Marcin Iwinski, co-founder of games developer CD Projekt Red © AFP via Getty Images

The year’s biggest game is off to a rocky start. Since Cyberpunk 2077 came out on December 10, it has polarised audiences. Fans gushed over the game’s magnificent open-world and complex storytelling, the signature of developer CD Projekt Red, yet players have also reported serious glitches, leaving the company scrambling to deliver fixes. On Friday, Sony announced that it would withdraw the game from its digital stores until the problems had been resolved.

A few days before these criticisms emerged, when I talk to studio co-founder Marcin Iwinski on launch day, he admits to feeling stressed. “Games take time, love and passion, like any work of art,” he says. “Our business is long-term. The only thing we have is our reputation. We release games rarely, and each one is like entering a marriage: you’re supposed to deliver.”

Yet Iwinski remains jovial during our conversation, looking out from under a swoop of dirty-blonde hair at a rare moment of game development standstill. The game was out with players at that point, and the company was tracking internet feedback with a fever “bordering on madness”, before starting work on updates. Iwinski uses this respite to explain how he and his partner Adam Kiciński progressed from selling pirated CD-ROMs at Warsaw computer fairs to becoming Europe’s most valuable gaming company.

Iwinski grew up in communist Poland in the 1970s and 80s. “What I remember from these days is the predominant colour,” he says. “If you ask me about socialism, it was grey.” He lived in a standard-issue apartment block but had unusual access to the outside world through his father, a documentary film producer who had the rare opportunity to travel abroad. A computer-obsessed teen, Iwinski begged his dad to bring him a machine from overseas and was rewarded with a ZX Spectrum computer, packaged with four games. “I was playing,” he smiles, “and I was gone.”

There were no computer shops in Poland at the time, so Iwinski scoured the game-swapping personal ads at the back of a British magazine to find new titles. He and Kiciński, a schoolmate, skipped classes to play games and began importing new releases from US wholesalers to sell them in Warsaw’s semi-legal markets. 

Fans queue to buy ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ on the day of release © Bloomberg

In the entrepreneurial frenzy following the fall of communism, they established their company, CD Projekt, named after the CD-ROMs they traded. When the pair first visited London in the mid-90s, they saw a demonstration of the first PlayStation at a Sony trade show. “Going from grey Poland to blossoming London was a jaw-dropping experience,” Iwinski recalls. “Seeing the PlayStation we were like: oh my goodness, we have to be part of this.”

But the pair didn’t know how to make games. What they knew was the Polish market, and how to distribute. They began making deals to localise English-language games into Polish. Their first big hit was role-playing game Baldur’s Gate. They went all-out on localisation, hiring famous Polish actors — roped in by Iwinski’s father — to provide the voices. They were contractually obliged to sell 3,000 copies, but sold 18,000 on day one alone. 

CD Projekt proved the potential of the Polish market so comprehensively that international developers started to move their localisation efforts in-house. The pair had effectively worked themselves out of a job. But they had other ambitions. They didn’t want just to sell games; they wanted to make them.

Geralt of Rivia in ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’ © CD Projekt Red

As we talk, Iwinski is overlooked by two figurines on the windowsill behind him. One is Geralt of Rivia, the hero of The Witcher games, a sword slung across his back. Beside him is the nefarious Eredin, his main antagonist. These characters are drawn from stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, a fantasy writer known as the Polish answer to Tolkien, whose books focus on a monster-hunter who becomes enmeshed in political struggles and supernatural intrigue. The works are deeply rooted in eastern European folklore, with themes that are mature, carnal and violent. They would later be adapted into a hit Netflix series.

With this story, CD Projekt brought Polish fantasy to the world. Making the first Witcher game, released in 2007, came with a steep and expensive learning curve, taking five years to develop with a team of almost 100. Its 2011 sequel almost bankrupted the company but was a dramatic improvement on its predecessor. Their crowning achievement was 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a fantasy epic with unparalleled character depth and narrative texture, which immediately catapulted it into the upper echelons of gaming greats.

“If you look at other studios, like Rockstar [creators of Grand Theft Auto], for them the key element is gameplay,” Iwinski explains. “For us the key element is story. It’s our heart.” The Witcher’s complex, flawed characters, such as fan favourite The Bloody Baron, were novelistic constructions who elicited rare levels of empathy from players.

Telling stories that offer meaningful choices became the studio’s calling card. Making players feel their decisions matter is something of a grail quest in gaming. CD Projekt Red (the game-production arm of the company) has developed a sophisticated formula for this, including crafting short- and long-term consequences to player decisions and delivering morally ambiguous stories. “If a grandma asks you for help and the choices are either to help her or kill her and burn her house, that’s not an exciting choice,” comments quest director Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz wryly. 

The newly released ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ © CD Projekt Red

These lessons from The Witcher were adapted to Cyberpunk 2077, a dramatic departure from their fantasy universe. Based on a tabletop role-playing game grounded in a sub-genre of dystopian science-fiction, the game promised a high-octane tale of cybernetic body implants and shadowy corporations. With an aggressive hype campaign over the past eight years, CD Projekt Red brought fan anticipation to the boil, particularly after announcing that Matrix star Keanu Reeves would play key character Johnny Silverhand. “We had to get someone serious for the right fit,” says Iwinski. “We came up with a very short list, and that list was Keanu Reeves. There was no Plan B.”

Cyberpunk’s development was a challenge, and Covid-19 made finishing the game especially difficult, with producers stuck at home uploading enormous files to each other. However, the game has received mostly positive reviews and the company recently announced it had turned a profit from the game’s 8m pre-orders alone. Yet players and critics also criticised the game for its many glitches, from game-breaking flaws to surreal bugs that made characters look bald or forced their genitals to poke out from their clothes.

CD Projekt Red is not alone in its buggy winter release: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, another big game of the season, suffers similar issues. Development under Covid-19 is partly to blame, and these problems should be fixed over the coming months. CD Projekt Red has apologised for how the game performs on last-generation consoles, and has offered refunds to dissatisfied players. Their reputation — and stock value — took another blow when Sony pulled the game from its digital stores on Friday.

The ambivalent responses to Cyberpunk 2077 show that the gaming public’s attitudes towards CD Projekt are shifting. The company is loved for its independence, dedication and craft, but this game’s release has proved a trial. Having positioned itself in the major league, CD Projekt now invites different expectations. Its aggressive marketing campaign made big promises and the company failed to deliver, releasing an unfinished product priced at $60 and disappointing many previously adoring followers. Even though Cyberpunk’s glitches will be fixed over time and the company still largely holds to its admirable values, it can no longer rely on the Polish underdog story once so popular with fans.

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