Does anyone truly dislike CD Projekt Red? I want to be more reserved, more pessimistic. Google's increasingly liberal interpretation of its infamous 'don't be evil' pledge has proved the dangers of canonising good intentions. Yet it’s hard to see a chink in the Polish developer's doublet.
Everything about the creation and marketing of The Witcher 3, gaming's closest analogue to the murky morality and liberal nudity of A Song of Ice and Fire, flies in the face of established triple-A logic. Free downloadable content, multiple delays to hone the open world and spin new ideas into extra content, hefty pre-order discounts - and no obtrusive 'digital rights management' in an effort to curb illegal downloads. When the PC edition of the game launches on GOG (Good Old Games), the company’s own download platform and shelter for forgotten classics, it will be instantly and effortlessly piratable.
Even after the game released to some outlets more than a week early, the company proudly took to social media to announce pre-sales of over one million. The outlets who have reviewed it on PS4 claim it is one of the best games ever made (the second such marvel this year); others wait to review the PC version as it is held back for a final spit shine. Hardcore gaming audience duly won over, the attention has turned to every big budget game’s greatest challenge: making inroads with the general public. The relative dearth of decent games on the ‘next generation’ of console, the popularity of sword and sorcery fiction, and a positive showing on US chat show host Conan O’Brian's Clueless Gamer segment all point to a very happy outcome.
It’s unerringly pro-consumer, and it seems in danger of becoming a trend. Huge scale RPGs like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity have garnered critical favour and commercial success by rejecting the more generic quest design and simplified combat of rival games for more traditional, tougher systems and richer quest lines. Alien Isolation, many critics' favourite game of last year, delivered an independently spirited, challenging horror experience with the studio polish and access to original props that only a big name publisher can provide. It’s not a stretch to call it the best movie tie-in ever made. Wolfenstein: The New Order resisted the temptation to emulate its predecessors’ memorable multiplayer modes and delivered a single, blistering campaign. Even The Evil Within, one of the worst PC ports in living memory, shone through with bonkers abandon.
After the concurrent PR disasters of Watch Dogs and Assassin's Creed Unity, you'd think certain peers of CDPR would take note. Yet it’s hard to see anything in Ubisoft's new Assassin's Creed title - the London based Assassin's Creed Syndicate - other than another tepid extension of a now well-worn format. We've already been graced with the half dozen collector's edition bundles, bedecked with all manner of 'exclusive' weapon and armour variants. The combat might look a bit different, but then the same thing was promised for Unity, a game which wouldn't have been enjoyable even if it worked. There will be towers to scale, a companion app to ignore, people to stab, chairs to straddle, and some very silly hats.
Alien Isolation, meanwhile, sold a little over 2 million units, a figure deemed 'poor' by Sega bean counters. Gone are the days when Dragon Warrior 7's 200,000 US sales could be deemed successful by Enix. The niche horror audience hasn't changed, but with rising production values come rising budgets, and rising corporate expectations. For many companies, the idea of a loss leader – a game made to please the public rather than make money – is distinctly unpalatable. When most games of this scope are bankrolled by big publishers, and one failure can kill a studio, few have the opportunity to try.
The prevailing attitude among big publishers appears to be that if one game can sell 10 million copies or make a success of micro-transactions, any game can. Titles with little to no crossover appeal out of the gate are suddenly subject to infeasible expectations of matching the biggest multi-platform sellers, while cross-media and monetisation have started to creep into console titles for the tiny percentage of ‘whales’, in marketing speak, who pour money into them. The now amalgamated Square Enix famously declared that 2013's excellent Tomb Raider reboot underachieved by selling 3.4 million units in its first month, and 8.5m by this year. Lara’s 1996 debut, the biggest cultural phenomenon in gaming history, shifted 8 million in its entire lifetime.
With The Witcher 3 there are extenuating circumstances; it's a game inextricably linked to a grander vision. The veneer of consumer goodwill towards Valve's Steam client and its perpetual sales guttered out with the disastrous announcement of paid modifications for games. Largely unnoticed, CDPR have spent the last seven years wooing a section of that audience over, extending a hand to those disaffected by shoddy customer service. As people's libraries swell into the hundreds and expenditure on games into the thousands, many have become disenchanted with the notion of not actually owning the games they've paid for, and Valve's battling with EU lawmakers to prevent people from trading those games back in.
Others might not be taking a leaf from their book, but the Polish developer may have found inspiration elsewhere. If seeking critical acceptance and pleasing customers in the face of sales and success sound familiar, it's because Nintendo have been doing it for 20 years. Each console generation since the N64 has been an experiment in a philosophy of fun. The Gamecube, with its preference for cartoony graphics and lunchbox design belying more powerful innards than the PS2. The Wii, an uncalculable gamble on an entirely new market; and yes, the Wii U, with its admirable but underused tablet controller. The Wii U has far and away the best reviewed and most numerous games of the three most recent consoles, and a fanatically loyal fanbase. But it has been an abject commercial failure, one propped up by strong handheld sales and some carefully stashed savings.
That the launch of CDPR's new GOG Galaxy download client came as confidence in Valve hit an all-time low was a happy coincidence, but such an event has always been on the horizon. The studio obviously take great satisfaction in creating a uniquely decadent sort of game, but it also feeds into a grander, more pragmatic business strategy. If The Witcher 3 makes a loss, as it yet well might, the game still looks like ingratiating itself to a gaming public worn down by innumerable calamities. It's a long game that few others can afford to play.