By Dr. Philip D. Mann, PMP, Assistant Professor of Organization and Management, Harrisburg University of Science & Technology
Cyberpunk 2077 (CP2077) by CD Projekt Red Studio in Poland (CDPR, Stock: OTGLF) may be the most successful project failure in software development in history. On the one hand, it is unambiguously successful. The record[i] sales figures for the first ten days[ii] following the December 10, 2020 release exceed 13 million copies (≈$780M) even after the raft of highly publicized[iii], no questions asked refunds due to bugs and playability issues. On the other hand, the project is a failure for investors because its record sales fell short of analyst expectations of 16.4 million copies (≈$984M). For consumers, it failed because of eight months of delays followed by a delivery that lacked anticipated features. It did not perform as expected – being virtually unplayable on some legacy consoles – resulting in responses such as Sony removing the title from its PlayStation online store for all of its platforms[iv],[v].
Certainly, CDPR made some compromises and poor decisions while managing the CP2077 team and project, but notice how the failures connect decisively to various stakeholder expectations, not freestanding criteria: Record sales, but not big enough record; Missing expected, not claimed, or projected features.
1: Official CP2077 Public Teaser Trailer from 2013 (on YouTube)
To be clear, CP2077 is not in any worse shape upon its release than games of similar production size. The first few weeks in the life of any major title endure loud media complaints and weekly, if not daily, patches and hotfixes. What CDPR delivered is not an inferior product in its category and price point. On the contrary, it is a fantastically functional and engaging release created with and running on innovative technologies that were not available at the start of the project. Consequently, CP2077 has a very typical set of post-release problems, but with much louder and more concentrated voices talking about them.
So, why the noise decrying the game as a complete failure despite its qualified successes? Simple. CDPR did not engage stakeholders in any meaningful way, making it impossible for CP2077 to live up to the marketing and community hype heaped heavily upon it over the last two years. The company missed many opportunities to forge a better outcome, and I think it is instructive to consider a more comprehensive view so we can look at where their stakeholder engagement could have been better.
CDPR announced CP2077 on October 19, 2012[vi], with the first teaser trailer reaching the public on January 10, 2013[vii]. A back of the napkin calculation shows us that this project is at least eight years in the making; the eight months of delays were a small extension of a massive project, so why the outrage about delays? Again, CDPR focused on hyping the expected project and product through social media without anchoring any delivery expectations to the project’s scale – they allowed the market to forget how massive an undertaking AAA[viii] game development is. The image in the non-developer consumer’s minds is that CP2077 is “a year or two” in the making, given CDPR’s near-complete absence of media updates between January of 2013 and June of 2018 (5.5 years of relative silence[ix]), which makes the delays seem extreme.
Stakeholder engagement means bringing our customers and others along for the ride so that they understand the broader context to interpret the reassurances that address their specific needs.
For perspective, the same relative scenario plays out in megaprojects like building Denver International Airport (ICAO: KDEN). The colossal airport’s original plan ran from site studies and the start of requirements gathering in 1980 to the opening in 1993 (13 years). Technical issues, mainly because of technical issues while developing a prototype luggage sorting system and a labor strike, delayed project completion by 16 months[x]. Like CP2077, the KDEN developers allowed the media and the public to lose focus on how vast and innovative the effort was by concentrating only on the project delays and costs.
What could CDPR (and KDEN, for that matter) have done differently about engaging stakeholders? At a minimum, remember to engage stakeholders, don’t sell to them.
Marketing Isn’t Stakeholder Engagement
CDPR’s biggest mistake was relying on industry hype instead of responsive, carefully tended communication to engage stakeholders. They let the desire to leverage excitement about a new product in development override their responsibility to convey understanding about the finished product’s performance and characteristics as it evolved. They let pundit guesswork fed by early hints about the game since its 2012 announcement carry through a half-decade of silence from the publisher with no adjustments even when the deliberate marketing began. In short, they did not engage stakeholders’ needs to understand what to expect in the final product, resulting in disappointment as a prevailing emotion once years of wild, unmoderated speculation collided with realized delivery.
Another error on the part of CDPR is that they didn’t respond to differences between the expectations and their refined understanding of where the final product would land on delivery day. We may never know if the company paid attention to what various media outlets said about their expectations of CP2077, but it’s certain they didn’t respond to any of it directly. Sure, the initial product was more dream than fact. However, as the company’s understanding of the capabilities of the new technologies became reality, and they made the necessary trade-offs (as with any project), they should have been aware of the divergent path and expectations of the various stakeholder groups. They should have taken steps to nudge those expectations toward a converging path with the specifications and functions of CP2077 as a maturing project.
How Does This Work for Your Project?
Stakeholder engagement is not simply telling on yourself; it’s about keeping the involved parties – from executive decision-makers to customers and end-users – aware of the context of the project and any expected deliverables. CDPR is dealing with a phenomenon common to stakeholder situations wherein imagination will complete an image where there is an absence of clarity and detail. In any innovative project, we begin with vague ideas of where changes will happen, and moderate those as we learn more and evolve our own expectations, but we need to communicate that evolution of our expected end state to those who will be affected by the deliverables so that their understanding of where we are going matches what they see when we get there; nobody should be surprised by what they see at the end of the journey.
Stakeholder engagement means bringing our customers and others along for the ride so they understand the broader context to interpret reassurances that address their specific needs. We engage stakeholders to gain and keep their support for the project and beyond, which means being more deliberate than simple one-way broadcasts of marketing hype and enthusiasm. CDPR gave in to marketing (i.e., communicating enticements at consumer stakeholders) only the best possible outcomes for CP2077 and necessary information about project delays, without providing the essential orienting markers to keep their expectations aligned with reality.
[i] The previous record for a multi-platform title Animal Crossing: New Horizons with 11.77 million copies in the first 11 days (from Polygon https://www.polygon.com/2020/12/22/22195741/cyberpunk-2077-sales-figures-platforms-refunds-ps5-pc-xbox-one)
[ii] First 10 days or first 2 weeks are common sales benchmarks in the game industry, akin to the opening weekend box office sales used to gauge the success of Hollywood films.
[iii] A good summary of the launch and refund debacle, along with links to investor reports and other resources (from Tom’s Hardware https://www.tomshardware.com/news/cyberpunk-2077-defies-launch-issues-sells-13-million-copies-after-refunds)
[iv] “Sony is pulling Cyberpunk 2077 from the PlayStation Store and offering full refunds” (from The Verge https://www.theverge.com/2020/12/17/22188007/sony-cyberpunk-2077-removed-playstation-store-full-refunds-policy)
[v] “SIE [Sony Interactive Entertainment] will also be removing Cyberpunk 2077 from PlayStation store until further notice.” (from PlayStation “Cyberpunk 2077 Refunds” https://www.playstation.com/en-us/cyberpunk-2077-refunds/)
[viii] AAA, or “Triple-A” games are major undertakings by large studios, with huge budgets that compare to the scale of blockbuster Hollywood films (from The Economist “Why are video games so expensive to develop” https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2014/09/24/why-video-games-are-so-expensive-to-develop)
[ix] Cyberpunk 2077 YouTube Channel shows the initial three (3) announcement-related videos and then nothing until the Official E3 2018 Trailer (on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/CyberpunkGame/videos)
[x] Denver International Airport (from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denver_International_Airport)