“I don’t sleep 'cause I’m a Red”. This is what CD Projekt looks like with rose-coloured glasses off

CD Projekt

At CD Projekt you can make a career, make a name for yourself, and even strike it rich. But of pivotal importance is to hold out at all. At least until the next game is released. Whoever doesn’t make it to see it, disappears from the closing credits.

Early 2008. CD Projekt takes over the Metropolis studio and a dozen or so employees. Highly reputed after they made such games as “The Prince and the Coward”, “Gorky 17” or “Infernal”. In media interviews, Michał Kiciński points it out to the importance of merging “two top gamedev teams in Poland”. He also goes on to assure: “Thanks to our resources, Metropolis will enjoy a much wider creative freedom”.

Under a new banner, they are to continue working on “They”. It is a shooter located in a near future, on the Earth ravaged by wars. For some time now trailers have been aired at trade fairs, the game is being developed on Metropolis’ own made engine, and the fans are counting down the weeks to the release scheduled for 2009. A secret hidden for the next 13 years will be the fact that Jacek Dukaj, one of the most famous Polish science-fiction and fantasy writers, is involved in the game. It is based on his story that Tomasz Bagiński made “The Cathedral”, an Oscar nominee.

Months are passing by, yet the vision to complete “They” is moving away. Unexpectedly, cooperation with Dukaj is terminated. “It was one of those projects where I was asked for script doctoring rather than a script. Sort of word-building combinatorics. They already had the image of the world, gameplay, quite a number of fixed components, and the point was, based on the puzzles, to come up with some reasonable story and the world’s rules for the game. I elaborated on some solutions for them and then the entire project was ‘deactivated’ at some point. It was such a long time ago I don’t want to rely on my memory in reconstructing the details and hypotheses for the deactivation”, recalls Dukaj today.

The team is shifted to work on “The Witcher 2”. Where crunch is going strong and deadlines are tight. “They”, including quite an acquisition in the form of Dukaj, will never be released.

However, it was not always necessary to rush that way at the loss of unfinished projects. At the beginning, CD Projekt was driven by youthful energy. “In the ad, they described themselves this way: we are cool, young, the average age is 23 years, the company is expanding and in the future it will be recruiting for game localisation projects. I sent them a letter saying that I’m young and cool myself, I love games, I’m a graduate of English Studies and I would be happy to help them with translating games”, recalls Ryszard Chojnowski.

He wrote to CDP. In reply, a package with a whole pile of xerox copies for translation arrived. Back then they wouldn’t do the whole localization, that is, translating the game itself, but they translated box descriptions and manuals. “I sent the xerox copies back, they liked them and sent me some more”, says Chojnowski. In this way, he translated for CDP “Overboard”, “Monster Truck” and “Adidas Power Soccer”. This is how, in 1997, he found himself in a company, whose description sounded like a dream for anyone who ever had a glimpse of computer topics.

Today, at first, or maybe second glance, it's even better. As the company itself puts it, its campus is “a place full of good energy, comfortable and fit for a growing team”. They venture to “follow the innovative biofilic design trend which aims to reintroduce aspects of nature to our work and living spaces”. During the pandemic, after people were shifted to remote work, the company even arranged for a "fruit Power Up Box immunity packet" to be sent to the homes of our employees Poland-wide”.

The fruit packets, however, arrived a few days after the company made it official that the people so taken care of must work six days a week. Otherwise, they will not make it to complete “Cyberpunk 2077” whose release date has been postponed fourth time already.

Homies from one crunch 

For weeks the developers have been working for a dozen hours a day. One day one of them stands up after eight hours and leaves. To everyone's surprise. Maybe something at home? Or he had to fix something that's just cropped up? The next day, the story repeats itself: after eight hours, the programmer is done. And the same on the third day. Finally, someone bursts out: “What’s up with you, man? We’re working our asses off, day in, day out, and you are leaving after eight hours?!” And the developer replies: “Chill out, it’s my holidays!”

Many people with CD Projekt on their CV’s remember this old company joke. We heard it in slightly altered versions from both current employees, the developers creating the "The Witcher 3," and even employees from the first decade of the 21st century. They tell the joke, because it is crunch that has come to epitomise the working culture by CD Projekt. Much as the crunch does not always mean the same. It is romantic, pragmatic and panicky at times.

