No Man’s Sky — Feature Dreaming

Lately I’ve been giving No Man’s Sky a lot of thought. It’s hard not to when it is constantly appearing on your social media feeds!

For those who haven’t heard, No Man’s Sky is an exploration / survival game recently released for PS4 and PC. Though, unlike most games made by a relatively small team of 15, this one has had years of AAA marketing behind it (thanks to their partnership with Sony). In fact, it seems to have gained the title of “Most Hyped of 2016!”.

The game seems decent enough (even if even not everyone's cup of tea)….so why are the user reviews evenly split between negative and positive? And, more importantly, why have so many customers become genuinely angry?

And this is where things start to get messy…

First, I’ve seen far too many game developers casually dismiss the audience reaction as “entitled gamers that don’t understand the reality of game development”. While comfortable for some, I’m afraid this explanation offers little for other developers to learn from (let alone it’s attempt to wash the industry free of responsibility of a much larger issue).

Then there are those who try to blame Sony (and shockingly, the fans) for the hype built around the game. “How could any game live up to the hype? It was sure to disappoint people no matter what they did!”. Again, while comfortable to excuse the large negative reaction as “can’t please everyone”….it offers little to learn from and does nothing to explain why other popular properties have such different receptions.

Still….perhaps there is more to this “hype theory” if we look a bit closer.

To begin, let’s unpack “hype” and call it what it really is….expectation. Re-framing it like this, we can start to pull at the threads of the situation…and, more importantly, see what went wrong.

Now, this is where things start to get even messier….

Throughout the last couple years of development, Sean from Hello Games (the creators of No Man’s Sky) has given quite a few interviews and shown early material for their upcoming title.

Beginning with the first trailer reveal and later expanded upon in interviews, he spoke openly about his game and what players could expect. Giant snakes, multiplayer interactions, epic space battles and factions….and a wide range of other features (suggested at, shown, or outright confirmed) which fans later discovered actually were absent from the game they purchased. ((Here is a list of missing features compiled by some of the games “hyped” fans))

Basically, for many fans who had been following development (some for years), their expectations did not match the final product. Given the history of official communication about the title…it would be difficult to place blame of this misunderstanding on the customers.

Sadly, some developers have been passing between each other that this just shows the “dangers of talking to customers too soon”. That the problems are caused by fans inability to grasp “the natural ebb and flow of development, features get cut…it is part of game development”. And, while true, features do come and go…I’m afraid it doesn’t explain away responsibility of a developer to update customers to those changes.

When, in reality, many developers DO successfully talk about their games early without angering their fans. This happens (even despite changes to features) because of the developer taking steps to communicate with fans and continually working to adjust expectations to match the product that is being produced.

Though, for Hello Games, one can see their rather apparent lack of enthusiasm for trying to keep fans updated on the state of anticipated features (out of fear it would impact sales?). For example, when Sean was questioned on twitter about the absence of multiplayer capabilities, this was his response….

Far from what I would call an upfront and honest attempt to bring fans expectations in line with the actual product.

Another prime example of this lack of responsibility is seen on the Steam store page for No Man’s Sky. It’s important to note that the first (and 2nd) trailer shown on the page is from 2014, demonstrating some of the features that are no longer in the game. Was this an intentional attempt to mislead customers? Does it really matter? The end result are customers who feel they have been mislead…and, justifiably, feel upset about that.

While marketing and “hype” (expectations) are important aspects to sell a game, it doesn’t give a company a blank check to “feature dream” to media and fans without attempting to later correct the impression they created of their game.

I find it difficult to understand how some believe it is an extreme position to expect a developer to inform customers of highly anticipated feature changes. Or to expect marketing to try and communicate the anticipated game play and experience accurately (instead of choosing to focus more exclusively on lesser, but flashier, portions of the game to build expectations beyond what the game will deliver).

Yes, as a developer it can be daunting to let down fans. When things go wrong, the natural inclination is to stay quiet and hope no one notices. But, in my experience, this only makes things worse (at least in terms of customers view towards you, not necessarily sales? Which is another ethical issue all together). Hopefully we, as an industry, can demand better from ourselves and each other…

The simple reality is when a customer feels cheated, those feelings of mistrust towards developers carry over to all of us. No honest developer wants unhappy customers….and no honest developer tries to shift blame onto those who reasonably feel cheated.