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'The Witcher': From Zero to Success

The Polish Tolkien didn't expect this success at all.

Magic, alchemy, monsters, and a charismatic main character. The Witcher is the most critically acclaimed video game. The series so far counts three main games, a couple of mobile games, and some flash-based browser games.

The main story that inspired it, comes from the pen of Andrzej Sapkowski, or “the Polish Tolkien” as someone may call him. 

It all began in 1985, Sapkowski was a traveling salesman dealing in furs. He was 38 years old, had a degree in economics, and spoke many languages. Andrzej was a big fan of fantasy novels, and he devoured a lot of books while he traveled. So, as you may understand, writing books was not his first shot in life. But that same year, he entered a short story competition issued by the Polish magazine Fantastyka. According to Andrzej, he did it without an apparent reason. He just knew that he wanted to shake the Polish public with a different kind of story. The only problem was that he had only 30 pages to do so.

Sapkowski decided then, to reinvent a Polish fairytale, and make it real. He thought about the Polish story of the poor cobbler who kills a dragon. The cobbler achieves what warriors could not by tricking the dragon into eating a lamb stuffed with sulphur. The dragon drinks so much water from the nearby river in an effort to calm the raging fire in its belly, he pops. He thought poor cobblers cannot defeat dragons, they just make good shoes. He then thought about Soldiers and Knights, but in his opinion, they were not exactly so bright. In the end, he thought that in order to defeat a dragon, you need a professional. So Andrzej invented one, Geralt of Rivia, one of a few monster hunters who have supernatural powers, known as Witchers.

Initially, the story was called Wiedzmin, (later on, it was translated into The Witcher by the developing studio CD Projekt Red) and sent the manuscript to the magazine. He waited one year to know he won third place. In his opinion, he would have won the first place if fantasy novels had a better reputation in Poland. In fact, back then, fantasy in Poland was considered something only problematic children would read.

However, the public liked The Witcher so much they wanted more. Sapkowski never intended to write a sequel to his short story, but the fans were so demanding he decided to give it a shot. So, he wrote more short stories that were published in two books: Sword of Destiny in 1992 and The Last Wish in 1993.

The support for The Witcher grew more and more, so the author did something nobody ever did in Poland before: he decided to write a fantasy saga. Nobody back then believed that a publisher could put a Polish surname on a book and sell it. But SuperNowa did, and in 1994, the first book in The Witcher Saga was released: Blood of Elves.

Sapkowski did not want anyone to wait for more than one year for a new story, so he published a book every year, and in 1999 The Witcher Saga was complete. 

Adrian Chmielarz, the developer known for Bulletstorm and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, loved the story written by the Polish Tolkien. So, he wrote him a letter saying he wanted to develop a game based on his Novel, and Sapkowski agreed. Adrian Chmielarz worked for Metropolis Software at the time, and after a small back and forth of the studio with Andrzej, they finally signed the license.

So, in 1996 and 1997 Metropolis Software was officially developing a Witcher video game, a 3D action-adventure video game with role-playing elements, and experience points. The game was intended for adults, because of the complex psychology of the characters.

According to Adrian Chmielarz, the visuals were the most important part of the game, and he said that they were quite impressive for the time.

The project, however, was proceeding slowly, because Metropolis Software was involved in several other projects at the time. Adrian said that only 15 people were working in that studio back then, so it was difficult to manage such a big project while developing three other games.

The Witcher by Metropolis Software got as far as signing a publisher, TopWare, and releasing screenshots to the press. The game was forgotten for one year when the first playable character was made. However, the studio was developing Gorky 17, and they were behind with it, so the team was re-purposed and The Witcher was forgotten again. Adrian Chmielarz left Metropolis Software in 1999, and the game never came out.

The project, though, was never officially cancelled.

Since the game was not meant to be, in 2003, CD Projekt Red got in touch with Sapkowski, and negotiated the rights of the novel, not offering a great amount of money, but the author accepted. The deal was that the Studio could develop a game based on the novel written by Sapkowski, but with a completely new story.

After they got the rights CD Projekt Red did not really know what to do next, because they had no idea how to develop The Witcher.