Romanticism came first.

“As I joined the first part of “The Witcher”, I was in my early twenties and such was the average age. Many people with dreams and ideas. Even Marcin Kiciński and Adam Badowski were total enthusiasts. That was a romantic crunch. And it never occurred to me you have to value your time. The great thrill and the intention to make the fucking greatest RPG ever was more important. I remember this stage like a shared experience from a war front”, says one of the former programmers at CDP.

Although overtime was not paid, the employees could count on a massage and catering over weekends. “A dozen hours a day, Saturday and Sunday included. It wasn't every day that you slept under your desk at work, but I remember there were some weekends like that”, says our informant.

Borys Nieśpielak, a gaming industry expert and an author of “Wszystko z nami w początku” [“We’re Alright”], a film about the authors of video games, tries to get to the other side of the story. “I understand you can turn a blind eye to crunch when BioWare is calling you to say that have a spot at E3 and you have to make “The Witcher” demo in a month to show up. Occasional crunch involving unpredictable situations is typical for this industry (and each creative industry, I think)”, he explains.

And indeed, it is with this demo that one of the first crunches took place. It was 2004 and a dozen people or so were working on the game. As the months went by, new people came in, but still the release date had to be postponed. 2005 came, then 2006, and "The Witcher" was still a mess. Lack of vision was the problem, as Jacek Brzeziński, the then lead of the entire project, puts it. “What kind of game are we actually making? What camera and controls will be there? What will the quests be about and how many will there be? What will matter in the game mechanics and what will matter less? How long will the plot and the game itself be? Finally, we started answering the questions. We had to, because it was already clear we couldn’t afford to make this game for another three years, but had to finish in a year. And then, crunch was a must”, recounts Brzeziński.

Maciej Miąsik, the then production lead: “Time was definitely running out, pressure from Atari, the global publisher of “The Witcher”, was rising. So, crunch was the only solution we could think of. I would say: “In a nutshell, you have to work your ass off, quit whining, worrying, because there is no other option”. Everyone was ok with that. But I’m not saying, they were happy about that.

CD Projekt Red working on The Witcher 1, fot. Ryszard Chojnowski.

Even if they were not, the great atmosphere of Jagiellońska office came as consolation. Michał Gembicki, who just joined the company in 2006, remembers it well. “Be it just because every Monday we would share a breakfast together. The then head of production would bring a few dozen eggs to make scrambled eggs for all the volunteers. It was truly exceptional as such things were not in the office culture of those days. You could feel it is a company with other values”, mentions Gembicki. 

Brzeziński is of the opinion that, but for crunch, “The Witcher” would never have been completed. It was necessary, because a young company was at a loss to schedule the work, calculate the time needed to complete particular tasks and reasonably divide it among people. But the romanticism of the whole process was helpful indeed. “They would come to their dream workplace, they were enthusiasts and, in a way, they drove themselves into this rhythm of perfectionism and workaholism. But it is those who decided the crunch, including myself, that bear more responsibility. If we had known how to manage, we would have told them to go home. But, of course, that was not the case”, says the developer bitterly.

Miąsik also goes on to admit: “For some people it was romantic, but not for others. Yes, the team was young, but the people were tired. I was tired myself, although I was used to such a working routine. When we were done, I had one conclusion only: never again or, at least, never that much.

Those for whom the atmosphere alone was not enough, burnt out. After all, if your boss is crunching, others cannot do otherwise, they feel they owe an obligation”. “With your first crunch ever, it’s like a wartime memory. But with a third or fourth crunch that lasts for months, it is not romantic any more”, says Nieśpielak.

For the pleasure of Geralt and the players

The romantic phase was followed by pragmatic crunch. The important reasons for months-long overworking on the first part of "The Witcher" included the desire to make the best game possible. Much to the players’ utmost satisfaction, as they are what CDP values the most.

“They had no typical businessman attitude. They would be taking the perspective of game fans, committed users. While working on “The Witcher”, Michał Kiciński insisted that all the controls could be entered from the mouse position, and that was quite unusual. He wanted the game to be more accessible. That was about adopting such a casual trend. They wanted to attract many people to their elaborate RPG”, says Marcin Kosman, a journalist and author of a book “Not Only the Witcher. History of the Polish Computer Games”. And what did it all come to? When “The Witcher” graphics leaked once, the highly committed fans urged each other not to spread the leak.

