CD Projekt Red may now have more than 800 developers working across some of the biggest names in RPGs, but when it first began work on The Witcher – which was released 15 years ago this week – it had none of that. It was known for distributing games in Poland, not developing, and very few outside of the country had heard of it or its new project, a dark fantasy RPG based on a series of novels and short stories.
What CD Projekt Red did have was ambition, and despite not knowing at times if it would even complete development on the original game, the team had already planned a trilogy of Witcher titles that would eventually make the game a household name. It’s almost as if a studio with no experience announced a trilogy of Lord of the Rings games, promising gameplay and a narrative as epic as Tolkien’s original. CD Projekt Red proved any naysayers wrong.
Following the announcement that 2007’s The Witcher is being remade in Unreal Engine 5, IGN looks back at the franchise’s beginnings to see what made it successful in the first place.
The Witcher Beginnings: A Crazy Plan
It’s not that the CD Projekt Red group knew The Witcher would be successful, of course, as several members of its original team hadn’t created a game before, and none of them had created a game of this size. “We didn’t know if the game would be a success or not,” Marcin Blacha, story director at CD Projekt Red, tells IGN. “Of course, we hoped it would appeal to players, but 15 years ago we all had much less experience than we do now, and we found it harder to judge what was right and what was not. Since we all liked RPGs very much, we wanted to be appreciated primarily by fans of this genre.”
Though a love for video games was always at its heart, CD Projekt began as a distribution company that translated English games into Polish. Within a few years it struck up a deal with Bioware and Interplay Entertainment to localise Baldur’s Gate, and it was this relationship that eventually led to the creation of The Witcher.
When Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance came around – a new entry only on consoles – the CD Projekt team was concerned. Console gaming wasn’t popular at the time in Poland but Interplay wasn’t making a PC version, meaning the latest version of CD Projekt’s biggest hit was suddenly off limits. The company asked Interplay to consider a PC version, and it did, telling CD Projekt to make it itself. Though the project was cancelled within a couple of months due to financial issues on Interplay’s side, CD Projekt had received the push it needed to consider pursuing game development.
A dedicated studio was founded – CD Projekt Red – and it began looking for an IP that it could turn into a video game. The idea was to bring in an established setting as something to lean on for the novice team. The Witcher and its author Andrzej Sapkowski were just as beloved as J.R.R. Tolkien in Poland, perhaps more so, and the books’ wandering, monster-killing protagonist was the perfect centrepiece for a video game.
“The team that made up the first Witcher game consisted of fans of Sapkowski’s stories and novels,” says Blacha. “On the one hand, it gave us an advantage because we felt at ease creating a game with well-known characters in a well-known world. On the other hand, we felt pressure because we wanted our game to be liked by players as much as we liked Sapkowski’s books.
“At that time, the source of financing for the game was the publishing part of CD Projekt, so we, working in the development arm, felt like a small experimental group implementing a crazy plan, for which stable and sensible people were earning money.”
While he’s now synonymous with the franchise – brought even further into mainstream consciousness through Henry Cavill’s portrayal in the Netflix series – protagonist Geralt proved to be one of the most complicated inclusions early on (and was almost left out completely). CD Projekt Red built the game around another character called Berengar, who still appears as a NPC in The Witcher, as the team thought the player would feel restricted playing as a pre-established character.
“During the production of the game, however, we changed our minds,” says Blacha. “Geralt was too good to leave out.”
Designing him was another issue, as everyone familiar with the books had imagined Geralt in a different way.
“Working on a main character means that pretty much everyone at the company thinks they know best about how the character should look, and it’s impossible to please even half of your co-workers,” Paweł Mielniczuk tells IGN, an artist on the original Witcher who’s now art director of Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty expansion.
A Prototype and an E3
Around a year into development on The Witcher, CD Projekt Red put together a prototype and used the company’s distribution contacts to present it to various publishers. The response was not positive, forcing the team to essentially reset production. One old contact did come through later, however, as Bioware licensed out its Aurora Engine (used for Neverwinter Nights) and gave CD Projekt Red another chance.
