Cyberpunk creator talks clown gangs and making the biggest RPG of 2020 | Cyberpunk 2077 InterviewOn August 29, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
Cyberpunk 2077 is just around the corner in
the grand scheme of things. Despite a couple of controversies with the game’s view of
gender and heavily-augmented people that’s leaving some folks, myself included, a teensy
bit concerned, I think we’re all still quite excited to wander about the neon-drenched
streets of Night City, get really invested in the robo-wrestling championship, and flail
about our arms wot have big nasty knives and whips embedded in them, which is really cool. None of this would be possible, however, if
it weren’t for a certain man that’s gradually skyrocketed into the public eye since CD Projekt
announced Cyberpunk 2077 alllllllllllll the way back in 2012. That man is Mike Pondsmith,
chairman of tabletop RPG publishers R. Talsorian Games, and designer of Cyberpunk 2020. The
RPS Gamescom gang managed to harangue Pondsmith into a corner on the show floor to ask him
questions that we had. What happens next will shock you, like a Mitsubishi Taser in the
hands of a private-hire police SWAT unit. But first, thanks to Logitech G and the G432
7.1 Surround Sound Gaming Headset for sponsoring this video. To check out the tech behind the
G432, click the link in the description. The first thing we wanted to know is: why
CD Projekt Red? MIKE: First of all, you have to understand
Cyberpunk’s been optioned since we first printed it. Within that year we had people
optioning it for video games. And the thing is most of them missed the joke. They would
reskin it as something else, or they didn’t really sense why we had done what we’d done.
And there’s a very narrow window of style that has to happen to make this game work. CDPR turned out to be essentially the perfect
match. My wife, who’s our business manager, came to me years and years ago and said ‘I’ve
got a bunch of guys who want to do Cyberpunk in Polish.’ And I said ‘Well, that’ll
be five copies.’ I’m thinking: Poland, Iron Curtain, not happening. Turned out the
five copies went to the guys at CDPR. Basically by the time I met them my two questions
were 1) Were they going to be able to technically do it, and I saw The Witcher 2 and said ‘Yeah,
they can technically do it.’ I’ve worked on projects at Microsoft and some of the other
studios I’ve worked at that did not have this capability. This beautiful, beautiful
tool set. But in addition, they were fans. I walk through
the building and they’re going, “yes, we have to have Alt [Cunningham, a key character
in existing Cyberpunk lore] and Johnny [Silverhand; Keanu Reeves] doing this thing, and that..”
and I’m going, my God, they are fans. They’re, like, shipping Alt and Johnny. That’s hardcore.
So they liked it as much as we liked it — loved it in fact — they had the capability, and
they’re really straightforward, honest guys. I like ’em. We describe them as being a
lot like us, only they speak Polish and we don’t, because we’re not any good at languages. ASTRID: Pondsmith has been involved pretty
much from the start, then. He’s still pretty involved and occasionally flies over to Poland
to consult with CD Projekt Red and try out anything new that they’ve put together,
but not quite as much as they used to. MIKE: I go over less than I used to. I used
to go over about three times a year, and now I go over maybe twice a year. It’s evolved.
When I first went over it was just kind of meeting and getting the team. Then I had a
lot of weekly meetings, several days a week, with the team via Skype, which was always
funny because I’d be in my pyjamas. Literally, it’s like six in the morning, right? And
I’d be talking via Skype and they’re all getting ready to leave for the day.
“So Mike, we’ve all gathered together. How come you don’t have your camera on?”
“You don’t wanna see me first thing in the morning, at all.”
So we would discuss and organise things. The story team would come over — twice, I believe,
they came over where we just saw everybody, and we went through storyboarding, talking
about what was going to happen in the story and getting things organised and all that.
