Much like Valve, CD Projekt is more than a game developer. The company is probably best known for creating the hit Witcher franchise, inspired by a Polish fantasy novel series written by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it also founded the digital game sales platform, GOG. GOG works a lot like Steam, but leans more heavily on classic and independent games. The service also prides itself on providing DRM-free games and adding more value to purchases through free extras like game soundtracks and a number of other features. Both the marketing approach for The Witcher games and GOG represent CD Projekt’s fundamental philosophy toward fairness and creating a “gamer-centric brand,” which has been at the core of many of the company’s decisions.
Aiming to please gamers in a fair way appears to have paid off in a big way. Not only has The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (which follows the success of Assassins of Kings) been an undeniable sales success (sold without DRM on GOG), but it has also won numerous awards and gained top honors at GDC, SXSW, and The Game Awards Show. In addition to releasing a host of free content, the open-world game’s season pass includes two massive premium Expansions. Hearts of Stone released last fall and added 10 hours to the game, while Blood and Wine is expected to add another 20 hours when it comes out later this spring. Much like the main game, Hearts of Stone earned a tremendous amount of praise from both fans and critics, and players are eagerly awaiting the next addition.
Marcin Iwiński, co-founder of CD Projekt Red, talks to [a]listdaily about what a gamer-centric brand is, how it has applied to promoting The Witcher series, and how the game franchise has grown since the first game launched in 2007.
How would you describe a “gamer-centric brand”?
In a nutshell, a gamer-centric brand means that you put the interest of gamers in the center of everything you do. Selling games is, in reality, a bilateral deal between you and the consumer, so each time you make a business decision you need to ask yourself the question: how will gamers feel about that? Is that fair?
What I see happening too often nowadays is this bilateral deal becoming a one-way thing. You either get what the gaming companies offer or opt-out and get excluded from the newest pop-culture craze. We don’t want to be like that. Fairness is very important for me personally and for the entire studio.
What makes The Witcher 3 a gamer-centric brand, and in what ways does a gamer-centric promotion differ from a more traditional one?
Let’s start with the editions, with the way we built them. Is what we put in the box of good value for money for the gamer? We decided that the best option is the simplest one, just like it looked back in the day: a beefed up standard edition and a really limited collector’s edition. The thing is, our standard edition contained many items that are typically reserved for higher-tier SKUs: the entire soundtrack, a map of the game world, a The Witcher medallion, we even threw in some stickers. We simply think we owe gamers for investing their money in our games.
Another part of being gamer-centric is the post-release support gamers get. Like I said before, when a gamer is buying The Witcher, they enter a business relation with us. Bilateral relations are never fire and forget—you can’t simply launch a game and never release a patch for it. We’ve released more than ten in the course of just a couple of months, and we keep on working to improve the game. We do our best to practice what we preach and continue this dialogue with gamers well after launch.
Examples of this are changes to controller input gamers requested (we introduced an alternative approach to controlling Geralt’s movements), or tweaks in the UI. These are real-life examples of things nobody explicitly has to do. We do them because it’s part of the gamer-centricity we so believe in. Obviously, we will never be able to introduce every change and fulfill every request The Witcher fans submit, it’s simply impossible, but we try and we don’t intend to stop. The above are just a few examples, but the possibilities for content creators to be gamer-centric are practically infinite. They just need to think how they would like to be treated as gamers… and then do it.
Did you have to change your approach when promoting premium post-release (DLC) content?
First of all, let me make a clear distinction between what we consider DLC and what we call Expansions. DLC are smaller pieces of content, something meaningful and of value, but not something we would feel comfortable charging for. An additional quest or armour set, in the grand scheme of things, is not something that costs us a lot to produce. DLCs should be free, they should have “thanks for your support” written all over them. I mean, older gamers probably remember times when developers published map packs for games; times when patches contained something like an additional weapon or mode. And nobody considered charging for that. We’re all about getting back to the roots with DLCs.
Expansions are a different thing. Again, getting back to the past, I remember something called an “add-on disc.” Something that frequently contained half or more of the content the base game contained. We believe in that approach, and this is how we see “premium post-release” content. Will gamers feel it’s fair if we charge them for this? This is a question that never leaves our minds when we design our Expansions. We’ve proved that with Hearts of Stone, and we’re working super hard to double down on that promise with the upcoming Blood and Wine expansion (it contains a whole new region for the game!).
Did the success of The Witcher 1 and 2 make promoting 3 easier, or did the high expectations bring additional challenges?
The answer to both parts of the question is yes. The Witcher 1 put us on the map. The Witcher 2 was built on the experiences we gained, but it also included something very precious you can’t “do” in-house—it gave us tons of player feedback, things we could never come up with on our own. It was also our first contact with consoles, as Assassins of Kings was released on Xbox 360. This, and everything in between, enabled us to set the third installment of the series in an open world. On the other hand, the high expectations a year before launch had put pressure on the team, just not the kind of pressure that makes you buckle—everyone was super motivated and knew that we had to deliver on our promise. And I think we did!
What are some of the ways promoting The Witcher has changed over the course of three games?
Back in the early days—with the first installment of the series—we were an unknown studio without any pedigree, and since the market back then was solely relying on box distribution, we had to get a publisher [Atari] on board in order to get the game to the market. It wasn’t easy—we were new, we lacked credibility, and every single company we were talking to were asking themselves the same set of questions: Will they finish the game? Will they deliver a quality product? Will it sell?
We mitigated those risks by financing most of the game ourselves, but in order to have it finished, we had to partner with someone. The game was PC-only, it was the first installment in the series, and nobody wanted to take a major risk on the marketing front. That made the marketing budget really, really tiny. Surprisingly for everyone involved but us, the game took off really well and started receiving critical acclaim. The sales were good, too. This was the best possible scenario we could have hoped for and it laid foundation for a much smoother setup for The Witcher 2. Here, we decided that we go all in. We used all the proceeds from The Witcher (and then some) and co-published. Co-publishing meant that all the decisions regarding marketing and PR campaigns, as well as what the value proposition for the gamer was, were ours. It went much smoother than in the case of The Witcher, and we were quite happy with the final effect.
The major change came with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Assassins of Kings has been a success, so again, we took all we made and went all in. There was one crucial difference, though: this time we exactly knew what we wanted to achieve on the promotional front. We decided to handle all the communication ourselves and do all of the gaming shows ourselves. In other words, we owned the entirety of the PR, marketing and value proposition construction process. Since we were launching for the first time on all the three major platforms (PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4) simultaneously, we managed to back it up with a substantial marketing budget and make the voice of The Witcher as loud and clear as we always wanted to. All around the world.