Cyberpunk 2077 has become the symbol of how marketing hype has brought CD Projekt Red to its knees.
Those who follow gaming will know that the industry is infamous for its overhyped marketing tactics. Ubisoft releases cinematic trailers that rival Hollywood products. Gameplay demos that look so otherworldly, spectators can’t wait to hop in and start their digital adventures. But one of the most painful launch disasters in recent memory is Cyberpunk 2077. Developed by none other than the reputable Polish studio CD Projekt Red (CDPR). How did it come so far that Sony pulled the game from its online store?
Game development is no easy matter
Frequent readers will know I like to set the stage because it’s always very easy to point out the different shortcomings of a company or project. Placing it into context will help us better assess why this event occurred in the first place. Before we dive into the whole debacle that was Cyberpunk 2077, we need to have a basic understanding of game development.
In a compact article published by Starloop Studios, they describe a high-level overview of the different stages of game development. Just like any entertainment product, it begins with a spark of imagination. An idea or high-level concept. In this so-called pre-production phase, the company looks at what budget is needed to deliver the product, platform support, the target audience, and rough renderings of the concept. That’s where the envying drawings of the concept artist come into play. He will move the abstract definition, the contours of the story, into a visual concept. During this pre-production phase, the team explores the ways to profitability and the necessary marketing effort to bring the product to the desired audience.
Today, game developers have the luxury that games can be patched, but in the olden days when a game hit the shelves, especially on consoles, there was no turning back.
When there is a solid business case, the actual production of the game can start. In this phase, the project manager handles the successful delivery of the game. In your company, there might be different names for the same role, but the core remains the same. During the development phase, innumerable amounts of code are being written. Different people work on different parts of the game that will merge into the final product.
As all the pieces are put together the game is ready for release. Today, game developers have the luxury that games can be patched, but in the olden days when a game hit the shelves, especially on consoles, there was no turning back. But even with these connected features, games still get delayed. How does this happen?
Tech magazine Wired dove into the matter and explored why blockbuster games with large production teams still face delays. First off is setting the release date. Michael Douse, director of publishing at Larian Studios, said to Wired, ‘There is no longer a good time to release a game.’ Further saying, ‘Many, many games are shipped too soon.’ These games fall prey to shareholders or financial constraints that force a game to meet its deadline. This can directly be traced back to the growing games industry, which has moved from a hobbyist fiddling around on their MS-DOS powered PCs to multibillion-dollar, publicly-traded corporations. Outside forces begin to pull more and more on the operations of game studios.
One other major factor that can trigger a potential delay, is the scope. Project managers will be familiar with tracking the scope of the project and making sure all efforts and features are within the predefined requirements. As more features are added to innovate the game, developers might come to the conclusion that the stacking of said features doesn’t play well together. And to combat that problem, more features are introduced. It’s a vicious cycle. Gabriale Salvatore, a former creative director from Creative Assembly who spoke to Wired about defining the scope, ‘Ideally, when overscoped, features are cut—something that can’t be polished in time for release is cut or lessened in scope. Things tend to be cut very late, and new designs tend to come online much later into the project.’
All these factors combined can lead to the infamous crunch time, where it’s all hands on deck and teams are pushed to the limit to prepare the game as much as possible for the release. But, outside help is standard practice according to several developers who spoke to Wired. Although crunch time remains a sensitive topic, which sparks heated debate amongst the community, it remains an integral part of game development.
The next big CD Projekt Red Game
CDPR is best known for its breakout fantasy franchise The Witcher with the peak of the franchise, the third installment, The Wild Hunt. This last version of The Witcher trilogy, received 240 Game of the Year awards, more than any other game in history. The gaming community loved it and was placing CDPR on a pedestal. It was the community’s favorite underdog. They would not sway for capitalist ploys from their competitors, leeching on to every last penny, trying to squeeze out as many dollars from its fan base as possible. No, CDPR was different. They gave away all the content for free!
So when they unveiled Cyberpunk 2077 at the E3 of 2018, six years after its announcement in 2012, the journalists and gamers became obsessed with the game. The developer of the legendary Witcher franchise would prove the industry wrong once again. It was part of the champions league now and it was here to shake things up. Eurogamer noted on the unveiling, ‘The Cyberpunk 2077 world we saw in the trailer itself was gorgeous: dirty, punky, sci-fi, Bladerunner, and brutal.’ The hype was real for the game. The wait was long and the audience finally got a glimpse of what they were waiting for for so long.
