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Mike Pondsmith Talks Reinventing Cyberpunk

Making The Future Futurier

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Mike Pondsmith is a busy man. So busy, admittedly, that he was only able to exchange words via the cold, unfeeling cyber-pigeon communication medium that is email. Which, I suppose, is kind of fitting given the subject matter, but I generally try to avoid it. Still though, I was able to at least extract some details about Pondsmith’s place in CD Projekt’s massive Cyberpunk 2077 puzzle, especially in regards to world development and what makes a videogame “cyberpunk” to begin with. For example, Deus Ex? Not cyberpunk, says Pondsmith. All that and more after the break.

Whether due to legally binding contracts or a lack of regard for the medium, some creators will let just about anyone adapt their bouncing baby brainspawn into games. But not Mike Pondsmith. He’s been trying to find Cyberpunk a loving virtual home for years, but – by and large – his search has just been a series of sobering false starts.

“The only one that was outstanding was a cellphone-based game done in the mid 2000’s by a Spanish company called Arasaka’s Quest,” he explained to RPS. “It really got the feel. Many of the other attempts died when the developers couldn’t pull together enough funding, or pull off the technology, or more importantly, made it pretty clear from the outset that they didn’t know the Cyberpunk world and pretty much just wanted to paste the name on something else they had in development.”

So then, what exactly made CD Projekt different? Well, while I imagine a certain silver-haired, not-so-silver-tongued monster slayer’s monetary contributions didn’t hurt, Pondsmith claims that CDP just got it. Mostly, anyway.

“Cyberpunk 2020 is about key places, characters and technologies,” he said. “You have to have characters like Morgan, Johnny Silverhand and Alt’; they’re fan faves that have generated tons of fan fiction. You can’t have Cyberpunk 2020 without the evil ninja-corp Arasaka and it’s paranoid corporate heads. Places like the Afterlife; the Forlorn Hope – these are the sites where a million adventures started in so many player’s own games. CD Projekt’s team are fans, and they get that these things are important; that they make Cyberpunk what it is. They remember things I’ve forgotten about my own world sometimes.”

“As for shooting down [ideas proposed by CD Projekt]: yeah, in the beginning, there were a few ideas that came out of left field, but we all got zeroed in pretty fast on what we all wanted, and it’s been pretty solid ever since.”

That alone, however, makes this a pretty huge change of pace for CD Projekt, given that the Witcher games were separated from the Witcher books long before birth. But Pondsmith is by no means being kept at grotesque scythe arm’s length. Well, OK, Poland is – by the standard Grotesque Scythe Arm measurement system – a pretty decent number of GSAs away, but CDP and Pondsmith are doing everything in their power to bridge the gap.

“I’m actually pretty involved in 2077,” Pondsmith said. “I’ve been part of the story and dev conferences both on-site and via the net. I get over to Poland about every 5-6 months and spend at least a week there meeting and talking to the whole team. I see the updates when they get posted and I talk to the whole team at least once a week in long Skype meetings where we cover mechanics, concepts, plots, dumb ideas – you name it.”

“My task has been to extrapolate what has happened since the 4th Corporate War in 2024 all the way up to the 2077 timeline. The biggest issue is explaining how the technology has not evolved far more than 50 years would actually allow. I’ve been working this out as a videogame for years, actually. I sometimes consider my time on Matrix Online as a good prep for this project, but [Cyberpunk owner] R.Tal was actually involved in an official Cyberpunk 2020 MMO back in the late 90’s, and we had to work out many of the issues back then. We have tons more tools to work with now, and the ability to make sandbox worlds that accurately reflect the elements of tabletop game play.”

And that, in all honesty, might be the biggest weapon in Pondsmith and CDP’s arsenal: real game design savvy on both sides of the equation. While it’s (at best) a one-way street for most adaptations, this one was technically a game from the get-go. So naturally, Pondsmith loves games of all sorts. But being a good game and a good cyberpunk game are two very different things in his eyes. He explained:

“I played the original Deus Ex and enjoyed it a lot. Warren Spector is a master at layering complex plots and inferences. But Deus Ex always felt more like a conspiracy game than a cyberpunk game to me. Mirror’s Edge is great, but too clean. System Shock and Oni [from Bungie] are also good. Perfect Dark. Ghost in the Shell. Matrix. And Grand Theft Auto 3 is basically cyberpunk minus the hardware.”

“In the end, there has to be the right atmosphere. All echoes and dark city caverns. The right level of engagement. A world of human scaled characters fighting inhuman organizations, using technology to level to odds – but not to become supermen.”

And, given that he sort of helped birth the gaming side of this entire genre, he probably knows better than most. That in mind, I suppose he’s had every right to be incredibly picky in selecting a team to rewire Cyberpunk for our discerning cyberbrains. So, in their own way, his closing comments were quite heartening – if maybe not even the slightest bit impartial.

“I’ve seen a lot of the tools that CDP will use in 2077,” Pondsmith concluded. “There’s a staggering amount of potential there to pull this off.”

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