Talking Quest Design with The Witcher 3’s Nikolas Kolm

Admittedly late to the party, I have been playing a lot of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt recently. During my adventures with Geralt of Rivia, I came across a small quest that made such an impression on me that I wasn’t able to let it go. I found myself thinking about it way more often than I should be and finally decided to go get myself some answers.

I needed to know: WHO made this quest, and HOW did they manage to get under my skin like that? It didn’t take too long before I found the culprit (hold L2 to activate your Witcher Senses), and today I managed to pin him down to go over some “Dialogue Options” about the quest design in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

TH: There, now I’ve got you! Spill the beans: who are you and what do you do?

NK: Hah! OK, my name is Nikolas Kolm and I’ve been working in games for about 5 years now. A bit over two of those at CD Projekt Red as a Quest Designer before moving on for family reasons.

What do I do as a Quest Designer? Essentially, I conceptualized, designed and implemented the quests and encounters for the game. Depending on what type of quest it was, we’d get ideas or plots from the Story team or come up with those in collaboration with them. We then take those ideas of story and design them for the game (meaning we lay out the locations, encounters, puzzles), work out the pacing and when and where scenes and dialogue should happen. Then, after much iteration, we put that into the engine and iterate the hell out of it until everyone is happy with the result.

TH: With all of the GOTY accolades The Witcher 3 received, I think it would be safe to say that “iterating the hell out of it” has paid off!

NK: Oh yeah! I mean, it’s not just us designers iterating through them either. You play the quest, even in alpha stages, with the writers to get a feel for the story; and if everything clicks, you play them with your Lead, with the Creative Director, and with the Studio Head. Then of course, QA Testers play through them to spot issues, gameplay or otherwise-related. So…all that collaborative effort was so, SO worth it.

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TH: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has an almost unprecedented amount of storylines and sidesquests, but they all seem to have a place and context in the game. How do you weave all of these threads together to make it work as a whole?

NK: It’s a lot of charts and spreadsheets and TONS of facts we set in every quest. Essentially, our Lead Quest Designer, Mateusz, made sure that any quest that was implemented would set certain facts when important decisions were made, or the quest was completed so that we could reference these things in other places in the game. When it came time to put everything into one world, we obviously saw a lot of overlap and we began to adjust and mix and match quests. Certain things, however, were designed from the beginning to influence the main storyline as it is a core principle of CDPR that your decisions will matter in often unforeseeable ways.

At times, of course, it was a headache to keep track of everything and keep in mind everything that was happening in the game, but I think we managed it quite well.

TH: A common complaint these days is that some games rely too much on “fetch quests” to artificially add play time, but you guys managed to avoid that very well. As a gamer, that makes me happy.

NK: Thank you! Really happy that people reacted to this so positively.

TH: In my playthrough, I did come across a certain fetch quest that made me really mad though; a little quest called “Black Pearl”.

NK: I should be able to give some insight. I made it after all!

TH: Ok, here is my beef: I met an old Soldier named Nidas back in Novigrad, who requested my help in finding a Black Pearl as a gift to his wife. I believe that Geralt even sighed a little at this menial task, but I agreed to it after all. We met up in Skellige, I fetched him his damn pearl and as a quest reward, he gave me 10 gold pieces and a week’s worth of real life sadness. What the hell, Nikolas?

NK: Did I mention the other title for Quest Designers is “Creators of Misery”?

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(SPOILERS: We’ll dive into the details of the quest here, but it does not give away anything about the main story line.)

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After you find the pearl and hand it over to the quest giver, he tells you to meet him back in Novigrad to claim your reward. When you do so, you find Nidas gloomy and deep in his cups and eventually learn that the whole Black Pearl adventure was his last attempt to reconnect with his wife, suffering from the disease we call Dementia.

TH: On a more serious note; in all the terrible things that happen to the residents of the continent, the story of Nidas and his wife really stood out to me. Can you give some background on this specific quest?

NK: Sure. The initial idea called for Geralt to be asked to help with the request of an elderly soldier. The soldier wanted to reignite his relationship with his wife. When I first looked at the concept I thought it was a neat little idea and proceeded to flesh it out a bit. Thing was, there wasn’t really a twist there; there wasn’t anything to stun or otherwise impact the player. So the writer for the quest (Jakub Szemalek) and I got to thinking…

TH: “…how can we break as many hearts as possible?”

