CD Projekt Red had nearly a decade to architect the great Cyberpunk 2077 mythos. Game reviewers had just a couple of days to assess it, and were hamstrung in how they could portray it. Gamers who had dropped $60 on this cyberpunk pleasure palace back in 2019 reeled; all the hot air came whizzing out. One professional reviewer, Kallie Plagge, gave Cyberpunk 2077 a 7/10 on GameSpot—not even a pan—criticizing it for one-dimensional world building, disconnected side quests, and large-scale technical issues. Mass harassment attended the review. Reactionary YouTubers, who did not have access to the game, dedicated long videos to dismantling her critique, dissecting her playtime and playstyle. But just days later, once gamers had finally played Cyberpunk 2077 themselves, many did a 180. “Everyone talked shit about her, but I’m starting to agree with Kelly [sp] Plagge,” read one popular post on /r/cyberpunkgame.
CD Projekt Red isn’t the first or only gaming company performing marketing psy-ops. In 2016, No Man’s Sky literally promised the world and infinite others; it was slated to be the most expansive, the most immersive, the most most game up until that point. But because the studio behind it, Hello Games, didn’t offer it to reviewers at all ahead of launch, gamers found out the hard way that it failed to deliver on basics like multiplayer connectivity. This year alone, WIRED received over a dozen offers to review big games that came with NDAs attached. It’s not always to hide flaws; sometimes it’s to prevent spoilers, or the result of an overzealous PR team. But putting those kinds of handcuffs on reviewers ultimately hurts the people who buy the games.
As the games industry market size summits $60.4 billion dollars, the pressure to micromanage the reviews system grows ever greater. As an example, Bloomberg has reported that CD Projekt Red’s developers’ bonuses were contingent upon a 90+ on Metacritic. (That changed post-release.) The company had built up the video game equivalent of a genie in a bottle. So it did what everybody does when they gain a modicum of power: control the narrative. CD Projekt Red declined WIRED’s request for comment.
The same incentives also rig the system against developers, who pull six-day workweeks and sacrifice work-life balance to manifest slogans like “a city that’s larger than life,” “sets new standards in terms of visuals, complexity and depth.” These are the modern expectations for a 60-hour, AAA open world game—an increasingly bloated, and increasingly unsustainable genre. In June, former PlayStation executive Sean Layden bemoaned the enormous financial and work burden of developing these kinds of games to GamesIndustry.biz. “I think the industry as a whole needs to sit back and go, ‘Alright, what are we building? What’s the audience expectation? What is the best way to get our story across, and say what we need to say?’”
Eight million pre-orders, though, says all this stage-management benefits somebody. Video games are particularly susceptible to the bait-and-switch. Games are both identities and hobbies: a place to be yourself and explore who you are and a thing you do and own. Better customization, bigger worlds, greater graphics—more, more, more—it’s unsustainable. But a system that feeds on hope will only grow as big as the trust placed in it.
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