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Cyberpunk 2077 and Crunch: We Now Must Experience the Game

31 Oct 2020

“How should we experience a game we know others have suffered to make?”

With the news that Cyberpunk 2077 is getting delayed yet again until December 10th, I’m asking myself this question. I’m asking because the game’s developer, CD Projekt Red, has extended its enforcement of mandatory overtime, or “crunch” as it’s known in the gaming industry. After promising employees that crunch wasn’t something CD Projekt Red encouraged, studio head Adam Badowski and co-founder Marcin Iwiński went back on their word after announcing the second delay of the game from September to November 2020. And in recent days, after its third delay, co-CEO Adam Kiciński even had to release an apology to employees for an investor call in which he claimed that the crunch was not that bad.

The issue of video game companies promoting a culture of crunch is one that has steadily become more well-known after Dan Houser, former vice president of creativity at Rockstar Games, mentioned in an interview (with a later clarification) that some employees were working 100 hour weeks to finish Red Dead Redemption 2 (another game that was delayed many times over nearly decade of development). But now Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier reports that some CD Projekt Red developers are also enduring extreme work conditions as their company requires overtime to finish the game over the last months of the year.

Schreier is well known for his attempts to shed light on crunch practices in gaming companies, but even if his reporting is very anecdotal, at least some of the employees are not only being overworked, but are being harmed.

Context here does matter, though, so it is true that other jobs also include a daily risk of harm, emotionally, physically, or otherwise. Doctors, construction workers, social workers. And it’s important to note that CD Projekt Red is not only paying its employees for this overtime, but are also going to give them a hefty bonus of 10% of annual profits. So it is not as if there is slave labor going on here. However, these facts don’t invalidate that getting a stress induced illness is no joke, and something that money can’t fix. As someone who has dealt with chronic pain exacerbated by stress, I feel that having a job require unnecessary stress is like asking someone to canoe down white water rapids when they could take the longer way down by hiking. And that’s a metaphor generous to those requiring crunch.

So how can I ignore the suffering of the workers at CD Projekt Red if I decide to play Cyberpunk 2077 when it releases? To be a decent human being, I have to account for the production of the game when experiencing it. The process of creating a piece of art is an integral part of its expressive capabilities, especially in the case of a game whose production is as well covered as Cyberpunk’s is.

Promoting Suffering for Greatness

But to account for the influence of crunch on Cyberpunk 2077 I think we have to ask a more immediate question: “Must we experience a game others have suffered to make?”

This question gets at the implicit attitudes of a company that both asks its workers to risk their health for a deadline and tells consumers to expect an outstanding, top-tier aesthetic experience. Though CD Projekt Red is often cited as having consumer interests at heart (and with good evidence—like extensive, yet affordable DLCs), promising to not enact crunch and then doing it anyway sends a message that the excessive work makes the game worth the related suffering. The consequences of the game’s production on its developers therefore become a primary reason consumers feel motivated to buy the game. They feel they have to judge if the developers’ suffering made the game that much better.

However, judging if something is worth suffering for begs the question. To judge if something is worth suffering, by definition, means it is—at least somewhat. And so ignoring or protesting a product of suffering implicitly means it wasn’t worth it. This more subtle realization further supports the decision to experience the game.

Furthermore, knowing uncomfortable details about the people behind the game, pushing to produce something extraordinary, leads consumers to believe the effort must be successful. The more details they know, the more reason they have to not ignore the game. Consider a memoir, put out by a larger publisher like Random House. If it sells well enough to be on the New York Times Bestseller list, why does it succeed? Often it’s because not only does the writing concern personal suffering and transcending it, but so does the promotion around the book, which includes authors doing speaking tours and interviews, answering questions about their life. The experience of Cyberpunk 2077, just like the experience of many memoirs, isn’t limited to the thing itself. The overall experience includes other frameworks through which to consider the main art object—things like interviews with developers or promotional materials, such as the Night City Wire online series previewing the game, but also things that will build on the main, foundational object, like the upcoming anime series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.

What I’m getting at is basically Advertising 101. You sell the experience of the product, not the product itself. And that often includes selling the experience of creating the product, which in this case includes crunch. To put it simply, this promotional process helps to create hype.

We Cannot Ignore Crunch, We Cannot Ignore the Product

Through CDPR’s very public attempt and then subsequent failure to avoid crunch, both the transparency and investigations about their production have become parts of the game’s promotion. And, importantly, this kind of promotion places the game’s success into something of a morality play. If we ignore or boycott the game because we despise crunch, then we ignore the developers’ suffering and hard work. And on the other hand, if we embrace the game without considering the effects of crunch, we are still, obviously, ignoring their suffering and hard work.

So, collectively, consumers will buy the game with the idea that the crunch is somehow worth the product, rather than protest the crunch by not buying it. Some people will buy the game to support the developers who crunched, regardless of expectations of the game; another group will buy it because they expect a high level of quality, with crunch indicating the level of effort. There are other reasons, but in what is likely to be a majority of cases, if you’re aware of the production’s crunch practices, then acknowledging them becomes part of experiencing the game—even if it this often limited to agreeing to buy (into) the experience in spite of your knowledge.

So to answer my question: yes, we must experience Cyberpunk 2077. Or, at least, its promotion cycle has ensured we must experience its presence in our culture as many people buy it, the media inevitably reviews it well, and noted good-guy Keanu Reeves continues to drum up goodwill for it. Even a slide back into practices of crunch can’t stop its spread, as the game will continue to fall into a promotional catch-22 where bad press still helps.

Some might try to boycott, but many others likely won’t. On the whole, we really don’t have a choice to outright ignore the game, or we’d likely be expanding upon the negative consequences of highly questionable working conditions. Not buying the game widely enough could even push the effects of crunch further into immoral territory, since employees would have far less profits to share as reward for their excessive work. It’s not pretty, but using crunch can paradoxically get more consumers to buy a game—not to mention help launch a larger media franchise.

Cyberpunk 2077‘s release will not be an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial situation, where extreme crunch was undergone over five weeks by one person to release the now infamously failed game by Christmas. When there is a culture of crunch, games and game companies are more likely to become too big to fail disastrously. (Plus, 2020 has made many truly need time-consuming entertainment). Still, CD Projekt Red would be wise to note that, over time, crunch will likely dilute their employees’ passion for their work, just as it has for many long-term crunching employees at companies like EA. They might get too big to fail, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become a hollow parody of what they claim to be.

Images courtesy of CD Projekt Red.