Game Development Community

Is Cyberpunk Dead

by Jay Barnson · in Game Design and Creative Issues · 02/05/2004 (12:21 pm) · 87 replies

Back in the early 90's I got hooked on the "Cyberpunk" genre of movies / books... books like Neuromancer, When Gravity Fails, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Snow Crash, etc.

Then it seemed this little subgenre went away completely... matured, maybe, and pieces were adapted into conventional Science Fiction. "The Matrix" was almost pure Cyberpunk, but by that time nobody actually referred to it as such (that *I* have heard, anyway).

I went back the other day and found an old "cyberpunk" style game I'd been working on at one point about 10 years ago... and found it was very dated, but still fun (and I began wishing I had completed more of it, because I'd forgotten so much of the design that I wanted to see what happened next...)

Now I wonder if the genre is truly dead and not capable of generating interest anymore, or if it's dead in name only, or if it's mutated into some other form that I should start looking into. Anybody know?

About the author

Jay has been a mainstream and indie game developer for a... uh, long time. His professional start came in 1994 developing titles for the then-unknown and upcoming Sony Playstation. He runs Rampant Games and blogs at Tales of the Rampant Coyote.

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02/05/2004 (1:04 pm)
I think its become more mainstreamed now and we are so used to seeing it, that it doesn't slap us in the face like it used to. Its kind of like skateboarding, where it was more of a reckless sport 2 decades ago, now they hold official comps with huge backers like ESPN, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, etc. Its much more mainstream now, and with the aging Tony Hawk as the poster boy, it has definately gained alot of respect (Hawk is only slightly older than me)

Back to CyberPunk. Its evolved. Much of the technology featured in that segment of entertainment is now reality or on the brink of discovery. While neural implants aren't the norm right now (I certainly don't know anyone with them), they hardly have the shocking realization they did a decade ago.
02/05/2004 (1:05 pm)
I think part of cyberpunk's apparent disappearance is that, as a result of the dot-bomb, anything starting with the word "cyber" immediately produced fear and loathing in most of mainstream America. So, it's possible that the term is not used much now simply to avoid tarring it with the wrong brush.

Another part might be that, after the release of "The Matrix," there was the potential to be associated directly or indirectly with that film and perhaps skew the reader's perception in a way that the writer of a story (or the dev team on a game project) didn't want to go.

Willia Gibson is still turning out books. George Alec Effinger sadly has departed, but a collection of his short stories has come out recently, most if not all of them being set in the Budayeen. Neal Stephenson seems to be diverting his efforts into "steampunk." On the whole, the genre is changing, but there's probably still plenty of room to break in.
02/05/2004 (3:02 pm)
As Axel covered, I think it's still around in the book form, but the mainstream is a somewhat corrupted vision of the other mediums. I can't off the top of my head think of a particulary hard core cyberpunk film, nothing from hollywood has even come close to the immersion I felt reading the classics. Even "The Matrix" is painfully tame when judged against something like Neuromancer.

However there are some very good anime cyperpunk series. Ghost in the Shell wasn't a bad movie, but the first series of it was really 'deep' in places. They just seem more willing to aim for a niche market. Stand Alone Complex had a large budget per episode and was targetted at the pay per view and DVD segment only (although bizarly cartoon network licensed it in the US).

I don't think it's missing from computer games so much, Deus Ex springs to mind. There are a few projects around here aiming for that as well, a decent adventure / FPRPG is not an easy project though :(
02/05/2004 (3:09 pm)
I just re-read Neuromancer last year (for about the third time). Still fun to read, though he dates himself in places (Hard to avoid, when audiences are still reading you 20 years later).

So the idea of "jacking in" via neural interface into a "Virtual Reality" (remember that term???) representation of the 'Net... still cool, or "been there, done that, saw the trilogy?"
02/05/2004 (3:18 pm)
'Virtual Reality' was way before it's time. And we're no doubt due a come back at some point. Despite the rest of the film I actually liked how they represented that in Jonny Mnemonic.

It's not exactly revolutionary, but what are you going to do, present them with a linux console and say hack this? ;) It's covered in the sci-fi MMORPG's in a very tame manner (Neocron / Anarchy Online), you could definatly make a decent puzzle game out of 'hollywood' hacking something. And if there's one thing the mass market seems to like it's puzzle games! :)

If you've never played uplink, try and get a copy, great fun.
02/05/2004 (4:12 pm)
I think the main cyberpunk strength was in the freshness of anything...well..."cyber". Pioneers of the genre made us imagine society with different values, different rules because of how tech has changed our lives, but in the same time - recognizable (and so - more creepy).
Later cyberpunk waves dumbed it down and made a common perception that cyberpunk=guys with googles hacking=dark future=lone wolf against corporation.

