Just a few weeks ago the highly anticipated No Man’s Sky (NMS) was released by Hello Games. There are some important details about this game that many people may or may not know. It was originally announced in 2013 by the already existent Hello Games, but had been in development for up to two years before that. At the time of the announcement and still to this day, Hello Games was a small indie studio that had only released two other games, known as the Joe Danger series. It’s rumored that only 15 total people worked on NMS and that the first two to three years of development or possibly longer, only included five people. NMS is a procedurally generated exploration game with, for all intents and purposes, an unlimited amount of possible gameplay areas, but a fairly limited amount of actual gameplay experiences.
I believe that I have fairly summed up NMS and Hello Games well enough for the purposes of this article, but if you feel that more information is needed please feel free to add any relevant and missing information in the comments section. My purpose for this post is not to express my personal views on NMS or Hello Games. Rather, I’d like to initiate a discussion about how the game has been received and how we as consumers should and do perceive game developers.
NMS has received mixed reviews. I have not personally played it and have expressed my reasons for that decision on my blog if you are interested, but it is irrelevant to this specific article, so I will not go into detail at this time. Mixed reviews is what I want to focus on. In this case, mixed reviews means that most well-known game review sites, such as IGN, gave it between a 6 and 8 and that people are split almost down the middle on whether or not it’s a good/great game. When personally talking to people, I have heard very polarizing views. Some people say it’s amazing and that they are extremely happy. Others say it’s incredibly boring even though it’s pretty to look at. But what I think is most interesting is that many people are unhappy with what the game ultimately is. People seem to have expected a shared universe multiplayer scenario with PVP elements, a robust amount of space pirate battles, and the ability to see tons of other random astronauts hopping around the same planets they are.
Essentially people thought they were gonna get Destiny with open flying and Skyrim levels of included content. Every developer knows that’s what gamers want and that isn’t up for debate. But what’s important is that for some reason people believed that’s what they were going get from NMS. I don’t know where these expectations came from. From the first trailer and developer interview, I expected NMS to be incredibly boring. I feel that Sean Murray, though in my opinion misguided about how to make good games, has been incredibly honest and transparent about what NMS would ultimately end up being and for the most part, I believe that Hello Games delivered what he promised. Naive and wishful thinkers seem to have poured through old interviews and articles and wrongfully created expectations for gameplay elements that should definitely be present in a game such as this, but in no way were actually promised leading up to release. It’s almost funny how blatantly stupid some people choose to be and because of that, this game and many others like it, have experienced mixed to negative reviews and a slew of disappointed and often angry posts on social media platforms such as but not limited to Twitter. Of course, I am focusing on the negative reception here, but let’s not forget that about half of the people who bought the game were/are very happy.
Hello Games is an indie studio and NMS is technically an indie game. But I don’t judge it on an indie scale and I feel that most people also have been comparing it to AAA games. The reason obviously being because it was released at a AAA price. Now let’s remember that the actual definition of a AAA game is that it’s made by a certain size development studio and has a certain amount of money in the production budget including advertising. Not all games made by larger studios are technically AAA because they don’t all get the production budget. And not all games that have the budget are automatically AAA because an independent studio can definitely spend the same amount of money as Ubisoft to make and promote a game. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (2012) by 38 Studios would be a good example of this happening, and also a very sad example about why such projects almost never happen. This is the denotative definition of AAA games and how to differentiate them from independent games, but it’s completely irrelevant to the general gaming public. The bulk of consumers consider anything that releases for $60+ as AAA and anything that releases under $40 as independent, with games falling in between those two price points as those games made by non-independent (larger, more established, publicly traded with a board of investors) studios that don’t get the AAA budget. Ratchet and Clank (2016) by Insomniac Games would be a perfect example of one of these games that falls in between independent and AAA. Again, this is not the actual definition of how to differentiate between independent and AAA games. This is merely the metric that the bulk of the public uses to judge games, the reason being because of price. Whether or not it’s a fair metric is irrelevant. What’s important is that it’s the metric most people use, and in my opinion, rightly so.
If you can get the length of The Witcher 3 or Skyrim with that level of writing quality, gameplay, and graphics as well for $60, then it shouldn’t be surprising that many people are unhappy with what is essentially a pretty, math based astronaut simulator with the barest semblance of a plot. These aren’t the same type of game and I’m sure Hello Games has/had no interest in having NMS compared to either of those two. But by choosing to release it at the same price, they forced the public to make that comparison regardless of their original intentions. A friend of mine said it best:
“If No Man’s Sky had been released for $30, it would have been received a lot better by most of the general public and reviewers.”
