Recently, I was invited into the lovely offices of Bandai Namco Entertainment in Sydney to have some hands-on time with the upcoming expansion for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt titled Blood & Wine. On top of this wonderful opportunity, I was also given a chance to interview the lead animator for The Witcher 3 and senior animator for its expansions, Jamie Bury. Now I’d only recently started playing The Witcher 3 but I was loving it and I’d be a fool to pass up on this opportunity, so I decided to make the trek to Bandai’s offices!
Let’s start with the hands-on first. After being sat down in front of what appeared to be a high-end PC with The Witcher 3 installed, I was given control of Geralt who was placed in Velen, No Man’s Land. It was then explained to me that the reason for this placement is because the new area which is being provided in the expansion is very luscious in terms of scenery and landscape, so the dreary and war-torn nature of Velen played a nice contrast to it.
After travelling to one of the villages I engaged in a quest and consequently started the Blood & Wine expansion. After this I was taken to the new land of Toussaint (pronounced “tu-son”) which appeared to be a very European inspired area, more importantly, French. From the rich and colourful tapestries which adorned the walls to the beautiful, yet distinguishable accents; everything I experienced felt like it was breathing life into an already beautiful world/game. After playing a few missions I was given the key to an estate in a vineyard which Geralt can call home. Much like in another RPG, Skyrim, you can spend Crowns (money) to upgrade your estate, allowing for various buffs for you and Roach. In terms of how much I got to play, there wasn’t too much as the build was an older build, but it was still fun nonetheless. In fact, playing the base game at home didn’t feel quite the same and I’m getting giddy at the thought of the expansion releasing. Part of this is also because the UI has had an overhaul which has streamlined the inventory management system. Now, equipment is put in the tab closest to the equipped gear so navigating to and from these slots is quicker. Quest items are shown on the left-hand side while other items of that kind (i.e books) are displayed on the right. It doesn’t sound like much but when you use it you’ll definitely notice a difference. Also worth noting, whenever a book is picked up you are now given the option to instantly read it by pressing R3 (clicking the right thumbstick). These minor changes made the experience all the more enjoyable as I was spending less time in my inventory screen and more time casting Quen and Axii.
Now that my brief, but eventful and memorable hands-on experience has been jotted down, let’s get into the interview I had with Jamie Bury, the lead animator for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and the senior animator for its expansions. Jamie himself was a lovely person to meet and have a chat with and it’ll go down as one of, if not, my proudest moments in my time with DYEGB. But let’s be honest, you don’t care about my sentiment, you want the see what he said in the interview. Well here we go:
DYEGB: How long has Blood & Wine been in development?
Jamie Bury: Blood & Wine has been in development since the completion of Hearts of Stone.
DYEGB: So it’s kind of like you complete one thing and then work on the next chapter or expansion?
Jamie Bury: Yeah pretty much. We kind of had that when we finished The Witcher 3 and people inquired about how long we had been working on Hearts of Stone, much to their surprise we’d only been working on it since after The Witcher 3’s launch. I think we had some people working on the story a little bit earlier for Blood & Wine so that once we had finished developing the first expansion, the story was already written form that point so it was more about implementing the content into the game itself.
DYEGB: So obviously the narrative is one part of an overall major development process.
Jamie Bury: Yeah exactly. We here at CD Projekt take the story very importantly as it is on of our main focuses to bring a good story. I think they like to get that stuff pretty correct first before we start adding things into the game.
DYEGB: Well, without any spoilers, what would yo say the main premise of Blood & Wine is?
Jamie Bury: To be vague, Blood & Wine is another instance of Geralt playing detective and trying to hunt a new monster.
DYEGB: So he’s more or less like a new Sherlock Holmes?
Jamie Bury: Yeah pretty much hahaha.
DYEGB: From reading reports earlier on about this expansion, it is said that the new area will be about twice the size of Skellige, would you say this is correct?
Jamie Bury: That does sound pretty accurate. I myself am not too sure but I do know that the new area is about two times the size of one of the old areas.
DYEGB: Given the fact that Blood & Wine aims to provide players with a large amount of content, should we also expect to encounter new monsters and creatures?
Jamie Bury: Yeah there are around 20 new monsters and creatures in the new expansion. However, these aren’t all your normal creatures that you’re hunting. So with the base game you’d notice dogs and cats and things just roaming the streets and villages and they are also in Blood & Wine.
DYEGB: Almost instantaneously after starting the expansion you are given access to a vineyard which serves as a homebase for Geralt and his friends. So what gave you guys the idea to implement this into the game?
Jamie Bury: One of the main decisions that made this happen was that we were getting a lot of fan feedback and comments about what they would like to see in the game and one of them was that they felt that when they finished The Witcher 3, they were still just left as a kind of lone-wanderer. Like Geralt still didn’t really have any place to call his own. On top of this we also placed grindstones and workbenches for improving your weapons and armour in the vineyard, so you don’t have to memorise where they are placed throughout the world as they are always readily available to you in your vineyard. So there are various things there like sleeping in the beds can give you a weapon buff, there is a herb garden, Roach gets a stamina buff if she rests in her stables there.
