‘Cyberpunk 2077’ was almost unplayable on some platforms

The problems with Cyberpunk 2077 came on a sliding scale. For some players on PC and next-gen consoles, they were humorous glitches — characters speeding on motorcycles with no trousers on, a surreal carpet of tiny trees inside a building, genitals attached to the outside of clothes. The game was still good. But for PS4 and Xbox One players, it was almost unplayable, triggering refund demands, Sony pulling the game from its digital store, and now a class-action lawsuit against developer CD Projekt Red on behalf of its investors.

Cyberpunk is not alone in its glitchy launch. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and cartoon shooter XIII both have considerable bugs. In any other art form, this would be unthinkable. Can you imagine paying to see a film where the special effects were unfinished? Or buying a book that was missing the last 20 pages? Yet despite their rough edges, Assassin’s Creed and Cyberpunk sold big. Both are banner releases of major studios with solid experience — so why were they released before they were ready? 

In most games, bugs aren’t too serious. Players understand if character models occasionally slip through solid objects or sound effects don’t play on cue. Sometimes glitches are more serious, such as with the notoriously buggy Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, or last year’s WWE 2K20, so broken that the 2021 iteration was cancelled. Frequent bugs break the illusion of a game’s narrative, bringing the player’s agency into question — did that character turn hostile because of my actions, or is the game’s system simply broken? Meanwhile, developers sometimes use underhand techniques to conceal bugs, imposing extreme embargoes on reviewers or, as with Cyberpunk 2077, hiding footage of the game’s poor performance on last-gen consoles. 

Where do bugs come from in the first place? Contemporary games are sophisticated creations, often put together from third-party game engines and in-house code. Early decisions in development can cause unanticipated issues later when animations and objects are added, by which point these systems are too integral to be removed wholesale. Occasionally, glitches are missed during the play-testing period, but often developers know the bugs are there and do not consider it viable, for reasons of budget, labour or time, to fix them before release.

So why can’t a developer simply delay a game until it is ready? Release dates are rarely chosen by the makers; instead they are imposed by marketing departments and shareholders, calibrated to avoid competition, giving a game a fighting chance in a crowded market, or timed to tie in with a holiday season or new console. Putting back a game’s release can send costs spiralling as marketing needs to be replanned and other games in the pipeline are delayed as a consequence. A game is a calculated economic risk, and if it flops, a studio can collapse. Sometimes it makes more sense to release a bug-ridden game than to further delay it.

One developer that rarely releases buggy games is Nintendo. A black box to outsiders, it usually announces games only when they are nearly ready. Legendary director Shigeru Miyamoto offered a key to the company philosophy when he said: “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”

However, this aphorism is not as true as it once was. Today, most gamers are familiar with the “Day one patch”, a software update they are forced to download before playing a game for the first time, which offers fixes that developers didn’t have time to include before shipping physical copies. Rushed games are no longer “forever bad”: several popular titles, including No Man’s Sky, Fallout 76 and Final Fantasy XIV, were panned on first release but gradually won over audiences through a series of significant updates.

‘Hades’ was available in early access for two years before being released as a finished game

The increasing prevalence of such patching has incentivised the release of games before they are ready. This has coincided with a demand for increasingly sophisticated games that developers are struggling to meet. The result is unrealistic production schedules and the controversial labour practice known as “crunch”, where developers are asked to work six- or seven-day weeks and long hours in the run-up to release. This acceleration is unsustainable, and glitches are simply the external evidence of deeper problems in the industry.

Studios need to set more realistic deadlines for their games, though it can be a matter of better time management rather than just more time — Cyberpunk 2077 was in development for eight years and was still a mess. Or big studios could learn from the indie developers’ early access system, through which unfinished versions of games are released for fans to play at a reduced price.

Baldur’s Gate 3 has been in early access since September. Eager fans jump in to try the draft game, offering feedback and suggestions, while others wait for the polished, final release. Hades, probably the best game of 2020, was in early access for almost two years. This system makes the development process more transparent, and encourages players to invest emotionally in a game because they are personally contributing to its development.

If the Cyberpunk debacle taught us anything, it’s that it’s worth doing whatever you can to keep fans onside.

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