I’m over 10 hours into my first playthrough of Cyberpunk 2077, and I can already tell you the game has failed. Not because I don’t enjoy the game, I actually do, albeit sometimes despite it trying its best to spoil my fun. It’s not because the game didn’t sell well — hell, it’s the fastest-selling PC game of all-time. It’s not because the game didn’t get good reviews — reviewers gave it stellar scores despite marking it to be a buggy experience. Even user scores, notably volatile and often subject to review-bombing, are relatively ok, given the boatload of bugs we’ve seen over the past few days.
No, Cyberpunk is a failure, because, despite all that, it feels like a disappointment. Not just because of the bugs and glitches, the annoying frame drops, the constant immersion-breaking T-Poses, but because it was marketed as a game-changer in video games. A totally new experience. Instead, it’s Grand Deus Ex Witcher, wrapped in a Todd Howardesque Quality Assurance process.
This feeling is definitely supported by the ever-finicky stock market, which saw CD Projekt Red stocks plummet 29% after the game’s release. It didn't take an economics degree to know that the bubble was going to burst, however, many investors who don’t quite understand the gaming space were left fuming as their golden goose turned out to be laying regular eggs. That’s why, despite immensely positive reviews, despite record-breaking sales, CD Projekt RED is on the defensive.
Dreaming of Electric Sheep
Because the real failure of Cyberpunk 2077, as it will probably unfold over the next few weeks isn’t going to be sales-related, and isn’t going to be tied as strictly as we would think to the stock market.
The biggest failure of Cyberpunk is the destruction of CD Projekt Red’s carefully constructed image of being pro-consumer, anti-monetization gaming auteurs. “(…) No hidden catch, you get what you pay for — no bullshit (…) We leave greed to others.” they said in a tweet from 2017, and the Twitter crowd paraded them as kings of the gaming world.
Of course, that image couldn’t exist without The Witcher 3 and its DLCs, the game that lifted CD Projekt to the summit of gaming’s Mt. Olympus. Above EA, Ubisoft and Activision-Blizzard and their factory-line creations. Above Bethesda and their deteriorating, bug-ridden mess of an engine. Hell, for some, even above Rockstar and Valve, two companies that actually espoused gaming perfection for years, hated for the way they monetized their latest entries. They were a league of their own. The gamer’s game developer.
That image was never going to last. Not with the constant controversies surrounding crunch in their studios. Not with the constantly shifting release date. Not with them being a publicly-traded company, hyped up beyond belief. They were always going to lose that status. Eventually, they’d have to do something that would knock them off that pedestal. The problem is, that for them, that pedestal was everything.
A reality check became inevitable virtually the moment the tweet was sent.
Out of the top AAA gaming companies, every single one has something that lets it create its biggest hits. The critically acclaimed Jedi Fallen Order wouldn’t exist without the bundles of easy money being thrown at EA with every FIFA cycle. Ubisoft has found the perfect formula for making formulaic games fun, engaging, and it would seem, rather easy to make. Rockstar can afford to make story-driven epics like Red Dead Redemption 2 because they’ve created a perfect money-making machine to hold the fort for them in GTA Online. Valve can spend years on creating the template for how VR gaming should look and feel in Half-Life: Alyx, because they’re all owned by Gabe Newell, who’s definitely getting enough money from Steam monopolizing the digital storefront side of things.
Whether it was on purpose or not, CD Projekt Red became positioned against these giants in the last few years, with valuations comparable to Ubisoft. Of course, CDPR’s higher-ups weren’t blind to the fact that their revenue stream was extremely limited when stacked up against their competition. The company tried and tried to diversify. They challenged Steam with GOG.com, a digital storefront that espoused their pro-consumer attitude with DRM-free games, oftentimes rare and remastered classics. However, with competition from Steam, Epic Games and Microsoft’s Game Pass, GOG seems to be having trouble making the big break CD Projekt was hoping for.
Similarly, Witcher 3 spin-off GWENT was a valiant attempt to profit off of the popularity of Hearthstone, by creating a competing card-game tied to their precious IP that would be able to drive profits during the lull between big releases. GWENT definitely earned its keep, but it could never compete with the more casual-friendly offering from Activision-Blizzard.
Thus, for anyone actually observing what was going on in the gaming world, CD Projekt’s insane valuations clearly became a curse for the company.
Wake Up, Samurai
In an ironic twist, Cyberpunk 2077 turned out to be just like any other venture in Night City, doomed to be defeated by the forces of corporate capitalism, despite its insanely high potential. It’s especially sad considering that you can see all the heart and soul the CDPR team poured into the game at almost every step of the way. It’s just too bad that they never got the time they deserved to polish it.
If they weren’t a publicly-traded company, perhaps the pressure to perform would be low enough to release the game when it was actually done. If The Witcher 3 had a monetization model, perhaps that would’ve made an immediate release less of a concern. Maybe, if GOG managed to compete with Steam in a relevant manner…
There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes here, but the truth is that CD Projekt absolutely overplayed their hand with Cyberpunk, and now, millions of people have called their bluff. While the money will stay with the company, who knows how much the hit they’ve taken to their reputation will cost them in the future. A blunder of this magnitude might go way further than just the User Score on CP 2077’s Metacritic page.
CD Projekt will definitely survive this debacle, however, one has to wonder whether they’ll ever be able to make a game as acclaimed as The Witcher after this. Will people buy Cyberpunk DLCs when they come out? Will they keep trying to build an image of philosophical superiority?
Hopefully, the answers to those questions aren’t as rushed as the game’s release was.