Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cyberpunk 2077 News Update

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As the march to E3 (June 12-14) continues information about Cyberpunk 2077 continues to dribble out (with the presence of the game at E3 at last confirmed). Here's the news we have with my thoughts on it.

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I mentioned in my original post that CD Project Red (CDPR) was looking to include a seamless multiplayer experience, even though this was not part of their original (2012) six promises for the game. There has since been some confusion over the multiplayer (with The Triple S League arguing nothing has changed). This is what company president Adam Kiciński said:
First of all we're going to deliver players a huge, story-driven role-playing game for a single player, as was the case with The Witcher 3. As to further extensions of the game, I don't like to comment on that, but I'm not saying it's [multiplayer] not going to be the case because we already said in the past that we wanted our future projects to integrate online components at some point. Technology-wise, Cyberpunk is very advanced. Our technology is ready to interface with future generations. The game is developed in such a way that it can use very powerful future equipment, but I cannot tell you more beyond that today, as no future generation of consoles has been announced.
This largely echoes what Kiciński said back in November and we know they were looking to hire a multiplayer designer back in August, 2016. I agree with TSL that nothing he said suggests any change being made.

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Kiciński referenced next gen consoles and evidence continues to accrue that the PS5 could come out later this year (a good summary is here, but also see below), something a high octane game like Cyberpunk 2077 would need to fully take advantage of what it can do (and separate itself from the Witcher 3).

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The idea Cyberpunk 2077 being released sooner than later is being accepted by others who prominently cover the game--in the cited specific it's bizarrely based on information that's been out since 2016 (the planned major release schedule for CDPR--two major games between then and 2021).

Speaking of the release TSL recently went through their reasons for why they expect the game to come out in November (with caveats for early 2019, but that's not the plan):
  • CDPR's studio is massive right now with 600+ employees (far larger than it typically is)
  • CDPR is not giving out a revenue split in 2018 and that's only done when the company anticipates a major expense in that fiscal year; the most likely reason is to spend money marketing the game, which suggests a late 2018 or early 2019 release--for them not to do the split without a game release makes no sense
  • There's a strong suggestion via statements they've made in financial presentations that their next major release (whatever comes after Cyberpunk) will be in 2020 (TSL says they have inside sources) and CDPR would not release games back-to-back (ie, in 2019)
  • Many major releases are coming out in 2019 (ergo, extra competition)
  • The game is almost certainly going to be released with a new console to separate it from the Witcher and take advantage of the new engine, as such: if, as expected, Sony releases a 25th anniversary playstation it has to be in November, 2018; the people covering the release of the new console are either saying 2018 or 2020 and the latter makes no sense (the reporting for the former is more reliable than the later, with the latter being Kotaku)--TSL says there are games coming out this year and following that cannot run on a PS4 even at 50% capacity (they make the example that Anthem can't run on a regular PS4 and that Horizon Zero Dawn had to make major adaptions to function on it). Sony Interactive Entertainment chief Kodera recently said "[PS4 is] finally entering the end of the console life cycle," adding yet more fuel to the fire
  • CDPR's comment that their main source of revenue in 2018 will be Gwent and Witcher was made because to say anything else would be to announce Cyberpunk's release date
  • Releasing in 2020 to match the best-known version of the RPG makes little sense because of how obscure that RPG is--it wouldn't be satisfying a significant market (I went over how quickly the game disappeared from the gaming scene in my previous post); I think if they wanted that connection they would have made the title Cyberpunk 2020
  • Consoles like to launch with a new game/IP
TSL speculated that E3 attendees will be able to play and record the demo of the game being brought there (previously rumours had it as purely a limited, closed-door demo for journalists); subsequently they've gone back to the original assumption due to the limited floor space CDPR has taken at E3.

In my first post I'd mentioned data being stolen from CDPR and held for ransom last June. There's finally an update: strong legal action was taken (unspecified) to deal with the situation immediately at that time.

Finally, and to me of limited interest, the ESRB rating will be the same as the Witcher. I don't think there was an expectation of anything else, but it certainly matches CDPR's original promise of a "mature RPG for mature audiences, realistic and brutal."

