The Witcher 3 is so good, it’s changed the face of videogames. But has it ruined them? Read on, as David Rodoy talks videogames post-Witcher 3…
I feel like I live in a post-Witcher world, now. And I’m not the only one. I read an interesting comment from one of the Assassin’s Creed developers, when the news broke that they were taking a year off to make the next one really good. ‘We want it to be more like The Witcher’, they said.
It’s very rare to see statements of open admiration from AAA game publishers. Ordinarily they don’t even refer to other products in the market, or in the case of industry indestructibles like Call of Duty, they speak with respect, and usually focus on how different they are (while secretly wishing they could just be Call of Duty). Sometimes they’re even subtly disparaging, like the year Bobby Kotick hilariously praised GTA V for all its records and went on to say he looked forward to that year’s Call of Duty taking all those records back. Would have been better if he meant it as a joke, but we were all in on it anyway, and of course, Call of Duty Ghosts did not unseat Grand Theft Auto V that Christmas.
What makes The Witcher 3 different, I think, and why it matters, is that it doesn’t do anything someone else can’t emulate. Grand Theft Auto V is an anomaly. Nobody makes games like GTA; there’s only GTA and a few games a bit like it that don’t quite have that level of polish and detail. Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs are the standouts, but in general most people can’t even conceive of coming close to a product at the scope of a GTA game.
The Witcher 3, however, is truly just an open world RPG, and that is a glutted market. It’s this generation’s platformer, as the First Person Shooter was the 360/PS3 era’s platformer. Everything’s open world these days. Open world RPG, open world FPS, open world adventure game, open world this open world that. Also, critically, CD Projekt Red aren’t a AAA company. They’re a small studio who’ve produced only a small number of games. So it’s doubly affecting that they’ve essentially shamed the entire industry. That sounds like a hefty criticism to huck about, doesn’t it? Shamed the industry? I hear you say. How?
Let me explain.
So many things that are accepted parts of games these days are thrust upon us under the guise of ‘making back money’, backed up by the carefully maintained illusion that these massive companies are barely breaking even on their games because of the development costs. They really need to have an in-game currency for you to buy, because without it they can’t make back development. You must buy the season pass, because otherwise they can’t be sure the DLC will have the money it needs to be as good as it should be. There’s only so much variety you can manage, because it all costs too much. Patches are too costly. We have to focus on development. Female character models require too much extra development time (thanks, Ubisoft, for that one; we were all very convinced).
And along comes The Witcher 3, stabbing all of these things and stealing their money. The Witcher 3 feels like a game designed by people who’ve come to our realm from a time machine, from some distant place where game designers actually give a shit about their player base.
Since the game’s release, CD Projekt Red have festooned its players with tons of free content patches, little side quests, items, constant bug fixes, even entire new features they initially had no intention of putting in the game, just because they were asked for. The Witcher 3 wasn’t meant to have a New Game+ out of the box, and it wasn’t meant to have a big box to put all your crap into (you pick up A LOT of stuff in that game), but they did both, because people asked for them. They even spoke to their players like they weren’t utter imbeciles, which is almost unique in this industry where it’s apparently impossible to even state the bloody obvious without a thin sheen of PR bullshit that makes everybody in the industry come across like cheap Hollywood shysters who don’t know what they’re doing. Especially Konami. Suuuuuure Hideo Kojima is on holiday.
But how often can you expect that sort of treatment these days? Free content patches are extraordinarily rare. Splatoon famously did it (to rapturous response, shockingly), Batman Arkham Knight had several free DLC packs for its AR challenges, and there’ll be some I’ve not thought of. But by and large you can expect to have to pay something for any extra content that’s produced these days, and, a lot of the time, no extra content’s coming outside of a paid DLC or hidden behind the impenetrable wall of a Season Pass.
CD Projekt Red, though, just rolled it out. Nobody really asked for it, they just did it because they wanted to. To, shockingly, rapturous support. Turns out players actually like getting free stuff. We sort of… like it, when we’re given presents in return for our money. And it draws a red line under the behaviour of so many other game developers when CD Projekt Red are so open and interactive with their players.
Then there’s the season pass. Season passes are like the common cold these days. They’re usually unwanted, ubiquitous, and everyone makes far more fuss about them than they really deserve. But they’ve become almost insidious. Once – such as with Fallout 3 – they were just a bundle of future DLC to expand your game. Now they’re a phantom price increase. Some people think Star Wars Battlefront’s price tag is £60. It’s not, it’s actually about £100, because without that season pass you get a gimped version of the game missing a lot of the really good maps that were planned for release post launch of the game. Every Call of Duty for the last three years or so has likewise had a price tag of £100 or more. The phantom ‘price’ of DLC, the virtual ‘worth’ of content, has very much become a topic for discussion, as developers try to charge more and more for less and less, and while your FPS developers can argue that a well-designed trio of online maps is worth £14.99 because you will in theory be playing those maps for months… it’s a harder pill to swallow when Rocksteady vomit out 2 hours of single player content for about the same price.
The season pass for The Witcher 3, on the other hand, retailing at £20 or thereabouts, contains two expansions each of which are of a size and quality where they could get away with selling either at a slightly reduced price as standalone games. I have legitimately paid full price for games with less content, and you probably have, too. And the second expansion isn’t even out yet, and they say it’s significantly bigger than the first, and of a higher quality. Which, if they’re right, is going to be fantastic.
