints, but in others we decide, let’s make this nice, let’s make this natural. Like designing villages, it’s not like we decide: we need a village here. We decide whether or not it would be natural for a village to be there. Does it have access to sweetwater? Does it have fields in case the villagers want to cultivate crops? Can we have a windmill here, and if yes where, and if no, why not?

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We establish natural layouts of the terrain first and we establish the village after. If I were a villager what would be the most convenient place to establish something? In the end we want to create something that is very convenient, very natural, and very nice to look at. And it will almost automatically look nice if you simply obey the laws of nature.

Sometimes of course we just have to build stuff. But we try to contain our ideas inside of what the generation tool allows us to build.

How automated is the generation tool?

We can tell it that we want rivers, lakes and gorges everywhere and it fills in the gaps for us and then we work it out. Combing over the places we like, of course maintaining natural erosion and again when we reshape things we always use the natural shapes as much as possible so you won’t find artificial looking things. We like to keep try to keep those shapes as naturally proportionate as possible.

How have the dynamic time of day and weather systems affected level design?

We have Skellige up north, based on Norse mythology, more snowy and more icy, precipices are larger and more severe than they would be in No Man’s Land (a more swampy area). Weather of course is harsher.

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But it really depends on what kind of environments we are trying to establish there.

Many single player focused games have added multiplayer to keep players coming back into their world, was that ever discussed as a serious possibility at any point during development of the Witcher 3?

Story works best if you are playing it.

There have been other Witchers hinted at in trailers for the game that may reinforce the idea that it could be possible. But I guess we won’t know why they are there until we play the game.

That’s right. Our main currency is the story. The open world serves that. Unless we have a superior reason to make it multiplayer we wouldn’t even consider it. It’s Geralt’s adventure.

Causality is a big focus of the narrative structure. Does that extend to the more emergent elements of the game?

The random encounters should not screw up the overall adventure. Every major thing should happen because of you. If those more random elements changed that it would take power out of our hands and out of the player’s hands and it could ruin the player experience.

Are these emergent events repeatable?

Some are, but some are also triggered because of other events. It is a living world, and this extends beyond Geralt’s story, the world doesn’t cease to exist because the story is over.

Can you go back and replay specific parts of the story?

I’m not sure about that.

Do you think this is the last we’ll see of Geralt? I doubt you can comment on that directly.

I can say that, this IS the last installment of the series. Many asked why, why is this the final chapter? We wanted to tell a very strong story, and all good stories have an end.

Can you talk a bit about the combat system?

We got a lot of feedback about the earlier games’ combat system, and of course, if you have played the first Witcher game you know how different the combat system was. I was very happy to see that in the Witcher 2 all of the things I wanted to be changed have been changed. We have designed it to be more accessible, as, especially for Playstation 3 owners who may not have any experience with the systems. We have also made it more immediate, you won’t be stuck in lengthy animations anymore, when you press a button, something happens, while still making it look like a ballet of blades.

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All of the magical tools, the Witcher signs, are very easy to access and to use, but hard to master. I saw a QA guy do things I wouldn’t even dream of. I picked up the game and it was intuitive, it just feels good.

Evasion has also been changed completely, in the last game you could roll away from your enemies to your heart’s (and your stamina bar’s) content. Now you have replaced it with pirouettes, and based on the gameplay demo I saw they looked like stutter steps more than a full dodge. Was that done to make combat more difficult as there is a greater distance differential achieved by a roll than a sidestep.

The roll was a combination of being able to dodge and disengage. Now we are differentiating between those functionalities. When you are in combat you can maneuver in ways that make sense in combat and when you want to disengage you simply turn away and that’s it. Geralt should not be a cannonball on the ground. Let’s keep it elegant.

Will Geralt ever find a home, or will our meditative spot of choice be our only refuge?

He is a presence in the world that should never settle. He’s a wandering soul. He has no boundaries, which is why this third installment is going to be so interesting. We give him something that he cares about a little bit more than money, so what he is doing right now is not going to be a community service. He’s now embarked on a personal journey that is going to be a lot more intimate than in the previous games. It will show that home is not necessarily a place, it’s rather a person or a state of mind.

Will there be an opportunity to go hands on with the game in the near future?

Yes, in February.

Will you be at Tokyo Game Show?

We’re not sure. The Japanese have their own ideas about RPGs, but it would be interesting to find out if our game is something they might respond to. Geralt is close to a ronin, a wandering samurai, so maybe if we emphasize that in the narrative they could accept him. Who knows, maybe we’ll find out.

If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out the 35 minute gameplay trailer that was just released here

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be released on February 24, 2015 for the PC, Xbox One and PS4.

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Eliot Rolen

Eliot Rolen

While I've traveled the world since the tender age of 6 I have never been far from the world of video games. I currently live in the Netherlands and aim to provide an international perspective on gaming culture to the ravenous audience of Dual Pixels. My favorite genres are first or third person action-adventures and western role playing games. That being said, I play everything I can on my PS4 and PS Vita.

  • Chris Alkire

    Looks like Skyrim.