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Essays 14 June 2024, 05:00

I Do Believe That Cyberpunk Was Always a Good Game - Interview With CD PROJEKT RED’s Gameplay Designer, Yuliia Pryimak

Cyberpunk 2077 had its road to go through. So did Yuliia Pryimak, the gameplay designer of update 2.0 and The Phantom Liberty. Here’s the interview story of how those two paths crossed and what came out of it.

Cyberpunk 2077 had its share of troubles to the point it pissed off many gamers. It was always a superb story-driven experience, but it was lacking in the gameplay department. Fortunately, CD PROJEKT RED took its time and improved Keanu Reeves-driven RPG with version 2.0 and The Phantom Liberty expansion. Now it’s simply a superb game in general, comparable to Baldur’s Gate 3 behemoth we all know and love.

I had the opportunity to talk with Yuliia Pryimak, a gameplay designer co-responsible for the gameplay overhaul. We met at Digital Dragons 2024, in the same white room as before with Swen Vincke and Adam Smith (what a coincidence, huh?). We’ve talked about Yuliia’s experience, reworking Cyberpunk and some wild ideas, that didn’t cut into the final game.

Hubert Sosnowski: Who would you be in a Cyberpunk reality, Nomad, Corpo, or Street Kid?

Yuliia Pryimak: Oh, good question! I would totally be a Street Kid who would turn into a Netrunner later.

HS: Yeah, I heard that part about Netrunner. Why Street Kid, though?

YP: I think it connected to my childhood. I grew up in those old times when childhood would consist of gathering “the gang” of neighborhood kids, fighting with sticks, and going to war against one another.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: Does this colorate with Yuliia, the game designer, and her temper, or is it more of an alter ego fantasy?

YP: That's an interesting question. At first sight, It's quite hard to directly correlate being a Street Kid with being a designer, because it's just very two different mindsets, but! Both of those aspects are about being adventurous, ambitious, and about exploring. And I love exploring.

HS: What does this exploration mean in terms of gameplay design? Do you experiment a lot, and iterate a lot?

YP: Yeah, I experiment a lot. Iterate a lot as well. Whenever I have any design task, I like pushing some design iterations to extremes just to see how far we will get. Even if it means that at the end of the day, we will need to discard some of my ideas because they went far beyond being realistic. Like, for example, the design was too “gamey,” etcetera.

HS: “Gamey,” like too many numbers?

YP: Exactly. Too many numbers. Gamy can mean different things for different games. Look at Cyberpunk 2077. You would be no longer immersed in the universe of CP 2077 because of some mechanic that would be considered too “gamey,” too number-heavy.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: What was the component that you had to cut during that experimental phase? Because you were working mostly on Phantom Liberty and 2.0 update.

YP: During those exploration times, both I and my team were trying to find this new border of what's fun in the game. And by that, we also had to redefine and re-explore what's the real borders of realism in the game. As the gameplay people, we were collectively trying to push to have more fun abilities for the player in the game. Now in the game, you can literally pick up someone and throw them into a crowd. It's one of those nuances that we had to discover for ourselves.

HS: Was there any idea that you really cared about but it didn't cut to the final version?

Well, I wouldn't say there was a strong case, but I had an idea for Relic’s skill tree, it was one of the initial iterations of a new perk for the Mantis Blade cyberware. You were supposed to perform a finisher on an enemy, gather their blood, and then perform a ranged attack with that blood. Even saying it out loud also raises a few concerns. [Laughs]

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: [Laughs] Yeah, it sounds like it was inspired by anime.

YP: Exactly. I was kind of inspired by anime ideas. Obviously, it was a question of whether we would be able to sell it in any realistic way. The answer to that was: “hell, no.” I cannot say I was deeply attached to it, but I was really interested in seeing how we can actually make it work within the Cyberpunk universe.

HS: But, damn, it could provide a ton of a cool factor.

YP: Yeah, definitely.

HS: Since we're into the development part of the game and 2.0 and expansion, was your role more of a fixer or more of a creator of the new mechanics?

YP: Update 2.0 changed the scope quite a few times. At first, my role was supposed to be more of a fixer, but then the scale grew to a complete overhaul of gameplay systems. Essentially, we just stuck to core game pillars and then reimagined and reinvented a lot of other mechanics on top of it. For example, it was an overhaul of cyberware and of the entire perks system. You name it and this mechanic could be either overhauled or at least touched in some way.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: So the improvement became bigger than you initially planned?

YP: Absolutely, yes. As we were going through the discovery phase, we were analyzing, what needed to be changed. And then our scope grew for two reasons. First, we were very ambitious people and we were passionate about Cyberpunk. We really wanted to bring it to the spotlight that it deserved. Secondly, it was purely technical. We worked on one thing and suddenly there was a chain reaction. And it just changed kind of everything. At one point, you need to draw the line and redo the whole game.

