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Fueled by Netflix and patches, ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ gets a ‘second chance’

(Washington Post illustration; CD Projekt RED)
9 min

Each day this week, more than a million people have signed in to play “Cyberpunk 2077” — and for good reason. There’s no better time than now to try or revisit 2020’s most infamous video game.

CD Projekt Red, the game’s developer, announced the stunning statistic Wednesday, a week after the debut of Netflix’s “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners,” an anime show based on the game that’s received rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Since the Netflix show dropped, “Cyberpunk 2077” has seen tens of thousands of people on Steam play it, the largest concurrent player base since the game’s December 2020 launch window.

It’s a reversal of fortunes for “Cyberpunk 2077.” Two years ago, the title suffered a disastrous and buggy launch after revelations that it performed poorly on consoles and didn’t deliver on the many promises implied by its years-long marketing campaign. In 2020, the game was a joke. Today, “it’s good now” is a common refrain from many players.

“Thank you so much chooms for this second chance,” tweeted Pawel Sasko, CD Projekt Red’s quest director, using a term that loosely translates to “friend” in the world of Cyberpunk. Sasko has been a jovial, reassuring presence through the studio’s streams about updates to the game.

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It’s been a long road to recovery. The game was so buggy at launch, PlayStation took the unprecedented step of delisting it from its digital stores for several months. Even through 2021, CD Projekt Red updated the game to little fanfare with small updates and additions.

“Now is a really special moment for Cyberpunk 2077 — a moment we have been striving for years to attain,” Jeremiah Cohn, a member of CD Projekt Red’s board and chief marketing officer, told The Washington Post. “The current resurgence in players is the direct result of many months of hard work from our amazing developers and others here at CD Projekt Red.”

Cohn points to the game’s 1.5 patch in February as the beginning of this resurgence, an update that not only brought PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Series S versions up to performance standards of the current generation, but introduced a host of changes that restructured the game, how it unfolds and how its setting, Night City, feels. The game at launch encouraged unbalanced builds, but by adding and removing certain abilities while rebalancing how weapons are used, CD Projekt Red made building a character of special abilities feel consequential and engaging. Traffic and pedestrian behavior was fixed to bring Night City’s bustle up to standards of other open-world games.

The game also saw updates to how its side quests are doled out. Fixers, who offer jobs to Cyberpunk’s mercenaries, were given a linear structure with powerful, meaningful rewards at the ends of quest lines. Notes and environmental details were scattered throughout the world to give additional context to these gigs, adding more flavor and context to the player’s actions. And other side quests are marked clearly on the map so players don’t miss them. This was important, since the game’s side stories were easily missable, but also often praised as the game’s best-written content, reminders of CD Projekt Red’s exemplary strength in video game narrative.

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And finally, Netflix’s debut of “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” has people clamoring to visit or revisit Night City. The show has been a powerful statement of how transmedia storytelling can be successful. Paramount’s “Halo” TV series was blasted by many core fans for how it differed from the original product. “Edgerunners” not only embraces its video game roots — it bakes the architecture and layout of the game directly into the anime. The entire Night City video game world was used as the show’s stage and setting, rewarding players familiar with the game.

“By timing the game update with the incredible anime, we were able to connect ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ gamers with ‘Edgerunners’ viewers and build excitement for both at the same time,” Cohn said.

Playing the game after watching the show, in turn, feels like a continuation of the adventure. The show’s story may have ended, but Night City persists in the virtual world of “Cyberpunk 2077.” This is transmedia convergence at its most powerful, coherent and cohesive in design, theme and intention — a feat that challenges even behemoths like Disney and Marvel.

“Edgerunners” succeeds because of its adherence to the spirit of the game and its design choices. The show uses the same soundtrack, and brings to the forefront several of the game’s radio tracks. The song “I really want to stay at your house” may have been a sad but bouncy city pop track, but “Edgerunners” recontextualizes it forever as a hymn of mourning. Nondescript city blocks in the game now hold a certain nostalgia as memories of the “Edgerunners” characters flood into the player’s mind.

