Talking Visual FX, Passion & Witchers with CD Projekt RED

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is undoubtedly one of the most impressive things we got to see at E3. Geralt's adventure is sprawlingly, almost overwhelmingly massive from what we've seen, and it also makes some of the best use we've seen of the new console technology so far. All the more appropriate, then, that we sit down with Jose Teixeria, a Senior Visual Effects Artist over at developer CD Projekt RED and one of the men in charge of making sure that when Geralt casts a spell, it looks as bad-ass and as satisfying as the team want it to feel.

We took some time out at E3 to chat to Jose about all things Witcher, from technical tidbits to what it's like working in a studio full of RPG fans - and the quest for realistic, real-time clouds. Enjoy.

Geralt's latest adventure definitely stands out visually.

RPG Site: So, given that you work in the technical side of the team, it makes the most sense to start there - what do you feel that you've been able to do with this game that you couldn't have before with the new consoles & new technology available?

Jose Teixeria: Well, the funny thing is that... it's really the fact that we're doing an open world game. Usually, having an open world leads to a certain story, usually one with a more free-form structure. We wanted to do a scenario where the story benefits from the open world. We're trying to -- well, it's making the open world a consequence of the story, rather than just a conscious decision.

There's really a tremendous amount of information. The villages, the vegetation, the mountains, the terrain, the people... everything has a tremendous amount of detail. All the materials we use - we have our own propriety engine that we use, and we have all the fancy, physically-based shading. All of the metals, the woods, all that kind of stuff looks perfectly realistic.

So, that allows us to push a lot in terms of information. The number of people, the number of locations, the number of events - in general, the number of things to keep track of in the story, because the story branches out a lot... it definitely wouldn't have been possible before.

Ridiculously dense towns - yep.

RPG Site: You were of course pretty deep in development before the hardware of the next-generation consoles was finalized. How was it to deal with that, to work within specs that could potentially change fairly significantly?

Teixeria: Luckily CD Projekt was able to get their hands on the very first early development kits, and so we were able to at least... foresee, to a certain extent, the problems we might be facing. It was still quite worrying, at the same time. 

Actually, though, when I really think, it went rather well. I mean, we're still far from done - we're working on it actually right now, but we're having a good time. We have everything running on consoles and PC, and it really just is now a matter of optimization. It certainly wasn't actually as bad as one might have expected - it's turned out pretty well.

RPG Site: What sort of differences will there be between the three platforms? Do you feel there'll be a noticeable difference in the final product?

Teixeria: Well, obviously the specs mean that there will be differences in what is released. With that said, we are absolutely trying to push for the best experience possible on each of the platforms. Certainly with PC, you can put a massive graphics card in there and push the settings to the max, of course - who doesn't love that?

In terms of consoles, we're really trying to give it our all... y'know, we'll push it as much as we can.

RPG Site: Was a cross-generational console effort on the cards after how well The Witcher 2 did, or was that always a no-go? 

Teixeria: There's... there's no way. It's one of those decisions. We really want to push it - we would have to cut too much to be able to go last-gen. We really didn't want to do that. Ultimately PC is still the absolute focus - you'll still be able to push all of the settings to the max and get the best out of it.

RPG Site: One of the things you've talked about is being a loadless world...

Teixeria: Yeah, that is true. At least during the normal game. The only time you will see a loading screen is when you fast travel, and that's because we obviously can't stream that in as you go. 

RPG Site: With RAM constraints, how did that work out for you? Was it a difficult proposition?

The world stretches so far that the game's streaming tech had to be reworked.

Teixeria: It's funny you mention this - we just had to deal with this. It was just reworked very recently. We reworked the entire streaming technology to make sure that it worked very well across the entire game, as it was just so much information that in certain scenarios not everything was loading. 

There were definitely some problems with it, but we've reworked it a little bit and now everything is working correctly. We have this very... very clever, I might add - system that loads the world around you, and then it loads the things that are distant in as well, but with less resolution, with less polygon count, all that sort of thing. 

We try to give you a really long viewing distance, because that is kind of the point of the game. We need a long viewing distance and be able to goto those places, but of course keeping it running is always a balancing act. 

RPG Site: With such a huge open world, how do you ensure vast amounts of geometry - from smaller things like formations of rocks to larger things like houses - aren't repeated?

