Looking Back on 4 Years of No Man’s Sky

Jake Theriault
Aug 10 · 11 min read
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I’ll begin with what I think is probably most important for the sake of this story: I really enjoy, and have always enjoyed No Man’s Sky. But — as is well documented, perhaps more so than nearly any other game in recent history — the No Man’s Sky that released four years ago this month was very different from the No Man’s Sky that was shown off before release.

While I found great enjoyment and relaxation exploring the world of 2016’s No Man’s Sky, I — like many other people — could not help but feel like I was playing an entirely different game than the one shown to the public two years prior.

Now, having spent the last few years interviewing and talking to game developers from all across the game development landscape, I understand that a lot can happen in two years. Things change. Mechanics get altered. The misstep with No Man’s Sky was that we were shown what could have been. I was one of those people who back in 2014 saw the first glimpses of the infinite universe and boarded that hype train for as many parsecs as it might take to get to that universe. That gameplay trailer put questions in my mind that I couldn’t wait to have answered.

And it was this immense player opportunity promised by the 2014 E3 trailer that became the Achilles’ heel for No Man’s Sky developer Hello Games. Everything we saw in the trailer was expected to be in the final release in some form or another. Say what you will about CGI trailers, but perhaps their lack of gameplay can be a good thing — at least from a marketing standpoint. In the case of No Man’s Sky very few of the opportunities, creatures, buildings, ruins, mega space battles presented in the trailers ever manifested themselves in that first version of No Man’s Sky — or at least never manifested themselves in my some 50 hours of playtime with No Man’s Sky 1.0.

Ian recently made a video for Subpixel about hype and fandom, and how it can often be a detriment to established franchises and intellectual properties, but I’d argue that it can often be a detriment to new properties as well — No Man’s Sky being the prime example.

The No Man’s Sky announcement trailer dropped on Youtube on December 8, 2013, and much like the more in-depth E3 trailer, this one showed many things that initially did not make it into the final product. But, people saw the trailer, were enamored by the concept, and began placing their hopes and dreams at the altar of Hello Games. And that’s where the trouble started.

Murray himself, in a 2019 interview with gameindustry.biz, said that looking back on that pre-release period, “we definitely got excited about our game, people got excited, and we talked about it way too early.”

When in May of 2016 Sean Murray announced that the game’s release date was moving from June to August, people lost it, going so far as to send Murray death threats. While continuing work on No Man’s Sky from Hello Games’ offices in the UK, the team was in regular contact with Scotland Yard and Guildford Metropolitan Police, as some death threats escalated to bomb threats against their staff and office. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Murray recalled one death threat having come from a “fan” who — having seen butterflies in the original trailer for No Man’s Sky — had not yet encountered any butterflies in the game, and decided that for that reason Murray be marked for death. And I’ll echo Murray’s sentiment here that, if that’s the kind of thing you’re using as a rationale for threatening to kill someone, maybe you’re the bad guy.

Rushing to get things completed for a delivery date before they’re ready, be they a game, a book, a film, a song, a painting, or any number of other artistic works, more often than not results in a worse version of the final product. I had no qualms with a delay, especially since it wasn’t indefinite. We had another clear date, so we just had to wait another two months. It’s been 2+ years since the first announcement. Two months is fine. And I feel like on the whole the market has made a lot of progress in this regard the past several years. The anger over No Man’s Sky’s delay was something of a zenith for internet anger, at least from where I was standing — perhaps only to be eclipsed by the reactions to Bioware’s Anthem. And more recently, when things like Cyberpunk 2077, DOOM Eternal, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons received delays of their own, I feel like those were much more readily accepted by the gaming community at large. So there are those little graces at least. But such was not the case in 2016.

