Cyberpunk 2077 preview and interview – ‘I just love my work!’

GameCentral speaks to the designer of this year’s Cyberpunk 2077 demo, about Keanu Reeves, virtual Dungeon Masters, and the Bloody Baron.

So, you’ve probably heard that Keanu Reeves is in Cyberpunk 2077. CD Projekt’s follow-up to The Witcher 3 was already the biggest game of E3 2018, but they managed to raise its profile even higher this year by bringing John Wick himself onto the stage at Microsoft’s pre-show conference, to unveil a new trailer for the game.

The odd thing is though that that trailer had very little to do with the 40-minute live demo that they were showing behind closed doors. If CD Projekt follow the same plan as last year it’ll take around three months before they release the demo footage to the public, assuming it doesn’t leak out before that. We’ll try to briefly summarise it though… by saying it was just as, if not more impressive than last year’s one.

A slightly less brief summary though would mention that it revolves around your character V (who can be completely customised in terms of appearance, gender, and abilities) doing a job for a gang called the Voodoo Boys, in exchange for an audience with their leader Bridgette. This is in order to find Alt Cunningham, the girlfriend of Keanu Reeves’ character Johnny Silverhand, who is a virtual ghost living inside your head.

According to lead quest designer Paweł Sasko, who we were able to interview after the demo, Johnny is the most significant character in the game, after the player, so it’s not just a minor cameo to earn some cheap publicity. He appears only a few times in the demo though, offering advice that only you can hear, but according to Sasko he has his own agenda and your relationship with him can go one of several ways.

The mission involved ejecting a rival gang, called the Animals, from a shopping centre; a gang who, despite being steroid-abusing weightlifters, are usually not very aggressive about expanding their territory. The Voodoo Boys are also relatively benign, at least to ordinary citizens of the district of Pacifica, who apparently see them as fair-minded protectors of the peace.

Or as much peace is there is in a place where you can watch a helicopter gunship blow up several floors of a nearby skyscraper – an event apparently unremarkable enough that nobody even mentions it as you walk past. Pacifica is one of the poorest districts in Night City and it turns out the reasons the Animals are there is because they’ve been paid to protect what is Cyberpunk 2077’s equivalent of the Internet police, who are trying to spy on the Voodoo Boys.

To get to the mission location you (or rather the CD Projekt developer who was demoing the game) jump onto a futuristic motorcycle for a quick tour of this corner of the open world, before getting off and sneaking into the shopping centre. Although Sasko is keen to point out that you can mix and match skills and abilities as much as you like there are three default character classes in the game – the hacker-orientated NetRunner, the hardware-obsessed Techie, and the combat-focused Solo. The demo starts with the player as a NetRunner, which involves a lot of switching off security cameras and switching on machinery (including sabotaging a weight-lifting machine) to act as distractions as you sneak around.

The NetRunner is far from useless when it comes to combat though and the ‘nanowire’ they use to connect to computers also doubles as a cross between a lightsabre and a garrotte, slicing off heads and limbs with apparent ease. Its primary use is hacking though, and by hacking the Animal’s leader you’re able to get their underlings to shoot themselves or set off hand grenades on their belt. (We were also assured you can play the whole game without killing anyone, if you so wish.)

The latter section of the demo was then rerun with a Solo class character, showing off a range of more traditional weapons and the ability to rip open locked doors with your bare hands. It was all very impressive, although unlike last year’s demo the fact that this is a game nearly a year away from completion was more obvious – with enemies that seemed to get stuck behind in-game objects and somewhat unconvincing-looking gunplay.

Ironically, that probably means this was a more representative demo than last year’s, and the fact that Sasko made no attempt to hide the demo’s rough edges was encouraging. In fact, he implied that the game was almost content complete and that the next 10 months would be used primarily to refine and polish what’s already there. (He gave no hint about assumptions that the game would be quickly ported onto PlayStation 5 and Project Scarlett, but it’s very hard to imagine it won’t be.)

We suspect anyone that’s played The Witcher 3 will be more than willing to give CD Projekt the benefit of the doubt, and in terms of ambition and attention to detail alone this already looks like being one of the best games of 2020, if not the whole generation… and beyond.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: CD Projekt
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Release Date: 16th April 2020

GC: So what’s your role at CD Projekt?

PS: I’m Paweł Sasko and I’m the lead of the quest team. So we’re the guys that built the quests in the demo that you saw.

