Cyberpunk 2077: A Victim of Expectation
How gaming’s newest big release has garnered disappointment beyond its bugs
In the year 2005, Will Wright (of The Sims fame) stepped onto the stage at GDC and proceeded to give a thirty-five-minute presentation that would change games and games marketing forever.
Wright’s legendary presentation and the one he gave at the following GDC (the one where Robin Williams made a Spore creature) promised a realistic but enjoyable evolution and sci-fi simulation game. Players would begin unicellular and climb the evolutionary ladder from water-dwelling to land-dwelling to tribal and so on up to space-faring.
|A frame from Spore's 2005 GDC presentation shows the cut ocean-dwelling stage|
In these presentations, Spore was claimed to have a Maya-like creature editor, procedural animations, randomly generated planets and ecosystems, advanced game systems, a massive galaxy and more. Wright even touted the game’s potential use as an educational tool in the classroom. He also claimed it was to be the “ultimate sandbox” and he had the gaming public’s goodwill. Spore was shaping up to be one of the most innovative and influential simulation games of its time.
Three years later in 2008, Spore was released among an atmosphere of near-critical excitement. YouTube content farms like Machinima in addition to individual creators and thousands of excited fans who had been playing the ‘Creature Creator’ churned out content and discussion like nothing before.
On release, Spore was met with lukewarm reviews from critics and fans alike. Critics cited the simplified game mechanics, extremely exaggerated cartoon style, and the removal of the water-dwelling stage as some of the most damning flaws. The fans were pissed as well of course (they made that very clear on the now-defunct “Sporum”) nothing could live up to the expectations set by the GDC demonstrations and Wright’s claims.
But was Spore a bad game? Not really. Was it anything special? In some ways, yes. But most importantly: did it live up to expectations? No. It never could.
The complete story of Spore’s development and failure to meet expectations is for another time, but shortly after Spore’s release in 2008, Will Wright, the mythical mind behind The Sims, SimCity, and so many other ground-breaking simulation games left Maxis, the company he founded. He has not been credited with a new game release since.
To fully understand the story of Cyberpunk 2077, we must first prime ourselves with the origins of its developer.
CD Projekt Red (CDPR) began as a team of translators, translating games for other developers, such as Baldur’s Gate into Polish -- but these humble translators had greater ambitions. By 2007, CDPR had released their first game, The Witcher, using code from a canceled Baldur’s Gate sequel. It received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time and sold over 300,000 copies by the next year. The Witcher had solidified CDPR’s place as a proper games developer.
|CD Projekt's first E3 booth circa. 2004|
Five years later, CDPR released The Witcher 2 and it was met with even more positive reviews and even greater success than its predecessor.
In January of the following year at the CD Projekt Red Group Summer Conference 2012, CDPR gave a short presentation on what they were working on next. The presentation opened with some slides about Cyberpunk, the pen & paper RPG system created by Mike Pondsmith in 1988.
In a slide titled “Our Promise”, Marcin Iwiński, co-founder of CD Projekt Red presented these five promises:
- MATURE RPG FOR MATURE UP [sic] AUDIENCES, REALISTIC AND BRUTAL, SET IN A RICH, FUTURISTIC WORLD
- GRIPPING NON-LINEAR STORY FILLED WITH LIFE AND DETAIL
- ADVANCED RPG MECHANICS BASED ON PEN&PAPER RPG SYSTEM
- VARIED SELECTION OF DIFFERENT CHARACTER CLASSES
- GIGANTIC ARSENAL OF WEAPONS, UPGRADES, IMPLANTS AND COOL HIGH-TECH TOYS
- SET NEW STANDARD IN THE FUTURISTIC RPG GENRE WITH AN EXCEPTIONAL GAMING EXPERIENCE
|To give his blessing, Mike Pondsmith made an appearance at this presentation and spoke enthusiastically about CDPR|
In January of the next year, CDPR released a Cyberpunk 2077 Teaser Trailer. It featured a pre-rendered Bladerunner-esque city and what appears to be a heavily augmented woman in the aftermath of a “cyberpsychosis” bout. The scene depicted a dark and violent future, rendered gorgeously.
The beginning of the hype cycle was marked by this teaser. As of the writing of this article, it has 23 million views on YouTube. Interviews with developers surrounding the release of the teaser were all over the internet, and discussion grew to a fever pitch.
Following the release of the teaser, CDPR released breadcrumbs about the game for some time before complete radio silence. This radio silence would extend for years, past the numerously delayed launch of the wildly successful The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 2015.
The Witcher 3 garnered face-melting praise and some perfect reviews from outlets such as Metacritic, GameSpot, IGN and PC Gamer. It is widely considered one of the greatest video games of all time. The third Witcher game changed things going forward. The bar for Cyberpunk 2077 had inadvertently been set astronomically high.
