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I was there when The Witcher 3 launched

As the Game of the Year Edition arrives, we take a look back.

I was there when The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt launched. For three days I was in the eye of the storm of perhaps the biggest game launch I'm ever likely to personally see. And what follows is my account of it - an account first published 20th August 2015.

What I didn't know back then was the impact The Witcher 3 would have. But a year later, as the ever-so-appropriate Game of the Year Edition arrives, the impact is clear: The Witcher 3 has become a new benchmark, for role-playing games and beyond. So enjoy a trip down memory lane in celebration of it.

Don't do anything silly, I'm told, or they'll probably shoot you.

I'm being warned about the stern people in suits all around me, coiled cables dangling from their ears, who've swept the building three times in preparation of what's to come. There's a man in big black boots in the hallway who doesn't like me taking his picture, and the dog he's got on a leash looks like it might do something about it. Swarming around are people in suits snapping orders like maître d's. The studio reception resembles a media room with jutting lighting rigs and cameras, and the canteen looks like a cinema with a PA system blaring out. A pack of hardened national press clog the entrance, necks sagging under the weight of their tools.

Earlier I was told a politician will visit this evening. But no-one had mentioned that this politician would be the Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz. She's coming to CD Projekt in Warsaw on the eve of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt's launch. Today is Monday, 18th May 2015.

Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, the CD Projekt board, and the surrounding craziness.

CD Projekt staff frantically tidy their office and their selves, throwing jackets over Witcher 3 T-shirts to wolf whistles from colleagues nearby. A calmer face amid the chaos belongs to company co-founder and leader Marcin Iwiński, who grins at the mayhem. "The Witcher is a big thing in Poland," he tells me by way of explanation. "It is like a national pride, a national symbol." Sure, the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski started it all, but it was the games that made The Witcher famous worldwide.

A clacking of cameras heralds Kopacz's arrival, and she tornadoes through the office steered by Iwiński and the rest of the CD Projekt board. At one point I'm standing on my own where I probably shouldn't be, and I come face-to-face with her and Iwiński and Adam Badowski, head of CD Projekt Red. I take a photo, my favourite of the week.

Kopacz's visit ends with a speech at reception and smiles and laughter, and the prime minister receives a collector's edition of the game to play. There's some posing before she's whisked off, and as the crowd packs away Iwiński tells me she was genuinely curious about what she saw. But will she play the game? He hopes so.

Unlike the prime minister, I am here for the long haul. I came two years ago to tell the history of the studio but that was nothing compared to this. This is history in the making. I am here for three days to learn about the game's development while watching first-hand as it is released into the wild. I am backstage at someone else's curtain call, just as uncertain what awaits on the other side.

The Witcher 3 began in the summer of 2011 when lead quest designer Konrad Tomaszkiewicz was called in to see the head of the studio, Adam Badowski. "OK, we will do The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk," he was told, in a very matter of fact way. "And I want you to be game director of The Witcher 3. You will get total freedom to do the game you want to play. And I hope it will be a good game." That's how Tomaszkiewicz remembers it. Just like that, he was director of CD Projekt's big new game. "I was like 'oh my god I did the quests and now I need to lead the full project!'"

The wraith with the tongue at the entrance.

The goal for The Witcher series was always to take it to an open world, but it couldn't be done in the first game back in 2007 because BioWare's Aurora engine couldn't handle it, and it couldn't be done for the sequel in 2011 because the in-house RedEngine was still too fresh to take the strain. But with The Witcher 3 it was a possibility, and there were exciting new consoles on the horizon to help make it happen. Not everyone was up for the challenge; multiplatform development for consoles not even fully visible yet? An open world? Can't we all just relax a bit?

"[They] had just finished crunch mode and they were very tired," Adam Badowski remembers. "They wanted to change the atmosphere in the studio and make it less difficult. They tried to push us to have a similar game to The Witcher 2, without taking a huge risk. They knew that it would be super ambitious."

"In the beginning everyone was really scared," Konrad Tomaszkiewicz adds. "We didn't have any experience with open worlds, we didn't have experience on the PS4 and Xbox One; in that time there wasn't the dev kits yet on the market - it was a year after we started work on the game. And people were really shocked that we wanted to do so much."