GC: That’s perfect then. The game looked amazing, just as it did last year, but I think it’s the scale that impresses the most. I don’t see how you can have that many quests, that offer that much detail, without having either a tiny game world, the game in development for 20 years, or you employing thousands of developers.

PS: It’s a good question. First of all, we are a fairly big team. Right now we are around 450, so the team is kind of big. And most of this team worked on The Witcher 2 and Witcher 3, so the team is fairly experienced. I mean, I’ve been with the company for eight years, so most of us saw how to make the really big games in good quality. Because The Witcher 3 was absolutely massive and it was made by a team that was half the size! So that’s one of the ways of how we do it.

The second thing is that when we’re building scenes we’re building them in a systemic way. Basically, the way we’re doing, we’re doing it in a way that you don’t have to rebuild everything. So if you’re replicating similar solutions on something you build it once and you can basically reuse and change elements to give it this unique feel, but you still don’t need to build it from the ground up.

And we’re using this, pretty much, to be able to finish it. There’s still almost a year of work but that time will mostly be spent on iterating, polishing it, playing it, making sure it looks and feels the way we want. To be honest, in the demo, I know myself there were plenty of problems that we know about and we are going to fix it and we are going to improve it.

GC: What do you wince at when you see the demo?

PS: Oh, I think there’s a few things that we still will be working on. One thing is the gameplay side and the animation system. For instance, our melee combat still requires a bit of work, making sure that all the punches feel good – especially for all the weapons. For instance, the hammer; it needs to have the correct weight but it doesn’t really have that yet [one of the boss-like characters wields a large hammer in the demo – GC]. Those are not really big issues, but when you play… when it’s really good you feel it. When it’s not really good you also feel it! [laughs] I think we’re in the position where we almost have it, but not yet. And I think there’s still space to make it better.

GC: Apart from some AI bugs, the one thing that worried me is the gunplay. It’s difficult to judge without going hands-on, but watching it it seemed a little clunky? As great as Witcher 3 was I think most people would agree the combat was the weakest element…

PS: Yes, yes.

GC: All the different weapons look great but what if they’re not really that much fun to use? Are you implying that that’s something you’re still working on?

PS: Oh yes, the gunplay is one of the core elements. That’s something that we started working on in the very beginning and will work on more and more…

GC: I don’t think you’ve made a shooter before, so did you get in developers that do have that kind of experience?

PS: Yes, definitely. We hired a lot of people after Witcher 3. We have people that worked on first person shooters before and I, myself, worked on a first person shooter 10 years ago. [laughs] So there are people on the team who did work on games like this, and we have plenty of experience. But, of course, the team as a whole has never made a game like this, so that’s why I also feel that we probably need a little bit more time to get it right. I’m happy with what we have but there’s still lots of space for improvement.

GC: So when you’re designing these quests what comes first? Do you come up with ideas you take to the level designers or do you look at the open world and create things that can happen within it?

PS: At CD Projekt we always start with the story. And the story’s designed by quest designers, so by me and my team, and by story writers. So we always start from that and we write the scenarios of the quests. And at the moment we already have all the scenarios we know we want to do, and then we moved on with all the production when we knew we have to have around six districts in the city.

They have to be different too, there’s the one that is the district that you saw in Pacifica, the one with the refugees from Haiti; there’s another one where the Maelstrom gang are, in the demo we showed a year ago; and so on and so on. So this always comes up from the story and then from that we build up.

And of course, as the city’s developing we’re working on our quests at the same time so we’re in a constant feedback loop with the art guys – and we tell them we need this and they’re like, ‘Okay, let’s do this, but we have this idea about how to do it’. And we’re like, ‘Okay, that’s awesome but add this…’ So it’s constant co-operation between different departments to just nail it down, because everyone wants to do the best they can.

You know, one of the biggest struggles that we had was to keep the demo short. Because there’s always so much content that we want to show.

GC: I noticed there were a lot of time skips.

PS: Yeah, yeah. We had to keep rushing just to make sure we would be able to show the media everything that is in the quest, or this piece of the game, because there’s so much stuff that we keep on adding! [laughs]

GC: I love your enthusiasm. So was that a typical mission in terms of the size and length of it? How many missions of that size and complexity are in the game? I mean… I assume that wasn’t a side quest?

PS: No, that was one of the main quests. But you saw only part of it.

GC: So how long would the whole thing last?

