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Cyberpunk Debacle: The Rise and Fall of the World’s Greatest Game Developers

Photo Illustration by Mateusz Slodkowski / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Gigantic, fantastic, breathtaking: in the preliminary coverage of the video game Cyberpunk 2077 was thrown around with new superlatives in every second sentence. It was probably the most anticipated game in ten years. Behind the hype is a once small Polish development studio called CD Projekt Red. Over the past 15 years, the company has grown to become the most valuable video game company in Europe at times. Cyberpunk 2077 should now be the climax of the developer’s success story. Instead, a crash landing followed.

The video game market has grown tremendously in recent years. However, the long development time of games is fraught with risk. It happens again and again that projects are discontinued after one or two years. Such failures can mean the end of a development studio. This was never an option for CD Projekt. The company was valued at up to eight billion euros in the summer, making it more valuable than Europe’s longstanding number one Ubisoft.

From pirated seller to Europe’s most valuable video game company

Studio founder Marcin Iwiński has always been a fan of video games. During his school days in the Soviet Union, however, there was hardly any Western entertainment software in the shops in downtown Polish cities. The solution: pirated copies from abroad. Together with friends he brought copies of the latest games from Greece to Warsaw in order to sell them to the highest bidder. He made a name for himself in the scene and founded the software company CD Projekt in 1994 with his friend Michał Kiciński.

Together, Iwiński and Kiciński imported games from small US retailers and sold them in the growing Polish market. But the competition never slept and so the company founders soon had to look around for new sales opportunities. So it came to the collaboration with Adam Badowksi, the current head of the subsidiary CD Projekt Red, which is responsible for the development of the games.

Company founder Marcin Iwiński.

Company founder Marcin Iwiński.

Photo by Charley Gallay / Getty Images for E3 / Entertainment Software Association

The development studio’s first game was a surprising success. The game was based on the series of novels by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, who enjoyed great success with his books in Poland, but was largely unknown outside of Poland.

When “The Witcher”, the international title, appeared after five years of difficult development – the studio was inexperienced and struggled with money problems – that changed abruptly. The game sold over a million times in the first year after its release. Meanwhile, the series of novels about the witcher Geralt has sold millions of times. The streaming service Netflix produced a hit series from the material.

The climax with The Witcher 3

The successor The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was financed with it and the developer studio achieved its final international breakthrough. The company became something of a figurehead for Polish software development. For example, during a state visit in 2011, the then US President Barack Obama was presented with a copy of the second part of the video game series.

The third part was an even bigger success and won one award after another. Even six years after its release, The Witcher 3 is considered by many fans to be one of the best role-playing games of all time.

CD Projekt was at the peak of its popularity. Players believed the studio was down-to-earth and transparent. For many, the Poles were considered to be one of the last video game developers who still listened to the hearts of the fans and were not only after the money out of their pockets.

Up to this point, the history of the studio has been a fairytale climb. Then came Cyberpunk 2077.

The cyberpunk debacle

In 2012 the title was announced with a teaser. After that, the development went quiet until a new trailer with Hollywood star Keanu Reeves was unveiled at the E3 2018 video game fair and shared millions of times online.

The expectations were huge. According to the company’s financial report, more than 121 million euros flowed into the project, as reported by “Wirtschaftswoche”. The effort paid off. Cyberpunk was pre-ordered over eight million times, making it the fastest-selling PC game of all time.

Hollywood star Keanu Reeves took on the role of cyberpunk character Johnny Silverhand.

Hollywood star Keanu Reeves took on the role of cyberpunk character Johnny Silverhand.

Photo by Christian Petersen / Getty Images

The game is based on a pen & paper adventure by US author Mike Pondsmith and shows a dystopian cyber world in the year 2077. It should take into account the strengths of The Witcher take over and take other mechanics like gameplay and freedom of choice to a new level.

Even before the release, however, it became clear that CD Projekt had problems developing the title. The original publication date from April 2020 was first postponed to September and later to November. During this time, there were reports in the industry that the studio employees were working overtime at the Polish developer and that CD Projekt had introduced the six-day week in order to finish developing the game on time. After another postponement to December, players became suspicious: Didn’t CD Projekt Red mention in January that the game was actually “playable and ready”?

Company on the stock exchange in descent

Two weeks after the release one can say: yes and no. The game received very good ratings in advance from the critics. Although some of the developers’ promises were not kept, the game was still able to convince with a strong story, well-written characters and its open game world. However, the test results only come from PC copies that CD Projekt made available to the critics in advance.

However, a disaster was brewing on the consoles: The game was so unfinished and full of bugs on the base models of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, which were weaker than the PC, that it was hardly playable and kept crashing.

Did CD Projekt Red already suspect in the weeks before that the game would have to be delivered unfinished on the consoles? As “Wired” reports, journalists were banned in advance from distributing videos of the original gameplay. Anyone breaking the rule could face fines of up to $ 27,000.

Lots of pre-orders and lots of refunds: Cyberpunk 2077 divides the masses.

Lots of pre-orders and lots of refunds: Cyberpunk 2077 divides the masses.

The problems with the console versions were so great that Playstation manufacturer Sony banned Cyberpunk 2077 from its online store for some time – a one-time process. Many angry players send back the copies they ordered.

This was also reflected in the stock market. The company has been in free fall there since December 4th. The share price fell within three weeks from 98 to 57 euros. It is unclear how high the economic damage will be for the company. The pressure is huge, also because Cyberpunk CD Projekt Red should be independent of its Witcher series. At least the sales figures are correct despite the debacle. The company announced that after ten days, after deducting refunds, 13 million copies had been sold.

It will be months before the studio fixes the issues with the game. The company has lost a lot of trust among shareholders and gamers – and could end up being a daunting example for the entire industry, but it could also be a positive change in motion. Because deadlines that are too ambitious, expectations inflated with polished trailers and strict rules for journalists and the sale of unfinished games that are subsequently fixed piece by piece are now commonplace in the gaming industry.

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