The Ironic Controversies Plaguing Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk, one of sci-fi’s most rebellious subgenres, is all about holding power to account. Although people focus on the glitz of advanced cybernetics, scientific advancements, and overall attitude of cool, it’s the satirical underbelly of megacorporations and superstates versus low-life space cowboys where the genre holds its love. These fictional worlds are no utopia, of course, but their daring rebels dream of one established on truth, liberty and actually living in the moment. To quote cyberpunk author O. Lemniscate: “Truth is never in the middle. Truth is where it is! In Freedom!”

It’s with these foundational values in mind that we turn to the ironically titled Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most highly anticipated video game products of the last decade, which was launched to the public under false pretenses by its publisher CD Projekt Red. In what can only be called a sick perversion of these cyberpunk themes, the game studio is mired in corporate-led controversies involving lying to customers, distributors, and investors, manipulating reviewers through deceptive practices, and abusing their developers through predatory overtime. The whole thing has culminated in a broken video game, where the central message condemns the very same greed-over-gut mentality their highest overlords adopted; if there is a sick satire to Cyberpunk 2077, it’s not from the art itself, but rather the development hell behind the scenes.

It only took days for CDPR to have as many controversies as some of the worst studios in video game history. For example, it took over a year for Jason Schreier, one of the industry’s most reputable journalists and leading critics of “crunch,” to gather enough sources to expose Electronic Arts and Bioware for their terrible work on Anthem. On that title, the developers were forced to constantly rework the game, expected to stay nights, weekends and holidays just to meet the tight release deadline, only to have the game critically panned for its deceptive pre-rendered footage, missing features, and game-breaking bugs on release.

In the span of a week, Schreier has talked to multiple sources within CDPR who have confirmed staff faced similar treatment, describing them as “frustrated and angry” with the game’s disastrous launch due to management’s use of deceptive marketing practices, predatory crunch, and unrealistic goals heading into Cyberpunk 2077’s December 10th release. After the game was delayed thrice, management instituted mandatory six-day weeks just to finish the game, “incentivizing” work beyond these six days through a token system. To put it mildly, it seems as though CDPR’s overtime economy was a complicated mess that wouldn’t survive a labor rights investigation.

Firstly, earning tokens was based entirely on arbitrary standards. According to three current and former employees, the team leaders would hand out coins styled after the studio’s logo, a red bird, based on whatever behaviors they deemed “honorable.” The way to earn tokens was unspecified, though it’s not difficult to guess it’d involve typical “employee of the month” dross like working later hours, rushing tasks earlier, or stroking the egos of executives. Additionally, the actual value of these tokens was subject to change and tied directly into the workers’ end of year bonuses. This meant if the game didn’t meet CDPR’s criteria, such as critical acclaim on review aggregate sites or a timely release, those tokens lost value. 

To put this in perspective, there was no binding obligation to any of this. In fact, this was a feature, not a bug of their overtime economy. If you’re the most dedicated worker, pouring your blood, sweat and tears into the dead of night for those tokens, CDPR could effectively punish you for standards left entirely out of your control. The workers don’t control review reception. They don’t determine appropriate release dates for the finished game. There’s no union to ensure power balances that don’t undercut token value. It was left entirely to the discretion of CD Projekt Red’s management. It doesn’t exactly sound like a fair workplace for the so-called “home of rebels,” as plastered around CDPR’s Warsaw office.

“We initially had a bonus system that was focused on the game’s ratings and the release date, but after consideration, we believe that measure is simply not fair under the circumstances,” wrote Adam Badowski, CDPR’s studio head and creative director for Cyberpunk 2077, in the email to staff. “We underestimated the lengths and complexity involved to make this a reality, and still you did everything you could to deliver an ambitious, special game.” 

Under the new system, payouts will reportedly be guaranteed even though Cyberpunk 2077 was delayed multiple times and the review scores have been mixed, to say the least. This still doesn’t address the concern about whether these bonuses will be given at full value, which wasn’t established at the time. It only implies bonuses won’t go as low as zero. Credit where it’s due, bonuses will come in addition to “regular annual profit-sharing payouts,” which certainly isn’t nothing considering their record game sales, despite record numbers of refunds and the company’s stock decreasing.