It wasn't as if the first two games had been a doddle. The Witcher was a messy bowl of spaghetti because the studio had never shipped a game before, while the second was a fight for life after the failed console project Rise of the White Wolf nearly brought the company to its knees. Once upon a time the plan was to begin The Witcher 3 at the same time as The Witcher 2, in 2008, but Rise of the White Wolf ruined all that. So I can understand people's trepidation about the grand goals for The Witcher 3. "I had to convince people," Badowski says. "I had to fight for these things."

"But with every month they believed more in the game," Tomaszkiewicz adds, "and when the game was in the shape you could play, everyone believed." In February 2013, after years of us all pretty much knowing it was in development, The Witcher 3 was finally unveiled.

At lunchtime on Monday the canteen is filling up and there's a jittery excitement in the air. There's still downloadable content and expansions to be made for The Witcher 3, but a line in the sand is about to be drawn, and people are looking around for any kind of sign that means they can now celebrate the special day. Brown cardboard boxes the size of microwaves are stacked wherever they'll fit, and within them are Collector's Editions of the game, enough to give one each to the 250-plus people working here.

On reception sits Marcin Iwiński, and he's slapping labels on boxes, absorbed in his work. Iwiński is so often the voice of CD Projekt in the company's open letters to the community that he's come to personify it in my mind. He's looking scruffy in old paint-splattered trousers and a T-shirt, hair unkempt and stubble bordering on a beard, but he doesn't appear to be nervous. "Um," he pauses when I poke my nose in to say hello and ask how things are going, "I think this is the question you should ask me tomorrow." He smiles a mischievous smile. "I'm feeling happy. Tomorrow it will be different if something doesn't work!"

Marcin Iwiński slaps labels on boxes.

He's learnt the hard way about launching games, from his upbringing in Polish distribution to his frustrations with publishers regarding the last two Witcher games. He wanted The Witcher to launch everywhere in a goody-packed box as it did in Poland, where CD Projekt distributed it, but Atari said no and insisted on a stingy old DVD box instead. It took until the Enhanced Edition in 2008 to remedy it. "I was really pissed," Iwiński says.

The Witcher 2 was a co-publishing deal but the problems were more severe. It sounds like Iwiński fought against the loathsome SecuROM anti-piracy DRM, but it was still there at launch, and still had to be patched out after launch - as did the game's launcher, which was built by an external company. "We got like 10,000 emails to our customer support from people who couldn't get the game to work. And that was," he says - and he doesn't normally swear, "a f***ing disaster." Making different bits of downloadable content for different shops was a mistake too. "We shouldn't have agreed to that," he rues.

But our mistakes shape us, and that's why The Witcher 3 is, as much as possible, in CD Projekt's hands. It owns the IP, entirely funds the project, manages all marketing and PR (with a little help around launch), and distributes it via its online game shop GOG.com. When physical distribution partners are no longer needed, I expect CD Projekt won't need anybody else.

There were so many ideas early on for The Witcher 3 that it very nearly became two games.

The story's core was nailed early on, and had the goal of bringing Yennefer and Ciri in where they had been excluded before. And it was to be more personal and less political, the lead writer Marcin Blacha tells me. "We wanted to make a game about a disabled family," he says in his low, ponderous voice. "There is Geralt and Yennefer and Ciri, and they're not like usual people, but they love each other. It's difficult love, but they do. We wanted to make an epic story about a family."

Lead character artist Pawel Mielniczuk shares much unseen concept art with me, but this alternative version of Ciri is my favourite.

But around that were wrapped so many layers that things soon got out of hand. For instance, there were once more islands in Skellige, including one called the Isle of Trials, where you'd be imprisoned by none other than Yennefer. Blacha explains: "There was this moment when they had different goals and Yennefer made a trap for Geralt - I don't remember exactly what, it was something connected to Ciri - to imprison [him] for some time. She made Geralt a prisoner on that island, and Geralt had to escape from this island." Either you could escape by taking the eponymous trials of the island, or you could face off against a monster called Nidhogg (a name borrowed from Norse mythology, suggesting the monster was a gigantic snake of a beast).

