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Cyberpunk 2077: A retro-futuristic fantasy with huge potential – if you can ignore the Cyberjank

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Practically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to offer a real review of Cyberpunk 2077, the long-awaited follow-up to The Witcher 3 from developer CD Projekt Red. In the first place, it’s so big that the few days I’ve had with it aren’t enough to realistically evaluate the game; second, it’s so buggy and janky now that it feels wrong to review it before it becomes the game I know it will be; and finally, everyone’s going to buy it anyway.

The Witcher 3 is among the most universally lauded games of the last decade, up there with Breath of the Wild, The Last of Us, and Dark Souls. Though it had its flaws — lackluster combat, a limited scope — it did the open world thing better than anyone before or since, largely through improved writing, interesting characters, and consequences to player choices.

It was during what you might call that game’s honeymoon period that Cyberpunk 2077 was announced, and in the years since then the game has approached untenable levels of hype: It could never live up to what people expected, but it could very feasibly be a good game in its own right.

Recent controversies, however, have cast a pall over the launch: A seemingly hypocritical condemnation of pre-release crunch from the developer, some indefensible choices regarding diversity in the game (racialized gangs and a questionable approach to gender and trans representation), and delays suggested this may not be the magnum opus people hoped for.

In the first place I can confirm that the game probably should have been given a few more months of polish, at least on PC, the platform I played it on. From the very start I encountered obvious bugs like characters failing to animate, objects floating in mid-air, and the admittedly expected physics silliness one finds in every open-world game with simulated objects interacting. A day-one patch may fix some of them, but it’s clear that a game this big is nearly impossible to smooth out entirely. (I should say that I’m only partway through the 40-odd-hour campaign, though like its predecessor that will be padded out considerably with side quests.)

That’s a shame, because the world CD Projekt Red has created — or rather adapted from the tabletop RPG on which it is based — is undeniably rich and lovingly fashioned. The easiest way to describe it is simply to say that it’s exactly what you imagine when you think of “cyberpunk,” no more but surely no less.

The look of overcrowded streets filled with weirdo future people, shuffling between food carts offering vat-grown meat, beneath floating neon advertisements for cybernetic limbs and hacking tools, all watched over by enormous corporations of dubious intention… it’s right out of Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days, Ghost in the Shell, Neuromancer, and dozens of other genre pieces that informed both the original RPG and the general ideas that constitute “cyberpunk” in the zeitgeist.

It’s a familiar world you’ll be entering in some ways, with few real surprises if you’re at all conversant in the genre. That is a good thing in many ways, as it feels like a lived-in place: a crystallization and expansion of ideas that, while you have seen them elsewhere, have never been at your fingertips so readily, save perhaps in the original Deus Ex, which had its own limitations.

Yet at the same time there is very much the feel of a lack of imagination and willingness to update those ideas in ways that seem obvious. The gangs based on racial identities seem like such a poor fit for both this era and for a future in which such distinctions have no doubt declined in relevance, especially in a vast melting pot like Night City. The stereotypical “Mexican tough guy” dialogue of your otherwise likeable companion Jackie grates, for instance, as do for example the stilted, supposedly Japanese mannerisms of staff at an Arasaka corporate hotel.

Gender is also a mixed bag. Reviews by queer-identifying reviewers at Polygon and Kotaku have much more relevance here than anything I can say, but I can only concur that the freedom the player has in selecting their presentation is an important step towards better representation of queerness in games — but also has a “do as I say, not as I do” feeling. Elsewhere in the game sex and gender are handled regressively or inconsistently with the clear implication that, with body modification something anyone one can do on a street corner for a few eurobucks, race and gender are fluid and unimportant in this world.

This future feels like it was extrapolated exclusively from the forward thinking but still limited minds of a bunch of smart white guys from the ’90s. Perhaps that’s why I feel so comfortable in it. But as Ready Player One demonstrated, there’s a limit to how much can be accomplished by those methods.

At the same time I want to call out the care that was obviously taken in some ways to have a future filled with people of different shapes, sizes, colors, inclinations, and everything else — it’s clear there is genuine good intention here, even if it stumbles with unfortunate regularity.

“What about the game itself, you babbler,” you ask, after 800 words, “is it any good?”