Then I started going over a bit more, and some of the team, particularly Adam [Badowski],
who’s the story director and studio manager, came over. We spent a marathon week, week
and a half, just going through game elements, what worked what didn’t, ideas and stuff
like that. He took that all back, talked to people, and I went over a like month later
and talked to everybody in the studio. The process has been ongoing. One reason I
think is I’m not just licensing it, but because I worked in video games I can actually
offer constructive information. I won’t ask them to do really dumb things because
I know how dumb it is. It’s like a discussion Adam and I had a long time ago about the AV-4’s,
the flying cars. I said, “Before you step off into that, I worked on Combat Flight Sim.
I know what you’re getting yourself into, and you don’t want to do it like this.”
So I do bring something to the table more than just, you know, a fun thing.
ASTRID: This relatively regular input into how Cyberpunk 2077’s development progresses
and in what direction CD Projekt Red takes it has led to a few changes with what the
studio had originally designed for the game, to keep things in line with the Cyberpunk
universe and the way things in it should feel. One of those things is the guns. MIKE: My favourite is the weapons. When I
first saw the weapon stuff people sent over, they were all these shiny raygun things. And
I said, “Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-no. Cyberpunk weapons are large, black, lethal, dangerous things
that look distinctly unfriendly, paramilitary, and they’re not shiny, they’re not happy.
They look like ‘I’m here to kill you now.’ They should be things that make Darth Vader
pee his pants.” So they went back and I started to see weapons
like that. And then the next trip over, which was about three months later, I walked in
and they had a wall of weapons, about as long as this wall, that is basically one of those
classic, like, in spy movies they open up the wall, and there’s all these guns in
racks? They had that. And I’m going “Ooh, shiny”, you know? And that was the reference
point, they started looking at real world weapons, which is one of the core elements
of the 2020 universe. The weapons are realistic. We try to make it as realistic as possible.
ASTRID: I adore tabletop roleplaying games. So does RPS deputy editor Alice B, who was
asking the questions at Gamescom. So obviously, she prodded Pondsmith about Cyberpunk Red,
a new edition of Cyberpunk tabletop that looks to bridge the gap between 2020 and 2077. Specifically,
she asked about how that gap is being bridged, and what it was like for Pondsmith to work
with CD Projekt to make it. MIKE: Oh yeah. I have an opposite number at
CDPR, they’ve given me one guy, Patrick Mills, and Patrick is my go-to now, because
everybody is so busy, but I know Patrick’s job is disseminate stuff, and one of the jobs
we had to do is coordinate the timelines. There’s a really big advantage, and many
people miss this, in coordinating timelines and making it one timeline. What that allows
CDPR to do is to take advantage of the tremendous amount of lore that we built over the years.
There’s close to about a hundred books that we’ve done in that world, so we have a very,
very broad depth, and they can mine it for whatever they want. But to do that means we
have to make it all come out at the end. So Patrick and my jobs are to look at things
that have to happen way up here in 2077, versus back in 2020, or during the Red period, and
say, “Okay, so these characters die.” “Yeah but I need to have this character
over here.” “Okay, I didn’t kill him, but you can
have him.” And also, this is what happens to this area,
this is what happens to the world, here’s what the politics are in 2040, 2060, and so
forth: “Okay, well I want to have the president leave by 2060, but I want to have this entire
big war between Night City and-“ So we coordinate those, and one of the nice
things about it is that the fans like that a lot. My social media guy Jay basically started
a topic, I guess, called 365 Days of Cyberpunk in which he tells a new lore piece about the
2020 universe, usually context to 2077. And at first people went “What? This is 2077,
why are you doing this?” but then they began to realise that these things tied together.
So they’d go ‘Oh, so Johnny Silverhand had this background, he did this thing.”
And then we could start seeing things like, “wow, I hope this gang is going to be in
there”, or “I hope they’re going to be able to show this”, or “are they going
to have this backstory?”, which of course gives CDPR more information they can use later
on as well. ASTRID: So, 2020 was a tabletop RPG, and the
work that bridges the gap between it and 2077 is also a tabletop RPG. But 2077 is a video
game. We wanted to know if there were any challenges in adapting a tabletop game into
a video game, and the differences between the two mediums when it comes to design.
