No Man’s Sky: Mystery is a Double-Edged Sword

It’s finally happened: No Man’s Sky has been released. All over the world children of all ages are unwrapping digital copies of the game everyone has been waiting for. Well, since the last game everyone had been waiting for at least.

Yes, No Man’s Sky is far from the first video game to get virtually everyone aboard the hype train, but the colorful space-based game is almost unique in how much hype it has generated versus the truly tiny amount of information that would actually come from official sources throughout the development of the game.

When the first teaser trailer for No Man’s Sky dropped in 2013 the focus was almost entirely on the clever technology the game was using, the scale of the environment and the distinctive and beautiful art style and graphics. Even for a teaser, the video clip left audiences with no clear idea about what the actual game was about. All it really did was inject the term “procedural generation” into the mainstream gaming discourse.

Procedurally Sound

The big hook of No Man’s Sky is the use of procedural generation of game assets. Traditionally every aspect of a game’s environment that you see has been deliberately designed and placed by hand. That seemingly random pile of rocks in Skyrim are there because someone, a human being, decided that they should be there.

Procedural generation flips this script and let’s the software build the environment according to general rules or “algorithms”. For example, there may be general rules that tell the software what constitutes a planet, but within those parameters there are an infinite number of possible combinations. Each of which will create a completely unique world.

No Man’s Sky is not the first game to use procedural generation. The earliest example, ironically, is probably the original Elite by David Braben and Ian Bell. This 1984 title jump started the free-form space exploration genre. It would later be followed by games such as Freelancer and the X series. The planets you found while playing Elite were generated by an algorithm, so you never knew what you were going to get.

Since then, plenty of games from various genres have used procedural generation. For example, the Diablo games have use procedural methods to generate dungeon layouts, so that no two instances of the game are the same. Will Wright’s genre-bending game Spore also made extensive use of procedural methods to generate content.

Still, despite the apparent core premise of No Man’s Sky not being all that original, it’s probably the only game to ever put procedural generation so squarely at the center of its design.

Communications Breakdown

In a gaming industry that is almost as risk-averse and sequel-hungry as Hollywood, any high-profile original ideas are going to generate some form of hype. The first teasers and prototype demos at E3 were less like a hype grenade and more like a hype atom bomb.  Interest in the game was white-hot, which meant that people were incredibly hungry for details. Any details at all.

The problem is that a proof of concept tech demo was probably all that Hello Games had at that point. There’s a reason another three years of development was needed before there was an actual game to ship. Unfortunately, Hello Games had done their job too well. What people had seen of No Man’s Sky fired their imaginations. Imaginations that now turned to filling the information void with speculation and expectations.

The Mystery Machine

There’s no way to know how much of the mystery around No Man’s Sky during its development was deliberate or accidental. It makes sense that for a game which mostly consists of “secret sauce”, the developers would be careful not to spoil what they were doing. The problem was that what they had shown to the public was incredibly suggestive.

We see the same sort of thing happen with trailers for movies that are still being shot and are yet to be edited. In fact, those trailers are usually created by a 3rd-party company that specializes in making movie trailers and not by anyone who is actually, you know, working on the movie itself. So we get trailers that suggest a completely different kind of movie to the one we eventually get.

The most recent (and possibly worst) offender is DC’s Suicide Squad. The trailer was a huge hit, suggesting an almost Guardians of the Galaxy alike film with a cool, irreverent style. This was nothing at all like the dark, gritty tone the film was originally meant to have. Unfortunately, thanks to the trailers, that’s what audiences were expecting and felt they were promised. Apparently the studios hastily modified the film to try and fit that mold. The end results, if you listen to most critics, turned out to be an incoherent mess.

First impressions count. Our first introduction to No Man’s Sky had made unintentional promises that a small indie-developer had never planned to make. It suggested something epic, unique and immersive. Without even knowing what type of game this was or what actually playing it would involve, people were already seeing themselves set out into the galaxy. In their minds they were already playing a specific version of No Man’s Sky that may be beyond anyone’s ability to make real.