Sebastian Zieliński took over the developing team, and in one year, the Studio had the first demo ready. According to them, it was not so good. The first business trip with the demo was not successful, after two weeks of meetings the Studio received a negative answer.

CD Projekt Red relocated to Warsaw and Sebastian Zieliński decided he did not want to be part of the team anymore.

After that, Michal Kiciński took over development and BioWare helped out with their engine Aurora. Also, BioWare offered an E3 stand space to the game, if the demo was good enough. And this time, the demo was so good that The Witcher was noticed by Jade Empire in 2004.

CD Projekt Red initially predicted that the game would take 15 people to make, but it actually ended up by taking 100 people, five years to make, and cost an unprecedented 20 million Polish Złoty (the equivalent of around £12-£16 million). Most importantly, that was all the money the studio had.

Poland had no game developers to fill the team with, and CD Projekt Red had no international pull to entice people from overseas. So people from all walks of life with a passion for games, and trying something new were converted instead. They did not know what they were doing, they were just learning on the job. The team had a lot of ideas, and thanks to that, the game had more than 100 hours of gameplay, even if it was cut three times.

Atari was the publisher with the best deal, and in 2007 CD Projekt Red released for PC the major success everybody knows, The Witcher.

The game is an action-role play video game in which the player is able to make choices as part of the storyline, but they have time-delayed consequences and no black and white morality.

The game, however, had some localisation issues. In the US release version, all the female portrait cards unlocked after every intimate encounter were censored, and the in-game Dryad was re-skinned so her hair covered more of her body.

In the non-Polish-language versions, some dialogues between characters are shortened. In the beginning, it was said that this decision was because of the crude language. Later, writer Sande Chen confirmed that the decision had nothing to do with censorship. Fans believe that it may have been done to save on voice acting costs.

At the Game Developers Conference 2008, CD Projekt Red announced an enhanced version of the game with over 200 new animations, additional NPC models, and recoloring of generic NPC models as well as monsters, vastly expanded and corrected dialogues in translated versions, improved stability, redesigned inventory system, and load times reduced by roughly 80 percent. There were also two new adventures available: Side Effects and The Prince Of Neutrality. The Enhanced Edition was released in September 2008, and it also contained a “making of” DVD, and a CD with in-game soundtracks, a CD with “Inspired by” music, the story The Witcher from the book The Last Wish, a map of Temeria printed on high-quality paper, and the official strategy guide. In addition, a new and enhanced version of the D'jinni Adventure Editor is on the DVD with the two new Adventures. The game updates, as well as the extras, are available as a free download for owners of the original version who registered their game on the official forum.

The Enhanced Edition required a $1 million investment, and the company delivered 300,000 copies of the retail version worldwide.

A special version for North America was released in July 2009, the Director’s Cut. It is identical to the Enhanced Edition, but without the censorship applied to the North American version.

This first title of the video game series received mostly positive reviews. The cumulative score stands 81 out of 100 on Metacritic. The cinematic intro of The Witcher was nominated for the 2007 VES Awards in the category of Outstanding Pre-Rendered Visuals in a Video Game and the game's soundtrack was voted "Best Fantasy Game Soundtrack" in the 2007 Radio Rivendell Fantasy Awards.

The game was so successful that book publishers decided to print the books again, but with game-related images. Unfortunately, the author of the original books was not so pleased about it.

Due to the rising of consoles, Atari wanted to publish the game also on PS3 and XBOX 360. So, on November 2008, a video covering the console version of the game was released on the Internet, The Witcher White Wolf. However CD Projekt Red could not completely develop the game, so they split the job with a French studio, Widescreen Games.

Atari gave the money to pay Widescreen Games and it was officially confirmed that a version for PS3 and XBOX 360 with a completely new engine and combat system, was about to be released.

But, after five months CD Projekt Red started to have problems with the French studio. They gave dozens of developers to help them out. However, they had more and more problems with Widescreen Games, and a lot of money was being invested in the project. After a meeting, CD Projekt Red decided to terminate the collaboration with the French studio and to develop another game. The project was officially shut down in April 2009.

Atari was not happy about it, and they asked CD Projekt Red to give them back all the money spent on the project.