And if the people are so close, you have to commit a bit more. Although “The Witcher” premiered in October 2007, it was as early as in January that CD Projekt announced Enhanced Edition due in May. It is supposed to patch errors and expand the gameplay to include new tasks. The fans are delighted. “In hindsight, we know this was a good decision, as it really established this company in the eyes of gamers. CDP is our homie who gives everything for free and loves the players. That was a great move”, says Miąsik. In Poland, CD Projekt started to be loved as a symbol of success in the world, in the world - as Cinderella versus the big players.

Eventually, “The Witcher: Enhanced Edition” came out in September. “That was a reasonable date. I wish it would have been opted for in the first place. After such an effort which involved the delivery of a premiere version, the team did not even receive a reward as there were no bonuses, but for one-off cases. Indeed, I got 20,000 zloties [8,000 dollars], but most people got nothing. Maybe so many people would not have left”, says Miąsik.

It was already practical knowledge from the employees’ perspective: you have to crunch, otherwise there is no chance to meet the deadline. So, when the company announces it will be embarking on Geralt’s adventures, part two, crunching becomes the daily bread. In spite of the fact that the number of people working on the game reached 200 and a new studio, Metropolis, was bought with another dozen people on board. They are supposed to work on the earlier mentioned “They”, but they will be soon shifted to the team of “The Witcher”.

“We would meet at “Śmierdziel” [“Stinker”]. It was a little place in a connector building between CD Projekt’s main place and a smaller one next to it. A staff canteen in which two gals sit around frying cutlets. I would meet there many people sitting around at work after hours. I asked them why they wanted to do it like this. They give you hot food, you can make some extra money (overtime was already paid then), we're making an awesome game, why not sit around, they explained to me. “I didn’t see them as immensely suffering”, recounts one of the engineers working at CDP at that time.

As the release is nearing, the company is winking at the male portion of its fan community. In May 2011, the digital Triss Merigold sitting with its back to the viewer and symbolically only clad with a dagger, turns around her head and casts a flirtatious glance from Playboy’s cover. A note to make things clear: “For the first time! Playboy’s virtual star”. And an interview inside. A journalist asks Triss why the gamers should pick her as Geralt’s girlfriend. “Obviously, for Geralt’s own good and his pleasure” (laughing). “But those who don’t want to wait until the release to decide, I decided to convince now. In Playboy”, replies Triss.

Prototyping forever

While still working on "part two", some managers are losing their zeal. Most of the employees from Metropolis, a studio barely bought a year earlier, are gone. Its founder, Grzegorz Miechowski, among them, Jacek Brzeziński doesn’t make it to see the end of game production, either. He leaves as he cannot come to terms with the management board on the completion of “The Witcher”.

“We came up with a reasonable plan for intensive works, but also allowing for some safety buffers. We calculated how much time you needed to cater for the employees’ work-life balance, too, because we needed them fresh and relaxed, and not burnt out from the start. But the board forced a shortened deadline. It made no sense. Who, in their sound mind, signs up for crunching? Not me”, says Brzeziński.

Miąsik does not like the attitude, either. He leaves before the release. “I couldn’t stand it that the company isn’t evolving, isn’t learning”, he says today. Still, a senior producer and the “face” of this part of the game, Tomasz Gop, is looking forward to the release. However, he leaves just after the day zero. The reason being fatigue, burnout and personal issues.

Despite these breakups, marketing and hard work are fetching results. 400,000 persons bought part two of “The Witcher” within a week from the premiere in May 2011. And the studio are rubbing their hands and reminding: we are working on part three. 

The company looks for interim employees, including at the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology, whose students are recruited for various minor jobs. One of such persons is OutStar, a female youtuber, whose tasks included creating animations of character facial movements and gestures. Her impact on the decisions made was negligible. “It’s more like an office job. Still creative and artistic, but as if on an assembly line. You basically do what you are told to do”, she recounts in a video she recorded after she left the Reds. 

Szymon, a graphic designer (he wishes to remain anonymous), was employed full-time. He is straightforward about what he found: chaos and nerve racking. “Turning ideas upside down, wasting time and people’s work. No discussions, make-it-or-break-it attitude: either you do it, or you are sacked under the pretence you don't share the team spirit”, he recounts.

