Last night, I finished playing Witcher 3. I enjoyed it, and I think it offers quite a bit to think about. This morning, I want to share some of the design questions that it made me consider. Many of the formal elements of Witcher 3 are staples for its genre, but as my previous post intimates, I've been thinking more about the concept of genre lately and how it's not well applied in games. My wife described Witcher 3 as "my kind of game," which is traditionally true: I love a good CRPG fantasy simulator. However, I am also approaching this as a father, playing a game whose story is fundamentally about fatherhood—aware that the game that takes an enormous amount of time and attention that could otherwise be spent on actual fatherhood.
Without further ado, then, here are some design questions that came to mind while playing Witcher 3.
What if time-sensitive tasks were actually time-sensitive? It's conventional design in CRPGs to tell the player about some important and imminent event, but then give them a functionally infinite amount of time to proceed with it. There's a monster killing everything in the swamp, your daughter is being chased by the Wild Hunt, there's a guy waiting for you at dusk by the docks... but you can faff about for days and there's no in-game impact. The reason for this is really that the rest of the systems are not tuned to time being an important part of the system.
What if crafting took time? As long as I have a diagram, any talented smith can do any number of complex operations instantaneously. That is convenient because the game preferences incremental numeric increases over story. What if that was inverted?
What if gear were not limited by level? Geralt is a mutated fighting machine, a master of swords and violence, yet more than once, I found a club that he couldn't figure out how to swing at enemies until he gained levels.
What if herb-collecting were not a drudgery? For example, what if you could mark patches of different herbs and then, like fast-travel, do a fast-collect operation? Or what if you could hire a local kid to go do it for you for a gold coin or two? Making it a manual process is like eliminating fast-travel: it just fritters away player time without contributing to other goals.
What if you felt heroic from the start? Geralt was a veteran witcher before the series even started, yet common wolves posed a serious threat at the start of the game. The idea that players and monsters have levels, and player levels escalate, is a trope of CRPG design: what if we got rid of it?
What if you had a reasonably limited inventory? I was carrying a veritable armory for most of the game. Lax realism of inventory is a prerequisite to avoid frustration when the game privileges stats and stuff-collection over story. What if that wasn't the case?
For a game with such an impressive and thoughtful story, the design actually privileges loot-hunting stat-boosting over story every time. I suspect that if you start breaking these constraints, you would very quickly fall out of the conventional Fantasy CRPG space—but really, I am tired of that game. Couldn't we have an even better Witcher experience if they allowed the story to define the gameplay experience, rather than inhibit the story by tropes of Fantasy CRPG design?
I heard a designer from Bethesda talk about the Elder Scrolls series at a conference a few years ago, and the question came up about how little design or story innovation there was across the series: each one is fundamentally the same, a child-of-prophecy story. The answer was economic: these games have enormous budgets, and there's always a new generation of 14-year-olds for whom [Daggerfall/Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim] is their first Fantasy CRPG epic, and so they keep the formula the same. (It helps that nostalgic older gamers will pay for the new installment and memories of that first time as well.) Witcher probably falls into this morass as well: to craft such a beautiful and engaging world takes millions of dollars, and they don't want to risk alienating an audience.
I believe that there is plenty of room for innovation in game design, but after playing Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition in the last nine months—and never having finished Skyrim out of boredom a few years ago—I am tired of the tropes. Although I enjoyed playing Witcher 3, I feel like its story was made the worse for the conflict between the narrative and the formal systems.