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Sunday, May 19, 2024

How Cyberpunk 2077 Sold a Promise—and Rigged the System

You can’t squeeze a video game to check if it’s good like an apple at the supermarket. But if you could, it wouldn’t matter; game publishers would dunk it in enough shiny wax to disguise any imperfections. All the consumer sees is their hand reaching for it.

There is a chasm between what gamers thought Cyberpunk 2077 would be and the reality of it. Years of lavish marketing inflated an edgelord open-world game into a cutting-edge, infinite cityscape brimming with intrigue and desire and possibility. Although the game’s transphobic messaging and forced developer overtime put off potential fans, millions held their breath for what they believed would be among the most monumental digital experiences of all time.

It emphatically is not. Superficial worldbuilding, stupid AI, and countless bugs deflated expectations. And yet, Cyberpunk 2077 recouped its investment before the game released last week. Eager gamers titillated by the supposedly historic video game’s marketing helped make up the total development expenditure and promotional costs, all over a hundred million dollars, through over 8 million preorders. Many would be disappointed; they’d put a $60 stack of chips on a promise, not a product. But for publisher CD Projekt Red, the system was working as planned.

CD Projekt Red is a game developer, but it’s also an expectation machine. A steady flow of high-octane, 4K YouTube clips painted a Cyberpunk 2077 that could jack players into William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but with interactive sex workers and a penis-size toggle. Its setting, Night City, would encompass 65 square miles of psychedelic Tokyo noir. It would play like Grand Theft Auto for grown-ups with grown-up jobs and interests, while transporting them to a state of childlike wonder and awe. Very smart people believed it would be the best video game of all time and blocked out days off of work with the singular plan of playing the game. Anyway, Keanu Reeves would feature.

It became clear last Thursday that CD Projekt Red had launched an unsealed rocket into space. Bullets aimed at thighs struck rib cages. Nonplayable characters ragdolled around like reject mannequins. One player’s hardboiled protagonist stood t-posed inside a moving car, naked ass resting on the roof. Enlarged penises clipped through pants. PC players’ reviews on Steam described it as “not the game people thought it would be,” and “Janky … 8 years of hype to launch what looks like an Early Access game.” It was not the game of the future; playing it on PC made me so nauseous that I had to Google frame rate hotfixes.

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And that was just for Cyberpunk 2077’s PC incarnation. On the next-gen consoles, Cyberpunk 2077 works all right, but it’s a mess and a half on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Visuals blur. The frame rate stutters. NPC mouths are stiff as cave maws. Monday, CD Projekt Red issued a “Dear gamers” apology for “not showing you the game on base last-gen consoles before it premiered and, in consequence, not allowing you to make a more informed decision about your purchase.” It expects “the most prominent problems” for older consoles to be patched up sometime in February. In the meantime, you can get a refund.

Performance aside, the game, as a whole, is just OK. While some people do quite like it, Night City gets same-y. Combat is whatever. But that wasn’t the point. The point was the great dissonance between built-up expectations and reality, the feeling of broken trust.

CD Projekt Red is directly responsible for the size of that gap. Years ahead of launch, CD Projekt Red offered journalists curated previews that inspired breathless ledes like Metro’s “Cyberpunk 2077 may be the best video game ever made” in 2018. A year later, cinematic teasers and short, monitored gameplay sessions led some to suggest that Cyberpunk 2077 should be on top of gamers’ “most wanted” list. In June, CD Projekt Red had reviewers stream the game from a PC the company controlled. “It's a playground rife with opportunity,” wrote Eurogamer at the time. “It's a game about deciding who you want to be.”

In the meantime, the scaffolding was bending: Cyberpunk 2077 experienced three delays, including after January of this year, when CD Projekt Red described the game as “complete and playable,” and after it claimed the game had “gone gold,” or been completed, in October.

