Please Buy Our Mediocre Game

No Man’s Sky handled its launch with a cocktail of miscommunication and missed expectations. Its players, drunk on poor PR, naturally took to the internet to vomit up complaints.

What could NMS have achieved if it hadhandled launch communications differently?

Did it leave money on the table?

Case Study: No Man’s Sky and Hype

In terms of numbers, No Man’s Sky is well on its way to a great launch on Steam. Launch week, it had over 200,000 players simultaneously playing it. For Hello Games, a studio of about fifteen people, that number a big deal — and a lot of money. A couple weeks later, the number is now well under 50,000. Still a respectable statistic, but one suggesting a deep decline interest, and which could affect the game’s sales tail. I returned my physical copy of the game, which I’d ordered from Amazon, after reading criticism the game didn’t meet expectations. No Man’s Sky may be an achievement in procedural generation, but with so many entertainment options, it’s hard to justify spending $60 on a game with a 71 score on Metacritic.

To the question of whether the game was misrepresented, this trailer might be more guilty of what it doesn’t say compared to what it does.

The Ratings Dilemma: E = MC

A game’s rating is affected by consumers’ expectations for a studio. In other words, a game from studio that has produced consistently good games will be lower than an identical game from a new studio. Take Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. A mediocre movie to be sure, but deserving of its 66 Metacritic score? I suspect it suffered a hangover from previous, higher scoring Pixar movies.

The Good Dinosaur wasn’t very good, but was it as bad as everyone claimed, or were expectations for a Pixar film at play?

Aside from this hangover effect, a studio has two primary ways to set game expectations: its direct communication and its marketing (E = MC). If you can figure out a reason why the C should be squared, let me know…

A game with good marketing and communication will have very different expectations from one lack one or the other — or both. Worse, if either marketing or communication aren’t in alignment with what’s delivered, you’ll get dissonance between the reality of the game and consumer expectations. Should Pixar come out and say one of its movies won’t live up to your expectations? No. And it might not be a popular opinion, but a game company shouldn’t say this sort of thing about its games.

Marketing a Disappointing Game

Most games aren’t great games. It takes a shit-ton of work, money, and talent to make a great game, and even then a thousand things could go wrong. Was Hello Games wrong for hyping an underwhelming game? Would they have been rewarded for saying “Sorry, folks, but the game might not be as good or as entertaining as you expect.”

Scenario 1: “Sorry, our game is mediocre, but please still buy it.”

In the short term, this message will hurt a game’s sales. In the long term… it will also hurt a game’s sales. What do you gain? Well, if your studio survives the launch, you build credibility with the audience. But you also delivered a bad game, so you’re probably not much better off than if you had chosen…

Scenario 2: “Our game is amazeballs. It’s an RPG-Shooter-Adventure-RTS with Procedural Generation, 1,383 different endings, and interaction options that let you romance or kill any character. And every NPC is voiced by Nathan Fillion.”

You’ll sell more game units. If your game doesn’t live up to expectations, fans will be disappointed. Some may ask for refunds, grumble with their friends, or rant online. But unless the game is truly atrocious — unfinished or riddled with game-breaking bugs — then a majority of the audience will suffer in silence. They’ll play the game, get bored or frustrated, and then move on. The down side? They may never trust your studio or its publisher again, which means you’ll spend more on marketing to win them back on the next game. Still, if the election cycle has shown us anything, people have short memories. A studio can survive a bad launch. After all, Gearbox Software developed Aliens: Colonial Marines, and we still buy their games.

Just Make a Better Game, Dummy

If you know a game is bad, shouldn’t you spend time making it better? A company like Blizzard has this luxury because it’s fat on cash from previous successes. Most companies, though, are victims of the same vampiric forces of every other industry: Count von Cashflow.

This vampire constantly drains your company of cash for silly things like payroll, utilities, rent, and insurance. With long publishing cycles, cashflow is the quality killer. At a certain point in a game’s development lifecycle, its executives and financiers face a choice: spend more money to make the game better or publish it as is. To continue developing a bad game, you need to justify every additional day with an upside in sales. If a studio costs $20,000 per day to keep open, and the studio/publisher see around $20 — $30 revenue from a $60 game, then every day of improvement needs to equate to around 1,000 extra copies of the game sold. (The numbers obviously vary for cheaper games and smaller studios). This kind of upside might be realistic for a studio with a proven track record, but it’s less feasible for a scrappy indie. And at a certain point, every day of improvement will yield diminishing returns on quality.

Complicating the situation is this: If you spend money on marketing instead of improving quality, will you move more units? Why invest in quality when you can just shout more loudly that a game is awesome?

Final Thoughts

As an avid gamer, I condemn games and studios that fail to meet my expectations. As a marketer, I see a more complex picture. We in the game industry are passionate about what we do — more so than almost any other industry. It’s hard to divorce our passion for making something great from the realities of business and marketing. Each game’s situation is different, but at least insofar as No Man’s Sky goes, I find it hard to reprimand Hello Games. It’s unlikely anyone willfully deceived consumers; they did a good job selling the game’s promise, even if it ultimately failed to deliver.

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