Let me preface this by clarifying that I hadn’t been paying much attention to Cyberpunk 2077. Originally announced way back in 2012, I didn’t actually hear about the game until after I started playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 2015. Despite having never played either of the previous two titles in the series and having no real idea what a Witcher even was, I dove headfirst into that game and played the absolute shit out of it. When I heard that the same developers were working on a Cyberpunk game, I filed that away in my brain as something to be on the lookout for whenever it finally came out.
I say all this this to emphasize the fact that I didn’t have massive expectations for Cyberpunk 2077. I’m only tangentially aware of the tabletop game and was more interested in the idea of the same people who made The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red, creating an immersive action RPG within the cyberpunk genre. To be perfectly honest, I’d kind of forgotten about it until last year’s E3, when the studio dropped a new trailer featuring the surprise reveal of Keanu Reeves and a 2020 release date. (Keanu is enough to get anyone’s attention.) I didn’t follow coverage of the game or even watch any trailers beyond that Keanu one, so I wasn’t at the front of the line when pre-orders went live in both physical and digital storefronts. I didn’t wind up pre-ordering the game until hours before it unlocked, with my reasoning being, “I’m planning on buying this anyway, and if I throw down the money now, I can play it a few days early.” And boy do I need to never do that again. More specifically, nobody should ever do that again, because pre-ordering games is effectively bankrolling a toxic attitude that AAA games have been cultivating for years now – handing over your money early may guarantee you a copy on the game’s release date, but AAA studios have demonstrated time and again that they feel no obligation to actually deliver you a working product on that release date.
There was a ton of hyperbolic outrage surrounding Cyberpunk 2077’s undeniably rocky release, with a not-insignificant number of people slamming the game for being ruined by SJWs (whatever the hell that means) and one player being so distraught that they cried themself to sleep. Obviously, that’s stupid, but there were also a number of valid criticisms, including a particular amount of vitriol leveled at how the game simply didn’t deliver the experience that CD Projekt Red had apparently promised for almost a decade. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t follow this game until very recently, so I’m not entirely sure how much the finished game differs from what fans were told it would be, although I do understand that many players are frustrated with the game’s illusion of choice – no matter which background you pick or how you decide to play your character, the plot runs pretty much on rails with your choices having a minimal effect. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (for instance, Red Dead Redemption 2’s excellent storyline was also largely the same for everyone who played it), but I can understand how it would irk you if you’d been promised the game would be more like, say, The Witcher 3, which has multiple branching storylines and different endings. But one criticism I am comfortable laying on Cyberpunk 2077 is that, for the first week or so of its release, the game literally didn’t work.
Both the PC and the console versions of the game had more than the average number of significant bugs at launch, but the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions suffered from so many crippling issues that it was essentially unplayable. Environments would take forever to render, leaving you wandering around a blurry city block for as long as a minute before the world would actually appear. The frame rate would dip to stop-motion photography levels during every gunfight. Game-breaking bugs that deleted your inventory or trapped you within a location would regularly occur — I encountered three of these in the two hours that I managed to play — forcing you to roll back as much as an hour of saves if not start the game over entirely. On top of all that, the game would flat-out crash at least once an hour, a problem that still occurs at the time of this writing even after weeks of patches. For those of us attempting to play Cyberpunk 2077 on a console (and judging by the title’s current sales figures of over 13 million copies, there were quite a few of us indeed), it completely failed to fulfill the most basic expectation of actually functioning as a game.