If someone could get out of these stereotypes and create something that shatters your mind, while not requiring to "jack-in", genre could reinvent itself.

For example, I personally think that movie "Gattaca" was cyberpunk, although I might be the only one on planet Earth who thinks so. The same goes for "S1m0ne" (same director, hehe, you can feel I love him). Was it dark? Not visually. Was it full of gadgets on every set? Not at all. Was it thought experiment of how could tech influence our society, our lives? Hell, yes in both cases. Then its cyberpunk for me.

Again, I guess its just me.
02/05/2004 (4:22 pm)
The real problem with Virtual Reality now, is that most of us have had the opportunity to experience a somewhat watered-down version at one time or another. Even to this date, we haven't achieved VR that is even remotely close to anything seen in those CyberPunk series... or even the Holodeck on Star Trek. But still, its difficult to get the same awe-factor that was so prevailant 2 decades ago when Virtual Reality seemed nothing more than a buzzword.

So while its still a dream, people are a little more used to seeing this kind of technology, and they kind of shrug it off as "nothing particularly new". Which isn't a BAD thing. Even my grandmother knows what cyberpunk and VR is, and that kind of consumer saturation leads to big money (The Matrix is an example).

Minority Report showed some pretty cool technology, even if alot of it is completely possible to re-create today. Those interface designs completely "wowed" me, and I have seen similar designs in many other movies (the Matrix and Star Wars both use similar interfaces in some scenes).

Deus Ex definately carries CyberPunk influences, and numerous Anime DVDs come to mind as well, even though they may not be CyberPunk in the purest form.

"Jacking In" still sounds cool, simply because it is such a action verb that can describe many different methods of connecting. Some more violent and invasive than others.

VR or "Virtual Reality" sounds a bit dated- reminds me of the original TRON or LAWNMOWER MAN.
02/12/2004 (1:23 pm)
Isn't this about game ideas? I'd be happy to do some Cyberpunk Concept art...
02/20/2004 (2:23 pm)
I think a cyberpunk game is an excellent idea. Nowadays computers have the graphical power to take the player to world of near future - I've always thought this visual aspect of cyberpunk creates exciting conflicts: the over crowded run-down streets of old crumbling metropolis vs. the clinicality of cyberspace, or the eternally poor hackers mouldy and small apartment vs. the extravagant apartments of the rich etc.

But game ideas .. does anybody have them?
At least plotwise cyberpunk game shouldn't be too difficult come up with - just take the usual ingredients (huge corporations, europe-usa-asia-struggle-for-power, cyberspace, etc) and mix em up a bit.
02/20/2004 (9:36 pm)
I just read a great interview with William Gibson today, as a matter of fact. He's just come out with a new book (set in the present, for a change). He did talk a little about The Matrix --- how basically his ideas were generic enough that anybody could make a movie out of them without needing to license Neuromancer. He also talked about how he's pretty much technologically behind the times, and how he's got a more commercial mentality than his books espouse.

He also humbly noted how his "visionary" books were just him "squinting at the present," and how they've begun to look dated. He cited the fact that he had no cell phones in Neuromancer... all this other tech, and he didn't have this now-pervasive technology, because it sounded too silly and "Dick-Tracy"-esque to him.

So here's something of a game idea concept... right out of Neuromancer. You're a wired hacker, but your "hacking" is actually supporting some folks in the "real world," much as Case was breaking security and providing surveillance for Molly during the theft of his old mentor's construct.
02/21/2004 (3:59 pm)
Yeah, I saw that article off slashdot the other day. His latest, Pattern Recognition, is really good; one of his best since Neuromancer. My only complaint was the general plot was similar to Mona Lisa Overdrive. He's such a poetic writer though, he makes up for it.

Cyberpunk is still around, look at the popularity of the Matrix and its spawn, the comics and the Animatrix series. All of that is very cyberpunk. It's transformed and modernized though, maybe watered down a bit, or a lot even.

