'Witcher' Studio Boss Marcin Iwinski: 'We Had No Clue How To Make Games'

'Witcher' Studio Boss Marcin Iwinski: 'We Had No Clue How To Make Games'

CD Projekt Red co-founder Marcin Iwiński Glixel

Iwinski talks "wild capitalism" of post-Soviet Poland and how two guys went from selling CD ROMs to building one of the most-beloved epics of all time

Iwinski talks "wild capitalism" of post-Soviet Poland and how two guys went from selling CD ROMs to building one of the most-beloved epics of all time

"We were small, unknown guys from Poland," Marcin Iwiński, the co-founder of CD Projekt Red, said last year when The Witcher 3 beat out games like Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and Bloodborne for the Game of the Year award at the Game Developers Choice Awards in San Francisco.

A year later, you might say that Iwiński and his studio are now big unknown guys from Poland. He leads a studio that's worth more than $1 billion, thanks to the success of its three increasingly epic Witcher games – adapted from a series of fantasy books by the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski – and its online game store, GOG.com.

His beginnings were quite a bit humbler. Along with Michał Kiciński, his high school friend and business partner, Iwiński got his start selling imported CD ROM games in Warsaw's "gray market" computer bazaar in the 1990s. Before long, they formed an actual company, and things escalated: a trip to ECTS in London netted Blizzard's distribution rights for Poland in the WarCraft II-era, and the duo saw some early success in localization with an Ace Ventura adventure game for kids. What really changed things, though, was Baldur's Gate.

Interplay, BioWare's publisher at the time, was skeptical about localizing the game for Poland. "They said, 'No, forget about it. The market is too small,'" Iwiński recalls. But Iwiński and Kiciński had faith in their country's appetite for that sort of RPG, and decided to carry the risk themselves. It ended up selling 50,000 units its first year out, which blew away everyone's expectations. The next logical step, of course, was for the company to work on their own game. And that game was The Witcher.

Iwiński stopped by the Glixel offices during this year's Game Developers Conference, to talk about how The Witcher 3 was shaped by the history and culture of Poland, why Geralt and Yennefer have sex on a stuffed unicorn, and why Barack Obama maybe shouldn't spend his post-presidency playing his copy of The Witcher 2.

In the United States, we talk about "Western" role-playing games and Japanese role-playing games. But your studio, CD Projekt Red, is based in Poland. And The Witcher 3 doesn't fit neatly into either category.
Eastern European RPGs? EERPGs? Let's invent it. It's official now.

I guess I'm also thinking of Ukrainian games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro 2033, which feel thematically similar to The Witcher games. Is there a post-communist style of video game?
The fact that we come from post-communist countries definitely adds something to our games. I wouldn't say it's a crucial, defining factor. But it shaped our nations in a certain way – I would say more our thinking.

In The Witcher, I think it more comes from our history and folk tales, because that's what Andrzej Sapkowski was inspired by. He's taking a lot of Eastern European folk tales – and Western ones as well – and deconstructing them and then rebuilding them. And then we add our layers of history. For the first time in an RPG, we have depicted medieval, rural Poland – the local architecture and structures. If I'm going to a museum of a 200-year-old Polish village, which I did a couple years ago, I see similar things that I see in certain parts of The Witcher. For me, it's important. For an American player, they say, "Wow, it looks cool." They won't know where it comes from.

One of the things I liked in The Witcher 3 was how each area of the world – Velen, Novigrad, Skellige – contained a long secondary quest in a new environment that was separate from the story of Geralt and Ciri. It was almost like a new game, or a new season of a TV show like Game of Thrones.
It reflects the differences in the areas that we come from, in Europe. If you look at No Man's Land, those are Slavic lands. When I run around in No Man's Land in The Witcher, I feel like I'm in a medieval Polish rural area. And then I get to Novigrad, and it's more like an Amsterdam or maybe a little bit of Gdansk, the city in the north of Poland on the Baltic seaside. And then I get to Skellige, and there's no doubt it's Scandinavia. That's obvious. I think what we managed to achieve is to show that it's real, that it's not fake.

In an American RPG, the player-character is usually a tremendous hero. The Witcher 3 is different. There's an early scene where Geralt and Vesemir slaughter some occupying soldiers who are harassing the locals in a tavern. In a Bethesda game, all the townspeople would say, "Great job, hero!" In your game, they say, in effect, "You're a monster and a freak, and we're terrified of you."
That's straight from Sapkowski's writing: no clear distinction between good and evil, and always think about your choices but you don't know what the result will be. It's like real life. That's what we loved about it. I think it's about deconstructing the hero and building a different version of a hero. I totally agree with you that in a lot of American games it's clearer what is good.

