When the “hype train” derails
The hype train is an intrinsic part of most video games. But what if — like in the case of No Man’s Sky — it goes incredibly wrong?
No Man’s Sky was pitched as an incredibly ambitious game, set in a seemingly infinite, procedurally generated universe. Early marketing videos suggested that it would give each player a different experience, but in a shared world. You could land on a planet and see things left behind by other players. You might stand on the surface of a new world as giant dinosaurs thundered past. You might, it was suggested, even bump into other people in this vast universe. It would be adventurous, exciting and epic.
Then the game came out and the backlash was immediate. The Jimquisition called it “mundane” and “repetitive”. PC PowerPlay called it “broken, shallow and (…) aimless”. The critics were relatively kind though. Players on the other hand, were not. No Man’s Sky currently has a user rating of 2.5 out of 10 on Metacritic for the PC version.
How did this happen?
If you look behind the curtain at the team who conceived, built and marketed No Man’s Sky you’ll see a group of people on a mountain they couldn’t climb.
“It’s being made by a studio that’s only ever made tiny little games about a little man on a motorcycle going off jumps,” says Anthony J. Agnello, Senior Social Editor at GamesRadar+. “There are like 10 full-time employees there, they’ve never made anything of this size, and yet everybody thinks it’s going to be the neon-coloured Star Trek simulator of their dreams. And the reason they thought that is that No Man’s Sky makes its very first appearance during a Sony E3 press conference.”
What other industry is so heavily geared towards marketing that its own award shows are just giant adverts? What other industry has so many press conferences that it’s impossible to keep up?
A game like Grand Theft Auto V can be developed for over 4 years, announced two years before release with minimal marketing and become the fifth biggest-selling game of all time. A game like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, a game in a classic franchise, can be announced a year before release, be worked on by three different developers, and be panned upon release due to glitches and poor gameplay. In both of these examples, the community around the game feeds into the reception, and can have a damaging effect on a game’s recognition.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, is the largest of these press conferences, held every year in Los Angeles. It is, in Agnello’s words: “A long series of commercials, an event itself that is just to get people excited about marketing rather than games themselves. It’s the Superbowl of game commercials.”
Sometimes press conferences like these can make developers do things that have a lasting effect on how people think of their games. For example, take BioShock Infinite, a game which is by no means terrible. In fact, the game has a 93–94 average on Metacritic, and won Game of the Year 2013 awards from 42 different publications. Ryan McCaffrey of IGN called it “a brilliant shooter that nudges the entire genre forward”, Arthur Gies of Polygon said it “lives up to the promise of its legacy”. But its E3 previews clouded how some people saw the game.
At E3 2010 and 2011, its publisher 2K and its developer Irrational Games showcased gameplay demos, one featuring a level called Emporia, which did make it to the final game. What didn’t make it to the final game, however, was either shifted to other sections of the game, or quite simply not there at all. Scripted sequences featuring multiple choices with real consequences for the rest of the game — gone.
One feature shown in the demo was the use of “Tears”, a power of deuteragonist Elizabeth that would reveal a localised parallel universe. In the demo, this power was on a much larger scale and would cause damage to Elizabeth, causing the ending of the game to change due to the main characters’ relationship. The protagonist Booker’s powers were supposed to combine with Elizabeth’s powers — this was also removed. Irrational’s user experience specialist (and at one point lead designer) Bill Gardner told Polygon: “We cut off enough things to make five or six full games.”
Some of the audience didn’t respond well to this. Reddit user Ryl said: “The best description I can come up for it is that it’s like they took a game, pulled it apart into all the pieces, and then built a much smaller game out of them in a fraction of the time... They look the same and sound the same, but what was shipped is just not at all what they were showing off for years.”
This is a problem with the massive lead-in time for games in general. According to The Stanley Parable developer William Pugh: “They must have clearly seen some of these things that they were faking for tech demos… People do that all the time… but it gets people excited.”
No Man’s Sky was in the exact same position. Overpromising is sometimes the video game’s greatest vice. Agnello says: “Over the course of two years, while this game is being made, people’s expectations keep getting ramped up and ramped up and ramped up — not by actual gameplay of the game, not by actually playing it themselves, but a series of commercials. And their expectations of this thing are so inflated by the time it came out that the studio was sued! The UK advertising practices commission [Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)] opened an inquiry against them, and found that they weren’t entirely honest about what they were selling.”
