video games

What the Heck Is Going On With Cyberpunk 2077?

Photo: CD Projekt

Last night, Sony removed Cyberpunk 2077 — the most anticipated video game of the year by a long shot — from the PlayStation 4 digital storefront. Anyone who purchased the game on the console over the past week since its release date will be offered a refund. This is an unprecedented move, and the latest chapter in Cyberpunk’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad launch. In record time, the game has morphed from a presumptive Game of the Year candidate into an international pariah — sparking fan revolt, internal turmoil, and cross-corporate controversy due to a swathe of game-breaking glitches, withering technical issues, and graphical failures present in the versions released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It’s a total mess; one that will continue to have wide-ranging implications for all the involved parties. When you study the timeline, it’s clear that it didn’t have to be this way.

CD Projekt Red, the Polish studio behind Cyberpunk 2077, has a rarefied reputation in the games industry. In 2015, the company released The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which remains one of the most unique success stories in recent memory. Here was a straight-up, unapologetic role-playing game — based on a niche series of fantasy novels no less! — that still managed to sell nearly 30 million copies worldwide. It’s easy to see why: The Witcher 3 possesses well-drawn characters, indelible side quests, and perhaps most importantly, manages to run reasonably well on the PS4 and Xbox One despite hefty system requirements. Suddenly, CD Projekt Red was transformed from a humble independent institution in Warsaw to one of the most respected studios in the world — capable of inking Netflix deals with Henry Cavill.

The public waited with bated breath to see how the company was going to leverage all of that accumulated goodwill in its next project; a sci-fi epic set in the universe established by the legendary tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk. After a trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 debuted at the 2018 edition of E3, the hype reached an ear-piercing register uncommonly witnessed in the gaming community. CD Projekt Red reveled in the financial bounty that comes with good buzz. In total, the studio logged something like 8 million preorders before release.

When you watch that trailer now, it’s easy to see why the public got so frothy. CD Projekt Red promised a pitch-perfect re-creation of the grimy, neon Cyberpunk aesthetic — a world that gamers have wanted to explore for generations. The company supported that clip with a series of long, unedited gameplay videos, proving further that there was some real steak to its sizzle. Nobody had any real doubts that the company would fail to follow through; after all, it had the bona fides from The Witcher 3 in its back pocket. But as we got closer to Cyberpunk 2077’s release, cracks started to show.

The first red flag surfaced in September, when Bloomberg reported that CD Projekt Red was pivoting to a crunch schedule to get the game across the finish line. Crunch refers to a scrutinized business practice in the industry that usually includes compulsory overtime and long weekend shifts to meet a looming shipping date. It’s one of those unsightly holdovers from the game business’s unregulated Wild West era, and many studios have implemented measures to bolster a healthy office environment. CD Projekt Red, on the other hand, was instituting a mandatory six-day workweek, a year after promising that it would avoid those faulty labor practices entirely. This raised two important questions: (1) Isn’t it ironic to be publishing a game about craven corporate overreach while stealing off days from your employees? (2) If you’re requiring crunch to finish a game that’s supposed to be out in a month, does that bode well for the final product?

Naturally, shortly after that Bloomberg report, CD Projekt Red delayed the Cyberpunk 2077 release date to December 10. It was the third delay in the game’s life cycle: Initially, the company was targeting April 16. That then moved to September 17, and then November 19, before the most recent setback. This itself wasn’t a huge cause for concern. Games get delayed all the time, and the COVID pandemic has understandably disrupted development in countless studios. (Halo: Infinite, another hotly anticipated video game that was supposed to be out in 2020, was escorted by Microsoft into the 2021 window.) But as that December 10 date drew closer, and review copies started to circulate throughout the press, game critics were surprised to find that the company was only distributing the PC code. Kotaku reported that it asked CD Projekt Red numerous times, to no avail, for the versions prepared for the Xbox One and PS4. As a result, all of the game’s initial review scores reflect the experience on high-powered modern gaming CPUs, instead of a pair of consoles that first made landfall in 2013.

By most accounts, the PC version of Cyberpunk 2077 plays reasonably well. It’s still buggy and prone to crashes, but none of those issues are backbreaking, and the Metacritic score reflects that. The PS4 and Xbox ports? Another story. Shortly after release last week, as players around the world finally got their hands on the hottest game of the year, the internet started to billow with angst about how disastrously the game performs on those base consoles. (The software fares better on the freshly released, and still very hard to find PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.) There are reports of disorienting drops in frame rate, muddy video resolutions, and most infamously, a deluge of bizarre glitches. Watch as a car drives right through a house with no collision detection, or as a character’s face resembles a shattered mosaic of unloaded textures. Gamers are falling through floors; they’re watching vehicles spawn out of thin air; NPCs are stuck to their dashboards. The community has learned to put up with an acceptable degree of jank in massive, open-world games, but Cyberpunk 2077 crossed the Rubicon. The fiction in the Cyberpunk tabletop universe pits a cadre of underworld malcontents against the overwhelming forces of corporate greed, and ironically, revolution was now at hand.

On December 14, four days after release, CD Projekt Red issued a statement atoning for the broken state it shipped the game in. “We apologize to you for not showing the game on base last-gen consoles before it premiered and, in consequence, not allowing you to make a more informed decision about your purchase,” it reads. That alone is a nuclear disclosure, as it implies that CD Projekt Red management knew, deep down, that this backlash was coming. The statement continues by vowing to shape up the PS4 and Xbox versions into a more playable state by chipping away at the technical issues with a blanket of patches — which will undoubtedly manifest through a ton more work through the holidays. Most brazenly, it asked any unsatisfied purchasers to refund their copy of Cyberpunk 2077 through either the digital vendor or the physical store they bought it from, which is something the company does not have the authority to do. Sony, in particular, has a strict refund policy for downloaded content, which meant that a slew of gamers, empowered by CD Projekt Red’s supposed mandate, were stymied when they reached out to PlayStation customer support looking to recoup their expenses. This new episode, where Sony is allowing for refunds and also purging Cyberpunk from the servers, feels a bit like a rebuke to CD Projekt Red’s overreach.

That brings us up to speed. The future of Cyberpunk 2077 remains uncertain. The games industry is home to a number of comeback sagas. Four years ago, the space-exploration game No Man’s Sky was marked by a similarly embittered reception by the public, but the studio behind it worked long and hard to change the narrative. At the Game Awards this year, No Man’s Sky received the trophy for Best Ongoing Game, which was unthinkable a short time ago. It’s nice to believe that the same fate may await Cyberpunk 2077; that this current moment won’t be its final legacy. But the flailing mismanagement evident in CD Projekt Red’s top brass won’t be forgotten so easily. How quickly the tide has turned on one of the industry’s feel-good outfits. The moral here is eternal for any fandom: Incredible hype begets incredible disappointment. The bosses at CD Projekt Red have a lot to answer for — to customers, employees, and critics alike. They ought to start by taking a long look in the mirror before moving forward.

What the Heck Is Going On With Cyberpunk 2077?