We started the company as two gamers distributing games in Poland. We were fascinated with RPGs. That's how we met Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk from BioWare, who were our role models. We played all the Baldur's Gate games. But it was always, like, there was this evil Sarevok and you go and find him and – [trumpet sound] – you won. We thought, hey, that's great, but let's add a new flavor to it: more ambiguous, more complex characters who are more real because they remind us of ourselves.

We are not always happy with our life choices. Things get terribly complicated, sometimes, starting from a very simple situation. You make a certain choice that you think is good and then you're like, "Oh, I fucked up big time, man. What's happening with my life?" That's a little bit Witcher.

At the very beginning of The Witcher 3, Vesemir says to Geralt: "It used to be simple. Monsters were bad, and humans were good. Now things are all confused." That's the theme of the whole game.
In the literature and in the game, the worst monsters are humans. I really don't want to use the word "mature," because it hasn't got the right flavor, the right color, but we developed these games and wrote the story for adults. We want to entertain them. We want to surprise them. We want to play with their vision of the world. The Bloody Baron quest: It's fantasy, there's this unborn child that turns into a monster, but still it's a real, tragic situation.

I'm not playing as many games as I used to, but I love to consume culture. Whenever I go for a certain form of entertainment, I want to be surprised. I want a certain freshness. I want something new. If I'm going to the cinema, and from the very beginning I know what's going to happen, where is the reward for me? I want the story to play with my intelligence, with my knowledge about the world, and maybe deliver something new. I hope that's what we are delivering in our games.

I was hoping to finally finish The Witcher 3 before we talked, and I just couldn't quite get there in time. Is there a reason you wanted the game to be so long?
The thing is, when a game isn't finished, you have a certain vision of the story. You want to make it rich, you want to make it great, and in our case nonlinear, deep, with very strong personalities and characters. And so you run wild.

And then you put it all together, and, "Wow, boy, it's big." You do a lot of cutting, because that's what development is. It's about thinking what you can sacrifice to get to the launch.

If I count my time, I spent around 200 hours in the game, with the expansions. You can finish the game in, what, 60 hours? That's probably what my 14-year-old daughter did. There's a certain feeling of accomplishment at the end.

I'm really curious how my second playthrough would be, but I don't have another 200 hours. What we are all fighting for as creators is people's time. With family and running a company and traveling a lot, I'm more and more paranoid about allocating my time.

I even started keeping a log last year of what I read, what I watch, the culture I consume. I'm so paranoid that I started rating it, and when I see that I spend a couple days on a book and then I give it 3 out of 10 – I'm asking myself, "Why didn't you throw it away?" Because I could have done something else. The backlog is really long.

Just to be clear, I'm not running development. I'm running the company. Of course, I take part in the key decisions, along with the storytellers and the developers working on it.

So what's your role in a game like The Witcher 3, or Cyberpunk 2077, which your studio is making right now?
I started the company with a friend from high school, Michał Kiciński. We started as game distributors, but in all honesty, we weren't very good at distribution. We were very good at games, at picking games and being the first to localize them for Poland.

Initially, the big part of our motivation to start the company was that we would have access to new titles. It sounds super silly, but we were gods. We were the lords who were deciding what was being distributed in Poland and what was not. So we were getting access to all this stuff. I found one of the first ads that we placed in a Polish gaming mag, and our hours were from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And I scratched my head and thought, "What were we doing?" Of course! We were closing early to play games.

I was always running international business development: making the deals, getting the games to Poland, convincing our partners. I ran the localization of Baldur's Gate into Polish and built the whole department, while Michał was working on the PR and marketing side. Since then, my role hasn't changed that much. I'm very focused on how we go outside of Poland. Talking about business, 97 percent of our revenue comes from outside of Poland. We are huge in Poland as a gaming company, but our goal and ambition was to make games that will appeal to audiences all around the world.

Because we're coming from a small market, we understand how it is when you come from a country where games aren't selling in the millions, and nobody really cares. Or maybe there's one localized game, or five localized games, and no RPG was localized before. We go there, and we listen to gamers. The Witcher 3, it's a crowning achievement that we have 15 localized versions. We have incredible success all around the world, but I'm especially proud of our new territories. We did a full localization in Brazilian Portuguese. I think right now it's the bestselling console game of this generation in Korea. The first thing is we talk to gamers directly in their language.

