Boasting over 30 hours of quests, 14000 lines of dialogue, more than 30 new weapons, more than 20 new monsters, game-changing “mutations” and a fresh user interface, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt‘s next campaign DLC Blood and Wine, looks to be a fitting send-off for Geralt of Rivia.
Being a complete Witcher neophyte and wanting to dive in head-first, I briefly played Blood and Wine at Bandai Namco Australia before catching up with Lead Animator Jamie Bury.
Alex: So, it’s a huge game. Our games editor has put it nearly 200 hours, he says, into just the base game and I was playing it, and I’m just like “This is awesome… oh shit, there’s another 200 hours of my life gone”, and I’m already a chronic WoW addict.
Jamie: Haha, yeah, I’ve known people who have said to me like “Oh yeah, I played like 160 hours on my first playthrough, and then I restarted straight away and chose different options.
A: Was that main quests or including side quests?
J: Oh side quests as well, because even the side quests can be completed in different ways, so there’s always a lot of choice in what you can do. I find it super fascinating, because when I went home to play it with my girlfriend, she had a completely different experience to what I did.
A: Just because of different choices?
J: Yeah, we started at the same time and then 3 hours later I’m looking across at her monitor and she’s in some weird armour and a completely different place that I’ve never seen before, just because she took a slightly different path and had a very different experience. It’s very cool the way we do some of this at CD Projekt because, for instance, some fights that you may have with a character may take us months of work to get done, but you don’t have to fight them.
A: You mean like those boss fights?
J: Yeah, you know there’ll be a boss fight in the game and you go in and kill the guy… but you don’t have to kill him. You can go “No, I don’t wanna kill that guy” and the game will take a different path. In the first expansion pack there was a character called Olgierd who you could fight, but after my girlfriend finished the expansion I was like “What did you think about the Olgierd fight? I thought it was awesome,” and she was like “Oh, I never fought him… wait, you get to fight him in the game?”
A: So she just picked a passive option instead?
J: Yeah, she just picked a slightly more diplomatic option.
A: Are there many of those in the DLC?
J: Yes, yes. One of the big things that Witcher likes to do is have these options that really, really change your experience of playing the game. There’ve been other games that I’ve seen before where they let you make a choice, but then the next game, because they don’t know which choice you’ve made…
A: One of them has to be picked as canon?
J: Yeah, yeah they just do that. Whereas for us, it’s crazy how much we do that stuff. There’s a lot of work that people simply never see. I know even in Witcher 2 there’s a quest with where Geralt can go out and get drunk and gets this tattoo, and if you played that option and you load your save into the Witcher 3 and keep playing, Geralt has the tattoo. It all carries across. There’s options from Witcher 1 that can carry across to the third game and I think that people really can just start from the beginning and really follow it through as one long chain.
A: So that’s their particular thread, right.
A: What I really like about Witcher compared to other RPGs was having dialogue where you weren’t just dead-on, unmoving, facing characters in the uncanny valley.
J: Oh yeah, just standing there with a muppet jaw.
A: Yeah, exactly. A lot of animation work must go into that those sequences to make them dynamic. Do you use a lot of mocap to do that stuff?
J: Yeah, basically at CD Projekt we have our own mocap studio, so we can literally just pop downstairs and do mocap. Characters that are humanoid will generally be mocap unless they are bipedal but need to be very exaggerated, so things like the bruxa. I know she had some animations that are pretty much hand-keyed. Anything bigger than that has to be done by hand.
The cinematics are normally motion captured, but when we’re working on something a bit more monstrous like the creatures, as animators we get the model and then we need to think up how it would move and what would look best what would give it the most character so we need to know how that character works in the game to try and figure out how we’re going to visualise it and make it readable.
A: A creature like the rock ball monster, the second boss in the DLC, how long would that take from conception to completed, properly animated and scripted?
J: It could be quite a while, I mean it can literally be like months for a single character because it making the concepts, the models, the rigs, any additional technology that that character’s going to need and then we need to get the basic animations done, gameplay designers need to make the AI behaviour for the creature and then once that’s all kind of there, the base blocks are there, that’s when we work on iterating polish. Then we play it: if I can’t really dodge that attack, it was way too quick so I’m going to lessen that time just a little bit. it can take a long time, but it really depends on the character.
Some characters you nail it the first time – I worked on characters like the noonwraith for Witcher 3, kinda like this ghostly woman, her hair all floating as if it’s, underwater – I remember we worked on this and it went really well, like we pretty much did the animations and they looked at me and said that was exactly what they wanted and everything goes smoothly, whereas you do some characters and we do it the way we think it should be, but the lead gameplay designer will look at it and go “Oh, I don’t like it, it’s horrible these are the reasons why.” Normally, I’d be annoyed at that kind of thing, but any time you get that kind of feedback, it’s always good feedback. I always sit there and go “Ohhhh, you’re right, I agree and I’ll go back and change this stuff up, and it’s nice because you always end up with the best possible result, because it’s not something that just I take care of. It’s collaborative.
