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The Witcher 3: Designing the Environments (Developer Interview)


Sprony

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I’ve been enjoying The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt immensely. So as a fan, I feel very fortunate and grateful that you two, Mark "Jenn0_Bing" Foreman and Kacper "knj" Niepokólczycki, agreed to do this interview with me. I want to congratulate you both and the rest of the team, on the success of the game. Now that the game is out, what are you guys up to?

Kacper: We are working on Expansion Packs for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I know how big of a “surprise” that was when we announced paid post-release content. Because everybody was still thinking about the 16 free DLCs. We call these 2 upcoming pieces Expansion Packs instead of DLCs, because they are really big and they’ll offer a lot of value for the money. It’s like how it used to be back in the old days. Remember when you bought expansion packs for your favorite games that were actually worthwhile? What we are doing now is the same thing. For both upcoming Expansion Packs we are aiming for over 30 hours of completely new and fresh gameplay in total (10+ hours for the first one and 20+ hours for the second one). Of course with new places to explore. The first expansion is called “Hearts of Stone” and the second is “Blood and Wine”. We are super excited about it and can’t wait for more information to go public. But for now, we can’t say more.

Mark: It's great to know you have been enjoying the game. Since wrapping up work on the main game we have been hard at work on the expansions. We are taking both the things we learned in the process of shipping Wild Hunt and feedback from our fans that has been sent in since, then mixing it with some new ideas to create some more exciting adventures for Geralt.

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When developing the environment, did you have to work from concept or were just given a description and freedom to take it from there?

Kacper: It’s important to understand how complex it is to create such a dense and open world as featured in The Witcher 3. Projects like this are always executed in passes. Each pass brings us closer to the final result. Because it’s impossible to achieve the desired quality in the first attempt. It’s a very iterative process. The basis is of course the story, the core of every great RPG game. The story gives us information about the setting. This is vital for building the foundation of the game world. For instance, if it takes place in the mountains, then we make mountains. If it takes place on an island, then we make islands. You get the point.

Now, creating a huge open world is not an easy task, however, creating a huge and interesting area for the player to explore is the real challenge. So the next step is a good level design pass and luckily, we have great designers. Those guys lay down the basis for everything. Working very closely with quest designers, they blockout Points of Interest (POIs). Meaning the locations we want the player to visit. In The Witcher 3, we have a ton of POIs of which most are completely optional. They also check the distances between these POI’s or other quest locations making sure that it’s spread out in a balanced way. You don’t want everything together but you also don’t want the player to feel bored because he/she has too much distance to cover. The last step for the level designers is to blockout a simple location. This can be a village, a small graveyard or anything else. They use simple grey geometry or existing assets that might work, to create a marquette.

Around this time, other teams, including mine, step in. Creating the world is a huge collaboration between team members from all departments. This eventually results in the creation of a living, breathing world which is truly a believable place. Something I could go on and on about. But let’s focus on my role as an Environment Artist. Most of the time my producer tells me that we need “a location” finished. So basically, my work is to take the marquette and polish it into something you will actually see in the final game. For a lot of locations, there weren’t any specific concepts. Usually we rely on general concepts of the look and feel for that part of the world. We also work very closely with quest designers to create the best possible environment for any related quests. Combine these two and you have a good grasp on what’s expected from you. Time is also a factor to consider. Depending on the situation, we had either barely enough time to finish a polish pass or we could have some fun experimenting with different ideas. In short, while decorating quest locations or POIs we we’re restricted to the theme and story. The open world parts however, were basically under our full control and a lot of that was built from imagination. We just had to keep in mind that it needs to be a believable world.

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Mark: With a world as large as we needed to create it would not have been feasible to concept every last corner. Instead we had some general concept art that would broadly cover the mood of the world or a particular region, as well as reference images that we could use for inspiration. Sometimes however, there were situations where an area needed to have a special mood for a particular quest, or it featured an important building or landmark, or maybe was just a little out of the ordinary then some more specific concept art would be made.

On top of this, for quests there was a list of requirements that were needed from a location. Ranging from gameplay features to story elements that need to be taken into account. In between these it is up to the environment artist or level designer to connect them in a way that fits the overall quests narrative and the surrounding world. For the POIs that stand separate from quests, there was more freedom on our side. Sometimes we could make our own suggestions and build a spooky ruin or ransacked settlement if it fit the space. Other times our living world team had their own specific requirements and we would add a location to fit their needs. Something like a bandit encounter or a monsters den and we would then add somewhere for them to live or show signs of their presence in the area.

So did you always started out with a blockout and gameplay in place or did game/quest designers sometimes come in after you’ve finished the environments?