It's a cool genre with lots of ideas ripe for the picking. To get the real cyberpunk feel though, I think you need a story driven game like Rise of the Dragon, or Deus Ex. I'd love to see a good RPG done in this genre; Fallout meets ShadowRun. Unfortunately that would require an enormous team or community donated content.
02/21/2004 (4:31 pm)
Okay, let me just start out with the fact that I am probably insane- the mad scientist equivalant of game developers. I have probably given dozens of crazy ideas, and none of them have been tried for one reason or another (because I AM whacked).

The very premise of Cyberpunk is an ongoing saga, which makes it perfect for comic books and movies.

So why aren't games created in this fashion, where they are created in TRUE episodes with no resolution at the end, much like a comic book that hooks us into seeing what happens in the next issue. These episodes need to be small, but non-linear. They could even be released one level at a time.

This occured to me when I was playing the first "Call of Duty" demo, BURNVILLE. Over a two week period, I played that demo a few times and discovered new things, tried to tactics etc. The game is heavily scripted, so its pretty it gets repetitious after playing a few times, even on the most difficult mode.

Then they released a new demo entitled DAWNVILLE, which takes place the following morning in the same city that you and your allied buddies had just taken over the night before. I realized that I could learn to like this method, and secretly wished they would release a new level to me every month (I'd pay a small fee for that service).

So would it be possible to do the same kind of thing with a Cyberpunk game? The first episode is the demo (free) and then subsequent episodes are released about every month for about $5-10$. Although scripting leads to some great storyline moments, it really needs to maintain a certain level of open-endedness and non-linear gameplay to allow the player to play it over and over again (Try Deus Ex WITHOUT shooting a single person).

Subscriptions could even become possible, once the game has a proven track record by releasing at least a few episodes on schedule. Unlike an MMORPG, it wouldn't require massive server maintainance, but each episode could provide a NEW level or part of town that players can enter into an multiplayer arena (deathmatch, or some other simple game concept).

The whole key here is to make small, quick_to_develop decisions that won't affect long term sales. Experimentation is another key factor. Intitially, the game engine and content will take a couple months to produce. But later episodes should be constructed in a matter of WEEKS- anything that doesn't fit that schedule should be tossed out.

As I get older, I simply don't have the time to jump into a game and "finish" it in one or two sittings. I also don't have the discipline and drive to play the game over the period of months- regardless how fun the game is. I usually end up forgetting about it- I think an "episode" method would help me get over this.

I rather enjoy watching "Friends" and "ER", and anticipate the next episode. Would I want to sit down and watch 10 episodes in one sitting? probably not. If there were several games set up on an "episode" basis, I could switch through them throughout the month and be one happy camper.

Actually, I think I am going to start working on this right away.
02/21/2004 (4:50 pm)
Moving slightly off the cyberpunk theme, Wing Commander Secret Missions did this. I don't recall how well it was recieved. However it had a very loose story line and was pretty much 2-3 space missions per episode when an impressive finale (6 episodes total). However they did it for free, I believe ot promote WC : Prophecy at the time.

The way I thought of approaching the 'episodic' content was to try and do 'hosted' RPG style sessions for 8-16 players a time. That way they can all 'play' the story as it's released every week.

Such a game would have to have a VERY gripping story, since games are 'on-demand' people will just run off an play something else. And I think a strong cyberpunk theme would be a good target demographic. Unless you want to do a Sim's style soap opera, that'd probably make millions ;)
02/21/2004 (5:14 pm)
I'm not too sure how gripping the story needs to be in this context.

I have a not-so-brilliant theory that storylines should be reserved for books and movies- two mediums that the viewer has no influence. In games, we can insert keypoints where things unravel, but the player really needs to drive the storyline in order to prevent it from becoming linear.

The levels would always start out from a single point, like waking up in the sewers with a nasty blow to the head. From there, the player can go a couple different directions through the sewer, possibly summoned by a "voice" or peculiar noise. Or the player can escape from the sewer to the streets.

So from a single STARTPOINT, the storyline fans out in several directions. But to prepare for the next episode, the storyline needs to be funneled into a single ENDPOINT. If the next episode starts with the player unconscious (again?) the previous episode can actually close from several different endpoints. The player falls from a building while chasing a badguy. Or the player is knocked out while searching an apartment. A nearby explosion knocks the player unconsious... whatever. The point is to PREPARE the endpoint for the startpoint of the next episode.

Think about GTA3... you basically have a STARTPOINT of a mission (ignore the fact that you can start any mission or go do something else entirely) It doesn't matter how you get there, or how you complete the mission, as long as the objective is met... so the storyline fans out. Then once the mission is completed, it funnels the story back into a single endpoint to prepare you for the next mission.