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I mentioned previously that I believe a fourth Witcher game is the planned release after Cyberpunk 2077 and I wanted to briefly go over why. Beyond the fact that it simply makes sense--there is demand and it would make a ton of money--we also have comments in February at the Pareto Securities' Gaming Seminar where CDPR told the CFO's gathered that through 2021 the only IP they would be working on would be Witcher and Cyberpunk. That doesn't leave a lot of room for ambiguity. It's also the safe choice--while I expect Cyberpunk 2077 to be a very successful game, if it's not, or not as successful, going back to Witcher is the easiest way to carry on their legacy. My guess is that their consistent denials about a Witcher 4 means this won't be a continuation of Geralt's story, but rather an RPG like Cyberpunk 2077--one that isn't beholden to the Geralt story, although it will surely inform it. It's suggestive that Netflix is expected to release its Witcher series in 2020--even though the show is about Geralt, there's still synergy launching it around the game's release. CDPR doesn't have the same worries that original Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones material does because the Witcher games were original stories in the first place--the characters are adaptations, but the storytelling is all CDPR, so other than losing the titular character there's no loss in the caliber of what's available to them. A new Witcher in 2020 would also come close to their four-year release cycle for the franchise (2007, 2011, and 2015 previously)--giving some oomph to keeping Gwent humming along (new cards etc).

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cyberpunk 2077: What We Know and Release Date Speculation


Background

I became a fan of CD Project Red (CDPR henceforth) via The Witcher 3. I first heard of the Witcher franchise around the time of Witcher 2's release (2011 or so), but didn't actually play a game in the series until the third in 2016 (almost a year after it came out). I was blown away by the experience--I had steered clear because I didn't believe the hype. Since then I've been waiting for another great RPG and while I was aware of Cyberpunk 2077 it's progress toward release seemed stalled--until recently.


The game has its basis in the 1988 pen & paper RPG by Mike Pondsmith (the same year he helped produce Kara-Tur for TSR, ie, D&D). The game is better known for its 1990 second edition, Cyberpunk 2020, which is what I'm familiar with. A friend of mine owned the game and I read it at that time. Ultimately we never played it, opting for Shadowrun instead (another cyberpunk game, but one with a more obvious narrative thrust). Afterwards I completely forgot about the game until I started reading about CDPR's version (the poorly received third edition of the RPG, released in 2005, passed by me unnoticed).

Before I get into the genre and timeline, I'll just briefly go over the basics: CDPR bought the IP (intellectual property) from Pondsmith in 2011 or 2012 (it was announced in the latter); during the same period CDPR trademarked the term. This is not the first time the IP has been put into video game form, as Mayhem Studios released a 2D platformer back in 2007, but either Pondsmith licensed the product to them or regained the rights once they went out of business (2010). Buying the IP means CDPR has complete creative freedom, but they have chosen to keep Pondsmith involved and to stick close to the existing continuity (he's primarily helping them fill in the history gap between 2020 and 2077--it seems like the update to the 2030s from the third edition of the RPG has been largely ignored). CDPR's overall approach to the IP is very similar to what they did with Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher.

The Cyberpunk Genre
"[A] futuristic setting that tends to focus on "a combination of low life and high tech" featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order." [Wikipedia's definition combines comments in books by David Ketterer and Donald M. Hassler]

Very simplistically it's a sub-genre of science fiction that became popular in the early 1980s and largely died out in the mid-1990s (it didn't stop existing, but became absorbed into other sub-genres (like steampunk) or as a facet/aesthetic in mainstream sci-fi--China Mieville is one of the authors who borrowed heavily from the tradition in the former sense). The principal progenitors are typically given as the movie Blade Runner (1982, based on Philip K. Dick's short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968) and early stories by William Gibson (particularly Neuromancer, 1984). Why the genre largely died out is an interesting question (looked at here and elsewhere), but there's something to be said about bleak predictions for the future being undercut by the dreary reality of the present (which is why, as we'll see below, CDPR isn't interested in presenting a completely bleak version of Cyberpunk).

Cyberpunk's successes since it's heyday are in mediums other than books, such as Ghost in the Shell (1997), The Matrix (1999), the Deus Ex games (2000+), Bioshock (2007), etc (all of these, except The Matrix, have been cited as influences by CDPR--this absence isn't surprising since, in terms of substance, The Matrix is more like Tron than something strictly Cyberpunk). As RPGs they've remained very niche--a brief flurry of popularity with Cyberpunk and Shadowrun (whose first edition was in 1989), but these games have struggled since the late-90s (novels related to both died out fairly quickly and Shadowrun's video game efforts were reduced to a (well-received) Kickstarter in 2013). Indeed, the more conventionally structured Shadowrun has been more successful than Cyberpunk for quite some time (it is through five editions, the last in 2013), probably because of it's more directed narrative, whereas Pondsmith's game requires more effort from GMs and players. It's extremely difficult to find Cyberpunk material outside the secondary market, despite the innumerable splatbooks and expansions produced for it.

