A Tale of Two Genres

Maciej Miasik and the Journey from Reah to The Witcher

 By Nickie and Becky


From Adventure to Role Playing Games producer, designer, programmer, owner -- Maciej Miasik has been involved in many capacities in different genres in the computer game world. Some of the games will be familiar to adventure game players: Reah, Schizm: Mysterious Journey, Mysterious Journey II: Chameleon and Sentinel: Descendants in Time, known for some rather challenging puzzles. Familiar to the role playing game aficionados would be The Witcher, which has sold its one millionth copy and of which Miasik is the executive producer.

Discussing the similarities and dissimilarities of adventure and role playing games (along with other important questions of the universe) Becky and Nickie sought the insight of Miasik, who knows both genres well. He kindly provided the following interview.


Q: Could you give us a brief history of your career as a software designer/developer?

A: Being a young aspiring programmer, I always envied those (unknown to me then) programmers who could code games instead of other, stupid in my opinion, programs. I thought that programming games was a kind of secret computer science and when you did that you became a real programmer. I started developing some small PC games, mostly to learn various techniques and around 1990 I teamed up with my friend who actually had already written two successful games for the 8-bit Atari. We met another friend who wanted to start a software publishing business and convinced him to invest around $10,000 for our first PC game. That was how Electro Man was born - essentially a two person, nine month gig where together we did everything from designing the game, writing the engine (supporting four completely different video adapters, from monochrome Hercules to colorful VGA) and tools (the level editor), creating entire art and levels, testing it, writing the manual and designing the package. That was fun.

Q: What in particular drew you to the adventure genre early in your career?

A: That was by accident. I wasn't a big fan of adventures in the middle of the 90s, but I observed many of my friends playing various adventures and often found the games quite impressive. That was a respected genre then, definitely considered to be on par with other genres. When I was looking for a new job I got an offer from LK Avalon to join their internal team, finishing the work on A.D. 2044 and preparing to start a new project. I took the offer and joined a group of excellent people who formed Detalion a few years later. The team specialized in adventure games -- the lead designer had been working on them since the end of the 80s on 8-bit machines -- so I was aware of the type of games we were going to develop. I started to play some adventures to learn as much as possible about the genre and its trends. I was the one who introduced Myst to the rest of the team, which influenced our subsequent products.

Q: What happened to Detalion after Sentinel: Descendants in Time?

A: Well, from the original team founders, I was the first one to jump ship and look for a job. The remaining ones split and formed Detalion Games (basically a one person shop, which produced basic game concepts and then died) and Detalion Arts (an art outsourcing company, doing various jobs, including for The Witcher). Detalion Arts was acquired by another Polish developer - City Interactive. They now work on the adventures games, the Art of Murder series being among them. You could say that Detalion is still developing adventures, although not under its own name and probably not pushing the boundaries of the genre anymore. Which is sad.

Q: The Witcher is a huge favorite of many of our members. It has a story line that is unsurpassed for an RPG. Did your experience with adventure games influence your decisions in how the game developed?

A: My creative input on The Witcher was minimal I'm afraid. The game had its own strong team of designers, with deep roots in the pen & paper RPGs, where stories really mattered. I didn't have to convince them that a good game needed a good story -- that was one of the primary design principles for The Witcher. That was a story-oriented game from the start.

Q: Could you have made The Witcher into an adventure game by showing action in cut scenes or would this take away from the essence too much?

A: I'm afraid that Geralt, the witcher, is a man of deeds. I think that even RPG is already stretching the essence. He is probably the best candidate for a hero of an action-oriented adventure, not a classic adventure. The RPG genre allowed us to flesh out the world of the witchers, show some background, present a sizeable cast of various characters without sacrificing the action part too much. That way Geralt could act in a way natural for him, yet we got enough means to paint a broader perspective.

Q: The Mysterious Journey games (Schizm and Chameleon), Reah and Sentinel all had fully-realized, consistent, atmospheric worlds. Is this harder to master when creating a huge world for an RPG than when developing an adventure game? What are the similarities and differences in terms of world creation?

A: The Witcher is a licensed product. It is based on a series of novels and stories that have a huge cult following, especially in the Eastern Europe. Not that we had to be faithful to the world created by Sapkowski, we wanted to recreate it in the game. That wasn't even the license requirement but it was a kind of duty for most of the team members who happened to be also huge Sapkowski fans. That obviously limited our creative options and made the job harder. We not only had to create an impressive RPG world. But we also had to match what thousands of Sapkowski's fans had imagined. Judging by their reactions, we did a pretty good job.

When we created our previous games, we had almost total control over the world creation. Actually, our goal was to let our imaginations rule. If we needed the story to adapt to the world we wanted to build, we could that without any problems. This is something which simply isn't possible with a license that so many people know well. On the other hand, if you have as strong a license as we had with The Witcher, you have many other benefits to compensate for some creative limitations. The world created by Sapkowski differs from other fantasy worlds, giving us a good opportunity to create something that stands out anyway.

