The CD Projekt RED journey: Respecting fans while growing as a studio
Marcin Iwinski co-founded The Witcher
series developer CD Projekt RED in the 1990s, with the goal of creating an epic RPG series. But it took his studio some time to get to reach its goal -- The Witcher
didn't ship until 2007.
Iwinski talks about growing slowly and carefully, sticking to his creative guns, and making sure not to put short-term profits ahead of a long-term trust relationship with players.
You have two projects going [The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Cyberpunk]. Can you talk about what's going on with the studio?
Marcin Iwinski: We tried to do things step-by-step. I started the company in '94, right out of high school. From the very beginning we wanted to make games. But we were realists. So the first thing was, "Can we really make it happen? Can we make a project [an RPG] of the scope you're dreaming about?"
Initially, we started a games distribution business in Poland. Of course, we were gamers, so part of it was the fun factor -- we were playing the new games. As funny as it might sound these days, but we were the first ones to import them. Then we started localizing the games, doing publishing and marketing. And at a certain point, all of the money that was coming from the distribution business, we were basically putting into development. It's a really long way, if you look at it, to where we are today.
Initially with The Witcher 1
, at the end of the development process, we had to get a publishing partner on board, to help to finance the very last bit. Then with Witcher 2
, we were already able to self-finance. And then whenever we made this money, we fully reinvested to production. So The Witcher 2
did perform, it did very well for us, and I'm always grateful to the gamers, because at the end of the day they go and buy the games in the store and the money comes to us.
So automatically we decided to start working on another dream project, which is Cyberpunk
. It was in our heads already for quite a while, but at the same time we still have to do things step-by-step. I think we are ready now more than ever. On top of that, with The Witcher 2
, which was initially on PC and then on Xbox 360, we've developed our own technology, which was also key in being able to do another project. Without the tech, it would be a no-go for us.
How do you keep yourself growing slowly and sustainably, rather than getting ahead of yourself?
MI: That's actually a very good question, because there are a lot of companies which run like crazy into different directions, some of them big, some of them small. We've made some mistakes like that before. We were doing a lot of things. We were expanding our distribution. We had some more stuff... there was the Rise of the White Wolf
project, which didn't work out for us.
Rise of the White Wolf is a cancelled version of the original
Witcher for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
But I think the important thing is we are learning. What we've definitely learned throughout the last 20 years is that we have to focus. We focus on what we do best, and what we do best is tell stories in big, epic, mature dark fantasy settings -- or in the case of Cyberpunk
, futuristic settings. But this is the thing we have to focus on. You will not see from us a lot of diverse stuff. We will not suddenly start making racing games, because I do not think that is where our strength is.
At the end of the day, what really matters is the experience which you are having with the game when it's out. And this is the one unique moment which defines us. If it's an average experience, pretty much what we are doing every day doesn't make sense.
For a lot of companies, from a short-term business perspective, the famous hit-and-run strategy, there are still a lot of people applying this. And sometimes it works! And then they are probably telling [other companies about] what they do. I just don't think it's [the way we should run our business]. So we are really deliberately choosing what we want to do, and we will do it for as long as we are happy with the effect.
Hence, for example, The Witcher 1
, and the Witcher 1 Enhanced Edition
, and The Witcher 2
and Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition
, which for the PC players was all for free, because we think we could have done better, and here it is.
And they appreciate it. Then they tell their friends we are doing a good job and we respect them. And ultimately it will result in a sale. Some people are saying, "Why do you do that? You could have charged for it!" Yeah. But I think the value in the whole proposition is that we are honest, straightforward, and fair, and this pays back. So you can call it a business model, in a way.
You talked about being self-financed. Is it important to be self-financed and keep control of the company when you're pursuing a very specific kind of goal like this?
MI: It's crucial. It's crucial, because when you have someone telling you what they think is good, ultimately it's a compromise. I'm not very good with that. And I think you cannot make great creative decisions if you have to follow different interests in different directions. And of course, I do not want to sound too idealistic, because at the end of the day, we have to sell games. But the game comes first, and this is really crucial for us. A lot of people in the industry I have met are forgetting about it.
This is funny, because it's a set of thousands of very, very small decisions. How much time will I spend on this character? Am I going to make another version of that? At the end of the day, are we going to charge for this tiny DLC? Because in Excel it looks really good, and I can make some additional money.
Because you, first of all, have to have your values, which is crucial, and I believe we have them. And second you have to have the guts to say, "Hey, we're not going to do that." But in the short-term, it's like, "Hey, we'll make some money here. This is good." I don't think that [thinking short-term] is the way, and if you look at the companies that succeed, they really follow their values and are honest with the gamer.
And I think that this will become even stronger and ever more important, because the way to the gamer is direct, so there is no place for a lie anymore. If you lie, you are a joke on social networks in seconds. The liars from back in the day, their fate is pretty grim right now. We can see it all around. There is a statement from Company A. People say, "Hey, it's not like that." And the whole internet goes crazy. Ten years ago, it wouldn't be the case, pretty much. People would talk between each other and it would die out.