Gwent: The Tumultuous, Untold Story
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had launched just a couple of months earlier, but the emails assaulting the inbox of CD Projekt Red community assistant Paweł Burza were about another game entirely. The community was fiercely hungry for a standalone version of the beloved in-world card game, Gwent. “We got thousands of emails,” Burza tells IGN, “and I mean literally thousands.”
The demand was heartening, particularly as Gwent almost never happened. While it’s a successful digital card game today – with Esports tournaments giving away hundreds of thousands in prize money, a dedicated and consistently growing community, and positive reception from players and critics alike – the journey to get there wasn’t easy.
Five years on from the standalone version of Gwent going public, and seven years on from The Witcher 3’s initial release, CD Projekt Red developers spoke to IGN about Gwent’s humble beginnings, the brutal trials it faced in development, and the success it’s found since.
A Maverick Endeavour
Let’s rewind. 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, as we all know, was a very ambitious game in terms of scope. The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings featured a dice poker minigame, but CD Projekt Red wanted to enhance the side activities in the third instalment. A card game, the team thought, would allow players to take a breather from quests, add some variety, and increase the authenticity of the world.
But “my lead didn’t really want to do Gwent because we just didn’t have time for it,” says Jason Slama, a UI programmer for The Witcher 3 and eventually Gwent’s game director. “It was just going to be impossible.”
Two CD Projekt Red employees wouldn’t take no for an answer, though. Damien Monnier and Rafal Jaki were card game enthusiasts already and pushed studio head Adam Badowski to at least try and make Gwent, just to see if it worked. They brought in card game experts to create some prototypes but none matched what they had in mind, so knowing the genre and The Witcher better than most, the pair asked Badowski if they could take a shot at building their own prototype.
Badowski approved, though he gave three conditions: matches couldn’t last more than ten minutes, it must be simple but not simplistic, and they had three days to make it. If Monnier and Jaki couldn’t do so, Gwent would be cut from The Witcher 3 for good.
Three days later, the pair entered Badowski’s office to present their idea in its simplest form: a game in which two armies clash in separate rounds, representing the notion that, while you may win the battle, you may not win the war. Its name comes straight from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books, as does the rest of the extended universe, in which Geralt observes a group of dwarves playing a card game called Bridge, or in the original Polish version, Gwint.
Monnier and Jaki tried to explain all the rules during their pitch, but they ultimately won Badowski over by playing Gwent with him, using a stack of post-it notes to represent the cards. Production on Gwent was a go, but as Slama says, it “was a maverick endeavour.” Monnier and Jaki asked him to join the team as the sole coder of Gwent, and they began working on a Flash demo to attract others.
“But it was incomprehensible. It wasn’t really there,” Slama says. “So Rafal came in with the printed version, and we’re just sitting there in the cafeteria, and we played a few rounds, and I’m like, ‘Okay, this has quite a lot of fun potential.’”
Gwent didn’t have a team formally assigned to it other than this trio, and with CD Projekt Red already on tight deadlines, Slama, Monnier, and Jaki started pulling colleagues into the cafeteria to test out their printed-out version. They managed to excite a few others and pulled together a ragtag team to help in the small bursts of time they had between working on The Witcher 3 proper. A translator wrote all of the cards’ flavour text and rules, a marketing graphic designer created the look of the cards, and a senior concept artist created the artwork.
“There were quite a few other people that were helping, but it was [only a] handful,” Slama says. “There was one QA [tester] who was always sitting next to me. I’m like, ‘Here, I think I’ve made the AI more interesting now. Tell me how it goes because I don’t have time to check it myself.’”
Slowly but surely Gwent came together, and they kept pitching it to colleagues they passed by in corridors, asking them to include Gwent in quests and shops and other areas of the main game. “It was really cowboy style,” laughs Slama, but after a few weeks, including several 12-hour days, the Witcher 3 version of Gwent was complete.
Gwent in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Trial and Error
When The Witcher 3 launched on May 18, 2015, players and critics praised it for many things: its improved mechanics, its enormous open world, and… Gwent. “I don’t think we expected that at all, not to that degree,” says Slama. “People were reacting really nicely and positively to it. There’s even that mod where all the battles are replaced by Gwent battles, which is probably the ultimate way of saying there’s something fun here.”
Internal discussions around a standalone version of Gwent started within a month of The Witcher 3’s launch. “It was all mainly because of the amount of community feedback we were getting at the time,” says Burza, who’s now Gwent’s head of comms at CD Projekt Red. That community/developer relationship is a topic close to his heart, as before he was hired, Burza fondly remembers reporting a bug on The Witcher 3’s forums only to instantly get a reply from the studio. “It was the first time I was contacting a gaming company and I actually got a reply which didn’t sound like a robot,” Burza says.
So when players made clear they wanted a standalone Gwent game, he and the wider CD Projekt Red team listened. “The community push for it was so big that we thought, ‘Okay, we need to try it.’”
One of the biggest challenges for Gwent as a collectible card game (CCG) was the need to appeal beyond just Witcher players to a broader audience of card gaming fans as well, which meant making it a properly competitive experience. Players only battled NPCs in the Witcher 3 – much easier than playing against a real person – which meant more casual fans initially hit a steep difficulty curve.
