It’s okay to get excited about exciting things. And video games can be pretty darn exciting. Take No Man’s Sky. An incredible open world space adventure with a near infinite amount of planets and alien wildlife waiting to be discovered. It sounded too good to be true.
Turned out, it was.
We all first learned of No Man’s Sky’s existence from the jaw-dropping trailer shown at the 2013 VGX awards show (below). The trailer did a fantastic job creating excitement and anticipation for this adventure about exploring uncharted worlds. No one was certain how the game would actually play, or how a small indie studio would pull it off. So began several years of feverish speculation and wishful thinking.
Time plays a unique role in the hype train. A well-planned release window can allow studios to trickle new information at a steady pace, building up a frenzy to launch day. But lengthy development cycles and unexpected delays can slow the hype machine and cause many hopeful fans and consumers to drop off.
No Man’s Sky had a very lengthy development cycle, and was finally released over three years after that initial trailer debut. The gameplay and features teased in the trailer kept the hype going over the years. It was compounded by a frustrating lack of concrete information – and often confusing and coy explanations of core features and mechanics. Uniquely this all swirled into No Man’s Sky’s mysterious narrative that became its own marketing hype.
Marketing is a tricky push and pull with calculated interviews and strict announcements. But the rise of indie game development has seen many eschew a traditional marketing cycle completely. In the case of No Man’s Sky, it was cordial programmer and designer Sean Murray who became the face of the game, and the target of abuse even before its release. Murray was clearly passionate about his game. But he was also uncomfortable discussing gameplay details, whether perpetuating the mysteries surrounding the game or seeing the game’s features as still in flux.
Despite some major warning signs and question marks, the excitement and promise of No Man’s Sky lead to a deluge of pre-orders and day one purchases. The promises of a massive, procedurally generated, multiplayer space crafting game seemingly had everything that made games awesome right now. It was the most played game on Steam, even with the PC release staggered a few days after PlayStation 4’s rocky launch.
No Man’s Sky received mediocre at best responses from critics, landing at a 71 Metacritic score for PS4. It has a noticeably worse rating of 60 on PC, thanks to additional technical difficulties that made the game completely unplayable for many (including me) for the first several days until another patch could be released.
Player reactions reached a level of vitriol we hadn’t seen in some time, and hardcore gamers aren’t exactly known for being amiable. I have to think back to 2008’s Spore to find another game that was so hotly anticipated, and laid so low upon release.
Interestingly, Spore also had a trailer shown several years before its release. A trailer that also wasn’t entirely indicative of the final product. Actually it was more than a trailer, it was a lengthy gameplay video narrated by game design veteran Will Wright (creator of SimCity and The Sims) at GDC 2005.
Spore would later be released in 2008 to a much more cartoony, stripped down version that had starry-eyed fans up in arms over its shallow gameplay (and EA’s horrendous DRM at the time). Though it would receive generally favorable reviews and sales, Will Wright soon exited the game industry in 2009. Development studio Maxis also closed its doors in 2015.
For the record I really enjoyed Spore, despite its shortcomings. I was less enthused about No Man’s Sky, but my expectations were also tempered. I don’t want to cast all the blame upon Sean Murray, Hello Games, or Sony (who helped promote the game). But many of No Man’s Sky’s problems lie in the perceived expectations people had for it. People expected unique worlds with varied wildlife and ecosystems. People expected an intricate crafting system, a more advanced flight simulator, and gargantuan alien creatures. People expected multiplayer! The hype, in this case, was far more dangerous than fun.
The day before No Man’s Sky launched, Sean Murray posted a blog on the official website. He lists exactly what you can and can’t do in No Man’s Sky. This rare and incredibly helpful moment of transparency needed to be much more thoroughly shouted into the eager void of the gaming public over the previous months and years.
Murray is very candid: “This maybe isn’t the game you ‘imagined’ [emphasis his] from those trailers. If you hoped for things like pvp multiplayer or city building, piloting freighters, or building civilizations… that isn’t what NMS is. Over time it might become some of those things through updates.” As if bracing for the coming storm, he adds, “You’ll see just how closely it plays to those trailers, and to our original vision. It’s a weird game, it’s a niche game. This game might not be for everyone. I expect it to be super divisive.”
Ultimately hype sells games. Though I’m sure a number of people were able to secure refunds, No Man’s Sky still sold incredibly well. Hello Games made the game they wanted to make. Post-game launch support could be amazing, and Hello Games have teased some pretty big updates and additions. But you only have one chance to make a first impression, and most players have already moved on.
The video game hype train shows no signs of slowing down, despite repeated disappointments and the post-launch rage factory that’s formed in their wake. Game companies want you to be excited about their games, and we want to be excited to play them. But in our current age of Early Access, Let’s Play videos, Kickstarter updates, open development, and all the information you could ever want on the internet, it’s easier than ever to be an informed consumer. Enjoy the hype of shiny new and upcoming games, but don’t be blinded by them.