Designing the World of ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’

One of the most celebrated games of 2015 stars one of the medium's greatest open worlds. We spoke to one of its creators.

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maj 24 2016, 7:43am

The game's protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, looks out over a Velen landscape

This article complements VICE's Open Worlds video series, and is made possible by NVIDIA. Watch the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt episode, with record-breaking explorer and wilderness expert Alex Hibbert, here.

CD Projekt RED's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt rightly made off with a great many of 2015's gaming awards, not least of all the honour of overall Game of the Year at December's mega-profile Game Awards in Los Angeles, ahead of Fallout 4 and Metal Gear Solid V. The Polish studio spent a lot of time researching real-world European locations to inspire their game's incredible vistas, from the snow-capped peaks of the Skellige Islands and treacherous swamps of Velen to the stinking gutters of Novigrad and ruined splendour of Kaer Morhen.

Ahead of the forthcoming game expansion Blood and Wine, one of the dev team, environment artist Kacper Niepokólczycki, spoke to us about how CDPR brought this most alluring, yet incredibly dangerous, of video gaming open worlds into existence.

The hangman tree, or the hanged man tree, screenshot by Andy Kelly

VICE: When making the world for The Witcher 3, what parts of the real world were you looking at for inspiration, and how close to the various parts of what we see in the game correlate with those places? I know you went to Scotland, and I can see that – but there's also plenty of other "wilderness" in there. Where did that come from?
Kacper Niepokólczycki: I mostly worked on (the swampy and rural) Velen, and the main theme there was desperation, hunger and hopelessness. It was a land devastated by a long war – people were desperate to find anything to eat and to sustain themselves. Many were struggling after losing their loved ones. When the player enters that hub, we wanted to evoke these kind of emotions, so the first thing you see there is the hangman tree, which, I think, sells the idea pretty well.

As far as referencing real world parts, Velen is heavily based on Polish villages and the surrounding countryside. Woods, swamps, castles – we have it all. It would be super hard for me to give you exact locations we used for references, though, because we used a lot.

We never tried to copy any real place 1:1 in our game, as that wouldn't feel right, I think – Wild Hunt is a fantasy game, after all. References are there to give us ideas and inspirations, but the actual locations in the game are creations by our great artists. What was paramount to creating any location was gameplay, flow and level design – real-life locations are not supposed to "support gameplay", if you know what I mean, so you can't transfer them to the game verbatim.

We also used the look and feel of previous games in The Witcher series. For example, (the Witcher's castle of) Kaer Morhen – many gamers were super excited to go back there after the original The Witcher of 2007, which gave us very strong base to build a new and improved fortress, and the whole hub itself.

The hunting, the foraging, the searching for supplies in the game is aided by the hero Geralt's Witcher senses – items glow, yellow or red. Can you imagine the game without this system? If you didn't have the items glowing, how else might Geralt have found what he's looking for?
I'm not the kind of guy who enjoys using helpers while playing games, so when there is a possibility to turn those off, I do it right away. Here, in Wild Hunt, while role-playing as Geralt I really enjoy it. I understand that he is an augmented mutant with his superhuman senses. Thanks to that, we developed a system that helps the player to find their goals faster.

Please keep in mind that this is an open-world game, of course; the quest areas are often very obvious, but still, it would be super frustrating for the player to be walking and checking every tombstone on the cemetery for instance, or walking around Novigrad looking for correct doors. First of all, the game has to be fun. Witcher senses help the game to be fun. The fact that those senses fit right into this fantasy world also helps. Plus, in my opinion, quest designers are using Witcher senses very wisely. Quest variety with this feature is an advantage, very often with a twist, rather than just simple show what to do and where to go.

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When it came to placing supplies around the game, was there a system in place for where certain plants might grow in relation to the quest that needed them, or where animals or monsters would spawn? How much is going on behind the scenes of the game to keep its world populated by everything but people?
Populating the open world of the game is a very complex process. Take herbs, for example – many of them were planted to match their natural environmental needs. For example, some plants are growing near a body of water, or even underwater, while others might be found on top of mountains, or in the middle of a meadow. This system works great, and when players realise that there's a pattern to it, they might try to predict what kind of herbs can be found where. What's more, monsters are spawned in a similar fashion. Drowners are always near water, in swampy areas, while Nekkers spawn in forests, and Griffins nest in high mountains.

Geralt doesn't actually eat to survive in the game, just to restore HP lost in combat. Is that something you could add in – or maybe it already exists in a mod? Or would that be maddening for players, to stop a quest to search for nuts and berries every few hours, to stave off hunger?
I have no knowledge of a mod doing that, but there might be one. Doing things as they are was a conscious design decision, as the game is not a survival simulator – it's a storytelling experience set within an open world. Continuously performing repetitive tasks like eating would, in my opinion, hamper that experience.

Related, on Motherboard: War Is Hell, and 'The Witcher 3' Gets It

The sprawling city of Novigrad, the largest settlement in 'The Witcher 3'

The game is full of amazing sights, incredible vistas – the ship on the mountain in "The Last Wish" mission is just breath taking. What's your favourite "view" in the game, or maybe you have a few?
As you mentioned, Wild Hunt has huge variety of landscapes. Every hub was created with general theme to it, but also was planned to be unique and easily recognizable by the player. There are also the books, by Andrzej Sapkowski, which gave us solid base for our work. Still, it was a huge challenge to make this super dense and believable world.

Since I worked mostly on Velen, also known as No Man's Land, I'm really proud of how it looks like. However, Skellige was my love at first sight – every inch is just so beautiful. Just go to Kaer Trolde and check out the view there! The ship you've mentioned, in "The Last Wish", is also in Skellige of course. There's a great feeling of space and distance, sometimes it's even overwhelming. Also, I really love Kaer Morhen. My favourite view here is to look at the fortress from one of the mountains. When it's a little bit darker and the rain starts to drop, it's epic. And then there's the hangman tree in Velen, which is a very creepy sight.

Blood and Wine, the second and final story expansion for The Witcher 3, is released on May the 31st.

@MikeDiver

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