That old magic ain’t what it used to be
By Jeromey Lloyd
CD Projekt was on the way to the most successful product launch in its history: the December 2020 release of the video game Cyberpunk 2077. With a few massive successes already under its belt, the studio was following a precedent set by other multimillion-dollar gaming franchises of blockbuster opening weekend sales that even major Hollywood studios couldn’t match. Big-budget games are hyped for years during development, benefitting from multi-million-dollar promotional campaigns, and engaging massive fan communities. Successful game developers leverage this buzz and their own brand cachet to create a surge of people who pre-order their game, often ensuring a product is profitable before it even hits the streets.
Cyberpunk 2077 experienced all of the pre-launch hallmarks of a blockbuster release, but its debut was an immediate disaster. The product wasn’t just bad, it was so unfinished and broken that customer complaints drove one of its largest distribution partners to take the near-unprecedented step of removing the game from its storefront within a week.
It was CD Projekt’s New Coke moment: an unforeseen, costly failure that alienated previously supportive fans and got investors asking questions about what went wrong. The reporters seeking answers to those questions uncovered a key and telling detail about CD Projekt’s magical thinking: early warning signs of failure were dismissed because management believed its past success was proof that it could make everything miraculously come together at the last minute.
Many brands in competitive sectors would likely identify with CD Projekt’s desire to be the best studio in the market. CD Projekt says its goal is “to be counted among the world’s top three videogame [sic] developers,” according to its strategy documentation. Competing for the top spot (be it in terms of fame or share or market valuation) can certainly inspire passion and galvanize staff; There’s nothing really wrong with wanting to be number one, but it shouldn’t be a brand’s sole purpose. When that kind of self-mythology takes the place of the customer as a focus to the extent that the brand becomes the hero of its own story, it becomes an obstacle, not an advantage.
The disaster that was Cyberpunk 2077 ironically began with CD Projekt’s previous head-turning success. The game maker launched its first big product, The Witcher, in 2007 when it was largely unknown. The Witcher’s mature themes and swashbuckling action attracted positive reviews, game-of-the-year buzz, and a cadre of fans; it sold well enough to spawn a successful sequel in 2011. But real success came in 2015, when CD Projekt released The Witcher 3: an ambitious, beautiful, and technically accomplished open world adventure capable of delivering more than 100 hours of gameplay. The Witcher 3 became one of the most-awarded video games of all-time and reportedly sold more than 28 million copies. To date, the series as a whole (which now includes mobile games and offshoot products) has sold 50 million units worldwide and inspired a Netflix series.
That was the result the game studio wanted to duplicate for Cyberpunk 2077, and it clearly thought it knew how to do that. It expected the process it had followed making Witcher games would be replicable for its successor franchise: long hours put in by an army of passionate designers, coders and artists to bring the game to life (a fairly standard industry practice called “crunch”). That approach was how CD Projekt went from a small studio toiling on a single game to a 500-person juggernaut managing a global brand in less than a decade—the dream of every challenger brand fighting for market share.
After an eight-year hype cycle culminating in 8 million pre-orders, things for Cyberpunk 2077 appeared to be on track. Then people actually played it.
The game crashed regularly. Player avatars glitched through walls and floors. Characters sometimes appeared without clothes (revealing anatomically detailed character models). Even when things worked smoothly, the graphics appeared outdated.
For players without the newest high-powered gaming consoles or desktop computers, Cyberpunk 2077 is fundamentally broken.
Schreier’s interviews with employees revealed they regularly worked 13-hour shifts for months ahead of launch to fix bugs and get some version of a working product ready for the 2020 holiday shopping season. Many deadline-driven, customer service businesses are familiar with this last-minute crunch: calling in all hands to solve a customer concern or holding a blitz or hackathon to solve a problem. CD Projekt saw this flaw in its creative process as a feature. So when its developers said Cyberpunk 2077 was not ready to ship, leadership dismissed that panic as part of its successful formula. Schreier wrote, “management dismissed their concerns… citing their success in pulling off The Witcher 3.”
Crunch has long been the status quo for game developers, and CD Projekt had been previously called out publicly for embracing the approach. In response, it initially promised gamers and staff that it would not use crunch to develop Cyberpunk 2077. To deliver a quality game at Witcher 3 levels, it would push back release dates and make sure there would be no “mandatory” crunch. Company co-founder Marcin Iwinski accepted it would be management’s job to keep quality and scheduling on track.
Schreier’s reporting on 13-hour days (and working through holidays, and prolific employee burnout) showed what ended up actually happening. By adopting crunch, CD Projekt betrayed the trust it asked for from gamers and staff, believing that the ol’ magic it had captured in the past would solve any problems that arose in trying to meet an unrealistic deadline.
In a detailed analysis of another high-profile launch failure, Schreier (this time writing for Kotaku.com) spoke to video game makers at Bioware. Its 2019 game Anthem was equally catastrophic.
Within the studio, there’s a term called “BioWare magic.” It’s a belief that no matter how rough a game’s production might be, things will always come together in the final months. The game will always coalesce. It happened on [previous games]. Veteran BioWare developers like to refer to production as a hockey stick—it’s flat for a while, and then it suddenly jolts upward. Even when a project feels like a complete disaster, there’s a belief that with enough hard work—and enough difficult crunch—it’ll all come together.
Even the most successful organization must anchor its story not in past success or its own greatness, but in the promise it makes to its customers. By making the customer the hero of its story, and using that story as a framework to align the needs of employees and customers, brands allow everyone to rally around a shared purpose.
There is a way forward for brands that suffer this misalignment. In CD Projekt’s case, it starts with finding where the customer does serve as a guiding force and bringing that to the fore. For example, when trying to attract talent through its Careers page, the company says employees work towards a single goal: “to deliver top-quality entertainment to gamers worldwide…” It’s a good sentiment that makes new employees aware of their obligation to customers. But the sentiment is muddied when that sentence continues by pivoting focus back to the company’s industry reputation, adding, “…and create games which will leave a lasting mark on the global popular culture.”
When addressing its investors, the customer’s place is again unclear. The CD Projekt mission statement says: “Create revolutionary [role playing games] which go straight to the heart of gamers from around the world.” But even that centers more on CD Projekt’s product, not its customers’ needs. What it actually wants in being a “top-three developer” is “a lasting place for our brands in the global popular culture.”
Overall, it believes the point of making a great product is to become a great product maker.
Instead, it may want to consider that “gamers deserve great adventures.” Products and companies don’t exist to serve themselves, they are there for the people who love them.
In the weeks since Cyberpunk 2077’s launch, there have been official apologies from executives accepting the blame, the release of a roadmap of game fixes, and the creation of a loose timeline of when free new content will arrive. It is only at this stage that fans feel they are in the spotlight.
“We would always like everyone who buys our games to be satisfied with their purchase,” Iwinski wrote in an apology to fans. “We would appreciate it if you would give us a chance, but if you are not pleased with the game on your console and don’t want to wait for updates, you can opt to refund your copy.”
If it can continue centering on the player—the real hero of this story—in meaningful ways, the studio may hold off a tide of refunds long enough to deliver not just what it initially promised, but something that can surprise this now skeptical audience.
Jeromey is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.