During this period of silence, the fans had not forgotten about Cyberpunk 2077. Rumors and conjecture about the game’s status flew around forums wantonly, and the hype continued to grow as fans continued to dream about its eventual release.
At E3 2018 during the Microsoft conference, CDPR made a surprise appearance. They showed a pre-rendered trailer to the public. It featured the main character, V, speaking about Night City, the game’s location, among a collage of clips of the degenerated future it exists in. The trailer is impressively evocative and its surprise reignited the hype for the game. To the public’s dismay, a 48-minute gameplay reveal of the game’s first mission was also shown to journalists at a close-door event.
Journalists had good impressions of the gameplay reveal, but discussion about the closed-door nature of the reveal swirled about for months until its eventual public release in August of that year, evaporating the concerns of many fans.
Except one thing -- in the beginning of the gameplay reveal a narrator explained that there would not be classes in the game, instead, your playstyle would be determined solely by your stats.
Despite this doubt, the positive impressions prevailed and the hype cycle continued. More news, rumors and breadcrumbs about the game were continuously fed to fans as time went on. An additional gameplay demo done at Gamescom that year showed an alternate playthrough of the same mission.
At E3 2019, CDPR once again made headlines when they revealed that actor Keanu Reeves would be playing an integral role to the game’s plot as rockerboy “Johnny Silverhand”, an anti-corporate terrorist who apparently defied his supposed death in the fictional 2020s of the pen and paper Cyberpunk. A deep dive and release date were also revealed. The release was set to April 16th, 2020. Many journalists and fans reported this showing to be the “most hype” in years.
At this point, this hype had truly grown out of control. Developers had promised years ago a genre-defining RPG, replete with next-generation features and playable on current-generation consoles. The game, by all measures, looked absolutely groundbreaking -- and if what the developers promised was true, it would be.
What followed next were several delays, many small and one large. The final delay was given after a rock-solid confirmation of absolutely no more delays by Cyberpunk 2077’s official Twitter. CDPR assured fans that these delays were necessary to bring them the game they had promised. The ultimate roleplaying game that would rock the foundation of the industry.
The 2020 delays were largely forgiven by the community as the coronavirus pandemic had forced everyone to alter their lives to some extent, but they would be a sign of strain for those who had seen delays like these before.
The release of the game finally occurred on December 10th, 2020.
I managed to contain my hype and largely escape the hype cycle surrounding this game until near its release. I tried to keep my expectations to a minimum; but if you were at all in-touch with games media and discussion at the time, it was common knowledge that Cyberpunk 2077 was in fact going to be the promised game that everyone could sink endless hours of their life into, just like the Fallouts and Elder Scrolls that preceded it. I remained cautiously optimistic.
The first inkling of suspicion I had about the game came when the official Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter bio changed in June 2019.
The bio until May 2019:
“Welcome to the official Twitter account of Cyberpunk 2077 -- the role-playing game of the dark future developed by @CDPROJEKTRED #Cyberpunk2077”
The bio from June 2019:
“Welcome to the official Twitter account of Cyberpunk 2077 -- an open-world, action-adventure story developed by @CDPROJEKTRED #Cyberpunk2077”
The difference is subtle, but ever-so important. Why would CDPR change this seemingly integral genre description of the game mere months before release? The change was unsettling, but went unnoticed by many. I remained cautiously optimistic.
As we neared closer and closer to the release date, CDPR had all the while been drip feeding carefully manicured gameplay videos / behind-the-scenes in the form of a series called “Night City Wire” (among some other videos) to fans. Fans were quick to note the visual downgrade present (to be clear, the game is still one of the best looking at the time of writing). Nearly all of the gameplay shown was in the form of what turned out to be missions. This immediately shot up red flags.
Days before release, big reviewers got their chance to play the game. Zero reviewers were permitted to play the game on any of the consoles. A restrictive review embargo was placed on the game and no video of the game was permitted to be included in reviews until the game’s release day. Reviewers had mixed, but generally positive views on the game. Bugs were one of the most commonly cited complaints, but for a game this massive in scope, this gargantuan in scale -- a few bugs are acceptable, right?
It turns out that mere bugs were not the primary cause of disappointment.
|One of Cyberpunk 2077's most circulated, immersion-breaking and amusing glitches.|
To be clear, the bugs ARE disruptive. And the performance even on high-end PCs IS inconsistent at best. And the fact that it barely runs on the base PS4 and Xbox One is unacceptable. But forget the technical complaints. What about the game? How is the game?
