Cyberpunk 2077’s development is now, for the most part, complete, marking the end of an incredible rollercoaster for CD Projekt that saw the studio go from being one of the most beloved developers in the industry to one of the most criticised, before slowly climbing back up to new heights with the release of Phantom Liberty.
At its lowest, CD Projekt was slammed for the launch state of Cyberpunk 2077 on consoles (that was so poor the PlayStation Store removed it from sale) as well as for crunch culture ahead of the game’s release, though for the recently released expansion Phantom Liberty, staff say improvements were made. Lay-offs at the developer have also cast doubt over future projects, of which there are many including a live-action Cyberpunk 2077 project.
IGN spoke with Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty’s art director Paweł Mielniczuk about this journey, discussing the lessons CD Projekt learned as a result of Cyberpunk 2077’s turbulent launch, why it wanted to rebuild the game instead of just moving on, and what influences will carry forward into future projects like Cyberpunk 2077’s sequel, codenamed Orion.
You can read about all that and more in the full interview below.
First off, what was the response to Phantom Liberty’s amazing critical reception within CD Projekt? Did the development team expect such a positive response?
Paweł Mielniczuk: The entire team in the studio believed that Phantom Liberty would be something special; however, it can be hard to completely predict what will resonate with players and how the broader audience will emotionally respond to the game. Only when the first reviews and player comments emerge can we finally breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate the success. It’s safe to say that we are all incredibly satisfied and happy with its warm reception.
CD Projekt also announced its impressive three million strong launch numbers. Could you also comment on this performance? Did it meet or surpass expectations?
I believe everyone had some expectations in mind. Personally, this number definitely fulfilled my expectations and I think it’s something we can be proud of. But besides launch numbers, it was really exciting to observe how many people came back to play Cyberpunk 2077 before Phantom Liberty officially released. We really couldn’t believe it — team members were sharing screens showing stats from Twitch streams and Steam on our internal channels around the clock!
What lessons were learned from Cyberpunk 2077’s pre-launch development that were taken into Phantom Liberty? Was CD Projekt Red determined not to repeat the same practices that caused criticism in 2020?
The release of Cyberpunk 2077 was a huge lesson for us, and since then we’ve made many changes based on our experiences. We’ve changed our production processes, the organization of our development teams, and worked on our value system. In short, we’ve changed RED.
Among the most visible changes, and one that affects everyone working on RED games, is the introduction of the “always working game” rule. From an early production stage, we give high priority to ensuring game stability and giving every team member the ability to test the game. Furthermore, we moved away from PC-centric development to testing the game on all platforms together from the very beginning.
We also changed our approach to development and overall project organization. Now, we’ve implemented Agile methods, focusing on multidisciplinary teams that can independently improve and verify the quality of their work, at the same time improving visibility and communication between departments. We’re also more careful when it comes to planning work and defining and approving project milestones and gates. During the final months of development each of these stages ends with a company-wide “playthrough” of the project, which allows us to collect opinions and evaluations from a wide array of internal players. Not only does this increase teams visibility into the entire project, but it also helps to reveal potential problems and verify the direction in which the project is heading.
I could list more changes we’ve implemented, but I hope that the results of our work say enough on their own!
Why was it so important for CD Projekt Red to revitalise Cyberpunk 2077 with its various updates including the final major patch in Update 2.0? Is the game now in a state CD Projekt Red is happy with? Was it previously?
We have always considered Cyberpunk 2077 to be a great game at its core. But it’s important to remember that despite our studio’s over 20-year history, many fundamental systems of the game like gunplay, car driving, or the first-person camera, to name a few, were something we designed for the first time.
After Cyberpunk 2077’s release, we dedicated a lot of our efforts and time to improving the technical quality of the game. I’d say that what you see in Phantom Liberty and Update 2.0 are not how we imagined Cyberpunk 2077 from the beginning.
The concepts that became part of the expansion and Update 2.0 came quite organically to us as we saw how players were interacting with the game, what they needed, what was working well, and what areas needed improvement. For example, it became clear that skill trees could be rethought so as to support more intuitive and more effective character building. The result is a game that has been improved over time by listening to players, identifying improvements, and remaining dedicated to creating as good an experience as possible for our players.
As creators I’m sure there’s always new elements you’d like to add to Cyberpunk 2077, but are there any features on the wish list that just didn’t make the cut in Update 2.0 or Phantom Liberty?