MIKE: Actually, it’s interesting. ‘Lo, many years ago, I actually taught video game
design, at DigiPen school in Seattle area, and I remember explaining to my students the
differences, because I’d worked in both. And the thing is, in a video game you can
show a lot of things, it’s a very broad canvas, but you can’t go very deep. Because
there’s only so much can be put together, so many plot threads, so many story threads,
and so forth. But in a tabletop, it’s as deep as the referee is willing to let it be,
so you can get a tremendously deep picture of the world, and you have to make choices.
You have to say “I’m willing to show this much of the world in a video game,” or “I’m
going to have this much background, and I have to communicate that rapidly and clearly.”
In addition, you also need to find a way to shorthand and cover for the things that would
be visible in a tabletop. Mechanics and things like that.
ASTRID: One big change in Cyberpunk 2077 will be with how Netrunning works. This is isn’t
just to adapt to the medium of video games, though, it’s also because of the in-universe
time jump and the advancement of technology. MIKE: Yeah. Part of it is, Netrunning, when
we did it, we were trying to simulate what everybody had heard about the idea of Netrunning.
Remember, this is at a time when the most advanced net, so to speak, would have been
CompuServe, okay, very stone age. So at that time, the idea of the kind of architecture
we have on our net now didn’t exist. And I was fascinated to look at how the net would
have developed in the 2020 universe, and I realised you wouldn’t have had Apple Computer,
you wouldn’t have had HyperCard stacks, you wouldn’t have many of the things that
are the foundational pieces of the internet we use. It would be more like Usenet or ARPANET,
you know, much much simpler, more code based. When we cut things back, and restructured
things in Red, we wanted to get it back to that simplicity. We wanted to get it back
to: the Netrunner is part of the party, they have distinct jobs they have to do, they cannot
sit on a couch and netrun from five miles away. Their time frames are much closer to
that of the party, and they’re in the sharp end. That’s a lot of fun, because what happens
is, your Netrunner now might be doing something really desperate to crack into a system or
shut something down, and the rest of the party’s over shooting at whatever’s coming to get
him. We have stuff coming in in Red where, there
might be party threats, like cyberhounds or something, that are motivated by something
that’s actually in the net of that particular area. The Netrunner’s gotta kill the thing
that’s motivating the cyberhounds, while the party’s fighting the cyberhounds and
keeping them from eating the Netrunner and themselves.
It’s much more interactive now, and that was one of my writing and design rules. Put
the guy in the middle of the heat. ASTRID: Lifepathing is something in a few
tabletop RPGs where during character creation, you map out a bunch of big events in your
character’s life. In some of them, like sci-fi RPG Traveller, you can even die in
this part of the game, which is always hilariously brutal. It can be so much fun for some that
you’ll get people who treat it as a game in and of itself. Because of the nature of
video games, something like that isn’t quite possible.
MIKE: So there’s Lifepath, for example, in 2077, but it’s never going to be as complex
as it would be in the original game, or even in Red, although we have a more simplified
version of Red right now. And that is because nobody is going to, in a video game, spend
two hours Lifepathing a character. But I get people all the time writing me going “Yeah,
I did Lifepath!”, and they’ll do Lifepaths of their character ’til the cows come home,
you know. “I made a character! Next character!” They like that. But it’s not a mechanic
that works in a video game. ASTRID: So, Lifepathing in the traditional
sense isn’t quite doable. But with how much fun stuff from Cyberpunk 2020 is making its
way into 2077, there’ll still be a lot of room for some diverse character builds. Which,
potentially, will include murderous clowns. MIKE: I’m not sure whether it’s going
to get explored or not, but my favourite is the Bozos. The Bozos are a gang, a poser gang,
which means they’re cosplay gangs, basically. And they’re clowns.
Now this was before the Juggalos, before Insane Clown Posse. My wife came up with this, which
makes me worry sometimes. They’re a crazy clown gang that’s sadistic and frightening.