Teixeria: So here's the thing... of course, there is some hopefully clever repetition of assets because we simply can't do everything bespoke and custom, but having said that... in my view...

Well, I highly oppose this. I'm not brave enough to make this kind of decision - I would highly advise them to make few assets and then repeat them cleverly to hide the fact that they're being repeated or something... but instead, the environment team just said 'Nope, we're going to make almost everything custom'. 

So... almost everything is custom. The whole of the city you saw in the demo, all the streets... everything is custom. Which is... it's not very advisable! [laughs] It's just so much content. It's all custom made! It's a little bit mindblowing.

RPG Site: Can you tell us what happens at the end of the world? Is the landmass an island? Is there an endless desert or plains, or something?

Teixeria: That is actually... a very good question. And I actually don't know! I've never been to the end of the world. There's certainly islands in the world... and of course, there is an end, but I've never been there, so I can't see. The world is that big that I'm working on the game and I haven't been to the end of it!

PG Site: For those on the PC, can you give any sort of idea - even vague - of what sort of hardware they'll be looking at to run the game?

Max settings will be a treat, but CD Projekt still has love for mid-tier machines.

Teixeria: Ah! Well, that's a very good question, as we still don't have an official sort of outline for that sort of thing. Hrm. Well... [laughs]. That's very tricky.

I was going to talk about when we run the game, but when we run the game it's different because we're running with the engine open. We don't just load around us - we load the whole world. Those machines are pretty big!

Having said that, we do have people in the office with machines with mid-range cards, and it works, it works at a reasonable frame rate. It might not look quite as good - but you won't have to empty your pockets to be able to play this game! The official settings will come down the line.

RPG Site: One of the big advantages of the PC platform in my eyes is the ability to mod and such. Will there be support for fan-editing and mod tools for The Witcher 3 down the line?

Teixeria: There are really good plans, yeah. We love to bring more tools to the fans, always. Here's the thing - our engine had to be very quickly adapted to be able to accomodate all of these big things we wanted to do. We've piled on tools and features and so on... and now we really have to take that and make sure it's user friendly.

That's the key if we want to release it to the public... we need to make it user friendly enough so that people can use it. There's going to be some work in that regard, but, hopefully, we'll be able to bring those to the public.

RPG Site: At this point, I'm guessing the game is content complete - but when do you get to wrap up your work?

Teixeria: Oh, boy. I'm screwed. It's going to be hard, in the end... special effects are always there right to the very end. Suddenly, an email pops up... "Oh! We need this whole village on fire!" All I can say is "Oh! Great! I'll call my wife and tell her goodbye..." [Laughs] It's going to be a lot of work.

The funny thing is, we've just released that pre-order trailer, The Sword of Destiny, and even in that... everybody keeps telling me how great it looks, I've been getting a lot of positive feedback. All I can see, though... ahh, this horse is missing his effects, ahh, this guy has a bad texture.. everything is wrong. I have to go back and fix everything! There's so much work to do. But we'll get there.

"We can be like 'explosions, explosions, explosions,' and then, suddenly we change gears, and it's... 'Oh, could you make a little effect for a waterfall, delicately flowing down into grass...' It can be very relaxing."

RPG Site: With the game as large as it is, I'm guessing the team is pretty large?

Teixeria: Ooh, that's a tricky question. I think we're up to around 200 people, if I'm not mistaken. Somewhere around there.

RPG Site: How many of those on visuals?

Teixeria: Certainly over 100... probably slightly over 100 on visuals, but... hmm, that's tricky, because then we have the story team, the concept art team and so on... It gets pretty big!

RPG Site: How much cross-contamination is there between the people working on Witcher and Cyberpunk? Are you all one big team that will merely move on to that next year?

Teixeria: Oh, We're trying to work on both projects at the time. I'm actually not allowed to talk about Cyberpunk, but... Well, Cyberpunk, it's going on. It's obviously still in the fairly early stages. Right now everybody is focused on The Witcher, we're still trying to close this out. As soon as we're finished, though, we're very much looking forward to really pushing the spec forwards - and show it to the public, too, as it's been quite a long time!

RPG Site: Working in visual effects, it must be quite exciting to have that game on the horizon - lots of neon lighting and such...