A more ambitious idea still, and one that got fairly far down the road, was Geralt joining the game's titular Wild Hunt - the villainous force. "It's a very complicated story," Blacha begins, "but Geralt was an insider. He was joining the Wild Hunt because he was looking for something, he needed to find Ciri. We had this part where he was sailing on this Naglfar, this ship made of human nails, and he had some adventures on some islands and it was full of conspiracy. We even had dialogue trees written, and these dialogue trees were sensitive to what players say to Wild Hunters. Every time you gave a bad answer for a question, or when something was breaking your cover, the conspiracy ended."

Lead quest designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz, Konrad's brother, expands: "You were supposed to disguise yourself as one of the Wild Hunt riders and spend some time with them. It was basically some illusion or spell that made you look like one of them and speak like one of them."

It couldn't all possibly fit in one game. "There were too many characters," Adam Badowski says, "there were too many different super-complicated story plots like those elves, The Wild Hunt. For a while we thought The Witcher 3 would be that big we have to split it into two parts, so [the series] won't be a trilogy - and the plan had always been to do a trilogy. We were very close. But I wanted to have a trilogy. A trilogy is cool, a trilogy looks good! It doesn't look like another... Assassin's Creed game. It was our initial concept - and we need to be in line with our previous decisions."

Today I need to be a party pooper because there's a situation festering that needs attention. The Witcher 3's launch day should be the bow to rapturous applause, a day three-and-a-half years in the making (more if you consider the studio's entire existence has built to this point) - but there are rotten tomatoes in the audience.

It's about that graphics downgrade, about that debut gameplay trailer released at E3 2013, in which the game looked different to how it does now. The questions being flung the studio's way haven't been satisfactorily answered, and the mood has soured. Is CD Projekt Red trying to mislead its fans? A meeting is called between Iwiński, Badowski and Michał Platkow-Gilewski, global communications manager, to figure out what to say.

Marcin Iwiński in thought, with his oolong tea.

Around me the impact of the debate is clear. This is a company usually held in high regard by the gaming community - a champion of no DRM, of giving away content for free and of clear communication - and it is now under fire. I bump into senior games designer Damien Monnier, who has charismatically fronted the game before now, and he's visibly disappointed by the negative connotations the debate brings. He's not the only one.

What I don't yet realise is that it will take me another two days of pestering to get the answer I want, and that I feel everyone else wants. Initially Adam Badowski is put forwards to give me a technical explanation, so I sit there in the meeting room pointing at comparison images and videos on my laptop, asking him why things changed. He gives me an honest explanation, but it's only half the story. He says: "It's strange for me because from my perspective it is just a technical consequence of many things, so I cannot see this through gamer's perspective. For me it's a complex problem connected to many technical decisions."

What I really need is a human angle - an apology, some recognition that there's been an issue. Adam Badowski isn't trying to hide anything but I believe he sees the world in a different way and struggles to communicate that, English not being his native language (and even if it were I think his mind would far out-pace his mouth). What I really need is Marcin Iwiński. But he's very busy now, so I have to wait to speak to him again. "I very well know what you are talking about and this is important to me," he says. "I see it, I deeply care about it, and I'm a realist. You are here tomorrow, let's talk about it tomorrow. Maybe you will see something that will happen." And then he flashes me a mischievous grin: "I have a cunning plan."

He and Badowski are pushed and pulled this way and that in the following days, but the day after launch we finally sit down, along with Michał Platkow-Gilewski, for our summit. Incidentally, that cunning plan he had didn't come to pass, but it was audacious. It relied on factors outside of CD Projekt's control. Our meeting turns out a 25-minute answer that I write in a separate article there and then.

The make or break point for ideas came roughly half-way through The Witcher 3's development. The team sat and looked at all it had and what it could realistically do to a high standard. "If you want to release a game, you cut," Konrad Tomaszkiewicz says. And these are the features he cut.

