The past week has been a total disaster for Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated games of the entire generation. Every day of the week featured a new negative headline for the CD Projekt Red title, most of which trace back to its abysmal performance on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Even consumers using high-end PCs report a series of bugs and glitches over the course of their playthroughs, but they aren’t game-breaking.
The experience on last-gen consoles, meanwhile, is so poor that Microsoft and Sony felt forced to make exceptions to their refund policies, allowing unhappy Cyberpunk 2077 buyers to get their money back. According to Bloomberg, the game’s abysmal performance on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have already cost CD Projekt Red’s founders a cool $1 billion. The studio may even be facing a class-action lawsuit.
In the span of only a few days, CD Projekt Red’s sterling reputation as a studio that cares about its customers (even at the expense of its employees) was shattered. Why would a company that built up goodwill with gamers over decades make a decision they knew would blow it all up? Let’s take at the development and marketing cycle of Cyberpunk 2077 that led to the biggest disaster the video game industry has seen in a very long time.
Announcing too early
CD Projekt Red announced Cyberpunk 2077 all the way back in May of 2012, a full 3 years before the release of their last game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In the years since, video game publishers have (mostly) learned to hold off on announcements until they have something concrete to show.
Game development is extremely unpredictable. In most cases, the final result isn’t what the studio originally envisioned. In many, the project doesn’t come together like developers hope and gets canceled. CD Projekt Red had no idea in 2012 what kind of scope 2020 hardware would allow for. Even the demo it showed off to press in 2018 is very dissimilar to the final product.
The studio couldn’t make serious headway on the production of Cyberpunk until completing work on The Witcher 3 and its DLC expansions in 2016. The game’s premature announcement put added pressure on the team because fans felt like they’d waited 8 years for Cyberpunk 2077 even though it was only in active development for less than 5.
Delays, delays, delays
Cyberpunk suffered three public delays, and probably even more internal ones. CD Projekt Red’s development team had to keep going back to its board of directors to share that the game needed more time in the oven. This was probably hard for the board to hear about a project that had been a topic of discussion for 8 years. It certainly was for fans.
The studio heads undoubtedly faced pressure to get the game out the door by the end of 2020 so that it would release before the holidays and within the launch window of the Xbox Series and PlayStation 5. That doesn’t excuse the decision to push Cyberpunk 2077 out the door before it was ready, but the delays were important preludes to CD Projekt Red’s impending disaster.
The hype around Cyberpunk 2077 was deafening, and virtually impossible for CD Projekt Red to live up to in the best of circumstances. Worse, it was driven by rosy retrospection rather than a clear-eyed look at the studio’s past.
The console version of The Witcher 3 was in rough shape when the game released. Not Cyberpunk bad, but CD Projekt Red’s first attempt to launch simultaneously on PC and console experienced similar pitfalls to the ones it’s experiencing on a much larger scale in 2020. The company clearly didn’t learn the lessons it needed to from the bumpy launch of The Witcher 3. The issues were only exacerbated for Cyberpunk 2077, which faced the added challenge of releasing on two different console generations.
We should also consider aspects of CD Projekt Red that in the past a lot of gamers were more than willing to ignore if they didn’t obstruct Cyberpunk 2077’s development. After facing heat for forcing employees to work almost nonstop during the production of The Witcher 3, studio heads promised they wouldn’t mandate crunch while developing Cyberpunk. CD Projekt Red broke that promise again and again. Even though the game was released, employees are likely still crunching to improve its performance on older consoles in an effort to clean up the studio heads’ mess. An employee’s question to CD Projekt Red’s board of directors sums up the issue quite well:
Another developer asked whether CD Projekt’s directors felt it was hypocritical to make a game about corporate exploitation while expecting that their employees work overtime. The response was vague and noncommital.
Then there’s the transphobia perpetuated by CD Projekt Red that rears its ugly head in Cyberpunk 2077 itself. Doublejump reported a timeline of CD Projekt Red’s transphobic comments that also looks at Cyberpunk‘s most problematic content.
Not all of the problems within Projekt Red played a direct role in the biggest disaster surrounding Cyberpunk 2077: its dismal performance on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But they shine a light on an ugliness within a studio gamers have spent years looking at through rose-tinted glasses.
Misleading marketing, dishonest answers
CD Projekt Red’s guilt is extremely transparent in its marketing of Cyberpunk 2077, most notably the review guidelines. Video game outlets were only provided access to PC copies of Cyberpunk, for now obvious reasons. This isn’t entirely out of the ordinary, though maybe it should be going forward. A far stranger restriction was that reviewers weren’t allowed to share their own footage from the game — they could only use video provided from CD Projekt Red.
The studio was clearly doing everything possible to conceal Cyberpunk’s performance issues, making its claim that the team wasn’t aware of the problems even more doubtful. CD Projekt Red specifically stated that the reason for the game’s final delay was to “make sure everything works well and every version runs smoothly.”
After reading that, it’s hard to stomach Projekt Red’s defense that it was somehow unaware of the technical issues plaguing the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of the game.
In the wake of Cyberpunk 2077‘s release, CD Projekt Red is seen in a completely new light, exposing the cracks in its foundation that were previously ignored. In hindsight, the game’s calamitous launch feels inevitable. We should use our refreshed perspective to consider whether other studios or segments of the video game industry are similarly heading towards their own disasters.