A: So were there any challenges with creating creatures or quests? Was there anything in particular that took a great deal of time to completely nail down?
J: I would say the final boss of the expansion, that one was a tough one. Because it’s the last expansion pack for Geralt they wanted something big and amazing to finish the game with, and we put a lot of work into this fight. I’m really, really excited to see what people think of it.
A: So it’s a point of pride for you?
J: For me personally, there are a lot of things that I worked on I’m still kind of amazed when I see this stuff and I get to see it very, very often. When you’re getting to see something day in, day out for 8 hours it can be a bit of a drag, but the kind of evolution of this fight that I’ve seen has been incredible. I’m happy that I got to work with so many talented people on that fight – I’ve learnt a lot of stuff about game design and things that actually aren’t part of my normal influence, so yeah it would definitely be that for me. We get a lot of team feedback for each sequence, we’re not really that kinda company that we just do it.
A: So it’s a group effort?
J: Even if I’m looking at something and I’m like “That’s done”, higher up the chain there’ll be someone who’ll have a better idea, “Maybe if we just tweak this change this it will be better”, and I’ve worked at companies where that kind of thing happens and it was always super annoying for me, because we’d get some really weird ideas from people and they had to go in, and I just think “Oh, you’re making a mistake with this stuff.”
I got educated very quickly about that at CD Projekt. I’ve been in the industry for 16 years but they have some really awesome people that know their shit there, so yeah, it’s nice to be part of that kind of team; we’re all very open and honest. I feel that even though I’m an animator, I get to have a say in the design of the game.
A: There’s a bit more overlap between departments?
J: Yeah. For instance, you fought a giant, how did you kill him?
A: I cross-bowed him in the face.
J: See this is what I mean, I think you’re the only person here who’s done that. Everyone else was trying to get close, trying to hit him, and I think it was actually one of the animators working on the character who said “He’s kinda got this thing on his head with his eye visible, if we just crossbow him in the eye it’d be cool if it was a one hit kill or he falls and staggers.” I’ve worked at places where you’ll come up with that idea and they’ll go “Yeah, we don’t have time for that,” or “Yeah it’s a nice idea, but you’re not a designer go back to your desk,” whereas here at CD Projekt it’s more like “Yeah, that’s a great idea, give me the assets and I’ll put it in there.” It means you have a lot more passion for your work.
A: Right, because you think of something cool that you want in the game and then there’s a bunch of people who will work with you to bring it to life.
J: Yeah, it can actually happen, and then when you actually see that stuff in game it’s like “I took part in that.” It’s a big game – lots and lots of people worked on it – but you can still kind of point to specific bits and be like “I touched the game here,” or “I improved it.”
A: So like what you were saying about the crossbow to the giant’s eye?
J: Right, there’s always multiple ways to defeat these characters but they’re not always that obvious.
A: Yeah. With the rock monster, I was stuck trying to figure out its mechanics. I finally figured out that I had to get it to hit the wall and flip itself over, but I was completely losing my mind, getting stomped by it in the middle of the arena.
J: So how did you get him to hit the wall?
A: I happened to be circling around it, and then I rolled into the wall and it followed me.
J: Because that particular monster is blind, it’s actually possible to stay really still so it can’t detect you, then you bounce a smoke bomb off the wall and watch it chase the sound.
A: I love that level of strategy. I liked that fight; it was challenging but I wasn’t completely stonewalled. I felt that I still had other things to try.
J: A lot of the guys going in tend to forget that Geralt is an incredible detective: he doesn’t just hunt monsters, he works out what they are, he works out the little clues. So things like the bruxa fight, a lot of people were struggling, because she jumps on your back and tries to suck your blood. BUT you have things like the black blood potion.
A: Which poisons her, right?
J: Exactly, so you basically poison yourself, and then she bites you. It’s not a paint-by-numbers thing – like if you don’t do this you can’t complete the fight – it’s just another option, another weapon you can use against them.
A: The graphics engine looks amazing, it’s the REDengine right? What particular enhancements did you guys make between the base game and the DLC?
