IIT’S EASY be optimistic about the future of Europe by traversing a dystopian hellish landscape, running police machines and beheading pedestrians with a samurai sword. Such opportunities come thanks to “Cyberpunk 2077”, a Polish video game, launched before Christmas after a decade of development. It sold 13 million copies for $ 60 each in its first ten days, with buyers tempted by its mix of hyper-violence, women inexplicably wearing little clothing, and a one-armed terrorist played by Keanu. Reeves. The pre-launch hype transformed its Warsaw-based creator, CD Projekt, as the country’s most valuable listed company and a rare example of a European company succeeding on the frontier of a 21st century industry, rather than relying on a reputation built in the previous century. Even the in-game currency offers Europhiles something to applaud: in Cyberpunk tradition, the main currency, the “whirlwinds”, is based on the euro. Society may have collapsed into a living nightmare, but at least EUthe single currency was alive.
What should have been a rare technological victory for European companies quickly turned into a farce. The game was launched while still littered with bugs, much like the real euro. Performance was so poor on older consoles that Sony, the world’s largest console maker, took the rare step of removing the game from its stores. One scene gave an unfortunate critic a seizure. CD Projekt issued a creepy apology. Its share price halved as complaints and refund requests poured in. The paper billionaires created in the management of Polish society have become paper millionaires again. The peculiar cocktail of embarrassing success and failure of “Cyberpunk 2077” is an allegory for the European video game industry as a whole. It also says something about Europe’s economic place in the world.
Start with the positives. If a Polish film studio had released a movie that grossed the best part of $ 1 billion in just a few short weeks, as “Cyberpunk 2077” managed to do, it would be rude to complain if some of the cast were awkward and the plot had holes. CD Projekt is far from the only one. Ubisoft, its French counterpart, is behind popular series such as “Assassin’s Creed”, which allows gamers to express their thirst for blood on the rooftops of historic Europe. A host of other small developers are scattered across the block, from Bucharest to Helsinki to Berlin. Game designers in Poland and France find their efforts on bestseller lists for the same reason Swedish pop stars do: They have a knack for knowing what people like. In an industry worth $ 140 billion a year, or roughly three times the global box office for movies, this is a useful skill to have.
However, Europe’s success in this sector has its limits. European companies are eclipsed by their American and Chinese rivals. America’s two biggest competitors, Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard, are roughly three and six times the size of their biggest European peer, respectively. Any business showing signs of growth to serious size is quickly swallowed up by an American or Chinese rival. Microsoft bought ‘Minecraft’ maker Mojang for $ 2.5 billion in 2014. Tencent took control of Finnish mobile game company Supercell in 2016 in a deal valuing the group at $ 10 billion. of dollars. Capital is still relatively scarce in Europe compared to America, but especially in video games, underlines Matti Littunen at Bernstein, a broker. Often continental investors are not interested in gender.
Just as Europe has failed to produce its own Amazon or Facebook, it has also failed to control the platforms that dominate video games. These are controlled either by hardware vendors, such as Microsoft and Sony, or by U.S. distributors such as Valve, which has the largest PC-game store, Steam. Companies that have been successful in these previous land grabs, such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon, can be ambitious in ways that European rivals simply cannot match. It is these giants that will dominate new markets, such as the rise of cloud gaming, with games streaming.to the Spotify, a rare European tech hit – rather than bought individually, as is currently the case. People’s attention is a lucrative, finite resource that European companies are ill-placed to exploit because of their past failures. Europe’s youngest tech companies will pay for the sins of their fathers.
Europe should perhaps be happy that its companies are niche players in a world dominated by American and Chinese companies. Being the property of others is not the end of the world. Asset stripping in the creative industry is a stupid idea – there’s no point in buying a creative business and then firing everyone. Granted, the quality of jobs in games can be overstated. (At worst, this can be a grumpy, well-paying job, ensuring that a horse’s digital testicles shrivel up the right way in cold weather.) But video games are a growing industry and, especially for one. a block with increasingly divergent economic prospects, relatively well distributed on the continent. As long as some jobs and investments are left, why should anyone care?
However, this attitude is in line with the objectives of the European leaders, who desperately want to make the union a real superpower. the EU has proved capable of regulating businesses, but incapable of contributing to their construction. It should start by paying more attention to sustainable industries. Instead of being cherished, sectors like video games are being forgotten: overshadowed by traditional industries, which have the ears of national politicians; rejected as too old-fashioned by the luvvies who give its influence to the creative sector. If one more interventionist Europe is inevitable, so the EU should at least focus its efforts on industries with bright futures, rather than helping older ones hang on. Much like the random launch of ‘Cyberpunk 2077’, the video game industry in Europe is still a success, but it has the potential to be much better. Unfortunately, in the minds of European lawmakers, the twentieth-century industries on which the continent has built its wealth – cars, chemicals, banks – are still king. Unless that changes, coming 2077 there may not be any whirlwinds to do. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Cyberpunked”