The hype surrounding Cyberpunk 2077 had been intensifying for almost a decade.
When CD Projekt Red, the Polish studio behind the video game, announced the title in 2012, it was billed as a gripping, free-flowing saga that would immerse players in a lifelike science fiction universe. Since then, fans have been treated to formidable teaser trailers bought by celebrities like Keanu Reeves, Grimes, and ASAP Rocky, and headlines heralding it as the most anticipated title of the year, if not of the century.
The game is set in a dystopian future where digital nomads navigate a world of high-stakes corporate espionage (with Mr. Reeves as a guide) and equip their bodies with high-tech weapons. Gamers, especially those using next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft, have been promised a revolutionary experience, with extensive character customization options and a wide world to explore. Eight million people pre-ordered unseen copies before their December release.
In July 2018, when the anticipation for the game was nearing a crescendo on Twitter, a user tweeted on the official Cyberpunk 2077 account, "Will there be memes in the game?" The account replied, "The whole game will be a meme."
The tweet was a bit forward-looking – but not what the developers had hoped it would be.
Since Cyberpunk 2077's December 10th release, thousands of gamers have created viral videos with a variety of glitches and bugs – many hilarious – that affect the game. These include tiny trees covering the floor of buildings, tanks falling from the sky, and characters inexplicably standing up without pants while riding a motorcycle.
These videos show a game that is practically unplayable: full of bugs, populated by characters running on poorly functioning artificial intelligence, and largely incompatible with the older game consoles that are supposed to support it. Fans are angry.
So many gamers were demanding refunds from dealers this week that they overwhelmed Sony's customer service reps and even temporarily shut down one of their corporate websites. In response, Sony and Microsoft said they would offer full refunds to anyone who bought Cyberpunk 2077 through their online stores. Sony even pulled the title.
Cyberpunk's rollout is one of the most visible disasters in video game history – a high-profile flameout in the middle of the holiday season by a studio widely considered an industry darling. It shows the pitfalls that game studios face in building so-called triple-A games, titles that are based on years of development, and hundreds of millions of dollars.
But it's also a story that insiders said they saw coming for months, based on CD Projekt Red's game development history and warning signs that Cyberpunk 2077 may not live up to sky-high expectations.
The view from Warsaw
CD Projekt Red was founded in Warsaw in the 1990s by two high school friends, Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński, at a time of change and growth in the gaming industry. (CD-ROMs were a novel innovation at the time.) The two began importing games from the United States and essentially repackaging and releasing them in Poland.
"When school was out, we were both truant and skipped classes to play games," Iwiński said in an oral story from the studio.
Early employees speaking to the New York Times described the company's executives as skilled marketers, storytellers, and artistic visionaries. They said their enthusiasm for their games often preceded their technical and technical proficiency. The staff spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The company's ambitions were astronomical early on, as were some of its failures. In the early hours of the morning, CD Projekt Red made a piece to develop The Witcher, a popular book series by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, into an immersive video game franchise.
But the first Witcher game, released in 2007, was buggy and packed with more features than it could support. Former employees who worked on the game said it would take three to five minutes to load basic screens.
Employees said that much of the game development was often done in-house, which was contrary to the industry practice of outsourcing such tasks to other, more experienced studios. As a result, the developers created worse versions of features that other companies have perfected.
Even so, the Witcher series earned the studio an early following and fan base. The studio received the greatest recognition for The Witcher 3, which was recognized for its detailed universe and rich storytelling. As with previous titles, it was flawed from the start and frustrated players. But most fans accepted what they saw as a kind of test and release culture around CD Projekt Red games: the willingness to bring out projects that weren't without problems.
Smoke and mirrors in marketing
Then came Cyberpunk 2077. The title was first announced in 2012 and is loosely based on a tabletop role-playing game developed in 1988. It was CD Projekt Red's first attempt to create a new, futuristic world.
It was set to take place in Night City, a darkly dystopian mega-city where people and machines were merged and repackaged as mercenaries to carry out sabotage missions against evil corporations. The game would combine elements from some of the greatest sci-fi hits: Strange Days meets Blade Runner in conjunction with The Matrix.
To bring this point home, CD Projekt Red brought a familiar face into play: Keanu Reeves. At a development conference in 2019, the actor burst onto the stage in a cloud of smoke after a video revealed his character.
"Let me tell you, the feeling of being there, walking the streets of the future is going to be really breathtaking," Reeves said at the event. (A spokeswoman for Mr Reeves did not respond to a request for comment.)
In CD Projekt Red it was a completely different story. Developers were increasingly concerned about some of the big promises management had made on the advertising marketing tour. Well in the game's development, former staff said, the hyper-customizable and endlessly explorable world that was being sold to gamers was nowhere near manifest.
From 2019 onwards, there was talk in Polish game development circles that CD Projekt Red was far behind schedule with Cyberpunk 2077, even if a release date was set for the following April. Some saw the departure of top managers – including those on the key board – as important red flags.
On Glassdoor, a website where employees can rate their previous employers, current and former CD Projekt Red employees said there was chaos behind the scenes: Office rumors spread on Discord servers, misleading deadlines from managers, arguments among the company's top brass companies and incompetence and poor planning that leads to unnecessary “crisis,” a term used for overworked employees to produce games within a tight deadline. Longstanding engineers left the company due to overload.