When The Witcher 3 was announced in February 2013 there was talk of a slow-motion targeting system a bit like VATS in Fallout 3. The example back then was whacking a vampire's poison gland to disable its poison attack, or trying to skewer both its hearts at once to kill it outright.

As Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz now explains: "We wanted to do this thing with vital points on monsters that basically you get into this slow-mo mode, or even paused-game mode, and you could choose which vital spots you want to hit. We had some prototypes of this but it was extremely complicated. I think it was called Witcher Sense during combat - I don't remember exactly. It was pretty crazy.

"It was crazy because I remember that a lot of assets were already started in production. When you started this mode you got this x-ray view. If you were looking at me right now you would see my skull, my insides, and you could decide..." Dangerous place to leave it hanging. "It was crazy ambitious," he goes on, "but it was a technical nightmare."

There were other mini-games before the card game Gwent eclipsed most of them, including dagger or axe throwing, and a drinking game. "We had this idea to do dagger-throwing in the game," he says. "It was supposed to be on Skellige. I don't remember exactly - was it daggers or axes? But it was supposed to be one of the mini-games in the game.

"Also we were planning this drinking game - we even had the prototype for it. I think we even had it for [the game reveal] we were doing. It was this mini-game where you sat down with another character and you had the meter of how intoxicated you are, and the first one that dropped during the drinking game loses. So you had to choose alcohols appropriately to stay up longer. It was a nice idea that we could use in this one quest we were doing, but when we thought about it with a more broad perspective, it didn't really fit. We didn't use it that much and the production costs were pretty high for this mini-game because it was separate animations, cameras, dialogue for these guys."

Ice skating has been talked a bit about before, and Konrad Tomaszkiewicz really liked it. The idea came from the fourth Witcher novel written by Andrzej Sapkowski, The Swallow's Tower, released in 1997 (the English translation is due in 2016), in which Ciri sees off her pursuers in a bloody bout of ice skating. The idea for it being in The Witcher 3 came from a big Sapkowski fan working on Cyberpunk 2077 upstairs.

"We started doing animations and so on," Tomaszkiewicz recalls. "But we saw in the production that it was a choice between ice skating and some global systems we got in the game, and we needed to cut it off. But maybe in some expansion or something we will add it," he teases, "because it's a cool idea."

Kinect support was even on the cards at one point. I spy a sheet of gesture commands while I nose around the office, but I'm not allowed to reproduce that sheet for you here. There were around a dozen covering the major inputs in the game. "We got it working somehow," Tomaszkiewicz tells me, "but it's easy to create a feature that somehow works: to polish it and make it really useful and cool it's twice more time. If it's a choice between whether we need to finish the streaming system or we need to finish Kinect, it's like, pssh!"

Other cuts include a special frozen version of Novigrad for the final battle; the world itself being completely seamless and open; and you being able to choose one of three hubs to begin the story in. For one reason or another, they didn't work. Such cuts are as important as creating, lead writer Marcin Blacha says. "Changes are always necessary. Over my desk I have printed the five stages of grief, and it's [there] to get rid of grief for lost ideas."

The most important month in The Witcher 3's development was last October, which was when the game's open-world streaming engine would finally be ready for use. Before then, the game wasn't whole, wasn't knitted together, and couldn't be played through. "That means we have time from October to put the game together and test it and fight all of the bugs and polish it," Konrad Tomaszkiewicz says. The internal aim for the game's release was December 2014, he thinks, which means they had from October to December to get it all done. Talk about cutting it fine. He makes the case to Adam Badowski that they need more time, and Badowski makes the case to the board, and in March 2014, CD Projekt Red announces a delay: The Witcher 3 will come out in February 2015 instead.

Something "really really scary" then happens in October 2014, at that first playthrough of the game. The great open-world is realised but it feels... empty. "We had these cool quests, this cool content, but nothing in between," Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz says. "We knew it's not enough," his brother Konrad adds, "and we knew if we want to release an open-world game we got to fill it with interesting content, and we got a really short amount of time to do it." It's at this moment the question marks - points of interest - are born, all twists on around 20 templates dreamt up by a newly created and dedicated strike force team.

There is a focused intensity to Adam Badowski.

