Lead designer Damien Monnier knew that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt would be CD Projekt Red's last chance to bring Geralt of Rivia's magical world to life, and that understanding convinced him to spend a weekend full of Post-it notes inventing Gwent.
This was not Monnier or CD Projekt Red's original plan. It was a last ditch effort born on a Friday and designed to salvage a series of failures by the following Monday.
His weekend ended in success, and Gwent became a minigame in The Witcher 3. But that weekend's efforts endure, as CD Projekt Red annoucned at E3 2016 that it would leap outside of the role-playing game and arrive on Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as Gwent: The Witcher Card Game as a standalone game. CD Projekt Red will show off more of Gwent at Gamescom next month, about a month before it enters open beta.
Exactly none of this would be happening if it wasn't for a series of failures.
"We're going to have to just say 'Fuck it,'" Monnier told Polygon, thinking about those failures. "It's going to have to be dice poker. Maybe it can be something that is a better version of the dice poker, and I remember I said, 'I'm sure we can do something. We can do it ourselves. No problem.' I had no idea, to be honest with you."
From dice poker to Post-its
Minigames are a hallmark of many games, not just RPGs. These games-within-a-game allow players to take a break from the grind and do something different for a little while.
CD Project Red is no stranger to minigames. The Witcher and its sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, both included a dice poker minigame. The version in the latter expanded upon the former, but you'd know the latter if you played the former. For The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red wanted to do something different. It's just that the developers didn't think they could build a new game in parallel with the enormous world of The Witcher 3.
"We knew we wanted a card game," Monnier said, "but I literally did not have time to sit down and do it because of Witcher. So that's why we outsourced."
Monnier was politic about the outsourcing, saying that "The thing came back, and the ideas, the suggestions were simply … it's just, we're not feeling it."
At that point, with time running out and the pressure of finishing The Witcher 3 mounting, there were some in the studio ready to pull the plug on the planned but nebulous minigame. Monnier, however, had different plans.
"I said, 'No. OK. I need more time.' [Managing director Adam Badowski] said, "Well, it's Friday evening. You have until Monday." So I said, "OK." So with a friend basically we just spent a whole weekend coming up with ideas and making really crappy prototypes on Post-its."
From Post-its to The Witcher 3
With 48 hours and a bunch of tenacity, Monnier and his associate, Rafał Jaki, got to work.
"The rule for us that weekend was like if the game, if an ability that you want to introduce is too complicated for me to understand then it's probably going to be too complicated … so that's what we did.
"And then we came in on Monday, Adam said 'Cool. Let's make it.' We had no one to make it, so I made a better prototype, it went around the office. I played Gwent against people. And I asked, basically, do you like it. Yes? Do you want to help us make it?"
"They helped us tremendously. It was a really, really, really special project to tell you the truth."
The duo traveled around the studio, trying to convince others to help create the game. Everybody was loaded with responsibility for The Witcher 3, so helping with what was now a physical card game had to be on a volunteer basis and in their spare time.
"So there was basically two of us making it," Monnier said, "and then it went to the marketing department with their art, you know to do all the logos and everything. I said can you help us with some stuff. Because some of them said, you know what? Yeah. We like Gwent, we want to. So they helped us tremendously. It was a really, really, really special project to tell you the truth."
For the next several months, Monnier said, they collaborated on a side project, and Gwent shipped as a minigame in The Witcher 3.
From The Witcher 3 to Gwent: The Witcher 3 Card Game
CD Projekt Red has a policy about emails, Monnier said: "The rule we would give ourselves is that every email we receive we must reply. Every fan mail. Every mail, whether it's positive, negative; we always take the time."
A couple of months after The Witcher 3's release in May 2015, people started to tell him just how many of those emails were about Gwent.
"And so after the game was released, two months or so after the game was released, we started getting like thousands of emails," he said. "A lot and a lot and a lot of emails."
A theme emerged among many of the emails: Make Gwent its own game. The more emails they received, the more plausible that scenario became. But that wasn't without its share of challenges.
"The thing is, the original game was designed to be a single-player game," he said, "so we had to rework some of the core mechanics to make sure that it was fair for a multiplayer game. And again, we grabbed the whole team together and we said, OK, once we had the green light we said, 'Let's do it, so let's do it properly.' So we got the elite writer [from The Witcher 3], we said, 'Do you want to be part of this? He said yes. Elite quest designer. Same thing.
"They had stories to tell that they hadn't yet, that they hadn't had the chance to tell. And not just about Geralt. Just untold stories, maybe seen from a different side, quests as well, with choices and consequences. "
Thus began the process of turning a single player minigame into a standalone multiplayer game. The discussion quickly coalesced around a campaign, which Monnier said should be about 10 hours long.
"It's the same process as on The Witcher," he said. "We have each department that will get together and say OK, what do we like as gamers? What would we like as gamers, coming from a card game? What are we missing as gamers from a card game? A really beefy, strong, single-player campaign isn't really something that I've experience before in a card game to be honest with you. I'm a big card game player, but to us this was one of them."
"It's the same process as on The Witcher."
The other big decision was to make Gwent: The Witcher 3 Card Game free-to-play. That model that tends to conjure excitement and trepidation in players. Do it right, and people will happily part with their money. Do it wrong, and people will complain that it's less free-to-play and more pay-to-win.
"I said 'OK, but I want a free to play that does not screw me, that allows me to enjoy the game for free and that lets me, on my own terms, keep some money. And you know what? Yes, I had a good run. I've played for hours and hours and hours, so it's a good value for me. I'll give you some money.'
"And it's also a game that is fun without people having to spend a penny, so that was very important for us. no kidding, you don't have to spend a penny, you don't have to grind."
How does CD Projekt Red plan on doing that? in part, by giving players a choice after they decide how to spend their money.
"Let me give you an example," he said. "OK, so we knew we were going to have card packs. You are able to buy packs of cards, and we wanted to do something different where, if you choose to spend money on a game, all we'll do, is when we work from a pack of cards … first we'll go see a really cool character and he'll … show you three cards. This card is 100 percent guaranteed as rare or above. And we say, which one do you want? We let you choose. And you choose one. The other two go away.
"For me, that's pretty cool. If I'm going to spend some money and get a pack, I get a rarity guaranteed, and you allow me to pick the card that I want, maybe for the faction that I want? That's great. I have more of a choice then you know. I still get the gamble afterwards with the randomness, but you let me pick. I like this idea, and we worked really hard to make it work."
As of today, anyone can sign up for a chance to enter Gwent's closed beta on the game's official site. A wider beta is planned for September. And in the time between now and the game's final release, Monnier and CD Projekt Red will be playing the game and listening to players. Because it's still very much in development, and those who play in the next months will shape Gwent's future — no matter where you're playing.
"That's the whole point," Monnier said. "Nothing is off the table right now. Right now for us it's console, PC. Getting the cross-play. This is a big thing for us right now. We really pushed hard because to me this is super, super important. Get players together. Soon, it's going to be standard, and we'll look back on this, when we struggled, and how people didn't understand that it doesn't matter what platform you play on just enjoy the fucking game. So that's a big one, for us, right now and focusing on this. And what comes later I don't — I don't even know to be honest with you."