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"The Street Finds its Uses for Things" - Cyberpunk 2077 Developer Interview with Lead Quest Designer Paweł Sasko
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 02:56pm 09/07/19 | Comments
Our in-depth chat with lead quest designer and CD Projekt RED veteran, Paweł Sasko, reveals the nitty, gritty and punk nature of Cyberpunk 2077. A not to be missed developer interview...

After last year’s E3, our very own Kosta “Kbit” Andreadis put together a comprehensive synth playlist to “tide you over while you wait for Cyberpunk 2077”. Its varied synth inclusions helped paint a picture of retrofuture cleanliness and grime, in equal measure, to play off what we saw and what was shown from developer CD Projekt RED. At this year’s E3, CDPR took a different route: introducing us to the legendary Johnny Silverhands — ceremoniously announced as being portrayed by the “breathtakingKeanu Reeves. Backed by a less digitally-orchestrated audio space than the year prior, and replaced with a gritty punk rock aesthetic emphasised aurally through the first worldwide reveal of seminal Swedish punk rock band, Refused, as Night City Rockerboys, SAMURAI, and their track “Chippin’ In”.

"It’s a world that has literally jumped off pages and pages of the written form to formally stamp itself among the modern..."



The change in tone addresses a fairly on-the-nose direction for Cyberpunk 2077’s expectations -- this is a space and collection of disparate ideas and concepts; clashing cultures and a world gone both technologically, and capitalistically, awry. It’s a world that has literally jumped off pages and pages of the written form to formally stamp itself among the modern. Albeit retroactively. The utlisation of, and partnership with, a band like Refused should not be downplayed. Cyberpunk Pen & Paper creator Mike Pondsmith used his own ideology of the ‘punk rock’ aesthetic in his world by referencing Bono from U2. He spoke of the ‘call to arms’ U2’s lyrics did to bring people together in protest; to line the streets against oppression. And that’s a nice thought, in a way. But the living, digital world of modern retrofuture Cyberpunk -- CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk -- ideologues a similar thread, only through the finer eye of a sharper needle.



And Refused’s collaboration, at the bequest of composer Piotr Adamczyk, to audio lead, Marcin Przybyłowicz, should be met as a perfect metaphor for what this studio is doing with this license. It’s modernising, for a modern audience, concepts and fantastical ideas that, until this game, have begun to live solely in the imaginations -- and memories -- of so-called “Xennials” or “Gen Y” peeps. And it’s a group I comfortably, and proudly, sit within as do many other ‘older’ gamers. But I digress.

"Obviously it’s dated right now, so we knew that we [had] to update [Cyberpunk] -- that's one thing. The second thing is we need it to develop naturally from that timeline; from 2020 [through to] 2077..."

-- Paweł Sasko



“Oh, absolutely, we've been looking at Cyberpunk 2020 (the Pen & Paper classic), [which was] created in the 80s,” enthuses lead quest designer, Paweł Sasko, when we ask about the game’s ‘retrotech’ in a modern space. “And obviously it’s dated right now, so we knew that we [had] to update [Cyberpunk] -- that's one thing. The second thing is we need it to develop naturally from that timeline; from 2020 [through to] 2077, right?

“So we've been looking into, let’s say, trends in fashion; in art -- you can see here for instance, you have four completely different art styles that have been developed throughout that period,” he adds, pointing to artwork adorning the walls of the E3 interview space we’re sitting in. “And that also applies to architecture, that applies to clothing, that applies to guns; it applies to cars and so on. And when you’re playing you can actually see all those elements that come from the different eras -- as Cyberpunk was developing, as ‘retrofuture’ was developing...”



Importantly, however, the studio has maintained a sense of tone alongside what a retrofuture might look like, because the source material was ahead of its time, no retro pun intended. And Pondsmith is steadfast CDPR’s 57-year jump from 2020 and the “fourth corporate war”; its cumulative social, governmental, corporate and ‘street’ fallout, remains within his original vision, as he stated a number of years ago when he started working with the Polish developer.

“In Cyberpunk it’s not the technology, it’s the feel; getting that dark, gritty rain-wet street feeling,” he impassioned. “But at the same time getting that rock and roll ‘lost and desperate’ dangerous quality...