However, the way CDPR achieved those record sales is another matter of discussion. The game’s marketing was allegedly rife with deception, leaving their principled developers rightfully pissed. As multiple versions of the game launched with countless glitches, unresolved crashes, corrupting save files, unstable framerates, missing features, scenes that induce seizures, and even game-breaking bugs, the Polish video game developers took their concerns up with management in a December meeting. One staffer asked why an executive claimed the game was “complete and playable” in January when that wasn’t true, to which the board answered that it “would take responsibility.” Later, another developer boldly asked whether CDPR’s directors felt “it was hypocritical to make a game about corporate exploitation” all the while expecting employees to work overtime. “The response was vague and non-committal,” according to Schreier’s source.

When investigating Cyberpunk’s development, you’ll find this attitude of vague, non-committal cake-eating is a running theme among CDPR heads, especially when it comes to pleasing the money people. It was Adam Kaciński, CDPR’s joint-CEO, who made a claim during a November investor call that the game ran “surprisingly good” on the previous-gen hardware such as the PS4 and Xbox One, which just so happened to hold 41% of all pre-orders for the game. This is an interesting claim considering that none of the marketing at the time actually showed console footage, including the glowing reviews just days before the release. As it turns out, this was also by design.

According to Windows Central journalist Brendan Lowry, CDPR had intentionally limited their review copies of the game to the PC platform — “the version of the game that, by far, runs and looks the best.” At the time, no explanation was given for this choice, despite the game being a multi-platform title that was officially certified by both Sony and Microsoft. Critics were even restricted from recording their own footage in reviews, meaning they could only show pre-rendered footage hand-picked by CDPR. Before release, the reviews for Cyberpunk 2077 appeared to be fantastic, the PC version garnering an 89 average on Metacritic and a 91 average on OpenCritic. For the unsuspecting consumer, the previous-gen consoles were perfectly up to industry standard. Nothing could be further from the truth.

According to an analysis by Digital Foundry, an outlet dedicated to covering game performance, base console versions of the game dropped to as low as 15 frames-per-second, whereas pro versions dropped to around 18fps to 30fps. Written after patch 1.02, journalist John Linneman called base console versions of the game “unacceptable” with his PS4 version being “hugely cut down” compared to the PC version. “There’s just so much less detail. They’ve clearly built a high-end PC experience targeting cutting-edge hardware and that comes with a cost,” Linneman said. “I’d have been perfectly fine with the visual cuts if it guaranteed a smooth frame rate but unfortunately we are once again dipping back into sort of PS3 and 360-era frame rates. There’s slow-down, there’s stuttering, the visual quality is seriously compromised, the whole thing is just kind of a mess.”

Within days, the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the title became a hot topic in the gaming community. CD Projekt Red repeatedly apologized for the state of the game, announcing to issue full refunds “out of our own pocket if necessary.” This became increasingly difficult as 74% were digital preorders, leading the PlayStation and Xbox Stores to initially refuse refunds for the game because updates were set to roll out in early 2021. Sony reversed that policy almost a week later and took Cyberpunk 2077 down from the PlayStation Store. In response, Microsoft also expanded its refund policy to honor refunds for players who bought the game on Xbox. This was soon followed by physical retailers like Best Buy, GameStop, other stores who suddenly realized they were selling people outright broken junk.

Once the bugs, errors, crashes, and overall performance disparity became apparent, CD Projekt Red was practically caught with their pants down. In an attempt to save face, stocks plummeting by the second, the company admitted to “updating the last-gen version until the very last minute,” according to a statement from joint-CEO Marcin Iwiński in their most recent December investor call. “We thought we’d make it in time,” Iwiński continued, “but unfortunately, this resulted in giving it to reviewers just one day before the release, which was definitely too late and the media didn’t get the chance to review it properly. That was not intended; we were just fixing the game until the very last moment.” A far cry from being “complete and playable” indeed.

