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The blood, sweat and tears behind Cyberpunk 2077

CEO Marcin Iwiński on the effort CD Projekt Red is putting into meeting expectations for its ambitious sci-fi RPG

There are few higher pedestals to be placed on at E3 than the 'and one more thing' moment closing out a first-party press conference - but that's the height CD Projekt Red achieved with Cyberpunk 2077.

Hacking their way into Xbox's showcase, the acclaimed Polish developer shared the trailer for its upcoming sci-fi RPG. While there was no direct gameplay shown, the footage was from in-engine visuals and gave a glimpse into the vast, neon-lit dystopian metropolis players are eager to explore themselves.

Later in the week, we meet with CEO Marcin Iwiński and he is still visibly relieved to be able to talk about his team's next project.

"A lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone into this game," he tells us. "It's a very important moment for us because we're finally able to proudly show the world what we've been working on. We've obviously been very secretive about it."

Secretive is an understatement. Cyberpunk 2077 was originally announced five years ago with a CGI teaser trailer that CD Projekt Red hoped might rack up one million views in its first week - in fact, Iwiński claims it reached 12 million.

The impact of this trailer was remarkable. Despite giving no indication as to how the game might play, fans have been desperate for more information ever since. Cyberpunk 2077 became a term that could drive traffic for games sites, no matter how bare-bones an article might be, and the excitement triggered by a single-word tweet was bizzare to observe.

But 57,000 likes and 24,000 retweets for a seemingly meaningless tweet is a good indication of the pressure CD Projekt now faces. Is Iwiński worried about living up to this fervour?

"We always are," he says. "We need to remain humble. Regardless of how successful our last game was, the next game is the one that we'll be proving ourselves with. That's how people will judge us. The Witcher 3 was amazing - I think I can objectively say that - but if we don't deliver on the promise and the really high expectations against Cyberpunk, everyone will be like, 'hey, what's up with you guys? Are you crap now?'

"It's always quality and ambition driving us forward. We don't want to just do another sequel, or a game based on the same mechanics. We want to innovate, we want to push the bar higher. That's what we're trying to do with Cyberpunk and that's why it's taking so much time."

The five-year silence is also partly attributable to The Witcher 3. Iwiński tells us development of the best-selling RPG "sucked us in totally", to the point where work all but ceased on Cyberpunk. Even the massive expansions for Geralt's last outing meant only a small production team could be preparing for the sci-fi title.

Marcin_Iwinski_02

Marcin Iwiński, CD Projekt Red

"Initially we thought maybe we could make two big games at the same time, but it just wasn't possible," says Iwiński. "But finally, we're able to show something. After showing the CGI teaser, the next reasonable step was for us to show the game, so that's what we're doing - albeit behind closed doors, where we're getting a great reception."

That reception spilled out from behind those closed doors and onto the show floor last week. Whether in queues for other titles or sitting in the media room, four words were repeatedly heard: "Have you seen Cyberpunk?"

The 50-minute demo - of which you can read an excellent write-up at our sister site Eurogamer - gave the best insight into Cyberpunk 2077 so far: a first-person RPG with gun combat and the massive open world of Night City to explore. While some elements will seem familiar to fans of the genre, such as Deus Ex-style upgrades for your bionic protagonist, there are subtler innovations like a new dialogue system that CD Projekt has built from scratch. This allows players to freely look around during moments where choices are presented to identify alternative options.

"If we don't deliver on the promise and the really high expectations against Cyberpunk, everyone will be like, 'hey, what's up with you guys? Are you crap now?'"

It's unquestionably an impressive demo, and on reflection shows how little even the latest in-game trailer shows of Cyberpunk 2077. In fact, we can't help but wonder why CD Projekt Red didn't just show even a segment of this gameplay footage, even if it is in pre-alpha.

"We want to take it step by step," Iwiński explains. "This is the first time we're showing the game, so we want to take our time. Obviously we feel a little bit guilty that we decided not to show it to gamers, but we'd rather test the waters first, show it to media and see the reaction, then tease bits and pieces. When we're ready, we'll put out a bit more gameplay for gamers and get their opinion.

"We've been so quiet for so long, we want to show it bit by bit and not just throw everything out there."

The most immediate question after seeing the stunning visuals is whether this will even make it to the current batch of consoles. Speculation is already rife that Cyberpunk 2077 is bound for PlayStation 5 and Xbox WhoKnowsWhat, but Iwiński remains confident that it will be in players' hands before that.

"It's running on a high-spec PC," he says. "It's the next generation of our own proprietary engine - and speaking frankly, we're still working on the rendering so I hope we can get more [out of it]. The current gen consoles are really powerful, especially talking about Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. We'll do our best to maximise for those, but it's too early to say exactly what we can achieve - and the PC version will always be above that, because it's constantly upgraded and improved in terms of the hardware we can gain access to. But it should look great on current consoles."

"Obviously we feel a little bit guilty that we decided not to show it to gamers, but we'd rather test the waters [with media] first. When we're ready, we'll put out a bit more gameplay for gamers and get their opinion."

His comments do not completely dispel the next-gen notion - historically, "high spec PC" has often been code for "unannounced console" - but it sounds like at the very least this might be a cross-generational release, launching on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 before being souped up for their inevitable successors.

Either way, praise for Cyberpunk 2077's invite-only demo has proven to be encouraging. In fact, it harkens back to initial reactions for The Witcher 3 - a title that is by far CD Projekt Red's biggest success to date. Iwiński recalls showing off an early build at a previous E3, when his studio were "just The Witcher 2 guys", which had been "a good RPG, but it wasn't Skyrim by far."

