Cyberpunk 2077 is out, and it’s the only thing people can talk about. But while many people are playing and enjoying it, many others are encountering a game that is broken and buggy — especially on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Over the past week, developer CD Projekt Red has tried to apologize to fans, but in the process it has often soured sentiment about the game and itself even more. And the company’s actions reveal that it was willing to risk its own reputation as well as the reputation of its partners and reviewers to isolate Cyberpunk’s launch from fair criticism or further delays.
As a reviewer with the benefit of hindsight, I feel duped and used by CDPR. And maybe the company didn’t make a conscious choice to use the media to deceive fans. But that’s what it feels like, especially in the light of the company’s ongoing behavior toward partners like Sony and Microsoft and toward gamers themselves. It also feels in line with the company’s recent history of transphobic and edgelord marketing.
Last week, CD Projekt Red apologized to fans for failing to reveal the PS4 and Xbox version during the promotional period of the game. But the studio did not give a reason for why it made that decision — and yet it had clear motivation to only show Cyberpunk 2077 running on PC. The game is rough on PS4 and Xbox One due to bugs, but it also performs significantly worse. The apology feels weak. It’s the kind of thing a company does when it knows it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to be forthright about the state of its product.
My immediate response when something like this happens is to lay responsibility with consumers. We shouldn’t spend money on things until we fully understand what we’re buying. I still feel that way, but I think we should also acknowledge that CD Projekt Red took every step it could to ensure people felt informed without fully understanding the reality of the PS4 and Xbox One versions.
It feels like CD Projekt Red used reviewers to help fool consumers
CD Projekt Red designed the Cyberpunk 2077 review process with the purpose of getting the best possible reviews while minimizing the media’s opportunities to inform their audiences about the flaws. The media is complicit in this and must take its share of the blame. But CDPR also minimized the opportunity for reviewers to understand what they were agreeing to take part in.
As someone who reviewed Cyberpunk 2077, I should’ve been more skeptical. It’s crucial to always examine how the marketing machine is trying to use the media. But throughout the process, CD Projekt Red presented Cyberpunk 2077 like any other normal review without ever disclosing that the experience we were getting on PC could feel materially different than the experience on consoles.
Let me recap the events of the review to illustrate what I mean.
Before Thanksgiving, CDPR’s external PR firm reached out to inform the media that it was getting codes. Media could go to a website to request a code for PS4, Xbox, Stadia, or PC. It’s a simple process that has worked well in the past, so going into the long holiday weekend, most people felt confident that they would be getting review code for their platform of choice.
And I remember taking this as a good sign for the state of the game. CDPR seemed confident by offering up codes to so many people for all platforms.
But a few days later, CD Projekt Red’s internal PR began reaching out to a much smaller pool of media. And this time, the deal is that you get a code if you plan to review on PC.
This isn’t abnormal. Cyberpunk 2077 review keys were in high demand, so it seemed like CDPR was trying to keep things quiet so it wouldn’t upset the hundreds of people who would still have to wait for a code. But taken with everything else, this also now feels like part of the manipulation — especially because my understanding is very few codes ever went out to people who requested them through the PR website.
Feeling unwittingly complicit
But by most other measures, the review embargo was normal. By the time we got code, we had six days to play before the embargo expired for written reviews. That’s not a lot of time, but it’s also not unusual. And the written reviews had no stipulations attached to them. We could talk about any and all problems with the game including bugs and crashes.
But that unrestricted written review embargo also now feels like a diversion tactic. As part of written reviews, you could post a video, but you could only use CD Projekt Red’s B-roll. Now, generally, this also isn’t too abnormal. Sony games often come with embargoes that restrict what captured video you can use in your content. It’s more rare, however, that the review embargo prohibits the use of any captured footage and restricts use only to official B-roll. Typically, other companies will say you can use footage from this beginning area only or something to that effect.
That should’ve raised red flags, but the video embargo also expired before the release of the game. And as a site that primarily works in text, it wasn’t something I thought about too much.
When I wrote my review, I assumed I was generally playing the same game that everyone would get. That is a failure of imagination on my part, but in my view, CDPR cultivated that false sense of reassurance in the first place.
With hindsight, CDPR’s actions in the review process seem manipulative to me.
- The company never showed Cyberpunk 2077 running on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One prior to release.
- It said explicitly that the game runs surprisingly well on those systems.
- Through its external PR, it suggested that console codes were ready to go prior to release.
- It then quietly only let reviewers experience the game on PC.
- Even on PC, however, it wouldn’t let critics post footage of bugs and crashes until two days after the game nailed its initial reviews.
