It’s been a year since I last played the captivating, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing No Man’s Sky. There have been some large updates since then, and so I thought now would be a good time to come back and see how the game has evolved. These columns are going to run through September, so you’re basically getting TWO long-form analysis series at the same time. (This and Borderlands.) So I hope you like words.
Speaking of words, a year ago I said:
In fact, I'm hoping [Hello Games] made enough on this game that they can give it another try. I really do think that they have something special here. Imagine if the first iteration of Minecraft had been really awkward, frustrating, had a terrible building interface, and was constantly limiting and undermining your creative abilities because the developer thought the game should be focused on combat. I wouldn't want the idea of a cube world to die on the vine. I'd want it to get another chance to become the creative, engaging, meme-spawning classic that was embraced as a hobby by millions worldwide.
I am less confident of this now. I really do think you can make a fantastic game using the No Man’s Sky technology. I think there’s a game in here that could create levels of engagement to rival titans like Minecraft or The Sims. There’s a reason those early trailers caused such a sensation. Some people really do have an intergalactic wanderlust. They have a clear desire to see strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly loot everything that isn’t nailed down.
But at this point I’m not all that eager to see what Hello Games comes up with. I have no idea what’s wrong inside this company, but their approach to designing game mechanics and interface falls somewhere between madness and sadism. In the last year they’ve doubled down on all the worst flaws of the core game. At this point I don’t think anyone at Hello Games is equipped to design a coherent set of gameplay mechanics. They’ve got great technology and a solid art team, but gameplay is a mess and I don’t see how they can change that. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, and after a year they still haven’t reached that point. It’s not impossible for Hello Games to turn things around, but from the standpoint of momentum and company culture I don’t think it’s likely. This is a company doomed to make very pretty but very shallow and irritating games.
Not Evil, Just Bungling
People were accusing Hello Games – particularly lead programmer Sean Murray – of “fraud” and calling the over-promised features of No Man’s Sky “lies”. I can certainly understand where these accusations come from. The dude said stuff was going to be in the game. Then it wasn’t. He was in charge of putting that stuff in the game, so therefore he was deceiving us, right?
But the more I read about development and the more I see how the game is shaping up, the more I’m convinced these “lies” were actually the promises by a young programmer with intense enthusiasm, who was under tremendous pressure from a publisher, and who had been thrust into the media spotlight while having no expertise in dealing with the media. I think people have been far too hard on Murray and not nearly critical enough on publisher Sony. Like I said last September:
It looks like Sony was all too happy to let this indie developer run around making promises they knew he couldn't keep. I wouldn't blame the distributor for the sins of the developer, except they did step in when it suited them. They shut him up when it served their business interests and let him run his mouth when he was over-promising the game. Sure, the developer was making outrageous promises, but Sony put his ass on prime-time television. They were happy to soak up their cut of the sales and let him take the blame for the hype storm they created. And now that fans are angry, Sony is trying to play it off like they had NO IDEA what the developer had said or what was in the game they were distributing.
I think the changes in the last year support this reading of events. If Murray really was a charlatan and a liar, then he would have walked away from No Man’s Sky after release. Or perhaps he would have done some minimal patching before moving on to No Man’s Sky 2 or whatever. Instead, his team has worked to add new content and new gameplay, fix bugs, and figure out ways to fix the existing gameplay systems that didn’t work at launch. I don’t think they were successful on that last point, but the effort is clearly there.
Also, Murray gave a talk at GDC. You can read about some of the highlights here.
“I just wanted to sit down and write something completely different. Mainly, selfishly, because I just thought of the things I wanted to learn about, and then I started to write an engine that had those things in, I guess. […] Then we showed it, we showed the first trailer, and from then on it was like, it was like we were building a rocketship on the way up, like, to the sun, being fired into the sun with the skin burning from our faces, right?”
This really resonates with me. You start out doing something for fun, but then suddenly people perceive value in your work and now there’s tons of pressure on you. When people ask you, “Will we be able to do X?” it’s easy to say “yes” because you already wanted to have X and you’ve already thought about how you’d go about making it happen. People love you, your work is valuable, and you don’t want to say no. People smile with delight when you say “yes” and when you say “no” they look disappointed and ask annoying technical questions that would – if you took the time to answer them accurately – being incredibly boring and hard to follow. In the short term, saying “yes” is always the path of least resistance.
I know exactly how that feels and I know I’ve trapped myself in situations where I needed to crunch in order to meet my promises. Not because I wanted to work overtime, but because saying yes just feels so much better than saying no. I’m really thankful I made those mistakes in private meetings as part of a small company on not in front of international media. If Stephen Colbert had me on his show in March of 2016 and asked with delight if Good Robot was going to have different character classes, it would have been very tempting to say yes. After all, it was something I’d wanted to put in the game and maybe I’d be able to find time to squeeze it in before release. And if that interview happened to me when I was a young man and more easily dazzled by the limelight? Shit. I’m sure I’d make the exact same mistake.
