Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham
Disclaimer: I like No Man's Sky. I'm quite content puttering around in my little ship, mining here and blasting there, popping a few pirates when they show up on my radar, trading minerals with TV-headed aliens. I love the soundtrack, and when the environmental colours combine at their most magical, they just pop off my TV. But plenty of people didn't like the game. Loads of them, in fact.
Its developers, Hello Games, were accused of being liars by players disappointed by a dearth of longevity-encouraging features available when the game launched in August, and a high number of refund demands caused Steam to restate their official policy on returns. Concurrent player numbers on Steam fell by 90 percent after two weeks, a sharper-than-usual dip and evidence, perhaps, of an en masse about-turn by the game's PC community. Players simply weren't seeing what they'd been hoping for.
I reached out to five people who ditched their copies of No Man's Sky however they could, to learn what bummed them out about the game, and who they think is to blame for it not going down brilliantly with the gaming public.
Dan, 19, from Manchester, UK
What were you expecting from No Man's Sky, prior to getting it home, and how did the reality of what you played fail to live up to that?
The only thing I was really expecting, or at least hoping, from No Man's Sky was to just be amazed. Be amazed by the discovery, by all the different worlds, by the adventure. For the first hour, on my starter planet, I was, but that feeling soon faded away. I was expecting what was showcased in the first reveal trailer: valleys populated with herds of strange and awe-inspiring creatures, from massive dinosaurs to weird antelopes, all interacting with each other in an ecosystem that was unique to that planet. Even though the creatures were completely different, they did look feasible, as if they could actually exist. What I actually got was the odd animal that had been spat out of an algorithm and was such a weird abomination that it shouldn't be alive. Instead of the bright, luscious worlds, I got dull and ugly deserts.
How long did you give the game before you decided that you wanted rid of it?
My first hour with No Man's Sky was magical. I wondered a seemingly desolate, lifeless, radioactive planet wondering if there was anything there at all, as a I searched for zinc. Then, out of nowhere, I began to hear faint cries, and soon I stumbled across a tiny "Diplodocus" with a penis for a head. Then I noticed some sort of building in the distance, and as I trudged towards it a massive scaled creature with a wolf-like head casually walked by in front of me. It truly was a moment of wonder.
I finally managed to leave my first planet, but the more planets I landed on, the more it became apparent that they are all practically the same. Yeah, the sky might be a different colour and the atmosphere might slowly kill you via another method, but they were all just different flavours of poison.
Once that realisation dawned on me, the magic of No Man's Sky quickly evaporated and I just didn't have the will or desire to go back. No Man's Sky came out on August the 9th, and I traded it back in the very next day.
"I don't blame Sony, Hello or Sean Murray for hyping up their game. But if that's the route they wanted to take, then they have to deal with the consequences."
You got it on day one, then – was that through a pre-order?
No, I didn't pre-order the game, but I did buy it before any of the backlash had started. The reason was, simply, that I was really excited for it. I remember watching the initial reveal and being was blown away, and afterwards I didn't follow any coverage at all as I wanted to go into the game completely fresh, and see things first hand. I didn't want to wait for any reviews of it, because I wanted to go in without any preconceived notions and make my own decision on it. It was a game that promoted discovery, and I wanted to do so with my own eyes.
Did you trade No Man's Sky in for any other game?
I didn't swap it for a different game on this occasion, but being a student the trading-in market is usually how I'm able to afford keeping up with triple-A releases. But, I'm not someone who will rush through games just in order to get the most value on my trade in; if I'm enjoying a game, I'll take my time and only get rid when I'm ready. The sensational Witcher 3: Wild Hunt remains on my shelf and will never be given back, for example.
What do you think that Sony, and to a lesser extent Hello Games themselves, could have done to make some of the more visceral response to No Man's Sky less negative?
It seems quite simple to me: just tell the truth. I don't blame Sony, Hello or (game director) Sean Murray for hyping up their game in the slightest, as it was their jobs to sell it and make money, and they no doubt achieved that goal and then some. But if that's the route they wanted to take, then they have to deal with the consequences and reaction that followed. The No Man's Sky I saw revealed at was not the No Man's Sky that I played, and I recall Ubisoft, rightly, getting ripped to shreds when they did the very same thing with Watch Dogs.
In interviews just months before release, Sean Murray was saying that No Man's Sky would have features that aren't in the game, a form of multiplayer for instance. Yes, things change in game development and good ideas have to be cut all the time for completely innocent reasons. It happens in every game. But in this case, Murray and company continued to promote the game based on what wasn't in it, all the way up to the release. That's why the backlash has been so visceral. Had the game's actual features been properly marketed maybe the reaction wouldn't have been so intense, but then maybe it wouldn't have sold all that much either.
Do you think that you'd have enjoyed the game more if it'd been priced a little cheaper, and perhaps if the hype hadn't become so massive?
As I steered clear of much of the coverage leading up to No Man's Sky's release, I feel that the hype didn't really affect me. I was just excited for it because it was first shown as something completely different, as something that we'd all dreamed of seeing ever since we started playing games. In reality, No Man's Sky was really just another standard survival game that gets released on early access every day. I might have enjoyed the game more if it didn't cost as much, but I would have found it just as boring no matter how much I paid.