I was going to ask you about the American localization, because it's a very careful translation. I played The Witcher 2 by reading English subtitles while listening to the Polish dialogue track, because I liked how foreign it felt. But The Witcher 3 didn't feel foreign at all.
The game was written, in parallel, in Polish and in English. This made it way easier. We really put a great deal of time and energy into it. Historically, RPGs were rarely localized well. Localization can sound like you just do the translation. No, actually it's like translating a book but at the same time making an audio version with 50 actors taking part in it. It's cultural adaptation. It's making sure every single thing fits with the character.

Localization is great when you don't feel there is one. You should play the game, whether in French, German, or Polish, and be 100 percent convinced that it was written in your language. If you have a certain moment when you feel, "Hey this wording is off," then you lose the immersion.

Foreign languages are my hobby and my passion. I spend a lot of time studying new ones. I read an interesting article, and I agreed with it, that if you start speaking another language, you become a different person. Because you adopt part of the culture – when you speak this language, you change yourself. And so The Witcher is a different game, and Geralt is a different character, in every single one of these languages. It will be softer, and more musical and melodic, in Spanish or Italian. It will be harsher, more rough, in German. It will be very strange to us in Chinese. It's the same Witcher, but people will perceive it differently. We want to make it theirs, in their mother tongue.

Do you remember the first video game you played?
For Christmas, I got a ZX Spectrum, 48 kilobytes, a Sinclair-powered machine with a tape recorder, and six cassette tapes with games. The first that comes to my mind is Jetpac. The second is Pssst. And then I owned an Amiga. A friend owned an Atari. I still remember the game Bruce Lee. On the flight to San Francisco, I was reading one of the Polish gaming mags, and they had some screenshots of Bruce Lee in the retro section. Oh boy, it was so ugly. Bruce Lee was eight pixels flying with two legs. But in my head, it's a beautiful, 3D, Tekken-ish kind of game.

Pretty much from primary school, I was totally into games. Then I went to high school, where I met Michał Kiciński, the co-founder. After 15 minutes of talk, we realized we had the same passion. At that time, there was no copyright law in Poland, there was no legal games distribution. There was nothing. This was the early 1990s, right after the fall of the Soviet Union, as we started emerging out of it. Wild capitalism.

On the weekends, we started going to the computer market in Warsaw. Passionate fans of computers gathered to buy hardware and swap games. We were about to finish high school, and copyright law was introduced, and our first thought was, "Hey, maybe we could start importing games."

I had contacts in the United States through the bulletin-board system scene, and one of my friends from the BBS recommended a game wholesaler. We started importing CDs, and initially Michał was selling them at the computer market on the weekends. Initially, we got them from any channel we could. I remember one of our first contacts was a company called Just CDs in Anaheim. I was just on the phone, ordering games like, "Five units of Indiana Jones. Two units of Day of the Tentacle." After three months of this sort of incubation, in the gray zone so to speak, we said, "Hey, it's going well. Let's start a company."

And that's why it's called CD Projekt?
Exactly, because we were the first with CDs. And then, you know, we slowly learned how the industry worked. We went for the first time to the Consumer Electronics Show. We were in heaven.

One of the first things we saw at ECTS was Warcraft 2. It was in a corner. Michał was very into strategy games and so he said, "We gotta have it." So I started talking to them. I still remember, the first agreement, we imported 300 units from their Irish warehouse. And that's how we started representing Blizzard until we sold off our distribution business two or three years ago.

We started localizing the "box and docs," and then localizing the full games. So we learned from the other side. We had the dream of making our own games. But we had no clue how to make games. It was more like passionate gamers who knew how to run a gamer-friendly publishing business starting to develop games, without any knowledge of how to develop games whatsoever. And that was Witcher 1.

Before you started localizing, you were just importing games on discs that were designed for other markets?
Yes. It was super niche. First of all, not many people in Poland could afford a CD-ROM player, because it was a couple hundred bucks, initially. It was a very nice, niche market, with high margins. I still remember, say we sold 40 units this week, let's share the profits: It was like, 100 zloty for you, 100 zloty for me, and 100 zloty to buy the stock next week. We had three piles of money. It was that simple.