Yet The Witcher 3 secured Game of the Show accolades from multiple outlets and spurred CD Projekt on into developing what has become its defining title - and Cyberpunk 2077 is tracking to achieve something similar.

"It encourages you to push ourselves even more - and Witcher 3 definitely said, 'hey, we're on the right track, we're doing things right'," says Iwiński. "That means you can move forward and put a bit more into it, both financially and resource-wise."

As CD Projekt Red employees talk us through the gameplay demo, they pull out characters and references from the original Cyberpunk 2020 pen-and-paper RPG on which the title is based. As with The Witcher, CD Projekt has been given the opportunity to build on someone else's fiction, but does this not limit the team's creativity?

"The possibilities with the world of The Witcher or Cyberpunk are so immense that we have a lot on our hands. We have so many ideas flying around in our heads - look how much time it has taken us to show Cyberpunk"

"Frankly speaking, no," says Iwiński, pointing yet again to the studio's success with The Witcher.

CD Projekt Red started as a games distributor but when it moved into development, the company wanted to find a world that had already been created, since building a new IP from scratch was deemed a riskier proposition. The popularity of The Witcher books in the team's homeland of Poland - likened by Iwiński to Tolkien's worldwide impact - "gave us incredible leverage in terms of development."

"First of all, we had a huge believable world that had sold hundreds of thousands of books, so it had a lot of fans. It also helped us to attract talent - there were lots of people who wanted to work on The Witcher.

"We took [author Andrzej] Sapkowski's world but we inserted our own stories. We are true to the lore, but our imaginations run wild so the creation is actually ours - just within the ramifications of the amazing world Sapkowski has created.

"It's very similar with Cyberpunk. We thought about this from the beginning - since The Witcher worked so well for us, we approached [Cyberpunk 2020 creator] Mike Pondsmith, started talking to him. We didn't want to do 2020, but our own Cyberpunk. So we take a lot from his creation as the foundation, but then we reimagine certain things, create new stuff and then the story is fully ours. It makes it more believable because we're already working on proven concepts or world creations."

Since The Witcher games - the third,in particular - have proven to be so popular on a global scale, has this not encouraged CD Projekt to consider building its own world? Does Iwiński not want to free his team from the limits (however small they may be) of working with licensed properties?

"A lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone into this game. It's a very important moment for us because we're finally able to proudly show the world what we've been working on"

"Maybe," he says. "I really don't think that's a concern. The possibilities with the world of The Witcher or Cyberpunk are so immense that we have a lot on our hands. We have so many ideas flying around in our heads - look how much time it has taken us to show Cyberpunk.

"People think... the aspect of ownership for IP is so tempting, and that the game will just make itself. But IP is just a piece - what about the game? You have to create it, you have to translate this book or pen and paper game or movie or whatever it is into a gaming world, and that's really difficult."

The success of The Witcher and anticipation for Cyberpunk 2077 has given CD Projekt Red this revered status among developers, now established as one of the more acclaimed studios around the world. Yet its reputation is not completely without tarnish - late last year, reports of crunch and a surge of negative reviews on recruitment site Glassdoor suggest Iwiński's earlier comment of the "blood, sweat and tears" going into Cyberpunk to be quite literal.

When asked about this, Iwiński does not shy away from the subject but feels the need to clarify CD Projekt Red's view on what others have defined as crunch. Recognising that the term alone instantly brings to mind the idea of working in the games industry equivalent of a sweatshop, he stresses that not all development can be a 9-to-5 affair.

"If there was a recipe for doing this without those intense working hours, we would love to do that. If the biggest and best studios they tell you they are achieving it without additional working hours, it's probably bullshit"

"If you do totally new things - and that's what we're doing in every single game - sometimes when we start the journey, we don't know where we're going," he explains. "It requires a lot of effort, but we cannot plan it. It's unplannable, due to the nature of it. When NASA is planning trips to Mars or to build a spaceship, they don't know where they're going to end up or whether it will fail. And there are moments of intense labour.

"We tell this to all our people upfront. Anyone who works on AAA games knows there are moments where there are more regular or even easy working hours, but then there are moments when you're shipping something or preparing something for E3, for example, when we all have to work very hard. We explain that openly. On top of that, for these extra hours people get extra money - significantly more money.

"If there was a recipe for doing this without those intense working hours, we would love to do that. But if you go around E3 and ask the biggest and best studios, if they tell you they are achieving it without additional working hours, it's probably bullshit. I really love these discussions, and I think people try to be extremely politically correct and don't always tell the truth. Or maybe there is a recipe we're not aware of.

"Of course, it's very different when you make a sequel or expansion based on the same technology. If you work on something where all the tools are totally known, then it's easier to plan ahead because you know the material. But if you're working with a new engine, new animations, a new quest system, a new dialogue system, and you put it all together and it doesn't work the way it was supposed to? Then you have to find the bugs and rewrite stuff - this is the process of constant reiteration which takes so much time."

Those new systems are certainly present in the gameplay demo we saw. The sheer density of Night City and the promise that you can travel anywhere positions this as CD Projekt Red's most ambitious project to date. The vertical slice is almost an hour long, but Iwiński assures this is "just a tiny bit of the whole game", a title that should last "many, many hours."

With the demo classified as a pre-alpha build, it appears the end to the five-year silence does not mean we have an imminent release on our hands. But now that footage of Cyberpunk 2077 is finally out in the wild, with the hope that this gameplay demo will soon follow, expectations for the sci-fi RPG are only likely to rise even higher.

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Latest comments (1)

Julian Cram Producer 22 days ago
"If there was a recipe for doing this without those intense working hours, we would love to do that"

There is. It's called agile development and proper planning.
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