I cleared out my evening and got ready to play the next big RPG… but I would soon find out that I started playing something entirely different. Here are all the reasons Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t the immersive, rich, sandbox RPG we were promised:
- Narrative Elements
- Your chosen lifepath is largely irrelevant. After the fifteen minute introduction, your lifepath is all but forgotten save for the occasional alternate dialog choice. These alternate dialog choices are for all intents and purposes reskinned primary dialog choices. They never lead to an outcome you could achieve through a different choice.
- The main quest is extremely urgent. Your doctor recommends you complete the objective of the main quest within weeks or you will die.
- V is always the same V, a mercenary trying to make their way to the top. While you can choose to handle situations in certain ways your choice almost never affects the story.
- The story is entirely linear. V will always find himself in the same quests.
- Mechanical Elements
- The generic NPCs that litter the city have absurdly rudimentary AI. Each follows a set path or behavior. None of them possess routines. None of them are intractable outside of slightly pushing them off their paths or receiving a generic bark. None of them have unique identities.
- The shops and stands that litter night city are non-interactable. The NPCs who sell food will not sell to you. You cannot buy items at any of these stores.
- Driver AI cannot course correct. If there is something in their way they either crash and clip through it or stop. Parking a car on the highway can lead to an infinite stop in traffic. Destruction details are limited.
- Doors that lead to interiors are nearly all closed and locked without a way to open them.
- Named NPCs are rare in the world. Most of them have only a couple lines of dialog and are not killable.
- There is next to no mechanical reason to explore Night City. Aside from occasional diversions. Meaty content, secret quests, random encounters or hidden locations are uncommon or absent completely.
- Perks are mostly percentage passive upgrades. A select few perks do grant access to new abilities but they are uncommon.
- Gear and cybernetics are limited to mostly passive upgrades. A handful grant new weapons but you are unable to augment yourself to even the level of a common generic NPC.
- Side activities and diversions are all stuck within side quests and are not repeatable.
As I played through Cyberpunk 2077, I realized that everything surrounding quests was merely smoke and mirrors -- a façade of sandbox surrounding the real meat of the game, the missions. This game is nothing like Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas (or even Grand Theft Auto as many thought it would be). This game is an action-adventure along the lines of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or Saint’s Row: The Third.
That being said, I had generally positive impressions of the game. The game is gorgeous. It has great sound design and world design. Night City may be one of the most best realized cities in all of gaming. Story characters are likeable, detailed and realistically portrayed. The plot, while straightforward, is serviceable.
But my opinion with the game cannot entirely stem from its quality alone. My expectations and indeed the expectations of thousands of others were completely let down. I’m fine with playing Cyberpunk 2077 for what it is, but I would much rather have played it for what it was going to be; what we all thought it was going to be.
Many people have been saying that this game could never live up to expectations and I believe that’s unequivocally true. The hype train was the most intense in years. But this game did not satisfy its description pre-release nor most of the promises given by CDPR over the years.
I understand that every game changes as development progresses -- but this game was advertised as an RPG first. Steam’s store page is marked with the tag RPG. The game’s Wikipedia article calls this game an open world action-adventure RPG. Everyone thought this game was going to be the next great RPG. This game is not the next great RPG. This game is the next average action adventure.
Just as Spore’s expectations were driven to be as ultimate as they were through presentations and developer promises, so were Cyberpunk 2077’s.
In both cases, I believe that the developers bit off more than they could chew, the project was mismanaged, it had to be downscaled and it eventually led to the end product at release: a competent product that is profoundly disappointing. Victims of expectation.
Despite the disappointment, the success of Cyberpunk 2077 has been incredible. Whether we like it or not, the leadup to release and the product we were given will have a huge impact on the industry going forward.
CDPR has promised patches to address issues with the game, but most of the issues they seem to be focusing on are bugs and performance -- issues that are skin-deep compared to the DNA-level issues of a game we were not promised. Only time can tell if Cyberpunk 2077 will ever be our generation’s next great RPG.
8 million of Cyberpunk 2077’s sales (all platforms) were pre-orders. Development and marketing costs were exceeded by pre-orders alone.
Cyberpunk 2077 broke the Steam concurrent player record for single player games with 1,003,264 players.
Cyberpunk 2077 PC release was briefly awarded Metacritic's "Must Play" award before being stripped of it.
CD Projekt’s stock price has plummeted 33% from its monthly high and all-time high, with a value loss of over $1 billion.
In a December 14th investor call, Adam Kicinski, joint-CEO of CDPR says the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 has resulted in “...the loss of gamers’ trust and reputation that we’ve been building through a big part of our lives.”
Mike Pondsmith has yet to give an interview about Cyberpunk 2077 since its release.