I totally agree with this statement. If this game had been released for half the price of a standard AAA game, everyone would have judged it on an indie scale and people would not be complaining about its lack of Destiny style elements. But they decided to make the game the way they did and they decided to place it on the same comparison level as high caliber AAA’s.
It’s easy to simply look at units sold when judging the quality of a game. That’s how the industry does it. But in my opinion that’s the wrong way to do it. We now live in a world where demos almost never get released and even when they do, they are dishonest. Betas have become the new demos, but the problem with those is that they are often not open betas and they, like demos, are fabricated experiences that may not fully express what the complete game experience will be. Destiny and The Division are two examples of games that I loved during the closed beta and ultimately pre-ordered only to be sorely disappointed in the long run. If I could go back and stop myself from buying Destiny, I absolutely would. The Division was just adequate enough to not regret the purchase enough to want to travel back in time. But what’s sad and unfair is that I did buy both of those games so Bungie and Ubisoft will continue to make games under the impression that I liked that style of development. They will ignore the thousands of words I’ve written expressing my unhappiness with both games via blog posts, articles for websites, and tweets. All they care about is dollars and cents, and as such, once they have obtained my money, they stopped caring about what I actually think about their games. This is how AAA development works today 9/10 times.
I don’t consider games that have mixed reviews a success. I consider them a failure or at best mediocre because it means that around 50% of the people who bought the game were disappointed. And that’s not even mentioning the people who didn’t buy the game because they weren’t happy with what they were seeing. Because the game is so new, I haven’t seen any definitive sales numbers yet. But based on what I’ve read, the game seems to have sold very well overall. But again, that only accounts for dollars spent while ignoring the actual opinions of the people who bought the game. It’s like when they say Destiny has 10M players when really it just means that at some point a total of 10M players made accounts. It in no way expresses active players and it in no way shows if people are happy or even satisfied with the game. Especially when you factor in pre-orders, in the case of NMS, because no review copies were distributed in advance of release making all opening weekend purchases based on faith alone. So that 50% of unhappy players should be taken very seriously.
What I really want to delve into is the position and goals of game developers. Or more realistically, what those should actually look like regardless of what they may or may not be. Let’s focus only on AAA developers, again defining AAA as games released for $60. Many people would argue that game development is art, while just as many people would argue that it’s business. Personally, I view it like film making. It’s a business that can and often does have artistic elements but should always be judged as a business first. You can make a game that expresses some deep notion or ideal that you as a creator really care about, but if it doesn’t sell then you failed as a game developer. Just like how you can make a terrible game that sells a ton. In that case you succeeded.
Now, I don’t like this being the judgement metric. I’ve already stated that I am avidly against the units sold equals public opinion argument. But I do respect the fact that companies with investors, bloated staffs, and ever raising production costs are obligated to view game development that way even if it comes at the expense of quality and customer satisfaction. That’s also the reason that I blame us as consumers for most continued bad development practices. If we want something to stop, it’s up to us not to buy a game rather than buying it and complaining about it after the fact. The studio’s only real desire is to make money. So if that is the case, how should they, and also we, be viewing game developers as a whole? I think the best possible metric is to measure both units sold and whether or not people would consider purchasing a sequel and whether or not they would be seriously interested in purchasing a new IP from the same developer. Of course, these sorts of metrics are impossible to quantify in hard numbers.
Are developers artists who have the right to create whatever type of art they want while consumers act as a benefactor? European poets were supported by rich sponsors who merely wanted to support the art of writing, regardless of their personal views on specific works by the writers in question. So in contrast, are companies merely product producers creating products to sell at market that we as consumers pick and choose based on our wants and needs? Obviously, I’m in the latter camp. I believe many people would place themselves in the former. But ultimately how this question is answered defines whether or not NMS was/is a success.
If we say game development is the patronized art scenario, then NMS and all other games including Madden, COD, and StarFox Zero are successes. They were the games that the developers wanted to make. Or at least that’s how we pretend it happened, not truly being aware of all the cuts and changes forced onto projects by marketing and finance departments in studios. If game development is art, then Hello Games could have made any game and it would have been perfect no matter how we all felt about it. Them making the game they want to make is its own reward and we should support them in that endeavor. That’s gaming as art. And honestly it sounds ridiculous to me because I don’t have nearly enough money to just buy games I think are bad in order to support innovative development.
If we say gaming is a business, then I’d have to say that NMS is a failure. A 50% customer satisfaction rating is horrible. And while I can’t give any definitive figures this early, at the time of writing the first draft of this piece (Thursday, August 18th), it seems like NMS has currently sold less than a million copies. I could be wrong, but that’s what I’m getting based on the current users articles that are coming up on places like PCGamer.com. Under a million copies isn’t that great if nearly half of them aren’t happy. Remember that Tomb Raider (2013) sold 3.4 million copies in its first month and that was considered a failure by Square Enix. Granted, Square Enix hasn’t been considered a trustworthy company when it comes to public statements for some years now.
