It’s rare that a top tier developer keeps a game under wraps right up until they release it. Quiet launches are usually reserved for the realm of indie games, where every penny of a shoestring budget is needed for development. Other than moments like Respawn blindsiding everyone with Apex Legends’ launch in 2018, skipping traditional marketing and using influencers to create an 11th-hour buzz, AAA games usually have a PR campaign that ramps up across many months or years.
With so much time and money going into the typical marketing campaign, it’s easy to understand how a gamer can get wrapped up in the hype surrounding a highly anticipated game. There’s a point, though, where the hype goes too far, turning healthy anticipation that will ensure a presale or first-day purchase into expectations that can never be met. But is the blame all on the developers and publishers, or do gamers need to acknowledge their culpability in the process?
The easy answer is, yes, we should blame the developers. You really need to look no further than E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as proof. Created for the Atari 2600 all the way back in 1982, E.T. had all the right ingredients for a successful game. The movie E.T. was a huge box office success, making it an easy sell to consumers. Home video game consoles were a hot item at the time, and designer Howard Scott Warshaw was an accomplished Atari 2600 game designer with hits Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark under his belt.
At least Cyberpunk 2077 didn’t almost destroy the video game industry
Unlike the happy Hollywood ending of the movie, the trifecta of a hot intellectual property, a seasoned programmer at the helm, and a consumer base chomping at the bit still wasn’t enough to save E.T. the game from corporate greed. With the holiday season approaching, the regular development period of 6-12 months was shortened to just five weeks. Further hampered by the technical limitations of the Atari 2600 and a lack of time for focus testing and revisions, the resulting adventure game was a hot mess. E.T. suffered from consumer backlash of a magnitude that had never been seen before and, even with 1.5 million copies sold, E.T. was considered a financial failure. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial even has the dubious title of the worst video game of all time.
Many of those same pitfalls can be seen in the more recent release of Cyberpunk 2077. Just like the faith in Howard Scott Warshaw’s abilities, developer CDProjekt Red’s previous success gave executives a false sense of security in the developer’s ability to deliver. Technical limitations of the PS4 and Xbox One, although not the only issue, weighed heavily on consumers' reactions to CP2077’s gameplay, just like they did on E.T. And let’s not forget that although Cyberpunk 2077 was in development for years and not weeks, the financial ramifications of missing the 2020 holiday season must have been a factor in the RPG’s release.
Right up until the release of CP2077 the developers masked the truth about the performance, or lack thereof, that players should expect on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Just two weeks before the December 10 release, as originally reported by GamesRadar, CD Projekt’s CEO Adam Kaci?ski had this to say about the console release (taken from the Seeking Alpha transcription):
“And PS4, yesterday we released the gameplay both on PS4 and PS5. So, you can see the difference. And on both -- I mean, PS5 is great. PS4 is still very good. I mean, we had those extra three weeks and we achieved a lot by -- within this final stretch. So, we believe that the game is performing great on every platform.”
Whether Adam was merely misinformed or blatantly hiding the truth, statements like that so close to release did nothing but fuel the hype around Cyberpunk 2077’s release. Players planning on playing Cyberpunk 2077 on the PS4 and Xbox One could easily interpret that statement to mean that they would be getting a high-quality version of CP2077. A version that was just as good as the PS5 version, minus the ray tracing and faster load times the newer console offers.
It’s better to ask for forgiveness than get it right in the first place.
But should developers and publishers carry all of the blame? In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, and so many other recent titles, we as consumers need to own our portion of the blame. Take a step back from the emotions, the feelings of being betrayed by the money-hungry corporations. Wash the stains of perception from the surface and peer deep into the issues of hype, and you’ll see your own image looking back. Unless, of course, your mirror is glitched out and you don’t have a reflection. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
With Cyberpunk 2077, there were signs throughout the last year of development that CDPR was struggling to provide a polished release. Signs that we chose to ignore. We didn’t question how, through multiple delays, CDPR claimed they were merely tweaking and adding polish, not feverishly trying to complete core components. We didn’t just take their calming words at face value, we used them to add more fuel to the hype so we could continue to ignore more and more red flags.
