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Back from the abyss: The story of No Man’s Sky’s death – and resurrection

No Man’s Sky was one of the most anticipated games of all time. Then it crashed and burned on launch, abandoned and even hated by players. 

This is the story of what happened next.

No Man’s Sky was doomed from the start.

Touted as the biggest game of all time – a space-based exploration title in which players could make their mark on a near-infinite universe – No Man’s Sky was never going to meet the near-infinite expectations placed upon it. I wrote about how this was going to happen prior to launch, but I never expected the scale and complexity that the backlash against the game would take.

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Most gaming failures are marked by lacklustre sales of a new title, or the collapse of a huge studio, but No Man’s Sky did very well in terms of units sold. The sheer hype drove huge sales, despite early leaks and a steady trickle of lacklustre reviews. The independently developed game was the second-biggest PlayStation 4 launch of all time. It sold millions of units across PS4 and PC. These sort of figures would probably have made the staff of developer Hello Games – all 14 or so of them, at the time – instant millionaires.

After the launch, though, things started to slow. The Steam concurrent player count dropped precipitously, even as the number of negative reviews rose. It turns out that No Man’s Sky just wasn’t that good.

Games get their hook, their crunchiness, from a complex lattice of systems that produce what is called gameplay. It’s hard to define good gameplay, but like obscenity, you know it when you see it. And the good gameplay in No Man’s Sky was mostly at the start of things. It didn’t last. I played it for an entire day on launch, and for many hours afterwards, but after not all that long I felt I’d seen all there was to see. I wasn’t even far into my journey to the fabled Galactic Centre or whatever it was. After getting literally lost in space, I was bored. I stopped playing shortly afterwards. Progress in NMS requires hard grinding, and I hate games that make me grind – life’s just too short.  After a week or so I packed up my copy, with a feeling of disappointment, and moved on to other things.

Lots of other people didn’t.

Hype is energy, and it turns out it can be created, but not destroyed. It just changes form. In this case, it turned into a mighty pillar of salt. At the risk of editorialising, far too many gamers are spoiled, entitled brats, and of these lots love a witch-hunt more than they’ve ever liked playing a game. In No Man’s Sky’s paucity of gameplay and promised features, they found ample fuel for fury.

The subreddit r/nomansskythegame, which only days before launch had been dedicated to painstaking analysis of streams from gamers who had received leaked copies of the game, began to host numerous threads consisting mostly of questions from aggrieved gamers who felt that No Man’s Sky was not all that was promised. Despite being notorious for speaking as vaguely as possible about what the game would actually entail, lead developer Sean Murray’s every definitive (or even suggestive) statement about the game was picked apart and systematically debunked. Planets didn’t rotate. Moons didn’t orbit. Suns weren’t real. You couldn’t crash your ship. You couldn’t just fly to a new star system; you had to warp. The starships all looked different, but handled all the same. The list goes on. Most crucially, though, players in the same place couldn’t see each other. This feature had seemingly been confirmed multiple times in interviews, and it was one that would-be players were very attached to. This, and a series of vague, unhelpful tweets from Sean Murray about the vanished feature, made people feel like they’d been lied to.

On r/nomansskythegame, drama reigned. New posts appeared regularly, mostly mocking Hello Games and Sean Murray. Some were very funny. Others were crueler, like being (temporarily) added to Wikipedia’s list of worst-received games of all time. Moderators quit. There was all the usual awful stuff Internet discourse is lousy with, up to and including death threats. Hello Games’ Twitter account was hacked – either by an outside agent or a disgruntled employee; it’s hard to tell which. The message the hackers posted was succinct and pointed.

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As the drama continued, the most notable thing became The Silence. After a flurry of public activity around launch, all of No Man’s Sky’s developers went completely to ground. They didn’t answer questions from fans or the gaming press. Apart from patch notes (loosely coordinated with the actual patches) no-one heard anything from them. This only fanned the flames of a truly epic shitstorm.

It was hard to look away. I felt a fair bit of sympathy for the developers. They’d tried hard to make something and it hadn’t lived up to impossible expectations. But it’s hard to argue that the backlash against No Man’s Sky was unsubstantiated. Even after a massive day-one patch, the game felt undeniably unfinished. There was fun to be had, but the final product didn’t even approach the wonder stirred by the game’s first or subsequent trailers.

