The hype around Cyberpunk 2077 had been building for nearly 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 sci-fi universe.
Since then, fans have been treated to impressive teaser trailers; there has been buy-in from celebrities such as Keanu Reeves, Grimes and A$AP Rocky; and headlines have heralded it as the most anticipated title of the year, if not the century.
The game is set in a dystopian future in which digital nomads navigate a high-stakes world of corporate espionage (with Reeves as their guide) and augment their bodies with high-tech weaponry.
Players, especially those using next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft, were promised a revolutionary experience, with extensive character customisation options and an expansive world to explore. Eight million people pre-ordered copies, sight unseen, ahead of its release this month.
In July 2018, as anticipation for the game neared a crescendo across Twitter, one user tweeted on the official Cyberpunk 2077 account: “Will there be memes in the game?” The account responded: “Whole game is going to be a meme.” The tweet was somewhat prescient – but not in the way developers had hoped.
Since the release of Cyberpunk 2077 on Dec 10, thousands of gamers have created viral videos featuring a multitude of glitches and bugs – many hilarious – that mar the game. They include tiny trees covering the floors of buildings, tanks falling from the sky and characters standing up, inexplicably pantless, while riding motorcycles.
These videos depict a game that is virtually unplayable: rife with errors, populated by characters running on barely functional artificial intelligence, and largely incompatible with the older gaming consoles meant to support it. Fans are livid.
So many gamers demanded refunds from distributors last week that they overwhelmed Sony’s customer service representatives and even briefly took down one of its corporate sites.
In response, Sony and Microsoft said they would offer full refunds to anyone who purchased Cyberpunk 2077 through their online stores; Sony even pulled the title.
Cyberpunk’s roll-out is one of the most visible disasters in the history of video games – a high-profile flame-out in the midst of the holiday shopping season by a studio widely considered an industry darling. It shows the pitfalls gaming studios can face when building so-called triple-A games, titles backed by years of development and hundreds of millions of dollars.
But it is also a tale that insiders said they saw coming for months, based on CD Projekt Red’s history of game development and warning signs that the game might not live up to its sky-high expectations.
THE VIEW FROM WARSAW
CD Projekt Red was founded in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1990s, by high-school friends Marcin Iwinski and Michal Kicinski, during a time of growth in the gaming industry. The two began importing games from the United States and essentially repackaging and republishing them in Poland.
Early employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the company’s leaders as deft marketers, storytellers and artistic visionaries. Their enthusiasm for their games often ran ahead of their engineering and technical prowess, the employees said.
The company’s ambitions were astronomical early on, as were some of its failures.
In the early 2000s, CD Projekt Red made a play to develop The Witcher, a popular series of books by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, into an immersive video game franchise. But the first Witcher game, released in 2007, was buggy and stuffed 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 during game development, there was a general attitude of building more things themselves rather than licensing supporting software from other companies with greater expertise.
Still, the Witcher series gained the studio an early following and fan base. The studio received the most acclaim for The Witcher 3, which won awards for its detailed universe and rich storytelling.
Like earlier titles, it was buggy from the outset, frustrating players. But most fans accepted what they saw as CD Projekt Red’s willingness to put out projects that were not yet problem-free.
Then came Cyberpunk 2077. Announced in 2012 and based loosely on a tabletop role-playing game created in 1988, the title was CD Projekt Red’s first attempt at creating a new, futuristic world.
It was to be set in Night City, a darkly dystopian megacity where humans and machines were fused together and repackaged as mercenaries, carrying out sabotage missions against evil corporations. The game would combine elements from some of sci-fi’s greatest hits: Strange Days meets Blade Runner meshed with The Matrix.
To hammer that point home, CD Projekt Red cast a familiar famous face in the game: Reeves.
“Let me tell you, the feeling of being there, of walking the streets of the future, is really going to be breathtaking,” Reeves said at a development conference last year.
Inside CD Projekt Red, it was a very different story. Developers were concerned with some of the grand promises being made by management on the promotional marketing tour. Far into the game’s development, former employees said, the hyper-customisable and endlessly explorable world being sold to players was nowhere close to manifesting.
In January, CD Projekt Red tweeted that the game’s release had been delayed until Sept 17. Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic caused the studio to send its workforce home.
Though the company said remote work would not hurt Cyberpunk’s chances of a September release, executives eventually announced further delays. The date was pushed to Nov 19 to “fix a lot of bugs”. It was the same story in October, when the release was pushed to Dec 10.
While developers had created a functioning game for PC users, Cyberpunk was glitchy and crashed frequently on next-generation consoles like the PlayStation 5 and the new Xbox devices. Even worse, the game barely ran on older consoles like PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Mr Billy Marte, an account executive at a software company in Austin, Texas, said: “There was so much there, but they just didn’t pay attention to the details… It’s evident that this game was rushed.”
Last Thursday, Sony said it would refund players who wanted to return the game, and the company pulled Cyberpunk from its digital shopfront. The next day, Microsoft said it would issue refunds, but it did not remove the game from its online store. CD Projekt Red said that day that it would refund disappointed players “out of our own pocket if necessary”.
The coming weeks will determine whether CD Projekt Red can make good on a promise it made back in 2017, when players wondered whether the title would ever come out. “Worry not,” it tweeted, assuring fans that Cyberpunk 2077 would be “huge” and “story-driven”. “No hidden catch, you get what you pay for.”
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