CD Projekt Red’s Shot At Redemption

This is a special guest blog post submitted by Dr. Joseph Ahn.

The Promise

Like many, I had been eagerly awaiting the launch of Cyberpunk 2077,
the latest effort from Witcher 3 developer CD Projekt Red (CDPR),
based out of Warsaw, Poland.

Cyberpunk was a most seductive lure: the adverts and gameplay footage
showcased a (buzzword alert!) immersive experience wherein an entire,
dour, futuristic world would be responsive to your moment-to-moment
decisions and gameplay. There would be opportunities to use futuristic
weapons, yes, but also muse on the nature of the soul as the body is
turned into tech, interact with similarly-enhanced future denizens,
eat strange futuristic food like synthetic sushi or whatnot.

It’s fair to say that the excitement was a bit much (the official
gameplay trailer hit 20M views within several days). But it
demonstrates one thing very clearly: there is immense demand for
extensive, immersive experiences that offer a compelling fantasy. The
future of gaming is not (as was once believed) strictly in
multiplayer, nor is it, as some believe, solely in games-as-a-service
(GaaS, i.e. games that exist continuously online and are subject to
continuous updates like World of Warcraft, Fortnite, and so on). But
we’ll get to that in a minute.

Underlying the story of Cyberpunk 2077 was the story of CDPR: an
upstart video game developer that started from a janky product based
on an obscure Polish property (i.e. the first Witcher game) and grew
into one of the world’s most skillful and beloved game studios. The
Witcher 3 was well loved — would Cyberpunk 2077 be the moment that
CDPR became a true contender in the industry? The next Rockstar Games,
the next Bungie? The market certainly seemed to think so.

The Launch

Enough has already been said about the Cyberpunk’s botched launch.
It’s now a matter of record that the game, when it was released, was
simply unfinished. Despite three major delays, Cyberpunk is riddled
with bugs. Console ports, especially on aging hardware, were clearly
neglected. The game is stuffed with obvious dead-ends and cut corners,
including a seemingly truncated “Life Paths” system that was meant to
illustrate your character’s backstory but instead segued into a
simplistic montage sequence, incomplete AI systems, deleted optional
romances. The list goes on and on.

Looking at the coverage in the gaming press, it’s easy to conclude
that Cyberpunk is dead in the water. Recent headlines scream that
player counts have fallen 79% over the last month. YouTubers have
cashed in on “Cyberpunk hate” by providing video after video
criticizing the game’s unfinished, lacking, or otherwise broken
features, especially in comparison to competition (most often from
Rockstar Games) such as Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2) or Grand Theft
Auto. And of course, in an unprecedented move, Sony pulled Cyberpunk
2077 from its digital store.

A vocal contingent of gamers seem to feel betrayed — the game was not
what had been promised. In short, they say, Cyberpunk 2077 is a
shallow action game set in an empty, albeit beautiful, world. Very
much not an immersive RPG set in a next-generation open-world
environment. The situation was so dire that investors put together a
class-action lawsuit over the debacle. Ouch. Dead in the water indeed.

On The Bright Side…

But there’s more to this story. Let’s look at some facts. To set some
context, CDPR’s previous game, the Witcher 3, is a critical and player
darling. It has sold over 28 million copies over its lifespan. While
it is always difficult to argue that one thing in particular
contributed to a project’s fruition, it is very likely that the
success of the Witcher 3 helped launch the eponymous show on Netflix,
which in turn sparked interest in CDPR and helped drive its stock
price to great heights. So how does Cyberpunk look in comparison?

Witcher 3 had over 1 million pre-orders. Cyberpunk 2077 had 8 million.
Cyberpunk 2077 is Steam’s highest-selling game for the 7th week in a row.
Cyberpunk 2077 is the first single-player Steam game to reach 1
million simultaneous players
Cyberpunk 2077’s player count did fall over 75% since launch. But this
is fairly typical for a single-player game. Cyberpunk’s peak player
count over the last two days was approximately 160 thousand; Witcher
3’s peak player count over its entire lifespan was around 100
Witcher 3 sold 9.5 million copies in 2015 (the year of launch).
Cyberpunk 2077 has sold 13 million copies in its first two weeks.