PS: It would, I think, be around twice as a long, so about an hour and a half. But there are quests that are way shorter and there are some that are way longer. So it just all depends. Because for us everything comes from the story. So let’s say the Bloody Baron storyline that I worked on on The Witcher 3…

GC: You worked on the Bloody Baron quest? That was the best one!

PS: [laughs] Thank you, I designed and implemented it. That was one quest and it was four hours long. So some things are absolutely small, like five minutes of tiny interactions, and some of them are gigantic that go on for hours.

GC: So I’m guessing you’re not allowed to say how many missions there are in total?

PS: I would really like to, but… [laughs] But we are still a year away from release, so it is still slightly changing.

GC: Can you give an idea of how long it would take to get through the whole game if you only did the story missions?

PS: The problem with that question is that we are wondering that ourselves! [laughs] Because when we tried to judge The Witcher we completely misread it. We thought The Witcher was going to be way shorter than it turned out to be. Because we’re crazy, we’re always just packing so much stuff in and it turns out to be way too big. [laughs]

But the problem with this game is the vertical exploration in the city. The second thing is the cars and the motorcycles, the non-linearity in the gameplay, the fact that you can play stealthily, and the fact that you can play with not killing anybody. And the fact that you can just go all guns blazing. They take completely different times.

Add in all the side missions and the time adds up and gives you a completely different number. So the problem we have right now is that it’s really hard to tell [how long it is]. We’re trying not to be quite as crazy with the main story as with The Witcher, because people were complaining that we were a bit too long and that the main story did start to drag a bit. So we’re trying to make this a bit tighter.

GC: One of the major problems with open world games in general is that so much of the time the mission design is just, ‘go somewhere and kill someone’. I think trying to avoid that is one of the reasons Witcher 3 was so beloved.

PS: For us, that kind of quest is absolutely banned. We don’t have stuff like that. We don’t do it. We learned, I think it was around Witcher 2, that we’re not doing things like that, because it’s just lazy. [laughs] It’s just lazy. In The Witcher 3 we worked on it a lot and we were praised for our quest design and that was very… I love to hear that. Even though I feel like we could improve on so many areas.

GC: One of the other problems is that a lot of developers use the journey to and from the mission for story exposition. So if you haven’t got that, where is the story coming from? They seemed fairly short conversations people were having in the demo. Was that you purposefully trying to keep the non-interactive dialogue down to a minimum?

PS: That’s a great question actually. It’s a part of our philosophy, that we started using around Witcher 2, to just make sure that the game is always open for other types of players. So there are players that won’t be interested in that much amount of story. It’s cool for them if interesting things happen but they are not into deepening it so much. But there are other players that absolutely love that.

So what we are doing, is we are making sure that throughout most of the conversations you can go fairly short. You can ask the questions that are going straight to the point. If you do that then you, of course, skip parts of the story and that’s fine, you will have that version of the quest. But because it’s also not linear you don’t know about some things – so you can’t use that knowledge and you can’t have some branches in the quest.

And that’s fine for players that just like to go in, like to drive their car, like to shoot things, and run around and grab loot and augment themselves with cool cyberware. I was talking to one player and she said that she would just like to stroll around Night City, looking at the people, looking at the fashion… just enjoy the place.

And there were players in Witcher who played it on horseback and they were just collecting herbs… for 10 hours. [laughs] They didn’t do anything, just started the game, got their horse and were just riding around. And that was the only thing they did.

GC: So they didn’t even play it?

PS: Well… I think it’s hard to say they didn’t play it. They just didn’t move forward with the story.

GC: I guess if they were happy…

PS: Exactly! So to just make sure that Cyberpunk would be accessible for different types of players, let’s say for casual players, we’re trying to make sure you have the option to get to the point in conversations and the version that you have seen, just right now, was exactly that. We were mostly going just to the point of having minimum information. Because for all the dialogue there is always multiple branches, with questions and questions. The same as in The Witcher. There is a reward for the player though, in that they can understand the character and the situations better if they dig a little more.

GC: The progression of graphics and other technology is very obvious across the years, with the ultimate aim being perfect, photorealistic visuals but what’s the holy grail of quest design? You’re talking about wanting to improve things but what kind of factors are holding you back? How much of it is just technology?

PS: Oh, that’s a great question. In The Witcher 3 we did the branching storyline in an open world. And before us most people were saying that’s almost impossible to do that. And we got that, I think, mostly right. There were problems but most of the structure was fine. But in this game what we’re doing is adding to this branching gameplay. So basically, as a player, you have this fluid class system where we can build your character in a variety of different ways.

