By Paul Davis
Cyberpunk 2077 was hyped to be the release that punctuated an entire console generation’s worth of development time. It was to set the high-water mark for the new generation. As a result of poor management strategy and deceptive advertising, that punctuation became a disappointed interrobang, with game-breaking bugs, an avalanche of refunds, and a brewing class-action lawsuit.
The story of this game’s disastrous release in many ways mirrors 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600, the game that influenced the video game crash of 1983. How similar are these landmark events in video game history, and what can the industry learn going forwards?
The Legacy of E.T.
The video games industry was valued in excess of USD$175 billion in 2020. Thanks in part to the pandemic, it is a more valuable industry than the global film and North American sports industries combined, according to a MarketWatch report.
It is astonishing, then, to recall that in 1983 the industry almost entirely collapsed. While the actual factors of this crash were long-standing and subtle, one of the final, decisive triggers was the Christmas 1982 release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Labelled one of if not the worst video game of all time, it ruined Atari’s reputation and market share.
The game’s creator, Howard Scott Warshaw, shares a humorous account of the development of E.T. in the Netflix docuseries High Score. A typical development window back then was six to eight months. Warshaw was given only five weeks. His life was reduced to an incessant churn of code; he went so far as to move a development system into his home so he could programme whenever, whatever the circumstance.
The final product was a cumbersome, maddening commercial failure. Its unsold cartridges were infamously buried in a landfill site in New Mexico. Atari’s stock and revenue plummeted. Today, the game’s Wikipedia page describes E.T. as “a cautionary tale about the dangers of rushed game development and studio interference”. Clearly, this tale’s message has faded in the decades of industry growth.
The Hype Train: Cyberpunk’s Anticipation Marketing
Announced back in 2012, Cyberpunk 2077 Poland-based publisher CD Projekt went all-in on marketing in the run up to its eventual release on the 10th of December 2020. “Eventual” because the game was delayed multiple times throughout the year, seemingly due to bug squashing and issues with last-gen performance.
Still, fans had hope. After all, the development team of CDP, CD Projekt Red, were behind the critically acclaimed The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Encouraging information trickled out via CDP’s social media and communications. An update was posted on Twitter when the game went gold. Two weeks before launch, joint CEO Adam Kiciński labelled performance on base consoles as “surprisingly good”.
Advertisements were posted on the sides of London buses; collaborations were revealed with the popular YouTube channel Kurzgesagt, the 2019 Kojima Productions hit game Death Stranding, and racing behemoth Forza Horizon 4. Online marketing was copious.
The expectations were set, and the pre-orders rolled in. Eight million pre-orders made sure that CDP had completely recouped development and marketing costs before the game had even launched. All the signs pointed towards a blockbuster game that could catapult CDP and CDPR into loftier heights than ever before. Well, almost all of them.
Cracks in the Cyberwall: The Disillusionment Begins
For all the published talk and uploaded footage, there was a notable lack of reviewer copies available prior to launch. Download codes for PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game were not made available to anyone until the actual release date, leaving reviewers no time to present gamers with a consumer perspective.
Behind the scenes, CDPR had implemented studio-wide mandatory “crunch” time for several weeks. “Crunch” is an industry term for the company-imposed overtime akin to that of Warshaw’s experience with E.T. and it plagues the video game industry. Employees were being forced into 6-day work weeks; many even left due to overwork. Something was clearly wrong, but CDP was not willing to compromise its release.
A Veritable Bug-Fest: A Disastrous Launch
On December 10th, I finished studying for the day; the multi-gigabyte download of Cyberpunk 2077 had finished on my modern gaming laptop. I booted up the game. The intro visuals and music were fantastic, but like a realistic-thinking PC gamer, I immediately entered the setting to adjust the graphics to something I believed sensible for my computer before starting the game.
The rest of the night, however, was not a technological romp through a dystopian city as I had expected, but rather hours of fiddling with graphics settings to reach a reasonable frame rate even in the first room. Even on the lowest settings, my FPS rarely reached 30, generally fluctuating between 15 and 22. Technology YouTuber Linus Tech Tips uploaded a video demonstrating performance on the most cutting-edge hardware available, and even they had issues with running the game.