I personally prefer the situation where I'm in total creative control, where my imagination is the only limit. For me, a very significant part of each game, (almost) no matter which genre, is the exploration and discovery of new environments. That's one of the strongest driving forces that pushes me to progress within the game and continue playing. That is probably why our previous games offered so much variety and creativity with each new location or world opening after finishing one of those infamous puzzles.

Q: Geralt (the main character in The Witcher) has unusually complex emotions, showing his strength when necessary, but also displaying a loving, passionate nature. Was the inspiration for Geralt’s character drawn from Andrzej Sapkowski's books, or did the team use their own feelings and experiences to make Geralt come alive?

A: I think that's one of many good influences coming from Sapkowski’s books. Geralt is a complex, multifaceted hero despite being a monster slayer, despised by many. But emotions are also one of the important elements of our storytelling, something which really helps in creating a believable experience. Geralt is not just another “antihero” game character throwing witty one-liners, but a person with his own problems and feelings, facing difficult choices. We always wanted the world where not everything is clear-cut, black and white, and our hero has to reflect the world’s ambiguity as well.

Q: The Witcher team clearly has had great rapport with the fans of the game, making the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher to bring to the table an even better game than the original. Were you able to accomplish everything you wanted to do with this latest version of the game? Are you seeing any exceptional player mods?

A: There are no finished games -- just abandoned ones (or however that old industry proverb goes). We had a chance to correct and improve some elements of the original game, but definitely we couldn't fix everything we wanted.

The community is working on various mods but so far we haven't got anything spectacular. Modding The Witcher is very difficult because the technology doesn't make it simple. The idea of releasing the tools materialized too late in the development to make them really accessible and easy to use. We also wanted to create the most impressive and beautiful RPG game ever, and focused on reaching that goal. The released tools are just a by-product, far from being perfect.

Q: Would it be possible to use the world of The Witcher for an adventure game?

A: The world of The Witcher is rich enough to accommodate many different stories. Our game tells one of those and I can imagine it being told using slightly different game mechanics which don't involve fighting or other action elements. But adventures didn't die because developers ran out of story ideas - the players changed their tastes and demanded other forms of interactive entertainment. Well, I know there are those who still appreciate adventures, but their numbers simply can't fund the development of modern, very demanding games.

Maybe new distribution methods will allow Indie developers to work and profit from adventures again. I wish the genre could be revived.

Q: Do you miss creating complex math and pattern-based puzzles?

A: I personally didn't create them -- that was our lead designer's job. I miss those Myst-style adventures, not because of their puzzles but because of the fantastic environments they created and the stories they sometimes told. In my opinion, those kinds of adventures built more immersive and more fantastic worlds than the traditional adventures did.

Q: Was Sentinel: Descendants in Time the last use of the Jupiter 3D engine?

A: Actually, I had to check Wikipedia to find out which games used the Jupiter engine after our games did. It seems that there were some, but probably all of those were shooters. The Jupiter engine evolved into Jupiter Ex which is now used by City Interactive for their series of shooters. Maybe some time in the future, they will decide to create an adventure with it. Who knows?

I miss those first person perspective adventures. That is the kind of presentation I like the most, the one that allows deep immersion in the world.  I don't like playing a puppet master who controls small characters on the screen. I need to be immersed in the world and control "myself" there.

If combined with more complex stories than the ones we could create with our very limited resources (The Witcher's cost was around $11 million dollars, whereas each of our adventure games had total budgets of less than $350,000), we could create pretty interesting and nonviolent games. I could imagine shifting from puzzle-oriented adventures into more traditional story-oriented ones, yet keeping the first person perspective and great immersiveness factor.

Q: Are the business aspects of the gaming industry very different for adventure games versus RPGs? Is localization more difficult?

A: I don't know much about business aspects of adventure games now, so it's difficult to compare precisely. An RPG of The Witcher's scope requires a completely different business approach.  The game is huge, the number of assets is enormous and the effort necessary to keep all that running is big. Securing the budget for a big team working several years in this very competitive industry is not an easy feat. The complexity of the game makes the whole process even more difficult.

The localization is one of the bigger tasks, especially for a game which features over 22,000 recorded lines of dialogue and almost 200,000 words of written text – all of which need to be translated and recorded in the nine languages the game was released in. RPG games are very demanding localization-wise because they usually have tons of elements that need proper localization.

Q: Do you have any plans to return to the adventure genre?

A: Unfortunately, I don't really believe that adventures will be respected again, with a market share big enough to sustain developers who can make their living from it. I hope that someone proves me wrong, though.

Q: Are you now developing a Witcher 2?

A: I wish I could reveal what we are doing now, but it's not a proper time for such announcements. Everything in due time.




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