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Random Access: Cyberpunk 2077, Critics, and Marketing

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There was a time when if you wanted to learn more about entertainment software, sites or magazines in the traditional style were the only game in town. Since then, the internet has proliferated, and various businesses, technologies, and content formats evolved atop it. Now, you see plenty more casual commentary on games and a world of games media that is about entertainment over information. User reviews like those on Google or Steam also provide simple appraisals of games closer at hand than professional write-ups are.

There is even a vocal minority of gamers who've sworn off in-office criticism due to perceived ethical breaches by critics or due to value clashes between them and site staff. It's a tradition as old as online reviews to baselessly speculate that a writer is getting paid under the table. And at the first sniff that pundits were sympathising with women and minorities in games, an entrenched, and mostly white, male audience segment ran for the hills. Due to every development mentioned above, there are people in the gaming space who believe that we've outgrown the need for traditional product reviews. But the same online media revolution that brought the competition to those articles has also given publishers sinister new powers. They're powers which only heighten the need for critics.

The professional fans that covered games and the companies that released them once operated in relative symbiosis. Publications needed games companies to generate news, previews, and interviews. The games companies hungered for writers to deliver their messaging and create awareness about their products. With the upsurge of streaming and social media, the biggest publishers on the playground deduced that they could often leapfrog critics and speak directly to the player. So, we have Twitter accounts that offer tidbits of information if you stay glued and official subreddits where company representatives chime in. We have E3 commentary piped in from console manufacturers, and publisher-operated preview shows like EA Play LIVE, Ubisoft Forward, PlayStation Experience, Nintendo Treehouse, and official Twitch channels. And with the pandemic, games coverage lives now, more than ever, in online broadcasts.

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It's a mutation I've worried about for a while because it's obvious how a bad actor would abuse it. Industry giants can release news and previews of their products before the gaming sites. They can present them with equivalent or higher production values to the traditional games media and can do it all without any editorial control. Sometimes, the sets, wardrobes, and interactions in their streams even mirror news programmes or critical games coverage. With the right box of tricks, you can blur the line between education and advertisement.

What's more, like heat, the marketing budget for games always rises. If you've got higher expectations for revenue, and the AAA industry perpetually does, you need a wider net to capture that cash. And while the pride of place for the new GTA ad would once have been the very site which may have criticised it, you can now target let's plays, esports casts, vlogs, etc. which don't necessarily offer countervailing framings of that title. The beautiful thing about wooing tech-literate customers like hardcore gamers is that if you can shake them up with enough vigour, they'll do your PR for you. It's not that streamers or YouTubers don't ever say bad things about the games they play; they do, but there's a vast community centred on geek pageantry that's less often sober-headed and sceptical, and more often immoderate and excitable. How many times have you seen nerds talking about jumping aboard "the hype train"?

The coverage and promotion of Cyberpunk 2077 was the collision of all these new vehicles for hawking entertainment software. 2077 was as much a landmark expansion in the marketing of a game as it was the scale of one. More to the point, it had to have formidably ambitious marketing because it had a formidably ambitious scope and production values.

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Its publisher, CD Projekt Red, laid out all the social media trimmings, held contests, released music and gameplay previews, and started their own weekly programme generating updates on it. They went as far as getting Keanu Reeves to rep it on the E3 stage, and like all the rapacious advertising campaigns, Cyberpunk's took over preroll videos, sidebars, articles, TV breaks, billboards, buses, and bus stops. Unlike most campaigns, it rolled on for months as the game suffered delay after delay. There was a forty-eight-minute preliminary showing of the sci-fi more than two years before release, and press reported that one developer had spent 175 hours in Cyberpunk and had still not hit the credits. Its counterculture cyborgs had a home on Reddit from mid-2019 because giddy fans kept them there, churning the waters with fantasies of a video game uncritically granted to be everything its developers claimed.

