What can Cyberpunk 2077 teach us about brand reputation?
When Cyberpunk 2077 launched with considerable marketing and general industry hype at the end of 2020, it was a game that promised greatness.
A lot of people were predicting that Cyberpunk 2077 would be the big game of 2021.
CD Projekt Red had established an enviable reputation for quality on the back of the success of its Witcher franchise. And the early signs were all good. The setting, the graphics, the story and the atmosphere of the world they’d created all received praise and the pre-launch marketing led to incredibly high volumes of pre-orders for the game.
The stage was set for the game to really explode.
However, as we all know, not long after its launch, Cyberpunk 2077 hit problems. Numerous bugs and performance issues came to light that eventually led to it being pulled from the PlayStation store. It seemed to have particular problems running on the older console technology.
It wasn’t long before refunds were being offered. If anything the high profile hype surrounding the launch made matters worse. The actual delivery had clearly not matched the high customer expectations.
CDPR were now looking at a damage limitation exercise. The reputational cache their brand had cultivated over the years was now under serious threat.
“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”—Benjamin Franklin
Ever since then, CDPR have been working hard to issue bug fixes.
As Gamesrant noted in mid-April “The 1.2 patch notes for Cyberpunk 2077 are the length of a short novella and show a lot of changes.” But despite this the game still seemed to suffer from more bugs than an anthill.
It is clear that all this has had an impact and CDPR’s reputation has taken a serious knock amongst its fanbase. Comments on the steam community posted in April 2021 make it quite clear that the game still faced some serious unresolved problems, even at this time.
“To begin i wish to say i was a Gigantic fan and supporter of Cdpr and this game. Regardless too many things sold this game to me and i got none of them.”
Mind you, some people still felt Cyberpunk was value for money, even if had not met expectations:
“I look at it this way. I got my money’s worth out of the game even though the experience wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.”
And some felt that the pre-game overhype was the real problem here and that those people who bought games on pre-order were potentially setting themselves up for disappointment:
“That’s a ‘buyer beware’ problem.”
Such comments by fans may have been made in defence of CDPR but they also reflect a view that other fans got their fingers burnt precisely because they believe the pre-launch hype and pre-ordered the game.
The potential lesson here that some fans may well take from this is therefore twofold:
- Don’t believe the pre-launch marketing (or at least, don’t take it at face value).
- Don’t pre-order.
However, the potential longer term damage to CDPR’s reputation could be a good deal more serious, judging by some of the comments:
“I’m just dumbfounded how a company could make a blunder like this. They were in a position that was coveted by large corporations, true customer loyalty and customer love. They didn’t even need a marketing department.
…Now, they are relegated to being just any other gaming company.”
How did it happen?
How could CDPR go so quickly from hero to zero, in the eyes of many of its fans?
Obviously, this was originally a problem caused by rushing an unfinished product to market too quickly. This would not necessarily have been an issue but for the pre-launch marketing hype that had raised expectations so high.
The scale of the problem was at least partly acknowledged by Co-CEO Marcin Iwiński who issued an apology to fans in January and admitted that CDPR had “underestimated the risk” they had faced in developing the console versions of the game.
Iwiński took responsibility for what had happened and urged people not to blame the developers. This appears to have been acknowledged internally by ditching plans to link developers’ bonuses to game review scores.
You have to have some sympathy for the CDPR developers. I’m sure those guys set off with the intention of making the best game possible. But, as Jason Schreier of Bloomberg News highlighted, several developers felt the deadlines set were over ambitious, given the relative lack of adequate resourcing to meet them. Unfortunately, you can be the best developer in the world, but if you are forced to work with silly deadlines and overambitious targets you are simply being set up to fail before you even start. I think you’d have to be a bit hard hearted not to feel their pain.
Overall, then, it looks like it all comes down to a classic case of overambition. Overambition in terms of what CDPR set out to do with the technology, overambition in terms of the timescales they set themselves to do it and overambition in the marketing hype they created for the game leading up to the launch.
Ambition is good. But when the gap between stated ambition and reality becomes wide enough, that’s when you end up with problems such as those that have plagued Cyberpunk 2077.
How has it impacted on CDPR?