In the same year, CDPR announced during an investor update, that the marketing effort would be greater and more expensive than that of The Witcher 3. The campaign wouldn’t be a short burst, but a well-choreographed strategy. In May 2020, the company confirmed that for its domestic release, it would work together with the Agora Group. The marketing campaign would be launched on several different media outlets, like newspapers, digital advertising, radio, out of home, and across movie theaters. Bartosz Hojka CEO from Agora Group said, ‘I’m proud that the largest company on the Polish stock exchange has chosen Agora to promote its flagship product – especially given our track record of past collaboration.’ CDPR was not messing around this time and would be going big on advertising.
Nearing the release, it became clear Cyberpunk was facing issues that plagued CDPR for many years, the dreadful crunchtime.
In June 2019, the game got another popularity boost when it introduced the character Johnny Silverhand which was played by Keanu Reeves. He himself introduced the character to live during the Microsoft Xbox E3 briefing. Keanu Reeves is best known for his role in John Wick and The Matrix.
Nearing the release, it became clear Cyberpunk was facing issues that plagued CDPR for many years, the dreadful crunchtime. A notorious period in the development cycle of a game where it’s all hands on deck to meet the publishing deadline. Already in 2014, rumors surfaced where an alleged developer raised the operational problems at the company when working on the hit game The Witcher 3. Like Cyberpunk, The final Witcher game was delayed to meet the standards of the studio. According to the anonymous developer, the PR department was inflating the potential of the game, creating momentum for the hype to build. The studio was now in service of its own created reality. In September 2020, Cyberpunk development went into overdrive. Management of the studio introduced a mandatory six-day workweek to meet the release deadline.
In December 2020, Bloomberg reported that staff was calling out management for pushing for a release and creating unrealistic expectations with its audience. According to Bloomberg, an employee asked why the board had confirmed in January that the game was complete and ready to play. The article also noted that onlookers in the gaming industry were surprised that eight years after the announcement of Cyberpunk 2077, the game still experienced so many issues.
A perfect storm was enveloping Cyberpunk 2077 over the course of its development. Management was boasting about the richness of the game. It partnered up with big advertising companies to launch the game in the flashiest way possible. But when the game hit the shelves, the ecosystem surrounding it imploded. The Playstation 4 version became the perfect embodiment of all that can go wrong in game development.
The Playstation 4 disaster
The release on the Playstation 4 was so bad in fact, that Sony decided to pull the game from its online storefront, the Playstation Store. And you know you’ve squandered your reputation when even the BBC is reporting on the event. The move from Sony shook the gaming industry. It was an unprecedented event for the company. And for the industry. Sony decided to pull the game after CDPR released a statement where they urged users to either have the patience for the upcoming patches that would solve major issues or request a refund.
Within the industry, Sony is known to have a strict refund policy, which led to a disaster in the making. Players welcomed the callout by CDPR and went to Sony, where they hit a brick wall. Rumors began circulating on major gaming sites like Gameinformer and The Verge. The latter noted that the developer had no refund policy with Sony and other distributors like Microsoft and retailers. The Verge further said, ‘‘The situation is nothing short of a disaster for all parties involved, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to improve any time soon.’
The real reasons for Sony to pull the game from the store will remain unclear, but one might argue that a tweet from the CDPR team, implying a refund is possible was the trigger for Sony to stop distributing the game.
CD Projekt Red became what they hated
CDPR enjoyed success as an underdog. The Witcher 3 was a breakout success and gamers and journalists alike were eating it up. They were the herald of the Renaissance the gaming industry needed to part with its corrupt ways. Sales were ramping up and everybody was awaiting their next big hit. What would this beloved developer bring out next?
This spiritual successor would become Cyberpunk 2077. A vast open-world set in a dystopian city where big corporations were running the show. The customization would be out of this world. The interaction with the world, uncanny. The story and quests would dwarf everything that has ever been done before in a game of this magnitude. And like with the Witcher, the crowd went wild. They had complete faith in CDPR. The board rode the waves of this hype, throwing bones to its audience. Making promises, just to be a crowd-pleaser. All these promises, all the features necessary to meet the wishes of its customers, would prove to be its downfall.
In technical terms, everything is possible. The game runs smoothly on high-end PCs and Google Stadia, but they are a complete mess on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One. The directors must have been at a crossroads. With the feature stacking that was happening, the approaching new generation consoles and the shareholders who were getting anxious. The investments into the game were spiraling out of control and to maximize returns, they would need to make the game suitable for all consoles. Whatever it takes.
They began to crunch. Cranking out code like there was no tomorrow. Another delay would be unacceptable. The game had to be released on all platforms simultaneously. When it was finally released into the wild, the fallout was massive. In an instant, the community lost all faith in the studio and the industry was flabbergasted. It was a disaster in the making.