“People have technology but that wouldn’t fundamentally change the fact that there [is] a lot of treacherous, nasty behaviour… the street finds its uses for things.”

"It’s here in this concept that “streets” and “retrofuture” coalesce. It’s easy to consider our current place in the world. Technology and communication are ubiquitous, but on a simplified lean. The retrofuture we look at now, was the future in the 80s..."



Last year’s reveal talked up Night City being voted the “worst place to live in America”, but emphasised that it’s a place of opportunity. And it’s here in this concept that “streets” and “retrofuture” coalesce. It’s easy to consider our current place in the world. Technology and communication are ubiquitous, but on a simplified lean. The retrofuture we look at now, was the future in the 80s. It’s kind of a fantastical irony of vision on multiple plains. Look, feel, use -- all of it is required to placate what we considered futuristic, and “back in the day” that was sort of easier to manifest from an ‘out there perspective’, I mean, our videos and broadcasts were captured on literal fucking tape.



“There were many times where we were discussing, “wait, in this [instance] you should be able to do this or that”,” Sasko adds. “Like, for instance, you have phone calls -- why shouldn't you be able to just call somebody?” [And] the way we showed it in the demo, when Placide just constantly calls you to tell you something... he's not with you, but really he is right with you, [he’s a] companion. He sees what you see because you are in their network, and [from that] there were lots of times [here] we were, like, “this is too unbelievable; we’re not allowing the player to do a given thing". I think what is really fascinating in designing Cyberpunk, is this thin line that we are walking between [the] experience of the player who’s currently living [in the real-world], and the retrofuture we are trying to create.”

The interesting take away from that remains with the in-engine reveal from last year: we’re introduced to V (our protagonist girl or boy avatar) and Night City on a train. A train on a subway. In the year 2077. If Elon Musk has both his ways, we’ll be commuting on the Hyperloop on our way to SpaceX’s Starship for a vacation to Mars. Or, at least to work... on Mars.

"It’s why Pondsmith jumped at the chance to work with them, and this is before The Witcher 3 truly put them on the map..."



What we know as tomorrow is naturally different to now. And sure, we could just bring up a point about this simply being videogames, so, “who cares?”. Well, CD Projekt RED cares, and it’s why Pondsmith jumped at the chance to work with them, and this is before The Witcher 3 truly put them on the map.

“Everyone is using touchscreens now. There are kids [who are] born right now that are so used to it, it's just so natural for them to use it,” Sasko continues. “[And so] for the player the question is: should we include touchscreens, or not? Should we go into bulkier buttons, you know, [because] they are more retro?



“So there were all these questions we've been asking ourselves; what from the common experience should [we] actually keep in this world to make it believable?”, he continues. “But at the same time, what shouldn't we keep? You know, just to make sure it is the retrofuture.”

"In The Witcher series of games, humour always found a way to rear its head, but in a futuristic setting built off 80s aesthetics, it’s clear the team has been able to spread their creative world-building wings here..."



It’s a fun problem to have though, which is something Paweł isn’t too shy to reveal, specifically around the game’s more retrofuture faux marketing. In some ways it allows for tongue-in-cheek social commentary -- something we’ve seen explored to the nines in Rockstar’s GTA series.

“I absolutely love designing things around brands, everything -- brands of drugs, brands of alcohol, brands of clothes, brands of cars, brands of weapons -- it’s just really, really awesome to work on this [sort of thing].”

In The Witcher series of games, humour always found a way to rear its head, but in a futuristic setting built off 80s aesthetics, it’s clear the team has been able to spread their creative world-building wings here. Night City is truly alive, and in first-person your attachment to its moving neon -- day or night -- is an ever-present sense of POI (point of interest). We’d be naive to not assume how The Witcher evolved over its lengthy period as the studio’s sole key focus didn’t have a major impact on Cyberpunk 2077, though.

“To be honest, we’re using all the experiences we gained [from] The Witcher 3 -- everything people liked,” Sasko says with a giddy smile. “[But] I think we are doing it [even] better right now. We learnt a lot [from The Witcher], and of course we’ve kept all the very good elements; quest design, the really good main quests and side quests and so on...”