With all the monsters, with all the magic, 'The Witcher' is a very contemporary-world game, just dressed up in a little bit of medieval, magical robes.

And your breakthrough was when BioWare let you localize Baldur's Gate?

We started with smaller games for kids. We localized an adventure game from 7th Level called Ace Ventura. I don't know if you remember that.

I remember the movie.
Yeah, so there was a game, and the game wasn't bad, and it sold incredibly well. And then we met BioWare once, they were representing Baldur's Gate, at ECTS. And of course we asked our contacts at Interplay, which published the game: Can we do the localization?

They said, "No, forget about it. The market is too small." It was a bit of a vicious circle. The market was small, so it made no sense to localize, and so it wasn't growing.

At a certain point, we convinced them. We said, "OK guys, we'll guarantee you 3,000 units." We paid a minimum guarantee. Generally, the idea at Interplay was, "Hey, we don't want to be bothered, but if you want to take all the risk..." We said we'd be more than happy do do that.

We spent six months localizing the game. We used famous Polish actors for the key roles. At that time, we were selling maybe 500 to 1,000 units of a game. So 3,000 units was a gigantic risk for us. If it wouldn't sell through, if the game bombed, maybe we would have to close the company.

By the time we were ready to release the game, we had 18,000 orders and had to get an external warehouse to fit the 18,000 copies of Baldur's Gate because they weren't fitting in our office. We didn't have a warehouse, just two or three small rooms. The wholesalers were fighting for the stock in front of the warehouse, the game was so anticipated. And it clicked. Within the first year, we sold 50,000 units of Baldur's Gate.

When we went back to E3, I think it was our second E3, the meeting with Interplay was the last meeting, on Friday at 4 p.m. Our usual Interplay contact wasn't there. There was someone from Virgin, because in Europe, Virgin and Interplay had merged. We told her, "It's a success! We sold 18,000 units!" She was stone-faced and said, "That's impossible." Why? "Because you can't sell that many units in Poland." But we did! She almost convinced us that we didn't.

When we finished the conversation, I said, "We've wire transferred the money, so please check your account." That was a huge opening, for us and for the market. Then we did all the RPGs. We did Icewind Dale. We did Planescape: Torment. And then did Fallout.

At the same time, Baldur's Gate also sparked, "Hey, we really want to have our own game."

Going from The Witcher to The Witcher 2 to The Witcher 3, each game is more ambitious and more sophisticated.
Witcher 1 is very much – I don't like this word, but let's use it – a hardcore RPG, with a hard interface, with a lot of tough mechanics. I think it's a deep game on the story level, but still, if I were to have to play it from the beginning right now, I would probably have a hard time. Because I expect something else.

And so with The Witcher 2, we wanted to make it more cinematic. Having said that, when we shipped it, the PC version was extremely difficult, to put it lightly. I still remember one of the reviews in the U.S. where the journalist died in the prologue 50 times. And I was like, "Hmmm, I think we should rebalance it." It was a lesson learned.

With The Witcher 3, we really paid a lot of attention to immersion. This is really what we expect from games these days. Where we come from, Poland and Eastern Europe – and Germany, in a certain way as well – players have had always had a certain tolerance for hardcoreness, for clunkiness in interface. Let's say you have a game and you have to play with your hands crossed. "That's fine, I'm a tough guy. I'm smart. I'll play like that." And then, after you play like that for six hours, you think playing like that is cool.

While in the U.S., which we had to learn the hard way, it's: "If it's like that, then I'm not playing it; see you, thanks." It's like the way the country is constructed. It's user friendly. It's easily approachable. I totally agree with that, but it was a long way to get to this understanding. When I sit right now and watch a TV series or play a game, I have limited time. I have a family. I have three kids. I don't have time to learn the world for 10 hours in order to have another 20 hours of fun. I'm not talking about simplifying things. I'm talking about smart introductions and flawless immersion. That's what we are very much after in games. And I think Witcher 3 was a very important step in this direction. The commercial success proves it.

Do you think Barack Obama played The Witcher 2? The Polish foreign minister gave it to him a few years back.
I saw him kite-surfing with Richard Branson, so hopefully after that, he'll have a go. Just one message for him: The immersion curve in The Witcher 3 is way better.

Will we see a similar leap with Cyberpunk 2077?
We definitely hope so, but we never want to brag about things before we have something to show.

