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It had all the components for one of the biggest launches, ever.  A captive target audience bursting with anticipation, a product hyped to dizzying heights and miles of media coverage. How did Cyberpunk 2077, the action role-playing game by the developer CD Projekt Red, become the blueprint of a modern PR drama.

By Tabea Eckl and Michael Trier

A simple Google search in March 2021 generated over 201 million results for Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated games of 2020…possibly even the decade. The roll out was somewhat of a clunky, stop-start affair to say the least. Cyberpunk 2077 was first announced way back in 2012 and was hotly followed by a tantilising teaser trailer in 2013. Five years later…..well, abolsutley nothing at all until a tweet in 2008 from the Cyberpunk 2077 account gets fans twitching nervously once again. Then…nothing again for another five years. What follows next has gone down in (gaming) history.

“Is Cyberpunk the best broken video game ever?”

$135 million, eight years and one Keanu Reeves later, the open-world action role-playing game was finally released on 10th December 2020. The press and gamers were united in their expectations – nothing less than a perfect new world created by infallible gods! After all the hype and speculation over the past few years, it couldn’t just be “another” game, could it?

At the time of release, the reaction from trade press was, on the whole, very positive. There were a few grumbles about shortcomings in content and isolated bugs but nothing to dampen the flames. After a while though, the narrative took a radically different direction towards intense discussions over disastrous technical problems.

In a shock to many, Sony took the unusual step of removing the title from the Playstation Store only a few days after its release. This was an industry first for such a blockbuster game.  In only a few short days after its launch, on 18 December, major titles like The Independent started to report on an “unplayable” game. The mood in the gaming community was also changing with users demanding refunds. Was the Cyberpunk 2077 train derailing before it was out of the station?

Interesting side note: the non-specialist press, i.e. the GI media, which generally only report on games in this depth when there is either controversy (“killer games!”) or someone insistently makes you believe that feuilleton-worthy culture is now ready at the controller (GTA IV etc.), is now still vehemently defending Cyberpunk 2077. The FAZ wrote in an article on 29 December We had to wait eight years for the video game Cyberpunk 2077. Does the epic about the near future live up to what we were promised? It accomplishes a lot more than that.” Metro wrote of the game being “better than you think” and that“…despite the problems, it’s still a great game”  On 15 January 21, The FAZ asks “Is Cyberpunk the best broken video game of all time?”.

Waiting for the perfect game

So, WTTF happened? Well, flawed products even during long development periods are nothing new in the game industry. After all, Cyberpunk finally appeared eight years after the first announcement in 2012 with four, subsequent postponed release dates in 2020. A long, but not unusual period of time for a studio to bring a game to market. Incidently, Diablo III took 11 years to bring to market and Duke Nukem Forever was 15 years in development.

Very often games come onto the market with bugs or are not even finished. Studios like CD Projekt Red have particularly strong connections with its fan base who can be quite forgiving.  Even when The Witcher 3 experienced delays, errors and day one patches, the users were supportive. Studios that have close ties to their audience along with credible, community management will have solidarity between users and developers.

However, the Cyberpunk universe was operating quite differently. Long before the release, there were some high-end Cyberpunk 2077 merchandise, such and trainers and jackets which were distributed at trade fairs. They quickly became cult collectables trading hands at ridiculous prices. The Cyberpunk-typical yellow and blue branded special edition of a game console, although it is a “last gen”, i.e. outdated model (Xbox One X), is being offered for prices between 600 and 800 euros on Amazon.

Every single piece of this puzzle is actually an example of excellent, maximally effective PR and marketing work. All together, they add up to the most exaggerated expectations in video game history. Therein lies the potential problem.

“You’re Breathtaking!”

 After years of hype, one expected more from Cyberpunk 2077. Much more, actually, than you can expect from a game or any other product. Since Keanu Reeves‘ appearance at the CD Projekt Red press conference at E3 2019 (“You’re breathtaking!”), the game had achieved pop culture status even before it became playable. During E3 2019 the Collector’s Edition was sold out.

In the coming months countless articles were written, memes were created and increasingly bombastic headlines created. The closer the release date, the bigger the buzz. Hardly anyone realised that at this point the story had been exhausted and only additional information on game mechanics or other in-game aspects could have seen an increase in coverge. Nevertheless, the PR machine kept on churning.

What happens next is called a “backdraft” in firefighting. The topic had been sucked dry of all its oxygen had been withdrawn. Then, with the release, came an endless supply of fire accelerants. The first publications of selected key media and influencers, shared and quoted everywhere, first with a controlled pace and restrained wording (“some bugs” etc.) then with the full force of the content eruption that the internet is capable of today.

This was all amplified by the snippets of info drip fed over the years and the countless speculation which turned the standard set pieces of gaming reporting on its head. Isolated errors on individual platforms (more serious bugs on consoles, PCs with the appropriate hardware equipment rather easy) rapidly became a “catastrophe”, the mood darkened and before long s Cyberpunk 2077 had gone from being a salvation-bringing messiah to a cheap Jacob, an unmasked impostor, even a fraud. Even the consistently of some good reviews from major media did nothing to change this. Sony reacted a few days after the release and removed the game from the PlayStation Store. So did Microsoft who, in agreement with CD Projekt Red, offered users the option of returning the game. A disastrous start.

