CD Projekt Red's The Witcher is one of the great Western RPG series in recent memory.
Blending a thought-provoking "shades of grey" sense of morality with some strong characterization and deep, mature storytelling, the previous two games remain, despite a few flaws, some of the best, most "grown-up" entries in the RPG genre.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is set to bring some big changes to the series, though, most notably the shift to an open-world structure rather than the hub-based approach of the previous two games. Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz, lead quest designer on the new installment, took to the stage at Eurogamer Expo to explain the challenges this new structure presented the studio -- along with the benefits it brought to the experience as a whole.
The presentation didn't show much in the way of actual gameplay from the new title, but it did explain how CD Projekt Red is planning to tackle three of the most common problems in open-world games: how to give the story a sense of dynamic pacing in an open world; how to maintain a complex, multi-layered narrative in a huge world; and how to avoid repetition as much as possible.
To the first point, Tomaszkiewicz highlighted one of gamers' biggest bugbears in games of this type: running long distances to see little more than a single cutscene or complete a single objective. There's also a frustrating issue from a design perspective with open-world games: designers can't predict the route that players will take to get from A to B, so it becomes difficult to incorporate relevant events on the journey.
The team's solution to this particular issue is what Tomaszkiewicz called "event clusters" -- essentially, a chain of interrelated events that are tied to a particular region. By structuring the game in this way, you'll find that any time you have to travel a long distance, there will be plenty of things to see and do when you arrive; you shouldn't find yourself doing fetch quests all over the map.
This concept is vaguely similar to how MMOs group appropriately-levelled content all in the same place, though in The Witcher 3's case, content is linked by region rather than level. You'll find smaller sidequests and minor events out in the open wilderness between the main "clusters," of course, but upon arriving at one of these dedicated regions, they'll have their own unfolding sub-stories to explore, with the choices you make throughout helping determine how they pan out.
To the second point on pacing, Tomaskiewicz noted that there were several concerns: firstly, that too many sidequests and activities distract from the main storyline; secondly, that the more things that are going on, the harder it becomes to remember dependencies and connections between characters and factions.
The team's solution to this problem is twofold: firstly, the player is presented with regular "attractive reminders," as Tomaszkiewicz calls them, including animated, narrated storybooks and flashback sequences that highlight your previous choices and their consequences, much like in the previous two games. Secondly, the team has taken great pains to give important NPCs distinctive, unique appearances and dialogue as well as ensuring they play an active role in the story rather than just standing around waiting for you to bring them five animal carcasses or whatever.
The third challenge was to ensure that the game featured unique quests in a vast empty space. Tomaszkiewicz and his team have attempted to tackle this by ensuring that there is a wide variety of quest types, ranging from monster hunting challenges like those found in The Witcher 2 to minigame-based quests. Tomaszkiewicz says he and his team have tried to make sure that there are memorable elements in each quest, trying to avoid filler as much as possible.
Tomaszkiewicz sees an open world as a tool for increasing immersion rather than a goal in its own right. The team is keen to keep the qualities of the previous games while transplanting gameplay to the freeform exploration of an open world. The use of event clusters sounds like each major region in the game will be treated similarly to the main, walled-off quest hubs of the earlier games -- the main difference being that at any point if you want to set forth on a journey of exploration into the wilderness, you can do.
The Witcher 3 is set for release in 2014 on PS4, Xbox One and PC, and Tomaszkiewicz says the team is aiming for the game to work as "evenly" as possible across all three platforms; next-gen versions are reportedly very early in development at present, however. He also notes that fans of modding the game on PC will likely find themselves with a new incarnation of the RedKit software much sooner after release than they did for The Witcher 2.
For the latest on The Witcher 3, check out the official site.