No Man’s Sky and the power of saying “No.”

There have been a lot of articles on No Mans Sky in the month since launch, but I haven’t read anything I completely agree with. I think that’s largely because the game and its marketing are simultaneously great and terrible, and most people have focused on one aspect or the other.

To my mind, articles to date have missed two key points.

  1. Most have focused on whether the PR approach for NMS is good (see Rami Ismail here) or bad (as Ben Kuchera says here). I think both of those perspectives are wrong. because NMS’s PR has included elements of both — which is what makes it an interesting case, and is why people are still talking about it now.
  2. Lots of people are discussing whether the current response from Hello Games (silence) is a good idea, and are asking what they could be doing instead. I’m going to discuss some concrete ways Hello could get past this situation.

I’m not going to try and talk about the merit of NMS as a game here. If you want to read about that, there are many excellent articles. I like Brendan’s notes on No Mans Sky.

I’m going to focus on the marketing, and why a significant part of it was very poorly handled, and also why that’s a bad idea in the current market.

I can’t count the number of times during the Kickstarter or Early Access for Hand of Fate that we were asked about character customisation or multiplayer. The easiest answer to anyone who might buy your game sight unseen is “Maybe? It’s not in now, but we’re trying.” The second easiest answer is simply to ignore the question. The hard answer, at least at the time, is to say “No.” No means that the person might decide not to buy your game. No means that you’re failing to be all things to all people. No drives people away.

Before the game launches, Yes is always an answer that grows your market, and No will always turn somebody away.

During development, and after ship, we’ve said yes to a lot of things, when we determine that they align with the goals we’ve set out to achieve. The best parts of our game come from honing our relationship with players and building on their feedback. At the same time, we’ve had to say “No” a lot more times.

When we were coming to the end of Early Access for Hand of Fate, we were lucky enough to watch Planetary Annihilation go through the process of going from EA to full release first. Despite releasing a game that was damn close to the game they announced way back at the start of their Kickstarter they missed out on providing an Offline mode. That feature got rolled into the a patch a month later. Their audience — at least the vocal parts of their audience, ate them alive for that. What should have been a glorious launch became a lot less glorious, despite them achieving an incredible amount with their backers support — and in many areas delivering above and beyond their initial proposal.

Players consider you talking about a feature to be a promise. Developers talk about features all the time, and sometimes they don’t get into the final game. Nonetheless, it’s important to make sure your public communications only talk about things that have passed that point — where the risk of not delivering is gone. Otherwise you risk being seen to have broken your promise.

Because of Planetary Annihilation, and because we understood No, we took a very gradual approach to moving out of Early Access. With every build, we’d been busy telling people what we were working on. In some cases, that meant saying “No, we haven’t fixed specific issue X or Y, but that’s because this month we’re working on Z.” Through regular (every 4–6 week) releases we built the trust that even if we weren’t dealing with the specific issue in this build, if we said we were going to address it we would.

Finally, we prepared for launch. We did this over the course of three months. First we gave our players a warning that features would lock next month, and the next month we hit lock. The game was feature complete, and from here it was bug fixes and polish. By being utterly clear about what would and wouldn’t be in the game, we managed to reach launch without any misunderstandings about what Hand of Fate would be.

In any case, I think that makes my initial point. Saying “No” to player requests is hard, but necessary during development. Most importantly, “No” sets up a reasonable set of expectations so that you can launch to excitement about what you have done, rather than what you have not.

The counter to that is that marketing is always about selling the dream, not the features. Great marketing campaigns always approach from the position of the player fantasy rather than coming in with a list of features. No Mans Sky captured an amazing player fantasy early on, and sold it incredibly well. From the very first videos, it conjured up free travel and exploration through an infinitely varied universe.

As I said in my intro — there are two marketing campaigns wrapped around each other here. One is a brilliant example of selling the sizzle, not the steak. It sets up a clear fantasy for the player, and allows them to dream of the ways they’ll interact with it. The other is a complete nightmare of saying “Yes,” to every question that arises from that dream, even when those features are not actually at a point where they’re ready to be spoken about (or potentially were planned at all). In some cases, those two approachs are present in exactly the same sentence.

It’s this duality that makes it hard to discuss NMS clearly. Anyone who says the marketing is bad is wrong. Some of the marketing was genius. Anyone who says the marketing was good is wrong. Some of the marketing represents the worst stumble any developer has made this decade.

What next?

It’s no surprise that Hello Games has gone silent post release. Presented with an enormous wave of vitriol, the natural response is to pull ones head in for fear it will get cut off. I’m sure that Sean is thinking “My mouth got me into this, I better not risk it getting me in further.”

That’s not the worst approach by a long shot. There are a lot of reasons that Hello Games should be careful about what they say from this point on. They certainly have the potential to make a bad situation worse, and over time the fire will die down on its own.

Now, if I’d just released a game that had made millions of dollars in profits while also causing a complete shitstorm of PR, I’d use some of that money to get me out of the situation. Hire a hot shot Washington spin doctor and do exactly what they told me to do.

That said, I don’t think the current situation requires a professional in order to achieve a better outcome than Hello Games has managed through silence. People love to watch somebody fall from grace, and the public loves to watch somebody cut down to size, true. They also love a redemption story. Remember Marion Berry, the DC Mayor who was arrested for smoking crack, while his city was caught in the midst of a crack epidemic? He got out of jail, ran for Mayor again and was elected. Public repentance followed by redemption is an even more appealing story than the fall from grace.

How does Hello Games reach the point where this becomes a story of redemption, rather than horror? First they need to clearly own and apologise for the error. Then they need to discuss with the public what they’re doing, and what they’re not. Pull the bandaid off, rather than let people wonder what features are coming in the future (at the moment there’s a laundry list of features that players think have been “promised” — get rid of the speculation. Say no to a bunch of stuff). Then support the hell out of NMS for the next year.

It sounds simple, and in one sense it is. It’s also an incredible amount of work, and if NMS hadn’t made a tonne of money it might not be worthwhile work. Yet the fact remains that NMS does something amazing, and fulfils a unique fantasy even in the state it’s in now. If Hello Games can turn this into a redemption story, they can create something with a long and happy life — and they can have an engaged fanbase for the future.