The Witcher 3 only released back in 2015, and for those that don’t remember, CD Projekt Red was surging in popularity, but they weren't necessarily a household name. In that short five years, CDPR has become one of the most well-known companies in gaming. That explosion of success and notoriety seems to have had a negative impact on them overall.
Ironically, the main characters of Cyberpunk 2077 all rail against the actions of corporations. I mean, part of the game is sympathizing with a guy who hated a corporation so much he literally took a giant bomb to their massive headquarters and blew it up. Really hard not to notice the irony with the corpo crap CDPR has pulled so far with Cyberpunk 2077.
The first big sign of concern was journalist Jason Schreier’s reporting on CDPR’s use of crunch in development. I’m not going to get into crunch at all, you can read more about it here, other than to say that its use is unacceptable. Further, the alleged way crunch was used at CDPR for Cyberpunk 2077 is abhorrent.
Something all big publishers share is their obsession with control. That control comes in the messaging for their game, like the marketing, and who they do and do not give access to. Anyone in the gaming press that’s had to deal with the big publishers will know exactly what I’m talking about.
I once had a recorded interview with a developer where someone from one of those big companies constantly interrupted to say we couldn’t use that, can’t talk about that, etc., basically ruining the interview. So, even to that micro level, they’re all about controlling a message.
In the case of CDPR and Cyberpunk 2077, they exerted control over the review process. Not since Bethesda’s ridiculous actions in 2016, basically saying no more review copies before launch, has a company’s handling of reviews been so poor.
For the transparency of our experience, we submitted for a PC review copy as soon as we could, only to receive approval for that copy the day before release. Based on what we were told, that was the case for all North American reviewers that were not in the initial batch of reviews.
While not unusual, only a select few received early review copies. That’s the norm with big games, as CDPR does have an interest in only giving it to trusted reviewers who aren’t going to leak things. However, the reviews were only on PC, so no console reviews.
Anyone following this story knows that’s the case, and in the above tweet, CDPR admits that was the case and they made a mistake. It’s particularly egregious because the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions run so terribly and are so buggy they’re not really worth playing. Definitely not ready for release.
CDPR claimed in a recent conference call that they had every intention of giving reviewers console versions of the game, and that they wanted to show footage of Cyberpunk 2077 running on last-gen consoles. However, they ran out of time as they were working on the console versions right up to the end, only getting review copies out the day before release.
They also said they had lost sight of last-gen console versions of the game to focus on PC and the newest gen. The management team and the board shouldered the blame here, saying additionally that they were also far too focused on launching the game. They say as much in the tweet as well, that they knew the problems but pushed it out the door anyway.
In other words, CDPR absolutely knew the state those versions were in, waited as long as they could with pressure mounting that no console reviews were out, relented, and then sent those copies out. They then sold those versions anyway.
During that same conference call, one of the CDPR board member's only real “defense” or reply to questions about the console versions was that you could play Cyberpunk 2077. It wasn’t unplayable and completely broken. If that's all they can say, they know just how awful those versions currently are.
So, CDPR seemed to deliberately hold back console reviews to hide the state those versions were in. Obviously, if we had reviews out several days to a week before release, it probably would have affected sales. Unfortunately, console reviews weren’t the only ones handled poorly.
The first batch of reviews, which were very positive, were only on PC. The big limitation here was that any video review had to use the provided b-roll footage from CDPR. None of those first reviews could publish their captured footage at the time of their review. They could only release that footage at the embargo, which was about 12 hours before the worldwide launch on PC.
What other reason could there be to put that limitation on reviews other than to control the public’s perception of the game? There is absolutely no defense of it. As I said, PC is in a better state with no real game-breaking bugs, but man are there are a lot of visual and other small bugs going on all the time. Reviews mentioned them, but imagine, as CDPR, a bunch of videos out there with bugs littered throughout a week before launch? Obviously, they did not want to see that happen.
Combining how they handled both PC and console reviews, it’s hard to come away thinking anything other than ill intentions here. There is absolutely no way they were not aware of the states of their game across the versions and what their actions were doing.
CDPR recently announced they had sold over 8 million preorders of Cyberpunk 2077. That’s a lot of pre-orders to try to hold onto. In that same conference call, they said that 59% were PC sales. With their limitations on video reviews, they were doing their best to protect all of that 8 million, and with how they handled console reviews, they were thinking of the 3 million+ sales they already had in the bag. None of this takes into account the likely million more on release day.
So, the incentive to control the reviews and manipulate them in their favor was extremely high. And do not forget, this was all at the expense of you, the people buying the game. CDPR was protecting themselves from lost sales, knowing their product had significant issues. We can't forget just how much of a betrayal this is to the developers of the game as well, lumping them in with this negative image when they have zero say when the game comes out.
And to be absolutely clear, the buggy mess in the game, while a problem, pales in comparison to CDPR's attempts to hide it. The best, most fair light this could be shed in is that CDPR had painted themselves into a corner and knew they couldn't delay the game again. So, they chose to protect their product with a series of awful decisions. In other words, the situation created this line of thinking, and they would not naturally have come to it. Still terrible, though more forgiving, and it is a very forgiving interpretation of what happened.
But why does it all matter?
Everything is stacked in favor of the big publisher when they are selling you a game. They have the money to make sure the games look flashy, they shove the marketing down our throats, and they choose what the public does and doesn’t get to see.
One of the very few things that allow people to make informed decisions on whether to buy a game or not is a review. It is the only check against misleading advertising employed by these big companies. In a different way—as their intent is not necessarily to assess the game—influencers, let’s players, and folks like that are important too, as they are third party showing off the game. It’s not a well-rehearsed, meticulously designed demo or video pointed at your face.
Anything that affects a reviewer’s attempt to convey accurate information about a game is absolutely unacceptable and indefensible. Companies have every right to protect their product, but if they want to have third-party reviews, then they have to agree that their autonomy is paramount. That is why this is all so important.
By and large, gaming media is just part of the marketing arm of games, particularly the big companies. They control what the gaming media sees and publish in almost every situation, and reviews are the one place they largely can't. So, any time that freedom to inform is threatened, it's a huge problem.
I won’t go into the marketing of Cyberpunk 2077 much, as there is just so much to dissect, but they definitely made promises that weren’t kept and misled on others. They also didn’t do much to temper expectations either, leading to what was likely the most hyped game of all time. For example, when it was announced that you could customize the genitalia of your character, the inference everyone made was Cyberpunk 2077’s character creator was going to have insane levels of detail. Well, not so much.
As of now, CDPR is offering refunds for Cyberpunk 2077 owners. That is definitely the right way to go about things, but it's hard not to also see it as the ideal for the situation they created. Refunding can be a hassle, and with the promise that they will fix the game, many people will choose to hang onto it instead. So, no canceled preorders. Plus, they're setting it up for people to praise all their hard work once everything is more or less fixed. Win win, all things considered.
There’s a lot of work to be done to repair their image as one of the most pro-consumer developers out there, and who knows if they can ever get back to what they once were. To be fair to CDPR, their track record with business practices that largely benefited gamers was stellar up until now. No doubt about that whatsoever.
For now, their public messaging suggests they’re committed to trying to get that back. If they do make honest attempts to do that, I’d have no problem going back to being one who sings their praises. It’s going to take a lot to get me there, though.