Game Changers: Volume 28 – The Witcher

Saying that development for the PC is complicated is a lot like saying someone struck by lightning is feeling under the weather, in that it doesn’t really grasp the problem. Given the various combinations of operating systems, hardware, software that might be borrowing the hardware during play, physical condition of the computer, and simply where that internet browser has been, it’s almost impossible to build a PC game that won’t give somebody trouble. And this is on top the usual things that don’t pan out: weird voice acting, misplaced quest triggers, poor plot handling, and so on.

Enter CD Projekt Red, developers of the 2007 PC RPG The Witcher. Based on the works of best-selling Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher tells the story of one Geralt of Rivia, a chemically-enhanced monster hunter suffering from the old genre standby of amnesia. Within days of being found in the wilds by his fellow witchers, Geralt finds himself the target of mysterious assassins, political machinations, and all manner of grotesque monstrosities. Bandits attack the witchers’ guild at Kaer Morhen and steal their mutagens, and the survivors are left to scour the world in hopes of tracking them down. As luck would have it, Geralt’s path puts him right in the middle of a brewing civil war-slash-coup d’etat, and so on, and so forth.

At the time of release, The Witcher received “generally favorable reviews”, though even the most positive review couldn’t ignore the game’s multitude of flaws. Voice acting was spotty, with some characters obviously reading their lines out of context. Quest scripts were sometimes poorly placed or would outright misfire, causing some quests to start, proceed, arbitrarily finish, or even fail to finish for no obvious reason; a lengthy criminal investigation in the second chapter is the most noteworthy example, capable of ending at several points with no clear indication of how Geralt jumped to that conclusion. On top of the flawed content, the game was structurally unsound, with problems ranging from long loading times to crash-to-desktop bugs. To say hardware incompatibilities were not unheard of is to be charitable at best.

Geralt, seemingly at a disadvantage, reveals to his opponent that he is not actually left-handed.
Geralt, seemingly at a disadvantage, reveals to his opponent that he is not actually left-handed.

In the normal run of things, a game like this would rely on the quality of its overall story and gameplay to carve out a niche and enjoy cult popularity for some time. It’d quietly stay under the rader, earning guarded praise from a small but devoted fanbase, the game’s developers either losing money or making just enough to break even (see also: everything Troika ever did). But then something funny happened early in 2008. The previously low-key Polish developers announced they were giving it another try, a re-release in the form of The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. The promise was a version of The Witcher with more than a couple coats of polish; the script, combat, inventory management, quest structures, voice acting, technical stability, it was all going to get a serious makeover. Throw in the new Djinni mod editor, bonus fully-voiced adventures, soundtrack CDs, a 112-page game guide, a ‘making of’ DVD, and a 40-page portion of “The Last Wish” from the novel series, and you have the makings of a solid re-release.

While the actual release of the Enhanced Edition would be delayed for months, when it did come out CD Projekt did something even stranger, almost literally unheard of: to those players that had bought the original, CDPR was giving it all away for free. This went way beyond a patch, this was a complete ground-up rebuilding of the game, and all those early adopters needed was an internet connection; register their copy, download the update, and everything in the retail box is right on their hard drive. That developers would revisit their title and do so much work to improve it is rare enough. That they would release it free for download through their website is likely without precedent.

Seriously, look at this guy's face.  That's an I-dare-you-to-start-something face.  Guy probably doesn't even close his eyes when he sleeps.
Seriously, look at this guy’s face. That’s an I-dare-you-to-start-something face. Guy probably doesn’t even close his eyes when he sleeps.

Fan response was enthusiastic, to say the least. The original release was no slouch in the sales department, scoring a million sales within a year of its release; the press release playfully stated that “Scientific research has proven that those sales numbers are quite good for a debut game based on a relatively unfamiliar IP from an unknown studio on a ‘dead’ platform.” The Enhanced Edition contributed well to the pool, bumping the number up to 1.2 million in a matter of months and entering the list of the 100 best-selling PC games of all time. More than a few fans – this writer included – openly admitted to buying the retail version again; some for physical copies of the swag, some simply out of principle.

Support for The Witcher, however, didn’t end with the Enhanced Edition. Problems did remain, such as cutscene blurring and EAX technology problems, but hotfixes quickly followed. This year alone – as recently as early August – The Witcher received not one, but two updates. The first, 1.5, finally axed the game’s DRM protection, removing the need to even have the disc in the drive to play the game. Still more Djinni adventures built by the Witcher community were included with the patch as well. The second, the Director’s Cut patch, basically brought the North American version in line with that released in other countries in terms of mature content (read: the silly collectable ‘sex cards’ and other edited-for-the-US odds and ends), with a few other stability tweaks as well. While not nearly as substantive as the Enhanced Edition, this proved the company’s ongoing commitment to improving their product.

It’s questionable whether this has left a lasting mark on PC gaming, an industry at times consumed with releasing the Next Big Thing and simply moving on, with only the occasional mod community to pound out the rough edges. What is undeniable is that CD Projekt Red set a new standard with the Enhanced Edition, proving that no, that flawed gem doesn’t have to stay flawed until the end of time, that it shouldn’t be on the players to make the game better.

Publisher CD Projekt went on to set up Good Old Games, a site dedicated to cheap, stable, up-to-date digital downloads of classic PC games – from Far Cry and Beyond Good and Evil to the Longest Journey and the Fallout series. This move in itself is praiseworthy, but at this point it’s simply icing on the cake, with the cake being eastern Europe showing us how it’s done. At this point, whether one liked or hated The Witcher – whether one ever really cared about the adventures of a grizzled, scarred, potential philandering amnesiac JC Denton-a-like – one has to give credit where it’s due. For showing a strong willingness to revisit and revise, for being generous with the updates and giving with the content, and for being receptive and responsive to a dedicated fanbase, this “upstart” has set an example that companies the world over should pay attention to.

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