The Unexpected Comeback Story of No Man’s Sky

No Man's SkyDeveloper: Hello Games

Genre: Action-adventure, Space

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Biography: No Man’s Sky is a space exploration game where you can discover planets, animals and plants, take on missions, craft items and explore a procedurally generated universe.

When No Man’s Sky launched in August 2016 on PlayStation 4 and PC it didn’t arrive with the fanfare many gamers had hoped for. The gameplay was fairly shallow, the story of the game uninteresting and for many the worst of all was that Hello Games appeared to have lied about some form of multiplayer being present in the game. Following a significant backlash Hello Games retreated and went radio silent. The enthusiastic director of the game Sean Murray was noticeably absent from communication with the press or the game’s community. However, in November 2016 Hello Games reemerged briefly to announce a significant update to the game named the ‘Foundation’ update had been pushed live adding base building and freighters to the game. These updates continued into 2017 with ‘Path Finder’ adding an exocraft for players to use and ‘The Atlas Rises’ update adding 30 hours of new story content to the space game. In July 2018, almost two years since the original game’s release, No Man’s Sky has come to Xbox One with a raft of updates including a fully functional multiplayer for the first time leading many to ask has the game redeemed itself?

To answer that we need to go back to when the ambitious space adventure game was first shown to the public at the VGX awards in December 2013 followed by a showing on Sony’s stage at E3 2014 after the publisher agreed to support No Man’s Sky with marketing and publication. The game quickly grabbed the  gaming press’ attention who latched onto the colourful visuals and the seemingly limitless opportunities of a procedurally generated universe. For PlayStation fans the game looked very promising heightened by the fact that an independently developed game hadn’t been marketed with a prime spot at E3 in this way before. This suggested to some fans that Sony had a degree of confidence in what they were seeing behind the scenes. The marketing and press for the game didn’t stop at E3 with various outlets making preview coverage and publishing their impressions of the game.

Although much of the criticism for the game’s overblown coverage has been laser focused on British developer Hello Games, Sony and PlayStation also have a part to play here. Showing off a game at E3 is an incredible marketing tool and guarantees millions of people seeing your game but it also adds pressure onto a small development team that certainly compounded the issue. On the other hand if No Man’s Sky hadn’t sold incredibly well at launch would Hello Games now be putting the time and effort into making the game more polished and more feature rich?

No Man's Sky
The E3 demo captured the imagination of gamers

In the run up to the game’s release the ‘face’ of the game was developer Sean Murray, an enthusiastic developer whose idea for the game evolved out of his enjoyment of space exploration and optimistic science fiction. The media were attracted to the charismatic developer and the small studio who it seemed to all were punching above their weight. Game Informer’s month of coverage offered a rare glimpse at the technology behind creating a universe where no two planets are exactly the same, they also peppered the developer with questions about the game including about multiplayer. Looking back it’s clear that Sean Murray was not a PR spokesperson or someone who should have borne the brunt of continuous media attention and his comments and promises about the game would be picked apart after the game launched in YouTube videos and aggressive tweets that even went as far as death threats. It’s true that Hello Games did over promise in the lead up to No Man’s Sky’s release especially as the game was still deep in development at the time. The reaction from certain sections of the Internet though showed the worst aspects of social media such as mass piling on to attack an individual which no reasonable person would wish on anyone, let alone a small independent studio working extremely hard to realise their vision.

A pessimist could also argue that high expectations from the gaming community are partly to blame. This isn’t the first time the community has seen an impressive demo at E3 only to see a scaled down version graphically and in terms of vision. Any content from a preview or demonstration is worth taking in with a dose of salt, these games tend to still be in development and in game development things can and do change as time passes. This is especially true of a game made by a small, independent studio with limited resources. While we can’t say that gamers are responsible for what media publishes or what publishers show off at gaming conventions like E3 we can as a community keep our expectations in line.

No Man's Sky
Freighters add a new dimension to the game

In August of 2016, No Man’s Sky was finally released and the overall reaction was underwhelming with a heavy dose of anger and feelings of betrayal from some corners. No Man’s Sky at launch was a lonely, unrefined experience. The inventory system was clunky and unwieldy, the story was bare-bones; a thin thread leading you to move further towards the centre of the universe and even as a ‘Minecraft in space’ it was lacking in entertainment value. Nevertheless, there was plenty to enjoy too, discovering breathtaking planets, weird creatures and landscapes was fun and the game successfully captured the intrepid explorer feel that it was going for. Despite a few hours of enjoyment there wasn’t much keeping you from putting the game down and looking elsewhere for something to scratch a deeper gameplay itch. Some of these problems were certainly a lack of additional development time but it’s noteworthy that similar games have problems with gameplay too. Elite: Dangerous for example has deeper systems and is more of a simulation game than an adventure game like No Man’s Sky but it too lacks significant story or enough meaningful content to keep some players invested.

After the reaction to the game, Hello Games went silent somewhat understandably and despite there still being a sizeable community to service, communication from the studio was absent until the first significant ‘Foundation’ update in November. The apparent comeback of No Man’s Sky from its dire position after launch is less of a surprise to those who have stuck around for these updates. Each comes with a lengthy list of feature updates deepening the game by adding missions, vehicles, base building and more. The fact of the matter is that No Man’s Sky has been steadily growing as a game for a couple of years and it’s only with the release of NEXT and a dialogue opening up with the community and the press once more that the world at large has been given a nudge back towards the game. The elephant in the room is of course multiplayer and being able to explore the galaxy with a friend is finally available to players. For many this might be too little too late but it’s easy for the game to surface in your imagination by looking at the beautiful screenshots of exotic planets, flora and fauna, the stunning bases being built by the community and a renewed promise from Hello Games to now support the game with regular updates.

No Man's Sky
Hello Games added the long awaited multiplayer to the game with NEXT

Players who ditched the ambitious space game on day one will find a drastically different experience today. The core gameplay still revolves around collecting resources, refining them and using them to upgrade gear and equipment but there are tons of additional content to satisfy players whether you enjoy building a base, building up a reputation with a faction by completing missions or creating a formidable fleet of freighters. The inventory system is now friendlier and less of a chore, several different story threads exploring the classic sci-fi themes of simulation and discovery and options to make traversing the universe faster.

No Man’s Sky is a cautionary tale in many ways, showing what can happen when a small, ambitious studio is put under the spotlight by the media and the gaming community. The game faltered and didn’t live up to lofty expectations so was crushed because of this fact condemned to accusations of lies, mistrust and too many broken promises. Thankfully though Hello Games stuck to their vision and through years of continued work on the game have produced something that truly captures the imagination and is enjoyable to play. For the legions of travellers who have either played the game since launch or perhaps just jumped back in, the most enticing thing about the game is that there is still more to come and it will be fascinating to see where the game sits a couple of years from now.

What do you make of No Man’s Sky’s unlikely return to the forefront of gaming? Have the updates made you jump back in?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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