I no longer look at season passes the same way. Every time I see one advertised at a price above £20 I find myself trying to figure out if they’re going to be a Warner Bros (insert ‘boo hiss’ noises from pantomime), a Bethesda (still in good standing, they do good DLC), a Bioware (fair to good), an Ubisoft (really variable quality) or an EA/Activision (Your Mileage May Vary), or a CD Projekt Red (yesyespleasehavemymoney). Witcher 3 set a gold standard for me that I’m going to be judging future games on for a long time to come.
As for in-game, The Witcher 3 has a lot of the traditions of the open world game in effect. A map full of stuff to do, but a lot of that stuff follows a simple pattern. You find a thing, you fight for the thing, you pick up the thing. Nice, simple, effective. But CD Projekt Red went an extra mile that AAA companies don’t. With the exception of monster dens, where you encounter a specific enemy and kill it (though these are often unique enemy encounters and so each is different in its own way), all of the treasure missions are littered with little bits of story explaining how the object got there. It isn’t much, usually just an in-game written note or book giving you the chest’s tale. But having that there gives you something to look forward to. You’re not looking forward to finding yet another chest full of useful items, or maybe you are, but you’re more looking forward to the next, unique bit of story content you’ll only get at this encounter. It’s such a small thing but it gives a degree of individualism to very repetitious tasks. They even have a small amount of unique ambient dialogue in most locations, often giving little nods to previous games and callbacks to things not dealt with in the story of The Witcher 3, but previous players will be interested in. For example, Iorveth, an important character in the Witcher 2, is mentioned in a handful of dialogues that point to his eventual fate. But unless you explore pretty much the entire world, most players will never hear them.
There’s so much care and obvious love in everything in The Witcher 3, that it shines a damning light on the entire industry’s approach to open world gaming. There’s a growing trend to just throw nebulous stuff at the relevant gaming map, especially in Ubisoft games, filling the map up with letters or numbers or symbols screaming at you that there’s so much stuff to do. But in most cases the actions lack any context or even meaning. But most GTA clone attempts do the same thing as well, creating random nebulous THINGS to do that really just create a jumbled up, non-coherent mess of a ‘world’ which is really just various instanced ‘stuff’s to do when encountered.
What The Witcher 3 succeeds in doing here that so many fail to do is that it ties everything together and makes a coherent, believable world in the process. It presents dozens of varied quests that cover a ton of different types, many of them completely lacking in combat, and an epic, sweeping narrative that’s on par with any RPG, and I’d say in pretty much the history of the genre. And none of this, expect the quality of the writing, is all that hard.
The real reason I live in a post-Witcher 3 world, is that The Witcher 3 is far from flawless. The combat is very much a mixed bag that some will love and some will hate (I luckily love it), but there are some bugs and weird balancing things. The UI and menus are okay at best and there’s some loading time issues here and there. These are all things that can be improved on.
But I don’t come out of The Witcher 3 feeling that none of these other companies can do this. Rather, it’s like, with all their resources, this should be the minimum we should expect. Even if The Witcher 3’s writing is what puts it over the top into being a great game, even with quite bad writing (I.E. your standard in the industry) it would be a good game. The Assassin’s Creed games would pretty much all be classics if they had their current level of (terrible) writing but with game worlds more along the lines of The Witcher 3. And that, I expect, is exactly what the designers turning their eyes towards Egypt for the next installment were thinking when they made that comment.
I suspect – I hope – they’re not the only ones. The Witcher 3 has done a lot. It’s revealed starkly some of the unending bullshit consumers have inflicted upon them in these blighted days, and it’s revealed how unnecessary a lot of it is. It’s exposed how lazy the DLC policies of many AAA companies actually are, and I think put a serious sheaf of paper onto the table in the debate about the ‘value’ of DLC content. It’s a clarion call to open world gaming throughout the industry, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to either see some improvements to open world gaming as a whole, or a lot harsher reviews towards those that don’t improve.
Several people I know, and several different gaming publications, referenced The Witcher 3 in Fallout 4 reviews and discussions about the game. Initial thoughts that, as good as The Witcher 3 was, it would be forgotten when Game of the Year talk rolled around because of Fallout 4 turned out to be premature. There are plenty of articles titled similarly to mine, about how The Witcher 3 ruined Fallout 4 for gamers and writers all over the internet, because it just raised the bar and was so unexpected.
And that’s how The Witcher 3 ruined videogames.
Much like Geralt itself, The Witcher 3 took our payment, and it slew our monster; the industry, that’s been blinding us with lazy spin and consistent mid-low quality for about two years now. Not every game is affected, of course. Much of The Witcher 3’s effect is focused on open world games, though CD Projekt Red’s DLC policies should not be forgotten by anyone going forward.
We’ve just seen how it can be, and we shouldn’t so quietly accept the practically scandalous polities put into practice by other main companies. But this generation’s adventure genre has its Super Mario World, now. For me, at least, open world games are all trying to be The Witcher, and if they aren’t at least close to those standards, I’m just not going to waste my time. Are you?