Did hype ruin ‘No Man’s Sky’?

Generating excitement about a new IP is an uphill battle at the best of times. Especially for a small design group without a large body of previous work to springboard off of. Sure, when Bethesda releases a new Fallout title, everyone is going to know about it but for a lot of other companies (some not too much smaller) there are a billion games out there and a billion more coming out. What’s really there to separate your game from the thousands of others that are like it or even kind of like it? And what happens if you get all the attention you wanted… and then some?

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In a lot of cases, the answer to that question is a matter of getting the word out as well as showcasing what is interesting about the title. The recently released indie title No Man’s Sky did a fantastic job on both of those fronts when it was announced in 2013. For the uninitiated, No Man’s Sky is a first-person science fiction game that puts the player in the position of an intrepid space explorer in the largest procedurally generated environment ever created to date. However, it’s not just the locations that are created algorithmically; the plants, animals, landscapes, NPC locations, and galaxy map itself are all generated procedurally. With your own personal starship, you can travel from planet surfaces to the stars themselves, exploring the galaxy and making discoveries that no one else in the game has made. Even with the developer coming from relative obscurity, the promise of an essentially endless galaxy full of strange wonders to find and catalogue proved to generate an insane amount of buzz about the game and where there is buzz, there’s bound to be hype.

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The level of excitement and anticipation for this game was off the charts. A combination of clever marketing, word of mouth, and a focus on the game’s unique technological achievements had everyone in the gaming community keeping an eye on it. Even I was waiting for this one to come out back in 2014. It’s hard not to see how the game’s thesis is almost universally appealing to anyone who has ever looked up at the stars and wondered. It taps into the childlike joy and curiosity that lives inside of us all. It explores a concept that makes many of us excited without even trying. All that interest was bound to generate press, which generates more interest, which hopefully generates sales when the game is to ship, and all of that translates to a good thing. Right?

If you’re looking at sales, yes. Although all the hype does come at a cost. With enough people looking at a title, there’s bound to be a disparity between what the game is expected to be and what the game is. After a certain threshold is crossed, the developer begins to lose the ability to dictate how their game is perceived. It becomes subject to the excitement of the players to be. People begin to scrutinize every statement closely, to pick apart interviews, and it’s not long before cracks are found. In No Man’s Sky‘s case, people began to wonder whether it was even possible for a studio to live up to the insane amount of hype that had cropped up, and with every delay of the game worries arose but the hype stayed. By the time Sean Murray, director of Hello Games, attempted to steer away from the path of previous overhyped titles (think SPORE) and to clarify about the nature of the game in order to cull the gigantic expectations set for it, it was too late. The internet had done its work and the game was destined to be released under the intense scrutiny afforded to those things that we as consumers are so sure we are going to love.

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Fast forward to the present day where people are literally arguing for refunds for No Man’s Sky. The game released to mixed critical reception, with most reviewers giving it an average to low score overall, praising its technical and conceptual side but not the gameplay. Which, from what I’ve played of the game so far, seems to be pretty accurate. I’ll say that I’m enjoying it well enough, and conceptually it still is incredibly interesting as a thought piece and tech demo for what procedural generation can do. However, it is far from the expectations of the internet at large and definitely not a game for everyone, regardless of the universal appeal that it seemed to effortlessly garner back when it was a concept, not a product players spent $60 on. The comment section of almost every trailer for the game are populated with users complaining of buyers remorse and betrayal, hearkening back to 2014 gameplay videos for ‘the game that this was supposed to be.’ My question is why did this happen and how much of it is misrepresentation rather than misinterpretation?

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It goes without saying, that even with the criticism this game has received since its release, it is doubtlessly a technological marvel and a feat of creative programming almost unparalleled. I can’t even for a moment pretend to fully grasp the algorithms at play beneath the skin of this game, but the simple fact that it even works at all is amazing. So its almost unsurprising that a game of this scope finds most of its shortcomings in the smaller interactions. I feel like where the big issue lies for No Man’s Sky is in focus affords for both the big and small pictures respectively. What audiences get when looking at a game trailer or from an interview about the game is the big picture, the broad strokes. Even if those things showcase the minutia of practical gameplay, it is intrinsically different from actually getting your hands on the game for an hour or two. No Man’s Sky conceptually is an exciting big picture idea. It’s ambitious, it’s grand, and it taps into multiple desires and fantasies that are universal to most people (curiosity, ingenuity, courageousness, and scale). Painting these large ideas is where the game excels, and where much of the work seems to have been focused. The algorithms used are focused on the LARGEST amount of diversity and the HIGHEST number of different experience. It’s not too crazy to imagine that all of this emphasis on the grand and on galaxy sized variation left some of the smaller things on the back burner. Player interaction with the world, practical mechanics, and engaging moment by moment gameplay are somewhat overshadowed by this huge agenda. It feels that there much reliance on emergent factors to fill in any blanks that may be left to fill the void, but the problem with No Man’s Sky is that the big picture doesn’t always make up for the small. Interaction within the game world becomes repetitive and, for a lot of people, the endless variation quickly becomes endless variation on a theme. The simple fact of the matter is that your mileage may vary with No Man’s Sky. Hype certainly played a part in how the game was and is perceived but to say that the game’s shortcomings are based in the interest surrounding it would be naive. Your enjoyment of the game seems to mostly depend on how enthralled you are with the big picture it presents, and how much of the small picture you’re willing to forgive based on that.

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No Man’s Sky is a success, from a financial standpoint, which means that it will likely continue to receive support and that Hello Games will continue to produce content in the future, learning from their mistakes and improving as they move forward. However, No Man’s Sky is always going to remain a polarized moment in gaming. Some people feel wronged by this game, and in their eyes deserve compensation for the betrayal. Others just think it’s a pretty fun game with a really cool concept. No matter how divisive opinions are on the work itself, it is undeniably a massive cultural example of taking something and running with it, and an insight into how marketing and external hype can boil down a concept to the detriment of both the content creator and it’s audience. What do you think? Did No Man’s Sky ever have a chance of delivering, or did you feel misled by the game’s marketing? Is it possible for the community to get too hyped about a game? Feel free to hash it out in the comments section (stay civil, please) and as always, good gaming!

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