Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Witcher Staff Talks about Games and Gamers

Step 1. Don't treat gamers like shit. Step 2. Profit! (See, didn't even need the other two steps)

The Witcher has been a series that has garnered a lot of commercial and critical acclaim, so when some of the people behind the successful series sat down to talk to Gamasutra, people were keen to hear what they had to say. There was some banter about their upcoming game Cyberpunk, but the talk also turned to The Witcher itself, as well as gaming in general.

Especially interesting to me was the talk they devoted to layers, and how by developing different layers within games you could appeal to multiple audiences, from people who just want to play the game through and then move on, to the hardcore players that seek out every detail and secret:

Marcin Iwinski (Co-founder and joint CEO): With our next game, we want the hardcore player to be able to get more context, and we need to introduce the game and characters to people more properly. In The Witcher 1, for example, we were throwing people in the middle of the story, and we assumed that players would know what is happening. But a lot of players told us that they didn't really understand this relationship or that relationship.

Adam Badowski (Studio head): Also, it's not important, for example, that every city on the game's map have its own story. If you're a hardcore player, however, you should be able to go in and find something interesting. This way, you can create those layers for the new and the hardcore players.

Michal Platkow-Gilewski (Head of marketing): Players should be able to choose how deep they want to enter the story, the plot. If they're really hardcore, they can really dig deeper and deeper and deeper, and if they're just casual, they can still learn about the characters and the story, but they'll do that by going in another direction.

It's such a simple concept that it should really be obvious, but it seems to me that letting the player decide just how deep down the rabbit hole they want to go is something that generally isn't implemented a whole lot. Most games are pretty much what they represent on the surface; if you search hard enough you might find some cute Easter Eggs or things like that, but not really anything that changes how you'd look at the characters, world, or anything else.

I'll admit that the concept does lend itself the best to RPGs where the player is encouraged to slow down and take everything in most of the time, but there's absolutely no reason that such an approach can't work with other faster-paced games as well. Even though it was somewhat of a hybrid I believe that the original Deus Ex was very strong in this regard as well.

What really caught my attention though, was what Iwinski had to say about the decision to update all the existing copies of The Witcher 2 to the enhanced edition for free when they released it. He explains:

MI: Well, we had a lot of discussions with The Witcher 1's Enhanced Edition. It was a bit different then because we had a publishing deal whereas now we have distribution deals. When we had that publishing deal, we went to the publisher, and said, "So we have this idea where we make all this stuff, all this new content, and you don't pay anything for it, we give it away for free. How about that?" The publisher went all big-eyed and said, "Whoa! Let's charge 10 dollars! 10 Euro!" But we believed that we would sell more units if we put it out for free.

And when we put it out for free, we saw a boost in the sales with the Enhanced Edition because it just created good will, and it refreshes the product. You can always do it from two angles, and sadly I see the industry trending toward over-exploiting the gamer, and I think this will come back to the publishers that are doing that, and eventually, people will stop buying their stuff. That's just not the way things work.

I think that the approach that they used to update the existing copies for free was a good move, and they are probably right to attribute the sales they saw partly to that end. I'm more on the fence about the idea of exploitation. I can see and agree with the statement that some companies out there are exploiting gamers, but of course not all after market content is as such. Some DLC is quite worth owning, and is also fairly priced for what it is, additionally added content can be distributed for free a la Team Fortress 2 or for a low price, depending on just what it actually is. I think that it does get a little ridiculous when you're paying more money for extra costumes, or even worse, paying to win, but it's a more delicate balance than what I believe is being portrayed here.

Still, with all of the debacles regarding things like on-disc DLC, overpriced and underwhelming offerings I can definitely understand the reservations these guys have, and the fact that they're actually doing something about it on their own front and practicing what they preach is refreshing and a nice change of pace. Good work guys, keep it up.

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