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What have The Witcher 4 or "Polaris" team learned from Cyberpunk 2077? Test on console early and avoid crunch

CD Projekt engineer reflects on development and looks to the future

Geralt prepares to fight guards in a The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt screenshot.
Image credit: CD Projekt Red

CD Projekt RED's Colin Walder, engineering director for management and audio, has shared a few thoughts on how the Polish developer's next Witcher RPG, codenamed Polaris, will improve on the cataclysmic development of Cyberpunk 2077. There's not a lot to share at this stage, of course, but what there is sounds like a step in the right direction.

Speaking at the Inven Game Conference in Pangyo, South Korea, Walder opened with some reflections on Cyberpunk 2077's notoriously rocky creation, which he summarised as a series of headlong races to hit various milestones (you can't have a "rocky" creation without "milestones", after all - haha, I slay myself). "We had these series of demos, 2018, 2019, the E3 demos, and then the 2020 release," Walder said. "Every time we delivered something, it was intense. It was always like, 'Okay, how are we going to do this?' And then, somehow, we achieved that."

"This isn't just something that happened at CD Projekt," he added. "It's been throughout my whole career." Game development is uneven at the best of times, he noted. "No one can predict everything that's going to happen until it actually happens, and then you can see it, right? Then you can really face it, and hindsight is always better for being able to say, 'Okay, this went wrong because of XYZ, so let's make some changes.'"

So what changes are CD Projekt making with the new Witcher game, whatever it's called? "It's about ensuring we're on top of certain things from the start," Walder explained. "Take consoles, for example; we need to make sure they're functioning from the get-go. For our next project, Polaris, we're already running our demos and internal reviews on the console from the very beginning. This is a step we only took later in Cyberpunk's development."

Notwithstanding Walder's thoughts about gamedev always being rather up-and-down, CD Projekt are also trying to ensure that future projects aren't reliant on those spikes of overwork. The development of Cyberpunk 2077's larger updates and the recent Phantom Liberty expansion were a process of earning back the trust of an exhausted and demotivated development team.

"The morale took a significant hit; that's clear," Walder said. "The crucial thing was to acknowledge what happened. We had to admit that the outcome wasn't what we'd hoped for and that we were determined to change things. But it's one thing to say it; it has to be put into practice, you know? Actions speak louder than words."

CD Projekt have learned not to impose hard deadlines in the wake of the Cyberpunk 2077 launch fallout, Walder went on. "You've got to demonstrate commitment. For instance, when a deadline is looming, instead of reverting to crunch, we might say, 'Let's adjust the schedule,' or, 'Let's approach this differently.' Once this becomes a repeated behavior - once the team sees a genuine effort to prevent crunch - that's when trust and morale start to rebuild. People need to see it to believe it."

To what degree all this captures the current mood at CD Projekt remains to be seen. There was palpable relief and a sense of final redemption from individual CD Projekt developers on social media in the wake of positive reactions to Phantom Liberty. But CD Projekt continue to have a strained relationship with certain staff, or at least, with the ones they haven't laid off. Earlier this month, team members formed a new union to fight against unfair dismissal and exploitative working conditions, noting that "passion can be easily exploited, leading to long working hours, lower pay, and eventually, burning out". It sounds like Walder and other higher-ups still have work to do.

If you're hungry for more Witcher, there's a lot of it on the boil. Project Polaris is but the first of a trilogy of new games. The other Witcher projects include Project Sirius, a pitch to existing fans and newcomers, which sounds to me like a standalone unnumbered spin-off with novel mechanics. And then there's Project Canis Majoris, a story-driven single player open world RPG like The Witcher 3, which is being created by a third party studio.

Elsewhere in the interview, Walder took a few moments to gallop around on one of his personal hobby-horses, videogame audio, which he feels was "somewhat overlooked" by players and critics in the dark old days of PS360.

"Audio seamlessly underpins our experiences, constantly present, constantly shaping our emotions and perceptions," Walder observed. "We never 'blink' our ears; our auditory processing never inherently pauses, unlike our visual focus, which is periodically interrupted by blinking. This constant stream makes sound a subtly influential force.

"When we excel in our sound design, the cues are often subliminal," he went on. "For instance, a common indicator I look for in reviews or comments is when someone mentions how a gun 'feels' powerful. They might not explicitly recognize it, but they're partially referring to the sound. It's an aspect of the experience that they've internalized, even if they can't specifically pinpoint it."

There are some fun titbits in there about the acoustic intricacies of Cyberpunk and The Witcher 3. Did you know one of the Blood and Wine DLC bosses attacked in time with the music? I didn't.

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