Arts and Lifestyle

Recapping the negative reaction to No Man’s Sky

Staff reporter Adley Vogel examines why the reaction to the game No Man's Sky was so negative. Photo courtesy of Hello Games.

It really isn’t uncommon for game developers to lie to their audiences. They won’t lie often, and usually it’s of little consequence, but coming away from most trade shows with a healthy dose of skepticism is usually a good move.

Developers will show polished sections of otherwise incomplete games and try to pass it like the real thing. “E3 demos are often complete bullshit,” and “features are added and dropped throughout development,” says Ben Kuchera, a senior editor at Vox’s Polygon. But when people compare release versions of games to their trade show counterparts, most games are only given a light slap on the wrist. Complaints about the removal of a UI element or the toning down of a graphical feature last a week or two at most. But not every game is subject to this kind of passing judgement. Some have their criticisms baked into their very identity, and No Man’s Sky is such a game.

It was released to a symphony of hate and resounding cries of regret. Those who enjoyed it quietly chipped away at the experience, while those who hated it shouted their grievances to anyone who would listen.

So why was this particular game so poorly received? Where did it go wrong? And is there any chance of No Man’s Sky redeeming itself?

Image courtesy of Hello Games.

To really understand the overwhelmingly negative initial response, it’s important to look back at where the game started.

In 2012, Sean Murray, the co-founder of British studio Hello Games, secretly began work on what he envisioned to be an elegant space simulator inspired by the works of Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. By working on the game engine a day or two out of the week, he was able to start piecing together the skeletal frame that would eventually hold up No Man’s Sky.

The initial team was only four people: the Creative Director David Ream, Hazel McKendrick who was a programmer, the lead artist Grant Duncan, and Murray. They worked in a spare office away from their coworkers as to not distract from the company’s current project, Joe Danger 2.

The Joe Danger series was all that Hello Games had been known for prior to No Man’s Sky, and the studio had new installments planned for what, at the time, was the foreseeable future. In an interview with GameInformer, Murray cites this monotony as a driving factor of No Man’s Sky’s creation.

“We were making Joe Danger, and we were making Joe Danger 2, and we were making Joe Danger iOS, and we were making it for Vita and for Linux and for PC and for Mac – that would be seven different versions. And what’s after this? Maybe Joe Danger 3? You kind of think, ‘How many [Joe Danger] games am I going to make in my life?’” Murray said.

Image courtesy of Hello Games

As it would turn out, Joe Danger 2 would be the last of the series that Hello Games would develop. Because of the work that Murray’s four man team did building out the most basic elements of the game engine, and crafting hundreds of useable assets, in 2012 they were able to slowly bring more people onto the team, and finally at VGX 2013, No Man’s Sky was officially revealed to the world.

For the next three years, through dozens of interviews and presentations, information about the game slowly began to trickle out. At Sony’s E3 2014 press conference, the No Man’s Sky team was allowed stage time to show a new gameplay trailer, unusual treatment for a game neither owned by Sony nor exclusive to the Playstation system.

Image courtesy of Hello Games

Regardless, the public and press alike were taken aback by the ambition displayed by what was essentially a no-name studio. Here was this tiny team of people, whose portfolio up until this point was filled entirely by games about a goofy cartoon stuntman, taking on a project so enormous even they didn’t know the true scale of it.

"We've created a procedural universe. It's infinite, and it's one that everyone can share. We're gonna start every player on a different planet so no two people will have the same experience. This universe we've created [...] it's so vast, it's so boundless, it's actually infinite, and we don't even know what's out there,” Murray said at the same 2014 Sony press conference.

While that last statement, “it’s actually infinite,” isn't correct, it’s also not all that far from the truth. In a Playstation.Blog post that same year, Murray said the real number of planets that their “seed” could generate was 2^64, or 18,446,744,073,709,551,616. That's 18 and a half quintillion unique planets for players to explore, each with their own plants and oceans and night skies.