They’re IT from Stephen King, but in groups of two or three hundred.
Somebody got on our boards and said “I hope they don’t have any dumb gangs like the
Bozos, I mean clown gangs, that’s dumb!” You know, “arghararghargh.” So the next
week Jay posted about the Bozos, he described stuff the Bozos did to people. Like the Bozo
gets in the elevator with you, and he puts on a scuba tank, and while you’re standing
there the elevator doors close, the elevator gets about half a floor up, and then the elevator
begins to fill with salt water. And it continues, and about the time you’re trying to fight
the Bozo, the Bozo basically climbs out the top, and then bugs start falling in from the
ceiling. He just started describing all these horrible
things that the Bozos do to you. Now you see why I worry about my wife. And people went,
“Oh man!” One group said, “wow, I hope we never meet them!” Another group said,
“if I meet a Bozo anywhere in the game, I’m shooting him right there.” And other
people were saying “I wanna play a Bozo!” So now that gives CDPR a whole new possibility
— and I don’t know whether the Bozos are in there or not, I haven’t seen everything
by a long shot. There’s a lot in this game. A staggering amount of stuff. But, now they
know that people wouldn’t mind seeing a bunch of really horrific killer clowns that
make The Joker look like a wimp. ASTRID: That’s the bulk of the in-depth
stuff, but we also had a couple of quick fire questions for Pondsmith, like whether he’s
played a lot of 2077 yet. MIKE: I’ve played some of it. Understand,
when I see it, it’s on the drawing boards. What you see is, everybody compiles it, it’s
gone through a lot of debugging cycles and all of it like that. I come in and environment
guy will go, “Hey! Wanna look around?” Someone else will say, “Hey! Wanna go shoot
things?” So I see it piecemeal. And a lot of times I’m as surprised as the audience
to see it all at once. ASTRID: Wot with him being the original designer,
we were curious if the world of Cyberpunk 2077 looked anything like how he imagined
the Cyberpunk universe to be. MIKE: Oh yeah, yeah. It actually looks amazingly
like that. And I think part of it is that I’ve been involved in the process. If they
weren’t going to listen to me I would have known by now. But they obviously are listening,
and we’re doing it together, so it comes out to be remarkably close to what I originally
saw. ASTRID: We asked Pondsmith what his favourite
build for V was, which led to a fun little aside about his daughter.
MIKE: Right now I haven’t had a chance to play much with the stealth, Netrunner version.
There’s a couple others out there, builds, that we haven’t seen yet. I’m fascinated
by the hard solo version of V, partially because the female version looks like my daughter.
So I always can imagine: there’s Nolan, tearing a door open.
“Hey honey, come over here and rip the door off the walls!”
“Da-aad!“ ASTRID: And finally, perhaps the most important
question of all. We’re going to see Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, and for a while
it was even rumoured that Lady Gaga would be making an appearance (though this was dispelled
by CD Projekt Red). There are going to be other famous faces and voices in 2077, though.
But, will Maximum Mike himself be starring in the game?
MIKE: I was voicing a character, and I actually did the voice in it, and they decided the
character was too limited. So, next thing I knew, he was cut, or moved. And then they
said, “we have something else for you, but it’s going to take a little time to organise
it.” So I don’t entirely know what it is yet, I just know I’m supposed to be prepared
for it, that’s all. I’m waiting for the script to show up, like,
“Oh! Wait, I do this? Woah.” ASTRID: It seems like Pondsmith is just as
excited as everyone else to get his hands on Cyberpunk 2077, even with him being as
involved as he is in putting it all together. The most important thing to take away from
this discussion with him, though, is that if I don’t get to be a Bozo and murder for-hire
cops with an assortment of f**ked up comedy weapons, then I’m going to be incredibly
disappointed. Thanks again to Logitech G and the G432 7.1
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Do you want to play a homicidal clown in Cyberpunk 2077? Let us know in the comments. Did you
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