I had it easy. Console gamers were met with a nigh-unplayable mess with more bugs than a particularly gross nature documentary. These ranged from the humorous, where characters’ genitals became visible even through clothing, to the downright game-breaking, where save files that reached a certain size would become irreversibly corrupted. Framerates on consoles were even worse than my PC.
CDP’s stock tanked 29% and the refund requests started rolling in at physical stores and the websites of Sony, Microsoft, and CDP.
Is Cyberpunk 2077 the modern E.T.?
Sort of. The causes of the event and many of the consequences are very similar, but where E.T. was a solidly bad game, Cyberpunk was simply an ill-planned and consequently broken, but otherwise fantastic, game.
On the positive side, I hear praises from many sources about the game’s story, setting, quests, design, etc. The Metacritic score for the PC version of the game sits at a commendable 86/100. At its peak, Cyberpunk broke Steam’s record for concurrent players in a single player game with a staggering 1,054,388 gamers playing simultaneously on this platform alone.
This same platform has listed it as one of its ‘Platinum Top Sellers’ – the highest possible tier – of 2020. As of December 20th, IGN reports, Cyberpunk had still sold over 13 million copies, even after accounting for refunds. E.T. did not receive anywhere near this level of positive press or sales figures. As for my copy of Cyberpunk, I have kept it in hopes of playing the fixed version whenever it becomes available.
However, the negative headlines outnumber the positive ones. The console versions’ Metacritic scores are lagging behind at 54 and 61. CDP’s stock, like Atari’s in 1982/3, kept dropping until reaching a minimum on December 21st, the first promised deadline for a more playable version of the game. Sony and Microsoft’s customer support pages were overwhelmed with refund requests, leading ultimately to Microsoft expanding its refund policy to cover players disappointed with the state of the game and Cyberpunk’s outright removal from the Sony store until further notice, while CDP has promised refunds “out of [their] own pocket” for those who cannot secure them otherwise. This part is very much like E.T.
As a benefit of being a modern game, since launch, Cyberpunk has received numerous ‘Hotfixes’ resolving some of the most pressing issues and squashing some of the worst bugs, including hotfix 1.06 resolving the save file corruption problem. It has become par for the course to expect Day 0/Day 1 patches for games, something unheard of in the 1980s. One a game was out, that was it. Cyberpunk, however, is not expected to be ‘finished’ until February, though given the recent history, even this estimate may be optimistic. The game was not ready for launch, and CDP’s reputation has been tarnished.
Internally, CDP is in chaos – extended development and hotfixes notwithstanding. Executives have seemingly taken responsibility for the failure of Cyberpunk to meet expectations and have accordingly adjusted their bonus policy. One of the many frustrated developers challenged CDP leadership, asking if they “felt it was hypocritical to make a game about corporate exploitation while expecting that their employees work overtime”. The response was described as “vague and noncommittal”.
Another questioned why the board had announced in January that the game was “complete and playable” when that wasn’t true. Meanwhile, U.S.-based Rosen Law Firm, which specialises in investor rights, has investigated grounds for and subsequently filed a class-action lawsuit against CDP due to “false and/or misleading statements” regarding the state of the game and subsequent damages to investors’ wealth. Undoubtedly, the high profile of this game’s launch issue reaches the international level of E.T.
Cyberpunk 2077 may be dominating headlines for very negative reasons, but it would be unfair to both sides to wholly equate it with the disastrous launch of E.T.
E.T. was solid and had been approved by the relevant people but was developed in a severely limited time window for immense externally influenced expectations. After all, it was trying to do justice to the commercial success of its cinematic source material.
Cyberpunk 2077, on the other hand, is well-conceptualised and thematically immersive. This time, the expectations were set internally. Deadlines set by executives were unrealistic and the hype train created by their marketing became a runaway locomotive very quickly, bloating the scope of the project.
The lessons about proper management by technologically competent, realistic thinkers is clear from both games. Using deadlines and productivity incentives as the key drivers behind an artistic project led to disastrous results in 1982 and 2020.
Cyberpunk 2077 will eventually be fixed. Free DLC for early 2021 has already been announced to begin rebuilding the game’s reputation. There will not be another video game crash. However, CDPR will be remembered as the studio that released an unplayable wasps’ nest on consoles despite multiple years of development and failing to set realistic deadlines. Thus, a new cautionary tale is born, and one that, given its themes, is tragically ironic.
Image: Wallpaper Gaming via Flickr