Another year and yet another prototype later, Bioware asked CD Projekt Red if it wanted to show The Witcher at its E3 booth in 2004, though the team would have to prove their worth. Though all it had was a proof of concept demo that didn’t even have Geralt as the main character, CD Projekt Red presented The Witcher to Bioware.
“We were totally unknown as a developer. No track record, nothing,” said co-founder and CEO Marcin Iwiński in a recent developer interview. “And suddenly the gods of RPGs invite us to show them the stuff. The build was crashy as hell, and we were super stressed because if we showed it and they said, ‘You should work more on this,’ then I think we’re done. I think we just abandon everything. It will be the end.”
It was not the end, of course, as Bioware liked what they saw.
“Tucked away in the Bioware booth in the back of West Hall was one of the true surprises of the show: The Witcher,” IGN said at the time. “While this year’s show was full of sequels and not many surprises, Bioware actually pulled a fast one on us.”
CD Projekt Red and The Witcher had been introduced to the world.
Development continued for the next few years without too many issues, though some elements of the game had to be cut back as CD Projekt Red’s ambition outweighed its resources. “None of us had worked on a game of this size and complexity before, and it quickly turned out that our plans were too ambitious,” says Blacha. “The game’s plot had to be much shorter than we originally assumed, so we rewrote the plot of individual parts of the game, but also added more choices and consequences. Many times we thought that we would not be able to finish this project in a reasonable time, but thanks to passion and sheer determination, we did it.”
The Witcher was finally released on October 26, 2007, and was received positively by critics. “The Witcher really is a good game and one that PC RPG fans will surely enjoy,” IGN said in our review. “It combines some entertaining and fast-paced combat with a well realized world and pretty decent story that branches and can end in three different fashions.”
It sold well throughout Europe too as CD Projekt Red intended. “At the time, the fact that the game was released only on PC, and that it gained popularity mainly in Europe, wasn’t a bad thing for us,” Blacha says. “We were thinking more locally. It was really important to us that we had completed a large project and built the largest development studio in Poland at the same time.”
It did go almost unnoticed in the United States, however, something that came as a surprise to Iwiński, who also told the story of his visit to New York just after The Witcher launched. “I went to a couple of GameStops and I was expecting a wall of Witcher or something, [and then] I was looking for ‘W’ down on the floor and I couldn’t find it,” Iwiński says in the developer interview. He asked a staff member but they hadn’t even heard of it, and he later found out that Atari, who had collaborated with CD Projekt Red to publish the game, just didn’t have the budget for a major U.S. launch.
The Witcher was also a completely unknown franchise, as Sapkowski’s first book wouldn’t arrive stateside until a year after the game in 2008. This was also long before the Netflix show, Dark Horse Comics series, or anything else.
“Our debut was flawed,” says Blacha, who admitted the game wasn’t quite up to the standard that CD Projekt Red wanted. “We were happy with finishing the project but still wanted to improve upon it.”
So the CD Projekt Red team did just that. “We largely re-edited the English translation of The Witcher and re-recorded many lines of dialogue. We also worked on additional content for the game and created DLC offering a new adventure. All of these tweaks, big and small, contributed to The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, which gave the game a second life.”
This capitalised on a steadily growing popularity, as more and more people were playing the game after hearing good things. The Witcher actually wound up selling better in its second quarter than its first.
Sequels and Consoles
CD Projekt Red was ready for true global success and launched two projects in an attempt to achieve it. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings would capitalise on the success of the first game with upgrades across the board when released in 2011, while a console version of the original announced one year later would open it up to new markets. The former was incredibly successful, and the latter a complete disaster.
CD Projekt Red outsourced development of a console version of the first game, called The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf, to French studio Widescreen Games. Problems immediately arose, with the developer requiring regular help from CD Projekt Red, and as the game was outsourced because the developer couldn’t handle two projects to begin with, this became an issue.
The console version was eventually scrapped, but not before CD Projekt Red had poured millions of Atari-funded dollars into it. Unsurprisingly the publisher wanted its investment back, and facing a bill it frankly couldn’t afford, CD Projekt Red signed over The Witcher 2’s publishing rights in North America to Atari to make up its debt.
