Most people are aware of the concept of precedence. Primarily used in legal settings, this allows you to compare two items that are similar and respond in a similar fashion. When the issue is brand new, then there’s a big argument around it, getting to a nation’s highest court. The ruling then sets precedence, allowing for future similar discussions to be solved much quicker. (The whole Trump voting thing lost because of precedence, and on rulings that a first day law student would know better than to try.)
The psychological impact of precedence is the real matter at hand. Individuals like surprises, people do not. Society is based on a set of rules and has trouble adapting when those rules are challenged or changed. Subverting expectation works in things like art, but rarely in other mediums. Uber decimated the taxi industry (and still doesn’t pay people enough, nor does the company actually make money). The pandemic has shown that society can manage work remotely – at least a LOT more than previously thought. That will cut the travel/hospitality industry to the knees, or any business dependent on “rush hour”. Change is by nature disruptive, but it also tends to set new expectation. And from that point on, precedence is set.
Precedence in gaming is a thing too. WoW is the bar by which nearly every MMO has been judged for 15 years! If your quests don’t have a ! around them, are they quests? If it doesn’t play like FIFA, is it really football/soccer? People don’t say “it’s a tactical game”, they say it plays like XCOM. There are so many games we’re forced to compare, and those comparisons have judgment.
All of that to Cyberpunk. Not the first company that’s an industry darling to make a mistake. It’s not the first game to have crazy hype. It is not the first game to promise so much more than it delivered. It is not the first game to subject its developers to insane crunch. It’s not the first game to launch to meet stockholder demands. And it’s not the first game to offer generous refunds.
You don’t have to look too far back here. Anthem was in this bucket. The good news for players was the EA pass structure, meaning most people were out like $20 instead of full retail. Diablo 3 offered refunds for everyone for a month after launch. Star Citizen still has not launched, and I’m astounded that it’s not the largest case of gaming fraud in history. Day 1 kitchen sink patches are expected now. There are plenty of discreet examples across time that show that this has happened before. Plenty of reasons that explain why pre-orders are bad for everyone.
What Cyberpunk has done instead is bring this all to 11.
- CD Projekt was riding ultra high after a great track record – including the highly regarded Witcher 3.
- It’s been hyped like mad for 8 years, and been taking pre-orders for nearly 3
- It clearly launched in a overly buggy state, and is for practical purposes, not playable on last-gen consoles. This makes everyone look bad, including Sony/MS.
- It promised, multiple times, to not have crunch. Then management demanded it for the last 6 months. They will, certainly, have a loss of talent because of this choice.
- It’s launch was primarily a financial matter, so that they could claim the pre-order negative balance. It sold 8 million of them! WoW Shadowlands was the “highest ever” with 3.7m, a week before. Side note – it also has cost the company ~20% of total value due to stock depreciation (~$1.8b dollars), way more than the pre-orders generated.
- The refunds are unheard of. You can’t even buy the game digitally right now for anything but PC. If you do have a copy, every single vendor is offering some form of refund. See prior line item to get an idea of the financial impacts of this.
Many games have launched in a state similar to this. Few have checked as many boxes as Cyberpunk, and checked them so forcefully. Some have come back from the dead (No Man’s Land), most have just cut their losses and moved on. This absolutely spectacular failure and set of consequences could have and should have been mitigated. Consumers are anti-ethical by nature, they could give 2 shits about crunch as long as the product has value (RDR2 in gaming, and the existence of WalMart in general). This was a cluster of mistakes that anyone with half a brain should have seen coming, and yet, here we are.
No, what Cyberpunk has actually done is a much larger problem. They’ve set a precedence for consequences of failure so absolute that the next person to fail even remotely close has to measure up to this response. How refunds are managed, and the decision to support or tank a game here on out for video game is the real target. This may not seem like a big deal to consumers, refunds are part of life right? Yeah, on the other side of the machine is a financial team that measures risk and liability. 80% of the people impacted by that decision have zero power to impact it. EA and Acti/Blizzard execs are sweating bullets thinking “this could be us!”
The optimist in me says this will mean games will have to launch with higher QA standards than what we’ve seen. That quality will not only be rewarded, but expected. The pessimist in me says that this will put an elite bar on games where anything that doesn’t score say an 80 on metacritic is a target for a massive refund drive from gamers, and that there really isn’t any way for suppliers to push back.
And to close here, I feel ultra bad for the CD Projekt development team. They knew this was going to happen (well, maybe not the refunds) and management did nothing. They did nothing multiple times! The company has lost billions of dollars from this. That usually comes with consequences, and these folks do not need that additional stress over the holidays. All because someone wanted to print a number on a quarterly review. Rather than a few execs taking a smaller bonus, they’ve now put the entire company under the lens.