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No Man's Sky: Did the Developers Lie?


This is a controversy that’s about a month old at this point, but is nevertheless still raging in its particular corners of the Internet. No Man’s Sky came out in early August and has been embroiled in a firestorm since then. What’s going on?

The biggest bone of contention has to do with the game’s multiplayer component–or rather, its lack of one. Sean Murray is the head of Hello Games and the creator and designer of No Man’s Sky, and it’s mainly his statements at issue. He implied on multiple occasions that it would at least be possible for players to meet one another should they happen to be on the same planet at the same time. Murray rated this as extremely unlikely, given the game’s 18 quintillion planets. Nevertheless, when players attempted to meet up with each other on the same planet… they couldn’t. They didn’t encounter each other at all.

It’s worth pointing out that the game’s actual descriptive tags make clear that the game is single-player. There had not been much talk about the game having multiplayer functionality since summer of last year. What seems to have happened, then, is that many players based their expectations of the game on the sum total of details trickled out over the course of development, rather than waiting to see what final form the game actually took.

The end result has been a highly-publicized rash of refunds, including from some retailers who normally don’t offer them. That’s bad news for the game’s reputation and longevity, no matter how you slice it.

Does that mean Sean Murray lied, though? Lies obviously require intent to deceive, and there’s not much evidence of that. It’s entirely possible that a “mingleplayer” experience in which you might encounter other players was originally intended but was ultimately cut for time or expense (or both). Putting together what is now known, this seems to be the most likely scenario, and perhaps the developers realized only too late that they would have to cut this feature.

There have been lists of other features that supposedly didn’t make it into the game which then turned out to have been in place after all. This brings up an interesting albeit likely tangential question: can a game legitimately be considered to have a feature if only a small minority of players are likely to ever experience it? This is an obvious hazard of a game where the universe is procedurally generated and where events are assigned on an essentially random basis. But there are also games where, for instance, players may acquire pieces of a set of equipment, and where it would be an incredibly time investment–dozens or even hundreds of hours–to acquire the entire set. Does that mean the equipment sets feature is missing, unfulfilled, or otherwise deceptive? I don’t think so.

The real problems with the game’s launch appear to come down to issues that were totally expected and predictable under the circumstances:

  * The game was hotly anticipated due the early fan attention it received. Many games receive little or no attention until shortly before release, allowing little time for expectations to grow.
  * Because the game was hotly anticipated, expectations were unreasonably high. No game could fulfill everything people wanted from it.
  * Hello Games is a new, young company with apparently no dedicated public relations or press management staff, so there was no coordinated management of its pre-release messaging.
  * This particular _type_ of game is notorious for setting expectations sky-high. Compare with a game like _Star Citizen_, which has raked in tremendous amounts of money on the mere _promise_ of a large, open-universe game. _Star Citizen_ won't be able to deliver on its promises, either. Fans of this type of game typically project their fantasies onto it and then come away disappointed when the game fails to live up. This has been happening since at least the _[Battlecruiser 3000 AD]( fiasco.

Is No Man’s Sky a good game, then? I don’t know. I haven’t played it yet, although I’m sure I will at some point. People I know whose opinions I trust have varied quite a bit. The consensus, to the extent there is one, seems to be that those who are looking for a relaxing experience, jumping from planet to planet at a steady rate, would enjoy this game. It’s not terribly complex and its most innovative aspect is perhaps its planet generator, which produces a variety of planets and beautiful vistas that keep players going.

The gameplay, on the other hand, looks to be a bit thin, with some questionable choices in terms of the user interface and game mechanics. If one is willing to look past those shortcomings, there’s a pleasant experience to be had. People looking for a more hardcore simulation along the lines of Elite: Dangerous or even an EVE Online will be left wanting. This game is more casual, to use a word that’s often turned into a slur when it comes to video games (but definitely not intended negatively here).

Ideally, potential game buyers would do more research before buying a game, and distinguish pre-release marketing material from concrete information about the game’s actual launch-day capabilities. Of course, that’s just as likely as me winning the lottery tomorrow. Game developers and publishers, too, should be a bit more careful about how they present their games in the course of development. Talking about features that ultimately don’t make it into the game is commonplace–features get dropped all the time due to cost, complexity, or release pressures. It usually doesn’t explode into a scandal at launch wherein developers are accused of lying or deceiving their customers.

In the case of No Man’s Sky, Hello Games poorly managed expectations and wasn’t clear enough that the game wouldn’t have multiplayer features. I suppose they’ve learned this lesson quite harshly, now.