No Man’s Sky, and the Dos and Don’ts of Communication

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The entire team at Hello Games, celebrating No Man’s Sky going gold.

Over the course of three years, Theory of Gaming has published numerous articles outlining the various ways we would like to see change in the industry. From developers embracing new technology and asymmetrical gameplay, to letting players break their games and developers taking ownership over their games. I’ve seen a few games here and there address these topics, but the complete change of the industry, moving toward one that is much more fluid and collaborative with fans than other mediums, is one I didn’t expect to see for quite some time. Incremental steps, not giant leaps.

Then No Man’s Sky came along, and dragged all of these conversations to the forefront, whether it intended to or not. How much should we respect the developer’s vision? How much say should the gaming community have in the direction the game takes? Are games ever finished? Should gamers praise No Man’s Sky for it’s style over substance approach, or should they demand more traditional game design?

I cannot think of a game that has so aggressively touched a nerve with the collective gaming world, both during pre- and post-release, than No Man’s Sky. Reactions range from absolute hatred of the game, calling for developer Hello Games to be sued, to praise and acclaim befitting of a game of the year contender. Regardless of where players fall on this spectrum, there is no denying that the ideas behind No Man’s Sky resonated with a large audience. For that reason alone, the game is worth some additional scrutiny, in addition to our official review. Although I personally love the game in its current state, I can’t help but agree with those who are angry at the perceived lies told by Hello Games during development – No Man’s Sky seems capable of so much more, and like others I have my own thoughts and ideas I’d like to see implemented into the game.

That said, where the real lessons of No Man’s Sky come from are the ways in which the title was marketed, and how everyone, from publishers to developers down to journalists and fans, reacted. The release of No Man’s Sky held up a mirror to the gaming industry, and what we’ve seen in that reflection is something that should worry all of us.

Silence Is Deadly

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The amount of communication from Hello Games is similar to the amount of intelligent life on this planet.

A quick recap for those who didn’t follow the development of No Man’s Sky, or are unaware of the ongoing controversy:

During its two year development, Hello Game’s co-founder, Sean Murray, did what many developers do when working on a new game – he showed the game off to anyone who would listen. And given the bold proclamations he was making, many people were willing to listen. As a result, the game attracted the attention of many gamers and journalists, and even the attention of Sony, who offered to help promote the title if Hello Games would make a version for the Playstation 4. After some delays, a launch date of August 9, 2016 was officially announced. But before the game released there were problems. Approximately one week before launch, a fan purchased a copy of the game off of eBay for $1,300, and his reactions to the title were mixed. Many features Hello Games promoted were not in the game, and what was there seemed buggy and rushed, certainly not ready for the attention a major release garners. Hello Games assured fans that there would be a massive day one patch including new features and refined mechanics. When fans finally got ahold of their copies on August 9, there was indeed a giant patch waiting for them, but even after it installed many features that were promised during development simply weren’t in the game.

This is where we currently find ourselves – with an ambitious independent title promoted as if it were a AAA game, lacking a lot of the content that was promised, filled with bugs and glitches that made the game unplayable for some. Now, an internet-sized angry mob has grabbed their pitchforks, ready to bash this game at any chance they can get, and to make matters worse, Hello Games is doing the polar opposite of what they did during development – staying silent.

Before addressing the hype generated during development, or the reaction to the title, both positive and negative, this needs to be said – Hello Games is making a huge mistake by staying silent on this issue. Yes, many of the mechanics they promised are not in the game, and fans, even those that like the game, have a right to ask – what happened? Where did these features go? By not even acknowledging these questions, Hello Games is killing their own project before it can find an audience.

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With a broken tracking system and no communication from developer Niantic, players abandoned Pokemon Go.

This lack of communication is, to put it mildly, extremely frustrating, especially when considering that this exact same scenario played out very recently for another developer with disastrous results. Niantic, the developer of Pokemon Go, began removing features from their game and blocking third party websites that enabled players to track Pokemon, since the tracker included in the game was broken. Niantic did all of this but never issued a statement or press release announcing the changes, let alone why they made them. The result – fans have left the game in droves, leaving it with an uncertain future. Niantic eventually began communicating with fans, but by that point it was too late. Fed up with a lack of communication, many fans have simply abandoned the game, moving on to something else.

