Game Studio’s Fortunes Rest on Dystopian 2077 With Keanu Reeves

Eight years after first being announced, with three missed deadlines and roughly $130 million spent, CD Projekt SA’s Cyberpunk 2077 is finally coming to market. And with the stock soaring in anticipation of the release, the pressure is on for a good reception from gamers.

The Polish independent studio has a lot riding on its new franchise, given the scarcity of its releases. While smaller games, expansion packs and its own sales platform provide revenue in between releases, its previous major title came out in 2015. That contrasts with several high-profile releases each year from rivals such as Ubisoft SA and Activision Blizzard Inc.

Analysts expect the role-playing game to sell almost 30 million copies in its first year, according to 10 estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That would make it one of the best-selling video games of all time and amount to more than the five-year sales of the studio’s most successful game, the third installment of the Witcher series, a medieval title that was spun off into an original TV series by Netflix Inc.

Initial journalist review scores, expected as early as on Monday, mark its first important test. With the launch scheduled for Dec. 10, the studio hasn’t said when it would release first sales data, but said it’s “really happy” with the amount of pre-orders.

The high expectations are evident in CD Projekt’s shares, which nearly doubled in 2019 and are up 50% this year, helped by a global gaming industry boom as the pandemic forced people to hunker down at home. The Polish studio has outperformed the the Solactive Video Games Index, which rose 40% last year and is headed for a gain of similar magnitude this year.

Cyberpunk, based on Mike Pondsmith’s tabletop role-playing game and influenced by the 1982 film Blade Runner, is set in a dystopian alternate reality of advanced cybernetic implants, fragile social order and corporate warfare, starring actor Keanu Reeves. The neon-lit setting of Night City offers a vast open world, in which the company’s testing lead reported spending at least 175 hours on a single slow-paced playthrough.

“I keenly watch reviews to get a sense of momentum, as there is a general correlation between average score and a game’s success,” Neil Campling, an analyst at Mirabaud Securities, said in an email, citing examples of top-ranked Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.’s Rockstar Games. “CD Projekt is obsessed with quality, and determined to follow the reputation of Rockstar in developing a best-in-class experience.”

In a potentially promising sign, some recent AAA releases have received mixed receptions while others have been postponed to 2021, indicating less intense competition. Activision Blizzard Inc.’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War” is rated at 77 out of 100 on review aggregator Metacritic, which, along with weaker-than-expected sales, triggered analyst concerns.

This year’s highest-scoring game on Metacritic is a PlayStation 4 remake Persona 5 Royal, with a score of 95. Eleven games have received a score above 90, all but one a part of an existing series or franchise.

“Reviews for different platforms may differ, but any score below 90 may trigger a negative reaction, score of 95 or more may be a slight positive, touching 98 or more very positive,” Michal Wojciechowski, an analyst at brokerage Ipopema Securities said in an email.

The Polish company first announced plans for the game in 2012. For a long time, the venture without a firm timeline was mostly a topic for fans of the development studio CD Projekt Red. Marketing efforts for Cyberpunk kicked off in earnest in 2018, but the hype turned into frustration and share-price losses earlier this year as the release was pushed back several times. The most recent postponement was needed to ensure that the technologically advanced product will run smoothly on older consoles, the company said.

In a bid to avoid further delays, the company went back on its earlier promise to not force overtime on the project, asking developers to work six-day weeks to finish production. The co-CEO later apologized internally for his investor call remarks downplaying the “crunch,” an industry term for excessive overtime in game development. The firm has spent 494 million zloty ($134 million) on in-development projects, according to last month’s earnings financial statement.

CD Projekt’s market value of 40 billion zloty caught up and briefly exceeded Europe’s gaming leader Ubisoft this year, and only recently the company was dethroned by Allegro.eu SA e-commerce platform as the biggest stock in Warsaw.

Cyberpunk enters the market a month after the release of next-generation consoles from Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. While a shortage of the consoles caused a drop of digital sales during Black Friday period, games coinciding with console launches tend to enjoy higher sales. To smooth out any hiccups from gamers holding out until they get their hands on new equipment, CD Projekt has promised that previous-generation buyers can upgrade their game to the new consoles for free early next year.

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