So, was CDPR lying then? Are they lying now? Or is it both? What are a few days of work on Cyberpunk 2077 — which took eight years of roasting in the fires of development hell — going to do to salvage the console versions? Even if we buy this story, it doesn’t explain why reviewers were held from showing their own footage on any platform. CDPR released their own passive-aggressive tweets threatening DMCAs against anyone — critic, streamer, or otherwise — who showed footage before release. Surely these makers of "game of the year” material would be proud to show their baby in action.

No, hiding the game’s flaws was an intentional marketing strategy. Consumers are simply left wondering how far the rabbit hole went. “It reeks of manipulation and taking advantage of how many gamers look to sites like ours when deciding whether or not they should buy a game,” Lowry concluded. “On top of that, Cyberpunk 2077 overall has primarily been marketed as a current-gen experience over the last few years, giving players the impression that the game would perform well on Xbox One and PS4. In the end, every sign points towards the review restrictions being part of a manipulative and intentionally dishonest plan to get the game in the hands of players without being open about how the game runs.”

We can’t blame this entirely on the media. Some prominent outlets such as GameRant were smart enough to mention console copies weren’t being released for review ahead of time. Others, such as Game Informer, have at least began issuing corrections on the disparity between platforms. This even led to OpenCritic branding Cyberpunk 2077 with a consumer warning, even accusing CDPR of intentional manipulation of the press on the last-gen versions prior to launch. This notice will remain on the site until February 2021, around the time CDPR promised to release its second-largest patch to try to repair the game to an acceptable state, according to one of their latest yellow apology tweets

No, the press was merely the tool for CDPR to achieve its plans. Hardly model citizens for truth, liberty, and holding power to account. Like most cyberpunk phonies, their attention is still on all that glitters. At least it was until law firms in both Poland and the US publicly announced that they would be investigating CDPR for a class action suit related to Cyberpunk 2077. As if things couldn’t get any worse, it was reported in The New York Times that Warsaw attorney and CDPR investor Mikołaj Orzechowski has brought forward a motion to accuse the company of pulling the wool over investors’ eyes, claiming the company illegally misrepresented itself and its products.

“My name is Mikołaj Orzechowski, I am a Warsaw attorney and at the same time a CDPR investor. In connection with the recent events — and in particular the suspension of the sale of the CYBERPUNK 2077 product, we are currently analyzing, together with the law firm’s team, the grounds for bringing a class action together with the notification of the possibility of committing a crime under Art. 286 of the Penal Code. — misrepresentation in order to obtain financial benefits” Orzechowski states. According to GameRant, Orzechowski is seeking other investors who would be interested in joining such a suit. 

The second threat comes from New York law firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP. Last week, the firm published a press release saying that it’s currently investigating “potential securities claims” against CD Projekt on behalf of shareholders. Specifically, this relates to allegations that CDPR management may have issued misleading information to its shareholders and the public at large, jeopardizing the company’s own reputation. “Wolf Haldenstein also asks for those who may have incurred a loss due to investment in CD Projekt to contact the firm,” the report states. 

To be clear, none of these threats has so far materialized into filed class-action lawsuits against CD Projekt, but these investigations do present a striking challenge against the once acclaimed pro-consumer corporation, a term which grows all the more humorous by the day. How ironic that CDPR’s dramatic stunts and attempt to quickly cash-in on Cyberpunk 2077’s holiday release, has directly resulted in CD Projekt’s stock price dramatically falling since December 10th. Much like those tokens, the value of CDPR has fallen over time. The bugs, the fraud, the crunch, the refunds, the potential lawsuits, the lies upon lies only serve as a reflection of the company’s true worth, as a company no different from EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Capcom, Bethesda, Take-Two Interactive, any of the predatory companies CDPR once claimed were their enemy. Instead, it’s as Lemniscate says: The truth is where it is. Thanks to the shitstorm of their own making, CD Projekt Red is simply another among terrible companies. 

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