Without a strict and heavily scripted storyline, we reduce the amount of development time and leave the game with more REPLAY value. In fact, to make it more interesting, provide a couple different key characters for the player to use. Ifthey have wildly different attributes, they will each have unique access to different areas with unique discoveries. In fact, these players can have completely different storylines/paths within the same episode.

Although "Enter the Matrix" was met with dismal reviews, it had some interesting concepts that I would like to see explored more often. The player can play as Ghost or Niobi- both have the same goals but they enter the levels from different areas and encounter different obstacles. At some points in the game, they cross over (Niobi blows up a door for Ghost, or Ghost snipes a few troublesome enemies for Niobi).
02/21/2004 (6:17 pm)
The dual path gameplay isn't anything new, Resident Evil 2 did it exceptionally well. Deus Ex for all it's vaunted 'freedom' seemed awefully linear to me, and the start / end point you mentioned would create a similar mechanism.

Without a 'hook' from episode to episode (how many times can you knock people unconsious :) ), is there any reason for people not to just buy a 'complete' game and play through that at their leisure? I'll admit the internet makes this more viable than ever before, but selling this format on mere gameplay I believe would be extrodinarily difficult.

But hey, who ever said any of this is easy... it also limits scope somewhat and some people like 'endings' occasionally. Maybe the key isn't to 'string' anything together at all, if the player was a character like a detective or something then you could have a new 'case' every week, while hinting of an overall storyline. I'd just be sure my episode structure matches my target audience best, probably by comparing my game to a similar TV demographic.
02/21/2004 (6:33 pm)
I didn't say dual path was new, in fact its been done several times with varying degrees of success. I personally think Resident Evil sucked ass. I'm also not a huge comic book or cyberpunk fan, however, I am a person with limited time to play a game.

Also, I stated that each episode would require a hook to drive the player to anticipate the next episode. The hook doesn't have to be an important story element, nor even a major turning point. It could simply end with the player running frantically toward a door and it swings wide open with a dark shadowed character saying "We've been waiting for you, Miss".

I'm just not a fan of linear storylines, and to me, Resident Evil and Deus Ex fall into that category. This concept could easily fall into the linear category as well, but there simply is no ending. Several Marvel and DC comics continue to this day.

Half-Life was all but destroyed when I came to the end. After I finished the game, I was unimpressed- the journey was much more fun than the ending could EVER provide. I often find myself playing favorite levels of games, even years later.

So do we play games to get to the END, or do we play games for a different reason. Thats the real question. Games like the Sims and Everquest are hugely popular with no ending in sight. No resolution, and really, no point.

The possibility of a weekly episode is highly unlikely. Monthly is more feasible. I don't even think I would target individual sales- I would look at larger targets like massive portals or magazine distribution. What if PCGamer or XBox magazine picked up these episodes and distributed them with their CD? Just like the early comic strips were used to drive interest and newspaper sales, they weren't the END reason to buy the newspaper. They were simply an added value and a nice diversion from the often dismal news.

Do we think that Major Networks create TV shows like "Friends" because they like Jennifer Aniston? They use the series to drive advertising dollars. The same can be done with games to drive traffic ( this is already done at several sites like ) Obviously "Friends" is making way more in advertising dollars than it is spending on $1million-per-actor salaries, otherwise they would have dropped it long ago.

And finally, yeah, I know this is risky and probably not worthwhile. But I don't have alot to lose and to tell you the truth, a riskless venture isn't worth my time. In the end, if the episode thing fails, I can still bundle the levels and sell it as a single game. So it really doesn't take any more time or energy than building a normal game. However, I have the benefit of pulling the plug at any time and cutting my losses early. Or passing the torch to someone else, if I happen to get bored of it. Just because I quit working on it doesn't mean it needs to end.
02/21/2004 (11:47 pm)
The episodic RPG was attempted around 1999... I don't think it did very well. But they did have big, 2-page ads in popular computer gaming magazines. It kinda dissapeared shortly after it began releasing installments, so I assume it failed. Maybe not. I think it predated the Wing Commander Prophecy experiment by a few months.