At this point we’re curious about how quests and the world are structured against the structure of The Witcher 3. Pointing out that, largely, quests were spiraling and ascending, in equal measure; this way and that. But also that often finding them in the first place wasn’t as emergent as some other open-world games, though we did example the quest that we found in the bookstore in Novigrad, and cited how that was a quest we weren’t expecting to stumble upon, which was an emergent experience. An exciting one, to be honest.

“The events you’re seeking, [in Cyberpunk 2077] we call them Street Stories, and we have a lot of them,” he explains. “[And] those come from things that are happening in the city. As a player, when I'm walking around here and there; when I talk to this guy, suddenly something happens that wouldn't be happening otherwise, and I don't want to spoil it and give you the exact examples, because I would have to name them, but you have to imagine that we have kept a lot of things in a way that if the player does something, that he or she is not really expecting, then suddenly something happens and that takes them to a quest that has its own story with a smaller resolution, and so on. [And we do this] to show how lively the world is.”

"It’s a question that’s been bugging us since 2018 as to whether or not the world of Night City is seamless, or still fragmented, in a way..."



It’s at this point we bring up The Bloody Baron quest-line -- our favourite from the base game, and are delighted to learn that was Paweł and his quest team on The Witcher 3’s baby. But the reason we bring it up is to ask if, like in The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077 also has chapter-like conclusions to the broader quests or even Street Stories. It’s a question that’s been bugging us since 2018 as to whether or not the world of Night City is seamless, or still fragmented, in a way.

“Huh, that's a really interesting question,” he says with a ponderous pause. “What we’re doing in Cyberpunk is, you’ll be meeting lots of different characters; there’s a whole cast of characters that you are going to meet, and you’ll get to know them; forge a relationship with them, [both] through your choices, and referring to them in a certain way. Doing the things that they need you to; helping them out, or fighting against them and so on.



“Now all of that for the important characters, the same way it was in The Witcher 3, it will actually start the branches of separate stories, and you will have separate quests that lead you through that (similarly to The Bloody Baron). And [you’ll] get to know the different characters, and sometimes that will even lead to romance options, if that given character is interested in you, of course, because they might not be. [And] that depends on who you are, what you are, and so on.

“As a player, you have all these branches that are leading you through different stories,” Sasko continues. “I feel that it might be a bit like this: when we were developing when you are going though those stories and there is a certain, I would call it a ‘chapter that ends’, you feel like, “okay, yeah, some kind of story has just ended”. So in that regard I would say yes [to your question], however, one of the important things that we are doing in [Cyberpunk] is trying to make sure that the transition through the quest is really seamless.

"People we’re saying [that] our scene system [for The Witcher 3 was] one of the most advanced scene systems ever created, and frankly we [threw] it away and made a new one that is even better..."

-- Paweł Sasko



“It's one of the things we’ve done with our scene system, and we’ve reworked it completely from the ground up. People we’re saying [that] our scene system [for The Witcher 3 was] one of the most advanced scene systems ever created, and frankly we [threw] it away and made a new one that is even better. We’ve just reworked it completely, and one of the reasons you will walk in the city and see all of those scenes happening all around you, and you go and talk to Placide, and Placide moves and talks to this woman and then to the vendor, and you move on and there are all these people around you. We can do all of that thanks to our scene system, and it’s really... it's all seamless, right, so it doesn't cut from one to another."



It's not an exaggeration, either. In our BCD demo the character movement, NPC interactions and world interactions are all seamless. And to understand that this is a systemic system built into the engine rather than something canned to 'replicate' life is awesome. And it just builds on how the world feels and functions. It reminded me of conversing with Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, where walking into a space in Columbia would trigger non-essential conversations designed more as world and relationship building components. Only here, it's progress and character reflective. It's more meaningful, while also maintaining that selling of a bustling, alive game-world.

“[So] all the things that you have seen, like when you're walking through the market with Placid; all those elements and so on -- those are things that are happening in the city [in real-time], people are out just minding their own business and so on. We’re just doing all this to make sure that the world feels very lively. [And the] technology we built for Cyberpunk, it allows us to do this. [Whereas] in The Witcher it was impossible.”

