E3 is one of those times of year where the best and worst of the video game communities bubble to the surface. For every moment of the abject glee that sprouts from the crowds when a new video game is announced, there is a contrasting wave of cynicism whenever a new game strikes the wrong chord or fails to resonate with the audience. This is not necessarily a bad thing: E3 is the biggest presentation of the year, after all, and that scrutiny holds these companies to the mark in terms of the quality of their products. With that being said, there is often periods where this particular cynicism taints a presentation before it even starts, with EA being the largest recipient of this scorn.
With that in mind, the cynicism for EA is rightly deserved. Their conference at E3 2018 was corporate shilling peppered with the actually delightful Unravel 2 trailer. It deserves the skepticism it gets through years of, to put it bluntly, shitty consumer relations. It might surprise you, however, that they were not always that way. In 1995, they won the European Computer Trade Show aware for best software publisher of the year, and it was not hard to see why. A passionate third party publisher offering its developers a generous portion of the profits to create games built with passion and a genuine love of the then-booming industry? No wonder they got to where they are today, though you wouldn’t know it looking at the EA that you saw stepping up to the conference floor in 2018.
Oh dear god it gets worse the longer you look.
Enter a discussion of CD Projekt RED. Possibly the most well-respected video game development team in the world right now, their trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 during Microsoft’s conference received an absolutely thunderous reaction from a receptive audience. One could say that it was because it has been their passion project for a long time – the first announcement of Cyberpunk 2077 came in 2012, just after their success with The Witcher 2. But I would like to think that people’s reactions to Cyberpunk 2077 were simply a boon of CD Projekt RED’s attitude towards their consumers. The developer makes quality games and offers them at a reasonable price, championing a consumer-first, anti-DRM message that resonates with their consumer base – a path to success that, by the logic of the rise to power of other publishers in the same sphere, seems counter-intuitive.
Yet the parallels between 1995 Electronic Arts and present-day CD Projekt RED are surprisingly similar. Both teams came from a background of passion for the video game industry: Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins deriving his passion from hyper-complex board games and tabletop RPGS, and Marcin Iwiński of the then-named CD Projekt exploiting the lack of Polish copyright law to fuel his obsession with his Spectrum Sinclair. Both of them had a singular passion in their early days of their company: to provide people with games that they genuinely wanted to play themselves. Hawkin’s passion for football simulators eventually gave rise to what would become EA Sports in 1988. Meanwhile, Iwiński was importing western video game releases to Poland, spearheading the distribution of Baldur’s Gate and cementing an ethos of customer satisfaction over all else.
It is in the nuances of the two companies that really defined their present day forms. When Hawkins formed the company in 1982, he had a very simple ethos: he “wanted to help the world transition from brain-deadening media like broadcast television to interactive media that would connect people and help them grow”. When the video game crash of 1983 and 1984 decimated the industry, Electronic Arts – and by extension, Hawkins himself – grew very conscious of their bottom line. They watched the console market closely, aligning themselves with Sega so that their profits were as protected as possible, and establishing a dominant line of titles that not only piqued consumer interest but that would persist throughout the years. In time, Electronic Arts benefited from all sides of the console wars between Sega and Nintendo, and found itself in a position to elevate itself to a self-sustaining force. And so began the acquisitions, the IP vampirism, and the rest was history.
CD Projekt, on the other hand, had one very simple ethos that has persisted to this day: keep the consumer happy. This involved listening to them, offering something more than what the larger, more corporate companies would offer. The aforementioned Baldur’s Gate distribution was a good example of this. When Iwiński earned the rights to distribute Baldur’s Gate from Interplay in 1999, they decided to splash out. They added a parchment map, a Dungeons & Dungeons rulebook, and a soundtrack. It was more expensive, but it added a personal touch that fellow Polish pirates could not. And with that Iwiński hit the nail on the head, shipping 18,000 units in one day for £30 a title. It taught him the ethos that would form the backbone of their future development arm, CD Projekt RED, and their subsequent distribution service, GOG.com: putting in the hard work to provide that extra something for customers will always reap the appreciation of the consumer, and they will pay that back in kind.
And now we stand here in 2018. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt garnered over 800 GOTY awards since its release, sold nearly ten million copies and earned upwards of $65 million dollars for the company. Moreover, its PC release has remained DRM free on GOG.com, and its 16 pieces of DLC released for free have remained so to this day. As the company stated in a case insert for the initial releases: “we owe you [the DLC] for believing in us and purchasing our game…it is with great pleasure and humility that we present our game to you”. It is almost a certainty that, during the time frame in which The Witcher 3 was produced, published and supported, that EA’s collective profit blew CD Projekt RED’s out of the water. This does not seem to phase CD Projekt RED in the slightest. If anything, their sticking to their ethos stands as a mark of pride to them, holding their banner high and marching to the beat of their own drum.
Marcin Iwiński: being a cool dude since the 90s.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to clarify that video games are a business at the end of the day, and that money is the lifeblood that keeps the wheel turning. With that said, there is a humility in earning enough to keep everyone comfortable whilst not losing sight of why we make these things in the first place. In an interview with Iwiński for GamaSutra, he reflected on CD Projekt’s existence, and claimed that “as long as it’s here and we have the passion for games, and people are crazy talking about what they play, what they’ve seen or what comic they read, and not just pushing to deliver numbers on a daily basis, this will make sense.” It is a devastatingly humble claim made in a land of giants, and something that makes CD Projekt RED a standard bearer for the smaller of these contributors.
In a video game landscape dominated by triple-A developers like EA, Ubisoft and Activision, it is important that CD Projekt RED, as well as other independent publishers like Devolver and Limited Run Games, maintain their positive relationship with their customers and flaunt it. The previously two mentioned even got their own presentations, making the response even easier to see. If the history of video game development has taught us anything, it is these smaller companies that make the splashes that the larger companies follow. Perhaps an independently run, best-of-the-rest conference, disconnected from the big names and dedicated to this ethos, could prove useful in pushing these practices into the spotlight. As it stands, the pop that CD Projekt RED received for Cyberpunk 2077, as well as the reception for similar announcements like Unravel 2, Sea of Solitude and Ghost of Tshushima, show that these practices work. They are a shot across the bow – a warning for the big publishers to step up their game and treat their customers better.
Image credits go to McVuk.com, Dualshockers, and Reddit’s /r/gaming board.