However, this doesn't mean the concept was fundamentally flawed. I think this whole idea actually kicks some serious butt for RPG potential... and it could very well mean the future of RPGs. Looking back as to why I chose not to participate, it was a pretty easy decision:

What it really boiled down to was, in my mind, was that it seemed like it was one BIG RPG getting doled out in monthly pieces. If you broke the chain, the rest would be a waste. And in the end, I think the total cost exceeded that of going out to the store and picking up a copy of Baldur's Gate. So really... it felt less like buying episodes of an RPG and more like making a commitment to the Columbia Record & Tape Club.

Now... the way I could *REALLY* see this happening... and Randall, you've gotten me all excited about the concept... is treating the RPG episodes more like episodes within a TV series than chapters within a book. Meaning that while there's some continuity between episodes, they are... well, episodic. A player could theoretically start anywhere, skip an episode here or there, maybe play them out of order, but wouldn't get too lost.

Yes, you don't "force" the players to keep re-investing in your game series. *BUT* you more than make up for it by creating a very low barrier for new players to start playing episodes, and you also make it very easy for people to "return" to the series again after taking a break. There's no cost to get "caught up"... they can grab previous episodes as they feel interested in doing so. And if they really like the game, they WILL go back and catch previous episodes.

This would require you to have more self-contained "mini-adventures" with each episode (module?), but you'd gaing the ability to keep re-using your technology & much of your content for each adventure.
02/22/2004 (10:39 pm)
I'm not sure consumers are quite ready for pay-per episodic content. A better method might be to charge them full price for a few modules or one large episode as version 1.0. Then release 5-10 free episodes until version 2.0 is ready. Then charge them again for 2.0+.

If I'm wrong and consumers are ready for it, maybe the pen and paper RPG model might work. It's roughly what I laid out above - charge full price for a nice big revision and then smaller amounts for each module for it. It seems that NeverWinter Nights could have gone this route with their style of player driven AI RPG, but they chose to let the community create new modules instead.
02/22/2004 (11:06 pm)
Mon Dieu. I turn my back for one minute and the thread blows up. :)

In a strange way, one thing that kind of ties the all the disparate tangents back into a cohesive whole (and yes, somebody will undoubtedly jump me for this) is Bandai's recent experiment in episodic cyberpunk gaming with the ".hack" series. On the plus side, you had the cyberpunk feel which has been kept fairly fresh in anime and you had character continuity between the four "episodes" that made up the game as a whole. On the down side, you ultimately ended up paying $200 for what could be considered four segments of one really large game. (Yeah, yeah, you also got the cool anime DVDs as a bonus.) Moreover, around the release of the third part in the series, it was noticed in the gaming press that while the story was advancing, the graphics and AI which had been good in the first episode and deemed passable in the second episode were now being considered a liability, and went on to be savaged in the fourth episode.

Moral of Bandai's story: if you're going to do episodic gaming, keep EVERYTHING fresh, not just content. And whatever you update, make your updates retroactive, so that your earlier episodes match the look of your newer episodes.
02/23/2004 (12:00 am)
Heh, I can't believe so many cyberpunk enthusiasts are alive and active on GG! This is really...really suprising, in a good way. :)

Our team has been working on a freeTorque Cyberpunk/Shadowrun RPG/FPS for a little over a year titled Emerging Shadows. Most of that year has been spent transitioning cyberpunk MUD concepts (and even some code) to 3D. Several of us formerly worked on the popular shadowrun MUD AwakeMUD, including a longtime head coder. We were all involved in 3D design or coding on the side, and depressed at the lack of a "true" 3D cyberpunk game, so we made the switch.

Having worked on MUDS, we're all dedicated to the point that compensation isn't important to us. This made Crystal Space a more appealing option than Torque, but TGE won us over in the end. The catch-22 is obvious though...For mappers, modelers, and scripters it is just like working on a MOD. For coders, you have to pay money to work on a free game. The latter has posed a big problem for us, obviously. The fact is we have high-quality art, and would have more, but we're stuck in a holding pattern due to lack of code.

Our website is still scattered, and doesen't have much specific information (It's all on the private forums & in our heads), but we're rolling it into a design doc. If you would like to see it send me an email, or drop by IRC. Nothing top secret, its just not ready for public consumption.

If anyone is interested in working on Emerging Shadows, please drop by our forums or IRC. The doors are open to everyone, excluding negative/dumb people.

Team F.A.Q.
Dev Shots
Sloppy Public Forums
IRC: or -> #emergingshadows

Sorry if I turned this thread into a help wanted ad, I just wanted to let people know there is an existing torque cyberpunk project out there that is looking for help. ;)
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