But the hardest decision came in December, two months after that pivotal playthrough. "We thought about February," Konrad Tomaszkiewicz says. "We knew that the game worked, it's really cool, but it's unpolished and you've got a lot of bugs. We showed the list of the bugs, we told honestly how many of them we can fix by February, and we knew that it will be not enough, because at that time we got around 5000 bugs, and we thought maybe we will fix 2000 - so 3000 will be left in the game. We were between the decision that we release a buggy game or we will spend three more months and try to fix all of the bugs."

To you or I the choice may sound simple, but imagine being a developer on the front line: you've already crunched towards one deadline, given it your all, and now you will have to do it again. It fell on Adam Badowski's shoulders to break the bad news. "The second delay was terrible," he recalls. "The first one I said 'OK, it won't happen anymore because it simply can't - our partners oblige us to deliver on time. The second delay: it's not possible.' And the second delay came and I had to stand in front of the team and I said 'there's a delay and we're moving the date'. And they were super-disappointed.

"Those faces... They knew; they realised that there's another period of time crunching. And previously I said something different. But that's my role. It's uncomfortable, it's bad, and it costs you a lot, but if you believe that the game will be super-successful and focus on [that]... You need to tell them, 'Now you're crunching and you're super-tired and you hate this company, but our goal is 90-plus and you'll see - you'll see. You'll feel this amazing moment and everything else will disappear.' Those guys will be super-happy, they will be proud. Their friends, families and colleagues will be proud of this game.

They can laugh about it now!

"It's like a book," he adds. "No one will take it over, it will stay forever."

The Witcher 3 release date became 19th May and people dug in, stayed late and gave it their all. You can only make a first impression once. "It's a fight 'til the end," Marcin Iwiński says. "And I feel that because of the energy of all the people, of all the team, we can say that the game got something similar to a soul," Konrad Tomaszkiewicz adds.

The game's release still hinged on certification, which was pushed back to the last possible moment. "We knew we had one shot at this certification and it will go or it won't," he says. There were bugs in the game and certification was strict, and there were six SKUs each of The Witcher 3 for PS4 and Xbox One. "That means we needed to pass 12 SKUs. We sent it and we waited," he gulps. "One was passed, the second was passed... OK, let's pray to pass another one. We went through Sony first and then we waited for Xbox... And after we passed all of the certs we met here, downstairs. Adam opened this huge bottle of champagne, and we drank."

He had much shorter curly hair when I met him in 2013, Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, but now it's long and wild. It's that way because a friend told him it's not possible to do a game like this. "So I told him I will not cut my hair until release."

The release of The Witcher 3 is now mere minutes away. I keep pinching myself because that date I see on the poster - that date that once seemed so far away - is almost here. I'm on my way to a mall in Warsaw where The Witcher 3 will be let loose.

Konrad Tomaszkiewicz remembers the first review, and twiddling his thumbs as the 4pm embargo approached. A link to the GameSpot review came through from marketing. "I shouted to the guys, 'It's there! It's there! It's the first review!' I open it and it was 10/10, and in the whole studio it was so loud - we just jumped on each other and it was a really cool moment, because we knew that we had bugs but they saw something more in the game, not only the game itself. And for everyone who works in CD Projekt Red that was the most important thing: to create something unique, to create something that would mean more than the game."

The midnight launch crowd in Warsaw.

Gripes about bugs and minor issues were expected because CD Projekt Red had seen the issues itself, but criticisms of some of the game's content were harder to take, such as a key storyline that involved alcoholism and abuse. "It was designed by people who had problems in their homes, had fathers who were alcoholics and so on," Tomaszkiewicz says, "and we made it as real as we can. It's not a very simple subject - it's a very complex subject - and we wanted to show this subject from this complex side, to show people that this is really hard to judge.

"We always tried to do it like this, with the racism in the first Witcher and the second one, and in the third one we did drugs and other subjects also. Usually those subjects are really complex and you cannot do simple things, because it's not like this in real life. And the game is a mirror of the situations you can get in real life. It's not simple entertainment. It's more like doing a piece of art, and you want to do something ambitious, something that will leave some thoughts in people's minds."

