'Cyberpunk 2077': Refunds and recriminations after botched launch of 2020's most hyped game

The anticipation for "Cyberpunk 2077" was great. At Electronic Entertainment Expo 2019, attendees waited in line to catch a glimpse of CD Projekt Red's game. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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"Cyberpunk 2077" was always eagerly awaited and hotly debated. But now it's a cautionary story.
Since Keanu Reeves appeared at the Electronic Entertainment Expo last year to announce his participation in the title, the excitement for the game has been on a level that welcomes a new Marvel movie. And the fact that it would deal with topical issues - including arguably questionable looks at gender, race, and politics - meant fans and media alike were eager to spend time with the game.
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But the game is broken.
Sony even took the drastic step on Thursday to remove the game from its online store on PlayStation consoles for the foreseeable future. Sony will issue refunds to those who have already purchased the game. On Friday, Microsoft responded to fans with a refund, but is keeping the game for sale on its Xbox consoles. The developer of the game, the fan-favorite CD Projekt Red, whose "The Witcher 3" remains one of the most famous games of the recently completed console generation, has committed to repair the game.
Updates that would put the game in a desirable state are weeks and possibly months away. Warsaw, Poland-based CD Projekt Red stated that the game should have enough patches by February to run properly on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game isn't without its problems on the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X either (it crashed on my occasions), but it works much better on the new hardware. However, the new consoles that were released just last month are in short supply. For those who play on older consoles - the majority of gamers - Cyberpunk 2077 exists in too fragile a state.
In its statement on Thursday, Sony said the company "strives to ensure a high level of customer satisfaction, so we will be offering a full refund to all players who purchased Cyberpunk 2077 on the PlayStation Store." On Friday, Microsoft wrote: "To ensure that every gamer has the experience they expect on Xbox, we will be expanding our existing refund policy to offer full refunds to anyone who purchased Cyberpunk 2077 digitally from the Microsoft Store."
Forced to grind
For much of the past week, CD Projekt Red has been on an apology tour, even though it was touted that the game had received more than 8 million pre-orders. Media advances have only been made on PCs that have had minimal problems with high-end computers. However, the game looks and feels vastly different on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, leading to questions about how the studio previewed the game and whether the advertised project was different from what it would sell .
"First of all, we would like to apologize to you for not showing the game on last-generation base consoles before the premiere and as a result, unable to make a more informed decision about your purchase," said a statement attributed to the company's executive team . "We should have paid more attention to making it work better on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One."
Work-from-home restrictions in the current COVID-19 pandemic are certainly challenging many industries, and Cyberpunk 2077 has seen numerous delays over the past year. In order to hit the final December 10 release date, the company admitted that some employees would be forced to grind. This is a job that resembles a 24/7 schedule to finish the game.
Although the game is in playable state for those with the most powerful and expensive PC technology, the decision to enforce a broad version of "Cyberpunk 2077" simply increases numerous questionable and unfortunate game industry tactics that have become the norm.
Chief among them: That it is okay to release a game in a near-finished state, knowing that it would be a drastically different product in the coming months.
While it is admirable that the game medium allows for constant updates and makes games a livable job, it goes without saying for fans too, believing that when the job is done, they'll still be there. To make it simpler, imagine a movie that was released in an incomplete state. The studio and creative team just expect consumers to watch it again in six months when it's actually done.
A screenshot from 'Cyberpunk 2077. "(CD Projekt Red)
'Early Access'
Some developers take on these challenges.
Games are a complex medium that brings together art, technology and narrative components. They all shift according to the demands of the other elements and advances in everything from computer performance to game engine updates, not to mention user feedback.
There is a practice of publishing a game in so-called "Early Access" in order to get a more transparent view of the development process. For example, the critically acclaimed hack-and-slash game "Hades" was available in a pre-release version for two years before it was properly completed.
However, this can deal a blow to any type of advertising and marketing campaign. The gaming industry is very secretive and often tries to turn meaningless details like the revelation of a character's name into a message. Early access destroys this careful structure.
When "Hades" came to the Nintendo Switch, it may not have been considered a brand new "game". But by this point all underlying issues were cleared up too, and when people started playing the game word of mouth, "Hades" excitedly spread the story and gameplay.
Personally, I avoid games that are released with early access. While it can be interesting to see a game develop, it just makes more sense to me to wait for the game to reach the state the developers want it to be. It's safe to say that "Cyberpunk 2077" isn't there. It is therefore recommended at this point that console owners do not play Cyberpunk 2077 until the problems have been resolved. The game that exists now will not be the same as it will be in a few months.
But the decision to accelerate "Cyberpunk 2077" before the holidays also points to longstanding and underlying problems with how the mainstream industry views its entertainment. CD Projekt Red was aware of the game's problems, and even admitted that it didn't show how the title performed on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. With all of the supposedly big ideas the game holds about the future of our world, this is proof that the studio ultimately viewed it little more as a product so hotly anticipated that consumers would overlook the fact that it wasn't ready for prime time.
While The Times was offering interviews with the CD Projekt Red team for a story that might revolve around the start of the game, I have become increasingly skeptical about developing game features before I can play the game in my home. Game events or previews are often carefully tailored to display a fraction of the title that will function largely just fine when put together. PR staff interrupt the interviews whenever the conversation deviates from the specific moment of the game that the company has determined to be safe to cover - often detailed in nondisclosure agreements that The Times is not allowed to sign.
Since we didn't have access to a PC to run the game on, we limited our coverage to an interview with Reeves. The actor was certainly interested in the power of the interactive medium and spoke curiously about how user choices allowed him to play essentially multiple versions of the same character.
Reeves himself hadn't seen the finished version of the game by the time we talked - and he admitted he'd need a more playful friend to show him. His interest in the game appeared to be fueled in part by CD Projekt Red's success with "The Witcher 3" and in part by a better understanding of the impact of games on all media.
"I don't know where it's going, but I know it's going to be crazy," he said. "It's a good kind of puppet show. If I can play with animation, I have more control."
Yet, as we just saw at the Game Awards earlier this month, it's rare for a developer to speak openly about the art, theories, and politics that influence any game. In such a climate, video games are treated with the cold precision of a new tech product rather than entertainment. Therefore, a critical analysis of games is more important than ever.
The legacy of "Cyberpunk 2077", regardless of how it recovers in 2021, will be that it will be remembered as the work of a studio that ignored the time it took its development team to complete the game - and in return looked at his fans and the media with cynicism, even though they were both wooing a product that they specifically hyped as politically nervous. It's far from the first time this has happened, but rarely has it been done with such callousness.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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