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Cyberpunk 2077’s comeback is teaching us the wrong lessons

DATE POSTED:September 23, 2022

It’s been a little less than two years since Cyberpunk 2077 launched, concluding one of the longest and most hyped-up development cycles in gaming history. The game’s release was ignoble, to say the least. After the better part of a decade in development, it was a buggy, unfinished mess. Its impressive open world and deep lore-driven story overshadowed by a mountain of technical and performance issues. The game was so broken that Sony actually pulled the PS4 version from its digital store. 

Today, Cyberpunk has an incredibly rare second chance at success. A perfectly serendipitous storm has brought it back into the spotlight: Netflix’s Cyberpunk anime from beloved Studio Trigger is getting rave reviews, there’s press buzz around its just-announced DLC, and shortages of both high-end graphics cards and next-gen consoles are over so gamers can actually play it. And, perhaps more importantly, developer CD Projekt Red has had an extra year and change to go on a bug hunt, so the game itself doesn’t run like something that’s being attacked by a netrunner. 

In short, Cyberpunk 2077 is now the game it really should have been at launch. Or perhaps more appropriately, now is when Cyberpunk 2077 should actually have launched. Because despite being in active development for so long, CD Projekt Red forced its employees to “crunch” for the 2020 release by its own admission and actually having the game in a more finished state back then would have been impossible. 

Night City’s day in the sun

The web is awash with thinkpieces on the improved state of the game, mirroring redemption stories for similarly-revamped titles like No Man’s Sky or Final Fantasy XIV. Cyberpunk is climbing up the sales charts once again — it’s the best-selling game on Steam at the time of writing, not counting the latest Call of Duty pre-order — and tens of thousands of concurrent players are roaming its world and checking out the latest mods. The sun is shining on Night City. 

And that’s a good thing! While Cyberpunk will probably never step out of the shadow of its botched release and CDPR’s formerly sterling reputation is a bit tarnished, it’s good that millions of people have at least a chance of playing the game they were promised back in late 2020. But there’s a downside to this revival, and it’s a reinforcement for some of the gaming industry’s worst habits. 

Johnny Silverhand from cyberpunk giving rock out hand gesture

Cd Projekt Red

CDPR forced its employees into crunch and released an unfinished mess of a game. That’s a story we’ve heard over and over again from less beloved companies like EA, Ubisoft, Blizzard, and more. Cyberpunk 2077 probably suffered from a scheduling crisis — tie-in merchandise campaigns for everything from soda to sofas can’t be easily delayed. But it happened and there’s no forgetting it, even if the company might have been forgiven. 

I fear the megapublishers will learn the wrong lesson from Cyberpunk’s return to the sunshine: It’s okay to force a rushed launch because you can fix it later with a mix of manpower and marketing. Not only is that a dangerous attitude that will only create even more horrible working conditions in an industry absolutely rife with them, it’s not even an accurate takeaway. 

“A bad game is always bad” 

Most of the time, a botched launch means a botched game, more or less forever. The history of gaming has notorious examples like Aliens: Colonial Marines, Daikatana, and the infamous E.T. Even today, a game that flops usually gets such a stink around its release that it stays that way — take Anthem or Fallout 76. But with the rise of digital distribution and, more pertinently, games with multi-year roadmaps, publishers can bring a title back from the brink every once in a while. No Man’s Sky went from a game so broken it made players viscerally angry to a darling example of post-launch improvement.

Cyberpunk car and dark street

Brad Chacos/IDG

But it’s important to remember that No Man’s Sky and Cyberpunk are the exceptions, not the rule. Rushing out a huge, hyped-up game is still a great way to make it an expensive failure. More often than not, trying to lift it out of the mire of disappointment is just throwing good money after bad. Just take a look at Square Enix’s Avengers or Duke Nukem Forever to see how that usually goes. 

Legendary Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto is frequently quoted and probably misattributed: “A delayed game is eventually good, but a bad game is bad forever.” That’s no longer the case, at least for those few lucky exceptions. And clinging to those potential dollars even after a disastrous release is going have more negative outcomes than positive in the long run.