Cyberpunk 2077 problems shine a harsh light on CD Projekt Red management

Sony’s decision to pull Cyberpunk 2077 from its digital storefront on Thursday night, December 17, and to offer refunds to anyone who bought the game, was the latest in a series of damnations on what many expected to be one of the top titles of 2020. It may be the act that results in some real changes at the company too.

CD Projekt Red’s stock has taken a beating Friday, falling 13% on the Warsaw Stock Exchange and tumbling as much as 17% in early trading in the U.S. OTC markets. And while gamers might have some power to influence corporate decisions, that’s nothing compared to the power of investors, and those investors are speaking loudly.

The tumble in share price, along with the threat to long-term overall sales of the game, should result in a fast-turnaround statement from the company about make-goods to affected consumers — likely free major expansions and other content, perhaps game giveaways — and a very loose timetable about when the game will be fixed. (The most logical timing for that announcement would be Sunday evening or Monday morning, in hopes of getting a bump when the markets open in Warsaw.)

Assuming that happens, it might appease some players, but it won’t erase the magnitude of the company failure — one that could have been avoided, though maybe not quite as easily as some players imagine.

(Digital Trends reached out to CD Projekt Red to discuss the game’s problems, but the company referred us to its recent tweet as its official statement and said it would not be conducting any interviews of any sort until 2021.)

Uncharted waters

It’s worth noting that Sony’s delisting of Cyberpunk is seemingly unprecedented. Other games have been removed from stores before (WB games pulled Batman Arkham Knight on PC and Ashes Cricket 2013 was actually so buggy it was canceled after its release), but those were publisher decisions, not platform holders.

It’s hard not to view Sony’s actions as punitive. It’s unfathomable that CD Projekt Red wasn’t aware of the problems the game had on legacy consoles, yet it published it all the same. And when the hue and cry became deafening, it announced refunds for anyone who wanted them without first conferring with its console partners. When Sony and Microsoft balked, as any company would when others began messing with their finances, it shifted some of the outrage away from CD Projekt Red … temporarily.

It was, in other words, a PR juke that backfired.

Management failures

It’s hard not to feel bad for the development team on Cyberpunk. They spent too long in crunch and worked hard to get the game to where it is. But it’s the job of management to look at the big picture and make the difficult decision to delay. And the higher-ups at CD Projekt Red were seemingly obstinately opposed to this.

That’s likely because of a few factors. Licensing deals and marketing commitments were already in place. A delay would cost money. And there was certainly a fear that a notable delay for the game (which would have been the fourth one announced) would impact sales. Before the current fiasco, analysts were projecting the game would sell over 30 million copies.

CD Projekt Red might argue it focused its QA efforts on PC and top-end platforms, as Cyberpunk was always envisioned as a next-gen game. Even if true, it rings hollow, though. The company knew the size of the installed base on the PS4 (and Xbox). They knew the majority of console players wouldn’t have a next-generation machine, and were counting on current-gen systems for the bulk of console sales. It was management’s responsibility to ensure the game was, at the very least, functional on current-gen systems.

The delays that were announced — especially the most recent one pushing the game from November 19 to December 10, made after the game went gold — were as close to last minute as they could be. And that shows a lack of situational awareness on the leadership’s behalf.

“We’re aware it might seem unrealistic when someone says 21 days can make any difference in such a massive and complex game, but they really do,” the company said at the time. Today, with our hindsight, it’s staggering to think how poorly the game must have been running on baseline consoles at that point.

What’s particularly baffling is that the company had an easy scapegoat to point to for a sizable delay. The pandemic has impacted several development teams making less ambitious titles. CD Projekt Red could have pushed Cyberpunk back as much as a year and not seen a notable impact on sales. The hubris to make a 2020 release, though, could cost them millions of dollars.

CD Projekt Red has tremendous goodwill with gamers, but it’s burning that at a phenomenal rate. The big question is how will this impact players’ trust in the company for future games. It’s one thing for, say, Bethesda to flub a launch, like Fallout 76. They have a long history and a wide portfolio of other titles. CDPR doesn’t have that sort of PR capital with a wider audience.

Potentially worsening things, statements from the company about the game’s issues have not struck an apologetic tone (even the ones that did offer token apologies). They’ve been defensive, used misdirection and touted the platforms that have had fewer problems.

It’s a rough spot for everyone. Gamers’ excitement over one of the most anticipated titles of the past few years is now muted. Developers who worked inhuman hours to ship the game have to deal with the emotional impact of that disappointment. And managers, who are responsible for the company’s bottom line, have a boatload of angry investors.

The most frustrating part is that none of it was necessary.

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