Nudity and sex and the portrayal of women was called into question too. There was an issue clearing the A Night to Remember launch cinematic because it had "tits in", Badowski recalls, even though, to him, they were monster nipples so he didn't see the problem. "This kind of thinking affects our game also," he goes on. "We show sex, but Yennefer is a super-strong character in the game, and she, obviously, has sex with Geralt because they were lovers in Sapkowski's books. And the game is rated Mature.

A model hired to be a rather convincing Geralt. I bumped into him at the bar in my hotel.

"In movies people have no issues with that, and our game is a story that's longer than a movie. But we have all those elements; we need those moments to establish emotions between characters, to show this is 'this kind' of relation between those characters. Sometimes it's super-difficult because you have to rise-up those emotions not in Geralt but in the player, so we need to show some different moments in their relationship."

But reviews and pre-orders are only a guide: what really matters is what the gaming public makes of it. What the forums say, and what the general buzz is. In other words, what happens from midnight tonight. "For us it's a huge step," Badowski says. "This is my 13th year here and this is my magnum opus. This is it. We are launching."

Mall regulations and rising costs prevent CD Projekt Red hosting a mega-event but still there's a stage. On it are the Polish cast of The Witcher 3, handing out prizes and answering questions from the crowd. Hundreds turn out, and as the clock ticks down they swarm the gated barrier of the electronics chain selling the game. A pack of CD Projekt Red staff have gravitated here independently and there's a poignant moment when they gather together with the hired models and cosplayers for a photo - a picture I can imagine hanging memorably on an office wall. The clock strikes midnight and the wave of shoppers crashes in; cameras and phones flash as copies of the game are held up like trophies at the till. That's it. That was it. The Witcher 3 is out and in people's hands.

I return at around 1am to a very quiet CD Projekt Red where a skeleton staff remain for the long haul. Adam Badowski is among a clump huddled around a screen watching feedback come in, poised to pounce if anything were to emerge. Now is the crucial time. He takes me through to GOG's monitoring area where there are snacks and caffeinated drinks but all is calm, and I stare tiredly at the graph charting the number of people playing the game. 6000... I ask him when Steam will release, for that is really the big one, and he replies that it has. 8000... Then that is it, I realise. That's really it. I congratulate him and he allows a small smile. "It's too quiet," he replies, and walks away.

As I ate what remained of a takeaway last night in a deserted canteen I thought out loud about a new era for CD Projekt Red and when it would begin. Maybe it has begun with that bite of cold pizza, another responded, by which he meant it is already under way. Exactly what shape this era takes depends on how well The Witcher 3 does. "It can be very good or it can be f***ing amazing," Marcin Iwiński says. "If it's good I think we're covered for everything we want to do.

"If we had released the game to ratings of 60 [per cent] then probably I will tell you our plans would be affected, but that's not really what we're here for, to release games that are crap." [The game sold 4m copies in two weeks, which is probably in the "f***ing amazing" category. A CDPR PR tells me the first two games in the series have sold more than 10m copies combined.]

CD Projekt from outside and over the road. Most of the studio is actually situated behind that front building, but still, it's about as unremarkable as it gets.

Those plans obviously include Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red's next big game, which was announced in May 2012. I had a look up upstairs at Cyberpunk development when I visited in 2013, but I wasn't allowed this time. There were around 50 people on the team back then so I imagine pre-production and planning are been done, but beyond that I don't know. All work done on the RedEngine for The Witcher will be mutually beneficial, and the experience the studio gained likewise.

"We shouldn't talk about it now," says Iwiński. "We are getting a lot of questions and right now we are in The Witcher 3 mode as you can probably see all around. It will be our next big one and we will be talking about it when we're ready. I can only say that this year's definitely about The Witcher. In all honesty we've already teased Cyberpunk, we've shown the trailer, the CGI. We've talked about the setting and about the key features. And right now when we talk we have to have something to say and show that's really meaningful. I wouldn't like to go 'hey another CGI!' A significant part [of the studio] will go onto Cyberpunk and then maybe you know we are doing something else as well," he grins, "which I cannot talk about."