You can pick skills from the tree of the Techie, of a Solo, and of a NetRunner. But you can combine them in different ways, like you can do whatever you want with your build, pretty much. And what we are trying to do in this game, in the quest design, is we’re using all that information about the player, about the custom characters the players build, to give you different paths.

So let’s say, as a player, you went into NetRunning, or I went into strong Solo skills. We are checking those skills and, for instance, in dialogue scenes you have extra options opening because you’re a given type of character. You are a nomad, street kid, or corpo – those things you can actually use in the scenes. Let’s say you’re talking to the corporates and because you understand them, because you’ve been one of them, you can use that knowledge to get something more out of the conversation and it branches out.

So what we are doing with quest design in this game is we are making sure that the way you have built your character – all the customisations, cyberware, all the skills and attributes – are taken into account and you have more options when you’re actually playing.

And the second thing is the pathways through the quests, you have seen that in the demo. There is that moment where they switched the builds from strong Solo to NetRunner and so on. And you saw when they switched there was a completely different way to play. So this is something we’re doing right now, which is incorporating those non-linearities and integrating them into the gameplay and the quest design. To just make sure that it’s branching even more. [laughs]

GC: Essentially it seems you’re trying to personalise the experience, in a way that almost goes back to tabletop RPGs where a good Dungeon Master would be changing things to suit you – not just rigidly following a pre-written campaign and being a stickler for the rules.

PS: Uh-huh, exactly! That’s a really, really good way of looking at it.

GC: Is the end goal for role-playing games a sort of perfect AI-driven Dungeon Master?

PS: [laughs] There is some truth in what you’re saying. At CD Projekt we are focused on the story. I think for us the boundary of that is that we are doing that to the point where the story allows for it, right? Because making a role-playing game completely AI-driven could end up with it being too generic, and we are always trying to keep the style, the style of cyberpunk – to have it in everything we design.

GC: It’s funny you say that because, even though I’m sure the game will be a huge success, does it worry you that cyberpunk as a genre has never really seen that much mainstream success? Blade Runner wasn’t financially successful, for example, and neither was its sequel.

PS: Yes, that’s definitely in our heads! You are definitely right in what you’re saying. One of the things that we are doing, as a company, with Cyberpunk is we’re looking at Cyberpunk 2020 [the original tabletop role-playing game the video game is based on – GC] and trying to update it for modern gamers. And there are more recent things, like Netflix’s Altered Carbon, that I think show that cyberpunk is slowly entering the mainstream consciousness.

And, for instance, Keanu, that is exactly why he’s here. Firstly, he’s a really good actor, of course, and he helps us out playing the role of Johnny Silverhand in the game. But the second thing is that he has this mass market appeal, he is a persona that can help people think that they should try the game out, ‘I don’t really understand the cyberpunk thing but there’s Keanu!’

GC: Did you work with him at all?

PS: Me, personally, no. But my colleagues did.

GC: He’s been in so many cyberpunk things but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Harrison Ford has always said he has no interest in science fiction, and yet look at his filmography. But is Keanu into it at all?

PS: Oh yeah! Actually, he is into it. I feel like he likes the futuristic setting in general and finds himself comfortable in that. When we were first discussing things with him we put him on the set to scan, because his body and face is in the game. You’ve seen in the demo how he’s utilised as a digital ghost and all the time you’re talking and interacting you can actually develop a relationship with him in a number of different ways, because he has his own agenda.

And Keanu, when we are recording things, he’s always suggesting things, like how he should play a line or how the animation should look. He was into it. And one of the things that helps with this is that he’s a very humble guy.

GC: People always say he’s very nice.

PS: But being nice doesn’t really go far enough. It’s not just that he’s nice, he’s also not a guy that’s full of himself. He’s always trying to project praise on others. Like, when they were interviewing him and he was asked whether he expected such a response from the crowd at Microsoft he said, ‘No, but it’s not because of me, it’s because of CD Projekt and Cyberpunk’. He’s always trying to put it on us instead of him. And we know it’s him!

GC: So he’s in the whole of the game? He’s in that chip in your head that was mentioned in the demo?

PS: Yes, he is the digital ghost that accompanies the player through the whole game. I don’t want to talk too much about his relationship with the chip, because I will spoil too much of the main storyline! But the way the character interacts with Johnny Silverhand forges this relationship, it changes it actually – it can go very different ways.

