After my hands-on with the Witcher III: Blood and Wine, I sat down with CD Projekt Red’s Senior Animator Jamie Bury, for a brief interview.
Progress Bar: So your title is now Senior Animator?
Bury: Yeah I was Lead Animator for the Witcher 3 base game but I’m Senior Animator for both expansion packs.
PB: What are you working on at the moment?
Bury: I’ve mainly been working on the boss character, which you won’t have seen yet.
PB: So not the guy in the greenhouse?
Bury: (pregnant pause with some finger-tapping)
PB: Maybe don’t say?
Bury: (laughs) No it would spoil things for you. I’ve been working on the final boss fight.
PB: How did your job change between the base game and the expansions?
Bury: With a lead role there’s a lot of management, paperwork, that sort of thing. The main thing I wanted was to animate more and so for me it’s been fantastic because I literally get to go into the office and animate from the start of the day to the end of the day. Unfortunately when you go up too high you end up not being able to do as much. It was nice to take that step back.
PB: What’s your favourite sort of thing to animate?
Bury: When we have characters who are motion captured, like the humans, that would probably be my least favourite thing to animate. I like a big monster character who’s not a normal biped. They’re super fun to work on because normally it’s something new, not something I can just look at and say ok we just need to copy this movement. It’s something where we need to be creative and come up with new ways for it to move, attack, that sort of thing.
PB: Is there a lot of motion capture in the Witcher games?
Bury: Oh yeah. Most of the human characters are motion captured, so when we’re doing things like community animations, people walking around town, washing clothing, things like that, it will often be one of the animators in a mo-cap suit.
PB: How involved are the animators in the mo-cap studio?
Bury: With the mo-cap we have our schedule, what we need to get done, and roughly how it needs to be implemented in-game. Then we’ll have stuntmen or actors come in to do the mo-cap or we’ll be in the suits doing it ourselves. For instance when Geralt swims in the game… that’s me swimming (laughs). It was terrible to record, I actually had to rest on this stool on my hips and try and stretch out like Superman. So yeah we can be quite involved. I mean if it’s a more important animation for more important characters we generally have actors and actresses who come in and do the mo-cap. When it comes to the monsters these are all hand-keyed from scratch. That’s the most enjoyable part of the job for me, it’s just awesome implementing it and seeing it in-game.
PB: I had read that there had been graphical improvements grass, any comments on that?
Bury: I’m not really involved in the tech side of things, but apparently it’s been hugely improved and optimised, there can be more of it but it’ll be less expensive, that kind of thing.
PB: Any other graphical improvements along those lines?
Bury: From the animation point of view I can say we’ve had huge improvements in cloth. So you’ll notice in Beauclair, with its French influence you’ve got all these women in beautiful long dresses, these all needed to work with the animation. We have the ability to animate these now, they have physics laid over the top but also hand-keyed animation just to make sure there’s no weird problems when they go to sit down. We had cloth in the base game but it wasn’t something we could really edit through animation, it was more you’d animate the character and the cloth was just something that was put over the top. Now we actually have full control.
PB: I had a question about whether Blood and Wine would share any similarities with a Bioware-esque final DLC that reunites all the characters one last time and wraps up any loose ends, but then I found out that Geralt can buy a Vineyard and basically settle down. Is there anything in the story that leads into that, that suggests that Geralt intends to hang up his sword belt for good?
Bury: For us we want to close the Witcher stuff and finish with this expansion, at least for Geralt. It’s not like where you’re reading a book and you get to the end and you’re done. So when you finish the main story of Blood and Wine it’s not like the credits roll and you go back to the menu, you can still keep playing.
PB: So there’s not necessarily anything in the story where Geralt’s had enough and makes the decision to live at the vineyard for the rest of his days?
Bury: With that kind of thing, if we put that into the story it would take away that element of player-choice. We always like to let the player pick how their Geralt will end up so we generally leave those sort of things a bit more open-ended.
PB: Some people feel that the combat of the Witcher 3 is the game’s biggest drawback. Has this feedback been noted, and have any changes been implemented in this final expansion or with CDPR’s upcoming title Cyberpunk 2077?
Bury: We have this sheet that tells us which questions we can and can’t answer and there’s a section with big, red, capital letters that says “we do not talk about Cyberpunk.” But I also have to mention I don’t know anything about Cyberpunk as I’m still working on the Witcher. As for the combat, it’s something we’d always like to improve but with a game like Witcher 3 if you were to completely change that system it would have knock-on effects for the rest of the game. The changes we’ve made are more about the enemies you’ll be facing and the way that they fight you.
PB: In just the short session I played there were maybe three or four boss fights, does this rapid pace of boss encounters keep up the whole way through Blood and Wine?
Bury: We have several of those encounters throughout the expansion, but you’ll also have the normal Witcher gameplay: fighting smaller creatures, and groups of enemies.
PB: What was the morale like at CDPR after the huge success of the Witcher 3, compared to the lead up to release where some people were saying the game had been downgraded?
Bury: We had a lot of faith in the game we’d been working on. We had people who’d been putting years of their life into making the Witcher as good as it can be. There’d be some article posted and it’d get emailed around the office and it’d be like… (sigh). We didn’t really worry about it too much because it was more people commenting on videos that they’d seen and we would think “It’s ok, when they play the game they will be happy.” Personally it’s tough when you’re working on a game and we release videos, footage, things like that, years before the game comes out. It often gives people very high expectations. They see the video and think “well that was released six months before the game comes out, so in six months time it’s going to look even better”. But no, things will need to be optimised, tweaked and changed.
PB: Hypothetically, if there was another game set in the Witcher universe, would you rather a create-your-own character sort of game like Skyrim or Dark Souls or another game with a fixed personality like Geralt.
Bury: I’d prefer a set character. The games we make are very much about the story and when you’re making your own character it’s very hard to get invested in the story. When you’re Geralt he already has a backstory, it’s not something you need to come up with. He has a history and a goal he’s heading towards. I find I’m never as invested in the story when it’s a character I’ve created.
PB: Have you played Dragon Age: Inquisition?
Bury: I’ve played a little bit. That was one of those games where when it was released everyone at CDPR was like “OK we need to have a look at Dragon Age”. We were originally set to release Witcher 3 at the same time but we delayed. I remember someone sent out an email saying they had a friend working at Bioware who said that everyone was cheering when they found out we’d delayed the Witcher.
PB: So was a big reason for that particular delay to avoid competing with Dragon Age?
Bury: We don’t have publishers pushing on us for that sort of thing. If we play the game and it’s not ready we would rather put another six months on it. You’ll always want more time though, even after six months you’ll be thinking “well if we had another five years we could make this just incredible”. But you can’t keep doing that.
PB: Release date?
Bury: Release date is May 31st, 2016.
PB: Thanks so much for your time.