CD Projekt RED counted on the acclaim of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to justify a repeatedly delayed Cyberpunk 2077 release date. With a problematic launch, what can CD Projekt do to reclaim their most ambitious title yet?
The launch of Cyberpunk 2077 has been divisive to say the least. While many gamers (mostly on PC) have experienced only minor glitches, much of the console community has been in a state of uproar over a game they consider ‘unplayable’.
A quick search online shows this dichotomy clearly. Reports of Cyberpunk 2077 topping the charts of PC platform Steam appear alongside articles outlining Sony’s decision to offer refunds to players who purchased the game through the PlayStation Store.
With Cyberpunk 2077 hitting both extremes in terms of reception, how can CD Projekt RED reconcile a split community?
Anticipation is a double-edged sword in the world of marketing. Customers will tolerate a delayed release date if it is for the benefit of the finished product. This concept is certainly nothing new to CD Projekt fans who (for the most part) waited patiently for the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which was delayed twice.
Honesty was the policy back in 2015, with CD Projekt RED releasing an open letter declaring that The Witcher 3 would experience yet another delay:
"The sheer size and complexity of The Witcher, key features of the title, have had a decisive impact on production. Now, nearing the end of our work, we see many details that need to be corrected. When we release the most important game in our studio’s history, we must be absolutely sure that we did everything we could to limit any bugs to a level that will allow you to enjoy the game thoroughly."
This statement was in character for the studio, which explained their marketing and branding strategy one year later at a panel titled “Theory and Practice of Gamer-Centric Brand Development”.
Ruminating on the overwhelmingly positive reception of their most ambitious title yet, CD Projekt RED co-founder Marcin Iwinski cited ‘three pillars’ of marketing that made The Witcher 3 a success:
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt ticked the box of being a good product, reaching critical acclaim from reviewers and fans alike while winning a vast array of accolades. In terms of value proposition, CD Projekt RED’s promise that the delays would ultimately benefit customers was something they clearly delivered on. And lastly, in terms of talking honestly and directly with fans, this was certainly accomplished.
In a moment that proved darkly prophetic, Iwinski discussed a graphical issue with The Witcher 3 pre-release that threatened to blow up into a full story. By getting in front of it and talking directly to fans, the team neutralised the threat, going on to joke that he “was actually ready to issue a statement that [he] would refund all the copies of the people [who wanted them] out of [his] own pocket".
Iwinski joked that the consensus from management was “If you send this message out there it could be a real problem, so let’s not do this.” While this provoked laughs from the audience and the rest of the panel back in 2016, it is safe to assume that in 2020, no one at CD Projekt RED is laughing now.
Perhaps the best way to analyse the issues that CD Projekt RED is facing with Cyberpunk 2077 is through using Iwinski’s own ‘three pillars’ of video game marketing.
While many gamers are enjoying what Cyberpunk 2077 has to offer (myself included), the sheer technical effort of running the game has split the community. PC gamers running the title on rigs kitted out with the latest line of GeForce RTX cards have enjoyed state-of-the-art ray tracing and bleeding-edge, next-generation graphics.
However, the greatly delayed Cyberpunk 2077 release date has meant that CD Projekt RED’s latest release has been caught in the middle of mass console upgrades, with users playing the game on PS4 and Xbox One alongside backwards-compatible PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions. The latter iterations will receive an ‘upgrade’ at some point in 2021, but the present state of the game has meant that players on older consoles have had significant issues with the Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay.
Fans that eagerly anticipated this title waited patiently despite multiple delays to ensure that such issues were fixed, which leads us to the second pillar.
If a company has a value proposition in relation to a product, it simply means that they are proposing to their audience what the value of said product is. This serves more informally as a ‘promise’ of what the customer will get should they choose to buy the product in question.
Through multiple release delays for Cyberpunk 2077 and The Witcher 3, CD Projekt RED had inadvertently created a different sort of value proposition: ‘Our games are worth the wait’.
Any annoyance at delay in the release schedule for The Witcher 3 immediately gave way to glowing reviews. On the strength of this, Cyberpunk 2077’s community has been one of the most patient and forgiving groups a developer could ask for. Look at any social media post announcing a release delay and you’ll see the majority of comments reaching the consensus that players would rather wait for a finished product than receive a broken title.
This, perhaps, was CD Projekt RED’s greatest error. Facing the prospect of yet another delay, they decided to push on with an unfinished product, not trusting the community to give them the benefit of the doubt one last time. By releasing a flawed console version of the game, CD Projekt broke the gamer-centric value proposition they once cited as being so important. This leads us to:
CD Projekt RED is usually the first to get in front of any story before it becomes big news. Through honest communication, the studio has built a foundation of trust with their audience, which in turn has created greater leniency in their community.
However, this ethic began to show cracks early on. Early reviewers of Cyberpunk 2077 received a PC version of the game with greater stability to work from, with real footage of the game being blocked by a non-disclosure agreement. By offering a carefully tailored version of the game as a basis of reviews and hiding gameplay behind NDAs, the studio strayed from their characteristically honest approach.
The on-going pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works for almost every entertainment release this year, with Covid-19 being one of many reasons for the most recent launch delay. The studio presented this final delay as a promise that Cyberpunk 2077 would ultimately be worth it.
Facing the prospect of releasing an unpolished game or delaying the release past the holiday season, CD Projekt RED pushed on. Perhaps it’s easy to say that one more delay would have been grudgingly well received, with fans hanging on for just a few more weeks, but it could just have easily been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Despite the controversy and glitches, Cyberpunk 2077 can still be considered a success by many metrics. The game made a profit in one day on the strength of pre-orders and day-one purchases alone. Upon release, the game had over a million concurrent players on Steam, which combined with the number of pre-orders, made it the biggest PC game launch of all time.
The story is engaging, the world is vast and complex, and Keanu Reeves’ well-publicised performance throughout has been well received. The gaming community is known for harbouring iconoclastic tendencies, with as many players hoping to tear down hyped games as those willing to defend them. What you hear about Cyberpunk 2077 is not necessarily what you get upon booting up the game, though that uncertainty serves no one.
Perhaps the issues we see here are simply those of a small studio catapulted to AAA status through the success of a single title. CD Projekt’s marketing campaign was aggressive, with TV advertisements, strong messages across social media, and heavy audience interaction being the hallmarks of a studio being confident off the back of fresh success.
There is time yet for CD Projekt RED to re-write the narrative of Cyberpunk 2077’s release. Bigger studios have suffered worse launches while managing to assuage a disappointed community through patches and commitment to improve (Bethesda and Fallout 76 springs to mind).
Fans of CD Projekt RED and Cyberpunk 2077 alike can only hope that, over the coming weeks and months, the studio may yet rebuild their three pillars.