Besides looking like one of the best games of the next year, Cyberpunk 2077 gave us arguably the most memorable moments of E3 2019: Keanu Reeves’ surprise on-stage appearance at the Xbox conference and the crowd heckler he engaged with.
In an interview at the show, CD Projekt Red spokesperson and UI coordinator Alvin Liu wouldn’t be drawn on the merit of shouting at stage presenters – which developed into something of a theme at subsequent publisher briefings – but he had plenty to say about Reeves, who by all accounts doesn’t sound like the only Hollywood actor set for Cyberpunk 2077.
“Practically everyone at the studio is a fan of his prior works, whether that’s The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic, so for us it was just a perfect match,” Liu says. “He thought it was a good role for him and to that effect we were really happy to have him.”
See our full interview with Liu below, in which he discusses Reeves, possible online modes for the game, plus The Witcher 3’s impressive Nintendo Switch port.
Keanu Reeves stole the show at E3 2019. What does he bring to a game like this that you wouldn’t otherwise get with an unknown actor or digital creation?
We approached Keanu Reeves because we thought he would be a very good match for our franchise. Practically everyone at the studio is a fan of his prior works, whether that’s The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic, so for us it was just a perfect match. He’s obviously a very talented actor and he’s been very diligent with working out how his character would approach certain situations.
He’s thinking about how to portray this character, Johnny Silverhand, who is kind of this badass, ‘against the man’ sort of figure who’s always fighting to bring down the corporations. He thought it was a good role for him and to that effect we were really happy to have him.
Is the performance in the game by Reeves or is it just his likeness that he’s contributed?
That’s actually a really good question. I’m not sure! I’ll get back to you.
In the demo we noticed he often appeared as a glitched aberration…
The least spoiler way I can explain his character is that he’s a digital ghost in the system. Honestly, I can’t say any more! But he is not a normal person – there’s something going on there. I think uncovering that story is going to be a lot of fun for players.
Do you think Hollywood actors can help further broaden the appeal of games in terms of the mainstream media etc?
I will say that CDPR is a video game company first and it’s very important to us that the match works. If it was a random celebrity that just wouldn’t work with our franchise, like Britney Spears or something, we wouldn’t pursue that opportunity. So for us, we pursue it because it’s a great match for the game and not necessarily because we want to accomplish some goal with reaching a different audience or anything like that.
“If it was a random celebrity that just wouldn’t work with our franchise, like Britney Spears or something, we wouldn’t pursue that opportunity.”
Are there any more surprises to come in terms of actors appearing in the game?
Uh… I can’t comment on that! You guys are going to have to wait and see.
Keanu’s appearance at the Xbox E3 briefing inspired another memorable moment: the now infamous heckler, who you rewarded with a free copy of the game. One thing we noticed in all of the conferences after that was it seemed to encourage a lot of shouting over the top of speakers… how do you balance that in terms of how you engage with your community?
I’ve not seen the other conferences, but I think we have a very talented community team at CDPR. As a developer I’m a bit further removed from that, but as a fan of games I love the excitement and energy of E3. That’s a really fascinating problem for me: how do you that? It’s definitely not my job – I’m a developer and designer on the game. But I’m curious what they’ll do.
Your April 2020 release date is a little sooner than we expected. So you must be pretty far into development?
As an artist and designer, we always have to have something taken from us or we’re never finished with it! We’re always trying to update and make small little tweaks. So for me, there’s always room for improvement and there are still things that I want to fix. I even saw small bugs in the E3 demo and thought, ‘I can make that better.’ In that regard, we want to deliver a top quality product.
You gave out feedback forms to everyone who watched the demo. What kind of feedback are you looking for at this late stage?
CD Projekt is a company that’s full of gamers: we’re making games but also playing them. So to that effect we’re listening to everything and if you have comments about the game’s audio, we will pass it on, and if you have comments about lighting, we’ll send them to lighting. We just want to make a top notch product. Very few people at CDPR are settling for ‘OK’ – we’re trying to do something exceptional here. In terms of feedback, we’ll listen to whatever you have – good or bad!
But you aren’t expecting significant changes based on that feedback, this late in development?
We are a bold company. Maybe it’s too late to set the game in medieval Europe – that might be too late! But we would never say never. We are looking forward to seeing the feedback from the demo.
We’re assuming you’re targeting current-gen only with this first release?
Yeah, we’re focusing on delivering a really good experience on current-gen consoles. When the next generation happens, we’ll assess and figure out the best way forward. I would say that we are not a greedy company, so fans should expect a very fair offering with whatever we decided to do. Currently we’re expecting to nail our current-gen productions.
With Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, we’re not doing anything special. We’re not turning features on or off. We’re going to make sure that the core experience is strong and then if there is additional performance available it will be used to enhance rather than turn things off or on. We’re not focusing on a texture pack or anything.
“Very few people at CDPR are settling for ‘OK’ – we’re trying to do something exceptional here. In terms of feedback, we’ll listen to whatever you have – good or bad!”
CDPR has said in the past that it will be well prepared for the arrival of new consoles, technology wise. Is that still the case?
We’re all just working hard on the game right now, so I don’t actually have an answer for that question. We have very talented engine programmers and I think they’re going to take a hard look when we get more information about the next generation. But I would not worry about leaving anyone in the dust or anything like that.
But with confirmation of backwards compatibility, it’s good news that your release will be able to play day one on new consoles anyway.
That’s going to be really good for gamers I think, yeah.
There’s still some confusion about the possibility of online functionality in the game. What can you tell us about that?
It’s very important to us and we’re still working on it, but it’s very much in research and development right now. We’re focusing heavily on the single-player experience, but we’re thinking about what it means to be online. We’ll talk about that after we finish the game. It’s very much in research and development right now.
In terms of art, how useful was the experience of creating The Witcher 3 in preparation for Cyberpunk?
We developed a whole new version of our engine to support what we wanted to do in terms of vast, sprawling cities where you can ride an elevator right to the top of buildings, to also the first-person genre stuff.
The engine has unlocked a lot of new opportunities for us, for example our dialogue system is much more enhanced now. Because we are in this first-person perspective we have situations where you can whip out your gun and start combat at a moment’s notice, where as in The Witcher 3 the camera would have to pan out, or back in. Our engine has allowed for a lot more immersive storytelling as well, I think.
The Witcher 3 is looking impressive on Nintendo Switch. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, we’re really happy with how Witcher 3 is playing on Switch. It’s still at a quality that we’re proud of, but we also understand that there were hardware trade-offs that we had to do, in terms of performance versus graphics. Right now there’s a bit less foliage and some of the draw distances are lower… but it still looks amazing. I was very impressed. Unless you pointed a lot of changes out to me I probably wouldn’t have noticed them.
You’ll get the full Witcher 3 and all expansions. We’re not really cutting anything. The biggest changes that we made involve the user interface and how you interact is a bit different on the Switch compared to other versions. I think if this is your first experience with The Witcher 3, then you’re going to be really thrilled and enjoy it. Our company is pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished.