WTF Happened with Cyberpunk 2077?!

by Brandon Pham
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Let’s catch up with what went wrong and what could be set right with this game.

CD Projekt Red has come off of a hot streak with the Witcher series and for eight years gamers world-wide were looking forward to the release of Cyberpunk 2077. An original title that promises to usher in the new generation of consoles by revolutionizing everything.  Cyberpunk 2077 is set to continue RPG elements that the developer is known for, in an expansive open-world but it will be in a dystopian sci-fi infused future. And then within a week of release, everything went to shit.

It all started with Jason Shreier, the resident game developer ball buster, when he shared how CD Projekt Red reached out to him, to announce how Cyberpunk 2077 would be avoiding crunching in 2019, and then exactly a year later in 2020, a company-wide email was sent out to staff to basically say “Nevermind.” 

First of all, hilarious. Second, don’t tattle-tell yourself to the number one dude who makes a career out of ousting companies for doing bad shit to their employees. The fact that CD Projekt Red reached out to him personally, showed that they know he is the GUY that exposes companies for this type of stuff and RUINS their reputation. It’s like people starting their sentences with “I don’t want to be racist but…” and proceeds to say something super racist. Who knows how things could have played out differently, and CD Projekt Red bad crunch culture could have just slid under the radar. Instead, they got THE Jason Shreir on their ass now because you bothered him about you being a normal company by not wanting to abuse the people that work for you with unpaid overtime. People don’t get a pat on their back for not punching people out in the streets, so why should you? Meanwhile, Jason Shreir can’t WAIT to see you mess up, because now he has his story.   

So of course, the team at Cyberpunk reinstated mandatory crunch. In fact, they have been crunching 100 plus hour weeks for several months! And this was only the beginning of all the bad press that ensued.

Investors, analysts, and gamers listening in on a recent company call, CD Projekt RED co-CEO Adam Kicinski pretty much shrugged off years of crunch reports.

“Regarding crunch; actually, it’s not that bad – and never was. Of course it’s a story that has been picked up by the media, and some people have been crunching heavily,” Kicinski told people who have monetary stake in the company, contrary to multiple reports of intense overwork and uncertain timelines.

“But a large part of the team is not crunching at all since they have finished their work; it’s mostly about Q&A and engineers, programmers – but it’s not that heavy; of course, it will be extended a bit, but we have feedback from the team; they’re happy about the extra three weeks, so we don’t see any threats regarding crunch.”

Shortly after the comments were made–and after the story got picked up by mainstream media–, Kicinski apologized in a private email to all CD Projekt developers.

“From the bottom of my heart, I would like to apologize to everyone for what I said during Tuesday’s investor conference call. I had not wanted to comment on crunch, yet I still did, and I did it in a demeaning and harmful way. Truth be told, It’s only now, when the stress connected with the delay decision and the call itself is lifted, that I’m fully realizing the true extent of my words.

“I have nothing to say in my defense. What I said was not even unfortunate, it was utterly bad. For that, please accept my most sincere and honest apologies.

“I always was, and am still, proud of the heart and soul you put into what you do every day.”

Cyberpunk 2077 has been delayed three times, and the company has spent $121 million so far on the game’s development and has created expansive next-gen technologies including a powerful scalable game engine, new AI advancements, and a mo-cap studio. This is the biggest game CD Projekt RED has ever done so it carries the biggest crunch time along with it.

But you know what? After all that drama, Cyberpunk 2077 finally releases. Early reviews were in and for a moment everyone seemed to agree the wait and suffering was really living up to its hype. Across all marks, this heightened the excitement even further and gamers world-wide couldn’t wait to get their hands on this game. 

Even the studio executives at Projekt Red were brimming with passion. Within the first days of release they announced eight million pre-orders were sold and Cyberpunk 2077 has already recouped its development costs in a memo issued that first Friday by CD Projekt. The company was making bank! And you know why I know, because they didn’t mind sharing the bread crumbs to employees and executives by announcing that bonuses will no longer be tied to Metacritic. A ridiculous near-perfect score that very few games actually achieves. But it’s okay, they are on a money high and don’t mind ‘bending the rules’ a bit and am in the Christmas spirit or something. 

“We initially had a bonus system that was focused on the game’s ratings and the release date, but after consideration, we believe that measure is simply not fair under the circumstances.  We underestimated the lengths and complexity involved to make this a reality, and still you did everything you could to deliver an ambitious, special game.”