As I’ve said before, scheduling is really hard. That’s not a big deal when you’re a bedroom developer and you can set your own pace and decide for yourself when a game is “done”, but it can kill you when you find yourself suddenly working in the AAA world. I think Murray made reckless promises and then found himself trapped between those promises and an unmovable ship date, and he’s spent the last year trying to make it right.
I’m not saying that what Murray did was okay, and I’m not trying to get you to feel sorry for him. I’m just unhappy that frustrations with the game turned into a campaign of public shaming against one person, and I’m really unhappy that campaign took the form of calling him a liar.
We’ve seen how media liars behave. We know what that looks like by now. If he was a liar by nature then he would have spent the last year shifting blame, downplaying the backlash, and making new promises. Instead he’s stopped talking to the press and he’s being extremely guarded with his remarks. To me it looks less like a charlatan and more like a young guy who learned a hard lesson.
The problem with No Man’s Sky isn’t that Sean Murray is a mountebank. The problems with No Man’s Sky actually come from two causes:
- Murray lacked the ability to adapt his indie company culture to AAA standards when his passion project wound up in the hands of Sony.
- There doesn’t seem to be anyone at Hello Games to handle the Narrative and Gameplay aspects of design, and the engineers and artists don’t seem to realize how deficient their team is.
I can’t prove any of this, of course. But I find this a much more plausible reading of events compared to, “Sean Murray lied to the world to get rich!”
Regardless of the cause, nothing changes the fact that No Man’s Sky doesn’t really work or make sense as a videogame. It’s filled with strange design decisions, dead-end mechanics, and systems vigorously working against the core gameplay loop.
What is This Game Supposed To Be?
Roger Ebert used to say “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” He would (try to) judge a movie based on how well it said whatever it was trying to say more than if he agreed with what it said. If a movie was gross, stupid, lowbrow schlock on purpose, that was (in theory) better than if the movie wound up that way while aiming for something else.
I try to do this myself, although it’s slightly more difficult with videogames. With gameplay, videogames have another entire dimension to worry about and sometimes it’s hard to tell if the gameplay is flawed or if the designer was just making something you don’t like. Dark Souls is a pretty good example of a game that’s really good, even if I don’t personally enjoy playing it. And Mass Effect 1 is a mess from a mechanical standpoint, even if I enjoy the story.
I have a very hard time doing this with No Man’s Sky, because after more than 100 hours I still can’t tell what this game is trying to be. Some mechanics work against each other, others lead nowhere, nothing leverages the core technology, the interface is insane, and the scraps of story are unevenly written, largely incoherent, and disconnected from everything else.
After spending some time with the game, I decided that the thing that worked – the part of the game seemed most like a “game” to me – was landing on a planet, gathering up some loot, fending off trouble, and getting back to civilization to trade your loot in for upgrades. This would be a bit like the sandbox bits of Skyrim: Wander around, do a dungeon, get some loot, go back to town. No Man’s Sky doesn’t really succeed at this, but that’s the closest thing it has to a gameplay loop and that gameplay style would actually make sense with this “infinite worlds” engine everything is built on.
Now, if you want to insist that No Man’s Sky isn’t trying to be that then I can’t really prove you wrong. If you want to insist it’s trying and failing to be some other kind of game, then fine. But I needed to have some frame of reference when judging it. I’m not going to review the game against every possible thing it could possibly be compared to.
Why Are We Doing This Again?
So why am I bothering to come back and heap more criticism on a game I already panned a year ago? Well, aside from the few people who have prodded me and asked what I thought of the updates, I’m back because I really was hoping the game we got would be a little closer to the game we’d dreamed of. It’s not, and I think it’s worth studying why.
Also, No Man’s Sky inhabits this frustrating space alongside games like the nu Deus Ex games, the original X-Com, or the Mass Effect series. It offers something you just can’t get anywhere else, but it does so in a deeply flawed and annoying way. It’s one thing if you decide you don’t care for the new Tomb Raider, because you’ve still got Nathan Drake. But if you love the idea of flying through space, landing on a planet, having a look around, and harvesting some of the resources but you hate being pestered by inventory problems every 30 seconds, then where else can you go?
I’m going to spend the next few weeks looking at No Man’s Sky 2017 and pointing out where the updates have gone wrong. The week after that, I’ll try to say something nice and make note of where things seem to be headed in the right direction.
The Best of 2019
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Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
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Fixing Match 3
For one of the most popular casual games in existence, Match 3 is actually really broken. Until one developer fixed it.