Now for more subjective points. If one delves into Cyberpunk, one
finds that the game does provide significant game-altering choices.
Unfortunately, it is not immediately clear when this actually occurs.
When such opportunities do arise, the game does very little to
telegraph it, leaving gamers to wonder if the story path they are
experiencing is the only one available. But in fact, finishing side
quests unlock new story-altering options, and I personally encountered
a quest where the much-derided “Life Path” choice actually impacted
the result (being a Corpo unlocked an option in the River questline).
The gameplay is also noticeably flatter in the early sections, before
major abilities and features (like double-jumping) are unlocked,
allowing the savagely graceful game to bloom.

There seems to be a passionate base of gamers who seem genuinely
enamored of Cyberpunk and its impactful characters. Other players have
found evidence of properly-implemented AI hidden behind bugs, a
half-finished monorail system, half-developed questlines, etc. Some of
the promised features are already there.

In short, Cyberpunk 2077 seems to have found quite a bit of success in
its own right, and some of the negative press is exaggerated —
perhaps not as much as the previews had done the game’s features —
but exaggerated nonetheless.

A Changed Gaming Industry

All this being said, the launch was still undoubtedly a mess.

Fortunately, unlike the movie industry’s box office, in the gaming
industry a failed launch does not necessarily spell failed game. We
can look to specific examples to highlight this trend.

Perhaps the prime example of a botched launch eventually redeeming
itself is No Man’s Sky. This procedurally-generated space exploration
game out of a tiny U.K.-based studio had similarly huge expectations
that crashed spectacularly at launch. But Hello Games labored over the
game, issuing update after update. On Metacritic, the original PS4
version of the game has a user score of 4.7. The updated Beyond
version on PS4 has a user score of 8.2 (although admittedly this has
much fewer votes, I don’t have a better point of delineation).
Nevertheless, the overall perception is one of redemption.

Final Fantasy XIV (FF14) was an unmitigated disaster at launch, but
was completely rebooted a year after release, potentially saving its
developer and publisher Square Enix. Destiny, by Bungie Softworks and
published by Activision Blizzard, is a somewhat similar tale of a
turnaround. And while GTA V did launch very successfully, it has an
astonishing tail well beyond its launch, remaining on bestseller lists
for years and selling 120 million copies over its lifetime. Even the
thoroughly drubbed Fallout 76 has maintained a core audience and even
gained players since its nadir in late summer 2020.

So what’s the key quality that allows this to happen? The short answer
is GaaS. The long answer is: since even single-player games are now
constantly connected to servers, they can be updated, upgraded, and
otherwise changed since launch. In FF14’s case, even the finished
product is completely different. There is no reason Cyberpunk 2077
cannot follow the same path.

With some caveats.

What CDPR Should Do

So what can companies learn from this, and what can CDPR do to save
their “struggling” game (and reputation)?

While your expectations may vary, it is reasonable to argue that CDPR
has the capability to release a game that can recapture some of its
original perception — and audience. Anecdotally, a large contingent
of gamers seem content to wait for the game to be patched into an
acceptable state. Others will likely be lured back if the game reaches
a state that at least somewhat resembles the fevered imaginings of the
heady pre-release days.

But CDPR should not take this opportunity for granted. If the Polish
developer continues to follow the policies that led it to this current
situation, there is a good chance it can blow even this last chance
they have.

To date, CDPR’s greatest error was miscommunication. Features that
actually exist were poorly presented and non-obvious. The dire state
of development — no doubt exacerbated by COVID-19 and a dramatically
slowed iteration cycle — was hidden behind a glossy PC-only veneer
and wild promises of patches (which CDPR cites as the reason they
never released console code prior to release — they were updating to
the last second). CDPR itself leaned into its overblown rhetoric,
promising “the next generation of open-world adventure.” All symptoms
of a company struggling to achieve maturity.