Such a phenomenon was Cyberpunk 2077 that the title had a vault of merchandise before it had seen the light of day. There were official 2077 jackets, graphics cards, phones, chairs, console skins, mice, headsets, backpacks, masks, energy drinks, controllers, hard-drives, guidebooks, comics, Funko Pops, action figures, figurines, t-shirts, phone cases, mousepads, a different guidebook, and a car. Gamespot even put together a buyer's guide to help you figure out what Cyberpunk paraphernalia to purchase. And then we found out what the game was.

The expectations for CD Projekt Red's neon dystopia were stratospheric. If the RPG didn't let you lose yourself in a month-long taurine stupor, graphically annihilate all competition, and make a $500 bill print out your disc tray, there were going to be tears. Not only did it fail to achieve those lofty goals, reports are that all versions of the software are sparking and sputtering with bugs, while the last-gen versions of the title are, what we might charitably call, fucked. These blemishes would be enough to get gamers wheeling the guillotine up outside Projekt Red's offices. However, just to make sure customers were truly furious at them, the company made an active effort to prevent critics writing up these mishaps.

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The publisher held back codes for the faulty console versions of the game but dispatched those for the stable PC build. They also sent pre-release copies to critics on the condition that those reviewers didn't include any original gameplay footage in their articles; only Projekt Red-produced captures. Because when a game has more bugs than a roach motel, it's videos that most efficiently spread awareness about it. Some onlookers made the reasonable prediction that 2077 might just be another shiny open-world amusement park and not the second coming. Less predictable was that we'd end up making comments about it like "Hey, this game includes techniques clinicians use to induce seizures" or "I wish the NPCs would stop T-posing through the rooves of cars with their butts hanging out" or "I hope I don't get banned from Twitch because my protagonist's genitals keep clipping through their pants". I can't link to a source for that last one and keep within the site's rules, but you can find it for yourself if you need. PlayStation has since pulled the product from their storefront, and there are shops offering refunds for the item with varying levels of reluctance.

The period before a game's release is a precious window for a publisher. After a title has strolled out the door, it may be recast and recontextualised any number of ways by audiences and critics. But as long as it resides within the four walls of a studio, publishers can ensure that audiences only see its good side. And because the publisher has a monopoly on first looks at the game, that exclusivity becomes catnip for eager audiences. At the exact moment that the publisher dominates the market for media depicting their product, its image is also the most pliable to them. These firms don't even have to wait until launch day to see these positive optics pay off. Pre-orders mean that mere hype can be enough to shift pallette-loads of a game before day zero and there were plenty of console cowboys who blind-bet on 2077.

Of course, the period after release can provide a product with a more flattering image, as long as it's authentically appealing. Audiences respond to positive reviews and word of mouth, and if they see friends and public figures enjoying a game enough, they could get the itch to lay down some money on it. But not all ports of Cyberpunk are authentically appealing. What you see here is a product that the public took a passionate interest in pre-release with their opinion likely to sour post-release. So, Projekt Red decided to ride the pre-launch fervour as far as they could.

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The main obstacle to retaining image control before launch is external critique of your product based on previews and advance copies. We may see CD Projekt Red's, or any other company's, heavy-handed restrictions on day zero reviews as an attempt to extend their window of image control up to release. Here, the publisher used their colossal marketing engine to speak directly to their audience and collect a king's ransom in hype in the months before shipping. Then, stifled reviewers to carry that momentum all the way to sale. By the time most people realised they'd been sold a bill of goods, Projekt Red had already made out with their hard-earned cash. The company recouped all development and marketing expenses from pre-orders alone.

Now, I'm not saying that this was some Machiavellian conspiracy to pull a fast one on the games community from the start. I have no doubt CD Projekt Red had every intention of creating an open-ended, character-driven adventure to rival The Witcher. What it looks like happened is marketers began writing cheques developers couldn't cash, and the project sailed into the shallows. Deciding they were out of delays to spend, and possibly pressured by the approaching holiday season, the studio rushed out the console versions of the game. Management either panicked upon seeing the mangled wreck were about to ship and implemented tight gagging orders, or had always planned for constricting NDAs to give their marketing maximum amplitude. No doubt, the project also went through a lengthy history of teething pains that led to this crisis.