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Jake, 24, from Burlington (Vermont), USA
What were your expectations for No Man's Sky, and how did the reality of the game fall short of them?
I tried to avoid the hype of the game and didn't watch each and every interview that Sean Murray was a part of, so I felt that I managed my expectations for the game well. I really just wanted a bunch of worlds to meaningfully interact with. I wasn't expecting to be able to do literally everything, but I thought there'd be a good deal of systems in place to make traveling feel worthwhile, and if not that, I expected the worlds to be interesting enough to want to explore them. However, the systems in place felt really bare bones. The crafting felt repetitive and the inventory management was a bit of a headache. I didn't find much joy in exploring planets, as the procedural nature of the game made the various worlds feel pretty soulless. I also thought I'd be allowed to explore as much of the universe as I wanted, instead of being limited to jumping between star systems.
How long did you give the game to impress before you decided that it wasn't one you were going to stick with?
I gave the game about four days to impress me before calling it quits. I put four or five hours into the game the day it came out and came away feeling kind of empty. I wanted to like it, but I think I knew deep down that it wasn't happening. I put it down for two days or so and came back to it. After another few hours, I made the decision to sell it. The feeling of exploration just wasn't strong enough to justify spending any additional time with it.
What made you buy the game before reviews came out, before seeing some of the critical reaction and YouTube coverage?
I bought it the day it released. I believed that while the game wouldn't be the next big thing, it would still offer a compelling experience. The game had been discussed for almost three years, and I really just wanted to play it and find out what this thing actually was.
"I love exploring virtual worlds, but this game felt so aimless."
How did you sell your copy?
I sold it through the internet, to someone in town, because I figured someone else would want to play it and I could get more money from them than a retailer – and they'd still be buying the game quite a bit cheaper than MSRP. I do occasionally trade in games I don't want anymore, but I try to be mindful about which games I buy before I buy them, and if selling them is the right decision to make.
What do you think could have been done by the developers, and the distributers, to make the public response to No Man's Sky less negative?
I think there are a few things they could've done. Hello Games could've limited the scope of their feature set earlier on, instead of trying to do things that they realistically couldn't finish with a team of their size, as it's pretty clear that they wanted to do a lot more with the game than what we got. I think being honest about the state of the game at launch would've altered the tone of the reception quite a bit, too. Sony might've set a firm deadline on Hello, meaning they had to cut a lot of features. If that's true, they can't throw Sony under the bus, but they could've done more to manage the community's expectations.
Do you think that you'd have enjoyed the experience more if the game cheaper, and perhaps if the excitement for the game hadn't reached such levels?
Honestly, I don't think so. I love exploring virtual worlds, but this game felt so aimless. There really wasn't anything meaningful to see or do on any of the planets and the structure and progression weren't enough to entice me.
'No Man's Sky', launch trailer
Hirun, 21, from East Grinstead, UK
Why didn't the game meet your expectations?
I really didn't have any expectations for the actual game. I'd never watched a gameplay demo, and I'd avoided the on-stage demonstrations that Sean Murray had given for the game at various expos.
How long did you stick with it, before returning the game?
I actually put around 30 hours into the game over a period of about ten days, but it was around the 20-hour mark that I began to get the feeling that the gameplay was utterly stale.
Did you pick the game up day one? If so, why didn't you wait until reviews were well and truly out, before buying it?
I didn't pre-order the game, but I did go out and pick it up on day one. All the attention that it had received undoubtedly meant it was one of the biggest games of the year, whether it's good or not, and I wanted to be able to form my own opinion on a title of that significance.
"Instead of at least appearing to be honest, they've got a PR nightmare on their hands."
What do you think could have been done by Sony and Hello Games to ensure that the public weren't mislead by what the game had to offer?
I think it's all about transparency in modern gaming PR. You've got to lay out your plans for the game clearly, which they apparently didn't do; but even if those plans then fall through, and you end up having to cut content from the finished product, Hello Games should still have put out a statement regarding this weeks before launch. Now, instead of taking that approach and at least appearing to be honest, they've got a PR nightmare on their hands, all because they didn't actually communicate properly with their audience as to the content in the finished product.
Did the hype for the game play a part in how it was received by people? If it'd been less of a big deal, a smaller-scale release in terms of its marketing and asking price, might you have ultimately liked it more?
I can't really speak to the "hype" part of this question, as I was never embroiled in it to begin with. However, I don't think I would've enjoyed the game if it had been cheaper, mainly because I don't think the core gameplay would've been any more enjoyable if the price tag had been cheaper. You can't really put a price tag on the enjoyment of a game, for example I enjoyed Journey more than any Call of Duty games, and those are at the opposite end of the price spectrum.
Nathan Smith, 26, from Grimsby, UK
What were your expectations for the game, and how did it fail to match them?
I had reasonable expectations. I've played enough Minecraft and seen countless "survival" games on Steam to get an idea of what the game has to offer. However, I really didn't expect to feel like I'd seen it all within a few hours. It lacked depth and polish, and it constantly crashed when I was warping.