Often the issue would involve the same improper planning of works as was the case of the previous parts of “The Witcher”. For example, adaptation of the game for console, where it was assumed some work would be automated. “But then it turned out to be impossible, because all the buildings and ships were so simplified they looked like globs. So, you had to resort to manual work only, which means months-long crunch. Seven hours a week, ten to twelve hours a day”, says Szymon. As if that wasn’t enough, the employees would sometimes find out there were extra tasks from … press releases. 

The following is a recollection of Marcin, a former tester: “We once learned from a presentation at fairs that marketing had come up with some gloomy open-world locations. For example, the villages Geralt will empty of monsters. That the peasants will settle down there again and life will come back”.

Fingers forming into a fist

Ever since, pragmatic crunch at CD Project has been overlapping with panicky crunch. Depending on how much the employees are committed and how tight the deadlines are. What is more, starting 2017, this working model becomes an infamous flagship of the entire company. That is, when the former and current studio employees first talked about their working conditions on Glassdoor (the equivalent of the Polish GoWork). They accused the company of overwork, chaos, low pay and a high employee turnover.

“We were treated like the worst cannon fodder, the crunch lasted more than half a year. We would sometimes spend twelve hours a day, seven days a week at the company”, so “CD-Action” quoted the studio’s employees. On Glassdoor, the rating of CD Projekt RED as an employer goes down over half a year from 3.8 to 3.1. The working conditions of the Reds came to the attention of influential people of the world’s gaming community. YouYea, a youtuber, asked if everything was ok at the company. Another youtuber, MadQueen Show, contacted a few dozen former and current “Reds” and listened to such stories: “Back at BioWare, we would laugh when they talked about a three month-long crunch. With ‘The Witcher 3’ we would crunch for over a year, and some of us, three years”.

At that time, CD Projekt executives addressed this criticism with a letter in which they did not deny the allegations and stated that "their approach may not necessarily suit everyone".

It was the first time when the employees started talking about it in public, albeit anonymously. They normally keep silent because of NDAs which concern confidentiality. There is a huge financial penalty for violating it. “Everyone at CDP signs NDA for five years. The penalties, if any, start from 100,000 zloties [26,000 dollars], one of the employees tells us. Even third party employees who do no more than special assignments are given such contracts. Even a journalist running a conference for the Reds some time ago told us about it.

However, we managed to talk with the Reds who experienced crunch in various roles and various periods. As it became a fixed component of the working model and culture at the company along with “The Witcher 3”. Although CD Projekt is not obviously the only place where you work like this. As Nieśpielak recounts: “A game is created by artists: graphic designers, narrative designers, but also programmers. Everyone is emotionally attached to the work, so you abuse it. You may ignore it when something is going on and you have to make a demo within, say, a month. Only that crunch is systemic at CDP. They assumed it from the start that you would have to do a lot of overtime work to finish the project.

“Crunch may be positive when it brings together the people in a team. A community emerges of people with often different characters and emotional drives. Fingers form into a fist and they become one organism. But this may happen once, maybe twice. And then, the more the people, the more coteries are formed, and it just doesn’t work anymore. On the level of a gigantic corporation, crunch becomes a pathology. All the more that it affects programmers, graphic designers, testers. While I doubt Marcin Iwiński has ever crunched”, recounts Chojnowski.

“Crunch is like drugs. Once you start, it’s hard to quit it”, says Janusz Tarczykowski, the head of Rock Square Thunder studio (in gaming since 2014). “Occasional crunch may work, but a prolonged one is ineffective and misses the point. And long crunches are customary for CDP. They make each games on so-called death march. Their goals and objectives for each consecutive project are too ambitious, which makes them take it to extreme and take a risk. You pull it off once, twice, a third time, so such a working model is established. The risk paid off. And if so, they thought that this is the way it works”, he adds.

Maciej Miąsik is of the opinion that CDP is not transforming the management model, because such a working culture has simply satisfied the board over the years. “It would spawn success after success, a lot of awards and money, so there was no motivation to change the business model if it worked so well. And so it worked until ‘Cyberpunk’”, says Miąsik.

Game factory 

Over the years, CD Projekt has also developed two faces. One is facing customers to whom the Reds were ready to literally make heaven come true.

