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September 1, 2016

No Man’s Sky: One Man's Hype

Alright, so I decided to weigh in on an issue that’s appeared in gaming during the curse of the last weeks.

2016 could already be called the Year of Disappointment for the industry, and No Man’s Sky is just another game to add to the pile, with a major difference: This one was always overly publicized. As soon as it was announced at E3 2015, it became a major topic. I'd say it was discussed even more than Pokémon Go. It was a massive project, too; a literal universe-sized game, with quintillions of planets, more content than you would ever imagine, and so many possibilities that this seemed like the best exploration game ever made.

“[…] we get one shot to make this game and we can't mess it up,” Sean Murray said, when explaining why he wasn’t showing more of the game at E3 in June 2016.

Then, the game came out, and to call it a disappointment would be a euphemism. Constant crashes, not that many different planets, an annoying voice that says only the same few pre-recorded messages, an inventory system that is crap, a languages system that isn’t worth the effort. An ending that can best be described as an insult, since it tosses you out of a galaxy and into another one, and you basically have to start over. It was calculated that only 3% of all the features promised through interviews with Sean Murray ended up in the game. Imagine that – out of 33 promises, 1 made it in. They even had the balls to promise a multiplayer mode, and the released game had none; even the indications on the box were covered by stickers, implying that whatever multiplayer they had, it was taken down after the design of the game's box was created!

Needless to say, this was… controversial, to say the least. I mean, I haven’t played NMS, but I completely understand. Everyone was waiting for probably one of the best games ever made, and we ended up with what’s basically a tech demo, incomplete, buggy, boring and uninteresting, still sold at fucking 60 dollars. In its current state, I wouldn’t buy that for 10$!

Let us step back from this universe-sized near-universal disappointment, and let’s explore for a moment how we got there. Hello Games’ deal with Sony, for release around June 21st, and the many, many, many interviews. This was, without a doubt, the #1 topic in gaming in the previous months. You can tell, in almost every single interview, that Sean Murray was hyped for this project, and that he wanted gamers to be hyped, too. And thus he was hinting at more features, more features, more features. All the time. Answering to questions by making more promises. Had Hello Games had one more year, or even two, to polish this title and add some of those things, it would have been better. However, the release date was already decided, and now, the damage has been done, it’s too late to go back.

You know, if this game had 50% of the promised elements, or even 25%, it would already be a much superior piece of software. Hell, there are people who enjoy it in its current state, and I don’t judge that, but I also think it’s perfectly normal that so many are angry at the product they got.

The numbers are already in; many who pre-ordered the game ended up dissatisfied, and a few days after the actual release date, it was possible to get a refund for your copy – yes, even on Steam. That’s saying something. And no, you’re not stealing if you demand a refund; you bought this game because you believed all the promises, you were misled by all the false advertisement. Yes, it can take upwards of 50 hours to find out just how much of a disappointment this title is. And for this, there’s no one else to blame but Hello Games and Sean Murray.

Yes, they bit off more than they could chew; yes, Sean Murray should have only discussed the features that he was absolutely certain would be in the full version. This was the guy’s dream project, after all. And it turned into a nightmare.

A lot of things can happen during development of a game; some – or many – files could get stolen, creative differences issues could lead to people walking out of the project, events out of the development team’s control can occur. My take on this is that Sean Murray really shouldn’t have promised so many things – but while he did lie in all these interviews, I don’t believe he’s a liar in the proper sense of the term. More like an idealistic idiot who promises the moon to his girlfriend when he can’t even bring her on a trip to another country. A dreamer, if you will. A naive hopeful who really believed in his project and wanted this to be the most ground-breaking game of all time.

How many of these promises were outright lies, how many were things that were planned and worked on but got scrapped during development? No one can tell. But it was too late to stop the hype train. Since I myself tend to be the idealistic type (I tend to alternate between idealist and cynic depending on my mood and the news of the day), I would much rather believe that most of these promises were actual gameplay elements that were worked on, but were cut out either due to time constraints, technical constraints, or size constraints. The bigger the game, the harder it gets to make it fit on a disk or the longer it takes to download it, the more advanced its requirements are, the less computers can run it. Not to mention that the bigger it gets, the more resource-extensive it becomes, the more likely it’s gonna crash. And boy is No Man’s Sky crashing. Hm, wonder if it would be as bad if we had been promised 18.6 quadrillion planets instead of 18.6 quintillion?

Unfortunately, there was no hype control. There was nothing behind Sean Murray to tell him “Maybe you shouldn’t over-hype”. Call it a voice of reason – or perhaps, a public relations team. There HAD to be someone out there, in the Hello Games headquarters, walking up to Sean Murray and going “Um… boss? We’ve checked the numbers, we’ve seen the progress, and you should stop making promises. We’re never gonna be able to do all this. You should step back, stop adding to the pile, and let the hype train slow down a bit.”

But even if that scenario happened, it was too late. The “hype train”, as it is, had already spun out of control, and they were irresponsible enough to keep it going. I’d even believe that it was impossible to backpedal on those past claims, so Murray just had to face the media, keep promoting his project, and spill out the same lies. And do some damage control, when the reports from the first players came out. There was a time where Sean Murray knew where the game was heading. It was no longer the project he wished to make, it was impossible to reach these expectations. And no, he couldn’t go online or in the gaming media outlets and go “Sorry, I know I promised a lot of features for No Man’s Sky, but I’m afraid we had to cut on many of these. Here’s a list of things we had to cut: […].” No, he couldn’t do that. That would have been tactical marketing suicide.

Even before the game was out in stores, it was too late. And after the game’s release, the public relations at Hello Games – with Sean Murray at the controls of the Twitter account, I think? – really did not handle the backlash well, adding more fuel to the fire.

Anyway, I don’t know the actual details, but this is my version and I stick by it. It makes a lot more sense than to call Sean Murray an outright liar. His statements are lies only in retrospect. He made the amateurish mistake of talking about more and more elements of his game, without certitude that they would be in the final product. And now it’s come back to bite Hello Games in the ass. It’s sad, you could tell that this was the guy’s dream, that he believed in the project’s success, that he was really excited for the game’s release. What once were hopes for this game’s content became false advertising. We’ll never know the truth. Though; was Murray lying most of the time?

I guess that’s a lesson for all game developers out there: It’s good to be hopeful for your project, it’s good to spark interest; but don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t allow yourself to talk about a game’s features unless you’re absolutely, completely, undoubtedly certain that they will be in the finished product. You can probably see this joke coming: Don’t be a Molyneux.

This may be another nail in the coffin of AAA games. It’s also a curse for smaller, indie developers who want to pierce that market, but who will now probably get turned down. Big ideas might become feared among the larger companies; they won’t take as many risks anymore. The failure of No Man's Sky will dissuade them, they won’t give as many chances to the little guys. It’s also been a blow for pre-orders; I bet a lot less people will pre-order games now. This controversy will be in people’s minds for a long time. I never really understood pre-order crowds… I mean, I love to play games, and even many games that I review negatively on this blog were at least fun enough that I wanted to beat them, but when you pre-order a game, you face the possibility that the game you receive is a pile of crap, and you couldn’t know until you play it.

Also, there is not a single game currently in production that is ever worth sending death threats to the makers for delaying. Hell, No Man’s Sky is a shining example of why you don’t get your hopes too high for a product until it’s released and the reviews are in; the same way it’s an example of why developers must not overhype what they’re making, no matter how passionate they are about it.

I’ll never play this game. I don’t intend to, I don’t want to. I’ll gladly go back to Unturned, or any of the free-to-play survival gathering games on Steam.