What had actually happened to the game? The devs weren’t talking, so people filled the silence with noise. Out of the conspiracy theories and aimless fury a plausible theme emerged: the game, as it was being developed, was simply too ambitious. (The alternative is that they developers were outright lying, which I doubt, if only because it’s much less plausible than their ambition simply exceeding their reach.) Unable to implement all the features they wanted before launch, Hello Games were forced to cut hard. Planetary rotation and orbital mechanics went, replaced by static skyboxes. Factions were cut. Procedural story elements: gone. Hello Games hacked and pruned until they got to the core of their vision for the game and – unable to weather another delay – they released an unfinished version of it.

In the tech world, this sort of thing happens all the time, but a very different way. In startup parlance it’s called a minimum viable product, or MVP. The idea is you get something to market ASAP and build on it. It’s the philosophy behind Early Access, which sees games released on Steam in a very raw state. From humble beginnings, they can pick up a following and the developers can react to feedback. It’s far from perfect, and there are some very notable failures and even a few outright scams, but when it works, it works very well. And after three years of waiting and hype, an Early Access game was about all that No Man’s Sky amounted to. A full-priced minimum viable product; a contradiction in terms. No wonder people were annoyed. It was like ordering a bike in the mail only to receive a set of handlebars and the suggestion that some wheels might be coming later.

December, 90 days after launch.

The No Man’s Sky fanbase had lost all hope. Very few people were playing it, and the game’s online communities were being eaten alive by their own trolls, conspiracies and in-jokes. After briefly deciding to change topics (from No Man’s Sky to Mr. Robot) the best content anyone had produced in months for r/nomansskythegame was a fundraiser to help fight cancer, based around how many days it had been since Sean Murray last tweeted. It was popularly thought that Hello Games had taken the money and run, and no-one in the community was really talking about the game. Why would they? It didn’t seem like there was going to be any more game to talk about.

Then the silence was broken.

Hello Games announced (and nearly simultaneously released) what they called the Foundation Update. It fixed a host of the game’s most pressing problems, reworking terrain generation and space combat, as well as allowing players to build home bases and pilot enormous space freighters.

The turnaround was astonishing. Within a day of the update going live, r/nomansskythegame was filled with videos and screenshots of the new gameplay in action, as well as posts praising the update. The game even saw a bump in sales, appearing (briefly) back in Steam bestseller lists

Credit: Redditor u/ivXtreme

I started playing again too, and found myself having an unexpectedly good time. There were sublime moments to be had, many only possible after the update; the grass of an alien planet stirred by storm winds; getting lost in a dark series of canyons, suit power all but spent; fighting space pirates and losing, only to be saved by the last-minute intervention of new allies.

While the game was certainly improved, I wondered at the extent of the community’s about-face. No Man’s Sky had been crucified and was all but dead – only to rise again three months later, to rapture from its doubting acolytes. How could this be?

With hindsight, it’s hard to see the Silence as anything but a clever tactic. After so many words expounding what No Man’s Sky might be during its protracted development, only for the reality to fall far short, the community had lost faith. Hello Games clearly decided that deeds, not words, would be the focus for their update. The Silence finally killed the hype, and reset anticipation to zero. From this foundation, the developers could rebuild – and even start talking again.

I also think that having a home base added something crucial to the game that had always been missing. Infinity is flat and boring. Scale needs context. To feel small, you first need a place to stand and look up at the endless sky. Base-building gave players that. Survival mode, too, gave weight and meaning to elements of the game that had before been pointless, like harsh environments and space battles.

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For all the changes, the game remains the same in many key aspects. The galactic centre is still a chimera. The inventory system is still a pain. The game still doesn’t truly provide gameplay like those glorious E3 trailers. And you still, still, can’t crash your ship when you’re flying over a planet.

The most fundamental of hinted-at features is also missing. You can’t see other players. Apart from glimpsing the discoveries of others, you travel the galaxy alone. But there’s been a small change in that regard. In No Man’s Sky’s new building system, you can now create communications terminals. You can leave them wherever you like, with a short message for another explorer. It’s a small but meaningful nod to the most powerful unrealised dream of No Man’s Sky; that loneliness is only possible, and solitude only powerful, when the potential for contact exists. If you could see other players in No Man’s Sky, it would add another dimension to the flat plane of infinity, another reason to play.

Maybe you’ll be able to soon. The hype is gone, and good riddance to it. Instead we have a known quantity: a flawed but fun game, with the developers communicating and more content coming. And that’s infinitely better.

 


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