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Behind the Rocky Release of ‘Cyberpunk 2077,’ a New Videogame Featuring Keanu Reeves


Videogame maker

CD Projekt SA

CDR -7.08%

was finishing its biggest-ever title, anchored by Hollywood star Keanu Reeves, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit earlier this year and bogged the Polish company down with time-eating remote-work problems.

On Thursday, “Cyberpunk 2077” will finally hit the market after three delays that have both fed fan anticipation and changed the calculus for its success because of the project’s higher costs. The struggles of the Warsaw-based company reflect the challenges of managing creative teams remotely as well as the difficulties a smaller player confronts trying to create a blockbuster in the competitive, fast-growing videogame market.

CD Projekt could use a big hit. The company has only one other major game franchise, and all eyes are on “Cyberpunk” because it is the industry’s only original major title coming to market this holiday season.

Executives at CD Projekt said the cost of making and marketing “Cyberpunk” was significantly higher than the roughly $80 million the company spent on its last game, “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” without providing specifics. They said they initially miscalculated how long “Cyberpunk” would take to complete, with the health crisis most affecting the latter stages of four years of development, following pre-production work that started around 2012.

Marcin Iwiński, left, and Adam Kiciński are co-CEOS of CD Projekt, well-known for its Witcher game series.



Photo:

CD PROJEKT

With employees homebound, making even a minor tweak—such as changing the placement of characters or objects in a scene—would take hours instead of minutes, said

Marcin Iwiński,

who co-founded CD Projekt with a high-school friend in the early 1990s and is now co-chief executive with

Adam Kiciński.

“There’s less iteration and communication on a daily basis,” he said.

CD Projekt also found itself overwhelmed by this year’s launch of new consoles from

Microsoft Corp.

and

Sony Corp.

, as it looked to develop versions of “Cyberpunk” playable on those machines and older ones—a total of nine platforms overall. The company previously developed games for three platforms at a time.

In September, CD Projekt said on Twitter it regretted that some employees would have to work extended hours for several weeks to finish “Cyberpunk.” “Crunch,” the game-industry’s term for excessive overtime to complete games or critical updates, has been a hot-button issue for more than a decade.

“It’s always painful” when delays happen and “we pay with our reputation,” Mr. Kiciński said. “We truly believe that once we deliver the game, people will understand, and they will forgive us for this, because we are buying time for delivering something amazing.”

In “Cyberpunk,” players navigate a futuristic city as an outlaw seeking a one-of-a-kind implant that is the key to immortality. The game promises several hundred hours worth of entertainment, voice-overs in 18 languages and an original score lasting more than 10 hours. CD Projekt also invested in artificial-intelligence technology to create more advanced special effects for “Cyberpunk” than those in its prior games.

Videogame production blends many of the creative functions of movie making with the sophisticated coding and engineering work of software development. With the pandemic, developers say tasks ranging from testing games and fixing bugs to recording original music and doing motion-capture work are taking far longer to complete. As a result, some games are launching later than planned, and some are costing more to make than anticipated.

In April, Sony’s Naughty Dog studio blamed the health crisis on its decision to delay the launch of its post-apocalyptic thriller, “The Last of Us Part II.” Independent developer Bungie said in July that it postponed an update to its shooter game “Destiny 2” in part because of Covid-19. And Microsoft in August pushed back the release of a new installment of its shooter franchise Halo to next year, citing work-from-home hurdles.

At

Activision Blizzard Inc.,

dozens of employees used to be able to simultaneously download a test version of its annualized shooter series “Call of Duty” within 15 minutes at the company’s office in Santa Monica, Calif. But once everyone became homebound in March, the process began taking as long as four hours until a faster solution was reached more than a month later. “It created a bottleneck,” said Mark Gordon, co-head of Activision Blizzard’s Treyarch studio.

‘Cyberpunk 2077’ players roam a futuristic city in search of a unique implant that holds the key to immortality.



Photo:

CD PROJEKT

In making “Star Wars: Squadrons,”

Electronic Arts Inc.

wasn’t able to bring together a group of more than 60 musicians to record an original score for the space-combat game released in October, said Laura Miele, the company’s chief studios officer. Instead, she said, each instrument was recorded separately and stitched together through editing.

“Cyberpunk” becoming a big hit is crucial for CD Projekt, industry analysts say, as the company’s last major release, “The Witcher 3,” is now five years old. Analysts have forecast “Cyberpunk,” which retails for $60, to sell anywhere from 18 million to 25 million copies in its first month, which at the high end would be on par with blockbusters from larger publishers like Grand Theft Auto maker

Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.

and Assassin’s Creed producer Ubisoft Entertainment SA.

“For CD Projekt to graduate from a one-hit wonder to a bankable, investable performer, it needs ‘Cyberpunk’ to repeat—and probably exceed—the critical and commercial success and longevity of The Witcher,” said Jefferies analyst Ken Rumph about the Warsaw-listed public company, which closed Tuesday with a market capitalization of roughly $11 billion. “It’s like the videogame equivalent of the difficult second novel.”

A weak launch could be a stain on what otherwise has been a banner year for the industry at large. Spending on videogames and equipment has surged world-wide since March as people sought options for entertainment with stay-at-home orders in effect.

“Cyberpunk,” the only major original property coming out this holiday season, was envisioned to help drive adoption of Microsoft and Sony’s new consoles, said

Joost van Dreunen,

former chief executive of SuperData Research—now owned by Nielsen Holdings PLC—and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

CD Projekt first said in June 2019 that “Cyberpunk” was coming the following April in a splashy reveal made by the actor Mr. Reeves at a Microsoft Xbox event. The company subsequently announced delays of the game in January, June and October.

With “Cyberpunk” now on the cusp of making its debut, Messrs. Iwiński and Kiciński said they were hopeful it would be well-received and generate revenue for years to come. The company is planning next to make an online multiplayer version of the game, which could help extend the franchise’s revenue tail. A launch date hasn’t been announced.

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



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