Indeed, the ASA investigated Hello Games at the tail-end of 2016, but unlike what Agnello says, they actually found that the advertising for No Man’s Sky wasn’t misleading at all. The investigation was prompted by complaints about the Steam page which apparently showed gameplay and visual elements not included in the final game. This was a problem that continuously came up following the game’s release.
“The problem for some developers can be anything from arrogance and shortsightedness to just plain old back luck,” says Kieron Casey, community manager of Revolution Studios. “However, as long as the targets you set are achievable and communication is honest, a lot of these circumstances can be avoided.”
But it seems, for Hello Games, that they were. The ASA ruled: “We considered that the overall impression of the ad was consistent with gameplay and the footage provided… and that it did not exaggerate the expected player experience of the game.”
Some people didn’t take too kindly to this. One of the original complainers, AzzerUK, told Eurogamer he emailed the ASA the following: “I feel you… do not wish to take action because it could lead to you having to take action on what is, in fact, a large problem throughout games media and could lead to more work if this opened the floodgates for more people to complain about marketing throughout games advertising in general.”
But let’s step back a minute. Maybe it’s just too much pressure. Maybe studios set out with the best of intentions and ultimately fail because they just can’t possibly fulfil what they promised.
Pugh agrees: “I don’t think the people who make No Man’s Sky lied at any point, but I think that they were sure as hell not realistic… and then you’re in a position where Sean Murray was, where you’ve unwittingly lied to people about what’s going to be in your game and you’ve misrepresented your game.”
Sean Murray, head of Hello Games, basically became a pseudo-head of marketing as well, doing many, many interviews, and becoming the sole voice for No Man’s Sky and its numerous promises — especially due to the lack of gameplay footage. He was the man who promised online multiplayer and much more complex systems than what ended up in the final game. A six-minute compilation of Sean Murray’s “lies” has 222,918 views at the time of writing.
People blame Murray so personally for this that even Sony Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida told Eurogamer: “I understand some of the criticisms especially Sean Murray is getting, because he sounded like he was promising more features in the game from day one. It wasn’t a great PR strategy, because he didn’t have a PR person helping him, and in the end, he is an indie developer.”
So did Murray get lost in his own hype, promising things that he wanted to achieve rather than what he actually could achieve?
Luciano Sgarbi, lead designer on upcoming game Witchmarsh, says: “It’s easy for fans — who don’t always understand the limitations of these systems — to get carried away and expect more than is possible. As a developer, it’s easy to feed into, as one of your main goals is to get people interested in these games we’re working so hard to develop.”
But Agnello disagrees: “I don’t think an early promise of, ‘we want to build these things, yes, we’re aiming for this guy,’ you can’t really be held accountable for that. Even at the highest level of business, all creative acts are tempestuous. So, it’s never going to go directly as planned.”
Another demonstration of this is Mighty №9. The game was meant to be a spiritual successor to the classic Mega Man series, by its original creator Keiji Inafune. It was announced via a campaign on Kickstarter — one of the biggest crowdfunding websites — in 2013, with an original goal of $900k. By the time the campaign had finished, the project had raised over $4m. Before its release, it was praised as “the brightest beacon of hope” by Jose Otero of IGN, Mitchell Saltzman of The Escapist said it “defied [his] expectations in the best kind of way”, and Maxwell McGee of GamesRadar+ said: “If you’ve ever played a Mega Man game, Mighty №9 will feel right at home”.
However, the game turned out to be a terrible disappointment. Graphical downgrades couple with a complete change in art style were some of the most outstanding concerns, and critics ravaged it. Mike Fahey of Kotaku said: “It’s a passable game that’s attempting to use clout it barely has to fill in the rough edges.” Vince Ingentio of IGN said: “Mighty №9 feels much more like a second-rate imposter than a spiritual successor.”
The pressure must’ve got to them. Agnello says: “The audience fervour around this thing kept pushing the Kickstarter stretch goals up and up… and suddenly this developer found themselves in a situation where they told an audience, ‘Oh, if the audience feeds into each other, we’ll release this thing on eleven different platforms at launch. Not one console where we can really just drill down into this thing, eleven.’ And it ended up in a shoddy product.”
Two of those (the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita versions) still haven’t been released, and this all started with a PC version originally. The developer Comcept even had to partner with publisher Deep Silver to release retail versions. This disorganised release plan was coupled with some absolutely horrid marketing — one line in a May 2016 trailer called for players to “make the bad guys cry like an anime fan on prom night”.