“’We are rebels!’, this is still CD Projekt’s slogan and such is the conviction deep down there in its DNA. Such is Kiciński's LinkedIn tagline and such a slogan he would display on his t-shirts. And it actually continued so somewhere until ‘The Witcher 3’ was released”, says Radek Zaleski, with CD Projekt from 2012 to July 2013, today at Netguru, a company that creates software for business. He explains what being a “rebel” is to stand for: “For years it was like us versus the bad world of games, us versus DRM, us versus unfair communication with gamers. CD Projekt firmly believed that. Except that they are a gigantic listed company with a big tax responsibility and liability towards investors. The market does not perceive them as a small and independent studio any more, but a corporation which can afford Keanu Reeves”.

However, the other face of the rebel, the one facing its employees, was not that bright or smiling. So, it promised a lot with its flirting smile, it knew how to attract event the biggest talents in gaming. But equally many talents left the company. “Really, crowds of people have been working there already. It is not a nice start-up any more nor an indie studio in which you work, because you want to do something cool. It is a factory of games with strict requirements for particular products”, explains Grzegorz Zajączkowski, the Digitisation Leader. “It is not a passion to discover the new worlds of “The Witcher”, but a timely delivery of Night City components that counts”, he adds.

Maciej Miąsik goes back to the photo which he published on Facebook in 2010. The photo shows a team creating the first “The Witcher” with the company leavers tagged. Two-third of the persons have red-crossed faces. Some got a green pipe drawn after some time - they made a comeback to the company.

“Many people at CDP don’t like me for this photo. And it is but a snapshot, a part of the team, because much more people quit. They started leaving, because they were underappreciated and tired. They said they didn’t want to work like that anymore. And there was no reaction on part of the management board. They would say: ‘They’re leaving? Let them go! That’s their loss’. After ‘The Witcher’ took off, people were queuing up to work for them”, adds Miąsik.

Anyway, employee turnover is an inextricable element of CDP management model. Much as “CD Projekt” on a CV would for long guarantee great experience, today it is said, half-jokingly, that half of the Polish gamedev has been through the company. Which is evidenced by the numbers, too. Between 2014 and 2020, the company’s headcount rose from 400 to 1177, which is, almost three-fold.

Michał Bobrowski of GRY-OnLine SA confirms: “There is a phenomenon of the so-called ‘pivot door’ in HR management theory. I remember years when it was the proverbial ‘pivot door with an in-built engine’. Still, keep in mind that a turnover is not something surprising in gaming, particularly in gamedev, where people are generally employed on a contract basis for a given project.

And this is what the company's official financial statements show. For instance, in the year “The Witcher 3” premiered, the turnover was almost 30 percent of full-time employees. What you have to point out to, obviously, is that those on permanent contracts surely make up for a small part, as B2B and, so-called, junk contracts, are the standard. Also the company’s most recent annual financial statements showed, as if by chance, the staff rotation. It is the document where the Reds boast having organised an annual Christmas meeting in December. Persons who had been working with the company for five, ten, fifteen and twenty years were recognized at the event. Those are not stunning numbers. A total of seventy-nine persons were awarded: Fifty-eight for five years’ length of service, thirteen - for ten years, seven - for fifteen and one person with twenty years.

Anyway, that is what CDP employees admit themselves. One of them remembers that, at a corporate party some time ago, they were talking about people who had already been with the company for five years. “And I could count on one hand such people in my team consisting of a dozen people or so. At yet another party, Adam Badowski, the studio’s head, encouraged us saying that we had to complete the project, because in this way we would be welcome by any other company in the world. His argument was, it will be easier for us to find another job”, says Szymon, one of the graphic designers.

Pivot door with an engine

Badowski knew what he was saying. Once in a while, CD Projekt’s door with an engine churns out talented creators, one after another. Beginning 2019, Sebastian Stępień, one of the key narrative writers for “The Witcher” and “Cyberpunk 2077” series, moved to Blizzard, a competitor studio which produced such games as “Diablo” or “Warcraft”. After “Cyberpunk 2077” premiered, the leaving of Andrzej Zawadzki, one of the key persons in Gameplay Design, had quite wide repercussions.

It was after crises that people would be leaving the Reds in largest numbers. When the company faced bankruptcy in 2009, it had to cut down its costs, it laid off employees and reduced salaries. Michał Szustak left with quite a big bunch of people who then went on to build Flying White Hog studio. At that time also Grzegorz Miechowski bid farewell to the company along with some of the former employees of Metropolis, and he established 11 bit studios.

