No Man’s Sky is inarguably one of the most anticipated games in recent years, generating buzz across many communities with its promise of exploring the ultimate sandbox: space. The hook was deceptively simple: you have a spaceship, and you travel through the universe, exploring planets and discovering new biomes, minerals, plant-life, and animals on every planet. All of this would be procedurally generated, so no two planets or animals would be the same, and every single player would have a completely unique journey (whilst still being able to visit planets discovered by others).
The excitement only increased upon the game’s gameplay debut at Sony’s 2014 E3 press conference. The trailer was everything players wanted, and more; lush planets, herds of interactive animals, and full space travel. This was HelloGames’ (the developers of No Man’s Sky) first mistake. Trailers are meant to capture the imagination of the public, reeling them in with both concept and creativity. A trailer should exaggerate the positives and brush over the negatives – it should portray the game in the best possible light. HelloGames, and Sony, went one step beyond, and showed mechanics, animals, and graphics in the trailer that were nowhere to be seen upon release of the game – in other words, the trailer was a lie (see it below, credit: Sony | Hello Games).
The shock of the prospective space-adventurers upon playing the game was only compiled by the interviews and press snippets involving lead designer, Sean Murray. His public appearances were few and far between, and whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, Sean appeared to have no control over the hype that quickly snowballed out of control. In the few interviews he did, Sean was bombarded with questions involving new and exciting features and mechanics such as space worms, portals, and multiplayer. A proper response would be to manage expectations, such as saying “we are not currently implementing it in the release version”. This would provide suitable information, whilst offering hope for the future – customers would know what to expect. Instead, Sean would often slyly smile, shrugging his shoulders and saying ‘maybe’. To the almost-religious fans, this was nothing less than a confirmation; Sean did not deny it, so it must be there. The only way on from this point was down – a game that reached peak hype could never perform as well as expected (the Half-Life 3 conundrum).
Sean appeared to have no control over the hype
For an indie games company such as HelloGames which, for most of the development cycle, only had a team of four people, the build to release appeared to be going perfectly. Sony was pumping out advertisements, but this was nothing compared to the word being spread by gamers among themselves. The game had reached the levels of excitement only rivalled by games such as Spore, Fable, and Duke Nukem Forever.
Only a week before the game was set to be released on PS4, a reddit user by the name of ‘Daymeeuhn’ posted multiple threads, stating that he had a pre-release copy, and offering his thoughts on the game. This proved to be a major blip in the community’s excitement for No Man’s Sky, as the footage and review provided by the user were highly negative. His criticisms later proved to be justified, as HelloGames were forced to rush out a Day One patch for the game to add in some of the features missing in Daymeeuhn’s copy, as well as fixing some broken mechanics that allowed him to reach the centre of the universe (the official ‘end-game’) in around 30 hours, which was a far cry from the 100 hours promised by Sean Murray in another interview.
Unfortunately the game appears to have met with similar reception as the former two (fortunately, not as bad as the dumpster fire that was Duke Nukem Forever). Receiving mixed reviews that average out at 6/10, the game was praised for the procedural generation mechanic, and the relaxed atmosphere of exploration. It met heavy criticism for a lack of content, and for failing to deliver on the many promises.
It met heavy criticism for a lack of content
While it is unlikely, this game may prove to be the turning point for the pre-order culture that is overwhelming the gaming community. Many paid $60 for the game, or close to double that for pre-order editions (in which the pre-order bonus, a spaceship, caused the game to crash), a triple-A price tag for what is essentially an indie game still in development. This, combined with the fact that the only way to get a full refund was if you had bought the game through Steam, caused many of the most ardent supporters of HelloGames to feel ‘betrayed’, as they had been left out-of-pocket, with a game that was only a hollow shell of the one they felt was promised to them in the build-up. Sony and HelloGames have still made staggering amounts of money, and it’s only fair to mention that many fans feel happy with the released product, so I doubt any long-term repercussions await the studio, but No Man’s Sky will certainly be recorded in the annuals of gaming history as an example of how hype can make, and break, a game.