Cyberpunk 2077 joins a growing club of mechanically and geographically sprawling blockbusters that were broken on arrival. They include Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham Knight, Assassin's Creed: Unity, Anthem, Driveclub, Battlefield 4, GTA Online, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Total War: Rome 2, The Witcher 3, Final Fantasy XIV, Diablo III, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 76. In fact, this has happened so many times recently that it might be time to accept that projects this ambitious and complex carry an inherent risk. We see jankiness as a characteristic of Eurosim games and potential for originality as characteristic of indie games. Perhaps, in the same vein, we should view it in the nature of these hulking, expansive AAA bangers that they're prone to collapse under their own weight.

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There's a debate to be had about whether such a volatile form of game development is an acceptable practice. However, there is consensus that we can't tolerate publishers hiding severe technical shortcomings when they do occur. This stance is what leads to one of the most bizarre contradictions in this story. While, in the past, we've seen consternation from fans who feel developers overpromised and anger from readers who believe reviewers undersold, Cyberpunk 2077 has somehow given us both.

While most early reviews of the game either went sans score (some major sites forgo numeric ratings) or pegged it around 9/10, Gamespot's Kallie Plagge marked it a 7. She cited, as a primary complaint, the game's technical choppiness. You'd think that given the game community's fierce aversion to companies underdelivering, they would have welcomed Plagge's review. Sure enough, some readers did, but there was also a gaggle of infuriated responders who harassed and attempted to discredit Plagge.

Their arguments and motivations were bound up in gender politics, identity, and notions of "objective" aesthetics. I won't try to half-ass a reductionist exploration of them here; they deserve an article of their own. But there were mental gymnastics performed in this conversation relevant to the topic at hand. Through the clamour, you can pick out the voices of fans who fully immersed themselves in the vat of Cyberpunk marketing. These devotees emerged feeling so enthused and educated about 2077 that they, people who'd never touched the game, were sure they could make more informed judgements of it than someone who'd spent thirty hours treading the mean streets of Night City.

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This mindset is especially unusual for the gamers who swore off traditional "journallists". They're locked in a continuous performance of turning their back on the writers they believe are taking bribes behind their backs. But many walked away from critics into the embrace of the suits they claim are sending those bribes. Now, with fewer cool heads to alert them of foul play from the publisher, they're more susceptible to being taken for a ride. The angriest gamers have a paradox wherein they don't want to buy disappointing titles, but can't stomach reviewers telling them titles they're hungrily awaiting are disappointing. They've set themselves up for a lose-lose.

Not all the tomatoes were thrown by right-leaning players either. Progressive firebrand Defector Media threw up a piece blaming reviewers for assisting CD Projekt in scamming consumers. By writer Albert Burneko's reckoning, signing any non-disclosure agreement means putting the publisher's interests before the audience's. He says that no reader who's aware the reviewer signed an NDA can know they aren't contracted to bend the truth. He also posits that reviewers could have rejected Projekt Red's terms for pre-release coverage, waited for the game to come out, bought it, and reviewed it over the three day weekend, footage included. Numerous misunderstandings about games writing weigh down the Defector editorial. It also fails to map out realistic consequences for rejecting the Cyberpunk NDA.

If NDAs are effective employment contracts to the publisher, why can you find day one reviews that look down on the games they describe? If people reading NDA'd reviews imagine that the reviewer's acting as a marketer in disguise, then why not imagine any number of unproven conspiracies? And as former critic Heather Alexandria later told Burneko, the large majority of the time you have an embargo, no NDA is involved. It's also relevant that the Cyberpunk reviewers didn't know they'd get stiffed on console codes for the game, and so, couldn't plan around it. And consider what a full assessment of 2077 entails.