To see Hello Games make the exact same mistake, not even a full month later, is mind-boggling. To clarify – I’m not suggesting that Hello Games immediately have all of the answers, and lay them out for fans the second there is a problem. What I’m suggesting is developers need to take note of their mistake, at least acknowledge the issues, and assure the fans they are being addressed. Instead of doing that, Sean Murray sent out a series of tweets, which have been routinely mocked by gamers across the internet, when it was confirmed that players could not meet up with each other, a feature which had been consistently confirmed by the developers as being part of the game:

Instead of directly coming out and addressing the inability of players to meet, a feature which was promised time and time again, Murray instead boasts about how many people are playing the game, and then goes radio silent. Since that series of tweets on August 10, Murray has sent out tweets promoting the PC release, assuring people that fixes were “incoming,” and then as of August 18, hasn’t sent out a single communication.

This is the worst possible time to remain silent – as others have noted, the lack of communication is allowing the growing hatred online to dictate the story of No Man’s Sky. The title has been a financial success, and I would argue a successful piece of art, but there are problems that need to be addressed, and when a developer’s only communication is to boast about how awesome and amazing it is that so many people are playing his game, the resulting backlash should not come as a shock. Making this lack of communication even more puzzling is the insane amount of pre-release communication fans received, which is responsible for leading us to this moment in the first place.

Controlling The Hype

On October 2, 2015, Sean Murray showed off No Man’s Sky on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

There’s a part of me that, even today, is amazed that this interview took place. I may not be old, but I’m old enough to remember when people thought it was ridiculous to see commercials on TV for Halo 2, to hear people in a movie theater laugh when a trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time played before a film, and when people mocked gamers past the age of 10 for playing with “kids toys.” To see a late night talk show, hosted by one of America’s most treasured and respected hosts, take a significant amount of time to show off any video game, let alone an indie game, is a testament to how far the industry has come, that video games are now an important part of pop culture.

This, of course, means that video games are subject to the same ridiculous levels of hype seen in other mediums, such as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and when that hype isn’t met, the ensuing backlash can be too much for anyone to handle. This is the first mistake Hello Games, and to an extent Sony, made with this game – the pre-release hype was on par with AAA blockbuster titles, which misled people into thinking No Man’s Sky was anything other than what it turned out to be.

We’ve seen this happen too many times to call this a fluke – recent examples include Destiny and The Division, and that’s just a couple games from this generation alone. The previous generation saw Aliens: Colonial Marines and Duke Nukem Forever launch to massive levels of excitement, only to land with a thud. Over-hyping a game is a real threat to both the game and the developer, and the recurring thread throughout all of these games is that they featured a developer who talked too much and promised more than they could deliver. In a way I can understand where developers are coming from – they’re working on these games day in and day out, and they grow a strong attachment to them. They become proud of them, and rightfully so, and naturally they want to share that excitement. But development is, to put it mildly, a tricky process, and an amazing feature that is in the game one day may need to be removed completely because it’s causing a whole host of issues that render the game unplayable.

This is why I strongly support developers like Bethesda Softworks, who waited to announce Fallout 4 a mere four months before it was released. Yes, fans knew that Bethesda was working on a new Fallout, but the team stayed silent, right up until they had a near final build of the game to show off. When they showed it off, they let two people do the talking – Todd Howard, the director of Fallout 4 (and nearly every other Bethesda title), and Pete Hines, vice president of Bethesda Softworks and head of public relations and marketing. In other words – the messaging was handled by two top-level employees, who made sure to only talk about the game in concrete details, ones that internally had been confirmed to be in the title.

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The infamous ad that signaled the decline of Ion Storm and famed developer John Romero.