This game brings the overpromising issue to the forefront due to its crowdfunding success. “It seems as though fans do become a little bit more invested because they seem themselves as part of the process of the thing coming to be,” says PhD student Tony James. “Without their support, this project would not go to market… that makes backers quite a bit more invested in that final product, especially because they’re being sold on a promise.”
Ultimately, that $4m fund ended up in 60,000 copies for PC, its original platform. The damage was so bad that when Comcept announced another Kickstarter for its project Red Ash: The Indelible Legend, it was $280k short of its goal. “The initial success of projects like Mighty №9… gave a false impression of what crowdfunding really is,” says Agnello, “and it gave a false sense of confidence in developers… to expect no negative repercussions when things don’t go as planned.” It really didn’t go exactly as planned.
No Man’s Sky, while not funded by a Kickstarter, had similar problems to Mighty №9. The developer promised a lot, and the audience invested in those promises. “The sort of fan mania that surrounded No Man’s Sky — I think that amped up the negative effect of the advertising,” says Agnello, “People’s expectations were blown out of proportion not just because of what Hello Games said it was going to be but because of the vortex of people talking to each other on forums and directly engaging with the developer itself on social media.”
Having audience investment in a game is critical if you want to sell it. “If you bring those people together first, especially if we’re talking about the algorithms of Steam now, and about how “hits” are made,” says Pugh, “If you want to be doing this job, and running this kind of thing long-term, you’ve got to think long-term and you need to develop repeat customers, people who are excited about your stuff and you do that by treating your customers well.”
Ben le Roguetel, head of PR at marketing company Indigo Pearl says: “We, as consumers, always look for recommendations from our peers… Now that’s become easier to do and share because of the internet and social media and therefore that community can grow quite quickly.”
That was the beginning of No Man’s Sky’s downfall — the mountain they started climbing was becoming an impossible task. “A huge community sprung up and everyone was so excited about the game that they wanted to hear any news that was coming out,” Pugh says, “That’s why No Man’s Sky got so big, because they promised a whole load of c*** that obviously didn’t make it into the end game, but they promised it.”
Press fed into the problem. The promises that Hello Games made wouldn’t be spread without outlets like IGN and GameSpot pushing them to the masses. Agnello says: “The press… went out of its way to cover No Man’s Sky to serve that need. In the process of that the press ends up reinforcing all of the sort of negative aspects of the hype machine that has gotten people so pumped up about that game, it’s just this ouroboros of excitement.”
Dr Joseph Loporcaro, a professor focusing on video game design and history, offers a summation of the press’s role in the video game industry: “That is where the ideas that germinate and take root about these games come from… Once a certain opinion about a game takes root… it’s tough to overcome that.”
Agnello continues: “At the end of the day, a journalist that writes an editorial about the astounding promise of No Man’s Sky is just as culpable as an enthusiastic fan on Reddit whipping people into a fervour so much that they send death threats to the developer when the game is delayed.”
Yet despite all of these problems and shady practices, Hello Games succeeded. On PS4, No Man’s Sky sold 1.88m copies worldwide, and over 200,000 copies in the UK alone. But the game was critically mauled. While critics respected its ambition, it just wasn’t enough. Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku said: “No Man’s Sky reaches for the sun and comes back with a light bulb.” Philip Kollar of Polygon said: “Its mundanity can’t begin to live up to the potential for awe produced by everything around it.”
Hello Games wasn’t done though. They’ve promised free updates for the game adding new features, possibly including some of the promised ones they’ve failed to deliver. The first major one of these was the Foundation Update in November 2016, which added base-building and Creative and Survival modes. This was followed by the Path Finder Update in March 2017, which added vehicles and a photo mode.
They did little to change the status quo however. Samit Sarkar of Polygon said the Foundation Update “definitely makes No Man’s Sky a better game — just not a different one, at heart.” Philippa Warr of Rock, Paper, Shotgun said: “I also find it fascinating watching what Hello Games actually do as they try to wrangle/prune/curate/repair/upgrade/rework No Man’s Sky post-release. I appreciate that’s not where everyone is at with NMS but it’s been such a singularly weird project.”
So, what needs to change, not just with No Man’s Sky, but the industry in general? Agnello concludes: “Audience dissatisfaction is not a thing that should drive creative decisions. The unfortunate reality is that before something is made, the customer is not always right.”
There’s no one single issue that needs to be stamped out… but something needs to be fixed.