No Man’s Sky – Who was to blame?

Just like the rest of the internet, I’m going to talk about No Man’s Sky...

More specifically, about the 1.1 update announced today.

1.1, known as the Foundation update, will add two new modes (Creative and Survival) to the main game and will introduce a Base Building feature, while adding features to existing mechanics like farming. Foundation also promises to improve multiple parts of the resource management side of the game, by making resources easier to store, automate and use. The patch list is one of the longest I’ve ever seen.

A recap for anyone who needs it: the pre-release material for No Man’s Sky set 2016’s largest hype-cycle in motion. Every showcased aspect – from its spectacular graphics, to its appearance of a living and shareable world, to the interviews and quotes from Hello Games which never gave specific information about what would or wouldn’t be part of the game – converged to give the impression that NMS would be “all games to all people”. It created a sort of excited vagueness which allowed consumers to expect NMS be amazing while not knowing exactly what it would consist of; a recipe for disappointment.

On release (August 9th, 2016), the game couldn’t live up to expectations. NMS received resoundingly negative reviews from both critics and users. Steam reviews ranged from describing it as “amazing potential which falls short” to “the biggest disappointment of 2016” and “a lying simulator”. Hello Games were even subject to an investigation by the Advertising Standards Agency over whether the differences between the trailers and the finished game amounted to deception.

The Foundation announcement creates two possibilities for NMS. One option is that, just like the base game, 1.1 will not deliver on its promises. The second option is that 1.1 will deliver, and will go some way towards restoring people’s motivation to play NMS. I hope it’s the second option, as Hello Games seem to be naive, not malicious. To me, the problems with NMS weren’t 100% their fault. Instead, the issue seemed like a mixture of:

  • Poor communication and people-pleasing vagueness from Hello Games
  • Publications and websites that uncritically hyped up a game despite barely any information being confirmed.
  • Customers willing to gamble $60 on a brand new IP before release, rather than waiting for demos, gameplay, or even information about what the game would actually contain.

Swap Hello Games for Bungie, and this is reminiscent of the issues with Destiny. After pre-release articles made Destiny out to be a console World of Warcraft,  vanilla Destiny was criticised for not having anywhere near the content and scale promised.When its The Taken King expansion came out a year later, the consensus was that it provided everything missing from vanilla Destiny and added much more depth to the lacklustre story. If Bungie had waited a year and combining vanilla Destiny and The Taken King into one game, that game would have been everything people expected from Destiny, and Bungie would have avoided the negative PR.

Similarly, NMS 1.1 seems to be what NMS 1.0 promised to be. Yet the gap between them, rather than being a year, is just 10 weeks. So why could Hello Games not just have waited 10 weeks and released NMS 1.0 now with all of those features? What could they possibly have gained from releasing 10 weeks early?

I don’t get Hello Games’ logic, and I believe that by rushing into releasing NMS too early they shot themselves in the foot, but I’m also going to defend them. That’s because the last two parts of this equation aren’t the fault of Hello Games, but instead have been a problem within game releases for a while. Every major release this year (and as many last year, and the year before) has had problems. Arguably NMS was  the unfortunate point where these problems built up into critical mass, creating anger from consumers who have experienced this situation multiple times already.

However, thinking of it that way can make NMS seem like an accidental scapegoat for the whole industry. The last year or so has seen Quantum Break dying on arrival, Star Wars Battlefront arriving with so little content that many players left within a month, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 being gutted and graphically downgraded to reach even a bugged release, and every AAA title this year having server issues at launch… given that,  Hello Games should probably be praised for releasing something that was actually playable on launch day. So it raises the question of why a small studio have been condemned and described as scam artists when they have done exactly what EA, Activision, Dice, Robomodo, and others have done all year…

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