NK: Well, the next idea was that the wife was actually dead and the soldier was dealing with his grief about her loss by fulfilling a promise he made to her in life. Eventually though, Jakub proposed the idea to introduce the twist that is now in the game, that the wife suffered from a condition similar to Dementia. He thought and I agreed, it would made for an even more powerful impact.

It resonated with me because I had such a person in my family, where every visit was painful because the person just doesn’t remember, no matter how much you wish for them to remember you.

Nidas put his hope on the fact that the the black pearl, a running joke between him and his wife for years, would bringt the light back in her eyes, but just as in real life, it just doesn’t work like that. This is why the idea really resonated with me and it was then one of my smaller but most important little quests to put in. Without wanting to judge, we leave it up to the player to ponder the scenario, as sometimes, it can be questionable if living is better than death.

TH: I was really impressed with the voice acting on that NPC as well. For such a small role, the actor really nailed the disappointment and anger. I don’t think I’ve ever felt for a non-essential NPC like that before.

NK: Yeah! Oh man, when I first played the quest with actual VO, that was chilling!

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TH: Now, I need to know. You pick this quest up somewhere in a back alley in Novigrad, after which it drops off your radar for a while since it takes place on a completely new section of the map. On top of that, there is a possible fail state on the quest as well (the quest giver can be killed by monsters). Why hide such an amazing quest?

NK: Well to be honest, we didn’t hide it so much as we considered it one of those encounters that are just there to be discovered by those who look.

A core idea of the Witcher 3 was that the world moves without Geralt, without the player interfering. A lot of the quests were placed intentionally, in a way that they could be missed. It’s all there to create the feeling that the world moves on, even if the player isn’t looking. We felt that this would feel more immersive to players. Granted, it’s always a bit painful as a content creator to put things into the game that you know a large percentage of people will never get to see, but I think it is totally worth it.

Plus, it gives people a reason to talk. Like, your buddy goes, “Hey, remember that time Triss and Yen teamed up on Geralt!?!?” and you’re like, “Wait…whaaaaat?”  It gives more weight to everything.

TH: It does feel a little as if I was let in on a sad little secret. However, it also makes me wonder what else I missed! I still have dozens of “undiscovered locations” on my map!

NK: Oh there are a lot. Hahaha. Seriously, it’s amazing; even to me, who has seen it all being put in. When you’re just working on the individual parts, it all feels so much smaller; then everything comes together and you find yourself astonished.

TH: It’s not often that a sidequest in a game gives me pause to appreciate the effort that goes into it behind the scenes, but this quest in particular really drove home how much storytelling has evolved in video games.

NK: That’s so wonderful to hear! And yeah, it’s amazing how far we’ve come. And how far we can still go. If anything, this generation of games has shown that there is so much potential in games as a story medium in so many different ways. I mean you have games like Life is Strange next to Witcher 3 and you realize how many different stories you can tell in the medium. I’m excited to see where it goes next.

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TH: The Witcher 3 has really set a new standard for me on how quests and sidequests are designed and implemented; I hope other devs take inspiration from the work you and your team have done. If you’d have to give a piece of advice on quest design to both the “big guys” and the up-and-coming indie developers, what would it be?

NK: Hmmm, good question. I think the most important part is to treat every quest the same as much as you can. To you, as a developer; there may be main, side and minor quests – but to the player, they are all experiences. Of course, there will always be production limitations, but at least in your head, do not consider a minor quest any less important than a main quest. It should still make sense. It should fit. It should have consequences, even if they are tiny, and they should never feel like they were tacked on as filler or given less love and care because they were “small”.

TH: Take note other developers! Speaking of which; a little bird told me that you recently joined a new studio. Anything we should be looking out for in the future?

NK: Haha, I can’t say yet. It’s still super early, part of the reason why I went here was to be there from the ground up. But I’ll let you know as soon as I can, and this cat will probably hear about it first on Twitter anyway!

TH: That reminds me, just for the record; Who is your favorite cat on the Internet?

NK: The Hashtagonist, OBVIOUSLY!

TH: Obviously! Thank you so much for giving us a glimpse of all the hard work you quest designers do to give us these amazing experiences.

NK: My pleasure; I’m sorry for making you sad!

You can find Nicholas on Twitter (@NKuillAndInk) so feel free to follow him and send him some cool cat pictures!

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The writing and quest design are making a strong case to put The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in my top 3 “Best Games Ever”. Have you ever come across a quest in a game that resonated so strongly with you that you felt like you wanted to go out and thank the maker personally? Let us know in the comments!

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