Teixeria: Oh, it's so great. It's so different. We have... we have our, sort of... in the studio, we share a weekly email thread of inspiration. There's so much good stuff on there right now. As for Cyberpunk, that teaser... I've watched it over and over. I can't wait.

RPG Site: As an artist, are there any particular inspirations for your work? Are you sharing them at the office?

Teixeria: Oh, yes. We do this all the time. We're always looking at movies. The obvious one for The Witcher is Lord of the Rings - but not only movies, and not only fantasy, but science fiction... inspiration in visual effects, can come from just about anywhere. We're constantly seeing things, where somebody has seen or played something, and they say "this would look great when we cast this spell" and so on...

I will say this - the thing about the Witcher is we can be like "explosions, explosions, explosions," and then, suddenly we change gears, and it's... "Oh, could you make a little effect for a waterfall, delicately flowing down into grass..." I have to just go... "Ahh." We're making clouds, we're making sunsets... it can be very relaxing. It's very nice!

RPG Site: Is there a particular thing you're proud of in the game? 

Okay, agreed - those sure are some clouds to be proud of.

Teixeria: Yes. I can even tell you! It's the sky. It doesn't sound very exciting, unfortunately, but we're trying to make clouds. The sky is always above you, it's always something you pay some attention to... so I've tried to make these really nice clouds that react to the sun direction, to the changes in weather and so on.

Hopefully, if that goes well, it should paint a very nice picture, especially when you're looking at a large landscape with the sky above.

This isn't a skybox. It's not as close to real-time clouds as we'd like because of performance, of course, but we're really trying to take it one step further. None of this rotating skybox, an image that moves.

It's one of the things that I'm always disappointed in. I love open world games, but one thing you see a lot of now, on YouTube and such, are in-game time lapses. It all looks so great... but then you see a rotating cloud texture. It ruins the immersion! If I cover the sky, everything down looks amazing. It always strikes me! 

In The Witcher, Geralt can meditate to pass time, and in that, you see a time lapse, the sky moving. Initially it was that rotating texture, but it was really in your face. I said no, no, we've got to make something better than this. I'm going to make sure that we have a nice panning sky that actually travels. The sky composes the image, in an artistic sense.

RPG Site: As a genre-specific site, something we've noticed is how rapidly CD Projekt has become a bit of a hero of the genre. You even sometimes use the slogan 'play your role' - you're speaking to our readers. Do you get a real sense that the studio thrives off that reputation?

Teixeria: I've worked in other game development companies before, but before  I was sort of doing those linear single player shooters. Those are fine, of course, and a lot of fun, especially if you're doing special effects - explosions everywhere! This is quite different - The Witcher is this very, very heavily story driven RPG - it's so deep. It's great fun to work on.

I mean... there's no real way I can say this without making it sound like marketing bullshit, but... when I first started at CD Projekt, I noticed there were a lot of foreigners from a lot of different places. British, Americans, from all over. Everybody is there not because of money or whatever, but because of The Witcher. People want to work on these games - people love these games. People come from all over the world just for this game. People stay and work longer hours on this game of their own free will. They want to make it better. They want to leave their mark.

It's an insane amount of personal investment in the game across the team compared to other places I have seen. Everybody really wants to make this the best in the series - it's a great environment.

RPG Site: Finally - do you have anything you want to get out there to people looking forward to the game?

February can't come soon enough.

Teixeria: Newcomers: Do not be afraid. The story has been very cleverly written to ensure that anybody can enter the world of the Witcher here. I think the opening of the game is built so that it'll be really easy on newcomers but will also be fulfilling enough that veterans to the series will be entertained. It's meaningful.

I'd say two more things... the first of which is: combat. Combat is very nice, very fluid, but really difficult. It's really, properly challenging. It's not punishing, but is very, very challenging. You need to stand back, think tactically, and use the potions, the signs, spells and things. 

Mind you, I have to fight in the developer environment to test out the dismemberment - taking off limbs and such - and I'm constantly dying even in editor mode with cheats and such added!

The second thing is - just explore the game. It's a huge, huge game... it's very much worth exploring. Hop on your horse and just ride. See what you can see. There's so many quests and things to experience out there - it'll hopefully keep you interested!

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is due out on February 24th, and is available for pre-order now. There'll be a full RPG Site review closer to launch.