HS: What was the biggest change for you in Cyberpunk 2077 during that time? What was the most important turning point to make this game what it is today?

YP: I would say we decided to make player choices matter more on the gameplay side. With each decision to increase the scope we were making, we were adding more player freedom and more player choices.

HS: You believe that gameplay affects roleplay as much as the story?

YP: I do believe they are both very important factors. And I do think that Cyberpunk 2077 improved in that regard very much. Both sides contribute greatly to immersing the player in the story. If you do it just right, you’re not just playing the character. You're actually that character at the end of the day.

HS: Yeah, that's true. Now, time for the hard question. Was Cyberpunk a good game initially?

YP: It will be my very subjective opinion

HS: You're also a gamer, so go for it!

YP: Yeah, exactly. I'm a gamer. I do believe that Cyberpunk was always a good game at the core.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: But for many, there was something wrong. Something was lacking. You were working in the gameplay department. So what was wrong on that part before the gamers fully enjoyed the game in the 2.0 update and in Phantom Liberty?

YP: Well, that's quite a difficult question to answer. As a developer, especially after gaining all of that feedback from players, you know, when something is wrong. But it's actually a whole other job to discover what actually is wrong there. And once you start the discovery, you kind of realize that this is good. But it can be so much better if we just re-enter this design talk and see the new limit it can be pushed to. And I'm just happy we managed to do it with Cyberpunk.

HS: Do you think there will be an age when developers will have enough time and resources to release the game they want, and not rushed?

YP: I think it's possible, at least in theory. But then there's also the game development factor. Anything can happen and usually always something wrong will happen. Every single time it will be something new that will reshape whatever you were trying to do initially. On one hand, I do believe that it is possible to release a great game from the get-go. At the same time, it might not be the game you initially plan to release anyway.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: Relic was a pretty interesting skill tree. Why was it exclusive to Phantom Liberty? The slot was always there. Was it planned lore-wisely since the beginning to put it later or not?

YP: Because it was pretty useful, pretty powerful, and on par with what we could do. Unfortunately, I don’t have prehistoric records of what was the idea behind having that additional slot there. Purely because I was not yet in the company. I just did know that it was there, and it was an opportunity we could utilize in the expansion pack. Suddenly we had exactly what we needed because we actually needed to create a new skill tree. So why not connect the two worlds?

HS: Got it. Speaking of another mechanic. I was wondering why V doesn't suffer from cyberpsychosis. Most heroes of those cyberpunk stories suffer from that sickness if they are overloaded with chrome.

YP: Once I heard a really good phrase that was basically comparing the protagonist of the anime series, David with the protagonist of our game, V. And the phrase basically said that while David thought that he was built differently, V was actually built differently. I think this is one of the massive factors from the get-go. It's a very powerful character. It's a very different character even compared to all abnormalities of the Cyberpunk world. Secondly, I do believe that the Relic played a factor there. I'm definitely not a lore master of the Cyberpunk universe, but you have almost alien technology in your head. Most likely it's gonna protect you from whatever lower level equipment you're going for.

HS: Understandable. You put a new activity, car chases. What about racing? Weren't you tempted to put some sort of generator to make random races or something like that? Because despite its flaws, it was a pretty fun gameplay part and quest chain. It was fun for me, especially since I got the Quadra 66.

YP: We added car chases for the purpose of having a powerful cinematic experience with a lot of violence. Since update 2.1, players can also take part in repeatable illegal races held on the streets of Night City even after completing quests with Claire. While these are not randomly generated routes, you can earn extra eddies or get discounts on new vehicles.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: Was it hard to re-balance Cyberpunk mechanics?

YP: Yes, very much so. Simply because there are so many player skills. Add to that such a huge amount of equipment, like weapons, kevlar vests, etc. At one point we basically had to start monitoring every single source of every single stat in the game just to check what one player achieved in one playthrough. There was a lot of more monitoring and it was a very, very hard task to do.

HS: What was the toughest part? Cyberware skill-tree, items, or something else?

YP: Something else. And that something else was: all of them coming together and telling you: “Balance us all, and we need to all fit together and represent the vision of the game. We cannot really be balanced in separate chunks now. You need to balance all of usssss!” [Laughs]

HS: I’ve read that you're also working on Polaris. What's your role in the project? Can you tell us anything new about the game or it's top secret?

YP: [Laughs] All I can share is that I'm still a gameplay designer and unfortunately I will have to stop there.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: Damn. What we know is that you're working on the Unreal engine. Was it hard to ditch RED Engine, both emotionally and technically? Is it easier to work on Unreal?