Kacper: The base is always a blockout. Of course we iterate a lot, so there’s always a huge possibility for even changing the most basic blockout, but hey, we are doing all we can for the best gameplay experience. But all teams work at the same time, without colliding with each other. So if the blockout is approved, I might be doing a polish pass, a quest designer can script his quest, and a community or open world developer can put some life into a location.

Mark: This varied a lot between quests and POIs. For the big story quest a lot was of course planned out in advance, with a lot of iterating done on top of that. There are some locations where we were able to work from a blank canvas through blockout to the finished location, others where maybe I handled just the blockout and an early art pass to find the mood before handing it off for the next iteration, or in other cases I came in after someone had finished getting a space functional and did decoration and final polish pass. Often we were working in synch with quest designers after the very early blockouts were done. Leapfrogging each other as locations were finished ready for gameplay implementation, or after gameplay had been implemented and some location adjustments were needed.

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Roles vary from studio to studio. How much did you make yourself? Did you use props and assets and fill the environment with that or did you do a lot yourself?

Kacper: I came on exactly one year before the release, so I didn’t do any assets. My first task was to optimize many houses for the City of Novigrad. From that, I’ve moved into level art focused work. I used all we had to make a location as pretty as possible. Of course environment artist also do props. My team was in charge of that. Again, I was just using existing props to decorate a location, to give it a story and a final polished look.

Mark: Like Kacper, I joined the team after most of the initial asset creation had been done. So a lot of what I did was working with existing assets to create and polish quest locations and the surrounding world. There were a few assets I had to create myself that were required or sometimes desired for a location. Often these were smaller decorative pieces or simple modular sets such as fences or walls for villages. Occasionally I made a new piece for an existing modular set to fit a tricky corner, or add a dash of uniqueness to a specific location. When it came to the polishing quest locations sometimes there were assets that needed to be made to replace a blockout asset or quest specific decoration that needed to be created to help tell a locations story. These were often handled by the artist working on a quest.

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The landmark placement and environment composition in The Witcher 3 is stunning. Can you talk a little bit about the process of making the level design and environment art play so well together? Did you, as artists, have a lot of freedom or was it a longer iterative process?

Kacper: I think that the biggest advantage we had is that our Level Designers are also great artists. They really pushed the blockout in terms of composition, layout and visual quality. Some of the locations were also finalized by them and they look simply stunning. This really shows their strong artistic capabilities. In return, our Environment Artists did some basic blockouts. This is our attempt at being as versatile as possible. The result of this combination between level design and environment art is what made it fit so well together. Of course there’s the iterative process to consider. We did that a lot. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But when you finally see how beautiful a location looks once it’s finished, you realize that it was totally worth it.

Mark: The first step was organizing the land mass which would be the canvas to work on. There are various maps in the Witcher novels which we used to give us the rough shape and placement of larger regions such as rivers, cities and towns, or the Isles of Skellige for example. Then the Story, Quest and Level Design teams started scattering all the important quest locations across this landscape with simple markers, aiming for a good density and variance of location. They also planned the theme of regions, such as swamps or forests, mountains or plains at this stage. The locations of villages and settlements were done in a way that they should appear natural on the landscape, things such as the inhabitant’s professions or how the villagers would live off the land and feed themselves were taken into consideration. Fishing communities should be near water, hunters or lumberyards near forests etc.

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Then we were let loose, and started blocking out locations inside the editor. Working to the descriptions of regions and quest requirements. Every quest location went through iterations as there are so many factors that need to be taken into account, from the gameplay to the narrative side. Sometimes you can hit close to something first time, and for a lot of the smaller POI locations there were less large iterations, usually small tweaks to smooth out combat or add some extra story cues required by a quest. Our blockout locations needed to be visually appealing as well as functional, as it was important to us to keep the aesthetics of the world consistent as early as possible with so much land to cover. The fact you can approach any location from almost any angle also posed its own interesting challenges as it meant every part of a location needed care taken in its design and art. Even the places a player might never realistically be expected to reach needed to make sense when viewed from a nearby mountain top or from below in a boat.

On a compositional level, having things that would catch the player’s attention and draw them towards a location were important to us, especially when we were letting them loose in such a large open space. Our points of interest are the breadcrumbs we use to lead the player around the land with a promise of something exciting if they made the journey to them. A tower on a hilltop for example is the most straightforward of these eye catching landmarks, but then we would imbue each one with its own personality, we tried to give each location some history. The world needed to feel like it could have existed long before the player arrived. We also made use of roads and paths wherever they made sense, a road disappearing around a bend or into some dense trees has a certain amount of mystery in itself. I often found myself distracted when testing my own locations, you'd notice something new that had been submitted since the last time you'd been in the game, and then you'd be off on your own mini adventure.

