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Interview: CD Projekt On Cyberpunk, Future Of DRM

CDP At E3, Pt 1

Featured post You'd think Future Technology would allow him to do something about those horrific forehead veins.

Don’t worry, members of Witcher‘s (thankfully not immortalized in card form) lover legion: Geralt’s not gone for good. He is, however, enjoying a bit of a vacation, and – for the foreseeable future – CD Projekt’s giving its frequently sexed up brand of swords and sorcery a break. But, on the upside, we’re now in for a change of pace. Announced late last month, Cyberpunk‘s promising a non-linear world with “advanced RPG mechanics” and “mature content.” So then, is it Witcher meets Blade Runner? Or does the on-paper description of this pen-and-paper adaption barely even begin to, well, describe it? I spoke with CD Projekt CEO Marcin Iwinski to find out. And then we also talked about DRM for some reason. 

RPS: Why did you decide on Cyberpunk for your next game? What drew you to that specific license and world? 

Iwinski: We were looking at the settings we were interested in, and obviously, Cyberpunk was something close to the hearts of a lot of people on the team. I personally didn’t play [at the time], but the bulk of the studio was playing. So when we approached  Mike Pondsmith, the team was like “Wow, we never thought we’d get to meet the creator.”

But it’s a great setting, and it allows us to build a fantastic RPG. So if you look at how we approached The Witcher, we wanted to eliminate the risks that could possibly lead to a bad game. When you’re starting a game, you need the technology, so we licensed the Aurora Engine. You have to have a setting, world, and story, so we took The Witcher books. And then we just focused on making a great game. That was already very challenging on The Witcher 1. We spent five years developing it. Then in Witcher 2, we already had our own technology, and the setting was still the well-proven Witcher world.

So for the new IP, we were looking for something that’d allow us to focus on the gameplay, on the feel of the game, and deliver a great story. So the Cyberpunk setting is great, and – most importantly – there are 44 books. That’s more than 5000 pages about it. Meanwhile, over 5 million people have played, so it’s definitely recognizable. Maybe not with all the young people, but it’s something that rings a bell.

Also, funny thing: with The Witcher, the books were published [in the US] three or four months after the release of the game. With Cyberpunk, it’s the other way around. Whenever we talk to people in the US, they’re like “Yeah! That one!” But the books have never been published in Russian.

But I think it’s a good balance for the two IPs and the two studios. Most of all, I think it’s a super exciting setting for an RPG.

RPS: This is the second time you’ve chosen to adapt a setting with a heavy literary background. And it seems like, a lot of the time, books tend to lend themselves to games better than, say, TV shows or movies.

Iwinski: [chuckles] Game of Thrones.

But yeah, when I started the company in 1994 with a friend, we first got a lot of experience on the business side of things. So we were looking at a lot of games for distribution and working with a lot of people, and what sank a lot of creations was that the world, setting, and idea were shallow. Incomplete. And if you look at The Witcher, the author spent 16 years writing it. That’s an amazing foundation. So let’s say you’re working on a game, and it’s a four-year development cycle. So you’re spending, what, a year creating the world? What’s that compared to a book by someone like George R.R. Martin? So you have a very profound, deep thing, and it’s much easier to build a game around it. Movies don’t have that.

RPS: Is there any interest at CD Projekt in breaking out of that cycle and creating wholly unique worlds – removed from someone else’s license? 

Iwinski: We definitely want to do things right. So obviously, we’re not abandoning The Witcher. We’re not talking about what’s next right now, but you can guess it’ll be happening sometime in the future. And then there’s Cyberpunk [occupying our other team]. So, for the foreseeable future, that’s what we’ll be focusing on. And these aren’t just books or – in Cyberpunk’s case – pen-and-paper games. They’re worlds. And they allow us to tell great stories with different kinds of gameplay. And we probably could’ve just stuck with The Witcher, but it’s a new setting. So it’s great for our developers who wanted to try different things. Because, for some, it’s like “How many more years will I be working on swords?” So now they can work on great guns or implants. I think that’s a good balance for us.