Marcin Iwiński flew to New York to negotiate with Atari and ended up signing over North America rights to The Witcher 2, years before the game was made. Atari thought that it would be enough to repay the debts for White Wolf. Everything related to the console title was thrown in the bin.

Back then, CD Projekt Red was working on two projects at the same time: The Witcher 2 and The Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3 was a background project to build an engine that would work with consoles, because the engine by BioWare (Aurora) did not, and the studio wanted to develop games mainly for consoles. However, CD Projekt Red decided to scrap The Witcher 3, and use the engine they made for The Witcher 2. There was just one problem: the engine was not complete yet, and the development of the game was done blind, with nothing to test or prototype on.

The second title of the video game series took half the time that its predecessor did, even though the project was as ambitious, and with an engine to build as well. The developers had to cut an entire location, The Valley of the Flowers, a land of elves, and they had to cut short the third act of the game, because they were running out of time.

When they finally released the sequel The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, it had even more success than The Witcher. It won over 50 awards for best graphics, best adaptation, best story, best PC game, best RPG, and Game of The Year.

The game was released in May 2011 for Windows. In 2012, the studio was able to make it to the world of consoles, and released a version for XBOX 360 (since the engine was not optimized for PS3) and OS X. The Linux version arrived in 2014.

It sold over 1.7 million copies by May 2012. Both The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings sold over 8 million copies by September 2014. This game propelled CD Projekt Red into the big league.

Critics mostly praised combat mechanics and combat difficulty. Compared to the previous title, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is much more complex, with additions in the form of abilities to lay traps and aim and throw ranged weapons. Geralt had an improved offensive and defensive arsenal, with more melee and ranged weapons, armour, bombs, traps, and secondary weapons. According to the critics, the game was a technical triumph.

After this second success, CD Projekt Red decided that they wanted to develop an open world game, bigger than the other two, with an astonishing story and great graphics. But the old-gen could not fit into that since they would have had to sacrifice too much, so they decided to wait.

When the right time came, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was announced and the release was supposed to be on the third quarter of 2014. However, since the game was much bigger than The Witcher and The Witcher 2 Assassins of Kings, CD Projekt Red had to delay the release to February 2015.

The Polish studio self-funded a budget of 81 billion dollars over three years and a half. The project started with 150 people, but soon they realized they would need much more employees, growing to over 250 in-house staff. Around 1500 people were involved in global production.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was entirely created with CD Projekt Red Engine (REDengine3). But developing an open-world game was more difficult than expected, and during the first run of the game, the developers noticed that it was empty, so they decided to add points of interest. On December 2014, the game had about 5,000 bugs, and the deadline for the launch was February 2015, CD Projekt Red had to postpone the release to May 2015. The delays appeared to have worked out: Wild Hunt surpassed one million pre-orders sales and it’s the biggest UK launch of 2015 so far. In fact, it has now sold over four million copies. The confidence also gained from the postponed release by a wary public burned by launch bugs in recent times is likely to have also been a boon—and at launch, there do not seem to be many serious issues affecting gameplay.

The developers had to cut a lot of storylines, such as Yennefer imprisoning Geralt on an island, and the covert recruitment of Geralt to the Wild Hunt, to avoid splitting the game into two parts. CD Projekt confessed that before agreeing on the mini-game Gwent, they thought about a drinking game, a knife throwing game and even ice skating.

When the game came out on May 2015, it was acclaimed by the critics and considered to be one of the greatest video games of all times. What was most appreciated was the detailed open world, and the immersive narrative. The game also received more than 800 awards, and the word is waiting for the Nintendo Switch version of the game.

The author of the fantasy saga that inspired the video games, is happy with CD Projekt Red, and thinks the video game is really well done. But, after the release of the third title, since it had more success than expected, he asked for more money to the developing studio.

Andrzej made a request for 12.4 million pounds of additional royalties to CD Projekt, which denied by the studio. The company wants to keep a good relationship with the author and so far, they did not reach an agreement.

Well, what can we say? The developing of The Witcher was really difficult and nearly killed CD Projekt Red. But it was definitively worth it.

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'The Witcher': From Zero to Success
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