The Rise and Fall of CD Projekt RED
I’m not sure many people outside of the PC community could tell you what The Witcher was 10 years ago. And I’d bet that even fewer people knew who CD Projekt RED was. Such is usually the case for even very good PC developers, as they work to create and refine a property or identity that may not pay off until they reach the mainstream.
But CD Projekt RED managed to do it. After a rough PC release of the first Witcher installment, they went back to that RPG fantasy world with The Witcher 2, earning a little more attention and recognition. Then came the ascent, as they struck gold, both figuratively and literally, with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt; partly due to their crossover onto both mainstream consoles and partly due to the dramatic, undeniable improvement in the quality of the game over its predecessor.
The Witcher 3 Effect
The Witcher 3 was a masterpiece, though not necessarily out of the gate. The scope of the game matched CD Projekt RED’s ambition, and they admittedly didn’t quite stick the landing. Bugs plagued the initial release, as did wonky mechanics and systems that were the source of contention for many early adopters of the game. What CD Projekt RED did next was the beginning of their legacy as not only a masterful modern game development studio, but as a company positioning themselves as a standard of the worldwide gaming community.
They didn’t just fix the bugs and crashes, they overhauled the inventory menu and systems after reports that it was tedious and hard to navigate. They changed the combat. They enhanced interactivity with the game world. They were determined to make the game better and match their initial vision for it, and they did that. The changes were enacted across both PC and consoles and were met with a cheer from Witcher fans old and new. Free DLC was offered to players. Paid expansions rivaling full games brought more to the world. Followed by the final (enormous) DLC installment to complete the game’s content, The Witcher 3 stood as a rousing success.
And so began the myth of CD Projekt RED as a bastion of what’s right in gaming. They had redefined the Western RPG, introduced much of the console gaming public to The Witcher in incredible fashion, and set the standard for owning the responsibility of delivering on internal and external expectations.
On the back of The Witcher 3’s success, something else was occurring behind the scenes. On March 18, 2018 CD Projekt Red S.A. began trading as part of the WIG20. An aggregate stock index comprised of the 20 biggest companies in their native Poland’s stock market, inclusion into the WIG20 was a monumental achievement. With it there would surely come expectations, but it didn’t seem like anything for them to be concerned about. They were capitalizing on the success of The Witcher 3 with the launch of spinoffs Gwent and Thronebreaker, as well as a port to Nintendo’s portable Switch console. All three projects were executed masterfully and well received, further cementing their status as a model development studio. The Witcher 3 was still paying dividends and CDPR had seemingly vaulted into the stratosphere and become a billion dollar company.
The Cyberpunk of Things
It was natural to assume that the focused and intentional effort, care, and excellence that CDPR exercised to make The Witcher series a smash hit would also translate to their next major IP, Cyberpunk 2077. So much so that nobody blinked an eye at the game’s first delay from April 20, 2020 to September 17, 2020, even after eight years of development. After that delay, they reaffirmed their commitment to the September launch date with a company statement. Reassuring coming from a company who had already showed trailers and gameplay galore.
They continued their marketing push, showing tidbits of content, gameplay, and their own Night City Wire, a detailed behind the scenes look at the game’s progress and various systems directly from the game devs. There was no obvious sign from CD Projekt RED that the release of this game was in doubt or that the game was seriously behind schedule.
So when Jason Schreier broke a story about mandatory crunch taking place at CDPR to finish Cyberpunk 2077 after its second announced delay, it rattled quite a few cages.
Last year, the bosses of CD Projekt Red approached me for an interview. They wanted to announce that for Cyberpunk 2077, they would be avoiding mandatory crunch.
This week, they sent out an email to staff announcing studio-wide mandatory crunch. News: https://t.co/s4OI5rUiQq
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) September 29, 2020
The story was met with an astounding amount of push back; a credit to the faith CD Projekt RED had built up over the last five years. Very few people were ready to believe that this development studio would subject their staff to crunch after explicitly promising not to do so. But the evidence was starting to pile up in the form of delays, internal letters leaking out, and a suspicious lack of gameplay from the base PS4 and Xbox One consoles. Something was starting to smell funny, even if the gaming world wasn’t collectively ready to believe it.
The Home Stretch
Then came a final delay, followed by broken street dates of the physical copies of the console version of the game, which showed a terribly faulty and broken product. CDPR worked quickly to reassure the public that the gold version would be fixed with a Day 1 patch and be playable. They even put together some footage of the game working reasonably well on PS4 Pro and through BC on PS5, helping to reassure the public that there was no cause for concern.