Hypetrains and Hot Fixes

Subsequently hot fixes and patches were announced, with dates in February being muted. One headline was followed by the next, this time with mixed reviews. The general view was bombastic in terms of content and technically unfinished. Sam White calls Cyberpunk 2077 “An open-world masterpiece that’s its own worst enemy at times” in his review for GQ, WIRED and that “even without the glitches, Cyberpunk is an average game”. Yet there are other articles, those that attest to record-breaking sales figures for the developer CD Projekt Red despite (or perhaps because of?) this messed-up start.

Cyberpunk 2077 is not the first game to hit the market unfinished. Nor is it the first game whose hypetrain pulled out of the station almost a decade before release and has been steadily picking up speed ever since. This is not only due to the expectations that have been stoked by PR and amplified by media and influencers for years, but also due to the evolution of the studio itself.

With the release of The Witcher series, CD Projekt Red became known as an indie studio. However, with the third part of the series, which was surprisingly good for many, the developer ascended to an elusive intermediate floor between the usually suspiciously eyed triple-A floor and the admired “success through hard honest work” indie studio. A position that also caused the drop height for new games to rise steeply. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, this chasm between expectation and experience was potentially large enough to have a lasting impact on the market and the understanding of unfinished, hype games.

Fraud!?

In an article titled “Cyberpunk 2077 was supposed to be the biggest video game of the year. What happened?” The New York Times wrote about “lies and deception on the marketing front”. Harsh exaggeration or justified criticism? Some might say that the wide discrepancy between stoked expectations and the final product speaks for itself.

Its rarely that simple though, right? Anyone who has experienced the dynamics between PR, community and media in gaming campaigns knows that you have to fight hard for the highly fragmented attention of the target groups if you want to have any chance of success. It’s imporatant to pull out all the stops. First, Information is drip-fed in bitesize pieces and packaged in such a way to fuel speculation. Fully robust promises about timings, modes or other aspects of the game are made, but are often hard to keep. Or, fantastic features are promised, only half of which make it into the game.

On the other hand, the trade media, who are in exactly the same position battling for attention and budget, suck up every crumb of information and, build steep front-page constructs such as “10 new theses on” articles or highly speculative opinion formats on social media out of a job advertisement for a new level designer. The PR manager is over the moon and there’s high fives all round in the marketing department. Ambitious goals achieved with very little marketing budget required!

What have we learnt?

None of this is new, but the Cyberpunk 2077 case heralds a new era in terms of marketing. The discrepancy between stoked expectations – somewhere between a scifi Witcher 3 with GTA flavour and the holy grail of indie authenticity and triple A quality – and the perceived fall into the profane hell of bugs and ultimately relatively easy-to-follow game mechanics was never greater than in this instance. Would a more “honest”, more fact-based communication strategy have worked better here?

Well, that depends on how you define success. In any case, expectation management would have been better. At least in terms of the fans, community and consumers. Not in terms of marketing goals, volume of clippings or social media buzz. The sales figures could hardly be better, either. At the end of January, press were reporting on the “most successful digital launch of a game ever”. The only speculation is about how many players took advantage of the exchange offer and recouped the purchase price. PC Games Hardware, for example, speculated on 6 February that two million players” had their purchase price refunded. This, too, is a consequence of the hype; even long after its release, there’s a headline everyday about Cyberpunk shouting “shambles!”

The same applies – reckoning comes at the end. We will have to see how the adjusted sales figures develop, what the patches and the associated communication will bring. If CD Projekt Red succeeds in transforming Cyberpunk 2077 from a game into a brand with potential for further games, spin-offs and merchandise, then it could be a different narrative altogether.

Further development and successes might prevail. After all no one remembers the bugs at the release of The Witcher 1 today, do they? However, if in five years time we remember an embarrassing attempt by a small, Eastern European developer to turn the games business on its head and become the next Rockstar with a single game and an incredibly inflated marketing campaign…..then all will be viewed differently.

You can certainly communicate differently if you want to focus on sales and keep your brand “clean”. We would advise this is probably the case for 95 per cent of all studios. If you want to elevate beyond, then its crucial to focus on a seamless and stellar launch.

There was certainly enough momentum generated through PR and marketing, albeit a slightly unorthodox and unusual strategy.  All was good in the end though. The four delays actually meant that all the features that had been announced could be delivered and the launch could be carried out on all platforms, including the NextGen consoles, at the same time.  A less ambitious strategy (launching platforms one after the other, adding features gradually and communicating this in good time) would certainly have been better, but that’s the beauty of hindsight, right?

Are we impressed by the work CD Projekt Red has done here? Sure we are. Would we have done things differently or advised against certain moves? Maybe. But if you’re a passionate PR professional, probably not. In fact, very few would have resisted the temptation . Of course, its wise to clearly communicate what’s going on with major developmental isues and adjust the timetable accordingly. But, to skip “You’re breathtaking”? – absolutely not! Good luck Cyberpunk 2077, you still have the potential to become one of the biggest brands in the games market ever.

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