Derailing The Hype Train: What No Man’s Sky Can Teach Us About Gaming Expectations
When No Man’s Sky finally arrived last month, it was the culmination of three years worth of ambitious work from a small team. Led by Sean Murray, the creator of the original concept, the developers at Hello Games toiled to craft an innovative mechanic that would take the possibility for unknown experiences to heights never before achieved in a game. Starting out with a shared universe of over 18 quintillion planets, No Man’s Sky encourages free exploration. Within this, the discoveries made by each player could be totally distinctive and unlike those of any other who’s playing.
Understandably, this was an exciting premise that gathered a lot of attention. All manner of previews and features demonstrated just how excited industry commentators were about No Man’s Sky‘s prospects, and this in turn fed down into the gaming public. Two months ahead of its release the game had amassed hundreds of thousands of pre-orders, representing a huge vote of player confidence for what was deemed to be an “indie” title. Despite a few delays and technical hitches along the way, Sean Murray was working to mediate the studio’s own hype around his game fairly well. However, that didn’t stop its profile getting exponentially bigger. Along with a few unfortunate PR issues, this ultimately led to a troubled first few weeks for the game.
With the hype so spectacularly failing No Man’s Sky, this raises an important question: can such levels of anticipation ever be good?
For a start, it’s worth considering just what it was that players got themselves so excited about. Obviously it was difficult to pinpoint exactly how a game based on procedurally-generated worlds would play out, and it was understandable that Hello Games wanted to maintain at least some air of mystery. In spite of this, however, they took to strong, emphatic statements about what the game would and wouldn’t be able to do. The core of No Man’s Sky was always said to be ostensibly based around four key pillars, which did prove to be true. Exploration, survival, combat and trading were all highlighted during development previews, and comparable games like Journey and Don’t Starve were highlighted appropriately.
However, the controversy on the details of No Man’s Sky‘s “multiplayer” elements was majorly disappointing. Myriad complaints were made about Murray’s conduct when questioned about PvP or MMO elements, and it was easy to see why many fans felt misled. Murray’s suggestions that players could bump into each other in the universe were debunked within the game’s first days by two that did appear on the same planet but couldn’t see each other. We could concede that it’s probably true that the more conventional multiplayer elements may have been aspirational in development. Even so, this is a case where avoiding strong declarations about a work-in-progress could have spared pain on both sides of the aisle.
Trust was placed in the person who knew this game better than anyone, and people ultimately felt betrayed when looking at initial statements versus the finished product. While we can feel aggrieved by this, we still have to consider Murray’s position. If he was optimistic that the development would ultimately yield MMO-esque features, touting these was fair game. When it became clear that this wouldn’t be the case, however, a retraction of the claims would have been appreciated. But could that really be expected? While promising previews are a great tool for encouraging players, we have to remember that Hello Games would ultimately be judged by commercial success. In allowing ourselves to be so easily-led by the man who had so much stake in selling the game, we committed our first cardinal sin.
But, more worryingly, it’s also worth noting that the majority of negative reviews for No Man’s Sky don’t point to this facade as a reason for criticizing it. Forbes explained that the game’s procedurally generated planets are “less gripping in execution” that ever could have been hoped for, while Polygon eulogized that it was underwhelming as its focus means “there’s little to do within it.”
Even with no mention of the multiplayer debacle, No Man’s Sky’s space explorer failed to launch. Despite having clear guidelines around the game’s core exercises and some very thorough demos in pre-release, many were still shocked by the fact that a simple experience was supposed to be supplemented by the uniqueness of the universe around it. No one was expecting Destiny in an endless universe, and yet the gameplay comments suggest otherwise.
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Alongside this, consider that a surprisingly large number of user reviews also ignored Sean Murray’s preamble. A quick scan of Metacritic’s user review pages throw up a few instances where players suggested that they avoided the developer’s interviews in favour of retaining mystery. When the game arrived and it was not what they had hoped it would be, however, a bizarrely harsh turn was taken against it. Various examples demonstrate the game being judged against players’ imaginations, rather than what it actually was. This is dangerous, of course, as the only way to get a game that’s exactly what we want would be to make the thing ourselves.
Whether judging the game’s meagre features for the limitations that we knew it’d have beforehand, or criticizing it in spite of knowing exactly what it was trying to be, this treatment of No Man’s Sky has presented a harmful precedent. Expectation is wonderful for keeping us excited, but it has to be mediated in order to stop it from getting out of control. By either not appreciating the true prospect of Hello Games’ title or by choosing to ignore the pre-release information, many players gave themselves little chance to really appreciate the experience for what it is.
In truth, the experiences we’ve had with Hello Games’ expansive adventure can serve as a cautionary tale for future releases. Cycles of anticipation and hype quickly follow one another in the games industry these days, and it won’t be long before another ambitious title comes along to capture our full attention once again. The pitfalls will be the same as with No Man’s Sky, but we’re better equipped to avoid them now.
To preserve our enjoyment with new games we have to guard ourselves against the potentially misleading word of developers and our own runaway expectations. Remembering that studios may over-egg the potential of their game to build hype is essential to avoid being duped again, but also remember that our imaginative hopes can be just as deceptive. No Man’s Sky has shown us that we’ll never enjoy games for what they eventually prove to be if we spend so long listening to what we’re told they might be, or even on what we hope they could be. A measured approach is required, and it’s certainly more important than ever that this be prominent in our minds.
The hype train has reached its final destination; all change.