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It means not only exploring a thirty-to-forty-hour-game, but also playing five different versions of it, capturing footage or screenshots, writing the review, and every other fiddly job that comes with getting text from your brain onto a website. It's not possible to bang out the required labour in a weekend, and a boss would be mistreating their employee to make them try. It wouldn't have counteracted CD Projekt Red's coverup attempt anyway. We can see from the article that Burneko knows that Cyberpunk made its expenses back day one, and many consumers do buy at the first opportunity. His idea of a review three days after release seems far too stalled to keep up with the industry's pace.

The whole scheme would have been moot for most sites anyway. The financial models of games criticism mean that if you don't have something to say the second gamers can get their hands on an SDK, you're taking a knife to your bottom line. Publications are probably locked into that model because, while Cyberpunk 2077 will net $60 from everyone who buys it, a review of Cyberpunk will make less than pennies per read. Editors need to pull out all the stops to capture attention.

Despite what Defector published, reviewers like Gamespot's Kallie Plagge, PC Gamer's James Davenport, Eurogamer's Chris Tapsell, and Rock Paper Shotgun's Graham Smith are not "sellout clowns" for offering a muffled early warning over no early warning. As a left-wing outlet, what you'd expect from Defector is criticism that understands hierarchy, and stands by workers, but here, they do the opposite. They conceptualise game critics as allying with a powerful corporation who are throwing their weight at their customers. However, the critics do not have anywhere near the corporation's influence nor receive anywhere near the corporation's spoils, so we can't think of them as orbiting these companies.

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Games critic is a career track with a relatively modest salary that you can't inflate by sucking up to huge firms. After all, why would games publishers invest in people who work for a whole different company and whose job it is to point out their products' flaws? They'd do much better with in-house analysts who only accentuate their products' grandest characteristics, and they do: they're called marketers.

And if your choices are between putting out a hampered warning of a product's quality before its release, or uploading a full caution of the contents after the fact, you're not the one holding the reigns. That goes double if, unbeknownst to you, a company can hide multiple broken incarnations of the item. This sea of glowing reviews for such a shambles is proof that something is wrong in interactive software reviews. Still, there is no empirical evidence that these wordsmiths received anything but their regular salary in exchange for them, meaning the publisher scammed the critics just as much as they scammed us.

The arguments from the anti-"journo" crowd and Defector Media represent extremes in games discussion, but they do hold some sway, and by breaking them down, we learn a few things. We come to understand that, far from being obsolete or working actively against our interests, game critics remain the best shot we have at assessing a game's quality pre-release, even if they are outgunned. We also get a taste for the power marketing wings have over all of us, critics included. And perhaps that shouldn't be too surprising given the dynamics of the games industry.

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Imagine that you are a tadpole indie developer with a nominal marketing budget, and your wildest dream would be to sell a few thousand copies. In a pleasant surprise, one of the most famous review outlets picks up your game. Even if they give you a middling appraisal, that's far more publicity than you'd receive otherwise. You're not in a position to dictate favours from them because you're getting more from the transaction than they are.

But what if, instead, you were an impossibly large publisher with adverts for your game on every stream, sidebar, and dog. Your product is already getting great publicity because you're generating it, and you'll need that promotion because you're hoping to sell a few million copies. Positive reviews would be a bonus, but they're going to have to be excellent to match the pitch of your advertisements. Not all companies would implement gagging orders in that circumstance, but you can see why and how you'd do it.

You're publishing the biggest game of the year, games press are heavily reliant on covering the biggest game of the year, and they have to report on day one. They need you more than you need them. Therefore, you can dictate terms. It's one reason why paying off critics wouldn't be as tempting for a titanic publisher as many conspiracy theorists think it would be; that kind of publisher is often holding most of the cards anyway.

So, whatever perspective you're coming from, asking critics to just do their job better when their product falls short is like asking games developers to do the same when their work disappoints. There are mistakes made in individual instances of development or criticism for which we can provide constructive feedback, but the most pernicious issues are the systemic ones. They're not the sum of the choices made by the people at the bottom; they start with the authorities pulling the industry levers, and so often now, those authorities are the publishers. If only there had been a genre that warned us about giving enormous tech corporations unchecked economic power. Thanks for reading.