I believe as a developer you can never really finish a game. There’s always a better idea, a new feature, a thought that comes to your mind at night just a day after the final deadline. Time and budget are the only things that can stop a developer from improving. But those new ideas and concepts on how to further improve the game are meticulously noted, and I’m sure many of them will resurface during the development of our next Cyberpunk installment — project Orion.
Similarly, I’m sure as developers you’re always learning and evolving your practices and strategies. Did any parts of Phantom Liberty stand out as a major step forward or revelation in this sense that you’d like to take forward?
As a studio, we’re dedicated to creating narrative-driven RPGs, and each new game and expansion is a lesson and a step forward in our philosophy.
In developing Phantom Liberty, for the first time in a long time I felt that we were making the game as a single team, without a clear division between narrative, art, and gameplay, and without siloing the creativity of each department.
The restructuring of the company, joint milestone playthroughs, the introduction of agile processes, all contributed to the more collaborative development of the game — including a greater openness to feedback and streamlining the flow of information between departments. Thanks to this, gameplay flows more smoothly into the narrative, the art better supports the emotion of the story, the open world better complements the context of the location. The result, in my opinion, is stronger player immersion.
From the point of view of the art itself — which I was responsible for — a lot of work went into what we call ‘visual clarity’ and player guidance. Cyberpunk 2077 is a very visually rich game; wherever you turn you can see a lot of shapes, details, colors and lights. It could be easy to get lost in it or lose sight of the enemy. By introducing methods such as color grouping of objects, eliminating specific colors from the environment, building contrasts between enemies and the environment in which we meet them, we tried to build locations that are easier for players to comprehend and navigate.
Phantom Liberty was obviously a huge investment for CD Projekt, arriving nearly three years after the base game’s launch and with a huge investment of money too. The Witcher 3 had similarly beloved expansions, but do you think CD Projekt will continue to make these premium DLCs in the future given the investment required? Especially as CD Projekt’s development timeline grows busier and busier, will there still be room for these expansions? What are their benefits?
It’s worth noting that the production of Phantom Liberty didn’t last for three full years, certainly not at full capacity. Throughout 2021, the vast majority of the team worked on the Cyberpunk 2077 Next-Gen Update and provided support for the base version of the game. After that update was released, production on Phantom Liberty hit full momentum and was carried out in parallel with work on Update 2.0. The expansion itself is really big, providing many hours of gameplay and offering two completely exclusive paths — and an additional ending for the base game. I think this is not a typical approach to producing expansions.
Personally, I love working on expansions for our games — I had the pleasure of working on Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Phantom Liberty of course. These smaller and shorter productions are created with greater confidence and freedom because they expand on an existing game that players already know.
However, we announced a year ago that Phantom Liberty is the first and last expansion for Cyberpunk 2077. Right now, as a company, we want to focus on full-scale productions, sequels to games well known to players and new ones that are ahead of us
Speaking of the future, will CD Projekt Red go to extra lengths to ensure upcoming games don’t launch with the same issues as Cyberpunk 2077? Will launching games in the state of Phantom Liberty be the goal? How will CD Projekt take the steps to achieve this?
Absolutely, all the changes in production and the company’s approach to game development we have discussed are aimed not only at improving the working comfort of employees but also allowing us to work on more stable technology and in a more predictable environment. This will ultimately allow us to release games in the best possible state.
REDengine is great, powerful, and technologically advanced, but every game we developed required in-depth rebuilding and customization of the engine. That meant we worked for years on the technology itself in parallel to the game, and that demanded many compromises during production. We believe that the transition to Unreal Engine 5 and the strategic partnership with Epic Games will allow us to reduce this risk. This is another major change resulting from Cyberpunk 2077.
In a similar sense, but talking about Cyberpunk’s sequel Orion in particular, how important will it be for CD Projekt to launch this game with a level of quality akin to Phantom Liberty? Is there a lot of pressure for its release? Especially if it’s set to launch around the time a new console generation launches, there will be a lot of eyes on the current generation versions of the game.
Orion is one of the next big things on our horizon. We’re all super excited about this project and the way the Cyberpunk franchise will evolve; there’s so much potential there. And as you know, the development of Orion is being moved to North America, with the newly built studio being structured around all the lessons we have taken from Cyberpunk 2077 and Phantom Liberty.
Ryan Dinsdale is an IGN freelance reporter. He’ll talk about The Witcher all day.
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Author: Ryan Dinsdale