Unfortunately, this approach to pre-release marketing is seen as bold and innovative, despite countless examples of developers doing exactly what Hello Games did and failing to deliver. The most infamous offenders are the John Romero-led Daikatana, developed by Ion Storm, and Fable, developed by Lionhead Studios and designed by Peter Molyneux. In both instances, developers overhyped their games by making bold claims (such as the infamous “John Romero is about to make you his bitch” ad campaign that Ion Storm thought was a good idea), to showing off game-defining features that never saw the light of day (such as having children and playing as them if the player character died – a feature never seen in any Fable game). To say that the reputations of Romero and Molyneux took a hit after the release of these games would be an understatement – Romero has laid low following the release and failure of Daikatana, and Molyneux’s most recent game, Godus, is mired in controversy, seemingly the most dependable feature of any of his games.

Despite the rest of the industry starting to take note of these mistakes, and realizing the benefits of waiting to discuss a game (especially you, BioWare, who is remaining silent on the new Mass Effect, a game that could easily be overhyped in an instant), Hello Games chose to go down the same route as John Romero and Peter Molyneux. This is why it’s crucial to not talk about games until a final build is nearly complete, but to also let a community manager or public relations expert discuss them. In the case of No Man’s Sky, the lack of a community manager should be placed at the feet of Sony, who were quick to help over-hype the game but not to support it in any meaningful way. It was immediately apparent that, despite his passion for the project, Sean Murray should not be the public face representing No Man’s Sky, yet Sony didn’t bother to help the 15-person team out by hiring them a seasoned professional to handle all media inquiries. Which is crazy, because Sony’s reputation is on the line here as well – we’ve already called their strategy regarding the upcoming Shenmue game into question, and the similarities between the two projects are eerie. Sony seems content to let small developers do all of the work, especially the work of a publisher, and in the process gain loyalty and brand recognition with gamers by putting their name on the project. But when too many of these titles fail to deliver, both publishers and gamers will become skeptical of Sony, much in the same way everyone is of Peter Molyneux.

The Role Of Journalists And Fans

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The ideas behind No Man’s Sky struck a chord with fans and journalists, bringing a lot of passion and vitriol to the conversation.

If anything, history has taught me to tread lightly on the subject of fan expectations with No Man’s Sky – after all, journalists reporting on one of the game’s delays received death threats, simply for doing their job. I’m not a big fan of death threats myself, but I feel compelled to discuss the reaction to this game, from both the press and fans alike, because it highlights an issue the industry still hasn’t solved – how we talk about video games.

Again, I want to reiterate that fans have every right to ask Hello Games about all of the features that were promised and then cut, and fans have every right to be upset that Hello Games cut these features and isn’t communicating or addressing concerns. I love No Man’s Sky, and I still feel frustration over the lack of communication and the cut content.

The issue is that the silence of Hello Games has left a void that the internet at large was more than eager to fill with anger and vitriol. This means that whatever conversations had about the game get clouded by that anger, leading to a rush to judgement over things that aren’t true, and even more death threats, this time being lobbed at gamers who both love No Man’s Sky and hate it. By rushing to judgement and filling that silence with anger, gamers ensure that the hole Hello Games dug for themselves gets that much deeper.

This rush to judgement started immediately, with reviews coming out mere days after the game launched on the Playstation 4 (or in some instances, before the game and the critical day one patch came out). Reviewers were quick to label the game as repetitive, even though they admitted to only visiting a handful of planets, and using that experience to make assumptions about all 18 quintillion planets. Reviewers complained that every planet was identical, and that the creatures and flora seen in the E3 2015 trailer were not in the game. Except, planets are based upon what type of star they orbit (or in the case of No Man’s Sky, what type of star orbits the planets), and to get to some of the stranger planets, players need to upgrade their ship, which takes time to do. As for those giant dinosaurs and rivers seen in the E3 2015 trailer? They’re in the game, but they’re rare encounters in what is easily the biggest game ever made in terms of explorable landmass. Because reviewers were more concerned with getting their review out ASAP instead of with accuracy, this changed the tone of the conversation surrounding the game. Couple that with the missing features and lack of communication, and any negative claim someone makes about No Man’s Sky becomes gospel.

