With, perhaps, less competition than in previous years, Cyberpunk 2077 has once again stolen the show at E3 2019. Stamping its presence on the event with the reveal of both Keanu Reeves and a solid release date during Microsoft's Xbox press conference last weekend, CD Projekt's role-player impressed again during its second hands-off gameplay demo - even if it did feel much more like a video game and less like magic this time around.
CD Projekt Red still has some 10 months to release, but with word of its launch date comes our curiosity for what will be in the game at when it arrives. This time last year, CD Projekt Red told Eurogamer it had a multiplayer mode in R&D. What's happening with that? Has the studio got a handle on its crunch? And does a launch early next year, before the arrival of next-gen consoles for Christmas 2020, suggest ports in the future?
I sat down for an extended chat with Cyberpunk 2077's lead quest designer Paweł Sasko to discuss all the above and much more below. Oh, and if you're after even more on the game, I yesterday sat down with the artist behind the game's poster which has sparked so much attention.
What role does Keanu Reeves' Johnny Silverhand character play in the game?
Sasko: It's such an important role, he's in the game from almost the beginning to the very, very end. He's one of the core arcs of the story.
If you look at the CGI trailer - which is an actual quest in the game, though in first-person - V does a deal to get this chip and it looks a fairly simple job but there's way more layers below. It turns out there's some connection between Johnny Silverhand and this chip. Now, in Cyberpunk 2020, Johnny died. He was blasted, killed by Adam Smasher. But now he's back as this digital ghost. And I don't want to tell you more because it will spoil the story!
One of the reasons a release next April feels surprisingly soon is it rules out a simultaneous launch on next-gen consoles - will that come later?
Sasko: Right now we're focusing on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One but obviously in the future we'd probably like to have Cyberpunk 2077 on the next platforms. But that's really a matter for the future, to be honest. Right now we're focusing on these.
One of the things we learned with The Witcher 3 was, you should not delay working on the console versions, ever. So at all times we have a version running for everything. And of course, the high-end version we're showing running it is completely different to the consoles, the current-gen is starting to get old. So there's some things which won't look as crisp. But the important thing to us is it will be fluid, it will play on your machine. There are limitations for any given hardware, that's a natural thing. But we'll do everything we can to squeeze as much as we can.
Do you have next-gen developer kits squirreled away somewhere, though?
Sasko: I... can't comment on that, sorry!
CD Projekt has talked about multiplayer before. Now you have a release date set, can you confirm it will just be single-player at launch?
Sasko: Yes, 100 per cent. We're not really working on multiplayer, our sole focus is single-player. We'll do that, then we'll see. We're not saying no but we're not saying yes. If something does happen it will definitely be post-launch and that's as much as I can say right now.
From the snippets we've seen of the Night City overworld, would something GTAO-style work?
Sasko: There were some discussions in the studio but nothing we're actually working on, making it happen, testing. Possibly for the future.
Is there anything you'd avoid with multiplayer which might not feel authentic?
Sasko: For sure, I mean we're known for good stories, amazing characters, choices and consequences. So this is something for sure we'd be going with, if anything happened regarding that. We'd avoid anything that's not that. If we do it, it'll be our style.
And with that release date set, do you have a plan in place to mitigate crunch?
Sasko: The date is really adjusted to the production schedule, so when we disclosed the date, we were convinced we could do it. I think we're a bit further than some people think we are. It's still almost a year to work on it and we know how much we can do in a year when we're a pretty big team and a well-oiled machine. We're pretty comfortable we can deliver on this date and not kill ourselves.
It's a complex topic. We just love this project and we want to work on it. And if someone was to tell me to stop, or that I didn't need to do something, I'd say - I want to make this better. Am I supposed to agree to something that's worse? I won't. I fucking won't do it. I'll never do it. And the guys here? They'll say the same. We won't agree to release something that's crap. Ever.
No one's going to say it's crap. But there's a balance to that and working 100 hour weeks. 100 hour weeks are extreme. It's more about being clever and picking the right battles. There are things you can invest time in which are invisible to player, whereas there are small things you can do that are players will absolutely appreciate. [Crunch] is a huge mistake which this industry needs to better at, but it's a complex topic.
Just to make sure - you're not working 100 hour weeks?
Sasko: Now? No. Things happen in production - I've done eight games and I know from so many situations, things happen. You just have to fix it and move forward.
2077 borrows a lot from cyberpunk - does it return the favour and add some things to cyberpunk too?
Sasko: Cyberpunk almost died - you very rarely got any new books, new comic books. To be honest, since we announced Cyberpunk 2077 there's been a little more of it, you've had the new Blade Runner, Altered Carbon from Netflix. Those things show there's still interest. But it's a genre which is fairly old now, and we've tried to update it. We looked at what it was like in the '80s, then looked at how things might progress in the next 50 years and saw what came out of that. When we made the quadbike V drives, someone said 'this is how it would look if Atari made a car', and that's awesome. We want to update it for a new audience, show the beauty of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk 2020? We're releasing in 2020.
In the demo we saw various class options - do things play out differently, other characters treat you differently because of it, as well as just these unlocking extra dialogue options?
Sasko: In The Witcher 3 we put a branching storyline in an open world. With this, we put the branching storyline in an open world and added branching gameplay. So depending on the class you have, you can do different things. The character and build you have will influence the scenes. If you have an engineering background, you have certain knowledge which will be displayed in a different branch of the scene to the one you'd have normally. And that's a pretty normal thing - in basically every quest, there will be some spots where this happens, though it has to match the story. We make sure players are rewarded for their playstyle.
You mentioned you have a fluid class system - how fluid is it?
Sasko: We'll make sure, no matter the fucking weird build you have, you can always play. There's always a way to figure it out, there's always a way to finish it somehow. Of course, some branches may not be accessible but you can do it. It's a tough thing but a fun thing.
Last year I asked about visiting spaces outside the city, and at the end of this year's demo we got to see a glimpse into cyberspace. Is this what you guys were referring to?
Sasko: Cyberspace is a really dangerous place - as you saw in this year's demo, there were multiple netrunners you needed support from to get in there, you were lying in the bathtub full of ice because your body becomes a CPU and you need a lot of transferring power. So you access cyberspace in specific story moments and in some cases you can explore it.
But the game isn't only Night City. There's an area surrounding it, the Badlands. You can leave the city and explore, see what the world looks like outside the city and... it looks harsh outside the city. But you have quests there, contracts you can do, and you'll be sent there by the main story as well. And there are also a few other surprises...