Now, games having bugs is nothing new, and it is an entirely understandable and forgivable process of developing software. Especially when you’re making PC games, and you have to try and account for the infinite number of possible hardware configurations your consumer base is going to use to try and run the dang thing. Weird as hell (and potentially disastrous) bugs are inevitable. However, the entire point of console gaming is that every single player is using the exact same set of hardware. It’s gaming designed for people who either don’t want to worry about customizing their own rigs, can’t afford to, or simply don’t know how to, and would prefer to just pop in a game with the confidence that it will run without too many issues. Theoretically, hunting down the various ghosts in the machine of the console versions of Cyberpunk 2077 should’ve been a comparatively easier process than tackling every possible issue that might arise on PC. But as CD Projekt Red themselves admitted in a recent statement apologizing for the game’s jack-legged launch, they kind of ignored the consoles in favor of getting the PC version up to snuff. This was ostensibly done so that the best possible version of Cyberpunk 2077 would be available for reviewers, who conspicuously were only offered the PC version to write their impressions of the game. The PC version was also the only one shown off in pre-release materials such as gameplay trailers. The game was so broken that Sony removed it from their digital PlayStation store, a move which is all but unheard of, with Sony, Microsoft, and CD Projekt Red separately offering players refunds.
The release of Cyberpunk 2077 was such a fiasco that the developer’s stock plummeted almost 30%, equating to a loss of nearly $2 billion. An alleged developer went on a laundry-airing rant in a thread on GameFAQs, detailing all manner of misconduct and corner-cutting by CDPR’s higher-ups that the company has since publicly denied. Some of the allegations include deleted quests, features that were literally locked (all of those “Door Locked” apartments were apparently lootable at one point), and the last-minute addition of Keanu Reeves. This is interesting because CDPR normally doesn’t respond to rumors, but took the time to denounce this particular one on Twitter. Also, everything in the alleged developer’s complaints seems perfectly plausible, so do with that information what you will. The bottom line is, by all appearances, CD Projekt Red was actively concealing the dire state of the console versions of the game. After news of an especially tense and combative internal call between the company’s developers and board members, and a recent class action lawsuit filed by some of CD Projekt SA’s investors, it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion.
To circle back to my point, let’s examine the concept of pre-ordering: In the old days, when games came on cartridges and discs and you had to drive to a brick-and-mortar store to get them, pre-ordering meant that you were guaranteed a copy of the game on the day it released. That transaction made sense, particularly for a popular or otherwise hugely anticipated game, because there was a genuine risk of the store running out of copies before you got to buy one. Now, when the majority of games are purchased digitally from the comfort of our own homes with no limit on the number of copies that can be sold, the pre-order concept doesn’t really hold up.
Studios will regularly offer incentives like in-game items to encourage you to pre-order a title, but you’re still throwing down a considerable amount of cash to purchase something sight unseen. (Also, those pre-order bonuses are almost always sold separately as DLC later on down the line.) There was a minimal amount of value before (imagine everyone who pre-ordered a copy of Duke Nukem Forever and then had to hold their pre-order slips for over a decade), but today, when a pre-purchase isn’t even necessary to guarantee you a copy, there’s absolutely no reason to do it. You’re simply handing over 60 or 70 bucks to help what is usually a massive media conglomerate meet their quarterly forecast (in Cyberpunk 2077’s case, CD Projekt Red and Warner Bros., which are both billion-dollar companies). All you get in return is a few hours of early access to a game (most digital purchases become available for download at midnight EST the day of release) for the exact same price you’d pay if you waited until after reading some reviews. Meanwhile, the developer and the publisher are free to deliver you a product that literally does not work, with vague promises to fix it eventually. That’s not always the case, but it’s so commonplace for AAA games to have massive Day One patches and other performance issues right after release that it’s just sort of accepted when something egregious does happen. There’s almost never any accountability, in an industry that depends on encouraging pre-release sales that do not benefit the consumer in any way.
Cyberpunk 2077 racked up 8 million pre-orders. At $60 a copy, that’s almost a half-billion dollars of revenue generated by a company that was deliberately concealing the fact that their game simply did not operate on two of three scheduled platforms. I could spend another 1,500 words wondering why the hell the game is so broken – for all its hype, it’s essentially just Grand Theft Auto in the future and it doesn’t do anything that AAA games haven’t been doing for the past decade – but the actual content of the game is immaterial. It could’ve been freaking Pong and the point would be the same – CD Projekt Red collected a half-billion dollars up front for a game that literally didn’t work, and we need to stop bankrolling that behavior. Until we do, debacles like the release of Cyberpunk 2077 will continue to happen, and we’ll be the ones stuck holding the bag.