Game Development Chronology

2012
May 31 - the game is announced; worked on by its own (presumably small) team within CDPR
June - announcement of a new edition of the RPG (it's release presumably tied to the video game as it still hasn't come out)
October 24 - some conceptual work completed, along with art, early modeling, and asset-creation
2013
January 10 - CGI teaser trailer with a suggested 2015 release date embedded
January 11 - devs make it clear it will be an original story (so not adapted from the Cyberpunk novels or in-game lore)
February 1 - REDengine 3 announced
October 12 - development team described as small without specific numbers applied to it (this team was not working on the engine, as that was a separate group)
2014
March 12 - some of the dev team is moved over to Witcher 3, but CDPR said it wasn't impacting the development of the game
2015
March 14 - CDPR announces the game won't come out this year; they say that their focus is finishing Witcher 3
May 19 - Witcher 3 released
October 13 - Hearts of Stone DLC released for Witcher 3
October 30 - there are more people working on Cyberpunk than Witcher 3 and has been "for quite a while" but that the game was still in "very early development"
November 8 - most people in the company are involved with developing the game
December 9 - release date for Cyberpunk already decided, but won't announce it until they are ready with the marketing campaign
2016
February 23 - composing of music for the game has begun
March 10 - CDPR says they have two major releases planned between 2017 and 2021, one of which is Cyberpunk (I think the other is Witcher 4, but that's a topic for another time)
April 24 - switch to REDengine 4 is underway
May 14 - over 300 people working on the game with a goal to have over 500
May 16 - Blood and Wine DLC released for Witcher 3
June - after the Blood and Wine expansion was completed the game director was changed for Cyberpunk 2077, with rumours that all the pre-production work done for the game had been jettisoned (if this rumour is valid it could could be referring to the switch in game engines)
2017
March 31 - Cyberpunk's development "quite advanced" (something that I think refutes, or at least mitigates, the rumour mentioned above)
May 24 - CDPR says its promotional campaign is already planned and will rely on "surprise"
June 8 - data from the game was stolen from CDPR and held for ransom (CDPR reported this to the Polish police as a crime, but there have been no updates since)
September 13 - rumours emerge that the game will be four times larger than the Witcher 3 and its DLC combined
2018
January 10 - official Twitter account Tweets for the first time in roughly four years
February - CDPR confirmed to attend E3 (June) with a number of sources claiming a playable demo of the game will be there
February 15 - in responding to the loot box controversies CDPR says a full-priced game should provide 50-60+ hours of main story-line along with a couple hundred hours of side activities, providing a baseline for what to expect with Cyberpunk
[Much of this information, with sources, comes from here.]

Cyberpunk 2077 Game Elements

2012 Promises
1. Mature RPG for mature audiences, realistic and brutal, set in a rich, futuristic world
2. Gripping, non-linear story filled with life and detail
3. Advanced RPG mechanics based on pen & paper RPG system
4. Varied selection of different character classes
5. Gigantic arsenal of weapons, upgrades, implants and cool high-tech toys
6. Set new standard in the futuristic RPG genre with an exceptional gaming experience

The plan for what the game is about and what it will include hasn't noticeably changed since the 2012 announcement. Players will be choosing from roles included in the original RPG and creating their own characters, with their choice of role impacting the narrative (in what way isn't clear--perhaps similar in spirit to the varied origin stories in Dragon Age: Origins). The main story is also not intended to be about saving the world or the city, but rather a character-focused narrative of the player attaining their own personal triumphs (reminiscent, in a way, of the initial story in Dragon Age 2 or the more limited focus of the GTA games, albeit a rare approach in my experience with genre-based video game RPGs). They were keen to say they don't want it to be a dark and hopeless world (an easy crutch for Cyberpunk narratives to lean on) and that it won't have a lot of good and evil dichotomies, instead events and choices will be varying shades of gray.


Setting - Night City
An invented location from the RPG that's located near Monterey in California. The updated version of the setting (2077) will involve getting rid of Pondsmith's original retro tech, but also cutting away some current technology to allow for crowded city streets and interpersonal interactions to make sense (as opposed to, say, a world where everything is delivered to your door by drones, for instance). In some ways it's reminiscent of the dystopian world of Judge Dredd (1977).


Mega Corporations
Play a key role in the dystopia as they run society; there are twenty from the source material, but the game will likely focus on just a few (with Arasaka specifically referenced). Unlike when the RPG was first released, this is the least futuristic thing about the game and something players will find easy to relate too.


