Success, Ambition And The Witcher 3 – An Interview With CD Projekt RED
It’s mid-afternoon in an upstairs conference room at the Bradford Animation Festival, and Tomasz Zawada of CD Projekt RED is entertaining me with anecdotes about the company’s rather unusual after-work activities.
“Sometimes you’ll come out of the office on an evening, and you’ll hear metal clashing against metal – and then you see staff fighting with giant medieval swords!” he laughs. “There’s a lot of sword-fighting that goes on after hours.
“It’s a crazy and creative company. There’s stuff going on to make the environment a lot more enjoyable. It’s an awesome atmosphere.”
If the recent fortunes of the fast-rising Polish developer are anything to go by, then perhaps more game companies should consider a bit of extra-curricular sabre-rattling.
The first two installments in the firm’s Witcher series have sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, with the compelling RPGs also receiving widespread critical acclaim.
Given this, it’s inevitable that there should be a huge amount of buzz surrounding the rumoured third outing for the series. Equally inevitable, unfortunately, is the wall of silence that greets any inquisitions into the status of the project.
Indeed, Zawada refuses to formally acknowledge the existence of The Witcher 3. But he will say that he’s currently hard at work on a “dark fantasy game” – and it’s definitely not CD Projekt RED’s upcoming open-world title Cyberpunk 2077.
So, it’s The Witcher 3 right?
“I really can’t tell you anything,” he laughs, knowingly. “Honestly, I can’t say.”
Hypothetically however, the lead animator is happy to state his enthusiasm for a return to Geralt of Rivia’s adventures.
“Assuming there is a next game,” he smiles, “then I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be even better. The team at CD Projekt RED is getting stronger all the time.
“We want to do a similar game, but improve it. We are focused on our fans.”
Indeed, if it’s one thing that Zawada is most keen to emphasise during our conversation, it’s how much importance his company places on engaging with fans – and making sure that they’re well catered for.
It’s certainly a strategy that’s paid off in the goodwill stakes. Earlier this year, CD Projekt RED had the 4chan community defending them against online pirates, after they dropped all use of DRM measures and a targeted letter campaign against those who had illegally obtained games.
Zawada believes that it’s important to put fans before profits, and not the other way round.
“Some companies put profit before fans, and what they create is something that’s an empty shell,” he says. “You look at it from the outside and it’s awesome visually and everything is polished, but when you look deeper there’s something lacking inside.
“When you do something from the heart you put a lot of emotions into it, and even if you can’t polish it to the same amount it still has soul. CD Projekt RED puts fans before profit, and when you do that the profits will follow anyway.
“For me, the number one aim when making a game is to connect with fans. There’s a strong Witcher community, and we always engage with people on forums and discussions. We really care about what fans have to say.
“There’s a topic right now on a Polish forum, about: ‘What do you want to see in The Witcher 3?’. We’re definitely paying attention to that.”
As the head of the animation team who worked on The Witcher 2, Zawada admits he was overwhelmed by the popular response to that game.
“How do I describe the feeling with words? After the release of Witcher 2 there was an incredible buzz and sense of excitement around the company.
“When I finished playing the game myself, I had tears in my eyes – just to see my work as part of it. The story was so engaging.
“When we started receiving prizes I wasn’t surprised, because I felt it was one of the best games I’d ever played.
“Having said that, if I was making Witcher 2 again there are some technical problems I would fix. The door system for example: I know it was bad because it was so fucking annoying when I was playing it through!”
Zawada also claims he was unsatisfied with his work on a certain giant, tentacled water monster.
“I didn’t like the ‘Kayran’,” he explains. “I didn’t feel like it fit into the world of The Witcher. The idea is that all the creatures have to appear like they could exist in the real world. So big monsters are large, but not crazily huge.
“But the Kayran evolved into something much, much bigger. And I don’t think it fits. The animation process was painful as well. It was very difficult. In God Of War, the whole engine is designed around creatures like that – but ours wasn’t.
“There’s this idea that bigger is better in games. I’m not a fan of that.”
That said, he remains proud of his work animating the dragon for a particularly intense sequence involving running between burning buildings – and is most fond of the highly aggravating ‘Nekkers’.
“They’re my favourite ‘children’ in the game. My idea was to get them to act like slightly goofy creatures, but they’re actually really aggressive and dangerous at the same time – so they’re misleading and a nasty surprise for the player.”
Growing up in the mountain town of Ustron in Poland, Zawada’s love-affair with games and animation began at an early age, with his ‘DIY’ approach to making his own entertainment standing him in good stead.
“When I was a kid, we were poor and we didn’t have many toys,” he explains. “So me and my brothers decided to make our own. We took a piece of paper, drew a house side-on so you could see all the levels, and then we made cut-outs of people and moved them around in the house.
“That was like a really primitive variation on an RPG game. And when I started animating, I had the same feeling as when I was a kid making that game.”
Impressively, Zawada has no formal training in animation whatsoever, and is completely self-taught.
“I’m actually a carpenter!” he reveals. “I worked as a carpenter for a year after I left school, and then I started doing animation.
“That’s the reason why I don’t feel you have to have education and experience to do animation. For me, passion and talent is the most important thing. When I see companies asking for qualifications, it’s weird for me.”
His first job involved making cut-scenes for first-person shooter Painkiller, before he then moved onto work at a company that provided ultimately joyless employment – an experience which kick-started his search for more interesting and meaningful work.
“At the company I was at before, I felt empty,” he explains. “They focused on making profit, and forgot about the actual games they were making. They looked at which games were selling the best, and tried to make clones of them.
“What’s great about CD Projekt RED is that they actually want to revolutionise genres. That’s exactly why I wanted to move here - and that’s what made me fall in love with this place. This company is very ambitious.”
That level of ambition can clearly be seen in the developer’s recently-announced PC and next-gen project Cyberpunk 2077, an open-world sandbox game that takes place in a night-time sci-fi city environment.
“There will be a crazy amount of items, weapons and gadgets – like flying drones and cameras,” says Zawada.
“I’m not working on it personally, but I’m very excited about it. The team are aiming to build a world that evolves over time.
“There will be a lot of character development, with RPG elements similar to The Witcher 2, and a non-linear story. That’s something fans loved about Witcher, and we’re going to continue to do games where you can change the events that happen.”
Zawada says he fell in love with the original Grand Theft Auto as a child because it was “an amazing open world where you can do anything”, and this love of ‘world-building’ directly feeds into his enthusiasm for RPG games.
“For me, RPGs are the ultimate because you’re creating an entire world. In the case of the Witcher games, it’s not just visual either – you’re creating people and politics.
“There are things I really love about the Witcher world. I love all the monsters, and the visual design of the creatures. I love the fact that it’s adult: there’s sex, and violence, and political elements.”
It sounds like CD Projekt RED are as excited about a return to that world as they’re fast-growing fanbase. Not that they’re admitting to making that trip just yet, of course…
This interview took place at the National Media Museum, UK, on the first day of BAF Game during the Bradford Animation Festival. For more information about the festival, visit the official website.