When No Man’s Sky’s August release finally arrived, the game felt a lot simpler than most people expected. And I can’t blame them. As we’ve already talked about, a lot of the features shown in the trailers were not there. From missing multiplayer to in-flight mechanics to planetary development based on proximity to stars, plenty of features seemed to have been left on the cutting room floor. One that had prominently stuck out to me was the lack of long-necked dinosaurs on my journeys across the stars.

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The space-dino you’re looking at right now did not appear, and even after numerous updates, still has not appeared for me in No Man’s Sky. But this particular image appeared all over the advertisements for No Man’s Sky, even appearing in Murray’s own blog post about the game’s June to August delay. Now I’m a simple customer: if you put dinosaurs and spaceships into one game, I will probably buy it. But, please don’t sell me dinosaurs if you don’t intend to give me dinosaurs. But unlike some others on the internet, I did not take the absence of this particular breed of extraterrestrial creature to be some sort of personal vendetta towards me by Sean Murray.

If anything, it just let me empathize more with the developers. If I was mourning the absence of something in the game, surely they were mourning it even more than I — it was their game after all. Why wouldn’t they be sad they weren’t able to include everything they wanted to at launch?

Now, I can already hear some of you typing, “Well if they wanted it in there, why didn’t they just put it in there?” Even as someone with a near criminally small understanding of game development, it is not that simple.

The minute you put yourself in the shoes of the developers at Hello Games, things begin to look a little different. You’ve been working for years and years on this passion project, and it seems like the whole world is anticipating it with you. Then, at some point there is a realization that there are still some things that need to be smoothed out, so your boss talks to Sony and they agree to delay the release and give you a little more time to work things out. But when this gets revealed to the public, everyone who for the past two years has been cheering you on and supporting your work begins shouting at you through the ether and filling your inbox with death threats. So now you begin frantically working to get the game ready in two months; but at some point you realize you still need more time. From here, you have two options:

  • Release the game, slightly unfinished, and patch in content and features as you can, possibly to the initial discontent of fans but overall enjoyment long term (the Destiny model, if you will) — or
  • Delay the game again and get even more death threats, perhaps even prompting someone to make good on one of them.

In his 2018 interview with The Guardian, Murray said that he would have “chopped off my own arm to have more time [to develop No Man’s Sky]”. But by Murray’s own accounts the studio was near out of money when No Man’s Sky’s new release date finally rolled around, and given the backbreaking work the team had already endured it was decided that No Man’s Sky be released.

Now, four years down the line, we can look back at No Man’s Sky’s post-launch growth and see Hello Games’ hard work come to fruition — but this slew of post-launch content was not immediately promised, or even expected. In the first weeks following No Man’s Sky’s rocky launch, Hello Games was all but silent about any plans to patch in missing content and features — leaving fans and, let’s call them “non-fans” (to avoid the now much meme’d title of “haters”), with only a scattering of patch notes as the primary method of communication between Hello Games and the masses. It would be several months before Hello Games revealed anything about their plans for the continued development of the game, only releasing a handful of bug fixes between the game’s launch and the announcement of their Foundation update in late November of 2016. This first update of many was announced in a rather unceremonious and seemingly solemn blog post on Hello Games’ website. You can almost hear the weariness in the words:

“…our small team has been hard at work on development, testing, and certification for the Foundation Update. It won’t be our biggest update, but it is the start of something. The discussion around No Man’s Sky since release has been intense and dramatic. We have been quiet, but we are listening and focusing on improving the game that our team loves and feels so passionately about. Positive or negative feedback, you have been heard and that will truly help to make this a better game for everyone. This update will be the first small step in a longer journey. We hope you can join us. Thank you, Hello Games”

Now I can totally empathize with people who feel like they were mislead by the marketing campaign of No Man’s Sky. And I can totally empathize with the unfortunate situation that Hello Games found itself in. No one wants to get death threats. If presented with the option of getting death threats or not getting death threats, I think most normal people would choose the second option. However, if this was the reason the game was released in such a dramatically different state than what people were expecting, then shame on the fans. No one deserves to be threatened with death over the delayed release of a game. I mean, can you really find nothing better to do then threaten to end the life of someone who’s just trying to make something for you to enjoy? I’m certain that at the time of No Man’s Sky’s release, Sean Murray was yearning for the patience of Star Citizen fans — excluding those few that have had to sue the developers to get their money back. It’s not a perfect comparison, but I don’t recall hearing people threaten Chris Roberts with death even though Star Citizen is formally unreleased an astounding nine years and $350 million after it first entered development.