Yes, it’s good, but difficult to categorize. On one hand, you have a paralysis-inducing freedom in shaping the capabilities with which your character approaches the various situations he or she will encounter. Brute force, stealth, hacking, gunplay — all are quite viable, but don’t expect to get far relying on only one. A “pure hacking” approach, for instance, will be far more tedious than it’s worth, while a “pure gunplay” one will likewise miss the point.

In navigating an enemy base, taking down some rando street gang, or getting through one of the game’s highly involved criminal operations, there are many options for any given situation, but none is reliable enough (certainly not early on, anyway) to get you through without resorting to the others.

One inconveniently placed guard may be susceptible to having his eyes hacked, while another may be easily distracted by one of the numerous items you can make fizzle out and attract their attention. But when you eventually slip up and the bullets start to fly, you’re not going to hack your way out of it. That’s okay, though: You’re not a scalpel, you’re a Swiss Army knife. Act like it!

The open world in which you’ll be undertaking all these missions is a rich one… perhaps too rich. Open the map and you’re presented with a sea of icons, though they’re not quite the Ubisoft-style to-do list so much as letting you know that this is a big, dense city where you’ll never lack for gun shops, criminal activities to engage in or disrupt, and interesting locations to explore. If you think of the map as more “where’s a ripper around here? Let me check my phone” than generic “video game map” it makes more sense, though it’s obviously the latter as well.

You’ll be driving around a lot as well, a process that is about as smooth as it was in Grand Theft Auto 3. Using the totally inadequate keyboard controls for my car, I’ve caused panics and accidents, mowed people down, and obstructed traffic constantly, while attempting to follow every law and attract as little attention as possible. This part of the game feels hilariously last generation, like how in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, your all-terrain horse vehicle was an object of terror and lethality to any peasant stupid enough to walk on one of that game’s many mountain trails.

The helpful GPS directions once took me through a pedestrian occupied area with a gate that was just narrow enough to completely trap the car, though it extricated itself offscreen when I called it. Another time I summoned the car to my location and instantly heard a distant explosion and screams. The car arrived 30 seconds later completely trashed, missing the doors on one side. Fortunately it seems to repair itself by mysterious means when you’re not looking.

But when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing — you know, cyberpunk stuff — things are smoother, if not what I’d call completely modern. I had this feeling the whole time like I was playing a game whose bones were built 8 years ago and then wrapped in layer after layer of stuff, creating systems and environments that feel incredibly cool in some ways and, like the car, huge throwbacks in others. The gunplay isn’t as good as any shooter today, the melee is about at Skyrim quality, the hacking is perhaps Deus Ex levels, and stealth is nowhere near Metal Gear — but none of those games actually offered the breadth or richness of systems and environments as Cyberpunk 2077.

In the final — for the purpose of this article, which is to say incredibly limited and initial — analysis, it’s both accurate to say that this game is GTA: Night City 2077 and totally inadequate. It’s both unique and totally derivative, futuristic and regressive, wide-open and painfully restrictive. Like many AAA games these days, Cyberpunk 2077 contains multitudes, and short of being a total faceplant, which it undeniably isn’t, it has a huge draw and value for the millions of players who want to hoon around a cyberpunk dystopia, hacking and shooting and scheming and getting better armblades, eyeball replacements, and future-guns.

I suppose the simplest summary of my review would be that I look forward to playing Cyberpunk when it’s finished. The Witcher 3 came out to acclaim but also criticism of many of its systems, and over time it has evolved into the genre-leading game it is. Cyberpunk has that potential, but it undeniably also has real issues that I would like to let them address before I play it. If you have any patience, I’d give it a few months at least so you don’t have the best of the game spoiled by the worst. At some point in the future I think Cyberpunk will be a pivotal title in gaming, but not yet — let’s just hope it gets there before 2077.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

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Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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The far right’s favorite registrar is building ‘censorship-resistant’ servers

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“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources. 

Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.

Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.” 

One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”

Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.” 

But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship. 

“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”

Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.” 

Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.

“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”

In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.” 

“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company. 

The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues. 

Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”

*Although eRise also claims on its website to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would exempt it from some taxes and allow tax-free donations, TechCrunch could not locate it on the IRS’s database of nonprofits. Monster later admitted eRise was not a registered 501(c)(3)).

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End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

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At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

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