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What happens when a heavily hyped game doesn't live up to expectations? Anger. Arguments. Accusations of betrayal on the part of developers, publishers, and game critics.
We saw all of that this year with No Man's Sky, which uncorked a firestorm when it launched in early August. In the run-up to launch, the hype around No Man's Sky was so fervent that Kotaku's Jason Schreier actually received death threats when he broke the news that it had been delayed. Its inability to match that hype was met with pitchforks.
I had the rather unenviable task of reviewing No Man's Sky in this environment. For my part, I had mostly made an effort to ignore the pre-release coverage in an effort to judge it on its own merits. The game I was found was a zen-like experience: a soft, relaxing trip through the stars that I could zone out to for several hours at a time. I wrote, "If [No Man's Sky's] purpose is to put you on a kind of spiritual journey that makes you feel the utter vastness and indifference of the universe, then I think its successful. Cruising through space is a real revelation, as is the moment when you point you nose up and roar out of the atmosphere, then look down and almost feel yourself floating. Sometimes you'll crest a mountain and find yourself just admiring the silhouette of your ship against a setting sun. Its feeling of seamlessness managed to keep me playing long after I had grown tired of its actual game mechanics."
I'll grant that I was probably being too kind to it. The reality of No Man's Sky was that it was boring, repetitive, and often buggy at launch—especially on the PC. The promise of exploring a planet was always better than the reality of actually landing and collecting resources. The interface was an atrocity. Its attempts to deconstruct the familiar critical path of triple-A development could have just as easily been construed as a half-baked attempt to hide the fact that it was an unfinished game with basically nothing below the surface.
Still, I thought it was an interesting, if under-developed, experiment; but in the modern triple-A market, "interesting experiment" is not nearly good enough for a $60 game. The complaints quickly mounted on forums like Reddit, where gifs of comically constructed alien creatures were interspersed with complaints about missing features. One enterprising Redditor compiled a comprehensive list of broken promises that quickly spread throughout the Internet.
The picture that gradually developed was of a small studio being given the resources to make something really special, and getting way ahead of itself. As the backlash widened, developers I knew privately shook their heads and talked about how imperative media training was when promoting a game. In their mind, Hello Games' cardinal sin wasn't in biting off more than they could chew: it was in allowing the messaging to spin completely out of control. It was in getting too excited about the game they were making and promising features that were still on the wishlist.
In the wake of the fallout from No Man's Sky's crash-landing, Hello Games responded by retreated from public view and working furiously working on a free update, which in turn spurred endless speculation about their silence. The subsequent Foundation Update was actually fairly well-received, bringing with it base-building, a new ship type, and a harvesting system. But in many respects, the narrative was already set. It'll take a truly epic turnaround for No Man's Sky to be remembered as anything but a failure.
Lessons learned from No Man's Sky
There are a lot of lessons to take away from No Man's Sky: Truly ambitious games can't be rushed out the door. Bigger isn't always better, especially where procedural generation is concerned. Don't make promises you can't keep or there will be hell to pay.
A lot of observers will say that No Man's Sky actually sold very well, but that's without taking into consideration how steeply sales and concurrent players dropped within a month of the game's launch. More than ever, publishers rely on metrics like long-term engagement over platforms like Reddit, Twitch, and Youtube. In other words, the more successful your game is, the more people talk about it and play it over a long period of time. Suffice it to say, hardly anyone is talking about No Man's Sky these days except in terms of it being a disappointment.
Among risk-averse publishers, the main takeaway from all this is apt to be that it's better to bank on a sure thing like an established property, and that messaging should be controlled as much as possible. Even now, publishers like Bethesda are increasingly relucant to send out early review copies of their biggest games for fear of bad reviews putting a dent in initial sales. The backlash against No Man's Sky will no doubt be used as further justification for publishers to keep a lid on their big-name games.
It will also be that much harder for ambitious games to get funding as publishers focus harder than ever on a handful of established franchises. No Man's Sky was one of the few new console IPs in a season awash in sequels and annual franchises like Gears of War 4, Final Fantasy XV, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1, and Pokemon. It also wasn't your typical shooter or action game. It being a high-profile disappointment will make it harder for such games to break out of the comparatively low-budget indie space.
In the end, we're probably heading in that direction regardless, but No Man's Sky captured people's attention precisely because it was so different from typical triple-A console fare. That it turned out to be a cautionary tale about believing the hype is a real blow to creative and ambitious games in the big-budget space.
That is perhaps the biggest reason that No Man's Sky's disappointment still hurts. This console generation has been all about replacing daring ambition with risk management. Who knows when we'll see its like again.