Red flags like the January delay rumored to be due to problems with the Xbox One. Or the red flag that the last delay in October was still due to readying the RPG for multiple platforms. Instead of being concerned about last-gen console performance when we read about Cyberpunk 2077 “almost becoming a next-gen title somewhere along the way,” we gladly accepted the narrative of that meaning all the console versions were going to run great.
We even ignored that CDPR had to resort to mandatory overtime to get the game ready for release. Sure, everyone got up on their pedestal to proclaim how cruel and inhumane crunch was, but we didn’t question why CDPR would resort to the controversial practice just to fluff the pillows, so to speak.
Like several recent releases, CDPR waited until the last moment to provide review copies, and to select outlets at that. With less than a week to digest everything Night City had to offer, those lucky enough to receive a code were rushed to get reviews posted in time to meet the review embargo. Most reviewers limited the scope of their initial publishing to a review in progress, giving their readers only a partial look at the final product.
Reviewers were further restricted by CDPR only offering advance codes for the PC version. They also stipulated that only official B-roll video provided by PR could accompany the review. Without any access to console versions of CP2077 and unable to show any of their own in-game footage, consumers were given a tainted image of the final release quality of Cyberpunk 2077.
CDPR may have misrepresented the final quality of Cyberpunk 2077 to the consumers, but we chose to ignore the signs. Even as reviewers admitted their agreement to the review terms made them complicit in misleading consumers, gamers failed to acknowledge their part in the hype. Instead, we doubled down on the blame game. We stood there, all innocent-like, and used the same arguments we’ve always used to deflect the blame back towards the developers.
Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t the first time this has happened, though. It’s very similar to how we ignored all the signs that No Man’s Sky wasn’t going to be the game that was promised. To be fair, No Man’s Sky wasn’t horrible at launch. It just wasn’t what Sean Murray promised. In fact, I’d like to believe much of what Sean promised pre-launch was just his passion for the project clouding his judgment. Sean failed to use PR speak - the mumbling of vague buzzwords and not directly answering yes or no to any question - when talking about features that were still in development. His answer was almost always ‘yes’ followed by a ‘but.’
We sat there and watched the interviews and videos and gobbled it all up. When the videos showed gameplay that only remotely synced up to what he was saying, we still went along with it because he was saying what we wanted to hear. We didn’t really listen to the ‘but’ portion of his reply. Then, as the release date approached and the tough questions about the launch day feature set were still unanswered, we just shrugged our shoulders and bought presale after presale.
Trust me, it’s going to be amazing!
This same cycle of hype and disappointment has been going on for years. Every time a developer has a bad release we threaten to never buy another game from them again. That rarely sticks, though. Over time, the pain and frustration of a bad release subside and we start the cycle all over again.
When you consider how broken The Witcher 3 was at launch, how can you be surprised and disgusted by the glitches and bugs in Cyberpunk 2077? We remembered how great the story was in The Witcher 3, not the broken dialogue options or the many hilarious antics of Roach. See, I bet a lot of you just chuckled about Roach. You’ll probably feel the same about the driving physics in CP2077 in a few years too.
Let’s save some time here. We can skip going through the ever-growing list of developers guilty of not living up to expectations and go straight to one of the worst offenders. How many lives does a company like Bethesda deserve before we finally give up on them?
Every time they release a game it’s full of bugs and missed expectations. Heck, the base Elder Scrolls V experience is still a buggy, glitchy mess, left to modders to clean up. Yet Bethesda has continued to release Elder Scrolls to more and more devices, with each release purchased by the masses.
We all bought into Fallout 76 even though Fallout 4 didn’t live up to the hype. How did we expect FO76 to turn out any better? Then, less than a year later, Todd Howard stood on stage at E3 2019, looked us all in the eye, and joked about how they screwed up. I remember looking over at the person I was watching it with and saying, “Yeah, it’s Bethesda, what can you do?”
How can we stay mad when Todd takes the stage?
Bethesda then showcased the Wastelanders update coming to FO76, followed by Todd reminding us that all of the content being added would be free. And we ate it up! Let me repeat, we ate it up. Offering some free content for a game that many felt was broken and unplayable was all it took for us to dismiss their initial failure.
