When President Obama visited Poland in 2011, Prime Minister Donald Tusk handed him a copy of the video game The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings as a gift to commemorate their meeting. Based on a series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the gift was meant to represent one of the nation’s great works of art, as well as to show that Poland was creating entertainment and technology that could stand up to the industry titans in Japan and America. But for CD Projekt Red, the Polish game studio that created the game, it was the highest possible praise.

The Witcher series was already critically acclaimed in 2012, but the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 2015 sent CD Projekt Red barrelling towards unparalleled, and perhaps unsustainable, success and popularity. An immense, sprawling fantasy epic, The Witcher 3 released to rave reviews and flew off store shelves and online stores. An intense fandom would develop around the game in the years to come. Popular consensus declared it one of the best video games ever made, and any game unfortunate enough to release after it was subject to constant comparison. To date, the game has sold more than 28 million copies, making it one of the best selling titles of all time. The success of The Witcher 3 propelled CD Projekt Red far beyond its status as Poland’s darling studio, securing it for many as the paragon of video game development.

On December 10, all that goodwill vanished when CD Projekt Red released its newest game, Cyberpunk 2077

Describing Cyberpunk as “highly anticipated” is as timid a description as anyone could give. Announced in 2012, the game promised a futuristic, open-world experience unlike anything the medium had seen before. Made by a darling AAA game studio and in a genre which video games have a rich history exploring, fans didn’t just hope it was going to be good — it was a guarantee. 

When the first reviews of the game dropped, things started looking grim. Critics gave it lukewarm scores and warned that it was incredibly buggy, unfinished and at times unplayable. One reviewer warned that a mandatory sequence in the game caused her to have an epileptic seizure. Still, the most ardent CD Projekt Red fans held hope. They harassed critics who were lukewarm on the game, going as far as sending disguised epileptic triggers to the writer who warned about the game causing seizures.

But just a few days later when the game released, a reversal happened. Clips of Cyberpunk’s many hilarious, frustrating bugs flooded the internet. The game’s character creator had a bug that caused genitals to stick out of clothing. Some missions in the game were broken, unable to be started or completed. Cars and characters would disappear when off-camera. One viral clip shows a character walking into the sky after a car crash, only for their car to suddenly explode and decapitate them. 

These issues were all present on computers and the newest consoles — the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X. But Cyberpunk also released on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, where it ran so poorly that CD Projekt Red released an apology promising to fix the game with a series of updates — before Sony undercut that apology by removing the game from the Playstation 4 store and offered refunds. Even then, some players were able to wrangle refunds out of Sony while others weren’t. It didn’t take long before some fans started agreeing with the critics who they’d previously harassed and accused of wanting the game to fail. 

The Twitter accounts for CD Projekt Red and Cyberpunk 2077 have seen a 33% increase in followers in the few days since the game’s release, as many turned to the developers for an explanation as to what had happened. While an increase in followers is generally seen as a good thing, we’ve shown before that a boost in following can also be the result of a collective outrage — and there’s absolutely been one around Cyberpunk.

It had become clear to many that CD Projekt Red had sold a false promise with Cyberpunk 2077, ultimately releasing a wildly anticipated product that it knew wasn’t functional. But this was no fluke; the troubles with Cyberpunk began long before the game’s release. 

Bad Omens

The big-budget video game industry at large is infamous for a labor practice that’s come to be known as “crunch,” during which employees work extensive overtime in order to meet deadlines. A 2019 survey by the International Game Developers Association found that 76% of respondents said their job involved crunch or extended hours, down from 81% in 2014. Only 8% of respondents received paid overtime — others either received no compensation, or compensation in the form of food or future time off. 

Even before Cyberpunk released to the public, CD Projekt Red had a reputation for brutal crunch that could extend for weeks or months at a time. In the leadup to the release of Cyberpunk, which was originally scheduled for April 16, 2020, CD Projekt Red gave statements to Kotaku and other outlets that it was trying to develop “more humane” overtime practices for its employees.

In January, the release date was pushed back to September. “We want Cyberpunk 2077 to be our crowning achievement for this generation and postponing launch will give us the precious months we need to make the game perfect,” CD Projekt Red said in a statement on Twitter. During an investor call later that day, CEO Adam Kiciński admitted that the delay would mean more crunch for the development team.

In June, the game was delayed again to November, and then again to December. The first delays were met with support. Fans would quote Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s famous saying about delayed games: “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” Though with each delay, more skepticism started bubbling to the surface. Though CD Projekt Red said the delays would give the team breathing room to finish the game, it has been widely reported that delays lead to further crunch

In an unscheduled investor call shortly after the release of the game, CD Projekt Red board member Michał Nowakowski confessed that there was no pressure forcing the studio to release the game in 2021. “I wouldn’t say that we felt any external or internal pressure to launch on the date – other than the normal pressure, which is typical for any release. So that was not the cause,” Nowakowski said.

The fans quoting Shigeru Miyamoto may have been right — despite its deluge of delays, Cyberpunk 2077 was still a rushed game. It was mismanagement that doomed the game.

Cyberpunk 2077 also started attracting critics with its marketing campaign, which drew constant attention and controversy to the title months before its release. One particular incident involved the revelation of in-game artwork, which depicted a transgender model with in an in-universe advertisement with an extremely large penis pressing visibly against their clothing, which many criticized as othering or mocking transgendered people. CD Projekt Red stood by the poster. 

CD Projekt Red’s social media accounts leaned heavily into edgy, controversial marketing, cracking jokes about gender identity and even celebrating GamerGate, an online alt-right movement which targeted and harassed women and people of color in the games industry. Though the employee who posted that tweet was later fired, the message was clear: Cyberpunk was a safe space for the crowd who thought games were getting too political, and that reviewers were more concerned with social justice and representation than the quality of games themselves. 

Whether unknowingly or not, CD Projekt Red built a fanbase that latched onto Cyberpunk not because of the game itself, but what it represented in a perceived culture war in which games are the primary battleground — the kind of fan base that would send epileptic triggers and death threats to a critic who warned that they had a seizure while reviewing the game.

In the end, CD Projekt Red’s marketing and its forcing employees to work years of mandatory crunch on a cyberpunk video game, only for it to release unfinished and broken, is more cyberpunk than anything in Cyberpunk 2077 itself. 

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Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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