YP: Answering the emotional part. I was already attached to REDengine purely because I knew how to work in it. I learned it. And then I needed to start from square once again and re-learn a new engine. So I felt this emotional loss. On the other hand, you know, I'm not gonna compare REDengine and Unreal. I wouldn't say that one of them is objectively easier to work with. It's just a matter of getting familiar with it. It's just a tool for me as a designer.

HS: How do your experiences with Cyberpunk influence the way you work and think about Polaris as a project?

YP: All of the experience that I've gained during the Cyberpunk times I will be bringing into future projects I will be working on. I'm already aware of many loopholes and mistakes that can be potentially made while working as a gameplay designer.

HS: Going back to Yuliia as a person and a designer. You went to CDPR from a different background, you have different studies. How did it happen that you're right now fixing Cyberpunk, going to another top-notch and top-secret project? Was it long and dramatic, like with aforementioned anime shows?

YP: …With blood you mentioned. [Laughs] But the story was much simpler, actually. I went to economics university and I hated it. So I dropped out the first year in, I just left. I started working at my dad's food manufacturing company. Guess what happened next? I hated it.

HS: I see the pattern.

YP: Yeah. And then I just found my own way. And that way for me was CDPR and gamedev. I was really, really passionate about games. I have been playing video games since I started walking. I just found this new way for me and I stick to it.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: What was the learning process back then? Because gameplay is a pretty advanced thing to implement. It's the core of the game and it's probably one of the most based-on-the-tools jobs there.

YP: So that was like a very steep learning curve. Initially, I joined CDPR as an intern in encounter design, which essentially was a separate part of level design. Then I moved to the gameplay team. The curve definitely jumped to the roof. There was not a single person on the gameplay team that I didn't bother to the point that they probably considered muting my notifications. It was kind of a trial by fire where I just walked in, got my design tasks, and at one point “on-paper” design was closed and I had to start implementing. After some time I started doing it.

HS: Well, what was the hardest part to learn there in CDPR while making gameplay?

YP: I would say the hardest part was the technical part.

HS: Coding?

YP: Yes, because as a gameplay designer, I had to be able to script my own designs in RED script or a custom language. Just to give you an angle of how I entered the whole picture. I couldn't read the function and understand what it meant or how it was composed. Like, I was just opening scripts, looking at those hieroglyphs, and I was like: okay, one day I will be able to do it. And that day came. [Laughs]

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt RED, 2023

HS: Is it right now?

HS: Nice. And you’re here. You're in one of the biggest companies focusing on single-player games. But you're also supporting the Girls in Game mentoring program. What does your work as a mentor look like?

YP: Well, it occasionally is work, but mostly I treat it as a learning experience for myself. First and foremost, because I have the chance to give something to someone that I would really love to have back in the days when I was starting off. It’s important to give all of this information to a super passionate, super intelligent young person who really wants to enter the gamedev and to be their mentor. I'm not sure who is better off in this equation, me or the mentee in terms of learning experience and learning the opportunity there.

HS: Do you see any promising talents from the pool that you work with?

YP: Absolutely. Like, I'm talking to my mentee at least once a week in a stable manner. We have this ritual. Once a week we gathered together and I review whatever they were doing.

HS: Is it hard to get into the game right now or it's not your department?

YP: It's a bit hard to compare because I think one of the main reasons I got in is because I was so detached from gamedev that I didn't know it was actually really hard to do so. I just walked in, opened the door with my leg, bargained in, and made myself at home. Subjectively, it's going to be quite a harder times for anyone who wants to enter gamedev now. Purely because there is a lot of talent out there right now looking for a job after all of that sad news all over the world. So if I could give any advice, it's probably being cautious about the competition in the current market.

Hubert Sosnowski

Hubert Sosnowski

He joined GRYOnline.pl in 2017, as an author of texts about games and movies. He's currently the head of the film department and the Filmomaniak.pl website. Learned how to write articles while working for the Dzika Banda portal. His texts were published on kawerna.pl, film.onet.pl, zwierciadlo.pl, and in the Polish Playboy. Has published stories in the monthly Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror magazine, as well as in the first volume of the Antologii Wolsung. Lives for "middle cinema" and meaty entertainment, but he won't despise any experiment or Fast and Furious. In games, looks for a good story. Loves Baldur's Gate 2, but when he sees Unreal Tournament, Doom, or a good race game, the inner child wakes up. In love with sheds and thrash metal. Since 2012, has been playing and creating live action role-playing, both within the framework of the Bialystok Larp Club Zywia, and commercial ventures in the style of Witcher School.


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Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty

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