Let’s look at some concrete steps CDPR can take:

  • Communicate to players. CDPR has promised “large” patches in January and February, but this language is not enough. While I understand that the company needs to be leery of what they say given the upcoming court case, they can still communicate facts: features that are in development, major bugs that will be addressed. Provide a targeted timeline. If major (suggested) advertised features will continue to be missing from the game, this needs to be communicated. There is precedent for this open approach as a developer, i.e. early-access games. To be clear, I do not advocate that CDPR should be completely open in their process. However, their current closed-mouth approach will only build confusion and destroy audience interest because after a while, that audience will no longer know what to expect, or whether to expect anything at all.
  • Better online digital tools. A huge-scale software project like Cyberpunk 2077 requires equally huge amounts of iteration to be successful. However, when your workforce is working remotely, that can seriously cut into communication time and perhaps more importantly, iteration cycles. CDPR and other software companies should consider implementing digital tools that allow for fast, seamless, secure data transfer and a working environment that facilitates remote development and build updates. You have to let your team work efficiently before you can capitalize on their efforts.
  • Reward the team. CDPR has already announced that they will pay their employees their bonuses regardless of the game’s Metacritic score. That is all well and good, but any manager worth their salt knows that money alone does not motivate a team. Morale is likely quite low at CDPR — they are continuously hammered by their players and the mainstream press who, despite the unmistakable effort poured into the game, seem to ignore most of CDPR’s actual achievements. Who wouldn’t be demoralized? But without their development team, CDPR has exactly zero chance of fixing their reputation. A strong internal direction must be set, and hope generated for their struggling engineers and artists.
  • Listen to their audience. CDPR has generally stuck to the stance that their game is their game. But while this can be admirable in form, if CDPR ignores the demands of an audience who really do want a GTA/RDR-killer, they would be alienating this very important segment — the same gamers who helped propel GTA V to 120 million sales. I would argue it behooves CDPR to include at least some aspects of this in their core product. Gamers are itching for a fully “immersive” experience — i.e. one that indulges their whims and allows them to gallivant to a certain degree. Cyberpunk, I argue, needs to provide this, at least somewhat.
  • Soft relaunch. When CDPR has released enough fixes and content to appease their audience, they can re-launch Cyberpunk 2077. While I stated above that a failed launch doesn’t necessarily mean a failed game, a launch is still valuable for generating awareness and eyeballs on the core product. Again there is precedent for this: FF14 re-launched, and even CDPR re-released Witcher 1 and 2 as “Enhanced Editions.” The major question is timing. While there are no hard and fast rules, it would be to CDPR’s advantage to do this as early as possible, perhaps after a handful of major DLCs and expansions have been released. An ideal schedule would be a year after launch, again in time for the Christmas season.
  • Never release early again. If CDPR had released Cyberpunk when it was properly finished, undoubtedly they would have faced irate investors demanding to know why the game was delayed yet again. But that is infinitely preferable to releasing an actually unfinished game, which caused investor outrage (and lawsuits) anyway. An apology to their customers only works so far as they actually rectify their behavior.

The Future of 2077

In the long run, gamers will flock to a truly great immersive
experience, one that delivers a livable fantasy.

And another hope glitters on the horizon: CDPR has promised
multiplayer features. If implemented properly, the game may be able to
replicate some of GTA V’s incredible online success. Cyberpunk truly
could become a living, breathing world populated with zany characters
— the players themselves. If CD Projekt Red can deliver that in a
properly realized game, then they really will have a next-generation
experience on their hands. The kind of game that just might allow the
company to achieve its aspirations to become the world’s greatest AAA

But first, they need to finish the game.

Dr. Joseph Ahn

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