No Man’s Pie in the Sky: How Hello Games Failed to Manage Player Expectations

Gamers are constantly at odds with the publicity generated by the medium. A long history of Molyneuxian backtracking, inaccurate advertisements, and games which have failed to live up to their industriously cultivated pre-release hype has turned plenty of players into shrewd content consumers.

When we see screenshots on a game’s Steam store page, we know that they are probably bullshots. When we watch “gameplay footage” at an E3 stage show, we understand that there’s a chance its just a vertical slice. We even accept that what we’re seeing is probably rendered by a beefy computer hidden back-stage, and isn’t at all representative of how the experience plays out on whichever platform the game is supposedly running on.

In short, we accept the caveat that until we hold a game in our hands, or our digital libraries, much of what we see in its marketing material is likely to be a work in progress — representative of the game’s direction and tone, but by no means a firm marker of the product’s ultimate quality.

Yet, none of this stops gamers from climbing aboard the hype train when a particularly interesting game is announced. The fault is hardly their own; the pre-release marketing cycle for games is, at this point, polished to a mirror shine and is tremendously effective at getting people hysterically excited about upcoming games. Hell, I love when Blizzard puts out cinematic teasers that might as well be titled How to Spend $10,000,000 in Four Minutes and 27 Seconds. I got excited when Valve worked with independent developers to lace a number of games with cryptic clues that, once solved, meant that Portal 2 was launched early (you know, back when Valve still made video games).

When expectations are set appropriately by studios and managed accordingly by players, the pre-release ritual we’ve all come to expect from most game releases can be an enjoyable one to follow. The issue is that many companies don’t do enough to manage the expectations of their players. The most recent example of this comes in the form of No Man’s Sky, a space exploration game developed by Hello Games in Guildford, England.

With No Man’s Sky, Hello Games hasn’t exactly promised the earth — though they have promised 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 procedurally generated planets. A number like that had players believing that No Man’s Sky could last them a lifetime. Now, in the aftermath of a leak that saw a player with early access reach the centre of the game’s galaxy in 30 hours, the reality of the game’s scope has come into focus.

The fact that one player has found a way to beeline to No Man’s Sky’s finish post does not detract from the truth of Hello Game’s statements. There’s no doubt that the game does, in fact, feature 18 quintillion planets. The actual problem is this: by not talking clearly enough about the realities of their game, Hello Games has allowed misinformed hype to grow around their product. While their strategy of saying just enough to drive players’ anticipation into overdrive has surely worked wonders for sales, it’s going to leave a smouldering crater in their reputation once players actually get their hands on the game.

Hardcore followers of the game’s development may have a firm grasp on what to expect of this seemingly humongous game, but the average player is clueless enough to make articles dedicated to explaining what No Man’s Sky actually is very popular.

One, by EuroGamer, asks “So, What Do You Actually Do in No Man’s Sky?” When asked as much in the ensuing interview, Managing Director Sean Murray responds:

“There’s the answer I want to give, and then there’s the one I can’t really say,” Sean replies with an impish smile before, tellingly, embarking on a meandering answer that lasts the best part of five minutes.

Meanwhile, a feature on Rock, Paper, Shotgun semi-seriously laments the game’s upcoming release, because the entire pre-release cycle has been an entertaining exercise in anticipation:

But then, I have those questions. “What do you actually do in No Man’s Sky?” I watch the videos and think: “That shooting looks a bit shat-o, doesn’t it?” and “You have to gather resources to fuel space-jumps; am I just going to be punching differently coloured trees like in all those other games?”
Whatever the answers, No Man’s Sky seems certain to burn out in my affections more quickly when it’s finally here than when it was all just a distant dream in the mind’s of its developers. If only it could have stayed as a shared dream for longer.

The facts that Hello Games ensured all players were cognisant of weren’t related to gameplay, mechanics, or moment-to-moment encounters that might have helped gamers to place the game into some form of reasonable perspective. Rather, the studio released numbers; high-concept factoids that encouraged gamers to fill in the blanks with their own wishful thinking. Their strategy wasn’t to temper expectations, but to let players run amok with wild fantasies of an unending game that could last them several lifetimes.

18 quintillion planets to explore. 585 billion years to uncover them all. How could you ever grow tired of such a wealth of content?

Without even touching the game, I can tell you that procedural generation has its limits when it comes to producing varied experiences, and no game in existence has gameplay compelling enough to keep players invested for a full lifetime, let alone several billion.

Remember when Borderlands was yelling about the “87 bazillion” possible weapons its randomly generated loot system could produce? Remember how, in practice, that meant very little to the flow and cadence of gameplay? No matter how many millions of alien sheep No Man’s Sky is capable of generating, the loop of finding and identifying them is going to remain the same. The window dressing might change, but the experience the game is selling will always be similar. While you could spend the rest of your life roaming from planet to planet, the reality is that each planet is unlikely to offer such significant variance that actually doing so seems like a good idea.

Now, it’s obviously a tall order to ask a game’s marketing team to explain that you will probably eventually get bored of playing. I don’t think anyone expects that level of “real talk” from any studio. But when Hello Games is out there telling players that visiting each planet for just one second would take you 585 billion years to accomplish, the message starts to get a little mixed.

It’s not a lie, and it’s not an inaccuracy. But it is a sideways statement that doesn’t really answer the core question concerning the game’s longevity.

In terms of pre-release hype, these are risky statements. Not because they are untrue, but because they are only technically true and don’t tell the whole story. They’re designed to engender excitement without any appeal to a player’s rationality. They’re the sort of claims that are going to come back to bite the studio once players realise that the procedurally generated nature of the game’s content comes with natural limitations on how different and interesting each planet can be.

The disappointment here is not that No Man’s Sky is — surprise, surprise — a finite game. No, the real shame is that a game that looks to be enjoyable for many reasons has fostered a needless, self-inflicted controversy about scope, of all things. If Hello Games had spent less time rattling off giant numbers and more time offering a realistic explanation of what you do in No Man’s Sky, there wouldn’t be such a shadow of negativity looming over the game’s imminent release.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Cube as an organization.

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