“It's been a huge jump in terms of the number of people needed to make the game,” John Mamais, studio head at CD Projekt Red
’s Krakow studio tells me. We’re discussing one of the most anticipated game releases of 2020 – the studio’s follow-up to award-winning The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
, with the ambitious and stunning retro-future RPG Cyberpunk 2077
With the release of Geralt’s third outing as a monster slayer turned saviour, CD Projekt Red grew considerably to match the vision the team had for the conclusion of The Witcher trilogy. Create a AAA-sized cap to match the indie thrift store pants and sweater that made up the first two outings. Exact numbers aside, at the height of The Witcher’s development the studio was home to around just under 200 people. As Cyberpunk 2077’s development commenced in full, and as the scope became clearer, the CDPR studio size now sits at around 500.
“We weren't smart enough to know how many people we needed,” John admits. “When we wrote the initial concept [for Cyberpunk 2077], we didn't know. So, we grew alongside the design as it was developing. And really, you don't know how many cinematic animators you’re going to need until you have a scope for the number of scenes you’re going to have in the game. We didn't have that in the beginning, we just knew we wanted to have cool cinematics and we knew that we were going to be at least as big as The Witcher 3. We ended up hiring a lot more people than what we needed for The Witcher because the fidelity and overall requirements of 2077 crept up on us.”
At a glance, the bustling setting of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City screams ambition and awe-inspiring potential – cemented by the substantial snippets of gameplay we’ve seen so far. But it’s this first glance where Cyberpunk 2077 sets itself immediately apart from the AAA-pack – Geralt included. Visuals that feel on the cutting edge of what you’d expect to find an open-world RPG. Selling immersion at a scale that boggles the mind. Naturally, the new verticality and high-tech setting of Night City posed technical challenges for the team. Who set about creating this world using the foundation and tools created for The Witcher III.
“The streaming system had to be overhauled because, well, you're moving a lot faster when you’re in a vehicle,” John continues, in a not-so-obvious dig at Roach. “So, we had to rework and rewrite how all that works. Also, there's vertical streaming now. The Witcher is almost like a 2D game in comparison, its world was flat. [With Cyberpunk 2077] you're going up and into huge buildings, so it is a case of vertical and horizontal streaming and hardware speeds impact that. We had to rewrite the tech to support all of that.”
“We weren't smart enough to know how many people we needed... we knew that we were going to be at least as big as The Witcher 3.”
Now, this is not to say that if an environment and objects and things to do in an open-world are doubled that team sizes need to follow suit. CD Projekt Red also invested time in creating new tools to make Cyberpunk’s development easier on designers and world builders.
“Given the size and scope, we have to do some procedural generation of the things you see,” John adds. “Like, you don't want artists to go in and place individual pipes or place pieces of trash, so we had to incorporate a lot of things like that into our process. Create things like a ‘trash layer’.” When it comes to designing levels or creating them, the team’s toolset for designers is called the ‘hierarchical prefabs pipeline’. “It's basically a way how we build the levels out - using prefabs where you can go in and build out the world like it's like a Lego set.”
One of the most impressive sequences from Cyberpunk’s gameplay debut was witnessing the bustling traffic at a Night City intersection. A snippet of footage that did little more than set the scene. And that’s not bustling in terms of futuristic vehicles that look a little bit like someone merged the best of both Lamborghini and Ferrari – but people and crowds moving about in a realistic fashion.
“We kind of had to do it cause it's a big city setting, right?” John tells me. “You need crowds of people moving around or it won’t look right. It was very technically challenging, and still is. We're still working on it in fact. Last time I talked to the Technical Director, he talked its current status as a real achievement, where we’ve got all these people in the same space moving around. And different to what we’ve seen before because The Witcher had crowds, but if you look closely, they're very similar to each other in how they look and move. In Cyberpunk these are all, in a way, unique characters moving around the space. And it's a combination of AI, tech, and art. I don't know even know how to explain how it exactly works - but I can say that it was fucking hard and that we're still working on it.”
As a studio, CD Projekt Red is pushing the visual envelope with Cyberpunk. Even though The Witcher III still looks fantastic and can put any high-end gaming rig through its paces, Cyberpunk 2077 is taking everything to the next level. And in one case, the next-generation of hardware. “We started working on that about a year ago,” John tells me when asked about Cyberpunk’s use of real-time ray-tracing. “It's not something we started with because ray-tracing is also a recent thing within the industry. And we use ray-tracing for emissive lights to make adverts and the neon lighting you see look amazing. We also use ray-traced ambient occlusion and ray-tracing for the skyline.”
"It's a combination of AI, tech, and art. I don't know even know how to explain how it exactly works - but I can say that it was fucking hard and that we're still working on it.””
Although PC-specific, and at launch tied to hardware from NVIDIA – Cyberpunk 2077 will look impressive no matter the platform it’s played on. Advanced shadow effects from long range shadows and contact shadows, to new Houdini physics simulations for particle effects, fluids, cloth, and more. The tech team is still hard at work in some key areas, with the Global Illumination (GI) used in Cyberpunk still being refined and improved upon. To hit a mark that goes beyond anything we’ve seen from the studio before.
“That's the game development sector that we're in, creating big, great-looking AAA games,” John concludes. “And as the technology changes, we're expected to use it too - and we want to use it cause that stuff keeps looking cooler and cooler, all the time. We'll always keep pushing the envelope on the way a game can look, and that's one of the most exciting things about working at CD Projekt Red; getting to do just that. I think Cyberpunk is going to be a real show piece in terms of tech. Especially as this generation of consoles is fading out. I think we're going to be that one last, big, exceptional looking title on this current generation of hardware.”
Thanks to John Mamais for his time, CD Projekt Red, and Bandai Namco.
This article is sponsored by ASUS.