October, November and December comprise a period where we see some of the biggest consumer product launches of any given year. From new iPhones, to tablets and computers, the period is rife with new consumer goods hitting the market. From a sales perspective, this obviously makes sense: the last three months of the year mark major holidays, synonymous with major spending. From Black Friday to the school winter break, consumers often pour their annual savings on things like vacations, new TV sets, smartphones, and more.
Naturally, this also makes it a perfect time for the biggest video game studios to release some of the most anticipated titles onto the market. Some studios, like Ubisoft and EA, put out yearly installments for long-standing franchises like Assassin’s Creed and FIFA. Others, like Insomniac Games or CD Projekt Red, have longer production cycles, putting out games only once or twice – sometimes more – a decade.
Regardless of the duration of their production cycles – i.e. how long it takes for a game to be conceived, funded, produced, released and then supported post-launch with updates and patches – we’ve been seeing a trend this decade: the release of broken, buggy games.
Triple A games are getting bigger and more complex, but equally more buggy
More often than not, some of the biggest triple A, high-budget titles, which sometimes spend several years in production, still land at retailers messy, unoptimized, and sometimes downright unplayable. In recent years, the biggest example of this has been French developer Ubisoft.
Ubisoft is known for releasing yearly Assassin’s Creed games, open-world action-adventure titles which revolve around an ancient secret order of – you guessed it, assassins – that is interlocked into a centuries-long battle with another clandestine organization. Over the years, the series has taken players to Ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy and even to the era of pirates. The games are known for their massive maps, intrigue-filled storylines and hours upon hours of content.
However, despite its popularity, the series’ short production cycle has resulted in the studio putting out massive but repetitive open-world games that recycle the franchise’s tropes with little innovation. It’s biggest offense since it’s 2014 installment – Assassin’s Creed Unity, set during the French Revolution – has been the trend of releasing buggy, unoptimized games. Characters would clip through walls, fly in the air, or sometimes render without their faces, which made for some equally horrible player experiences and hilarious online memes.
It happened that Unity was the first Assassin’s Creed title released primarily on the PS4 and Xbox One, which were new at the time, as opposed to also being developed for old consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360. Every console leap meant bigger and better games, which makes a game’s code that much harder to write and its systems much more challenging to mesh together.
Since then, many of the Assassin’s Creed games have been buggy and filled with glitches, which often require the studio to release day-one patches (software fixes available for download on the game’s day of release) and many more post-launch.
The studio’s latest title, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, revolving around Vikings, had a similar problem. The game released on both old-gen consoles (PS4, Xbox One) and current-gen (PS5, Xbox Series X). Despite the beautiful visuals and similar but fun gameplay, the game once again came filled with bugs and technical issues, which led to a lot of criticism online.
Enter Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated games of all time
Cyberpunk 2077, a role-playing (RPG) first-person shooter (FPS) game in the vein of something like the Fallout series, set in dystopian, neon-tinged America, is another game that has disappointed on release. The game was first announced back in 2012, and after three delays, finally released last week on current and last-gen consoles, as well as on PC.
The game, compared to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, is produced by a much smaller developer – Polish studio CD Projekt Red – who to this day remains independent – i.e. not backed by an external publisher, which is rare for triple A studios. Still, this hasn’t prevented the company from producing video game experiences that are hundreds of hours long, like the critically acclaimed Witcher 3, and Cyberpunk had proved to be their most ambitious, but equally challenging, game yet.
The hype surrounding their latest title was massive, probably unlike any game before it. CD Projekt had earned a lot of respect from players for repeatedly taking actions that benefited their consumer base at a time when other companies were drawing ire with controversial decisions like shoving in loot boxes and micro-transactions into their full-priced (not freemium) games, as well as selling over-priced expansions. The Polish developer had earned a lot of good will, which in the long-run unfortunately backfired.
The game released on December 10th – just last week. The peak levels of anticipation had led to extremely unrealistic expectations, and this, coupled with the fact that the game released onto the market in a completely problematic state, led to a quick reversal of all that good karma.
Long-story short: Cyberpunk 2077 had bugs – lots of them. Some quests would break mid-point, forcing players to restart their game in hopes of salvaging said questline. Some players even reported frequent crashes, some every couple of hours.
The true crime, however, would be with the last-gen base console port of the game. Cyberpunk 2077 on PS4 and Xbox One was nigh unplayable. The game was clearly not optimized for these systems, and it could very likely be that it was too naïve (or maybe greedy?) of CD Projekt Red to expect that such a massive, complex and high-fidelity game would be able to run on 7-year-old hardware. Reports indicate that even top-shelf PC rigs are having a tough time running the game at max specs without groaning under the weight, while current gen consoles are running it sufficiently, albeit while also facing bugs and other issues.
What makes matters worse, however, is that CD Projekt actually forbade the press and content creators from reviewing console copies of the game. They only distributed PC review copies, the most optimized port of the game, and left console players completely in the dark, which many among the press and public have commented reeks of shady business behavior. Additionally, the studio forbade critics from using in-game footage from their play sessions, instead forcing them to use pre-recorded marketing footage from trailers and such, citing the issue of plot spoilers.
Clearly, given all that has transpired, we can see that the studio wanted customers to not be privy to the technical issues that plagued the game – even on PC – and this does indeed further reek of questionable ethical behavior on the company’s part.
CD Projekt Red has since released a few patches to help resolve the most severe of these issues, and the game is surely more playable now than it was a few patches ago (which are a lot given the game has only been on the market for 5 days). Still, many pervasive problems persist that are miring what was supposed to be a stellar gaming experience, and it shouldn’t have to be this way.
The studio recently released an apology, primarily for the console fiasco:
It’s clear now that a fourth delay should have been fully considered for Cyberpunk. The title is too ambitious, and as games become more complex, which has been an upward trend since the tail-end of last decade, it’s becoming much more rare for triple A studios to release games that have been fully tested and optimized for launch. That’s without mentioning the grueling crunch time staff are put through during the later stages of production, in order to prime a game for final release. Yet, and perhaps maybe as a result of those overtime hours, games are being rushed to completion. Cyberpunk 2077 is just the latest example of this problem, following many previous offenders, and likely to itself be followed by many others.
What’s worth mentioning, however, is that Cyberpunk has already earned its development and marketing costs from pre-orders of the game alone, even if its stock took a 37% dip following the troubled release and growing number of refunds. CD Projekt Red received over 8 million pre-orders for their latest title, which has also become the fastest-selling PC game of all time – no small feat. Would these figures have changed had consumers known about the technical issues plaguing the early version of the game? Probably. From a business perspective, it makes a bit of sense why CD Projekt did what it did, even if it cannot be justified morally.