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The Witcher 3 has one of the best foliage I've ever seen in real-time. Can you share some secrets about your foliage workflow?

Kacper: Believe it or not, it was done by a single artist named Michał Buczkowski. He’s responsible for all the foliage. Unfortunately, I have no idea about his workflow, other than that the results are just mind blowing. We even joke internally that Michał made most of the game. While working, sometimes we had the foliage turned off and seeing the game without “green” you just realize how much the world misses.

What were your sources of inspiration behind each major area? White Orchard, Velen, Novigrad and Skellige? Were these inspired by real world places? What did you utilize the most, photos or concept art?

Mark: Poland, its history, traditional Slavic culture and folklore are the big driving forces behind the look and feel of the game’s world, especially in Velen and No Man’s Land. The Witcher and its world mean a lot to people in Poland, it is their Lord of the Rings. So for a lot of the Polish members of the team faithfully representing that in the game matters a lot to them. For Skellige we drew more from Nordic and Celtic influences. Scandinavia and Scotland were the places we looked to for inspiration there.

Kacper: The Witcher 3 is a very Polish game in terms of how the locations and landscapes look and feel. The best place for inspiration was our references folder. Or you could use Google and search for images. After work, just walking outside might give you an interesting idea you could use somewhere. Because I grew up here, I also remembered a lot of places from my childhood. In fact, most places I designed in The Witcher 3 resemble those memories.

Mark: As Kacper mentioned we have a big reference folder full of photographs and a lot of historical paintings by artists from Slavic countries to draw inspiration from. These were particularly useful for building our various human settlements and keeping them authentic. Other than that I visited a couple of open air museums that have recreated or sometimes preserved old buildings and village layouts. The natural spaces are inspired by all the countryside I have spent time in or seen in films and documentaries. You become aware just how much it really pays off to take in the world around you, both small and large scale, when you are helping to create a world of your own.

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Looking at the size and visual fidelity of the environments it's amazing how much you have done while being a relatively small team. I guess each artist was responsible for a considerable chunk of the map. What techniques did you employ to tackle this challenge?

Mark: Initially everyone was working together to create all the location blockouts for quests and points of interest without dividing the team apart based on region. Once everything existed in at least the most basic form, then we divided the team amongst the areas of the world. So that smaller groups of artists could focus on creating a consistent character for an area, sharing motifs and other theme building techniques. This helped create the personality and individuality of our regions.

Kacper: My first task (for level art) was based in No Man’s Land. After talking with the team about the overall feel we want to achieve in that part of the game, I had pretty good understanding of what I would like to do. While working, I’ve learned the assets that were most suitable for that region. Spitfire Bluff island was my entry point, it was basically empty (only with blockouts). I also did some POIs from scratch, without a blockout. Of course all done working very closely with quest designers and level designers. Later on the environment team was divided into regions. I spent most of my time on No Man’s Land while Mark mostly worked on Skellige. Luckily, we could all rely heavily on Lucjan Więcek, who is our Lead Environment Artist. He’s been very helpful in overseeing and coordinating everything. Having said that, the smaller teams worked very closely together. We discussed, planned and executed our goals for the region we had been assigned to.

By now, it’s pretty obvious that The Witcher is a huge success. Both in sales and reception. How does it make you feel, knowing that you contributed to something that is loved by so many?

Kacper: It’s just super awesome. I’ve always wanted to work on popular AAA games and that dream came true. Seeing those great reviews was thrilling and exciting. I got many emails, texts and calls from my friends who congratulated me. Even people who didn’t really play games were super excited. At some point I felt like a rock star. Two days after the release, I did a speech for a gamedev event. The positive attitude between industry pros was also something very nice.

Mark: The response from the gaming public has been very humbling, it is an especially good feeling to know so many people get so much pleasure from our work. We have a steady stream of emails from fans congratulating us for the game, or thanking us for the experience. Makes for some very motivating reading to accompany the morning coffee and get you ready for the day.

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Again, thank you so much guys for doing this interview with me and sharing this with our audience. I wish you both the best of luck in your future endeavours! Also, a thank you to Krzysztof 'Tepcio' Teper for helping with some of the questions. Last but not least, a shout out to CD Projekt Red for allowing this to happen and promoting it on their social media pages. 


Beck, El_Exodus, FMPONE and 20 others like this
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Whooo !! I'll read that after work ! Thank you for this new article guys (and even I've not read it yet ; I have to say that you made a fucking awesome work on this game and thanks for that !).

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The landscapes are simply breathtaking.

I don't have the game to "indulge" in them in-game but the screenshots already look impressive :)

Well done gentlemen and keep up the quality work.

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