GC: One of the themes of the games, of cyberpunk as a genre, is the idea of losing your humanity to machinery, but how exactly does that work in a video game, which is by its nature already artificial?

PS: So, as a player you have… basically in your inventory all your body is divided into parts that you can change. You can change and exchange them for certain pieces of cyberware, which gives you new skills and abilities you can use in the gameplay. Now, the thing is, as a player, you are limited by the number of slots, so there is as much cyberware as your body can take. But in Cyberpunk we’re really not using a humanity meter.

GC: It always seems so artificial, ironically.

PS: There were some ideas that we had, of how we could utilise it but it was not fun enough and it didn’t work good enough for us to just keep it. We opted for a more understandable solution for players, which is that your body is divided into slots and when they are filled your humanity levels are at the level where it cannot take anymore and you cannot install anything more. So it’s basically so that the player with the humanity is still there but it doesn’t really play that major a role in the whole mechanics. Because, as you mentioned, it doesn’t have enough texture to it.

GC: How much do you deal with sexuality in 2077? As a European developer you’re likely to be a lot less puritanical about such things than an American company. They were implying last year that there is a lot of nudity in the game…

PS: [laughs] Yes, a lot. But this is a game for mature players and the maturity is there in all kinds of ways, from the philosophical background of the game to the topics of the game, and also the sexuality is there as well. As a player you can pick the different body types for yourself, you can pick the different voice that you have. So you can… say you have a female voice but match it with a male body. And then you define how other characters perceive you. So basically, how they address you.

GC: Do you mean pronouns?

PS: It’s not exactly that but it gives you that effect. So you’re basically deciding how you define yourself. And in the game the romance and sexuality, it’s really present. Because we are sexual beings, that’s obvious.

GC: It’s not obvious in games. There’s almost no sexuality in games.

PS: We are CD Projekt, so it’s obvious to us. [laughs] Sexuality was very present in The Witcher games and I think here it’s even more present, but I think here we are a bit more mature because we are allowing the player to craft their own character a bit more. And also, in the customisation screen, if you want to have stronger female features on your male character you can do it. If you want to have male features on a female character you can do it. If you want to be a character that is less easy to define you can also do it. So it’s really up to the player as to what they want to do.

GC: There’s so much content I can’t help wonder about my earlier question, about how many people are working on the game. There have been many stories in recent years, including about CD Projekt, of developers being overworked. As a staff member yourself are you happy that all this isn’t coming at the cost of your social life and mental well-being? You’re not all working 20-hour days or something?

PS: Of course we’re not! There was the Kotaku story about it but the thing is we are not really feeling it that much. It’s not like we’re doing 100-hour weeks or something. I think the key factor is that we are trying to be clever with the battles that we pick. Because you can invest a lot of lost time with things that are absolutely invisible for the player. And you can pick things that are smaller but appreciated. And I think that’s our angle more.

So it’s choosing the exact things that you want to work on. Of course, we know about all the issues with the crunch and all that, and all through the production of Cyberpunk we tried to keep it under control. And the thing is, with the date that we have we feel fairly confident that we can deliver it. Because, as you saw, we did pretty big progress from last year to this year and there’s almost a year left. So it seems pretty doable, to be honest.

GC: You seem so enthusiastic about it all I have trouble imagining you being forced to work on it.

PS: I just love my work! [laughs]

(The PR guy knocks on the door to tell us our time is up.)

GC: Well, that’s probably a good place to leave it but… do you know anything about Witcher 3 on Switch? Because that seems equally unbelievable.

PS: [laughs] It has been made in co-operation with Saber Interactive. Those are the guys that are specialised in making Switch games.

GC: Have you been adding your own technical expertise though?

PS: Oh yeah, yeah. They came up with how to do it but we were consulted in terms of where we could do the optimisation. So we helped with that part and we told them that, ‘Okay, this is how you could do it in REDengine 3’.

GC: So if you worked on the Bloody Baron is there a mission in Cyberpunk 2077 that you’ve worked on that you will think will be as well received?

PS: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

GC: Is there something specific you have in mind when you say that?

PS: I worked on the previous demo, that deal with Maelstroms was one thing. But there are a few others that I’m working on but I cannot tell you about them.

GC: I’m not asking for spoilers; I just want to know if you’re confident it will be as good.

PS: I think it will be better, actually. [laughs]

GC: That’s great to hear. Thank you, thanks for your time.

PS: Thank you, great questions!

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