In November, CD Projekt Red sent nondisclosure agreements to journalists ahead of Cyberpunk 2077’s launch that forbade the inclusion of original gameplay footage in their reviews. They could share screenshots, but the only gameplay footage they could publish had to come from CD Projekt Red. Infringing obligations in the NDA could amount to around $27,000 per violation. (WIRED’s practice is not to sign NDAs from companies we cover.) In Cyberpunk 2077 the video game, the item database characterizes NDAs as “junk … a standard document that prohibits a lot and offers little in return.”

Reviewers also only received the PC version of the game, keeping the abysmal last-gen console play out of view. In a call with CD Projekt Red’s board today, joint-CEO Adam Kiciński admitted that the company had “ignored the signals about the need for additional time to refine the game on the base last-gen consoles” and showed the game mostly on PC during their marketing campaign. (He did apologize.) Once reviewers received their games—often mere days ahead of launch—they mainlined the main storyline and as many side quests as they could muster, wrote a couple thousand words, and posted them online on December 7, three days prior to Cyberpunk 2077’s December 10 launch.


CD Projekt Red had nearly a decade to architect the great Cyberpunk 2077 mythos. Game reviewers had just a couple of days to assess it, and were hamstrung in how they could portray it. Gamers who had dropped $60 on this cyberpunk pleasure palace back in 2019 reeled; all the hot air came whizzing out. One professional reviewer, Kallie Plagge, gave Cyberpunk 2077 a 7/10 on GameSpot—not even a pan—criticizing it for one-dimensional world building, disconnected side quests, and large-scale technical issues. Mass harassment attended the review. Reactionary YouTubers, who did not have access to the game, dedicated long videos to dismantling her critique, dissecting her playtime and playstyle. But just days later, once gamers had finally played Cyberpunk 2077 themselves, many did a 180. “Everyone talked shit about her, but I’m starting to agree with Kelly [sp] Plagge,” read one popular post on /r/cyberpunkgame.

CD Projekt Red isn’t the first or only gaming company performing marketing psy-ops. In 2016, No Man’s Sky literally promised the world and infinite others; it was slated to be the most expansive, the most immersive, the most most game up until that point. But because the studio behind it, Hello Games, didn’t offer it to reviewers at all ahead of launch, gamers found out the hard way that it failed to deliver on basics like multiplayer connectivity. This year alone, WIRED received over a dozen offers to review big games that came with NDAs attached. It’s not always to hide flaws; sometimes it’s to prevent spoilers, or the result of an overzealous PR team. But putting those kinds of handcuffs on reviewers ultimately hurts the people who buy the games.

As the games industry market size summits $60.4 billion dollars, the pressure to micromanage the reviews system grows ever greater. As an example, Bloomberg has reported that CD Projekt Red’s developers’ bonuses were contingent upon a 90+ on Metacritic. (That changed post-release.) The company had built up the video game equivalent of a genie in a bottle. So it did what everybody does when they gain a modicum of power: control the narrative. CD Projekt Red declined WIRED’s request for comment.

The same incentives also rig the system against developers, who pull six-day work weeks and sacrifice work-life balance to manifest slogans like “a city that’s larger than life,” “sets new standards in terms of visuals, complexity and depth.” These are the modern expectations for a 60-hour, AAA open world game—an increasingly bloated, and increasingly unsustainable genre. In June, former PlayStation executive Shawn Layden bemoaned the enormous financial and work burden of developing these kinds of games to GamesIndustry.biz. “I think the industry as a whole needs to sit back and go, 'Alright, what are we building? What's the audience expectation? What is the best way to get our story across, and say what we need to say?'”

Eight million pre-orders, though, says all this stage-management benefits somebody. Video games are particularly susceptible to the bait-and-switch. Games are both identities and hobbies: a place to be yourself and explore who you are and a thing you do and own. Better customization, bigger worlds, greater graphics—more, more, more—it can't go on exponentially. But a system that feeds on hope will only grow as big as the trust placed in it.

This story has been updated to reflect that while CD Projekt Red announced Cyberpunk 2077 in 2012, its marketing blitz began a few years later.

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