J: From an animation point of view, I was happy that we got some new technology for cloth, because we have a lot of characters walking around with robes and skirts on. I know in the original Witcher when they had dresses and things, they weren’t always the best because we as animators had very little controls over that. We animated the character as if they had no skirt, and the modellers put a plain mesh there and it kind of tries to deform with the legs, whereas in the new expansion pack we have all these nice flowery dresses and things, we have the physics simulation over here and we also have bones that we can animate in the dress, so when we’re doing the animation we’re actually looking at the character as it should be. So I found as far as quality goes, it was a huge improvement to have that because it not only makes it easier for you to implement, but it makes it easier for you to make it higher quality; there’s no situation where you end up with little bits clipping, we can see that stuff in the animation and adjust accordingly. I think it works way better than what we had for Wild Hunt; I think it was especially important for characters with cloaks and capes, like the bruxa early on in the story.
A: Was there any one particular thing that required perhaps the most amount of work but delivered the most quality to the game?
J: I would have to say the environment. In Witcher 3 you have this huge world that you’re in, and then when we had the first expansion pack it still took place in that same world – it was more like small additions added onto the top of what you already had there. But for me, showing the new environment that you have in Blood and Wine it’s very, very different. I know you said that you’ve never really played Witcher before, so I guess you won’t really see the contrast. The original Witcher 3 is very dark and dirty and the land is filled with people at war, scared for their lives. The villagers you walk past, they’re frightened, and then, when you come to Toussaint, you’ve got all these people walking around very happy and in noble dress, with their chins held high – war hasn’t really touched them yet, and I think that kind of reflects across the whole environment. It’s much more colourful, much more green, much more sunny when you actually make the transition, the change is amazing.
I would say that’s the biggest thing for me: to add a whole new landscape and make it a different style. For me, that amount of work was worth it because it dripped down to every other department. For animation, for instance, we didn’t just take our animations from the Witcher 3 and map them over to these characters, because it would be out of place, it wouldn’t be consistent, these very miserable characters in this very bright and happy fairytale kind of land. I think it pushed us to rethink a lot of those things and try a slightly different way to do things. Working on Witcher 3 and the first expansion pack, we felt very good with what we were doing there, but we wanted to flex our muscles a bit and have a little more fun with this one, and I think we succeeded really well.
A: I think it really shows, because you do see the base game’s environment at the start of the DLC – lots of scared villagers hobbling about. But walking around the city of Beauclair, everyone is dressed up all fancy, walking around looking hoity-toity.
J: Exactly. A lot of developers seem to think that changing those animations is just a cosmetic thing, just a visual thing, “Why don’t we just reuse the animation that we have before and put them into that new land?” But for us, that’s not really a cosmetic thing. It’s something that makes the whole game read differently to the player, and lets them understand where they are. When villagers have a problem and they’re asking you to tackle some kind of quest, it helps you understand where they’re coming from.
A: So it’s an immersion thing.
J: Yeah, I think that kind of thing is really, really important.
A: Did you have a “most memorable moment” in the DLC? For me, I think it was working out how to kill the bruxa. Using vampire oil, black blood potion, strategic blocking and rolling, and finally succeeding. Was there a particular moment like that for you, combat or otherwise?
J: For me, it’s the little interactions – when you had Regis talking to the other vampire – that stuff I loved it in there. Regis is a character that hasn’t been in the video games before but has been in the books, so I think people will be very excited to learn that he’ll be in the game and interacting with you – he’s intertwined with the plot and you see his relationship with the other characters as they progress through the game, and as they come up to the ending.
A: And what was your particular ending? Was it gratifying?
J: The ending I had when I played was very sad for me; it was quite an emotional thing. One of the characters at the end of the game got an ending I didn’t really want for them – I wanted something a little bit happier for them. It surprised me because they were a character that I initially didn’t like very much, but they grew on me. When I first met them I was like “Ugh, ok,” and then as you start to listen to them speak and you see how they’re interacting with the other characters, they kinda won me over. I like that we have the power to do that kind of thing through dialogue, like making you care for a character and when bad things happen to a character, you feel bad because you feel somewhat responsible because your choices put them there. That’s one of the difficult things with Witcher: that you can make a choice, but you don’t necessarily know it’s the best one. Based on the information you have right now, you think this is the right thing to do, and then you learn something a bit later and then you’re like “I’ve made a big mistake.”
A: So you didn’t see this particular choice coming and it caught you unawares?
J: Yeah, I didn’t see it coming at all. I like it when a video game can surprise me. When I was younger playing video games, I didn’t really care about the story and I just wanted the action. I felt that as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to shift in the opposite direction – the action isn’t as important to me as a well told story and well rounded characters.
We’d really like to thank Jamie Bury and everyone at CDProjekt for their time, and Stephen O’Leary at Bandai Namco for allowing us the opportunity to get a look into a universe I really hadn’t set foot in before, and to be totally blown away by it.