- During this process, CDPR never communicated to the audience or to the media that the PS4 or Xbox One versions would run significantly worse.
Most people who purchased or preordered the game for PS4 and Xbox One didn’t see the game’s subpar performance and bugs until Cyberpunk’s release day. Even if some fans saw footage earlier, they probably also saw the 90-plus Metacritic score.
And over the weekend, I assumed that a lot of this was just circumstantial evidence that proved nothing but unfortunate coincidences. But that was before I noticed that CDPR was treating Sony, Microsoft, and its fans the same way.
CD Projekt Red’s disappointing behavior is now a pattern
I can only get so mad at CD Projekt Red. Yes — I feel like the studio tried to use me to mislead people. But it seems like a company acting desperately due to the pressures of running a publicly traded gaming studio. One of the true frustrations of capitalism is the futility of punishing other people. What’s the point if the system is going to remain the same? It’s like whenever a character in a movie dismissively says, “It’s just business.”
But that doesn’t mean we have to forget CDPR’s behavior during the Cyberpunk launch. I just want to be realistic about the power I hold. And that’s limited because I’m not interested in handing out pitchforks and torches.
It’s also limited because I’m not Sony or Microsoft. And I think those are the entities that CD Projekt Red might really have to answer to.
CD Projekt Red threw those companies under the bus by revealing that Cyberpunk 2077 was able to bypass final Xbox and PlayStation certification. This is for a game that launched with a scene that caused epileptic seizures. Developers know that they can get waivers to launch on consoles without final certification as long as they plan to fix issues by launch. But that’s not something developers say out loud to gaming fans. Because what CD Projekt Red has just implied is that Microsoft and Sony are complicit by way of inaction of releasing a game that could have injured vulnerable people.
It’s a bad idea to potentially expose your business partners to liability (deservedly so) in what seems like an effort to take some heat off of your studio.
On top of that, as part of its apology, CD Projekt Red put the burden of refunds on Sony and Microsoft. The studio told customers to ask those companies to return the game. But this is not something CDPR discussed or arranged with Sony or Microsoft, according to its emergency call with investors on Tuesday. Many people are reporting that Sony is denying refunds. Once again, in an effort to take heat off of its game, CDPR looks like it’s putting one of its partners into the crosshairs.
CDPR’s actions appear like it’s willing to drag Sony’s and Microsoft’s reputations down with it. And if that’s true, then it seems obvious to me that it would also risk the reputation of critics in the media.
Compared to CDPR burning its reputation with major platforms, burning critics barely even rates.
So far, Microsoft and Sony haven’t said much about CD Projekt Red or Cyberpunk. PlayStation customer-support representatives are telling customers to wait for a patch.
People are starting to get this response back from CD Projekt RED, after emailing their “help” address for refunds. The language is interesting: it doesn’t tell you to request a refund from Sony anymore. You’re supposed to wait. pic.twitter.com/Hb77SQ5teD
— Patrick Klepek (@patrickklepek) December 16, 2020
GameStop is now also telling people to seek out refunds directly from CD Projekt Red.
What finally convinced me to write this, however, was GOG backpedaling today on its plans to release the survival-horror game Devotion. This game previously launched on Steam before the developer pulled it due to review bombing because it included a mild jab at Chinese president Xi Jinping. Earlier today, GOG, which CD Projekt Group owns, said the game would come to its store.
A few hours later, the company posted this on Twitter:
Earlier today, it was announced that the game Devotion is coming to GOG. After receiving many messages from gamers, we have decided not to list the game in our store.
— GOG.COM (@GOGcom) December 16, 2020
It’s disappointing that yet another company is bowing to censorship pressure from China. But again, we live under capitalism, and “don’t talk about China” is the unstated rule at nearly every media company in the world. But what really stands out to me is how GOG phrases its reasoning.
“After receiving many messages from gamers” is how the tweet reads. Once again, a CD Projekt Group beefed something and once again it is shifting the blame somewhere else. This wasn’t GOG’s cowardice — they’re just doing this for the gamers.
And burning reviewers is one small thing. Burning Microsoft and Sony is another. But using gamers as your shield for giving into censorship is the most telling of all. When this company’s back is against the wall, it will drag someone else in front of it.
But I’m not angry. I feel like my anger would add nothing on top of what Sony’s and Microsoft’s lawyers are capable of. Instead, I’m writing this, and I’m doing so as a reminder to myself and others to treat CD Projekt Red with complete skepticism in the future. We should default to the assumption that the company is hiding something.
That’s the best way to insulate yourself against companies that behave like CD Projekt Red.
Register for GamesBeat's upcoming event: Driving Game Growth & Into the Metaverse