'It can never be that simple': Designing the quests of Cyberpunk 2077
As Cyberpunk 2077 continues to be one of the most discussed games of last week's E3, it's worth taking a step back and asking "why is there so much interest in this game anyway?"
For many developers, it's partly because when they recall The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, they don't just recall a beautiful-looking game, they recall a game whose quests and story missions managed to be consistently surprising and rewarding at every turn.
For CD Projekt Red, that not only means delivering on the promises of freedom made in their E3 marketing push, it also means channeling that freedom into bespoke stories that reward (and prod) the player based on the choices they've made.
After we checked out the colorful demo last week, quest designer Patrick Mills was able to sit down with Gamasutra and discuss the process of making quests that stick with the player after they're gone.
Rules for questing
Before diving into the quests we saw in Cyberpunk, it's worth asking, what was CD Projekt Red's philosophy that helped its Witcher 3 quests stand out so much?
According to Mills, it's the idea that every quest, big and small, needs a "twist," preferably several of them. "We don't want to make a situation where someone says 'I've got a job, I need you to do the job...' then you handle the situation, then you go back to them and they say 'thank you very much. It can never be that simple."
In The Witcher 3, one frequently-discussed version of this quest rule was The Bloody Baron, a seemingly straightforward rescue mission that spiraled into a nightmare of domestic abuse and a lost pregnancy, but these examples spilled into the seemingly non-narrative contract system too. One contract that we discussed with Mills began with a simple ghost hunt, but slowly evolved into a kangaroo court trial and a finally a vision quest, none of which was dramatically signaled to the player before the story began.
"We don't want to make a situation where someone says 'I've got a job, I need you to do the job...' then you handle the situation, then you go back to them and they say 'thank you very much. It can never be that simple."
To evolve on that philosophy, Mills says that CD Projekt's Goal as it began to double down on development for Cyberpunk 2077 was a desire to account for players being able to do quests in different orders "if it's logically possible." This philosophy informed the development of The Witcher 3's two expansion packs, but in Cyberpunk, Mills says the goal is to create game logic that keeps track of those varying paths, even if the realized differences aren't that noticeable.
Referring to the demo seen at E3, he points out how the player can either head straight to an appointment with a crime lord named Dex, or head for a scheduled appointment with their "ripperdoc" (a street doctor who provides cybernetic augmentations). "Those scenes pretty much play out more or less the same, but there are little bits of reaction, little bits of differences, even something as simple as that, you want to make sure they reference one another."
Inspirations and philosophy
From a production perspective, Mills says that CD Projekt Red's general goal is to ensure quest designers have ownership over all quests they're authoring. So not only are they conceiving it and pitching it, they're designing the game logic and nursing it to life alongside other designers, programmers, artists, and QA. On his own quests, Mills says he likes to start with a high-level theme or vibrant character that can help anchor the experience, and drive the aforementioned twists he has to work in.
When pushed to discuss inspiration outside the original Cyberpunk tabletop game, Mills jumps to a somewhat surprising reference --- the title of a Blonde Readhead album. "The title is 'Fake Can Be Just As Good,' and I go "okay, I like that, let's figure out how to do that."
Mills says that particular phase has been bouncing around his head since he first listened to that particular album, and it's a phrase he thinks intersects with the game he's been hired to work on. "When it comes to something like Cyberpunk, where that sort of theme is already in there, let's bring that out and let's look at it from different angles."
As always, it's worth noting that there is no "ideas person" in game design, and when Mills or any of his cohorts need to create uniquely flavored ideas, they have to go down a pipeline of programmers, artists, QA, etc. And some of those unique ideas might cause stoppages in that pipeline, or just outright cause it to explode. In Mills' experience, quest designers shouldn't necessarily avoid those moments, but at least depart with clear takeaways from what went wrong, and what can be done to improve future quests.
As Mills says, "the hope is at least, it creates a whole pipeline thing, and now that you've done it once, now you know how to do it again."
Treating game design like a maze
One interesting tidbit that emerged from our conversation with Mills is that this far along into development, (Mills has technically been working on Cyberpunk 2077 since before his time on The Witcher 3), certain foundational design moments like the choices for the player character's backstory are still up to change. And when those key changes occur, it creates ripple effects in the many logic frameworks that Mills and his colleagues have built.
"We make our quests, by having dedicated quest designers who are, in essence, directors of the many individual stories that a story is made up of."
To account for those changes, Mills of course says that accounting for them requires "a lot of planning, lots of good production teams," etc, but also a mentality that none of the prior work was "wasted" just because it's changed. "I sometimes compare the way we work to being in a maze," says Mills. "You know the maze has an exit, but sometimes you'll take a wrong turn in a maze."
"And it could take a long time before you realize it's a dead end, and once you reach that dead end, you have to be willing to go and walk all the way back. You can't just give up and say 'this is the end of the maze!' You have to find your way out again."
And if there's anything Mills hopes other developers learn from Cyberpunk 2077, it's that quest design as a discipline is "important," and deserves to be recognized in job roles and team structure. "Quest design is not level design. It's not story design. It's not cinematic design. It's--it's a job that combines those things and facilitates and coordinates those teams."
"This is the first place I've ever had this specific breakdown of responsibilities. It's how we make our quests, by having dedicated quest designers who are, in essence, directors of the many individual stories that a story is made up of."
For more of Mills' thoughts on what makes for good quests in video games, be sure to read how he says the CD Projekt Red QA team has helped the company's quest designers catch offensive or inappropriate moments early in the process.