Cyberpunk 2077’s new success shouldn’t rewrite its troubled past

Cyberpunk 2077 has seen a huge resurgence as of late, thanks largely to the success of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, Netflix’s new and critically acclaimed anime adaptation of the sci-fi property. According to the global PR director at CD Projekt Red on Twitter, viewers watched 14,880,000 hours of the show in just the first week, putting it safely in Netflix’s top 10.

This has been a great boon for the game, which launched in a poor, unfinished state at the end of 2020, and has been getting gradual updates ever since to make it playable, improve on features like skill trees, and add new ones like wardrobe transmogrification. While it sold well at the start of its life cycle, there hasn’t been a spike in the number of players since then. At the time of this writing, however, Cyberpunk 2077 is the eighth most played game on Steam, according to SteamDB, and has nearly 100,000 concurrent players, although it peaked at 1 million players.

It’s easy to feel happy for the developers who worked on the project, and to see them being able to celebrate the recent success. “It’s hard to express when you’re putting so much heart and soul into something, and for some of us, it’s been six, seven, eight years sometimes, especially for those who started at the våery beginning,” quest director Pawel Sasko said in a recent stream (via Gamesradar).

It’s also easy to forget that Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the worst video game launches in recent memory.

What went wrong with Cyberpunk 2077

I played Cyberpunk 2077 at launch on my PS5 with a review code provided by CD Projekt Red, getting through the majority of the story campaign and many of the side quests in the first couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I experienced many crashes — five in one hour at its height — and a lot of bugs. Some cut down on the framerate, making some encounters impossible, and caused me to lose progress. And I was one of the lucky ones since I could play it on a PS5. People who went to play it on an Xbox One or PS4 found it to be mostly unplayable. It ran so poorly that Xbox and PlayStation offered unprecedented refunds (Sony also delisted the game for a time).

an unrendered character appears in cyberpunk 2077.

The game felt unfinished. Reloading the game often reset your progress, scripting issues kept quests from triggering, and enemies could spot the player through barriers like walls. T-posing characters were common and weapons would float in midair. Visually, assets and textures would fail to load in or would pop in and out. Past-gen console players reported character models without faces or nearly empty city areas. I ran into a bug where even when my health reached zero, I was still alive, making me virtually immortal.

Despite official apologies and the company doubling down on major fixes, the controversies continued. CD Projekt Red was soon at the center of a few class action lawsuits from shareholders that claimed the company misled investors. While Cyberpunk 2077 sold nearly 13 million copies within the first 10 days, the studio’s stock tanked once it became apparent the game needed much more work.

Beyond the game itself, reports surfaced that the studio was implementing mandated crunch despite multiple promises to the contrary. Bloomberg spoke with Cyberpunk 2077 developers and found that performance concerns went ignored by executives, mismanagement was rampant, and the hour-long 2018 E3 demo was “almost entirely fake.” While many of the issues and delays were due to the COVID-19 pandemic, developers said there was a lot of pressure to get the game out in time for the Xbox Series X/S and PS5 releases.

cyberpunk 2077 prompt
GOG.com

While the parties in those class action lawsuits settled, you can also find statements from CD Projekt Red president Adam Kiciński about the supposed performance on the Xbox One and PS4 “pro” versions that feel misleading.

“Of course, a bit lower than on Pros, but surprisingly good, I would say for such a huge world. So, a bit lower, but very good,” he said during an investor call a month ahead of launch (via Forbes).

The gaming press never got a chance to flag those issues. The PlayStation review copy I received was sent a day before the embargo lifted. PC review copies went out earlier, so mainly positive PC reviews got published come embargo time. It was impossible to get console impressions up promptly, leading many to speculate that CD Projekt Red had tried to actively hide the state of the game’s last-gen version ahead of launch. The developer eventually owned up to that accusation in an apology.

There was a lot of room for improvement on the development side, and since 2020, the team has worked hard to get the game up and running in what should’ve been its launch state. I don’t think I’ll ever pick up Cyberpunk 2077 again, but from what I’ve seen, the game works now. The team had to delay the next-gen releases and updates to get it there, but they did. Now thanks to Cyberpunk: Edgerunners’s success, the game seems primed for a critical reevaluation, right?

Have we seen this before?

The video game industry has a short memory, and titles that have questionable launches often find success regardless. Final Fantasy XIV is an immensely popular MMORPG in 2022, but when it launched in 2010, it was almost universally panned. Blizard’s Diablo III launched in 2012 with server issues and a controversial in-game auction house that utilized real-world money, but with consistent support and several updates, it gained back a lot of goodwill.

Cyberpunk 2077‘s newfound success has already been compared to another recent gaming comeback story: No Man’s Sky. Like Cyberpunk 2077, No Man’s Sky’s marketing touted it as a procedurally-generated dream with nearly endless areas for exploration. Hello Games founder Sean Murray told IGN back in 2014 that it would take a player five billion years to explore it all. It seemed too good to be true, and in some ways, it was. When the game launched in 2016, it was marred by bugs, mostly barren planets, and lackluster visuals. Sound familiar?

an alien world found in no man's sky

While it was able to build a dedicated community even in those early days, the online backlash was unavoidable. Many said the game didn’t deliver on Murray’s promises, which were hyped up in some heavy marketing. Early trailers didn’t seem to match the finished product either, which led players to wonder if Hello Games had made false promises to drum up anticipation and sales. Regardless of the truth, it led to a harassment campaign involving death threats.

In a 2018 interview, Murray blamed the messy launch on failing to manage expectations and a lack of communication. The studio has spent the last few years working on the game, with six major updates that added robust base building, new game modes, multiplayer elements, and of course, fixed many of the issues players had at launch.

While there are a lot of similarities between Cyberpunk 2077 and No Man’s Sky’s launches, they differ in many ways. Hello Games was an indie studio of around 15 people at its peak, and its failure in the leadup to No Man’s Sky’s release can be chalked up to a lack of experience, at least according to Murray. Cyberpunk 2077, on the other hand, came from a veteran studio that was no stranger to major open-world releases. There were no reports of crunch coming out of Hello Games, while many developers spoke to Bloomberg about poor working conditions in the leadup to Cyberpunk 2077’s launch, with one saying they put in 13-hour days.

Cyberpunk 2077 was first announced in 2012, and many developers spent eight years on the project. That’s a long time, even for a AAA title, but developers told Bloomberg they expected the game to be ready by 2022, not by April 2020 when it was first slated to release before getting delayed to December. They had to scale back on many features to get it ready, and despite all of that, it launched in a broken state.

Reports concerning crunch, mismanagement, unobtainable deadlines, and misleading statements in the press and to investors show this is more than just a regular video game redemption story. No Man’s Sky at least worked at release. Cyberpunk 2077 didn’t.

We can’t forget

It’s great to see Cyberpunk 2077’s developers getting to celebrate their hard work, but it subtly reminds us that the game has a dark history. These are people who have spent years fixing and expanding upon a disastrous launch, and that’s an important point to remember. As Sasko continued in that stream, “it’s good to be back, you know. It’s fucking good to be back, honestly. That was really so … it was really sort of heartbreaking.”

Unfortunately, it took nearly two years to fix a broken game. Not only that, but CD Projekt Red bungled the development and allegedly misled investors about the game’s performance. It’s still unprecedented that two major platforms would offer refunds for a major release, with one delisting it for around six months.

Cyberpunk 2077 has sold well, but it had a disastrous launch. If we erase that history, companies could feel emboldened to release incomplete games made under horrible conditions. Why bother creating a great product when it’s never too late for redemption?

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