Though it was a tough time for CD Projekt Red, the developer moved on and eventually released the second game in 2011. “The Witcher 2 was our first real AAA game that was able to reach a lot of players, thanks to a combination of great visuals, music, voice acting, decent combat, and a fascinating story from a very unique world,” says Paweł Sasko, a quest designer on The Witcher 2 and currently Cyberpunk 2077’s quest director. “It was our first attempt to really produce a global hit, reaching far beyond just Polish gamers, and to attract people who didn’t know the books by Andrzej Sapkowski.”
It was also well received, and thanks to these upgrades and an Xbox 360 version, CD Projekt Red had succeeded in expanding its presence across the world. “That goal was achieved well enough to give us resources and fuel to build The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” says Sasko, “a game that for the first time attempted to be truly open, with an immersive story, believable world, and hundreds of hours of playtime.
“When development started in 2012 we didn’t know how to build a game with a very strong story and characters in a completely open setting yet, because nobody had done it at that point. We all knew the Elder Scrolls series and loved those games, but we aspired to tell a story as captivating as the two previous Witcher games.”
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Screenshots
The Crowning Achievement
Creating such a game wasn’t easy, especially when CD Projekt Red planned to retire Geralt as The Witcher’s protagonist. “After 10 years and three installments of games about the Witcher, not counting the expansions, we treated Geralt as an old friend,” says Blacha. “On the other hand, during the production of The Witcher 3, we felt that we needed a break from him. When creating its second expansion Blood and Wine, we knew that Geralt would retire and we decided to send him to a warm and pleasant place where he would be taking care of vines and resting on his porch.”
Geralt’s last hurrah had to be done in style, of course, so for The Witcher 3 CD Projekt Red finally brought in arguably the second and third most important characters in the Witcher world: Yennefer and Ciri. Both were meticulously created, with Mielniczuk saying the team spent a year crafting the former based on Polish model Klaudia Wróbel before scrapping what they had and starting over. “We made the decision to move away from what we’d scanned and instead focus on modelling something that better reflected Yennefer’s character,” Mielniczuk says. “I recall slowly chiselling away at Ciri’s face for almost three years.”
Introducing these characters allowed CD Projekt Red to reach a new level of storytelling as it was immediately able to build on Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri’s relationship that was so beloved in Sapkowski’s books.
“Once we knew that we had Ciri and Yennefer in the game, solving many problems was easy because this triangle of characters worked perfectly in the books and could easily be transplanted to become a vehicle for interesting stories in the game,” says Blacha. “By the time we’d finished production of The Witcher 3, it turned out that games had started to explore telling stories that focus on paternal relationships, and at this stage we were already very pleased with Ciri as a character and her role in the game’s plot. We knew that we were doing the Geralt-Ciri duo well.”
The Witcher 3 launched in 2015 to the highest praise CD Projekt Red had ever received. “Massive in size, and meticulously detailed, The Witcher 3 ends Geralt’s story on a high note,” we said in our review. It would go on to win IGN’s Game of the Year Award later that year. CD Projekt Red and The Witcher had become major names in the video game industry, spawning myriad offshoots including a card game, comic book series, manga, cook book, and more. And though it’s not technically connected to the games, it’s hard not to imagine that their popularity made Netflix pay attention to the franchise ahead of its adaptations, which as of now totals two different shows and an animated film.
The Witcher 3 Gameplay Trailer Screenshots – E3 2014
Though thought to be finished following The Witcher 3, the video game world is also far from over for the franchise. Not only is the original Witcher being remade but CD Projekt Red announced earlier this month that it has plans for at least four other new Witcher games, headlined by another trilogy featuring a new (but perhaps familiar) protagonist. Ahead of this new era though, Blacha reflects on what he and his team have accomplished.
“It gives me pleasure to think about the vineyard in Toussaint,” he says, “because Geralt was a good companion on a long journey, during which I learned how to make games and had the opportunity to be a co-creator on one of the best video games and most recognizable franchises in the world.”
Ryan Dinsdale is an IGN freelancer. He’ll talk about The Witcher all day.