This week, CD Projekt SA Chief Executive Officer Marcin Iwiński released a public mea culpa on the disastrous launch in December of the video game Cyberpunk 2077. He claimed personal responsibility and asked supporters not to blame the team. Iwiński admitted the game “did not meet the quality standard we wanted to meet in a bleak five-minute video address and accompanying blog post.” I and the whole leadership team are extremely sorry for that.”
Iwiński’s apology, the second in a month, was an attempt to restore the reputation of the Polish company with scores of fans – and investors – who had been waiting for the game for eight years, only to discover that it was riddled with bugs and performance issues when it was finally released. A 30 per cent drop in CD Projekt’s shares from December 10 to mid-January was caused by the upsurge in the debut.
Interviews with more than 20 current and former CD Projekt staff, most of whom requested anonymity so as not to risk their careers, show a process of development marred by uncontrolled ambition, poor planning and technical shortcomings. Employees, discussing the creation of the game for the first time, described a company that focused on marketing at the expense of development, and an unrealistic timeline that forced some to work extensive overtime long before the final push. CD Projekt refused to comment on the process or to provide interviews for this story.
The Polish company will spend the next few months working on fixes to Cyberpunk 2077 instead of planning expansions to the game or getting started on the next installment of its other popular franchise, The Witcher. The first new update will be released toward the end of January and a second “in the weeks after,” Iwiński said.
That’s not how the development team planned to start in 2021. Now, instead of celebrating a successful release, the aim is to turn Cyberpunk 2077 into a redemption story. It’s going to be an uphill battle. Unlike competitors like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, CD Projekt only releases one major game every couple of years, so the company relied on Cyberpunk 2077 to be a major hit.
Cyberpunk 2077, a role-playing game set in a science-fiction dystopia, had a lot to do with it. Warsaw-based CD Projekt was already well-known for its earlier blockbuster title, The Witcher 3, and Cyberpunk benefited from the massive ad blitz and the leading role of actor Keanu Reeves. Thanks to the pre-launch hype, the game sold 13 million copies at $60 apiece in the first 10 days after it was released. CD Projekt has been the most valuable company in Poland for a while.
Early reviews were generally good, but once players got the game in their hands, they realized that they had problems with their PCs and that they were almost unplayable on consoles. It did so badly that Sony removed the game from the PlayStation Store and offered refunds, an unprecedented move, while Microsoft knocked on the label warning customers that they “may experience performance issues on Xbox One until the game is updated.”
In his message, Iwiński concedes that the company “underestimated the task.” He said that because the city of the game was “so packed and the disk bandwidth of old-gen consoles is what it is, it constantly challenged us.” While the company was extensively tested before the game was released, Iwiński said that it did not show many of the issues experienced by players.
Cyberpunk 2077 was an ambitious project of any standard. The previous success of CD Projekt, The Witcher, was set in a medieval fantasy world full of swords and spells. But everything in Cyberpunk was a departure from the framework. Cyberpunk was a science-fiction rather than a fantasy. Instead of a third-person camera in which the character of the player appeared on the screen, Cyberpunk used a first-person view. Making Cyberpunk would require CD Projekt to invest in new technologies, new staff and new techniques that have not been explored before.
Another indication that CD Projekt stretched things too far was that it was trying to develop the engine technology behind Cyberpunk 2077, most of which was brand new, at the same time as the game, which slowed down production. One team member compared the process to trying to drive a train while the tracks are being placed in front of you at the same time. It might have gone smoother if the track-layers had a few months to go.
Adrian Jakubiak, a former CD project audio programmer, said one of his colleagues asked during the meeting how the company thought it would be able to pull out a technically more challenging project in the same timeframe as The Witcher. “Someone replied, ‘We’re going to figure it out along the way,'” he said.
The CD Projekt had been thriving on that mentality for years. But the company wasn’t able to pull it off this time. “I knew it wasn’t going to go well,” said Jakubiak. “I just didn’t know how disastrous it would be.”
Part of the disappointment of the fans is proportional to the amount of time they spent waiting for the game. Although Cyberpunk was announced in 2012, the company was still mainly focused on its last title, and full development did not begin until late 2016, said employees. That was when CD Projekt basically hit the reset button, according to people familiar with the project.
Adam Badowski, head of the studio, took over as director, demanding revisions to Cyberpunk’s gameplay and story. Everything changed for the next year, including key elements such as the game-play perspective. Top staff who worked on The Witcher 3 had strong opinions on how to make Cyberpunk, which came up against Badowski and led to the eventual departure of a number of top developers.
