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Thursday, January 14, 2021

What the games industry should learn from Cyberpunk 2077 is not the lesson that it will learn


Opinion by Matt S. 

I think at this point the story of Cyberpunk 2077 is well-known and well-reported. It had a catastrophic launch on console that has done meaningful damage to the CD Projekt Red brand, and Sony even took the unprecedented step of removing the game from sale in its entirety at one point. In the last day, one of the co-founders of CD Projekt Red issued a humble, near grovelling apology, and unveiled a "roadmap to recovery" that would see Cyberpunk 2077's improved console version not land until towards the end of the year. Additionally, there will be "free DLC" and a rapid stream of updates as the company scrambles to save the game. It will mean, no doubt, plenty of ongoing, harmful crunch for the developers, but hey, as long as fans are happy, right?

The hope is, for CD Projekt Red, its fans, and shareholders, that the company can achieve a No Man's Sky-like about-face. In that case, developer, Hello Games, was able to turn a disappointing launch into a well-regarded game over a number of years through sheer willpower, persistence, and throwing just about every player-requested feature into the game that they could manage (as an aside, I actually think they've ruined what made No Man's Sky something pretty distinctive and artful, but that's another story for another day). I don't doubt that CD Projekt Red will achieve this. It's no exaggeration to say that the company's ongoing viability really relies on convincing people that refunded Cyberpunk 2077 to re-buy the game, and it's going to throw every resource it has to brute force a success out of it. When that happens, it is unfortunate but the lessons that the industry will take from the journey will be centred around how to manage a game post-launch and "fix" an underperforming game. What the industry should be learning is that it should try living within its means.

Let's take VA-11 Hall-A as a point of comparison. VA-11 Hall-A is, too, a cyberpunk-themed game, and in fact, unlike Cyberpunk 2077, this is real, hardcore, deep cyberpunk stuff. When you scratch beyond the technical bugs that have dominated the conversation around Cyberpunk 2077, you find that a lot of people found that game to be disappointing on a foundational level, too. Those that can work through the bugs and experience the game still find its narrative to be laboured and, frankly, it's just bad cyberpunk. The same cannot be said about VA-11 Hall-A, which has a 10/10 average rating across over 20,000 user reviews on Steam, and many of those celebrate it for being a very pure cyberpunk vision. The (much) more modest vision of VA-11 Hall-A allowed the developer to focus on something authentic and meaningful, and build a creative vision that didn't need seven years and tens of millions of dollars to produce to be memorable, evocative, powerful and interesting.

Or what about Disco Elysium? It's not cyberpunk, but like Cyberpunk 2077, it's a narrative-driven video game adaptation of a tabletop RPG. It looks modest, like Baldur's Gate or Planescape Torment from yesteryear, and yet it has also had nearly universal praise across 25,000 Steam reviews, and has won awards and accolated for its narrative and storytelling in a way that Cyberpunk never well, even if it's "fixed."

I've written about this a little in the past, but the video game industry is in an arms race around its most superficial elements, rather than focusing on the stuff that actually matters to the quality and legacy of a video game. The big publishers work their teams to the bone to create ever-more complex, big, games. CD Projekt Red's co-founder, in his apology clip, explains some of the complexity that was in the game and meant it was still in such a sorry state after 500-odd people worked on it for seven years. He's not lying in that clip. That is how complex and grand in scope development has become. Last year's Call of Duty had four (or was it six) different studios working on it. Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed games are in continuous, 24-hour development, because the company has studios in every time zone and they are all working on finding ways to deal with the complexity of the games being made.

But is any of that necessary? Frankly, no. I really mean that. None of it matters. The best stories are being told by development teams of a dozen people, if not fewer. Another massive hit game in the last year, Hades, was celebrated across the entire gamut of the video game industry for its gorgeous aesthetics, despite being made for a fraction of the art budget of Cyberpunk 2077, and the developers on Hades never had to crunch (the developer is rightfully proud of that fact). DDNet's own game of the year for 2020, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, has been a massive commercial success, sold over 500,000 copies, and it did so thanks to its gorgeous art, engaging concept and cultural depth. It was made by two people.

The only thing that Cyberpunk 2077 has over any of these other games that I have mentioned is that it is bigger. But at what cost? Even putting aside the wealth of bugs, it's a mess of a game that doesn't do anything original (it's really just GTA but with neon lights and cybernetic enhancements), doesn't say anything worthwhile, and doesn't exist for any reason other than to convince people to pay for it. All scale achieves in video games is to turn art into a product. This hasn't happened through a lack of talent, either: CD Projekt Red rightfully struck gold with The Witcher series. The difference is that The Witcher games were, in a very strange way, modest in scope. Given the scope of the Witcher 3 that might seem like a strange statement, but that was the third game for a reason, and built on two games that were very much smaller scale. Indeed, the original The Witcher is renowned (and celebrated) for being a hot mess, but also something potent in storytelling and creativity. That foundation was then modestly built on over two sequels and a long period of time to become the incredible epic the third ended up being. Cyberpunk 2077 was a very different experience. With it, the developers aimed to make the biggest blockbuster of all, right out of the gates, and not once considered why they were doing that or where it was coming from.

I've removed Cyberpunk 2077 from my hard drive, but I remain a big fan of punk aesthetics (particularly cyberpunk), and I've been playing through Cloudpunk recently. It, like Cyberpunk 2077, is an open world, science fiction-infused, neon-heavy, gritty game that has the temerity to put "punk" right there in the name. It's working for me, however, because the developers, being of smaller scope than the team that worked on Cyberpunk 2077, clearly had no concerns about going hard with the punk elements, and while it's not a game for everyone, it has become a game that is very much celebrated by most players for its purity of vision, strong narrative, and themes.

This "arms race" around the complexity and scope of video games is coming at the expense of their quality. If the games industry was learning the right lessons, what it would take from Cyberpunk 2077 is that the game never needed to be like that. With a smaller scope and a more defined creative vision, Cyberpunk 2077 would have been better realised, more creative, and never in need of saving. Sadly, I really doubt that's going to be the lesson learned here, particularly if sales start picking up and CD Projekt Red's stock price recovers.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


What the games industry should learn from Cyberpunk 2077 is not the lesson that it will learn
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