"The owners treat the company as a machine to make money and see employees not as people but rather as data in the spreadsheet," one former employee wrote on the website.
Delay, delay, delay
This January, CD Projekt Red tweeted that the game's release was postponed until September 17th because "there is still a lot to do". Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic caused CD Projekt Red to send its workforce home.
Though the company said working remotely wouldn't hurt Cyberpunk's chances of getting a release in September, executives finally announced further delays. The game has been postponed to November 19th to "fix many bugs". It was the same story in October when the game's release date was postponed to December 10th, at the height of the holiday shopping season.
Within CD Projekt Red, the problems were evident as executives and communications staff prepared for a full release. While developers were making a working game for PC users, cyberpunk was flawed and often crashed on next-generation consoles like the PlayStation 5 and the new Xbox devices. Worse, the game barely ran on older consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Typically, game developers send copies of new titles to reviewers early with sufficient lead time. But CD Projekt Red kept Cyberpunk 2077 under wraps for as long as possible. The company only shared pre-release copies of the PC version with game publications and news organizations, and previewed the best possible version of cyberpunk to reviewers who would post their reviews online just days before the game was released.
For months, reviewers, including those from the New York Times, sought review copies of the new game consoles released by Sony and Microsoft this year. Stephanie Bayer, a spokeswoman for CD Projekt Red, said in previous email correspondence that the company would "hold back sending our console codes until just before launch so they could" safely send them. That never happened.
Early reviews mentioned some issues with bugs, but the impressions were mostly positive. The excitement continued to build until the game was released on Thursday, December 10th.
Avid fans were thrilled to finally play the game for the first time. Ashley Shoate, a D.J. in Northville, Michigan said she was amazed at the details on her PlayStation 5 and loved the ability to literally customize her character to the teeth.
Then the bugs came. Ms. Shoate said it was impossible for her character to complete basic tasks such as running, dodging, and picking up weapons. Driving a car was so challenging that she felt like she was “driving drunk”. On a mission, Ms. Shoate had to sneak up and kill an enemy with a katana sword.
"I bring a knife to a shootout, so I have to be on my Ps and Qs. I can't," she said. "It's almost not playable." For now, she has stopped the game.
"I really thought that on a new console it would ever reach the level of the top 3 games," she said. "It's very disappointing."
Billy Marte, an account executive at a software company in Austin, Texas, said he was considering the high expectations and commercials with Mr. Reeves. He played on his PC, loved the storyline and missions, but was often frustrated by glitches that left his character up while riding a motorcycle or forced him to return to a previously saved game. Some of his friends, he said, had decided to give cyberpunk back.
"There was so much there, but they just didn't pay attention to the details," he said. "It's obvious that this game was rushed."
"You get what you pay for"
Almost as soon as the game arrived, players began posting screenshots of the most noticeable glitches on social media. Entire subreddits are now devoted to the common, nonsensical mistakes users have seen traversing Night City.
A common mistake are characters who go in "T-Pose" – stand with arms raised on either side – and suddenly lose their pants. Reddit users described the phenomenon as "Straight Donald Duckin & # 39; it".
Other goofs are characters who seem to be thrown through buildings out of nowhere and cars that explode for no reason. The non-player characters or N.P.C.s behave so unnaturally that they can ruin the game experience.
A Reddit user posted a video of him throwing a grenade into the middle of a freeway at rush hour, only to kill every N.P.C. to see. Open the car doors, abandon the vehicles, and take cover at the same time as if you had been choreographed by a professional dance troupe. (Someone else quickly edited the video to mimic the opening scene of “La La Land,” in which drivers leave their vehicles to dance in the middle of the freeway.)
"I don't think I've ever seen a game that has so many gaffes, so often, so early in a release," said Chris Person, a video producer who runs Highlight Reel, a YouTube show that focuses on video game- Mishaps and breakdowns. "Broken games can be very charming when they're funny, like seeing the strings of a doll in a bad movie." Two of Mr. Person's recent shows have been devoted almost entirely to cyberpunk interference.
However, most of the players are quite unhappy. On Thursday, Sony announced it would refund players who wanted to return the game and pulled cyberpunk out of the company's digital store. A PlayStation spokesman said the company had nothing to add beyond its decision. Microsoft also said Friday that it would issue refunds but did not remove the game from its online store.
CD Projekt Red said Friday that it would "reimburse disappointed players out of our own pockets if necessary". The company's shares have fallen 41 percent since early December. Ms. Bayer, the company spokesperson, declined to comment on a detailed list of questions from the Times.
In the studio there was fighting and pointing. In a controversial meeting with board members on Thursday, CD Projekt Red staff urged executives on the game's unrealistic deadlines and false promises. Management was very excited about the tense talks with Sony, Bloomberg reported Friday, although Sony employees are upset with CD Projekt Red's initial handling of the situation, the company said.
The immediate future looks dark for cyberpunks makers – maybe even darker than the future they built in Night City. Refund requests come in by the thousands. Warsaw attorneys and investors are circling the situation, considering a class action lawsuit against the company for a potential criminal "misrepresentation for financial gain." Many gamers swear by playing Cyberpunk to the full until the company fixes all issues.
The coming weeks will determine if CD Projekt Red can deliver on a promise made in 2017 when players wondered if the title would ever come out. “Don't worry,” the company tweeted, assuring fans that Cyberpunk 2077 would be “huge” and “story driven”.
"No hidden catch, you get what you pay for."