Friday 18 December 2020 1:12 pm

How Cyberpunk, the generation's most hyped game, turned into its biggest disaster

The Witcher 3, released in 2015, is rarely far from the upper echelons of “Best Game Ever” lists.

Developed by Polish studio CD Projekt Red, it was a sprawling, hugely ambitious RPG that refused to offer players a neat solution to its deftly written quests. In its squalid, low-fantasy world, sparing the life of some grotesque creature – usually seen as the “correct” path in video games – can have horrific consequences down the line, and your choices tended to boil down to picking the lesser evil and hoping you can live with yourself.

After its global success – it sold some 30m copies – it was little surprise the studio’s next project, Cyberpunk 2077, became one of the most hotly anticipated games in the history of the medium.

So how did it end up wiping more that £1bn from the value of its developers since its launch last week?

First teased in 2013, it promised a role-playing experience like no other, a free-roaming adventure set in a living, breathing future dystopia; Blade Runner meets Grand Theft Auto V. 

It was released this month to mixed reviews, but when players – especially those using older consoles – got their hands on it on 10 December they found a product that was barely playable. After a slew of complaints CD Projekt Red began to offer refunds, and last night Sony removed the game from its online store – a virtually unprecedented step for a flagship game from one of the world’s most respected studios.

Cyberpunk – which cost an estimated £330m to produce – had already sold 8m units through pre-orders, although it’s unclear how many of those have since been refunded. In truth, the game’s initially positive reviews belied a troubled development, with the release date being pushed back from April 2020 to September, then to mid-November before finally emerging half-cooked this month.

The studio had already courted controversy by pledging it would not subject its employees to “crunch” – the practice of asking staff to work overtime to finish a game – before admitting it would, in fact, be crunching to get the game out of the stable.

“We are highly disappointed by the information, which shows that the game was just not ready to debut in December and the decision to launch it was a big mistake,” Kacper Kopron, an analyst at Trigon DM brokerage, told Reuters.

Microsoft has not yet followed suit, although performance on its last-gen Xbox One machine is riddled with bugs and hard crashes that cause the console to shut down.

The situation – one of the most high-profile disasters in recent video-game memory – has raised questions about the sustainability of the so-called AAA game industry, with developers locked in an arms-race to create increasingly dense, textured worlds filled with near-endless things to occupy players.

It has certainly dented CD Projekt Red’s halo, squandering years of goodwill and sending its shares tumbling as much as 20 per cent, wiping out more than £1bn of its value. The developer says it is now focused on fixing performance issues on older consoles, as well as ironing out the bugs that infest even the version that runs on top-level hardware.

The debacle recalls the 2016 release of No Man’s Sky, an ambitious indie title made by a small British studio that overpromised in its promotional material only to infuriate fans when it failed to deliver. Hello Games spent years rebuilding its reputation, eventually upgrading the game to include the features missing on launch.

Given the CD Projekt Red’s history, it seems likely Cyberpunk will eventually reach a stable, playable state – and by most accounts the game is excellent when it actually works. But it will forever be tarnished by its cursed release, a cautionary tale that video game developers will pore over for many years to come.