Cyberpunk 2077 is a Cautionary Tale for Product Managers
CD Projekt Red‘s botched Cyberpunk 2077 release exposes a litany of avoidable failures
There have been few games as hotly anticipated as Cyberpunk 2077. Fewer still that had so many issues post-launch. CD Projekt Red (CDPR) is a household name for gamers. It’s a name with a high pedigree. Within the past five years, the studio has grown from a niche company to an RPG titan. Truly, an underdog who shows the big boys how it's done.
CD Projekt Red’s growth is astounding. With only a handful of releases to their name, CDPR has accumulated enough market value to be the second most valuable game studio in Europe, behind only Ubisoft. For revenue comparison, Ubisoft made $2.13 billion in 2019, while CDPR made half a million.
Apart from the recently released Cyberpunk 2077, every other game CD Projekt Red has developed is set in the world of The Witcher. Only one of those games, 2015’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, was distributed across major platforms. Coupling this with their incredible shop, GOG (Good Old Games), which touts its user-friendliness and DRM-free downloading, and it's no wonder CDPR is so respected by gamers.
Because of this, CDPR has a public perception of being norm-breaking. Going their own way. Tackling themes and conducting business in ways other studios can’t or won’t. They are rebels. They are transparent, honest, and give more value per dollar than other studios.
It’s hard to equate that reputation with the state of Cyberpunk 2077.
Anyone who played the game or saw videos over the past few weeks must be asking, what happened to Cyberpunk 2077? It should have been the game of 2020, if not the entire last generation. It should be dominating conversations about immersive storytelling and compelling consumers to upgrade to next-gen consoles. With the star power of Keanu Reeves, it should have been a cultural explosion into the mainstream. A testament to gaming’s potential.
You can become anyone, anything.
How does a game go from breaking preorder records to getting removed from the PlayStation Store? How is it that development and marketing costs are already covered yet company stock value plummeted by more than $1.8 million? Why are shareholders filing class-action lawsuits, with more on the way?
It all comes down to poor leadership and unrealistic deadlines.
Poor leadership decides to hide gameplay of last-gen consoles while saying it runs “surprisingly good.” Poor leadership decides to limit review copies exclusively to PC. Poor leadership decides that reviewers, such as YouTuber YongYea, could not use their own capture until the day before Cyberpunk 2077 launched.
Because CD Projekt Red’s leadership knew the game did not work on base consoles, and they knew long before the initial April release. The deadlines CDPR’s developers were given? Entirely unrealistic. Yet, concerns from staff were disregarded by leadership. Those delays weren’t just for optimization, they were an attempt to save face.
The actions of CDPR’s leadership highlight the differences between talk and action. Post-launch fixes mean little when the game you release is barely playable. When Sony removes your hotly anticipated game from their online store, you know you messed up.
Feature creep and broken promises
The developers of the game clearly love the world of Cyberpunk 2077. The beauty of its dystopian streets, skyline, and the entire atmosphere. When it works, it's beautiful. It clearly shows how dedicated the developers were to make the game as immersive as possible. But as CD Projekt Red’s leadership kept stacking new additions to the game, developers found it increasingly difficult to meet the lofty deadlines.
In retrospect, CDPR’s broken promise to avoid crunch should have been a dead giveaway.
Crunch is misunderstood by the majority of gamers. It's something that, while being reported on for years, still hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Often, reports of development crunch get dismissed as a necessary, even integral, part of the gaming industry. It becomes expected, with gamers even playing defense for studios. CDPR is no different.
The issue of crunch, in relation to Cyberpunk 2077, goes back to leadership. When they made the decision to publicly commit to avoiding crunch in the game’s production cycle, it wasn’t just an offhand comment. The decision would have been a top item at board meetings. A company with CDPR’s reputation doesn’t take that sort of thing lightly. They knew what they were doing.
I don’t think leadership went back on their word by choice, but in choosing to break that promise they revealed their priorities. Developers deserve better than being pushed by poor decision-making.
In a way, CD Projekt Red’s leadership is simply following a cycle by joining a club no one wants to be in. Who would want to be compared to Bioware’s Anthem, a game so undercooked that revelations of developer crunch and overpromising tarnished the legendary studio’s name?
Or, Bethesda, whose blatant lying of Fallout 76’s performance draws eerie comparisons to how CDPR chose to hide console gameplay for Cyberpunk 2077?
Don’t forget HelloGames, whose entire lead-up to No Man’s Sky was overpromising a game that players wouldn’t fully experience until three years after its initial launch.
These are just three examples from the past five years.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t an issue of the developers not working hard enough. They are not the problem. It’s entirely on CD Projekt Red’s leadership for mismanaging their development cycle and manipulating the conversation prior to Cyberpunk 2077’s release.
It behooves us to remember that CDPR and its parent company, for all its reputation and intents, is still a for-profit business. As talented as the developers are and as innovative as the company is, CDPR is not a savior. Its leadership and management are not focused on user-friendliness in as much as they are accruing profit for shareholders. That’s not to say they don’t care about their consumers, but the troubled release of Cyberpunk 2077 should be a cautionary tale. Rose-tinted glasses don’t change company business.
CD Projekt Red’s leadership didn’t want this to happen. I suspect they allowed Cyberpunk 2077 in the state it’s in now simply out of fear they would face severe public backlash had they delayed the game into 2021. They didn’t want to anger their community or shareholder any more after the prior three delays. CDPR probably assumed there would be some minor fires to be put out after release but would keep face.
Like most mistakes, hindsight is 20/20, and you spend more time fixing the issue afterward than if you had addressed the issue in the first place. That’s where CDPR stands right now. Trying to put out a maelstrom of its own creation.
It’s my hope that CDPR will fulfill its commitment to fixing the game. Given their history, I believe they will, but they really don’t have a choice. They need to recover from this. It just means we won’t expect to play the version of Cyberpunk 2077 we were promised until February 2021, if that.
Cyberpunk 2077’s release highlights how prevalent overpromised experiences are within the gaming industry. CD Projekt Red’s leadership failures show no matter how highly respected the company, it's not above breaking its own principles. Over and over gamers are asked to spend top dollar for subpar versions of what they are marketed.
Because the reality of modern gaming is paying $60 ($70 for next-gen) to be beta-testers. We preorder games we want to play on Day 1 because we want to support the studios and games we adore. Gamers want the success of their favorite studios like CDPR, they want the success of their games like Cyberpunk 2077, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of gamer’s wallets or trust.
What do you think? Did Cyberpunk 2077’s release state change your perception of CD Projekt Red? Does it change how you will purchase games in the future? What else can be done in the games industry to change these behaviors?