Roles (classes)
The Cyberpunk RPG doesn't have traditional (D&D-style) classes, instead using roles, which is a bit like class, race, and background combined. These are:
Cop
Corporate
Fixer - deal makers, information brokers, smugglers
Media
Netrunner - hackers
Nomad - gypsies/road warriors
Rockerboy - rockers who use music to fight authority (part of the "punk" element of the game)
Solo - assassins, bodyguards, soldiers
Techie - mechanics

Back in July, 2017, Mike Pondsmith seemed to confirm that all the basic roles will be included (although he did say they are involved in interesting ways, implying it won't be as simple as just picking them). Your choice of role and how you make and customize your character will impact your story (which would give the game a lot of replay value--as I mentioned above I'm not sure if the intention is varied origin stories ala Dragon Age: Origins or something completely different). I'm curious how the planned storyline of rising up from nothing will jive with (for instance) a corporate character. I suspect a role as eclectic as Rockerboy will function more as flavour than as a true character class. From my own experience playing RPGs, having a large roster of classes makes it infinitely more problematic to make them distinctive and balanced (try to figure out why a druid is distinct from a cleric in D&D--five editions in and it still doesn't make sense), which is why video game franchises tend to limit them to just three or four.



Respeccing Characters
This info comes from a source known to the Triple S League, who indicates that you'll be able to re-spec your character if, partway through the story, you want to change (much as you could in Witcher 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition). Making a change will have story-consequences. The idea, TSL speculates, is that the designers don't want you to be stuck in a role you hate, but also don't want to make switching roles so easy that you can meta-game various quests by switching back and forth.


Perspective
The intent is that you can switch from first to third-person perspective. While I personally favour third-person perspective, I think the ability to choose is a good one (albeit, if this option gets dropped I don't think much value gets lost from the game).


Dialogue
The game will feature a completely unique dialogue system (no details of how has been leaked or released). There is also a plan to have characters speak in their own languages and that, if you don't understand the language, an implant for your character will be required (I'm curious to see if this idea will actually be implemented--it's a cool one, but the execution of it is likely not easy).


Multiplayer
Meant to be unrelated to the main story (merely added value), with a goal to make the transition from one to the other seamless; presumably there will be specific zones within the game where this is possible.

Release Date Speculation

The release date was determined back in late 2015 with the marketing plans in place by 2017. Nothing official has been announced yet (which makes sense since the marketing intent is surprise). CDPR's cycle of major releases has been every four years (2007, 2011, and 2015), but that pattern wasn't intended for Witcher 3 (planned for 2014) and I don't think we're beholden to it. Locking in the marketing plan suggests everything is on track for the planned release date. While Gwent will clearly be released this year (the public beta has been running since last May), it doesn't requires release space from Cyberpunk 2077--the two games could not be more different and appeal to very different audiences. Given that we've no word on CDPR changing their release date it appears to be on track. That said, what can we make of the development time?

The four years between each Witcher game included engine switches as well as the development time unrelated to the software (story writing, dialogue, lore, etc). While Cyberpunk is dealing with a similar change of software, it took only two years for Witcher 3 to go from a new engine to release and Cyberpunk has had an enormous amount of time to do all the non-software related elements of the game. A playable demo coming to this year's E3 suggests the development work is largely complete (lessons learned from Witcher 3 would have required some re-writing in 2015-16, but on a much smaller scale than starting from scratch). The size of the team is also significantly larger than the Witcher, which would also speed things up. Generally speaking initial game trailers (not including teasers) are shown about a year prior to release, but Fallout 4 bucked that trend with great success in 2015 (showing the trailer at E3 with a release just five months later) and there's not much point in a "surprise" strategy if they are following the usual template--indeed, there's a good argument to be made that long-term anticipation actually doesn't work anymore--casual gamers quickly move on to other things. I'd say the smart money would be for a spring, 2019 release, but with the possibility of late 2018 (those speculating about 2020 are, I think, naive in believing the company can afford to go five years without a major release--or would want them back-to-back since we know it's two major releases through 2021--you'd want space for DLC). Recent comments about the game being made for current and next gen consoles ties the release with whenever the PS5/new Xbox come out--both the old consoles are approaching their fifth year of release and it wouldn't surprise me if the new versions were to arrive later this year or next (one of the great calamities of the PS4/Xbox One was their release with no significant games attached--given that The Last of Us is PS exclusive perhaps the PS5 will be attached with its sequel).

As a final note: I've seen speculation that the world will be like GTA where you can just run around doing anything--this idea seems to come from CDPR talking about non-linear stories and player freedom--but in those comments the devs compared that freedom to Witcher 3, where such silliness just isn't part of the equation (for example) the way it is in GTA (or Skyrim). Particularly given the source material (the RPG), random violence has consequences in the game which are not easily ignored, so I think the GTA-comparison is a poor one.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)