The show, which is canon to the game’s story, also offers some emotional closure. No doubt, many players are revisiting “Cyberpunk 2077” after the show reframed certain characters, igniting new feelings for old faces. Anyone who’s beaten the game and finished the show knows exactly who I’m talking about.

This phenomenon repeats CD Projekt Red’s previous successful partnership with Netflix. In late 2019, “The Witcher” became the world’s most-watched TV show, reaching 76 million households within its first month; the third game’s audience ballooned in the following weeks, boosting its sales almost half a decade since its release. Steam’s concurrent player numbers for “The Witcher 3” at that time mirror today’s concurrent player figures for “Cyberpunk 2077.” It’s safe to say CD Projekt Red and Netflix have done it again.

Making “Edgerunners” that successful was a tall order, but the developers partnered with legendary animation house Studio Trigger (“Kill la Kill,” “BNA: Brand New Animal”) to create something unique, a celebration of both Michael Pondsmith’s world building when he created the original Cyberpunk board game during the 1980s and CD Projekt Red’s 2020 vision. And it was built with an intention to serve audiences of both.

“My personal mission was not to make something that will be for everyone but rather something that someone can truly love,” tweeted the show’s executive producer, Rafal Jaki. That stated intention flies opposite of what other media properties clamor for, namely a “broader” audience. “Edgerunners” was never meant to find a seat in the mainstream; it was meant to find a place in your heart.

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In turn, “Cyberpunk 2077” the video game is finding a new place in history. There have been many high-profile video game disasters that were able to turn their reputations and quality around after many updates. Most famously, Square Enix completely removed “Final Fantasy XIV” from sale to be reworked as “A Realm Reborn,” becoming one of the most popular online role-playing games today. “No Man’s Sky” from Hello Games promised many things and failed to deliver. Yet since its 2016 release, the studio has been able to implement just about every feature.

“Cyberpunk 2077” isn’t quite at that level of reappraisal, and it may never attain it. The latest update timed with the show’s launch added much-requested features like altering body cosmetics via doctors and more freedom in what clothes you wear. Individually, these updates are incremental steps toward the original “role-playing game of our dreams” for which many fans had hoped.

Further hopes in changing “Cyberpunk 2077” to fit that vision are undercut by the game’s core design, how missions are structured and how the player interacts with the world. Many people expected a game that rivaled Bethesda’s role-playing games, and the game’s marketing certainly didn’t discourage this pie-in-the-sky belief. Many of the features people hoped for, like citizens running on their own unique routines or being able to “live” in the game’s locales like bars or restaurants, may never be implemented. “Cyberpunk 2077” is now too complete of a product and vision to be simply updated. It would need “A Realm Reborn” style reworking, or, naturally, a sequel.

Fortunately, the studio has increased its “mod” support, allowing people to modify the game’s files to create new styles and elements of play — while also extending the game’s life even beyond official expansions. The most popular mod allows players to pilot flying cars, a feature that was never promised, but represents a digital manifestation of the audience’s hopes for a dream cyberpunk video game. Bethesda’s “Skyrim” remains popular because of similar support, and it’s easy to see “Cyberpunk 2077” having similar legs years from now.

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CD Projekt Red has long admitted that it would scale back expansion work for “Cyberpunk 2077.” However, while further development on “Cyberpunk 2077″ is expected to cease next year, Cohn reaffirmed the studio’s commitment to further exploring the Cyberpunk brand and intellectual property.

“With this expansion, we will be updating and improving the game further,” Cohn said. “The Cyberpunk universe is so exciting and has unlimited potential, and what’s important now is that we cherish this moment and use this momentum as an opportunity to take things even further.”

“Cyberpunk 2077” is still not what was initially promised (or even intended), but if the game launched in the state it’s in now, it would’ve immediately found its place among the best, most riveting open-world action games ever made. And “Edgerunners” shines new light on the magnitude of CD Projekt Red’s stunning architectural achievement in realizing Night City, the most complex virtual city ever created for a video game experience.

CD Projekt Red is fortunate that millions have decided to reappraise “Cyberpunk 2077,” but it’s hard work, not just luck, that has earned them this second, rare chance.