Wait, was Cyberpunk 2077 just quietly in early access for three years?

“A delayed game is eventually good,” Nintendo legend Shigeru Miaymoto is falsely claimed to have said, “a bad game is bad forever.” What about a game that I really liked but had some serious issues on launch, so nobody else liked it, but it gradually improved over the course of three years and now everybody kinda digs it?

I’m talking, of course, about Cyberpunk 2077. With its significant transformation since an initial launch in 2020, Cyberpunk feels like it was in early access that whole time, even though it never laid claim to the new-school release model.

But could it have benefitted from being deliberately presented as such, with an accompanying shift in development priorities and milestones? I aim to argue with myself until we don’t have a clear answer either way.

What does early access “feel like,” exactly?

The thing that made me write this is how much my carrying a torch for Cyberpunk during its long post-launch wilderness era felt like the dance I do with every early access game I’ve ever been into: play the hell out of it at launch, then constantly ask “is it time to jump back in yet?” every time it gets a new update.

Like with most early access games I follow, the answer with Cyberpunk was “no” right up until it got its transformative 2.0 update, here the equivalent of an early access game’s full release.

Similar to games that release in EA, Cyberpunk got revenue flowing for CD Projekt while the Red team continued to work on the game. It’s unclear from the outside how resources were distributed and when development on The Witcher 4 began in earnest, but it’s clear that CDPR has devoted significant resources and manpower to Cyberpunk over the past three years.

The major differences, to my eye, are that CD Projekt invited a now-legendary reputational black eye with Cyberpunk 2077’s poor state at launch, with the upside that it benefitted from the hype of a full release at that time, recouping the cost of development almost immediately. While CD Projekt’s reputation has largely been restored, there still remains this question mark hanging over what it does next, as PCG senior editor Robin Valentine elaborated in a recent feature.

The road not traveled

(Image credit: CD Projekt)

I’d like to caveat any speculation by saying I doubt a formal early access launch was ever in the cards for Cyberpunk 2077: it was too expensive, in development for too long, with too much riding on it for CD Projekt to have taken that strategy three years ago⁠—not to mention the difficulties of doing so with a multiplatform release. But I wonder if the company might be more open to the idea now, given how things played out.

The elephant in the room is Baldur’s Gate 3, which was released in early access the same year Cyberpunk 2077 had its initial launch. While there are plenty of differences between the two (and vastly different external pressures on each developer), I think it’s an instructive comparison⁠—could CD Projekt have found similar success with Larian’s model?

I find myself thinking of how much Cyberpunk’s first act, which only lets you explore a single district of Night City while the rest are closed off, could have been modified into an early access sandbox akin to Baldur’s Gate 3’s opening wilderness area. Huge gameplay changes and plot twists⁠—including Keanu Reeves’ performance as Johnny Silverhand⁠—could have made for hype-building enticements to the final game.

Night City being a single, contiguous map complicates matters compared to Baldur’s Gate 3’s discrete areas and acts, but I still think it could have worked. I can imagine the invisible wall-defying mavericks releasing YouTube videos of their out-of-bounds explorations in like, 2021 or so, but with only an unpopulated city waiting to greet them I think it would have just served as an excitement-building exercise for the full game.

It feels like everything is getting released into early access now.

I also wonder how the more bounded, scaled-down goal could have alleviated the intense pressure CD Projekt Red faced in the final run to Cyberpunk 2077’s initial launch⁠. I don’t think early access launches are a panacea in the face of crunch or anything, but a Cyberpunk build of this nature strikes me as a less daunting prospect for the team to have gotten out the door in December of 2020 or even one of Cyberpunk’s earlier missed targets for a release date.

Uncertain doom

(Image credit: Future)

Moving forward, I wonder if this is a cost/benefit analysis CD Projekt will be making with The Witcher 4 and its myriad other projects waiting in the wings. Formal early access presents its own challenges, and it isn’t the only way to release a game in an acceptable state, but the developer can’t afford another situation like the initial launch of Cyberpunk 2077.

One other consideration, though, is that it feels like everything is getting released into early access now, no matter what it’s labeled as. Even Baldur’s Gate 3, which was in a perfectly acceptable state at its full launch in August compared to some of 2023’s PC port disasters, has seen additions and changes above and beyond the usual bug fixes and tweaks in the months since its release. It’s gotten multiple overhauls to its ending, hundreds of lines of new dialogue, and a harder-than-hard permadeath difficulty, all likely building towards a “Definitive Edition” in the style of Larian’s Original Sin games.

Hell, maybe life’s just early access, man: this existence a mere illusory “early access” to the cosmic full launch we can only know once we leave this mortal coil behind for a fifth-dimensional perspective.

Sorry, I got lost there for a second. Anyway, I’d still bet that The Witcher 4 won’t get a Baldur’s Gate 3-style early access release despite all that, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the crazy idea it would have been before this year.

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