Cyberpunk 2077 and the problem with tech work culture

Before its release, Cyberpunk 2077 was hyped as ‘the video game of 2020’, a prediction that rings eerily true in the sense that 2020 was a disappointing dumpster fire, and so too was the game. Cyberpunk 2077 is a case study of what happens when you exploit workers, deceive consumers, and put a projected, ideal future ahead of messy reality.

In this open-world game, your character explores Night City, a dystopia where corporations control every aspect of life. The level of customisation, detail, choice and exploration a player can undertake is staggering. You can choose your appearance, back story, gender and personal attributes, as well as getting infinitely side-tracked from your main missions, all against a backdrop in which every secondary character and background object are intended to be fully interactive. Maybe it was all too much.

Gamers had been awaiting Cyberpunk 2077’s release since 2012, when Polish studio CD Projekt Red first announced the title. From June 2019, eight million copies of the game were pre-ordered.

Pre-orders act similarly to film gross opening weekends: profiting early usually means profiting more thanks to the resulting hype. Accordingly, studios incentivise pre-orders by offering discounts and exclusive features. Cyberpunk 2077 initially turned a profit thanks to pre-orders alone, despite boycotts resulting from the studio’s series of transphobic statements, concerns about workplace practices, and multiple delays to release.

However, following its December 2020 release, many customers demanded refunds. The Microsoft and Sony stores obliged, expanding their refund policies to cover anyone who bought the game, and Sony stopped selling the game altogether. The studio is now facing a class action lawsuit in the US for securities fraud.

Put simply, the hyped-up, long-awaited game was just too glitchy. My experience playing it on my brother’s PlayStation 5 over the Christmas holidays involved background characters getting spliced in car bonnets, and bailing from a car careening at 150 miles an hour without a scratch. Hilarious glitches have been anthologised across the internet, and include cars suspended in the sky, characters holding their arms out in a ‘t pose‘ for no reason and losing their pants, and – my favourite – a character taking off their sunglasses only to reveal another pair of sunglasses.

The promised interaction is also lacking: you can talk to background characters, but the dialogue is strange and meaningless. The city feels hollow and kind of lonely. Gameplay quality varies over different platforms, ranging from unplayable to fine-but-distracting; and lots of gamers argue that it’s still a good game despite the glitches. Ultimately, however, CD Projekt Red released a game they hadn’t finished making.

This was partly due to the pressure of pre-orders. Originally slated for April 2020, the release of the game was delayed to September, then again to November, and once more to December, all due to quality issue that evidently were never completely resolved.

Such delays are not unusual, but they are frustrating to gamers – some of whom had been looking forward to playing the game for years – and have commercial consequences. As the game was delayed, the studio’s stock price fell and gamers sought refunds for their pre-orders. Pressure to deliver soon mounted, translating into workplace practices.

‘Crunch’ is an industry term referring to periods of time where workers are required to work long hours, six days a week. It is increasingly controversial amongst gamers, and the bugbear of developers who end up burning out and leaving the industry because of it. There have been proposals to boycott studios that resort to crunch, but as journalist Jason Schreier points out, ‘boycotting games that are made under crunch culture or exploitative labor practices would mean boycotting the entire AAA video game industry.’

CD Projekt Red had previously told fans that they wouldn’t send workers into crunch, but then, in September, backflipped. Worse still, when it announced a crunch-extending delay in October, workers first heard about it on Twitter. (Although at least the studio gave workers overtime pay – many studios do not pay extra for crunch.)

Crunch can be avoided by extending deadlines, or by cutting back on features. But making sensible compromises is not how big gaming companies work. There’s a magical thinking, a tireless optimism, that floods through industry attitudes towards technology: there is always a path to getting exactly what you want, whether it be by relying on creative innovation that hasn’t happened yet, or by relying on workers to achieve something remarkable by sheer dedication alone.

This attitude isn’t just seen in games studios. It’s the ethos of start-up tech, the basis of billions of speculative investment in the next big thing in Silicon Valley. It’s in the way so many are comfortable in deferring climate change action on the basis that some future, currently uninvented technology will fix everything. It’s in politics: Boris Johnson appealed to ‘creative solutions‘ that could somehow solve a logical impasse on the Irish border and magically fix Brexit negotiations without either breaking the Good Friday Agreement or having different border rules for different parts of the UK. It’s an attitude we see in schools, too, as education academic, Larry Cubin says, ‘during times when schools have been heavily criticized for failing … electronic technologies – Skinner’s ‘teaching machine’ was popular in the 1950s – have been drafted time and again to alter teaching and get students to learn more, faster and better.’ This magical thinking stands in place of addressing the issues that led to failure in the first place, and allows us to imagine a future that we can confidently assume will be better in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

The ideology of infinite technological progression is encapsulated by Moore’s Law. Put forward by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, the law states that the number of transistors on a single chip would double every two years. This prediction held approximately true until 2010, when the limitations of physics prevented transistors from getting smaller. Moore’s Law was generalised to promote the idea that the rate of innovation is constant, or even exponential, when realistically the physical pace of innovation has started to decline. Economist Robert Gordon has argued that, in terms of the material impact on our lives, innovation has been slower over the last forty years than in the previous century.

Cyberpunk 2077 promised an immersive, exploratory game that many gamers couldn’t even play. Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes’s health startup, promised to undertake suites of pathology tests with a pinprick sample of blood raised $700 million and was valued over $10 billion despite never having a working product. WeWork was valued at billions of dollars for its basic business model: to lease office space that it would turn into hip co-working space to rent out again. Wall Street Journal reporter Eliot Brown called the stark gap between the capital WeWork could raise and its ‘mundane’ reality as ‘Silicon Valley pixie dust’.

Organisation studies research suggests that ‘magical thinking’ is an entrepreneurial quality. Entrepreneurs are more likely to display ‘entrepreneurial hubris’ – a tendency to put an optimistic spin on risk and uncertainty. They’re also more likely than average to feel connected to ‘a higher power’ invested in their success, and that they are in the centre of an orderly universe. Emerging from the Trump era – as writer Reeves Wiedeman reflects in Billion Dollar Loser – ‘hyperbole, autocratic leadership, and a disconnect from reality [are] suddenly assets on the path of power.’

According to Nathan Schradle, this ‘enthusiasm that surrounds black box technologies, and the way they stand poised (whether in the public imagination or in reality) to radically reshape society’ is no different to a belief in magic. Crunch and sleepless nights channel a mysterious power. As Wiedeman writes, ‘fortunes [are] made on an insistence that your company [is] harnessing the power of technology – no need to say exactly which one.’ There is no need to change tracks, compromise, or place the world we actually live in ahead of the one we imagine.

CD Projekt Red’s final strategy to build even more hype for a game ridden with problems was to hide reality. According to Wired, the studio only allowed reviewers to preview the game on PC – the platform on which it works best – a few days before release, cutting short most side-quests and world-exploration. They ordered them to sign non-disclosure agreements that would prohibit them from posting any gameplay footage that wasn’t produced by the studio itself.

The flaws were hidden for as long as they could be – right up to release day. This is when the hype gets revealed for what it is. This is where all the magical thinking and optimistic trust in the future collapses. As Cyberpunk 2077 itself depicts – both purposefully in its futuristic dystopian story, and accidentally in its poor execution – the future isn’t necessarily better. What we’re left with is betrayal of trust, unjust work practices, and lingering problems that we need to solve now, with the resources we have.

Erin Stewart

Erin Stewart is a writer based in Canberra. She tweets at @xerinstewart

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