How long did you stick with the game for before you decided: nope?
After playing it for a few hours, I already knew the game was going to go. I figured, why not give it some time. I actually got the Platinum trophy on PS4, as it seemed easy enough to acquire. Towards finishing, I ended up resenting the game. It wasn't due to being burned out on it, either.
Did you pre-order the game, and if so, why not wait until the reviews were coming in? It's not like you couldn't have picked it up afterwards.
I ordered it the week before it came out. It was relatively off my radar as I was waiting on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but seeing the hype everywhere leading up to its release made me and some friends cave and order it. We're huge fans of Destiny and it carries some of the same aesthetic. Nothing sounded cooler than looting and grinding, building better things – and with friends, too, like Minecraft meets Destiny. Unfortunately, nearly all of that was just an assumption.
"A perfect storm of vague advertising, high expectation and a healthy dose of assumption on the consumers' behalf led the game to ultimately disappoint."
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Did you trade No Man's Sky in for any other game? Is this a common practice for you, keeping one new game for just a while and then "swapping" it for another?
I did. I was already sold on buying Mankind Divided so I used it as trade-in value towards that. Honestly, I wouldn't have been so quick to trade it in, but hearing that most shops were offering good rates for the game, almost as much as the cost of buying it new, it was a no brainer.
What do you think that Sony, and to a lesser extent Hello Games themselves, could have done to make some of the more visceral response to No Man's Sky less negative?
I think the damage was already done. A perfect storm of vague advertising, high expectation and a healthy dose of assumption on the consumers' behalf led the game to ultimately disappoint. I can't say I've seen a game this big receive such a backlash in a long time. Both (Sony and Hello) being quiet about the deception since release hasn't helped its case, either. Anybody I know who was thinking about buying the game has been totally put off, and they feel like they've dodged a bullet. Right now, I don't think there is anything they could do to get that interest back.
Do you think that you'd have enjoyed the experience more if the game was priced a little cheaper, and perhaps if the hype hadn't become so massive?
Absolutely. At no point did I feel like I was playing a game valued at £50. But I don't think my opinion would differ if the price were lower – it was still an average game that was over sold.
Bryan, 23, from Bury St Edmunds, UK
What were you expecting from the game, prior to getting it home, and how did the reality fail to live up to that?
Hard to explain, really. I guess was expecting something akin to, say, a combination of Starbound and Elite Dangerous – a procedurally generated, interesting world, with a universe that feels alive, structured in such a way that the limitations of the game world – galaxy, I guess – would either be hard to notice or irrelevant. However, in reality I ended up feeling the game's limits very strongly and early on. The first few hours of exploration, discovery and surprise were really nice, but eventually the fact that I was repeating the same things – unique by degrees or not – over and over again set in. In a way, it felt like Diablo, except lacking the feedback loop: I ran out of inventory slots really quickly, every upgrade to tech was just an incremental numbers deal, and the combat felt really bland. The spaceflight part of the game was way too simple for me – that's what I get for playing Elite, though – and the universe didn't really feel alive. The only goal was nebulous and felt pointless, and the aliens might as well all be some guy named Bob who only existed to eat my carbon and spit out a random word every so often while speaking in gibberish the rest of the time. It felt like, even if I understood everything they were saying, I wouldn't really feel satisfied by what I learned. It's unfortunate, because I really did want to like the game. I'm not saying that it's awful, though. Just a bit of a sad, half-empty balloon.
How long did you give the game before you decided to get rid of it?
I played for around a week, 20 or 30 hours altogether.
"I'm not saying that the game's awful. Just a bit of a sad, half-empty balloon."
Did you pre-order the game? If so, why?
I did pre-order it, due to a combination of expectation and also the fact that I had a £50 GAME gift card. So I figured I didn't really have anything to lose, even if I ended up hating the game.
Did you trade No Man's Sky in for any other game? Is this a common practice for you, keeping one new game for just a while and then using it for credit towards another?
I didn't trade it for anything specific, but I ended up using the money to buy Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Trade-ins are something I tend to do about half the time, with console games that I can't see myself replaying in the future.
What do you think that Sony, and Hello Games, could have done to improve the response from the public?
To be honest, I don't think the hugely negative, angry response that they've received is merited. Disappointment makes more sense, but disappointment over a video game shouldn't really make you angry. Anyway, they probably should have been more careful when communicating what their product actually was. Because details about the game were vague in the lead up to release, everyone who bought the game had their own expectations as to how it would play and what it would contain. What does the player actually do in the game? What does 16 quadrillion planets, or whatever, mean from a practical standpoint? Expectations could have been managed better, or you get a Peter Molyneux-like situation. Though the No Man's Sky team used obfuscation instead of hyperbole.
Do you think that you'd have enjoyed the experience more if the game a little cheaper, and hadn't arrived backed by such massive hype?
I don't think I would have. Price and hype don't really bother me, as a general rule, anyway. If it had been cheaper and less hyped, I would still have purchased it, and I imagine I still would have been disappointed, because price and expectations don't change the game itself. Gameplay remains the same, regardless.
Many thanks to all contributors.