Despite its problems the pre-orders and the initial rush of sales for the game tell a story of financial triumph. Cyberpunk 2077 pushed CDPR’s 2020 sales to record levels – $562 million (compared to previous record best year of $210m in 2015).
Superficially that would appear to suggest that, despite its problems, Cyberpunk 2077 has nevertheless been a huge success.
However, the $562 million figure is largely the result of the pre-orders, which were driven by the pre-launch marketing rather than by the actual performance of the game. It also does not fully factor in refunds that followed in the new year. Nor does it factor in the longer-term costs of all the extensive bug-fixing that followed. We don’t yet have crucial information on how well the game has faired in terms of sales in 2021, post-launch.
The longer-term impact of the game’s problems may ultimately be that the game fails to perform as well as it might have done. At one time it was heralded as the big blockbuster for 2021. And the initial sales looked like the game was very much on track for that.
In December 2020 it achieved the fourth highest ever number of concurrent players on Steam. However, at the start of May 2021, it now ranks #62 on Steam – that’s lower than the ranking held by CDPR’s previous blockbuster (Witcher 3). CDPR’s stock price also tells a tale (dropping by nearly 18% between 6 April and 5 May 2021). These are not good signs.
However, the short to mid-term impacts on CDPR’s financial performance is unlikely to see them turn a loss. More likely, it will simply see the company struggle to make the kind of money from Cyberpunk 2077 that was envisaged back in the heady days of last November.
More damaging for CDPR may be the longer-term reputational damage. This might make it very difficult to persuade anywhere near as many fans to pre-order their games in future. It may also mean that future marketing will not be believed. After all, no one believed the boy who cried wolf, even when the wolf really was coming. It may also mean that fans will adopt a wait and see policy on their future games – delaying buying until they are able to read customer reviews that confirm that any new release is genuinely up to scratch.
CDPR are not the first company and will not by any means be the last to suffer reputational damage of this kind. This has happened before in other industries outside gaming. It is easy to list examples once you start to look; VW emissions scandal, Whirlpool product recall, BP Deepwater Horizon and so on.
A classic case in how to manage such crises is in Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 recall of its best-selling Tylenol painkiller after seven people died in the Chicago area from cyanide-laced capsules. The key to getting on top of it was to act fast and to be as transparent as possible. The company incurred a large cost at the time but because they acted so fast, the crisis was over fast. Their share price recovered within a year.
Samsung provide a more recent example in their response to exploding mobile phone batteries for their Note 7 product in October 2016. The company realised that its long-term reputation was far more important than any short-term financial hit and invested a considerable amount of money and resources in solving the problem. They deployed 700 researchers and engineers to test over 30,000 batteries in every extreme condition possible. They even invited in third party auditors. Once they had identified the problem (by January 2017), they communicated it to the public and announced a new quality assurance program and safety features in a bid reassure consumers.
Samsung’s market share of the mobile phone market today is now very similar to what it was in 2016. It has consistently managed to maintain a market share of 20% or higher in every year since the crisis.
Reputational damage is the real threat to the future success of CDPR. Others have been there before and offer some clear lessons as to how to respond to such issues.
First, you need to understand the scope of the problem – both in terms of the actual product issues and in terms of how these have impacted on customer perceptions.
Then, secondly, you need to act fast and decisively. Don’t skimp on resources. Get the issues sorted out as fast as you can, even if that means taking a significant cost hit in the short term. Throw resources at it.
Thirdly, you need to be transparent. Explain the full extent of the problem to customers, what you are doing to fix it and provide realistic timeframes (that you stick to) in terms of sorting it all out.
Fourthly, you need to recognise that you have a PR problem. Even if you solve the actual product problems, you need to communicate this effectively and keep reinforcing it until the message gets through.
Finally, you can’t be the boy who cries wolf and constantly promise to sort things out, but then shift the deadlines, or offer up only partial solutions that fall short of expectations. That is the sure-fire way to make things far worse for yourself in the long term.
Synchronix is a full-service market research agency. We believe in using market research to help our clients understand how best to prepare for the future. That means understanding change – whether that be changes in technology, culture, attitudes or behaviour.
We offer market research services and opinion polling to clients in the gaming, media and leisure industry. You can read more about this on our website. We can also help provide market research that will enable your business to understand and track your brand reputation with customers. You can read more about this service and about how to use market research to help manage your brand reputation here.