Getting to know REDkit
I was pretty surprised when I was chosen as a part of the REDkit beta for The Witcher 2. When I applied, my experience with game development included building custom maps for Age of Empires 2 for my friends and me, building a landscape with the Crysis Editor for my own enjoyment and creating a small horror mod for Skyrim, “Arheim” (which I never finished). So since I thought that this would probably not sell myself very well, I added some videos I made with the movie editor for Grand Theft Auto IV.
So all in all, one can say that it was a very lucky coincidence that I was chosen. In the October of 2012, I received a mail explaining how to download REDkit. I downloaded the whole thing, started it, sat down and was overwhelmed. So many buttons! So like any reasonable man would do, I showed it to my girlfriend, who is much better at stuff like this, since she, coincidentally, studied computer science. We managed to get a new level up and running and I could start to just take the mouse, move it to the so-called asset browser (a library with every object of The Witcher 2) and just drag stuff onto the level until it looked nice.
Since I obviously „have got extraordinary sense of artistic beauty“ (don’t we just love comments like that about ourselves?), I created an in my eyes nice looking environment in a few hours. Or at least some nice looking square meters with a lot of empty space around them.
As the level grew, I started to think that I might actually make an adventure out of it. So I thought of an intriguing storyline. Would it be about politics, the struggle of a witcher in a world that has no use for him anymore, a tale about love and betrayal? Nope, “I want to do something with werewolves. Werewolves are cool!”. So what kind of name would I give an adventure that is about werewolves?
Since I studied archaeology and history at that time, I thought of an ancient Greek king, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus. His name is the origin of words like “Lycanthropy”: Lykaon. So it was settled. Had I known that most people have no idea how to pronounce the word, I would have probably thought of alternatives. But there it was, and I liked what I saw.
Learning Game Design
So developing an adventure in the world of The Witcher takes a few things. One has to do the level design, write a story and create quests around it. So at that time I knew how to build levels (I was not particularly good at it, but it worked) and I thought “heck, writing a story and dialogues can’t be that difficult. You read a lot and do you remember back in school? You ruled at writing stuff!”
Obviously, I overestimated my skills. I was just not able to learn the whole quest editor. So, as any reasonable man would do, I showed it to my girlfriend, who implemented my ideas into REDkit, while I was running around the apartment shouting ideas. Of course she did not learn it out of thin air. One of the great features of the beta was the REDkit Wiki, where we could find some tutorials and more importantly (since there weren’t a lot of tutorials in there at the time), we had a so-called REDkit chat, where we could talk to the developers, most importantly to a guy who called himself Banan (yes, this means Banana in polish). Without this guy, I would have never been able to even start Lykaon, let alone work at CD Projekt RED. So the first weeks of my REDkit experience were building the level, writing dialogue, running around the apartment shouting stuff and writing in the REDkit chat.
As the level developed and I already had a nice little village with people, a high mountain, forests, a lake and grave fields, I started to post pictures and videos of my work to the REDkit forum.
After a while, I got a mail by Banan asking me if I’d like to talk to some of the developers about my level design. I started an e-mail correspondence with them and in the end, I was asked to do the “CD Projekt RED Level Design Test”, which included building a level with two hills or mountains, a river in the middle, a trading route, a town and the lair of a troll. Those of you who played the demo of Lykaon probably already realized: The test level I built for CD Projekt RED is the level I now use for my Lykaon adventure.
So my goal with the test level was to build something big and impressive. The new Lykaon would be more than twice the size of my old level and I wanted to build the biggest level that was ever made for The Witcher 2. After a few days (after a while I got pretty fast with level design in REDkit), I was able to send a prototype out to CD Projekt (around 90% of what you see in this early video is still in the level).
As I changed the level, I also changed the backstory. I wanted to tell a fictional short story set many years before the saga or the games. Two things were certain right from the beginning: we will see how Geralt met Triss and, most importantly, Dandelion should be the companion of Geralt. For me, personally, Geralt as a lone wolf was always the same as the fact that Geralt should always be neutral: He always tries, he tries really hard, but he almost never succeeds. And who could be a better companion than the witty Dandelion? It was quite a struggle to implement a real companion into REDkit, who could take part in dialogues and who would react to what the player does. But after we (my girlfriend did most of the work in this area) researched in the files a little bit, it was quite easy (there is a tutorial out there explaining how to do it now). Work went very smoothly as I learned that music helps me a lot in being creative. When I was doing Level Design, I was listening to the soundtrack of Conan the Barbarian or of course the ones from both Witcher games. And one special tip for anyone who is experiencing a lack of motivation or is out of good ideas: some good ol’ Scarface “Push it to the Limit” always does the trick!