It was a lie.
Or at best, some well-managed misdirection. What is now evident to the public is that Cyberpunk 2077’s rollout was steeped in deception. From the promise of refraining from crunch to the overly optimistic release date, and—the most damning evidence—their refusal to let reviewers actually see the game running on base PS4 and Xbox One consoles; CD Projekt RED overpromised on the release date, reversed course on protecting their workers from crunch, and attempted to hide their failure from the public in order to preserve the profits from record preorders of Cyberpunk 2077. The shine on everybody’s industry sweetheart had begun to dull. And things would only get worse.
By the time the public had their hands on base console versions of the game, the cat was out of the bag. It was a disaster. Much worse than the bugs and glitches that plagued The Witcher 3, this was much worse. The game could barely be played, much less enjoyed, particularly on the base consoles themselves. And CDPR’s answer to the rising tide of criticism? “Go ask Microsoft and Sony for a refund.” While simultaneously celebrating the 8 million preorders and financial success of a broken game to reassure their shareholders, they faltered on offering a concrete explanation of how the game could ship in such poor condition.
After complaints about base console versions of Cyberpunk 2077 reached a fever pitch, CDPR attempted to address the controversy by reassuring the public the game would be fixed in time. And also by pushing cleanup duty onto PlayStation and Xbox.
— Cyberpunk 2077 (@CyberpunkGame) December 14, 2020
While this may not have seemed like much of a request, Sony will not fulfill refund requests without justification or specific issues with a product. The official policies state a game must be faulty, and no refund can be given after the game has been downloaded. Adding to that tension was the fact that CDPR had not discussed any special provisions with PlayStation about refunding digital preorders. CDPR just reflexively put the accountability for the quality of their product on the store who sold them in an effort to appease disappointed players.
In a three day span that saw frustration with CDPR grow, then (unjustified) anger toward PlayStation and Xbox for denying customers refunds for the digital purchases of the game, the situation took it’s biggest and most consequential turn: PlayStation announced that they would refund any digital copies of Cyberpunk 2077, no questions asked. Bigger still, the game would simultaneously be removed from the PlayStation Store until further notice.
SIE strives to ensure a high level of customer satisfaction, and we will begin to offer a full refund for all gamers who have purchased Cyberpunk 2077 via PlayStation Store and want a refund. Please visit the following link to initiate the refund: https://t.co/DEZlC0LmUG.
— Ask PlayStation (@AskPlayStation) December 18, 2020
This took the debacle into new territory, as there had never been such a high profile new game pulled from digital store fronts by the platform holder. While CDPR was in perpetual free fall because their their poor decisions, outright deception, and overly ambitious release plans, PlayStation and Xbox were left holding the pieces. And in true “adult in the room” fashion, they took the most definitive stance possible, particularly when CD Projekt RED decided to drag them under the bus too.
“This is broken. You can’t seem to fix it, so I will.”
What has and will continue to follow is a predictable following of other major retailers by processing refunds for the game. As of the publishing of this article, both Xbox and Best Buy have started offering no-questions-asked refunds of Cyberpunk 2077. But more than the financial concerns, so many questions need to be answered by CD Projekt RED.
Internal developers certainly knew that the game was nowhere near completion on older consoles. So that leaves no doubt that the deception about those versions of the game was intentional. The people who set goals and deadlines knew that they were behind on development and plowed ahead with marketing and promotion befitting a game that was ready to be released, misdirection that continued right up until release day.
In the face of the controversy, they celebrated the financial success to appease shareholders while telling gamers to look elsewhere for their refund. They promised updates in January and February to fix a game that had already earned them over $500M. They denied and deferred. Then denied some more. Then they were delisted (and subsequently danced around that topic). And now we are all left with the most important questions:
How did they get here? Why in the hell would they risk their reputation and years of hard work by forcing the release of a game they had been promoting for the better part of a decade? What could they have possibly gained from a hurried release that couldn’t be gained later with the public satisfaction that comes with a job well done? And why is it so hard for CD Projekt RED to take accountability for these decisions? Where are the adults? Who is going to take responsibility? Why did five years of operating in the best interest of the public suddenly take a backseat to quarterly deadlines and shareholder profit?
And most importantly: Wtf, CDPR? You guys made The Witcher 3 FFS.