Cyberpunk 2077 shows blockbuster video games are getting too big to be sustainable

CD Projekt Red’s visually stunning sci-fi is far from the only offender, writes Louis Chilton, but the quest for perpetually bigger and better games is coming at a cost

Thursday 10 December 2020 15:55
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Cyberpunk 2077 features a huge, immersive open world set in a dystopic technology-driven future
Cyberpunk 2077 features a huge, immersive open world set in a dystopic technology-driven future

What will the world look like in the year 2077? It often feels impossible to see over the hard, steep horizon of our own short-term future – try and conjure an image of life more than half a century away, and everything’s just an impregnable fog. The year 2077 is envisioned in clear and minute detail, however, in Cyberpunk 2077, the long-awaited blockbuster game from CD Project Red, the Polish studio behind the near-universally adored The Witcher 3.  

Drawing heavily from classic works in the Cyberpunk sci-fi subgenre – including seminal films such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the ShellCyberpunk 2077’s vision of the future is bleak and violent. It is a world like ours, only gaudier and less human – a world where existence is a dismal tangle of wires, microchips and firearms. Our world is not sustainable, the game insists. Here, it is correct. The irony, of course, is that Cyberpunk 2077 is itself the product of technological misadventure, the furthermost waypoint in an industry that many are saying cannot be sustained as is.

Announced in May 2012, Cyberpunk enjoyed a tremendous amount of hype throughout the following eight years. It promised the moon: a huge, open-world game with industry-leading graphics, and gameplay that spanned driving, first-person action and stealth, with deep RPG dialogue and character systems. In Keanu Reeves, it found a star with genuine Hollywood buzz; a perfect face for the marketing campaign.  With the game just days from release, it’s clear that it delivers on a good amount of its promise. As discussed in The Independent’s four-star review, Cyberpunk “opts for edginess over sensitivity or subtlety”, but its remarkable open-world environment merits consideration as “one of the all-time great video game settings”.

However, as is common with video games of any size, and especially so of leviathans like this, Cyberpunk suffered a series of delays. First, its planned April 2020 date was abandoned. Then, in circumstances worsened by the pandemic, September became November, then finally December. Delays like this inevitably get a bit of pushback from some gamers, but they’re also commonplace, and, given the sheer logistical difficulty of a project this size, completely understandable.  

One problem that has dogged Cyberpunk’s narrative is that of “crunch”, the term used in the games industry to describe prolonged periods of overtime. On blockbuster games like Cyberpunk, or Red Dead Redemption, or this year’s The Last of Us, Part II, developers work brutal overtime hours to ensure the product is ready for launch, often for weeks and months at a time. Delays to a game’s release might sound like a solution to the problem, but in practice they simply prolong the time developers spend crunching.

Cyberpunk 2077 incorporates a deep bench of characters and quests

Bloomberg has reported damningly on CD Projekt Red’s use of crunch, writing in September that employees had been made to work mandatory six-day weeks, “reneging on an earlier promise to not force overtime”. Citing an account from a CD Projekt Red employee and an email sent to staff, the report also claimed that some developers had been working overtime on nights and weekends for over a year. In the email, studio head Adam Badowski reportedly wrote that the decision to impose overtime was “in direct opposition to what I personally grew to believe a while back – that crunch should never be the answer.”

Cyberpunk was finished weeks ago, with the bulk of the remaining work revolving around identifying and fixing bugs and glitches. In a game of such size, this is a Herculean task. Quality Assurance head Lukasz Babiel made headlines in November when he revealed that he had played the game for more than 175 hours on its highest difficulty setting without reaching the end. While non-completionists will finish the game in a fraction of that time, it still gives some indication of just how massive the game is. Night City, the urban environment in which much of the game is set, is a huge sand box location, and brim-full with quests, side-quests, collectibles and incidents. Even with some of the most skilled workers in the business, the sheer amount of work needed to bring such a game to life is enormous.

Road-tested: The game required extensive and ongoing work to identify and eliminate  bugs and glitches

While crunch is fundamentally a problem with labour practices, it is also rooted in video game consumer culture. Blockbuster games are expected to reach ever-greater technical peaks, outdoing their predecessors not just in graphical performance, but in size. There is some comparison to be found in the world of cinema - in the way three-hour CGI slogs like Avengers: Endgame seem to advertise themselves, implicitly, with the promise of more consumable bang for your buck. Naturally, however, this drive for bigger games with ever-increasingly sophisticated designs makes the product more costly, for everyone involved. When it was first revealed that new PS5 games could cost as much as £69, there was an uproar – but what did people expect?  

Read more: Cyberpunk 2077, review: So immersive your head will spin

Perhaps, in time, the biggest game releases will be shorter, or will be released episodically, as some games, like the popular indie Life is Strange, already have been. The past decade has seen live service games expand the ways in which games can make money; maybe the expectation of immediate, ready-made goliaths will fade into the past. Or else, the situation shall worsen, and games will only grow longer, better-looking, and less humane. For now, Cyberpunk 2077 is a glossy, artfully made reminder that the industry is crying out for change.

Cyberpunk 2077 is out on PS4, Xbox One, Stadia and PC on 10 December

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