As work continued, I learned how to do quest design myself, since my girlfriend did not have a lot of time. So after a while, I also implemented my quest ideas on my own. As the new year started, I got a response by CD Projekt RED that they would not need a level designer right now, but only some days afterwards, I was asked what I thought about being a quest designer. At that time I already decided to go and study game design, so when I said that I only had three months time during the summer and then had to go back to Germany, I did not think that they would agree. To my surprise, they did. In May, REDkit finally went into the open beta and I released a demo and a trailer for Lykaon.
It was unfinished, was missing most of its content, but to my surprise, people actually liked it. I got a lot of criticism and comments I could use to improve the mod. I also won the REDkit Beta Competition and got a bag of goodies, but most importantly, a giant witcher sword I hold very dear. It will have an honourable place on the wall in my new apartment (detachable of course, in case I feel like swinging it around, which I do a lot).
In July, thanks to the support of Banan, I got into the plane to Poland to start my new job as a Junior Quest Designer at CD Projekt RED.
The Wild Hunt
As a fan, it is kind of weird to work at the company that made your favourite game at first. I always thought about it, but it was a surreal feeling to sit down at the desk and start working on the next Witcher game. Thanks to the guys at CD Projekt RED, especially Danisz, another young quest designer, I felt at home very quickly and learned how to use the editor and my REDkit experience helped a whole lot.
On my very first day, I sat down on a chair, got a controller, and got to play The Witcher 3 for the first time. Although I already talked with some people at CD Projekt RED because of REDkit before, I only knew as much as anyone outside the company of the game. And it blew my mind. Secretly, since I am kind of narcissistic sometimes, I always intended to make Lykaon look even more impressive than the original Witcher 2 and I was always giggling like a little girl when people told me exactly that. But The Witcher 3 was an entirely different beast. If this was not the Next Gen we heard so much about, then nothing was.
My usual day at CD Projekt RED looked like this: I entered the company in the morning, bought something to drink, went upstairs to The Witcher development team and there I started the PC and worked for a little bit. Soon after, always at the same time, Peter, a Senior Level Designer, yelled a most beautiful sound: Slimak! Slimak, Polish for “snail”, was one of the many people who came to the company to deliver food. After simultaneously eating breakfast and working for around half an hour, the quest guys would get called to the so-called “Stand Up”, where we would talk about what we did yesterday and what we intend to do today, we’d talk about problems and news. After that, with a break for lunch, I would work on quests until the evening (and sometimes beyond that). It was a very nice environment to work. To me, everyone (and I mean everyone) seemed like they are working on the best game ever and you felt that. Whether it was story guys, concept artists or AI programmers, they were all motivated to make The Witcher 3 the masterpiece of the trilogy.
One thing I particularly enjoyed was that there was a flat hierarchy. You could talk to anyone, give constructive criticism and sometimes I got ideas or comments for quests from people who had absolutely nothing to do with quest design. Since I already wrote around 100 quests for Lykaon, I really started to love how it was done at CD Projekt RED. Once you wrote a new quest idea, it got reviewed. If the quest did good, you would get comments on how to improve it, questions about the story and structure and eventually approval to implement the quest. After implementation, the quest would be reviewed again. If it did good, the story writers would take over, shape the quest’s story and write the dialogues. After they had written the story, the quest would be… you know the drill. And even after that, many different people play and review the quest, so that in the end, only the best of the best end up in The Witcher 3.
I tried to stick to the simple philosophy I loved about The Witcher games: No matter how small a quest is, it always has to be something extraordinary, something believable, something that players would remember and sometimes something emotional.
After my time at CD Projekt RED, I am certain that Game Design is the thing I want to do for a living. I met great people and friends, and I learned a lot.
Right after returning to Lykaon, I noticed that I would have to change a lot. Some stories or dialogues suddenly seemed unbelievable, some quests were just not fun and the graphics weren’t that amazing any more.
I revised most of the existing foliage or even created some new models and textures. There’s also a completely new lighting, weather effects and most noticeable, Lykaon is twice as big now, while the performance is much better. There’s a completely new area players can explore in the finished version. Since the level design is almost finished now, I will start finalizing the story, which started as “werewolves are awesome” and is now much more complicated and, at least I hope so, much more captivating. I hope that I will be able to surprise some players. I also got help from some very talented people now. One helps me with implementing the music, and I found great artists, whose works are simply amazing. Before me still lies the biggest challenge: Full voice acting. It is going to be a lot of work and I am still searching the most important person, Geralt, but I hope that I will be able to find someone.
Since a picture says more than words, I prepared some new ones so you can see the state of Lykaon as it is right now.
Thanks for reading!
Philipp “Benzenzimmern” WeberTweet