When the leaks first came via a Chinese online retailer, no one really believed that The Witcher 3, one of the finest open-world RPGs to ever grace current gen consoles, could truly be coming to Nintendo Switch.
Certainly not without heavy compromise, anyway.
Surely, it would be via streaming, like Capcom and Ubisoft have done in Japan with Resident Evil 7 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey respectively. Or perhaps, like other publishers jumping on the Switch bandwagon, CD Projekt Red could easily churn out a last-gen port of Geralt’s earlier adventures. And even if it was true, surely you’d need to clear your Switch’s entire storage to download most of the game.
Yet The Witcher 3 on Switch has defied expectations. It’s coming in the form of a complete edition containing all released DLC, including the ‘Hearts of Stone’ and ‘Blood and Wine’ story expansions. And thanks to the work of Saber Interactive (known for its work on Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Halo 2 for The Master Chief Collection), all of it is contained on a 32GB cartridge.
Having tried it for ourselves, and mightily impressed by what’s been achieved, we also had the chance to speak to Piotr Chrzanowski, a senior producer at CD Projekt Red who oversaw the port. He answered our questions on the porting process, the challenges presented, and what it’s like having Geralt on the go.
When the decision to port The Witcher 3 to Switch landed on your desk, what was your reaction? Did you actually think this would be impossible?
Chrzanowski: I don’t think “impossible” was the first reaction. Challenging, yes, but not impossible. We knew that we have quite a good engine, and we also worked with Saber Interactive for this port. So it’s more of a challenge and actually saying, okay, what’s impossible? Because it’s not impossible [laughs].
How did you go about ensuring you could bring the whole Witcher experience without compromising on the gameplay?
When we agreed we’d work with Saber, we set up a plan on how we want to see what’s feasible. So we started with making sure that we can actually run REDengine on the Switch dev kit. Then we had a smaller playable piece, which basically consists of most of the game’s mechanics. Then coming from that, scale by scale, area by area, we grew the game, moving from White Orchard and then of course to Novigrad, and Skellige, et cetera. From there, through optimisation, we can scale it up to other areas.
Was there any particular part during the project where you encountered any serious hurdles; where it looked like this was just not going to work without some serious cutbacks?
I don’t recall any part where we thought this was not going to fly, because every issue we have encountered so far, we had ideas on how to tackle those. We can’t change the hardware limitations, it is what it is, so we have to work within those boundaries. There are more taxing areas where everyone knows that framerate is a challenge but we were also aware of those things in the first place. Having produced the game on other platforms, we knew how to prepare for that.
When the game’s full size is about 45GB on other platforms, getting this down to 32GB is nuts – what sorcery went into making this work?
Well, it’s a sorcery [laughs]. But one thing is textures – you want to make sure that textures work well within the resolutions that you have. Secondly, you can get rid of some of the very detailed models because you don’t need to have them for 720p. You can also recompress cutscenes for 720p. So step by step up, you get some space, and we also work with a bit of the audio and a few other of those areas.
Was there ever a conversation on excluding the DLC in order to make sure everything fit on the card, or just going for a smaller cheaper card and putting the rest of the content for download?
For us, it was always about bringing the full experience, believing in getting the full game, having all the DLC, everything that we’ve released so far. It’s all about this consistency – we want to make sure that you can actually play the whole adventure, and not just part of it. There would be no point otherwise. Obviously, we know how expensive it is for the cards, but we want to make sure that whoever buys the game can enjoy it straight away, and not everyone has internet access. It’s what we promised to deliver.
There’s feedback regarding the graphics being obviously not similar to what you’re going to get on the other platforms, though having played it for myself, it runs beautifully. How do you respond to those concerns and criticisms?
The way I perceive The Witcher myself is it’s a huge open world RPG with story, quests, great gameplay, and all of the standards that is essential to what we do as CD Projekt. We still want to achieve visual fidelity, but this is also a way to convey a story rather than a goal in itself. We wanted to make sure that we are in a position where the experience that you get on a Switch is the same experience that you get on other platforms. We don’t have a question whether this is fun to play or not. It’s the same critically acclaimed game that everyone knows.
What was your favourite part of the porting process?
I think the best and most fun part of all was actually taking the first build and then going around the studio with the Switch, giving it to people [laughs]. We’ve seen it on the other platforms but now this is it, we’re bringing it to the team, giving it to them, seeing their reaction, knowing they can now enjoy playing it on the go!
Were there any particular elements you tweaked specifically for handheld mode?
Definitely the user interface. We wanted to make sure that whatever you do in the game, it’s big enough, visible and readable enough, so we spent some time tweaking it and making sure that it’s there. But it also switches between, so when you dock the game, you’ll see that it comes back to the more standard layout. We were considering additional things like touchscreen management, but we’re also thinking whether this would make sense or not. We want to make sure there is a consistent experience between the platforms.
Unlike other high-profile third-party Switch ports like Skyrim, Rocket League and Diablo, there’s surprisingly no Nintendo content or Easter egg in there. Was that something you considered or would Link’s gear have messed with the world of The Witcher?
Of course, the idea occurred to us, but it’s all about the consistency of experience. The main focus was on making sure that this is the same version we have.
Assuming that this port is going to be very successful, are there plans to continue bringing games to Switch, whether that’s future or legacy content, e.g. the first two Witcher games?
Those questions will be difficult for me to answer. Definitely, we have learned a lot about the platform, but what the future will bring, it’s hard to say. That’s more of a question for our business management guys. Right now, we are focusing on making sure Cyberpunk 2077 is ready [note: none of us believe this is coming to Switch, but never say never].
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