DYEGB: From the build I played, I noticed that the new area in which you are placed in is very serene and elegant, even in terms of the mannerisms of the NPCs, as well as their accents and the dialogue. Was this something that was planned all along or was it a decision that was made because the culture from this area would suit these accents, among other things?
Jamie Bury: I think it was always planned to be in this type of land mass, especially because the feedback from Hearts of Stone let us know that we were doing the right thing, but that expansion all took place in the normal world. People really wanted an area that was kind of new and a bit different to explore, so when we are adding that new area it is nice to have that bit of contrast because in The Witcher 3 you can go to any of the areas but they are all grey and bleak and dreary. Like they’re decayed and war-torn. We really wanted to have the contrast for that, so this was a chance to see areas where there isn’t a constant war going on. The story delves into more of the fairy tale kind, which also allowed us to add a bit more colour and make the world brighter as a result. In saying this, the actual content itself is still very dark and grim. And like you said, it wasn’t simply a matter of changing the landscape, but even the behaviours of the characters are different. This also adds some nice variety to those people who spend hundreds of hours in the game as it makes it so much more than just adding a bunch of quests.
DYEGB: Given that we are in a new area, the accents of the characters we speak to will also be different. In my time playing the build, I noticed a lot of French accents among others, Would you say that the expansion features majorly European accents?
Jamie Bury: Pretty much, yeah. I mean The Witcher games have always been in this kind of Slavic territory normally, but we are branching out with this stuff.
DYEGB: Given that the previous expansion, Hearts of Stone, was targeted towards people who were near the end of the game, if not completed it, will Blood & Wine mirror that or is the expansion able to accessed earlier?
Jamie Bury: Blood & Wine mirrors that, so ideally you’ll want to be around level 34-35 before you start the expansion. However, if you don’t want to make a character all the way through you can choose to make a character who is instantly levelled to 35 with all the perk points unused. This character starts directly into the Blood & Wine expansion, and this is aimed at those people who don’t have time to sink hundreds of hours into the game or simply would prefer to just play the expansion over the base game.
DYEGB: Is there any real advantage of using the pre-levelled character or is there no advantage because the character would be similar anyway?
Jamie Bury: Aside from potentially having better gear by just playing through the game, there is no advantage, like you said the perk points are unspent so you can assign them as you please. If you’re new to the game, obviously playing a bit of the base game is recommended as that is where the tutorial is, so skipping this as a new player may prove costly in terms of challenge and progression due to challenge.
DYEGB: In my time with the hands-on, I noticed that the a lot of the UI has been changed and streamlined. Would you like to comment on this?
Jamie Bury: This was something that we decided to do after receiving some fan feedback saying the interface was horrible or too slow. So we have changed it to work quicker meaning you can spending more time playing the game, and less time in your inventory screen. Simple things like when you pick up a book you can click R3 to instantly read it aim to make the experience all the more enjoyable for the player.
DYEGB: Will there be a new level cap and any new form of character progression?
Jamie Bury: I believe the level cap has been raised to 100 and we have some new mechanics for progression with the new mutation system which you unfortunately didn’t get to try. This new mutation system is a higher level system which adds various perks of your choosing, while also adding four new slots for your regular perks to be placed.
DYEGB: Would you say that Blood & Wine is an expansion that the community has been asking for or one that CD Projekt Red felt should be added, or a bit of both?
Jamie Bury: It was a bit of both, but it was definitely the expansion pack that we wanted to do. It was always kind of planned to be the way it was. But when we started to get feedback from the fans, that’s where we started to take those things into account. Obviously once the game is finished it’s harder to change things that we have, but changing them in expansions alleviates any issues on both ends.
DYEGB: Will Blood & Wine spell the end of Geralt’s adventures?
Jamie Bury: As far as I’m aware, the message that has been put across is that this will be the end of Geralt’s adventure. As soon as we are done with the expansion we will then shift to Cyberpunk. I’ve not seen anything to do with Cyberpunk, but I am hoping to see it next week.
DYEGB: Is there any projected release window for Blood & Wine?
Jamie Bury: The message I have been told to say in response to that is the first half of 2016, which means it should be very soon. We don’t want to completely set a date in stone as of yet as delays may come in and this will prove disheartening for fans. As soon as everybody here is happy with it, the expansions comes out, more or less.
I personally would like to thank Bandai Namco Entertainment for providing me with the opportunity to have some hands-on time with Blood & Wine and I would also like to thank Jamie Bury for giving up his time to talk about this hotly anticipated expansion. Given CD Projeckt’s track record, there can be no doubt that Blood and Wine is going to be expansive in terms of new content and have a rich and interesting tale to tell. We’ll keep you updated with any news (including that elusive release date!) and you can look forward to our full review come release.