The fact of the matter is, now four years down the line No Man’s Sky is still not the game we were presented with years ago. It’s more.

No Man’s Sky has received an incredible amount of major and minor updates since the game’s launch, each bringing more and more to the skeleton of a game that was No Man’s Sky in August of 2016. The Foundation update brought base building, and Path Finder introduced planetary vehicles that could be deployed from said bases. On the first anniversary of the game, Atlas Rises brought a much requested single-player storyline to the procedurally generated universe of No Man’s Sky and finally activated the until then dormant portals that dotted No Man’s Sky’s myriad planets. No Man’s Sky NEXT brought long promised multiplayer to fruition, allowing players to meet with each other, fly with each other, and command their own freighter fleets. The Abyss sent players below the watery surface of No Man’s Sky’s planets with even more story content for No Man’s Sky’s ever expanding quest line. Visions expanded the universe of No Man’s Sky with new biomes and wildlife — adding more variety to the planets players could visit. On No Man’s Sky’s third anniversary, the Beyond update overhauled every previous update to No Man’s Sky in a major way, doubling down on NEXT’s multiplayer functionality, expanding Foundation’s base building options, and refining the missions and story first implemented in Atlas Rises. More recently Synthesis brought a whole mess of frequently requested features into No Man’s Sky, and the Living Ship update added a whole new class of player vessel to No Man’s Sky — and, as I mentioned Destiny earlier in this script — in a very Destiny way.

Much as Bungie has a propensity for sneaking things into their games and allowing players to organically discover them, a la Rise of Iron’s Outbreak Prime or Destiny 2’s Whisper of the Worm — Hello Games slipped living ships into No Man’s Sky without a word. Much like in Destiny, the path to these new ships began with a quest. The clues had been laid out though, as Sean Murray had in the days prior tweeted out a series of enigmatic tweets involving egg emojis, Gordon Ramsay gifs, bizarre craft videos, and biological illustrations, which, in the paradigm of these new organic ships, seem almost too obvious in their intent.

And even since the tastefully teased Living Ship update, No Man’s Sky has gone full Titanfall with the Exo Mech Update — adding even more new content to Hello Games’ ever growing universe. Furthermore, in summer 2020 Hello Games’ added cross-console play to No Man’s Sky, meaning their multiplayer functionality now extended across all systems that can currently run No Man’s Sky; and they launched the Desolation update, allowing players to explore derelict freighters out in deep space.

And this is No Man’s Sky now, four years after its release. A thriving, near fully realized world, that even includes the voice acting of the late Rutger Hauer. I say “near” fully realized because there are still things — archived in a very long, very well researched reddit post about features absent from No Man’s Sky — that have not made it into the game, things like landing your ship on asteroids and flying from star to star without warping. Non-essentials, sure, but things that were at one point or another spoken of as things that would be in the game. So the question becomes, do we care? Or should we care? I’ve called No Man’s Sky a near fully realized world, even though, divorced from it’s marketing campaign, No Man’s Sky is more than a full game. It’s a grand, epic, space adventure that is a joy to play when it’s firing on all cylinders.

If you’re dead set on playing the version of No Man’s Sky that you expected to play in August of 2016, then No Man’s Sky will never be the game you want it to be. But, if you can see No Man’s Sky for what it is, a labor of love from a small and dedicated team of developers, a fully-fleshed universe ready for you to explore, then maybe there’s something there for you to enjoy.

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