“It was very hard to balance the game towards casual players while making the game interesting and the mechanics and card abilities complex enough so they cater to the players who are more advanced,” Burza says. But the studio continued to have open conversations with the community and tweak Gwent accordingly.
“[The developers] are always immensely transparent, fair, and honest,” says Gwent caster and streamer Matt Di Marco, better known in the community as Flake. “I don’t mean fair in the sense that they’d say things that would satiate what I wanted; they would say things that would address the situation fairly, whether I liked it or not, and that’s something that I immensely respect.”
The balance was finally struck thanks to these open conversations with the community and changes were implemented as a result. On May 24, 2017, Gwent entered open beta. CD Projekt Red built excitement for the occasion with a $100,000 tournament, inviting the best players from the Gwent and wider CCG community to compete.
The First Gwent Esports Challengers
Vladimir Tortsov, Gwent’s current game director, joined in 2017 to manage the burgeoning Esports scene, though he admits he didn’t have the best first impression of Gwent, which still resembled the visual style of the Witcher 3 version. “I thought the game was too minimalistic,” he says. “The cards were very small, and it actually look liked a board game rather than a real battlefield.”
CD Projekt Red agreed. It wanted Gwent to be recognised as a dedicated CCG like Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, or Pokémon, but its graphics and overall presentation just didn’t make the cut. A fix was therefore devised: a complete graphical and gameplay overhaul that would also mark the official launch of Gwent. CD Projekt Red called it Homecoming, announced it in April 2018, and gave it an October release date. It then went completely quiet to work on it, breaking its own rule of having open communication with the players.
Nevertheless, “Homecoming was positioned as the update to end all updates: the ultimate fix,” Tortsov says. “It’s no longer a digital version of the board game that you’re brining to the tavern, putting on the table and just playing between mugs of ale, but it’s the real thing. The real clash of two armies exchanging blows, tactics, generals on the battlefield, and stuff like that.”
Things didn’t go to plan, though. “After the Homecoming release, and Jason knows this better than anyone else,” Tortsov says, “that’s where the real work started.”
Homecoming completely upgraded the look and feel of Gwent but myriad issues were woven into the new version. While there was plenty of attention given to Gwent’s updated aesthetics, its actual gameplay suffered as a result. Bugs brought down the playing experience. Cards were unbalanced, which led to repetitive match-ups or unfair advantages. Gwent’s best of three rounds system was often just used as a filtering device until the real fight took place in the final segment, making the entire system somewhat redundant. “We had some fundamental flaws that made the longevity of Gwent questionable at best,” Slama recalls.
From the Ground Up
Slama called Homecoming “the darkest moment in the project,” remembering his rallying cry to the team to learn from the stumbles and rise to the occasion. “It would’ve been very easy to give up at that point and I’m really proud of everyone who dug in and worked their asses off to bring us out,” he says.
“We hit the reset button and we started building once again,” Burza adds. “Once we started doing the expansions and building the card pool and reworking the cards, those things started happening more and more often. And then the community started seeing that the game is building itself back up.”
The team returned to speaking with the community. Monthly developer updates began, in which Burza, Slama, Tortsov, and other team members had open conversations with the players of Gwent. “[Slama] wanted to be part of the community and be very close to them,” Burza says, and that continues today. “We’re a community that keeps very tightly knit together.”
As a result, “it’s very easy to see when the community is excited about changes we introduce or new content that we release,” Tortsov says. “It’s not only about the monthly delivery of patches. It was really about making sure there are no questions ignored or silence in communication.” And Slama agrees: “Whether the community’s right or not about what’s bothering them, their feelings are always valid. That’s a fundamental principle to a healthy relationship between the two sides.”
Gwent in 2022
And Gwent today is in a much healthier place than when Homecoming launched. It has a consistent player base that grows amid new updates and even other events in the wider Witcher world such as the release of the Netflix show. But throughout it all, Di Marco says, the community remains passionate.
“The game is excellent,” he says, “and the fact that it’s Vlad at the rudder making sure we’re on track is a beautiful thing.” The open communication between CD Projekt Red and its players is a perfect combination, as “if the community is the wind in the sails, Vlad has got his finger in the air making sure he understands which way the wind is blowing.”
Tortsov took over when Slama left the Gwent team last year to instead direct the new Witcher instalment, and despite walking away from a game he built from the ground up – literally writing its first lines of code – he describes leaving as his favourite moment. “When I took over as game director right after Homecoming, it was a very dark time,” Slama says. “I was determined to not only show that Gwent could succeed, could turn around, but that we could do it without killing the team, without making people so tired and so stressed that we’re almost at each other’s throats.
“When it was time for me to move on to my new challenges, the team was so supportive and so ready to exist without me. They had grown and learned so much. I achieved my ultimate goal of saying, ‘you can make a high quality CCG without murdering the people who work on it with whips and chains.’ The fact we managed to achieve all that with really awesome working conditions, it was a very humbling and inspiring moment for me.”
Ryan Dinsdale is an IGN freelancer who occasionally remembers to tweet @thelastdinsdale. He’ll talk about The Witcher all day.