Take, for instance, a reddit thread in which the author claimed that all of their early discoveries had been wiped from the game. This means that every creature they encountered that they named was gone, meaning that their mark on this universe had been wiped from existence. That’s a pretty damning accusation, since discoveries are central to what No Man’s Sky aims to achieve. Immediately, everyone assumed the worst, that Hello Games lied about everything, including discoveries. Before long, high profile websites were reporting on the issue (which also raises the concern that video game journalists seemingly sit on reddit all day to find material to write about). Except, this was not happening – what the author of the original post encountered was a server error – in the early days, the No Man’s Sky servers were constantly going up and down, meaning that the game tracked discoveries (and was not wiping old ones), but only when the servers were online. When you take a step back, this makes complete sense, but it didn’t stop websites and fans from throwing another unsubstantiated rumor onto the pile, resulting in another accusation that Hello Games needed to address (which they’re terrible at doing).

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Video games have a long shelf life, unlike other mediums such as film.

This is another aspect of the industry that has to change, and it starts with a misconception that publishers have about video games. Too often, games are treated as if they were movies, where the opening box office dictates the financial success of a film. However, video games are a slow burn – first week sales are not always an indicator of a game’s success, yet publishers treat them as if that were the case. This leads to the pre-release hype that has killed more games than helped, and the need for reviewers to rush through a game and publish a review in the hopes of getting as many clicks as possible. But this does nobody any favors, since those reviews are rushed, and can miss crucial aspects of a game that, sometimes, take time to experience. No Man’s Sky is definitely one of those games – I put 80 hours into the game before writing my review, and my opinion of the game changed many times during that 80 hours. If I would have published my review after 10 hours, I would have called it one of the greatest games ever made – at 30 hours I would have hopped aboard the hate train, more concerned with what wasn’t in the game instead of what was in the game. At around 50 hours, I began to appreciate the game for what it was, and my final review reflected that. For a game as big as No Man’s Sky, that extra time was crucial in understanding the vision of Hello Games, but many reviewers (or their employers) didn’t give themselves enough time to even get to that point, because games are treated as if they have a two week life span.

But there are so many examples of games contradicting this that I don’t even know where to begin. Fallout 4 just saw it’s last piece of DLC, nearly 10 months after the game released. World of Warcraft is getting another expansion. Mario Kart 8 is nearly twice the size now than it was at launch. Later this year, even more DLC for Rise of the Tomb Raider will release, putting that DLC at a solid one year post-launch. And this content is successful, bringing gamers back for more, extending the life of a game. Gaming is a slow burn, and the media and fans can help publishers understand this, thereby avoiding the all-too-common rush to judgement.

If we’re going to move gaming in this direction, fans need to understand the difference between passion and obsession. It’s one thing to become invested in a game and to be excited when that game releases – those are totally understandable and relatable emotions. What isn’t understandable are the constant death threats developers, publishers and journalists receive. Video games are important to me – I find them to be the most engaging art form, and I think about them constantly, playing them as much as I can, staying up until 2:00 in the morning writing about them for no pay. I am that passionate about the medium. But it does me no good when I tie my love or hatred for a game to my personal identity, and to get aggressive at people who disagree with me. I love No Man’s Sky, and I am perfectly OK with someone who hates it – yes, it has its share of problems, but the title made me reexamine aspects about life and nature, and I am very happy with that. But the pre- and post-release hype and controversy as also caused me to reexamine my association with a community that sees no problem with sending death threats to the very people that make the games they love. I’d rather not have to reexamine that aspect of gaming ever again.

Where Do We Go Now?

As of this writing, No Man’s Sky exists in this strange place, where I am mostly excited and optimistic about its future, but also depressed at how it was handled and the reaction it has received. Going forward, I hope more developers and publishers follow Bethesda’s lead, and stop this process of over-hyping their games just to ensure week one sales are high. But the reaction to No Man’s Sky also sheds light on how the industry as a whole needs to step back and reexamine how we talk about games. I love the passion gamers have for the medium, but we need to acknowledge the line between passion and non-constructive bickering. For now, I have a distant, faint star to explore – hopefully, I’ll see everyone there, someday.