Anyway, after the storm, which almost sank CD Projekt, and after bringing the ship back to safety, even its founders, Michał Kiciński and Marcin Iwiński, left the company for a while. They may not have crunched on the game like the rest of the developers, but they also, as Iwiński would then say in interviews, were pushing themselves, working for a dozen hours a day, trying to save the company from bankruptcy. In 2011, something snapped inside them. Finally, it turned out it was just long holidays and they both came back. Although Michał Kiciński came back only for a while, part-time work and commitment.

Another wave came in 2017. Mateusz Piaskiewicz, the former lead level designer at the Reds’, moved to Flying Wild Hog. Derek Patterson, a senior gameplay producer, opted for Techland. Ovidiu Traian Vasilescu, a project lead, moved to V11 Studio Game.

The list can go on and on. Be it our interlocutors of CDP background, they are the crème de la crème of the Polish gamedev: Ryszard Chojnowski is a renown games translator, Jacek Brzeziński is a co-founder of Different Tails studio, Michał Gembicki is the president of Klabater studio, and Maciej Miąsik in on the board of Movie Games.

Credits for the perseverant

A high employee turnover affects all the company levels, all the more that the salaries in gamedev are not as impressive as the industry’s expansion might suggest. Grass roots, testers in particular, cannot count on some extraordinary pay.

How much specifically, the tense situation after the release of Cyberpunk showed. Marcin Iwiński had to account for serious screw-ups in the game and he slipped up that the testers would not identify the errors. Jason Schreier, a journalist at Bloomberg, stood up for them disclosing how much the testers actually earned: “Twelve to fifteen dollars an hour, if you’re lucky. Much less in Poland”.

Łukasz Babiel, a head of the tester team at CDPR, joined the Twitter discussion. He accused Scheier of manipulating facts and a provocative comparison of Polish and American salaries. According to Babiel, a tester on a probationary period at CDPR earns 75 percent of the Polish country average, which is, around gross 3,900 zloties [1000 dollars], and an experienced tester may expect 200 percent of the country average, which is around 10,000 zloties.

However, it is no secret that these higher amounts are much easier to be earned by crunching. “They paid overtime, e.g. 80 percent, and because the salary was poor, many people were happy they could make come extra money. Anyway, some of them wanted to stay longer, because they would get a free supper, e.g. a tortilla. That speaks a lot about salaries at the time", says Szymon, a graphic designer.

And another Szymon, a tester from the era of “The Witcher 1”, says there was indeed free food, but not always for everybody. He remembers that many a time the lockers were guarded by supervisors, and the testers would hear that they were "working too short" because the food was "for those who stay past 8 PM". “Nobody cared that you’d been working from, say, 5 PM, and you’re hungry. You had to wait until 8 PM. At that time, the locked lockers would be opened officially under supervision. Because it was often about sitting around late, not really working much”, he recalls.

Marcin, a tester of “The Witcher 3”, adds: “A tester works on a junk contract basis, so you can lay them off overnight. The salary is poor. The take-home pay I got was around 2,200 zloties [546 dollars], overtime included. Nobody’s protesting as there is a queue of fifteen volunteers outside”.

Szymon left CDP immediately after “The Witcher 3” was released. He did not want to crunch any more. Besides, he kept waiting for too long to get a rise of a few hundred zloties or so. Before he left, he wrote a letter to one of the directors in a fit of frustration. He described how the company was treating its grass-roots and didn’t appreciate, also in financial terms, their contribution. “The reply went more or less like this: we know that, we appreciate your contribution, but a raise is best received by surprise, just do your job. The words hurt me a lot”, recalls Szymon.

Younger employees and those with no family commitment would grit their teeth and launch a survival mode. “I remember a situation where an employee had a pregnant wife and he said, he couldn’t crunch and work over weekends, because he had to take care of her. Sometime later he wouldn’t work with us anymore. In formal terms, he was not laid off”, says Szymon. He adds that, seeing how people were being treated, he decided to leave after the game is completed. “I had to wait till the very end. Otherwise, my name would have never been mentioned among the credits. If you hadn't made it till the release, they would have crossed your name out of the final credits. Same for the bonus. If you hadn’t been with the company at the moment bonus was being paid, you wouldn’t have received a penny”.

