Should developers be open and ambitious in 2016?
A few days after No Mans Sky released, a player warped into a new system and found that it, miraculously, had already been discovered by another player. He sent a message to the system founder and they eventually met up on one of the planets in the system. The problem was, however, that they couldn’t see each other. Image evidence from Twitch streams shows them effectively looking at one another, but there were no avatars to be seen. The players also noted that any changes they made to their environments were not reflected in the other players’ game.
Unfortunately for Hello Games, this created quite the stir, reflecting a distinct failure to meet a feature promise that had been made a number of times prior to release. While the studio had been cautious to tone down the multiplayer functions of the game, they were fairly clear that you could, indeed, meet other players if you found them and at the very least, do a little bit of wondering around together. As most game controversies do, this spiralled out into a gargantuan Reddit thread that went fairly overboard in its list of “missing features”, yet did highlight a number of elements and mechanics that were promised, but ended up being omitted from the final product.
The response from Sean Murray, usually fairly open and attentive to interviews and questions, has been uncharacteristically silent. While he has taken to Twitter to discuss player numbers, patches and addressing game-breaking bugs, he has been avoiding discussing the issues around multiplayer and the lack of mid-game depth. Outside of a few quotes in regards to whether future DLC will be free or not (jury is still out) the studio has gone to ground in the face of rising angst about whether the product has over-promised and under-delivered.
The Hype Train
After we were awed by the magnificent first trailer that launched at the VGAs back in 2013, hype began to build for a game that initially had very little actual substance to it. We knew you could wander around, fly from a planet and into space, but that was about it. It wasn’t until 2015 that things went into overdrive, with Murray giving this now famous Game Informer interview where he answered 70 questions (some silly, some specific) about what would be available in the game. This video is the one that is most referred to when complaints are raised about missing content.
This was followed by appearances on Colbert and featurettes with IGN First, as Sony, now heavily marketing the title as a PS4 trailblazer, started getting NMS into the minds of everyone who would listen. In all honesty, I don’t think Hello Games or Sean really wanted to go too much into detail about the game. In many interviews he seemed cagey or dismissive about divulging too much about the gameplay. In others, he almost seemed to retract previous statements after being asked for clarification. By the last month or two, most of his words (primarily on the NMS blog and during an AMA for Reddit) were attempts to taper down expectations.
But by this point, most NMS fans had already decided what the game was going to be. Every statement was logged and noted, stored for future fact checking and comparison against the final product. In many cases, it seems like much of what was “missing” was never really planned at all – at least not for launch – with Sean and his team waxing lyrical about their long term plans for the title. But this is indeed why PR and media training exists; to carefully manage the message and restrain the ambition that developers tend to get excited about.
Expectations Vs. Reality
So does the fault lie with gamers being entitled to something that wasn’t actually planned, or were Hello Games victims of their own hubris? I’d say the answer lies somewhere in the middle. No Man's Sky is less of a game and more of an idea, a launchpad, for something bigger. Both the studio and its customers understand this. The problem is that both had different ideas of how it would be deployed and when. Murray has been clear that he wants to see the game mechanics expanded in future free (and likely paid) updates, while players expected they would get much of this on launch. The problem, again, lies in a lack of effective communication. Hello Games was notoriously vague about how much of what they had planned would be delivered – likely they didn’t want to spoil many of the surprises of discovery – but it was also probably because they were running out of time to deliver it.
There is no doubt Hello Games are enormously talented developers. The game is technically impressive on a wide variety of levels, and an extraordinary achievement for a team of only 16 people. It’s important to note that the last game this team made was a side scrolling platformer back in 2010, and migrated to creating one of gaming largest procedural engines within six years. But they were likely struggling with time, money and resources. They had deadlines to meet and two platforms to prepare for. They probably realised too late that they weren’t going to finish their dream in time for launch.
The issue then is what happens next. Their rabid fan base has fractured and much of their goodwill is fleeting as they stay mum on addressing the concerns of their community. As Pokémon Go developers Niantic discovered, staying silent only creates new problems. Hello Games need to get on the front foot and hire a PR or Community Leader who can talk on their behalf while they continue working on the game. There is no reason why Sean still can’t be excited about his creation, but he also needs to realise that there is life beyond hype. Once your game is in the wild, you have to continue managing expectations and talk to your fans about its issues.
Games change. They evolve, they devolve, they change direction. Most people understand this. It’s time to start a dialogue.