By most measures, today should be a day of celebration for CD Projekt Red and its new RPG, Cyberpunk 2077. The reviews are in, and Cyberpunk is currently enjoying a healthy 91 average on Metacritic. When it arrives on December 10, it will no doubt sell exceptionally well, and the staff will enjoy the healthy bonuses promised by CD Projekt's leadership.
All of this should count as a win for the studio that helped to define a generation of RPGs. And yet.
When I think of CD Projekt Red, I can't help think of another generationally great developer, one that ultimately lost its way after creating the RPGs that dominated so much of the 2000s. That developer, of course, was BioWare, which hasn't enjoyed a genuine hit since Dragon Age: Inquisition arrived in late 2014. Plenty of fans will blame EA, or the talent drain that came with the departure of Doctors Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, but there was another, more insidious force at play: the so-called "BioWare magic."
Kotaku, which reported on Anthem's disastrous development last year, described it this way:
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 the Mass Effect trilogy, on Dragon Age: Origins, and on Inquisition. 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.
At a certain point, the "BioWare magic" ran out, resulting in successive flops between Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem. Both projects were reportedly dogged by a surfeit of ambition; poor logistics, and an overall lack of planning, requiring months of crunch to finally get them over the finish line. BioWare's reputation has yet to recover.
BioWare's struggles were what allowed CD Projekt to ultimately overtake it, but for all their material differences, the two share similarities in the areas that count. Like BioWare, CD Projekt was founded by a pair of enthusiasts—Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński. Like BioWare, CD Projekt Red found great success producing massive, multi-layered RPGs built around memorable casts. And like BioWare, CD Projekt doesn't seem to have grown out of the "startup" mentality that breeds a culture where late nights and tons of coffee is a necessary ingredient in a successful project.
CD Projekt Red's projects have always been messy—the studio has never once delivered a game without multiple delays—and it's only become more acute as the projects have increased in size and scope. Cyberpunk 2077, which was announced all the way back in 2012, endured a lengthy pre-production period—most of which was rumored to have been tossed out—as well as major changes to its engine and internal tools. CD Projekt Red wanted to include multiplayer, but ultimately had to delay it until at least 2021. The sprawling project—which by all accounts didn't actually start development in earnest until 2016—ultimately demanded mandatory six day weeks to complete.
Even after all the extra work, Cyberpunk 2077 is hardly what one would call "polished." Reports of bugs abound, with Washington Post Staff Reviewer Gene Park referring to it as a "buggy mess." No one has seen the console version yet, where many suspect it will run very poorly. Notably, CD Projekt has a long history with struggling to get its games on consoles at launch, its biggest success story being The Witcher 3.
Some of this may be owed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created unpredencted difficulties for large game studio, CD Projekt Red included. But even taking that into account, it's obvious that Cyberpunk 2077 had a very messy development cycle. While CD Projekt is a large company in its own right, opening locations in Warsaw, Kracow, and Wroclaw, it nevertheless has struggled to properly scale up to handle large projects. The four wasted years in which Cyberpunk 2077 was basically in mothballs while everyone scrambled to finish The Witcher 3 is proof enough of that.
Outside of substantial turnover, this practice hasn't harmed CD Projekt... yet. But it nevertheless should take heed from the lessons of BioWare, which saw its luck finally run out in 2017. In the high-stakes world of big-budget video game development, one flop is all it takes to ruin a studio. CD Projekt Red's questionable development practices only make it more likely that it will eventually suffer just such a fate. It should use the lessons learned from its experience with Cyberpunk 2077 to reform now before that happens.
Major Game Releases: December 7 to December 11
Here are the major releases for the week of Dec. 7 to 11. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.
- Call of the Sea [Dec. 8 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC]: For those looking to close out the year with a narrative twist, Call of the Sea looks like a contender. I've jokingly referred to it as "underwater Firewatch" because of its focus on story and casting of Firewatch lead Cissy Jones, but it looks like it could be a pretty chill game. It's also coming to Game Pass!
- Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 [Dec. 8 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch]: The perfect mash-up of competitive puzzle games returns, this time to next-gen consoles. Everything we've seen so far indicates that what you see is what you get: more Puyo Puyo Tetris. That's not necessarily a bad thing though: the original was a blast, and I see this one getting some more playtime on my Switch for sure.
- Doom Eternal [Dec. 8 for Switch]: If you missed the follow-up to Doom (2016) earlier this year, the demon-slaying is going portable this week. No, this does not mean that Doomguy is joining Smash Bros.
- Cyberpunk 2077 [Dec. 10 for PS4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC]: The long-awaited day is finally at hand. After years of build-up and multiple delays, Cyberpunk 2077 will be out this week. Whether it meets your astronomical expectations or not, at least we won't be playing the anticipation game anymore.
Five Things You Should Know Heading Into This Week In Gaming
- Snake? SNAAAAAKE! Ahem. Oscar Isaac has reportedly been cast as Solid Snake in a Metal Gear Solid movie. It's a little surprising, though the more I've thought about it, Isaac could absolutely pull it off. To be fair, Isaac could read the phonebook and I'd buy the pay-per-view.
- Two BioWare leaders depart the studio. General manager Casey Hudson and Dragon Age executive producer Mark Darrah have left BioWare, leaving the future of its Dragon Age and Mass Effect projects in the hands of the next generation. The timing of this is obviously a little unsettling for fans, given Dragon Age 4 is looming and the next Mass Effect project was recently confirmed to be in the works. We'll get a glimpse of the former this week at The Game Awards 2020.
- Several SIE Japan developers have left Sony to make their own studio. Bokeh Game Studio is the new development house for three notable Sony Japan creators, including the creator of Silent Hill. The concept art they've shown looks suitably creepy, so this is one to keep an eye on.
- Two brothers duked it out in the Classic Tetris finals this weekend. The competition for top NES Tetris player in the world came down to two young prodigies, and as always, the ensuing Tetris battle was fascinating to watch. I will never be this good, though maybe I can try with Tetris Effect Connected's throwback mode.
- Scott Pilgrim is back soon, y'all. Originally set for this holiday season, the revival of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is now scheduled for Jan. 14, 2021. It's a little bit longer, but that just means you get to ring in a new, hopefully better, year by beating up some Evil Exes.
Axe of the Blood God for Dec. 7, 2020
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On the eve of Cyberpunk 2077's launch, Kat and Nadia are diving deep into the history of CD Projekt Red. The developer's history, from The Witcher series to the long and troubled development of Cyberpunk, has been a major part of RPG discourse over the last generation, and our hosts explore all of it. Also, some impressions of the recent Fire Emblem re-release and Atelier Ryza 2. Listen here!