The troubled launch of Cyberpunk 2077 came as an unwelcome surprise to millions of fans who have been waiting for this futuristic RPG since it was announced way back in 2012. 8 years of hype culminated in a massive controversy - but a new report indicates that CD Projekt Red knew this was coming.
Jason Schreier is well known in the video game journalism industry as someone who digs up the uglier details companies don't want you to see, while championing fair working conditions for developers. Formerly at Kotaku, he now writes for Bloomberg, but this latest exposé shedding light on why Cyberpunk 2077 launched in this buggy state show that the switch didn't dull his edge.
The report compiles information provided by several current and former employees of CD Projekt Red. Most chose to remain unnamed to protect their careers, but Adrian Jakubiak, a former audio programmer for CD Projekt, lent his name to his statements too.
As it turns out, things were pretty haphazard behind the scenes, with the expectations of executives being completely divorced from reality and the state of the game. According to the statements from developers, many fundamental design decisions were made way too late.
I knew it wasn't going to go well. I just didn't know how disastrous it would be.
- Adrian Jakubiak
It all begins with when the game actually entered real development. While Cyberpunk 2077 was announced for the first time in 2012, work on the game as we know it today began in 2016. This was when Studio head Adam Badowski took over as director and basically threw all work done up until then into the trash.
This was when decisions like turning the game into a first-person affair were made, and reportedly the sharp changes in the direction the game took led to several veteran developers who spearheaded The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt leaving the company.
In many ways Cyberpunk 2077 was completely new ground for the development team, and they were simultaneously grappling with being under staffed and over staffed. While it was still an RPG, this was the first time the company dealt with a first-person, primarily urban, science fiction setting that focuses on guns instead of swords and magic.
The main issue according to some developers was that the underlying technology to make it all work, including the game engine, were being built from scratch at the same time as the game itself. One developer who spoke to Bloomberg likened it to driving a train while the tracks are being laid under it.
One of the most surprising elements of the exposé deal with the E3 2018 demo, which featured a great deal of gameplay. The final game looks almost nothing like that particular demo, and this didn't just come down to changed made during the development process - according to developers, the entire demo was fake.
At the time, the game was in no presentable shape, and teams "wasted" months working on a demo that served nothing other than publicity purposes. This lines up with statements from several past and present employees blaming management for placing undue importance on marketing at the expense of the actual game development tasks in the pipeline.
According to Jakubiak, the concerns of the developers were dismissed by executives who justified it by citing the previous success of The Witcher 3. When the time came to announce a release date at E3 2019, the company revealed that Cyberpunk 2077 will launch on April 16, 2020. Thing is, the developers learned of this at the same time as the rest of us - and didn't believe it.
At the time of E3 2019, the development was at a stage where a 2022 release seemed realistic at the earliest. Some of the employees thought the announcement was a joke, and reported some even created memes about inevitable delays.
Despite promises early on made by co-founder Marcin Iwiński - who recently appeared in an official apology video - that there will be no mandatory crunches during the development of Cyberpunk 2077, the measure was indeed introduced later on. Eventually mandatory six-day work weeks were implemented.
There were times when I would crunch up to 13 hours a day — a little bit over that was my record probably — and I would do five days a week working like that. I have some friends who lost their families because of these sort of shenanigans.
- Adrian Jakubiak. Jakubiak also mentioned that he quit the company after getting married
The staffing issue was a key hurdle. On the one hand, the development team grew from the 240 members who worked on The Witcher 3 to over 500, with the company infrastructure failing to catch up. Communication was a constant struggle, especially with language barriers thrown in.
On the other hand, the team felt understaffed just as often. Many other AAA publishers have multiple studios working on games, coming in at over 1000 professionals involved in the project. CD Projekt Red didn't have the means to realize its bold ambition.
In his apology video, Iwiński mentions the technical difficulties of developing for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 - these platforms are by far the hardest hit by performance issues and bugs, with Sony having removed Cyberpunk 2077 from the PlayStation Store outright.
Developers reveal that the initial plan was to release the game before Sony and Microsoft even announce the next generation consoles, then go for a second round of releases for them later on with free upgrades for previous owners. In the end, the delays pushed the game's launch after the launch of the consoles themselves.
While things were already troubled, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, basically all hope evaporated. Developers working from home didn't have access to devkits, making optimization for consoles even harder, and communication became even more challenging. Things slowed down immensely, and developers didn't have time to fix these bugs - even though they reportedly did know about them, countering statements made in the official apology video.
The controversy the problematic state of the game kicked up has since resulted in a class-action lawsuit filed by an investor, as well as a major drop in shares for CD Projekt Red. What should have been a triumphant launch turned into a disaster, and now the developers have to focus on salvaging what they can instead of celebrating.
That said, they have a good chance of doing so. The game on PC has received praise, and isn't in particularly bad shape. Other games throughout the history of the franchise have had troubled releases, only to come back with a fury and become beloved successes. This can yet become a redemption story.