You might suggest this proves the developers will never learn their lesson. I say they know exactly what they’re doing and it’s us, the consumers, that haven’t learned a thing. We continue to buy pre-orders, freely giving our money away before we even know when a game will actually release. We cry at the top of our lungs when the game doesn’t live up to the promises the PR team fed us, then applaud a year later when a game is finally patched to a state that is close to what we originally paid for.
When a game launch doesn’t meet expectations, gamers love to cling to their unfounded perceptions of why developers fail. One of our tried and true responses - and it is cited as one of the causes behind the CP2077 debacle - is to blame a developer’s lack of passion as the cause. We have somehow come to the conclusion that any delays, changes to gameplay during development, and bugs and glitches are from developers only caring about the money and not about the games anymore.
To suggest that developers back in the day were more passionate about their games because they launched without bugs is just wrong. Plainly put, games never were, and never will be, perfect. Games have always had bugs and glitches, and some of the most iconic and beloved games of the past had play-ending bugs.
Take Pac-Man and Donkey Kong for example. Both of these arcade hits had kill screens - the point where each game becomes unplayable and resets due to programming errors. This is often explained away as a byproduct of the physical limitations of the era. The real truth is both classic arcade hits contained coding errors, aka bugs, that prevented players from completing the kill screen level. Can you imagine if From Software had made the same mistake when creating Demon Souls?
All too often we ignore the impact that the increase in game complexity has on a modern game. The good old days depicted in the Netflix series High Score are gone, and designing 8-bit sprites on a piece of graph paper are over. A handful of developers working for a year or two on a game may still exist in the indie and retro scene. Just don’t expect it to be that simple for a developer employing hundreds of employees across a multitude of disciplines required to crank out a AAA game.
How can we expect developers to release a bug-free game if the developers from decades ago weren’t able to? With modern games comprised of millions of lines of code, hundreds of digital assets, and multiple teams working to create a game across several gaming platforms, we must accept that some bugs are going to sneak through to the final release. How a company responds to the day one issues that arise should just as important as a game’s initial quality.
The good news to all of this is there is a way to stop the perpetual cycle of hype and disappointment. We can’t expect PR teams to somehow change their practices - PR campaigns setting unrealistic expectations isn’t just a video game industry problem- so that isn’t the answer. I’m also not sure gamers can help but get excited about upcoming games, so expecting us to all wake up one day and “get it” is unlikely.
The real solution, at least on the developer’s side, is transparency. When those shiny announcement trailers we all love are followed up by realistic expectations from the people actually working on the game, the hype is able to stay at a healthy level.
Larian Studios’ current campaign for Baldur’s Gate 3 personifies what I’m talking about. Their announcement trailer for BG3 definitely stirred up some interest and excitement in the RPG community. Then, when founder and lead designer Swen Vinke started his PR tour to show off some gameplay footage, the unexpected happened. The live gameplay he showed us wasn’t scripted, and it wasn’t perfect. Not only did his party die at various points, but there were also times where the system crashed. When he encountered bugs he didn’t ignore them hoping no one noticed. Instead, he noted them and discussed how the team was working on them.
Baldur’s Gate 3 at PAX East. Not your typical developer walkthrough.
That level of transparency is unheard of. It should also be noted that it didn’t slow the hype surrounding BG3. It set an expectation that the game wasn’t polished, so when Baldur’s Gate 3 finally entered early access players weren’t broadsided by the problems they encountered. Sure, there was still some buzz about some of the major bugs at the beginning of early access, but it quickly died down.
And that’s where gamers have to take some responsibility. As consumers, we can’t bite hook, line, and sinker at the first mention of a game. We have to be prepared for an imperfect experience. We can always ask for the best effort from the development team, but we need to stay skeptical until they prove they can deliver the goods. Skip the presale and buy a game after you know whether it’ll be good or not. Read some reviews or watch a Twitch streamer play a game for a couple of hours before you buy it.
Just like in the BG3 example, it takes both developers and consumers to keep the hype train from derailing. Companies need to be transparent throughout the development process and consumers need to quit reading between the lines. Keeping the hype surrounding a game at a healthy level should be the goal of everyone involved. The reputation built from setting a reasonable expectation for the consumer, and then meeting it to a reasonable degree, will generate more money over the long haul than a quick cash grab.