Image courtesy of Hello Games

This announcement on its own was enough to get audiences watering at their mouths, but when there's talk of a complex crafting system, fully destructible environments, faction allegiances, intelligent creature AI that interacts with itself, massive fleet battles, and multiplayer encounters that leave lasting impacts on the game, it’s not hard to see why people’s expectations of No Man’s Sky were incredibly high. What was being described was a second life, a second universe. The player’s job was to shape the myriad worlds given to them in forever lasting ways.

Expectations only grew with each preview event. The hype surrounding the game had reached critical mass, and with launch day fast approaching it was only a matter of time before people would learn whether or not the grand image of No Man’s Sky would come to fruition.

Well as it would turn out, No Man’s Sky would start strong, but within a few hours of launch it became apparent that several integral features were either poorly implemented or missing entirely. Crafting was hindered by convoluted menu design, planets were almost fully destructible, and multiplayer was proven to be nonexistent when players who tried to meet up were unable to see each other.

Image courtesy of Hello Games

Reviews regularly touched on the fact that the size of the universe, while impressive, often worked against the game by destroying any semblance of player impact that might’ve otherwise been there. If in the grand scheme of things the player’s actions are meaningless, what incentive is there to explore that next planet? Why keep playing at all?

According to Steam Charts, by September, player numbers had dropped by more than 2300%, and that's just on PC. Playstation sales numbers indicate anywhere between 300,000 and 1 million units shipped on PS4, with $78 Million in total sales across all platforms.

Despite the game’s shortcomings, it’s apparent that No Man’s Sky didn’t flop commercially, regardless of its ability to retain players. $78 million dollars is a significant earning. And No Man’s Sky didn’t flop critically, averaging 6s and 7s on a 10 point scale. Rather than rating the game on what it was supposed to be, reviewers saw it for what it was: a touched-up walking simulator, and a solid one at that.

But still, a large percent of the player base remained outraged at the broken promises peddled by Hello Games. At several interviews, Murray confirmed the existence of features like realistic solar system physics and impactful fleet battles, neither of which made it to release. Clips from such interviews rapidly circulated on websites like IGN and Reddit, and were compiled into sizeable videos in an attempt to hold Hello Games accountable for their lack of content.

It’s not hard to locate the origin of people’s outrage; it all stems from exaggeration and lies. But what’s less immediately apparent is the rationale behind Hello Games’ actions. Was there never an intention to include multiplayer or progression systems, or did something go wrong along the way? Because of the closed door nature of game development it’s hard to determine which of these two scenarios is more plausible, although with all the time, effort, and money sunk into No Man’s Sky, it doesn’t seem likely that the whole thing was a money grab.

So assuming that something went wrong along the way, whether that be a funding issue or a deadline missed, why didn’t they let people know? Why didn’t they tell anybody?

The answer is Sony.

At both E3 2014 and 2015, the No Man’s Sky team was given unusual publicity by Sony at their press conferences. Because all eyes were fixated on Hello Games, and the world they were marketing was so spectacular, they must have felt a need to play up their game so people don’t forget about it. Memorable ideas get talked about, everything else drifts into obscurity. Add this need to stand out, with Murray’s inexperience with promoting AAA games, and you end up with what Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony Worldwide Entertainment, called “not a great PR strategy.”

Image courtesy of Hello Games

Had there been any honest developer interaction, this whole thing would’ve never blown up in Hello Games’ faces. But they were incentivized to stay silent on the true status of their game as the support of Sony hung in the balance. There was no good direction for No Man’s Sky to go in, and their story serves to highlight a glaring problem with the video game industry: the complete oversaturation of the market. So many low-quality games are released to Steam, and the PSN, and the iOS App Store, that those who take the time to create something great are often drowned out. It's a constant scramble for small games to get noticed, with developers taking any attention they can get.

But oversaturation is another issue entirely.

For now, No Man’s Sky is trying to pull itself back into public favor. Through major and regular content updates the team at Hello Games is slowly but surely adding the features that were promised at release. While its reputation will always be tarnished, and it’ll never regain the trust of those who preordered the game, Hello Games can try to execute on their ultimate vision; if they end up pulling it off, No Man’s Sky may finally get a second chance.

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