Do you have any interest in virtual reality?
We are observing with interest. We are telling stories. If VR can help us, we'll definitely consider it. But right now, I'm personally looking for something really substantial as an experience. Why did I pre-order the Switch? Not because I want the Switch. Because I want Zelda.

And also, I'm probably not a very good case, because I get nausea very fast.

The Witcher 3 has strong characters and plot, but it's also filled with small moments of discovery during exploration. Early in the game, I decided not to intervene as a group of soldiers hanged a deserter, and then I found a letter that he carried on him from the woman who was now his widow.
We really do our best to treat you and your gaming choices with respect. And this is what quite annoys me with certain games: When I'm playing and my choices don't matter. So then I'm asking myself, "Why the hell am I playing this, if it doesn't matter?"

Although the team is very international, the majority are Polish. This leaves something within you. Automatically, when you look at the world, you have this somewhere in the back.

There's also a lot of sex in the game. It's pretty good sex. But was there a concern about players taking cartoon characters who have sex with each other seriously? Was there a discussion internally, for example, about the decision to have sex on a stuffed unicorn in the game?

No, that's part of the lore, actually. Was it not right in your opinion? Was it offensive?

No, I liked it.
So did I. You can always make a choice if you want to have it or not. It shows certain relationships and certain depth between characters. Or maybe sometimes it's a function of relaxing and releasing of tension. Maybe it's a way to show the real character of a person, when you have certain perversity. You can show real monstrosity. This resonates to what we see around us. At least, that's my Polish opinion. And different cultures perceive it differently. For example, in the Japanese and Arabic versions, we had to cover the naked parts of the body. And that's fine. The story is the same.

But it sets the tone when you open with Geralt in a bathtub and Yennefer sending some kind of magical crustacean toward his privates.
With all the monsters, with all the magic, The Witcher is a very contemporary-world game, just dressed up in a little bit of medieval, magical robes. I think that's why people like it so much.

Did you follow the debate in the United States about representation in The Witcher 3? The game tackles the subject of race implicitly, through the way that mages and nonhumans like dwarves and elves are treated by the government. But there were American critics who were bothered by the fact that there were no people of color in it.
Yeah, I read the 100 pages of posts on Polygon, if that's what you're asking about.

And what did you think?
As media, you guys have the right to have any opinion. And then your readers will express their opinions. And that's what I read. I'm glad it provoked a heated debate. When people talk about things, that's good.

Having said that, I think with the The Witcher – coming again from the lore and from Sapkowski's books – we are dealing with problems of racism. Not related to skin color, but related to whether you are a dwarf or an elf or a monster. That's what Sapkowski wrote about. How people understand it in different countries and cultures is really up to them. And we're happy to read about it.

Do you have a favorite video game?
The game that I like the most, and I even replayed it a couple years ago – actually, it's two games – is Fallout 1 and Fallout 2. Maybe because of the darkness. There is a certain – the music, the atmosphere, I think it resonates with something in me. I love those two games.

I am struck by how many of the side quests in The Witcher 3 feature adultery or treachery or end in tragedy. In one, Geralt finds a black pearl for a man to give to his wife. In a Bethesda game or a BioWare game, he probably would return to find the couple living happily ever after. Instead, Geralt learns that she has dementia and that this was a fruitless attempt to get her to recognize her husband.
That's how we Eastern Europeans see things. Coming back to your original question, our history has taken its toll. And it's reflected in our literature, in our cinema, and in what you're taught as kids. My grandmother survived the Second World War. She escaped a Nazi transport and they hid in villages for a couple of months. This left an imprint on every single family of a big part of the team. Although the team is very international, the majority are Polish. This leaves something within you. Automatically, when you look at the world, you have this somewhere in the back.

Probably my kids will not. Because it's a different world we're living in today. After Polish, the first language I had in school was Russian. And it was obligatory. I was probably one of the last generations who had it. The textbooks were propaganda texts. I remember a poem where a Polish and a Russian soldier, arm in arm, were liberating Poland. This is in me, and a lot of people working on the game. It's a very strong imprint on the culture of the country. That's who we are.

If you look at contemporary Polish cinema, like Ida, which won an Oscar two years ago, it's a black and white movie, amazingly beautifully shot, about a Stalinist prosecutor in Poland and a nun, dealing with history and the Jews. The story is so complex that even some Polish people have trouble understanding the historical background of it. At the same time, it resonates with us because it's where we come from.

And then we see all these fairy tales, and we're like, "That's not what life was like around here."

This interview has been edited and condensed.