If you are in any way familiar with video games, then you might probably have heard of Cyberpunk 2077. This game, from the makers of perhaps one of the most beloved RPGs of all time, was all set to revolutionize the video games landscape and stand tall as a shining example for the industry. Well, it did turn out to be an example. Unfortunately, not in the way anyone saw coming.
Looking back at the now infamous release of Cyberpunk 2077, one would interpret the whole story as an unfortunate chain of events. And that interpretation would come from a CD Project Red loyalist who would still back the developer despite all the controversies surrounding the game. See these events from the eyes of a critic however and the issue takes on a whole new dimension. Now before we go on and attempt to peel the layers of this debacle, we need to take a step back and look at what happened over the course of time, from its announcement, to the absurdly long development time, to the impressive demo, to the immeasurable amount of hype towards its release, let’s take a closer look to understand why, what should have been one of the biggest game releases of all time, turned into one of the biggest fiascos of all time.
Announced back in May 2012, Cyberpunk 2077 had its debut trailer release in January 2013, both events having taken place before the release of the base versions of PS4 and the Xbox One. CD Project Red had simultaneously been working on The Witcher 3 which saw its release in May 2015.
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A couple of years into the release of The Witcher 3 and its fabled success, CDPR was at the top of its game enjoying a good guy status quo while companies like EA and Ubisoft were often criticised for the way they would handle an IP and tailor it towards generating more revenue, rather than serve the narrative or the design of the game. With Geralt’s final chapter now complete, the attention turned towards CDPR’s next big game. One that was expected to bring all the immersion, rich story and lore, and refined gameplay that The Witcher 3 had but only somehow much better. From this point onwards hype naturally surrounded Cyberpunk 2077 thanks to the developers’ earlier work. And it only got stronger with release of gameplay footage and developer diaries, while rumours of troubles behind the scenes, were largely overlooked by the community until very close to release.
Signs of real trouble started to be voiced out when media outlets were allowed to preview the game for six or so hours a few weeks before launch. The restrictive nature of the preview event raised some eyebrows as not much was known of the hardware specifications used in the systems the game was streamed from. And then came the review embargo, which limited reviewers to PC versions of the game along with the condition that no gameplay footage captured during the review process was to be used for the actual review of the game, at least until its release. Early reviews did praise the game for its story and world, as was expected, but the general theme was that the game was buggy, which was acceptable in today’s world with AAA games. But it was just after release that all the restrictions behind the preview and the review process started to make sense. The game was really only ready on PC. And only optimized enough to run on higher end hardware. On lower spec PCs and consoles though it was a completely different game altogether. Textures literally took 10s of seconds to load. The framerate hovered along the lines of mid to high 10s. The console versions were also a huge step down in terms of graphics, and all the refinements found on the PC version in terms of AI and visuals were pretty much non-existent. It was clear that the game was not ready on consoles. And despite having the media only review the PC version, CDPR made the decision to release the game on PS4, Xbox one and the newer consoles via backward compatibility.
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For the gaming community that knew CDPR as a company that represents the good in the industry, this was a devastating realization. All of the above were deliberate moves. From not showing gameplay on consoles until release, to limiting what can be conveyed to the end user so they could capitalize on the sales on console games, this was misrepresentation of a product in clear light of day. Matters only got worse when the company started to offer refunds on consoles without consulting the relevant companies, Sony and Microsoft, resulting in Sony removing the game from the PlayStation store altogether. This was unheard of, especially for a high-profile release like cyberpunk.
Just to be clear, the intention here is not to kick CDPR when they are down, but sentiments across the gaming community, both from the ones who purchased the game, and from the ones who didn’t are all the same. Why would CDPR do this? Why would they not release just the PC version if the other versions are not ready? Why not delay the game altogether until it is ready? How can holiday season sales numbers outweigh the goodwill earned over almost 15 years? And, above all, how is this fair on the people who had worked hard, not to mention in crunch situations, over the eight-year development period?
Cyberpunk 2077 – The Story with Many Lessons
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I feel the need to commend the people behind the game. The ones who worked on the game’s art, programming, animation, story, music and every little aspect of Cyberpunk 2077. Because it was not their fault that the game was released in the state it was. There is a version of this game, on PC, that showcases the intent and the ambition that the developers were going for. The sprawling city and its intricacies, the characters and their nuanced backstories, the complexities in gameplay and (for the most part) the AI all carry the DNA of The Witcher 3. And this is an indication of the true vision for the game. It is painfully clear that despite its long development cycle this game needed another year, maybe two to be fully optimized and playable as intended. At least in the case of the console versions. The game could well have been the masterpiece many of us anticipated it to be. But the decision was made to launch the game in its current state either ways.
Statements have been made by CDPR management along the lines of them not being aware of the state of the game on consoles and that there was no pressure to release the game on the set date. What actually happened behind the scenes that lead to this situation is probably something that may be revealed over time. For now, though, CDPR need to pull their socks up and walk the path of redemption. And it is going to be a tough walk considering their fall from a place of such strong good will from the community. The game may eventually be good and even reach the state where it plays as originally intended, but that road is long and harsh, and it only means more pressure on the people who work on the game.
To be honest, tales of redemption are not as rare as people think in the games industry. One fairly recent example is No Man’s Sky. A game that launched with an absurd amount of hype, only to be met with heavy criticism for not delivering on what was promised. The developers, Hello Games, quietly went back to work, updating the game constantly over the years, all free of cost. No Man’s Sky is now radically different to what was released in 2016. It is now a beloved game with a strong community. One can only hope that something similar happens with Cyberpunk 2077.
There are various things that can be taken away from the above events. Various lessons that can be learnt. A lesson that consumer faith is just as delicate as it is priceless. That no sales figures are as important as the reputation of a company. That setting right expectations and being upfront and honest could go a long way. That Game testing has a far more important role in the game’s development and their inputs need to be considered seriously. And the list of lessons goes on. But how many of these lessons will be learnt by companies? I honestly do not know.
I would love to see the game working as intended on all hardware one day. But there are way too many issues to be fixed. And way too many questions to be answered. How will CDPR handle the console versions henceforth? How will Sony approach the issue in the future? Will this affect any planned DLCs? What about the multiplayer aspect of the game? And above all, will CDPR ever get back its goodwill from the community again? These are questions that only time will answer and hopefully they will be answered one day when we look back at this launch and laugh it off as this being a mere misstep by CDPR falling prey to the wrath of 2020. I am keeping my fingers crossed for it.