I’m not saying “no” [to the idea of a wholly original IP], but we’ll take probably a long time to come up with a system.

RPS: Why didn’t Cyberpunk get an E3 showing? How long has it been in development? 

Iwinski: It’s early in development. We definitely wanted to communicate to the world that we’re working on the game – obviously to see what the reaction would be like. It’s really important to gauge that. And with Cyberpunk, there’s the pen-and-paper game and there are books, but recently, there hasn’t been much happening around it. But based on people’s comments [after our announcement], people just loved the idea. We also got to announce the second team – which actually formed quite some time ago. But we’re still looking for new talent, so that was sort of the initial goal of this announcement.

But, moving forward, we’ll be showing more and revealing how things work.

RPS: Do you have any sort of timeframe for when that’ll happen?

Iwinski: By the end of the year.

RPS: So, beyond Cyberpunk proper, are there any other cyberpunk works the team is drawing heavily from in crafting the game world and story? 

Iwinski: Well, that’s definitely more of an individual thing, because obviously members of the team have their own experiences. But yeah, William Gibson’s an obvious one, and Blade Runner’s a no-brainer. I actually watched it again on the flight [to E3] just to get a feel for it. Because, you know, sometimes you have [inaccurate] memories. But I was really surprised by how close the movie was to what I had in my head. So that’s truly amazing.

It’s also a bit retro and date, so it’s not exactly like what we want to have in the game. It’s more retro-cyberpunk, and we’re going for more modern cyberpunk. But we won’t be going super far into the future.

RPS: Can you discuss any general plot or story threads at this point? Or perhaps combat?

Iwinski: No, no. Unfortunately.

RPS: OK then: DRM. Not for Cyberpunk specifically, because CD Projekt’s sworn off DRM. Meanwhile, though, Diablo III recently launched with an incredibly restrictive online policy, and it’s been having all sorts of awful, uncomfortable hiccups. But a lot of developers still seem to be convinced it’s “the way of the future.” What’s your take on that? Can they please all be wrong? I’d like that very much. 

Iwinski: I’ve been thinking about it a lot in general. With Diablo, we were discussing it a lot internally. Actually, we’re going to be the Polish distributor of Diablo III. We’re launching it soon. And so, with Diablo III, people complain [about DRM] on forums and things, but they still go out and buy it. And I’m one of those people. [laughs]

Yes, it probably could’ve been done differently. I wasn’t working on the game, so I don’t know exactly how. But your character is stored online and you can jump right into multiplayer. Maybe if that was better explained to users, [there’d be less of a negative reaction]. But what I’d do, I’d make the single-player part offline. It’s as simple as that. Then people would be happier.

But people ask if I think there’s a “right” copy protection for games, and my answer is simple: the protection is the experience. So if you want to eliminate piracy and go online, make it work. But yeah, I think a lot of companies – a lot of people in the industry – they want to put their worlds and experiences online because it enhances the life cycle of the product and people spend more time with it. That’s where the industry’s going, and we can already see it at this show. A lot of online games with lots of people talking about DLC.

And, whether we like it or not, it’ll probably go this way. I feel that there’s still a place for offline single-player experiences, but there’s more and more people who want to play online. So they’ll get what they want. And this will be, on the business level, a much better concept to monetize. Because, whatever single-player game you release and whatever protection you put on it, it will be cracked. It will be pirated.

I was always saying that Blizzard’s the best innovator in terms of protecting their game. Diablo II – in our experience in distributing it in Poland – is one of the best-selling games ever. People still buy it today, and it’s mid-priced. It’s not even budget yet – after 10 or 11 years, because people still want to be part of Battle.net. And it worked because you could play the game offline, and then you could go online. It was the perfect medium.

Check back tomorrow for part two, which is mostly about, er, nakedness!

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