The pandemic, Night City and threats

In mid-2019 the studio’s executives promised to change the working style. But the promise was only a few-months lived. The closer to the release, the more hard work. “We have a reputation for respecting our customers. I would also want us to have a reputation for respecting our developers, too”, said at the time Adam Badowski, the board member, who took upon himself the criticism for breaking the promise.

A pressure from investors was rising. It was rising on the part of the cherished gamers who would sometimes welcome the postponement of “Cyberpunk” release with threats sent to CD Projekt’s employees. The crunch became panicky now. At two months before the scheduled premiere, the company announced it was prolonging the working week up to six days. “The ‘Cyberpunk’ team will be happy, because they’re working day in, day out, so … it’s one day-off now”, said sneeringly the former employees who knew the open secret: some had been working on “Cyberpunk” at night and during weekends for more than a year then.

“Cyberpunk 2007” hit the market on 10 December. Before the release, eight million copies were sold, and another five million within ten days following the debut. However, a large number of players and reviewers were, to put it mildly, highly disappointed. They would point out to the errors, bugs, shortcomings. They accused the company of having sold an unfinished product, totally different than earlier advertised. All of this reignited a discussion on how CDP was treating its employees.

“I know that, in Adam Kiciński’s opinion, crunch is necessary to refine the project. But after what happened with “Cyberpunk”, he may ask himself if it is this very component that is central to quality”, points out Jacek Brzeziński.

“It was as early as in 2019 that the journalists writing on “Cyberpunk”, sought to compare it with “Red Dead Redemption”. Except that 4.500 people were working on the latter, which is, four times as many as on “Cyberpunk”. And, what’s more, Rockstar’s team had the experience, as they had already made open-world games, while ‘Cyberpunk” was an uncharted territory for those working on it”, says Bobrowski when asked why Cyberpunk fell through.

CDP’s management board explained that the game would have looked better but for the pandemic. Zbigniew Jakubas, a Polish millionaire and the president of the Multico Group, confirms. “If it hadn’t been for COVID, anyway that’s what I was talking about with Adam Kiciński, this game would’ve been delivered error-free. They employ 1200 persons, including 200 foreigners, and all of a sudden, everyone’s working remotely. It’s virtually impossible to make a perfect delivery where programming and artistic touch come into play”, he says.

Marcin, a former tester, shares the opinion: “With home office, the entire working philosophy of getting as much out of you as possible stopped working, because nobody was breathing down your neck.

A new face

The March strategy assured that such a working model would be a thing of the past. “A sustainable and caring work environment” will be continued. “Agile”, a new working methodology, is also to be introduced. It involves distributed management, more decision-making for small teams and an easier response to change, which may eliminate crunch.

“To change, they need a fire-and-steel method. Burn everything to the ground and then build anew on the ruins. That’s the only way for a real change to take place”, says Marcin.

“If they don’t make a big change, they may have problems finding people to work . So far, many people wanted to work there because of a promise to create outstanding games. The employees have come to thinks less of CDP, and gaming itself looks different, too. There are more studios making big and interesting games. To make a name for yourself, you don’t need to be with CDP any more”, emphasises Szymon who has already been offered to go back to CDP himself, but he turned it down. “First, I would have to make sure they really learnt the lesson”.

Jakub Wątor

Marek Szymaniak,
Jakub Wator,
Sylwia Czubkowska,
Matylda Grodecka

Photos (in order):
CD Projekt logo, fot. Casimiro PT/Schutterstock.com
CD Projekt Red working on The Witcher 1, fot. Ryszard Chojnowski;
The Witcher, mat. prasowe;
CD Projekt HQ, fot. Jakub Wątor,
Marcin Iwinski receive Developers Choice Awards, 2016 r. fot. Wikipedia;
CD Projekt HQ, fot. Jakub Wątor,
Cyberpunk fans, mat. prasowe;
Wiedźmin III, fot. charnsitr/Shutterstock;
Cyberpunk 2077, fot. ALensAndSomeLuck/Shutterstock;
Logo Wiedźmin, mat. prasowe.

Artwork: Patrycja Lewandowska
użyte fotografie:
Adam Tuchliński/Tuchlinski Studio