It stretches the definition a bit, admittedly, but Cyberpunk 2077 is arguably the biggest independently made game of 2020, if not ever.
Developer CD Projekt Red is publicly listed, so is in no way a true indie, but this is a studio that makes and publishes its own games without outside help from other publishers. As such, it’s something we felt utterly compelled to cover – helpfully, it’s also looking great.
The original Cyberpunk, set in the futuristic and distant year of 2013 (its sequel jumping forward seven years in Cyberpunk 2020), made its way to us as a pen-and-paper RPG. It presented a neo-noir world of battling corporations, cybernetic enhancements, and lashings of grit; the underlying ethos for players of the game went as such: style over substance, attitude is everything, and live on the edge.
For some reason, it’s taken until 2020 – in the real world, not the game – for a proper, big-budget adaptation of the influential original tabletop game to come to fruition.
When word came out that CD Projekt Red, the studio behind The Witcher series, was at the helm for Cyberpunk 2077, pulses began racing: this would be a proper RPG, and it would most definitely not be a case of style over substance.
So far, the signs are good. The substance is joined by a considerable amount of freedom, with players able to tackle quests in this first-person open world of Night City as they see fit. Want to go in and cyber-batter everyone? Go for it. Prefer a subtle approach of silent hacking? Go (quietly) wild. Look good while you’re doing whatever you’re doing, however it is you’re doing it? Naturally.
We caught up with Richard Borzymowski, producer on Cyberpunk 2077, to pick his brain about the much-hyped game – there are few better to ask when you want to know just how a project so vast came to be.
It’s been a long time coming, but you’re almost there. How are things feeling in the studio as launch day approaches?
Richard Borzymowski: We’re excited. We’re really excited. We’ve been working on this game for a long time. We wanted to not only make a well-playing game, but we also wanted to put on top of that a unique style.
When Mike Pondsmith created the pen-and-paper RPG in the eighties, one of the mottos [was] style over substance; that the players were supposed to dress in order to express what they represent, and they should always overdress.
We know that if we want to do the pen-and-paper game justice we have to develop a good game, but on top of that, we have to show a unique world. We put a lot of energy and effort into that.
It’s hard to imagine how much work goes into it. Is there any way you can describe the efforts required to design an area of the world, the look, and so on?
RB: I can present the process. If you think about specific little things like [designing] a building – if you think from the smallest detail first, you can’t imagine. If you turn it around and start with a vision to build on, set 57 years after Mike Pondsmith’s [existing world], then you more or less know what is going to happen.
The plot line is written, and later on, you’re deriving quests from that. At this stage, you should have a good idea of what your design principles should be.
In our case, this would be providing as much freedom to the player as possible, open-ended gameplay opportunities, customising your character, and so on. When you’re designing quests, you’re making sure that your design principles are in line with those quests so they can be completed in the different playstyles, and so they branch – in our case, it’s a standard we’re known for.
It’s complex – choices really matter. You start to introduce characters along the way that you might not flesh out in the main game. You might develop side quests which have side quests.
And then there’s making the world while designing all of this…
RB: You should have already defined what environment your game is taking place in. In our case it was a no-brainer, because Mike Pondsmith’s RPG was set in… well, you could play it anywhere, but the main area to play in was Night City.
We took this over. Our main environment in which we are playing is Night City as well. While the quests are being designed and you know what the quests need from the city, like what kind of exact environment, what kind of locations – these are going to be shaping the city.
Actually, the first thing I suppose we had to do was to work out the map. Mike already stated in the original game that Night City is on the West Coast, so we started to gather references from Los Angeles, San Francisco – but also all the other mega-metropolises, the mega-cities in the world.
There’s a lot of Japanese influence in Night City. We were looking at Tokyo, we were taking references. We had so many references, oh my god. We started to sort out those things that would make Night City feel unique.
Mike once said when we were in a meeting with him that when he was thinking about Night City, about the districts, he imagined it to be a bit like Disneyland. If you walk around Disneyland, you have individual areas. Everywhere you go, it is completely different – but it’s still Disneyland. So we made sure our districts are very distinguishable.
So, Tomorrowland writ large, then?
RB: We had our overall references for the city, but then we had to find references for those individual districts. You’re gathering those; you’re matching them with the overarching idea for the city… Then we start developing concept art. When the concept art’s created, you’re actually able to define more or less how big the city is going to be.