Much of CD Projekt’s focus, according to a number of people working on Cyberpunk 2077, was on impressing the outside world. A part of the gameplay was shown at E3, the industry’s main trade event, in 2018. It showed the main character embarking on a mission, giving the players a great tour of the seedy, crime-ridden Night City.
Fans and journalists were amazed at the ambition and scale of Cyberpunk 2077. What they didn’t know was that the demo was almost completely fake. CD Projekt had not yet finalized and coded the underlying gameplay systems, which is why so many features, such as car ambushes, were missing from the final product. Developers said they felt that the demo was a waste of months that was supposed to make the game.
Employees worked long hours, even though Iwiński told staff that overtime would not be compulsory for Cyberpunk 2077. More than a dozen workers said they were under pressure to put their managers or coworkers in extra hours anyway.
“There were times when I would crunch up to 13 hours a day — a little bit over that was my record probably — and I would do five days a week working like that,” said Jakubiak, the former audio programmer, adding that he quit the company after getting married. “I have some friends who lost their families because of these sort of shenanigans.”
Overtime didn’t make the game’s development any faster. At E3 in June 2019, CD Projekt announced that the game would be launched on 16 April 2020. Fans were thrilled, but internally, some team members could only scratch their heads, wondering how they might be able to finish the game by then. One person said that they thought the date was a joke. Based on the progress of the team, they expected the game to be ready by 2022. Developers have created memes about the game being delayed, making bets on when it happens.
Canceling features and scaling down the size of Cyberpunk’s metropolis helped, but some departments were hindered by the team’s growth, developers said.
While The Witcher 3 was created by approximately 240 in-house staff, according to the company, Cyberpunk credits show that the game had well over 500 in-house developers. But because CD Projekt wasn’t used to such a size, people who worked on the game often said their teams felt silky and unorganized.
At the same time, the CD Projekt remained under-staffed. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption II, often seen as examples of the quality that the company wanted to maintain, were made up of dozens of offices and thousands of people.
Cultural barriers have also been created by the recruitment of expatriates from the US and Western Europe. The studio mandated everyone speak English during meetings with non-Polish speakers, but not everyone followed the rules.
Even as the timeline seemed increasingly unrealistic, management said that delaying was not an option. Their goal was to release Cyberpunk 2077 before new consoles from Microsoft and Sony, expected in the fall of 2020, were even announced. That way, the company could launch the game on existing PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and then “double dip” by releasing versions down the road for next generation consoles. People who bought the old versions of the console would receive free upgrades when the new versions were available. Some engineers realized that Cyberpunk was too complex a game to run well on seven-year-old consoles, with its city full of crowds and bustling buildings.
But by the end of 2019, management finally recognized that Cyberpunk had to be delayed. Last January, the company pushed the release of the game to September. In March, as the pandemic began to rage around the globe and force people to stay inside, the staff of the CD Projekt had to complete the game from their homes. Without access to the office console development kits, most developers would play game builds on their home computers, so it wasn’t clear to everyone how Cyberpunk could run on PS4 and Xbox One. However, the external tests showed clear performance issues.
Iwiński also said that communication issues resulting from teams working at home amid COVID-19 restrictions meant “a lot of the dynamics we normally take for granted” got lost over video calls or emails. The game’s debut slipped again, to November.
As the launch date got closer, everyone in the studio knew the game was in rough shape and needed more time, according to a number of people who were familiar with the development. Chunks of dialog were missing. Some of the actions did not work properly. When management announced in October that the game had “gone gold”—that it was ready to be pressed to disks—major bugs were still being discovered. The game was delayed for another three weeks as exhausted programmers scrambled to fix as much as they could.
When Cyberpunk finally launched on December 10, 2077, the backlash was quick and furious. Players shared videos of screens overrun by tiny trees or characters gallanting around without pants, and compiled lists of features that were promised but not in the final product.
A lot of glitches and graphical issues can be fixed, developers say, although it’s not clear what it will take to get back to the PlayStation store. Winning back fans may be hard, but there’s a precedent in the world of video games. Games like No Man’s Sky, a space simulator; Final Fantasy XIV, an online role-playing game; and Destiny, a multiplayer shooter, recovered from rocky launches and gained critical acclaim by gradually improving after release. And the market seems hopeful. After Iwiński’s message, CD Projekt shares increased by 6%, the largest in six weeks.