My point though, is that of the 40 million PS4s that have been sold, less than 1/40 of those users purchased NMS opening weekend. Of course, these numbers don’t include digital sales at this point so maybe they have sold more than a million copies. But my point is that this game has barely touched the market and the part that it has touched is only about 50% satisfied. Based on those figures, Hello Games failed as a development studio. Regardless of their actual sales needs or goals based on their budget and desires, that is a really small market share for a game that was this highly anticipated, publicly backed by SONY, and claimed to be revolutionary to gaming. GTAV was revolutionary to game development and it sold 3.5 million units during pre-order in the United States alone. That’s revolutionary. By those metrics, NMS is a total bust. It’s essentially the Suicide Squad of games. But from a business standpoint, these low sales figures were a choice.
Hello Games did just about everything intentionally. They didn’t give out review copies early. They didn’t include PvP or even technically working multiplayer. They didn’t make a plot focused game. They released it for $60. There were so many things they could have chosen to do differently that I believe ultimately would have led to more sales and quite possibly much more favorable reception from the whole game’s audience. Yet they chose not to. They chose to put their own vision and desires over those of the paying customers, and it backfired. That’s bad business. But is that fair? Should we be looking at development that way? Should developers be expected to create games with the elements they know will sell regardless of their original intentions for the project? It may sound really cold when you put it that way, but at the end of the day it’s your money. Should a game not try to leave its buyers satisfied?
It’s easy to criticize NMS, as I have on numerous occasions, but one must admit that Hello Games has at least tried to be innovative in how they created the game. While the gameplay appears to be stale and repetitive, at least they tried to do something that to them seemed different. If we simply say that they failed and should have produced a more normalized product then we end up with another Destiny, Madden, or COD, which we really don’t need any more of. But herein lies the problem. If we want change and innovation, we have to accept that sometimes developers will fail or create things differently than how we would have liked it. The alternative is that we keep getting the same AAA slop over and over again because it keeps being profitable, which is the current situation and can only be blamed on us as consumers. Big developers won’t change as long as they don’t have to. So where does that leave us?
What do we do? Do we blindly support developers for innovating as artists and hold them to no standard of quality? Do we forsake all innovation and only purchase the games we trust? Do we give up altogether and just stop buying new games? How do we deal with this issue in a way that allows developers to make the games they want to make, but at the same time, games we want to play, at a price we feel is justified? I don’t know the answer but I do have some ideas. I think people on both sides of the fence need to lower their expectations in a realistic way. Developers need to start pricing their stuff fairly based on the market, consumer expectations, and other games. If you make FFXIII quality stuff, don’t insult us by charging $60. Because how can you justify it next to Dragon Age: Inquisition level development? If your game is a broken mess of a story with repetitive development and a minute amount of actual content, humble yourself to charging a fair price. Konami isn’t charging $60 for Metal Gear Survive. Kudos to them. And developers need to be honest about what they’re making. Release demos and trials, be transparent about the game’s amount of content and paid DLC plans from the start, and when stuff inevitably gets cut, it should be publicly declared as soon as the decision is made, instead of right after all those pre-order transactions are completed. Rather than trick people into buying games, developers should just sell the games they’re making and own them without shame or dishonesty.
We as consumers need to change as well. We should definitely have standards and expectations, but we also need to stop thinking from a set binary point of view. A game doesn’t have to be amazing or terrible. A game can be just ok and that shouldn’t be considered a criminal offense. If the developers will price their games fairly then I think we should in turn be able to enjoy games for what they are, even if what they are ends up being average at best. We also need to stop making assumptions about how games will end up being before they’re released if we don’t have any actual evidence to back it up. Again, there are no legitimate reasons to be unhappy with NMS because of the lack of multiplayer. They never promised multiplayer and thus it was wrong to expect and then judge the game negatively for not having it. We could stand to make some changes as consumers just as much as developers need to change some of their business practices and expectations from their customers.
I can’t say for sure what the right answers to these questions are, I prefer to think of game development as a business more than a display of artistic expression. But I also don’t want to stifle innovation and live in a world of nothing but overdone sequels like Assassin’s Creed and Dead Rising. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but I also think that both sides of the fence are not doing what they can to help reach that happy equilibrium where everybody wins. Maybe one day we will get there, but it certainly won’t be in reference to No Man’s Sky.