Where there is hype, there is inevitably a backlash. This has proven especially true for Hello Games, the developers behind one of 2016's most anticipated games, No Man's Sky. When the game shipped this month, it didn't include every single feature the developers had talked about, fermenting resentment among its most hardcore fans. This climaxed in an explosive reddit thread where a user compiled a list of publicly discussed features that didn't materialize.
The thread was upvoted thousands of times, becoming the most popular topic within the community and virally expanding outward, as the wider gaming populous latched on. It became ground zero for players looking for evidence that Hello Games had deceived them, a digital smoking gun that proved No Man's Sky designer Sean Murray was, in fact, full of shit.
"Sean Murray is a con [artist]," wrote one user. The sentiment was echoed by others. (I reached out to that user to elaborate, but they only pointed me to the reddit thread in question so I "could understand exactly what ticked so many of us off.")
But in less than 24 hours, the thread vanished because the user deleted their reddit account. (It was later revived.) That user, MeetWayneKerr, is Alex, a No Man's Sky superfan who just wanted to help.
"I wanted to take part in an interesting discussion, not put the gavel down on it," said Alex, who asked his last name be kept out of this story to protect his identity. "The torrent of negative attention I was getting was just more than I could handle."
Few games captured the collective imagination of video game fans the way No Man's Sky did when it was announced in late 2013. The trailer struck a chord with the millions who'd always dreamed of exploring the stars. But few games have been forced to deal with that amount of hype, either. In the years since No Man's Sky was revealed, countless trailers, interviews, and idle speculation began to create a potentially toxic mix, if the game didn't meet expectations.
Alex described himself as "disappointed" with the features missing from No Man's Sky but was still captivated by the game. In culling a list of what had been quietly cut, in his eyes, he was trying to push back on a growing narrative that passionate fans had whipped themselves into a frenzy over nothing, "based solely in people having overhyped it for themselves."
"It wasn't until I started seeing a game that wasn't in my PlayStation that I started wondering what the fuck happened, you know?" he said, reading and watching tons of No Man's Sky interviews. "I didn't go in from a point of anger, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't come out the other side feeling like I'd been had."
The internet is prone to hyperbole. Either Sean Murray is a con artist who knowingly manipulated fans, or players are brain dead victims of marketing. The truth, like most things, isn't that simple. (No Man's Sky fans did themselves no favors in the court of public opinion after sending death threats to a Kotaku reporter and Sean Murray over the game's recent delay, however.)
[I got] Dozens of messages from people who congratulated me for really sticking it to these 'dirtbag' devs, when that wasn't my intention at all. People were taking the post and using it to fuel their own indignant anger. —Alex
That hyperbolic energy can be directed in different directions, and Alex had no control. It backfired.
"[I got] dozens of messages from people who congratulated me for really sticking it to these 'dirtbag' devs, when that wasn't my intention at all," he said. "People were taking the post and using it to fuel their own indignant anger. The final straw was when a YouTuber sent me a link to a video he'd made with the information in my post, and it was like 'Sean Murray Lies For X Minutes' or something... People were crediting me in their take-downs, and I stopped wanting any part in it."
Alex's thread, and what it seemed to represent, became a lightning rod in the developer community as well. It seemed to scare some developers off from wanting to speak honestly with fans. If this is the reaction you get from saying what's really going on, what's the point?
"It seemed to me that was the reason that a lot of big companies are very controlling of their PR messaging and what not," said The Flame in the Flood designer Forrest Dowling, "and are very careful about what they say publicly. I saw that as an object lesson for other developers as to why that is the case."
Dowling was a lead level designer on BioShock Infinite, a game that had its own expectation problems after promising too much in early public demonstrations.
"I think it's great to talk about and share what you're doing," he said, "but as a developer, when you're talking to the public, you really need to bend over backward." That means caveats and other ways of explaining how something that sounds interesting might ultimately get cut out.
Hello Games has painted itself into a particularly bad corner. It didn't, as Dowling suggested, provide caveats for features it was talking about. Making things worse, the developer hasn't provided any explanations for why the game they talked about isn't the game that shipped. If the studio had tempered expectations ahead of release, it might have lessened the backlash.
"The situation with Hello Games is certainly an argument in favor of both sides," said C. J. Kershner, a former writer at Ubisoft who worked on games like Far Cry 4. "We want, and we need, our games to be more transparent, a bit more personal when we talk about them. Everyone who does this loves what they do with their heart and soul."
To date, Kersher pointed out, there's no better look at the trials of game development than 2 Player Productions' exhaustive documentary on Double Fine's Broken Age. It's available free on YouTube.
"If there were more examples of that sort of transparency and people better understood what the development process was like," said Kershner, "they [the fans] might be more understanding when certain features are discussed and then don't end up in the final game. There would be a bit more benefit of the doubt."
Without more insight into Hello Games's process, however, it's easy for fans to grow suspicious.
But even Double Fine went through its own public flogging over space simulator Spacebase DF-9, where Double Fine pointed to sluggish early access sales as justification for shutting down development. Though the source code was released to fans, official development was abandoned and employees like project lead JP LeBreton were laid off. Though the Spacebase DF-9 community wasn't as large the one driving No Man's Sky, fans were no less vocal.
"Some dev approaches are 'give our players as much context as possible,'" said LeBreton. "An open source game or something like Dwarf Fortress are good examples of that. But people still bring their expectations into it, that shining ideal of the game in their heads. So maybe it all comes down to managing that carefully. The dream you're conjuring in people's' heads should be compelling, but attainable. No pressure."
It's possible that Hello Games can still nail that with No Man's Sky. The game is a certifiable hit, and the developers have promised loads of free downloadable content and patches for it.
But the experience has left a mark on Alex, the guy behind the now-infamous reddit thread.
"Visiting the different No Man's Sky communities won't come without a twinge of shame," he said, "and I'd almost certainly let that paint my experience with the game. Nobody wants to have paid $60 for a game that makes them feel shitty. Honestly, it'll be nice playing the game without knowing about what everyone else has found for once. It's something I haven't done yet. I kinda look forward to it."