4 ways Cyberpunk 2077 has already changed the video game industry
The disastrous release is a reckoning for game development.
Calling Cyberpunk 2077’s launch messy is an understatement. Fans who waited eight years for the sci-fi open-world game discovered an unpredictable experience filled with bugs and low-quality graphics that fell far below expectations from CD Projekt Red, the developer of the smash-hit Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The game is so bad that on December 17, Sony took the unprecedented measure of offering full refunds for anyone who purchased the game via PlayStation Store, and actually removed the game from its online storefront.
From Cyberpunk 2077’s fraught development cycle to its overly ambitious multi-platform launch, there are plenty of factors to blame. The situation emphasizes several problems endemic to modern video game development. Cyberpunk 2077 is the boiling point of a long simmer.
The game's astonishingly rocky road to launch has already demonstrated several ways in which the industry needs to change. Here's a closer look at four of the most pressing issues.
4. Gigantic open-world games are unsustainable
Cyberpunk 2077 is jam-packed with side-missions, little points of interest, and fine details that give players a lot to do. The only problem? Immersion is impossible when the game often feels like it's coming apart at the seams. One of the first things players see when exiting their apartment complex is a bugged street that causes every passing car to plow into a barrier. That’s not even the tip of the iceberg.
Open-world games have become a go-to genre for major studios in recent years. In theory, a huge game filled with hundreds of hours of content is a win-win for players and studios. Fans get more value for their $60, while studios get a long-tail player base that might shell out more money for DLC or extra items several months or even years post-release.
CDPR isn't the only developer guilty of releasing an undercooked game. In the past two months alone, Ubisoft released three massive open-world games at varying degrees of polish. Watch Dogs: Legion is so bug-ridden that Ubisoft delayed the game’s online multiplayer to 2021 to focus on bug fixes. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I found myself unable to progress further after an essential NPC dropped dead out of nowhere.
The bigger these games get, the more unstable they become. Is having bigger games worth it if the quality is lacking? Cyberpunk 2077 contains some genuinely thrilling story missions that are playing second fiddle to silly bugs like naked T-posing characters. Bugs might be hilarious, but they’re also a little sad considering that developers toiled on this game for eight long years. Slimming down the scale could help developers create more focused games at a more realistic pace.
3. Crunch is unacceptable
CD Projekt Red was facing even more intense scrutiny just months ago. Towards the end of Cyberpunk 2077’s development cycle, the studio what's become colloquially known as crunch mode. It's exactly what it sounds like, and CDPR staff were reportedly working long hours six days a week to get the game out in time for its original November release — a date that was later pushed back 21 days after developers had put the extra time in.
Crunch culture isn’t new in the video game world, unfortunately. Many studios impose some form of crunch to ship games on time. Games like The Last of Us Part II and Red Dead Redemption 2 became infamous for the troubling work conditions that went into creating them. The Last of Us Part II even includes what appears to be a tone-deaf joke about the trend.
Crunch leads to widespread anxiety and depression, and it's unhealthy for the industry at large, leading to burnout that sends people fleeing the industry in droves. A 2019 report from Take This found that “only 1/3 of developers remain in the industry for 10 years or more,” which should raise alarm bells for fans and producers alike.
CD Projekt Red recently announced a plan to give all employees a bonus that was previously contingent on high review scores, but that’s too little too late. What's more, studios often rely on short-term, contract employees to bring a project to the finish line. It's not clear if those kinds of employees would be eligible for a bonus,.
CD Projekt Red declined to comment on Inverse's request for clarification on the bonuses, or whether the company's labor practices would change ahead of the game's upcoming patches.
So where does it stop? Developers had to crunch to hit their original November release date, and later the December 10 date. Now, CD Projekt Red is planning two major updates in January and February. It's fair to assume employees will be working overtime to hit those deadlines too. But what happens if those game-altering fixes cause more urgent problems? Vicious cycles like this aren’t raising the bar for the industry; they actively hold it back by hurting the talent that it relies on.
2. Major games need to embrace early access
At times, Cyberpunk 2077 feels like it's in beta. There’s an overall lack of polish and an infestation of bugs. In one mission, a companion drove me into a tense shootout. When I died, the game respawned me in the driver’s seat ... inside of the driver. Shipping a game in that state isn’t necessarily unacceptable, but it’s important to set players’ expectations accordingly.
The biggest game studios need to embrace the early access label that smaller games utilize. This year, we’ve seen titles like Ooblets and Rogue Legacy 2 opt for a modest release strategy meant to test and evolve games in response to player feedback. That’s the same practice that helped Hades, quietly launched in 2018, become one of 2020’s best games after extensive community feedback. Even Fortnite clung to the label for far longer than necessary, to great success.
Major studios have largely resisted "early access," saving the label for free-to-play games. Ubisoft’s battle royale game Hyper Scape got the early access treatment while Watch Dogs: Legion debuted as an unfinished “finished” game.
Industry-wide early access adoption could go a long way towards managing player expectations and give developers a massive pool of live testers to gather data from. Cyberpunk 2077 is basically in early access, so why won’t CD Projekt Red just admit it?
1. Delays are okay
If Cyberpunk 2077 has taught us nothing else, it’s that delays are not only acceptable but preferable to a rushed final product.
Each of the game's delays prompted a gross overreaction from a small minority of toxic fans. But come launch day, none of those complaints seemed to hurt it financially. One day after the game’s launch, CD Projekt Red that the game had already recouped its development costs from pre-orders alone. Gamers still showed up in droves, even after a longer than expected wait.
Even with those delays, Cyberpunk 2077 was clearly rushed out to meet year-end financial expectations. Ironically, that ended up hurting the company’s bottom line even more. The company’s stock plummeted in the wake of the glitchy release, reportedly causing its founders to lose $1 billion of wealth. That’s not to mention that disgruntled players were already scrambling for refunds before Sony's stunning move to delist the game, both of which will cut deeply into the game’s initially promising forecast.
A rushed game doesn’t benefit anyone. It contributes to the industry’s crunch crisis, creates a short-sighted and risky financial gamble for investors, and leaves players with a sub-par game. Both studios and impatient players need to come to terms with that fact if modern development is going to become more sustainable. Had Cyberpunk 2077 been delayed another six months, maybe I’d be writing about a game that raised the bar for the industry instead of walking into it headfirst.
Cyberpunk 2077 is now available.