So while there will be quest ends, Paweł reveals that the player-character will know this more from a reflective world acknowledgement, as opposed to a book closure, which is how The Witcher 3 played those major beats out. And while the same ever-branching major quests of The Witcher 3 do find their way into Cyberpunk in a similar way, it’s the Street Stories that flesh the world out, and these will be dynamic and fluid based on your skills, relationships and more. The world itself can help dictate some of this as well. A mission might not appear during the day around a strip club, for example, because during the day the strip club is closed, he reveals. And what this type of design does is breathe life and believability into a space we’ve been referring to as “retrofuture”. I mean, to bring a level of realism to such a fantastical space is, frankly, standing ovation-worthy.

"The game keeps track of everything you’ve done, and characters remember acts for or against, which can have adverse effects on how situations, or even parts of the world, react to you..."



“We always try to make sure it's logical; understandable for the player, and it's believable,” he asserts. “That it feels real, you know what I mean?”

Paweł also explains that while there’s no ‘Karma’-like reputation system, the game keeps track of everything you’ve done, and characters remember acts for or against, which can have adverse effects on how situations, or even parts of the world, react to you. There’s also a system they’ve created to help the player know where they are, from a progress perspective, that can be described as a bit of a “strung carrot” to help the flow of the game, and your movement through it. Especially with its apparent density looming large, and daunting.



“We’re always just making sure that we constantly add, from time to time, reminders [to the] player; what [their] goal is, what [the] core objective is. But of course, we leave the player with a great deal of freedom at the same time,” Sasko expands. “So you can pursue whatever is interesting for you at any given time. So, reminding players is one method, but another method we're using is “pacing graphs”. So we’re basically throwing into the world the ‘pacing’ of a given sequence [which is] to just make sure that, as a player, when you are going through the sequence, it feels good. Like, “oh yeah, okay, yeah, I'm doing [this] fast”, but then [you’ll do something] and now it's a bit slower. So, you’ll see that the game is telegraphing you. [And so] the game kind of tells you, if you want to do something unassigned that's fine, because nobody's in danger and nothing bad will happen, so you can pursue that.

“So it's about doing this subtle telegraphing to the player,” he continues. “So the game [basically says] “Okay yeah, right now you shouldn't really do anything weird. Because if you do, there will be consequences to it”. And sometimes these will be bad, very often they will be very unexpected. So, you may assume there will be bad consequences, but it turns out completely different or it's absolutely different than what you thought and this is also important for us. Just to make sure that you can’t really foresee, as a player, what the consequences of your actions [will be]; just to make sure that the player is always thinking on their toes. And being, like, “oh shit, okay, I should probably do this or that or I'm not sure what to pick”. Because then the player's invested and then it's immersive, right?

"Again, the larger question here is how deep does this rabbit hole go? But it’s something we’re not sure will be answered until April of next year..."



“Another thing is basically our QA, they are actually an amazing help because they’re always replaying our quests. And we are using this method of applying all the variables [they encounter] to the actual external programs -- they’re helping us to count the number of the paths we have. And so basically every tester, every QA tester, is assigned a separate path. So they know, “okay, I'm going here, I have this skill assigned, I'm talking to this guy or this one, then I'm going there, then I'm picking this, then I'm doing this”... and basically we input all the variables in this program and just get all the pathways; all the paths that we have and just assign players and they just go in, path by path, and just check all the possible variations of that path.



“And of course, we as designers: quest team, story team and the cinematic team -- we're always cooperating in this triangle, just making sure the story is the best,” he concludes proudly. “And we're always thinking, "okay, is every possible option covered?". And when you have a few people that you trust, that are also good designers that you trust; that you spend some time with, that you already built some games with, it's just, like, I think there's this common understanding; this cooperation of, like, “okay yeah, I know that I can count on my writer. I know that she will cover these things the best way. I can count on my cinematic designer, and so it is just great to have them. So, I think throughout all of that, we are somehow managing to pull it off.”

Again, the larger question here is how deep does this rabbit hole go? But it’s something we’re not sure will be answered until April of next year. What we do know is that learnings from a multiple GOTY winner in The Witcher 3, an expansion in studio size, number and number of staff, alongside a fevered games industry hungry and thirsty for Cyberpunk 2077 all lead towards something special. And additionally, that foresight to include reputable personalities like Refused and the World’s Nicest Person©, Keanu Reeves, just fills us with hope that the despaired Night City is a place we just really want to be.

Read more about Cyberpunk 2077 on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!



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