In all fairness, executives didn’t have to budge on this but they did. Which is at least, the one decent thing they’ve done for the past year of mandatory crunching. But like all honeymoon phases, this feeling of just conquering the world came down crashing down pretty quickly. But let’s let them savor the moment just a bit longer… 

Okay, that’s enough. Here comes the shitstorm. Upon, dismantling the tied-in bonuses to the Metacritic score, some questionable practices were starting to unravel itself. The bonus system at CD Projekt was being exposed as being very patronizing. Team leaders would hand out red bird tokens to employees who they felt were deserving of praise and honors. These tokens would be redeemable in the form of actual pay bonuses if the game met the previously set Metacritic score goal. These performance bonuses are set to occur on top of existing contractual profit-sharing payouts. Even with the benefit of a doubt that this was meant to be fair and logical, practices like these only promote competition with people on the same team and what’s worse is the reward wasn’t even guaranteed. It was based on a variable outside of an employee’s control, so the whole system was rigged from the start. Aside from that, gamers were starting to find bugs. Like, lots of lots of bugs on last generation consoles such as the Playstation 4 and Xbox One systems. 

Now triple-A games nowadays, are used to day one bugs and patches, however, these bugs were so bad, that it was deemed unplayable. Actually, it was so bad that Playstation didn’t even want the game on their store anymore and consoles were giving back refunds for digital copies. The community was getting pissed and felt like they were lied to. Because… they were. On a investor call, CDPR co-founder Marcin Iwinski says, 

“We’ve actually shown console footage, but never on the last-gen consoles. The reason is that we were updating the game on last-gen consoles until the very last minute, and we thought we’d make it in time.” 

Instead of working from the bottom up, CDPR worked on the newest console versions as top priorities. As we all know in game development, that is ass-backwards and it’s harder to down-res a game, then to build responsibly on a low-spec machine first. It’s always a questionable business tactic, since the Playstation 4 and Xbox One have the hugest installed fan-base. Usually, triple-A games that are made in transitional console generation years avoid this mess simply by going for the big pie first on last gen consoles and throwing a bone for the niche market. Instead CDPR did the exact opposite. This is a huge neglect that CDPR is quickly answering for in the worst way possible. 

As all this horrible-ness is unfolding, the game still manages to cross another impressive milestone and hit thirteen million units sold across all platforms. But even that celebration was cut short, as CD Projekt Red stocks took a 30% nose dive with the mounting news of bad press.

Not only that, internal meetings were happening and according to Jason Schreier at Bloomberg, one staff member asked management why it said that Cyberpunk 2077 was complete in January when, according to that employee, it wasn’t. Another developer suggested that it was hypocritical to develop a game about corporate exploitation with the help of mandatory overtime. Damn, I missed these awkward team meetings when shit hits the fan. Furthermore, when asked about crunch, the studio directors “said they had plans to improve production practices in the future but didn’t elaborate,” writes Schreier.

So it’s clear that everyone is a little mad, but executives are made to spin this type of thing all the time. But the only ones that can really make them pay attention, are the ones that pays them. The investors! And a simple zoom meeting wouldn’t settle this. Nope, THIS can only be settled in court and it sure looks like it’s heading that way. A class action suit has been filed and investors are banding together to sue CD Projekt over bungled Cyberpunk 2077 launch.

“The plaintiffs call for the court to adjudicate whether the actions undertaken by the company and members of its management board in connection with the release of Cyberpunk 2077 constituted a violation of federal laws, i.e. by misleading investors and consequently causing them to incur losses.” CDPR said in a filing late on Friday, vowing to defend itself “vigorously against any such claims.”

So what does this all mean?! The community is pissed, the internal team that isn’t management is pissed, and the people who are funding the studio is pissed. At this point, if I were them I would consult with the ghost of No Man’s Sky to give some friendly advice on how to turn this ship around. Because if there is ever a better story then a fall of a champion, it’s the redemption kind. But I’m afraid that the greed here and total lack of human decency to the people that got these executives to where they are is starting to be out of reach. I believe CD Projekt Red has  for now tarnished their reputation of being a developer darling that took years to build, by the way, and destroyed it all in a matter of weeks. But there’s always a chance, as long as they make the game to what they promised and keep patching away. As always, I wish for the best for all the hard-working developers. As you can imagine, nothing hurts more than seeing something you poured your sweat and soul for almost a decade but then see it rip apart within days. Especially, when developers knew deadlines were unrealistic in the first place but these concerns were largely ignored. Maybe games before, could get away with this and get lucky. But one thing is clear, this generation of games are getting bigger, more expensive, and bigger. Which also means stakes are higher, and mistakes like this one may not necessarily sink a studio, but the company will have to work ten times harder to earn the consumer’s trust back.

 

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