For The Astronauts, Witchfire required a year and a half of soul-searching and a lot of flexibility
“The witchfire in my blood had cooled, with most of it having already evaporated. Were the last drop to have gone, so would I be too, awakening in Hell. The rescue, unlikely as it was, came thanks to human greed and stupidity.”
This line—taken from a short story called The Preyer written by The Astronauts’ Creative Director Adrian Chmielarz—sets up the world of Witchfire, releasing September 20 in Early Access on the Epic Games Store. Just before launch, we interviewed Chmielarz and The Astronauts Game Designer Karol Krok and asked them what to expect from Witchfire, how it came to be, and what the development process was like. Read on for more details.
Swapping sci-fi for fantasy
If you haven’t heard much about Witchfire, it’s because The Astronauts is a small studio and unwilling to share spoilers—and every reveal they make feels like it could be a spoiler.
Not too much is known about Witchfire, as a result. “We want the players to have that beautiful experience of discovering things on their own, to be surprised,” Chmielarz said. “We promise to show more near the Early Access release day, so everyone can make an informed decision.”
The Astronauts released a trailer during Summer Game Fest back in June that demonstrated how Witchfire will have an element of exploration and discovery, of planning and thinking. At the same time, it offers plenty of action as well. It’s a dark fantasy with spells—and it’s also a first-person shooter with guns, as you can see from the trailers. It’s technically a roguelite, or similar to a dungeon crawler, with harsh death conditions for the player. And The Astronauts also advertise Witchfire as having multiple ways to win.
Chmielarz said that Witchfire was inspired by “a year and a half of soul-searching.” After its previous release, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the 12-person studio wanted to make something different.
Originally, The Astronauts thought of doing a sci-fi survival game—but after a few months, they decided that “undead warriors excited us more than aliens,” said Chmielarz. They dropped the sci-fi for dark fantasy.
Bringing Witchfire to life
In the lore set up by Chmielarz’s short story The Preyer, only women can be witches. The Church wages war against them by using forbidden pagan magic to turn sinners into immortal witch hunters, that are now called preyers. As a player, you’re tasked with finding the witch of the Black Sea, eradicating her army, and then seeking an artifact to win the war.
Bringing the dark fantasy of Witchfire to life has taken almost seven years. “Magical guns, rings, relics, fetishes and spells. Magical creatures to fight. Magical places to discover. We’re embracing the fantasy. And we love it,” said Chmielarz.
Chmielarz recalled that developers at The Astronauts share memes and jokes in the studio’s chatroom—and get into heated debates over nearly anything, including a simple thing like the color of the light beam that indicates players can pick up an item.
Originally each item was supposed to have its own color, but The Astronauts decided this did not fit the grimdark aesthetic of the world they were building. They ended up settling on two colors: Crystallized witchfire is indicated with a red light beam, and all other items are indicated with a gold light beam. This game design language suggests to the player that they can walk closer to find out what these items are and potentially pick them up.
“Oh man, over the years I think I had three horses in that race,” said The Astronauts Game Designer Karol Krok, who noted that while his bold choices did not win, the current light beams are “way more subtle” and he likes them, too.
Krok prefers working with a small team, saying that “It’s mentally healthier long-term to work in such an environment.” Krok admitted that it’s challenging as well, but it’s exciting to continuously change gameplay ideas and the design process. He joined the team when Witchfire was already more of a dark fantasy than a sci-fi survival game, but he did recall seeing rusty cars in some levels when he first started.
“In my 10-plus years of experience, ultimately the only games that felt bad to work on were those that either didn’t change or didn’t change enough,” Krok said. “When you have to compromise because time catches up to you, it can feel very [bad]. At The Astronauts, all changes are good.”
The ever-evolving Witchfire once featured arena-style combat, but has shifted to an open-world approach. This change added about a year to the development time, though Krok said it’s worth it because open-world combat sucks the player into the world and makes them feel like they can do anything.
One of the design principles Witchfire follows is that everything that’s put in the game is there for a reason. Chmielarz says that this is one of the lessons he’s learned from experience and that “many cool features were scrapped or killed at the idea level” so that Witchfire could feel like an immersive simulation and players would find the experience more believable.
The team is also more in favor of giving players some form of onboarding and ability to learn skills in the game, rather than simply dumping them into the world and expecting them to figure everything out on their own. They studied user experience design and found that players view a game less favorably if they aren’t given proper tutorials and end up missing out on important content.
Past and future
Witchfire hearkens back to other games developers at The Astronauts worked on, like Painkiller and Bulletstorm. Painkiller is a 2004 shooter from People Can Fly, Chmielarz’s former studio. Toward the end of Painkiller, you have to kill some of Lucifer’s generals. True to form, this was also changed around a lot by the developers. Originally, Painkiller’s plot involved a mercenary who fought the supernatural.
Witchfire also learns from more recent games. Chmielarz said he’s been attempting to play through 2023 releases like Baldur’s Gate 3, Armored Core 6, and Remnant 2 to help shape his understanding of what’s out there. Witchfire draws inspiration from recent shooters and the punishing combat of FromSoftware’s Souls games.
“We’re always playing something and learning from it,” said Chmielarz. “I do believe you cannot be a good designer these days without analyzing other games, even ones outside of the genres you work with. Stephen King once wrote that for half of the day, he writes, but for another half, he reads other authors. I think it’s sound advice.”
He called 2023 a “legendary” year for games, saying that no matter how many games developers at The Astronauts play, there are always more. “It’s not much, but it’s honest work,” he said.
The final push
As Witchfire gets closer to release, The Astronauts have had to work a few extra hours, including some weekends, said Chmielarz. But he added that the studio has “never had a death march or a crunch” and that he thinks “that’s one of the most important factors of a healthy modern studio.”
Asked whether there will be bugs at launch, Chmielarz said that they are doing everything they can to make sure it’s solid—but it will not be as polished as the final release. What they won’t do, said Chmielarz, is launch an incomplete game as a final version.
Chmielarz says there are two kinds of buggy games, in his experience. The first involves situations where studios tried to make the best game possible, but then millions of people played it and found bugs “you never even thought possible.” This sort is okay, said Chmielarz, as “with the size and complexity of modern games you cannot avoid this issue.”
“The second kind is when the game releases in a state that is clearly unfinished, and you know that the developer knows. This is inexcusable to me, and should never happen,” Chmielarz says, speaking about games in general. “Releasing a game, claiming it’s done, and delivering an obvious mess? No. Just…no.”
The Astronauts plan to keep Witchfire in early access for about a year so that they can monitor player feedback and modify the game based on what they hear on Discord, social media, and forums.
You can pre-purchase and wishlist Witchfire now on the Epic Games Store.