ONE EASY WAY CD PROJECT RED COULD HAVE AVOIDED CYBERPUNK 2077'S LAUNCH DISASTER
Last year, I wrote an article titled “how to prevent your game from becoming the next Anthem or Fallout 76” and good god I wish someone at CPDR had read it. I’ll attach the original article because so much of what I said then applies to this whole news story.
Look, I do not claim to be an absolute expert on all things game design, business, or marketing; but I do know gamers. I know this industry. I also have been doing sales for 10 years. And what I said in that article and this one is so painfully obvious to me that I fail to understand why none of the six-figure executives at CDPR didn’t think of it.
The “delay” vs “release it broken” conundrum seems to be a no win scenario for these Exec’s who fail to see they have some very easy solutions to this paradox. Yes there is the obvious solution I really hit hard in another article earlier this year titled “Massive AAA Delays are actually unacceptable”. It was a pre-covid article where I blasted the AAA gaming industry’s complete inability to learn from their own development history and start making better predictions of how long it actually takes to make their games. These multi-million dollar, even billion dollar companies don't some how know how long it takes to make products. Unlike any other industry, delays are the norm instead of the exception. Holiday 2019 and January 2020 had so many delays, and it astonished me how many of them were repeat offenders. I had a side-by-side of news clip of Watchdogs 1 which was delayed over a year, and Legion also receiving a massive delay. Ubisoft makes so many games that the fact that they keep overpromising and under-delivering is astonishing to me. Every major game of their's recently has been delayed either publicly or privately. Rainbow 6 Quarantine has New Mutants level of delays, Watchdogs Legion, Immortals, Assassin's Creed, Far Cry 6, and more all have been delayed.
This industry problem has really come to light with actual Cyberpunk devs just blasting CDPR’s leadership on this very subject, that I have been very vocal about over the past 9 months. I understand this is 2020 the year of hell, but I failed to understand how weeks prior to Cyberpunk’s very first release delay, CDPR Leadership called it “playable and just in need of some POLISH”. FOUR release dates later we got an absolute train wreck of a release! These executives have no idea how long it takes to make games, and seemingly picked release dates out of the air.
With each delay I kept referencing that quote, and asked, How on earth does 9 months mean “polish”? Polish is weeks not months. This quote means there were clueless executives who obviously looked at what eventually proved to be a year or more of work, and called it “polish” that could be done in a few weeks or months. Leadership that looks at a year’s worth of work or more and picks a release date that is months away is just a clueless inexperienced leader that does understand how games are made. With everything coming out, CDPR devs have called the repeated release dates decision unrealistic but leadership didn’t listen.
At the end of the day, I understand that these studios are businesses that need to make profits. I respect the need to generate profits. I do fail to understand why multi-billion dollar companies such as EA, Bethesda, Microsoft, and CD Project Red have such cash-flow issues that they look at month or even year long delays so disastrously, especially when in the case of Cyberpunk 2077, a quality final product is pretty much a guaranteed financial success. Cyberpunk 2077, had it released in a quality final state would have had record numbers and profits. It was easily the most anticipated title ever, and originally was slated to make a DAY ONE PROFIT off preorders ALONE.
When you have those guaranteed profits, whats the rush? Why did leadership continually and repeatedly give ridiculous release dates and ignore the developers? Why did they look at years worth of work and desire to complete it in months?
Here’s where I come to my main point. Early Access. Yes, the release dates were ridiculous. Yes they could have delayed a 4th time. Yes, they should have waited. But, they had an PR out if they truly, financially needed to push this out. I’m playing devil’s advocate and say that if you just honestly failed to predict dev time, AND just can’t financially delay a game further, these studios DO HAVE a third option.
This is a magical phrase in the gaming industry, two simple little words that could have single-handedly saved CD Project Red’s whole PR nightmare. That phrase, “Early Access”, is PAST time the AAA studios adopt a strategy that works so well for smaller studios. You see, these large studios Executives fail to see the point of WHY gamers are angry during these epic launch failures. They think gamers are angry just "that the game is bad". They feel backed into a corner of “Delays anger consumers and hurt marketing and profits” vs “Disasterous launches really anger gamers, hurt company reputation, and hurt profits”.
In that previous article this year where I made this point, I focused on the examples Fall Out 76 and Anthem which are both multiplayer games. I admit that this strategy works better on multiplayer live service games, but in a hail mary pass CD Project Red could have done this in a last ditch effort to save themselves from this whole debacle. I referenced in my original article how this worked so well for PUBG which launched in a pretty visually ugly and buggy state, but went on to critical and financial success. The early access shield protects you against negative criticism because you have already admitted your flaws. There is something remarkably simple about games that are honest and upfront about being unfinished.