20/20 Hindsight

In retrospect, what the developers should have done is to clear up the pages of misconceptions people had about the game in comment sections and forums across the Web for everyone to see. All it would have taken was a few short blog posts or Twitter Q&A sessions to help manage the expectations of eager fans.

However, if your tiny indie project has suddenly been gifted with more attention than a celebrity “wardrobe malfunction” and becomes a game with triple-A expectations overnight, you might also be tempted to let the hype machine eat itself alive. No Man’s Sky smashed Hello Games’ previous sales record on pre-orders alone. The game made it into the Steam top seller’s list before it was even released. Before anyone had even played it.

Clearly this was a strategy that had worked very well from a business perspective. People were sold on the idea alone. Sold enough that they would put down $60 for no real reason. After all, digital pre-orders don’t serve much of a function.It’s not as if there’s a limited supply of the game. Anyone could simply wait a few hours for the first reviews and then decide to spend their cash or not.  Like anything though, this strategy has come with a price. No Man’s Sky has the dubious honor of having one of the most harshly divisive fan communities ever seen in a game.

The Sword of Damocles

The extreme levels of pessimism and negativity about No Man’s Sky that existed amongst the hopefulness and excitement is not entirely new. In fact, right now we’re seeing similar things happen with another ambitious space-based game called Star Citizen.

For almost every cult-like No Man’s Sky evangelist, there’s someone who is so deeply suspicious of the game’s supposed promises that they have to make it into a personal crusade.  Between these two poles you’ll find people who had positions all along that continuum, but No Man’s Sky is not a game that generated many people with moderate views.  The interesting thing here is that some of the most negative people started out as the game’s biggest fans. They say that the line between love and hate is a thin one and this is a textbook case of exactly that.

During development No Man’s Sky was like a high school crush that wouldn’t give you the time of day. You can admire them from afar, but you’d have to imagine the details. Just about everyone has had the experience of putting their secret crush on a pedestal only to inevitably find out that they’re only human after all.

When our expectations are violated in this way, we can take it personally in an extreme way. Because the secrecy around the game had twisted expectations so much it was inevitable that quite a few people would become very negative about both the ability of Hello Games to deliver on what they had promised and on what people believed they had promised. This was the price the studio had to pay for the sustained interest the game ultimately enjoyed. 

It also doesn’t help that gamers have been conditioned to be skeptical of overblown promises. Look at Peter Molyneux as a prime example. While he’s been responsible for some of the objectively best (or at least historically significant) games in history, he’s become notorious for crafting amazing conceptual visions and then delivering games that are a watered-down version of it. In the end time, money and technology limits how much an artist can realize what they have in their heads.

The Choice

The bottom line comes down to one question: Was the mysterious approach the right choice? It may turn out that going down this road is a little short-sighted. It’s also pretty risky and we have no shortages of examples to support that view.

Think about Half Life Episode 3 (or just Half Life 3 now, apparently) and the trajectory of hype around that game. Valve is the poster child for the mysterious, uncommunicative game developer. The hype around HL3 has long since soured. Valve, as a rule, says nothing about what they are doing. They won’t even say if anyone is working on the project. The truth is that the firewall approach has turned HL3 into a zero-sum game. If Valve does eventually release it the pent up skepticism and impossible expectations would frame the game extremely negatively. If they never release it, well the result is much the same. The best thing for them to do is probably move on and it seems that’s actually what might have happened.

No Man’s Sky was delayed by a few months and there was a conflicting interpretation of it’s claimed multiplayer features and what actually shipped to customers. If this were an Assassin’s Creed game or any other “normal” AAA release these issues would have been nothing more than annoyances.  Sitting on the mystery powder keg Hello Games had helped create, these two relatively small issues caused serious backlash. Can you imagine if the game had been delayed by a year? That’s not an unlikely outcome, it happens in game development all the time. That sort of delay could have destroyed whatever goodwill remained within the community. By taking this road Hello Games walked a thin and dangerous line. Next time they may not be so lucky.

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