While open world role-playing game The Witcher 3 has been met with critical acclaim, including receiving an Essential award from Eurogamer, its launch has been marred by discussion of a graphical downgrade.
Much of this discussion revolves around a comparison of the finished game to a PC gameplay trailer that aired two years ago at the VGX game awards show. The VGX trailer, below, shows glimpses of a world more detailed and with more impressive visual effects. Was this PC version neutered because PlayStation 4 and Xbox One couldn't keep up? As launch approached all the questions remained unanswered, and a more damaging accusation arose: did developer CD Projekt Red deliberately try to mislead?
Three days after I arrive in Poland to see CD Projekt, I sit down with company co-founder Marcin Iwinski, studio head Adam Badowski and global communications manager Michal Platkow-Gilewski, for a meeting called specifically to address this issue. It's been a busy week and for one reason or another it's taken until now to face this head on.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, know that a big patch with improvements to graphics and graphical settings was sent to certification today (Wednesday 20th May), and will take between five and seven days to clear. There will be patch notes covering it all.
UPDATE: this patch is live now on PC and coming to console soon. We incorrectly reported this patch would include 600 fixes. CD Projekt was in fact referring to Witcher 3's day one patch here, not patch 1.03. We have edited the article for accuracy. We apologise for the confusion.
In addition, CD Projekt Red will patch the game to allow further editing of .ini files on PC, to push graphical settings even higher. You will be able to tweak grass and vegetation density, post-processing effects such as sharpening, and draw distances. "And we think about some other tricks but we need time," Adam Badowski says.
Did the console versions restrict the PC version?
"If the consoles are not involved there is no Witcher 3 as it is," answers Marcin Iwinski, definitively. "We can lay it out that simply. We just cannot afford it, because consoles allow us to go higher in terms of the possible or achievable sales; have a higher budget for the game, and invest it all into developing this huge, gigantic world.
"Developing only for the PC: yes, probably we could get more [in terms of graphics] as there would be nothing else - they would be so focused, like if we would develop only on Xbox One or PlayStation 4. But then we cannot afford such a game."
Why did the graphics change?
"If you're looking at the development process," Iwinski begins, "we do a certain build for a tradeshow and you pack it, it works, it looks amazing. And you are extremely far away from completing the game. Then you put it in the open-world, regardless of the platform, and it's like 'oh shit, it doesn't really work'. We've already showed it, now we have to make it work. And then we try to make it work on a huge scale. This is the nature of games development."
It was captured PC footage, not pre-rendered, Badowski confirms, but a lot had to change. "I cannot argue - if people see changes, we cannot argue," Adam Badowski says, "but there are complex technical reasons behind it.
"Maybe it was our bad decision to change the rendering system," he mulls, "because the rendering system after VGX was changed." There were two possible rendering systems but one won out because it looked nicer across the whole world, in daytime and at night. The other would have required lots of dynamic lighting "and with such a huge world simply didn't work".
It's a similar story for environments, and their texture sizes and incidental objects. It was a trade-off between keeping that aspect of them or their unique, handmade design. And the team chose the latter. The data-streaming system couldn't handle everything while Geralt galloped around.
The billowing smoke and roaring fire from the trailer? "It's a global system and it will kill PC because transparencies - without DirectX 12 it does't work good in every game." So he killed it for the greater good, and he focused on making sure the 5000 doors in Novigrad worked instead.
"People are saying that 2013 was better but actually there's plenty of things that improved since 2013," Michal Platkow-Gilewski points out. "Size of the world, frames-per-second..."
"Yes!" realises Adam Badowski. "The game's performance: people say the game is well optimised. This is the first time for this company!" It's the first smile I've seen from him all interview.
Marcin Iwinski picks it up: "Maybe we shouldn't have shown that [trailer], I don't know, but we didn't know that it wasn't going to work, so it's not a lie or a bad will - that's why we didn't comment actively. We don't agree there is a downgrade but it's our opinion, and gamers' feeling can be different. If they made their purchasing decision based on the 2013 materials, I'm deeply sorry for that, and we are discussing how we can make it up to them because that's not fair.
"It's very important to stress: we are continuously working on the PC version, and we will be adding a lot of stuff, and there is more to come. We've proven it in the past that we support our games and we will be looking at the feedback and trying to make it better."
Why didn't you say anything until now?
"Frankly speaking because we didn't see it as a problem," Iwinski admits. They didn't ignore the issue: every tweet, every mention of the issue for weeks now has been sent to the tech team to immediately address - and I've seen firsthand how closely they monitor everything said about the game and how much they care.
"You're saying that we should have said 'hey we've changed stuff and now it looks like this'?" he asks. As it was, I tell him, it looked like CD Projekt Red had something to hide. "So actually here we strongly disagree," he returns, "because we are not trying to hide anything." You can't hide what people can so easily compare and see, adds Badowski.
"We don't feel good about it," Iwinski adds, "and I treat it very personally. Maybe it doesn't seem [like that] because we run around like crazy at the release but..."
"The whole team was touched by this," Michal Platkow-Gilewski chimes in, and I can testify to that. "They really care," says Badowski.
Marcin Iwinski adds: "You play it and you are not fine: really, that's touching and we'll do our best to make it up. But if you didn't play it and you're trolling: think twice please.
"In a way, because of us not seeing it as a problem, and working hard on the game until the very end, that's where we are today and that's why we have to explain. I hope it shows our intentions, because we are not hiding anything. Considering our values, hiding is the last thing we ever want to do.
"And for those who are still not 100 per cent decided, I definitely encourage them to wait and see what we will be releasing in patches, updates and whatnot."