Granted, being a single player game and not a multiplayer service, there might be players who finish the game before a "1.0 version" releases and never experiences the quality final version. That isn’t ideal, but niether is the debacle CDPR finds themselves in. Their reputation is burnt. The game is missing from the Playstation store. They are facing multiple lawsuits and unhappy investors as stock plummets. We suspect there have been refunds in the millions.
I envision an alternate universe, where a month or two prior to the December release, CDPR put out one of their infamous yellow banners.
They could blame the challenges of “building one of the most ambitious titles of all time in the difficult work from home strategy” They could have been upfront on “the difficulty of getting the game optimized on base level consoles”
They could have explained that they don’t wish to delay the game a fourth time, instead they will let those who wish to experience the game now and help with feedback and continued development. They would have gotten some criticism, yes, but they also would have avoided most if not all of this PR nightmare. The anger, backlash, refunds, and lawsuits aren’t REALLY over the state of the game. Yes for many it was near unplayable at launch. However, the anger, backlash, refunds, and lawsuits are really because CDPR blundsided millions of gamers and their investors by promising one thing and delivering something very much different. They are even being accused of intentionally hiding the console versions from reviewers and the press. Imagine what would have happened if they just told the turth. In this case the truth would have saved them. They could have controlled expectations instead of hyping up this game like none other and then delivered a PS2 title on PS4.
Gamers love early access. I love early access. I love being a part of games development and be able to give feedback.
I need to be told ahead of time that I am a part of early access. Anthem, Fallout 76, No Man Sky, and now Cyberpunk 2077 could ALL have been saved by Early Access. Tell us the game is unfinished, let us CHOOSE to play it now or wait for 1.0. I have never once criticized a bug or issue in an Early Access game, other than giving the feedback to developers who requested it. All these games angered players because they were told they were buying a finished game when in fact it was not true, and they paid full price.
I also love early access because it REWARDS your early adopters instead of punishing them. The gaming industry has a rampant discount problem, a problem that is compounded by its greedy obsession with the holiday release window. It is a problem that actively punishes your day one buyers. In an industry where studios actually make the most money off their day one buyers and preorders, it doesn’t make sense how much this industry actively tries to discourage players from playing day one.
These past few years have been ripe with games launching in broken unfinished states, and many of them do get major fixes within the first few months. Avengers is a game I really enjoyed this year and it plays much better than at launch. But more so than the flawed “launch it and fix it later mentality” too many games recieved steep discounts so shortly after launch. One of the worst examples was this years EA’s “Rocket Arena” that launched at 40$ and with in a WEEK was able to be found for 10$ and now can be easily found for 5. Even some of the absolute biggest titles of 2020, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Godfall, and Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War can all be found for 20-33% off during the Holiday having JUST launched in the prior months. Avengers is another example of a game released in poor state available on discount soon after launch. This issue is compounded more when these broken games are discounted so soon after release.
I’ve written on this subject before how quick discounts within weeks and months of release are convincing more and more gamers to “just wait a little bit”, hurting those all important launch week numbers. It is a short sighted strategy that hurts over all profits. The AAA studios are in their ignorance releasing 60$ broken unfinished games, and within weeks or months offering the same game in a much better state for 30-40$.
Admittedly, You can’t charge 60$ for early access but you can for a 1.0 version. If CDPR had decided to launch with a Early Access price to 39.99 for early access, things would have gone drastically different.
Players everywhere would have still bought the game. They would have sold even MORE COPIES than projected, they would have avoided most if not all the refunds. Yes, obviously there would have been a 33% dip in initial sales from the discount. But, it would have been countered by avoiding almost all the controversy.
The important thing is would have saved their reputation, in addition to making lots of money. The game was projected to sell 16 million copies in the first 10 days, and it only did 13 million. That 3 million disparity includes refunds and all the gamers who held off because of what friends and reviewers were saying. Throw in the absence of the Playstation store? This could have been such a different story if they had just used those two magic words and been HONEST. The best part of early access is you reward your early adopters, and charge full price to those who wait, instead of the other way around. Just Imagine the inevitable backlash if and WHEN Cyberpunk 2077 recieves its first discount. Months down the road when you can first find Cyberpunk 2077 for 40$, players who didn't refund will feel cheated they paid 60$ for the unfinished version. Why punish your players who buy your product day one when you can reward them instead? It is a strategy that encourages early adoption instead of discourages it and I am just dumbfounded how these studio executives dont see it.