Cyberpunk 2077 and the pros and cons of delayed releases

Cyberpunk 2077 is going to be the latest release from popular games developer CD Projekt Red. The studio is famous for The Witcher games series – The Witcher 3 in particular was one of the most highly-rated single-player games of the last decade. And I still haven’t got around to playing it, but that’s another story!

For a number of reasons, Cyberpunk 2077 has been on my radar as a game I’m looking forward to, and one of several recent and upcoming titles for which I’m currently in the process of upgrading/rebuilding my PC. It had been due for release in April, but that has now been pushed back to mid-September – a delay of around five months.

This got me thinking about what some of the pros and cons are when delaying a game.

Promo artwork for the delayed Cyberpunk 2077.

The biggest drawback should be obvious, and is especially relevant for a studio which only releases a small number of titles. It is of course money – is there enough in the coffers to keep the lights on and work continuing until the game can be released? Will additional sources of finance be required? Etc. For a large company with a turnover in the hundreds of millions or more, a delay can usually be absorbed – even if it’s done so grudgingly. But for a small company that may only put out one game at a time, several years apart, there’s a legitimate question of how sustainable delays can be, especially long delays of six months, a year, or longer.

For some companies, this can mean there’s an absolute limit. If funding dries up on a particular date, their title absolutely has to be on shelves on or before that date otherwise they may well go out of business. And that means that even with the best intentions, if a project suffers complications there can be a stark choice between releasing it in the state it’s in or not releasing it at all.

For a small company, or even a large company that’s been struggling, this might be understandable. But what we’ve seen happen on too many occasions recently is big companies forcing games out to meet arbitrary deadlines – like the end of the financial year – when there was no real need to do so. And the end result in many cases has been a seriously underwhelming title that never got off the ground because of its state at launch. The few days before and after a game’s release date are crucial – this is when reviewers get their hands on copies and the first player feedback comes in.

Mass Effect: Andromeda launched to mass ridicule for its graphical glitches in particular.

Two of BioWare’s recent titles spring to mind as examples – Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem. Both were pushed out too early, unfinished, unpolished, and suffering from too many bugs and glitches, and as a result, both titles failed to achieve either review score targets or sales targets. Mass Effect: Andromeda saw all its post-launch DLC – which would have added to its story – cancelled, and the entire franchise was put on hiatus. Anthem, planned as a “ten year” live service, saw its roadmap scrapped. While Anthem is limping on, it doesn’t seem long for this world and I doubt any major updates are coming as its remaining players jump ship to other, newer titles.

And there are plenty of other examples of games being forced out the door too soon by greedy publishers. The Assassin’s Creed series almost fell apart after attempts to launch more than one title per year in the mid-2010s led to several of them being essentially unplayable on launch due to the severity of bugs and graphical glitches. And Fallout 76 – which made my list of the most disappointing titles of the last decade – was also inexplicably launched before the game was in a basically playable state. The 2013 Star Trek video game was so buggy when it was released – timed to tie in with Star Trek Into Darkness – that JJ Abrams went on record saying that it hurt that film’s reception. And having played that game for myself, I can attest to how bad of an experience it was.

Spock on a promo screenshot for 2013’s Star Trek.

This problem even goes all the way back to the early days of video gaming. 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was so bad it was one of the causes of the 1983 video game “crash” in North America, and hundreds of thousands of unsold copies ended up being famously buried in a New Mexico landfill. That game was put together in a mere five weeks in order to cash in on the film’s popularity as the Christmas season approached.

In all of the above cases – and countless more – extra development time would have resulted in an improved game at the very least. Maybe some of these failures could have even become good games, the kind people are excited to go back and play even years later. But because decisions were taken by business executives who needed to tick boxes and conform to arbitrary deadlines, the end result was failure.

Screenshot of the infamous 1982 game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

There’s a famous quotation from Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto – “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” And that couldn’t be more true. If a project needs more time, then I’m firmly in the camp that says give it the time it needs. Unless it’s completely impossible, it’s always going to be better to be late than bad.

A bad game – which reviewers and early adopters will pick up on immediately – is going to get bad reviews and bad feedback. In the days of YouTube, Twitch, and other social media, gamers will know right away – and even on launch day people could be put off picking up a copy if reviews are bad. A game plagued by glitches, bugs, and other issues is always going to sell fewer copies than a game that works as intended if for no other reason than review scores and word-of-mouth.

Some particularly bad games can even lead to studio closures or franchises being shut down.

There’s always a butting of heads when the artistic side of game development meets the business reality. And in every case, there’s a point at which development becomes too costly to ever realistically hope to make its money back. We could do a whole article on how Star Citizen has blitzed through more than $100m in crowdfunding money and is still nowhere near release, even after close to a decade in development. So there does come a point, somewhere, at which a decision has to be made about release, and from a business point of view it’s possible to understand why – at least in some cases.

So where does this leave CD Projekt Red, whose delay prompted this article? They’re going to be fine, of course, and the extra development time should mean Cyberpunk 2077 ends up being a better and more polished game at the end of the day.

Most players recognise that simple fact, and the response from the community when any game is delayed is almost always overwhelmingly positive. Gamers have been here too many times before, and practically everyone who’s been playing for a while will have been burned at least once by a disappointing title that was forced to release too early. The vast majority of gamers, while they may be disappointed on a personal level, understand the logic and reasoning behind delays. It’s better for a studio to take its time and launch a good game, after all.

2015’s The Witcher 3 was delayed, only to receive universal acclaim when it finally released.

Some titles end up being delayed for years, only to release to critical acclaim. And at the end of the day, that’s far better than hitting some arbitrary launch date, receiving justifiably bad reviews, and being a failure. CD Projekt Red’s last title, The Witcher 3, was delayed, and many people regard that game as one of the finest of the last decade.

I’m happy to wait longer for any game I’m looking forward to if it means the experience will be better for it.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studios, developers, and/or publishers. Screenshots and artwork are all taken from IGDB press kits. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.