As for The Witcher licence, there are two expansions for The Witcher 3 and beyond that, Badowski doesn't know. "We need some time," he says. "We need to take a breath from The Witcher franchise. We have some ideas but let's wait."

Nevertheless, there is an office cat.

"Just to make one thing clear," Iwiński chimes in, "there's quite a long support planned for The Witcher 3 still, so we're not abandoning people. For The Witcher 1 and 2 we were supporting the game for roughly two years each, and that's the same [here]. When people shell out fifty quid for The Witcher 3, we owe them a lot, and we are there to support them. Of course it won't be the full team: at a certain point it will be much smaller."

There are plans for a new office and have been for a few years, Iwiński tells me. Something like a campus with more outdoor space and maybe a gym and kindergarten, he says. "Things that will make people feel at home, including me.

"I have been once to visit Blizzard in Irvine and I really liked what they had there..." he adds. "Of course it will be in our style, but a place where people can work and live."

With mention of Blizzard comes a fear of the big time, of becoming a corporation, and of CD Projekt Red no longer being one of the good guys - not to suggest that Blizzard isn't. Look at what happened to BioWare's image under EA. When you're at the top, the only place you can go is down.

"What we have as the slogan of our studio is that 'we are rebels'," Iwiński says. "Rebels, underdogs - I think it's a state of mind. The moment we start becoming conservative [and] stop taking creative risks and business risks, and stop being true to what we're doing, that's when we should worry. And I am not worried. Our values and our care for what we are doing and - hopefully what gamers would agree with - care for gamers is what drives this company forward. Whether we are big or small, we have a multiplatform open-world game or just a PC release, the game and our deeds are what counts, not the fact that we are perceived by some as the big guys.

"It's my personal horror to become a faceless behemoth of game development or publishing or whatnot," he adds. "As long as I am here I will be fighting for this not to happen."

As if the Polish Prime Minister wasn't enough, day two had begun with the CD Projekt board having presidential breakfast with Bronislaw Komorowski - remarkable, given that I don't believe Adam Badowski has slept just yet. He disappears for a lie down later when a procession of models and cosplayers from last night's festivities work their way through the office to the accompaniment of drums, delivering invitations to everyone for next week's party. Some 250 people, plus partners, will get together and celebrate their collective achievement. "This will be a time for emotions," Iwiński says.

As the week wears on, CD Projekt Red settles back down and people catch up on sleep. A big patch is sent to certification, and work on the expansions gets properly under way. Iwiński and a fellow member of the board, Michal Nowakowski, head down to Krakow 200km south of Warsaw to the Digital Dragons conference with me.

They speak on a panel about why Polish game development is currently booming (The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, This War of Mine, Dying Light, Lords of the Fallen and, of course, The Witcher 3) and they join me for an on-stage Q&A about the mistakes they've made in business and the lessons they've learned. And sure enough, when we open for questions, someone brings us bang up to date by asking about the graphics downgrade. Nowhere are critics more fierce than on home soil, I see. Iwiński gives a heartfelt answer (and cheekily accuses me of buying the question afterwards) but I can see he's wearied by it. He is only human.

I mentioned before that I see Iwiński as a personification of the studio, but what I think I mean is that it's his humanity that personifies the studio. CD Projekt Red isn't one person but many, and it is all of their hearts in this game. As I return home and begin playing The Witcher 3 I realise I can see them, there in the arthouse camera angles that surprise me in minor cut-scenes, there in the abrupt jokes and farts of the ordinary people I pass. They are the incidental detail that goes above and beyond, and what makes this game so memorable.

I don't know that I'll ever see a game launch from the inside again; I don't know that I'll ever see a prime minister celebrate a game's release again. It was the coming together of a powerful brand and prospering industry, and for CD Projekt the culmination of everything it has worked for. Now the studio steps out of Sapkowski's shadow and goes it alone, and that future is incredibly bright. In so many ways CD Projekt speaks a different language, and while it may not always say the right thing, what it does say is unique, and what it does say is different. And to me, different is always worth listening to.

This article came from a trip CD Projekt Red paid accommodation and flights for.