You have to define something in the beginning. But later on – most of the time, really – it’s getting bigger and bigger because quests are important. It’s the most important part of our game, so if the quest design needs something, we probably, most of the time, do it.
I talked about a lot of things… but essentially you have a thousand tasks to do, but they’re somewhat unified, and you can actually see how you’re progressing [as you go along]. You can calculate velocity and see if you can make it on time – or, before we said the release date publicly, we were able to actually define when that date was going to be. That’s production 101.
Is there a risk of it falling back on a formula, when you’re designing missions that are handled in a sort of unified fashion?
RB: From the production point of view, it would probably be easier if things were more streamlined and unified. The thing is, we have 13 quest designers. They talk with each other about the quests – I know that, but I don’t know what exact puzzles or challenges they’re making; for all of those quests, you’re developing unique locations tailored to [each one].
The first prototypes of those locations are done by another design team, which again has more than just one person. Everyone is developing [their section] a bit different. It’s really a very ferocious mix of minds in each individual quest and location, which luckily is very good. It provides a unique feel and experience anywhere you go in the game.
The sheer logistical effort involved to make something so big and over such an extended period of time – there has to be a huge amount of satisfaction, seeing it all come together.
RB: Yes, especially if the numbers are good! Nah, I’m kidding – people tend to think producers are those guys who are only sitting at the table and [are hands-off]. It’s not like that.
We’re very involved with the game. We’re constantly on the move, facilitating communication between designers in order to find hotspots or problems along the way. We’re actually, very often, used as communicators with the other teams. It’s our job.
A team of artists might not talk to others because their purpose is to focus on the work. They’re obviously talking with all the relevant parties, but they might not know about this one tiny detail from another totally different team. You might know, though, so you’re there to catch those things and to adjust before they build something and then have to redo it; that’s the worst thing that could happen.
You mentioned Mike Pondsmith a few times. Was he on-board from day one, or was it a more hands-off approach?
RB: The way I perceive Mike’s involvement is that he trusts us. We’re developing the game. We’re showing him things and consulting, asking ‘What does he think?’. He’s not a guy who just says yes or no.
He’s a guy who very often says, ‘Yes, this is very good,’ [and explains why]. I really like that. Sometimes he points us in a different way, then it comes to a discussion, and the discussion might end up with either one of the sides realising one particular solution suits our game better than the other.
Cyberpunk is obviously a known property, but it’s not something that everybody knows. You’re going to have a lot of beginners coming into it. How are you introducing them to this world?
RB: Well, this is exactly what I wanted to say. Take books; I read a lot of books. Some of them tend to have those info dumps in the first pages, like a king and a servant speak about the situation in the kingdom and the king tells us over two pages all about it.
Those two people, they know the situation in the kingdom: they wouldn’t describe it out loud. This is exactly what we’re not doing in Cyberpunk 2077. We’re not doing info dumps. So newcomers will get eased in.
On the other hand, for all those hardcore Cyberpunk fans that play the pen-and-paper RPG, they will find a lot they’re familiar with already.
We really took it to our hearts to take what Mike Pondsmith created. It’s not like we’re exploiting a name. We built the map, we co-operated strongly with him [throughout the process]. He’s creating Cyberpunk Red right now, which is bridging the tabletop RPG and the game. So both sides, the newcomers and the hardcore fans, should feel very welcome.
You’re not using a brand new engine – it’s REDengine 4, but upgraded, right? How does this factor in to Cyberpunk 2077’s design?
RB: It was developed… well, built upon. There are a lot of new things. If you look at one game and the other, the first major difference is The Witcher is third person, Cyperpunk 2077 is first-person. Then you have the streaming issues. You have this big city. Then there [are] things like global illumination that we’re using in order to provide this really immersive feeling – and there are so many lights in Cyperpunk 2077.
The Witcher didn’t have that many lights… Well, you have fire, the moon, the sun; don’t get me wrong, but this is just how fantasy stuff plays out. But these are [the sort of] things that we had to develop.
It sounds like there was a lot of work that still needed to be done.
RB: There was a lot that our programmers did, the tech artists, the people on the back end of the game. It’s actually pretty funny: we just mentioned that people tend to forget the logistics guys, the producers, but actually I think people are often forgetting about the coders, the tech artists.
Essentially, without them, there would be no game, right? After the game releases, everybody’s praising the art, the artists, the writers. Well, somebody allowed them to build those things.
The ones locked in the basement.
RB: They’re not in the basement! They have a very nice room. With lots of flowers.