No Man's Sky (Source: Hello Games)

I had very high expectations going into No Man’s Sky. Higher than I should have. I got run over by the hype train, I’m sorry to say. And I should’ve known better. This isn’t the first time that a game has failed to live up to the claims of its developers, and you can be sure it won’t be the last. Nevertheless, when I published my review of NMS earlier this week, I swore that I would base my review on what the game actually is, not on what I wanted it to be…or even what Hello Games told us it would be.

That being said, we’re quickly approaching the two-week anniversary of the game’s release, and Sean Murray, co-founder of Hello Games and the face of his company’s marketing campaign, has yet to address critics who contend that many promised features, features that were ultimately responsible for much of the hype and excitement surrounding NMS, were cut from the game.

From the lack of in-flight radio chatter to the alleged inability of players to see each other when they cross paths, there’s no doubt that some of the features shown off during the game’s pre-release marketing blitz didn’t make it into the final version.

Visceral reactions to situations like these are the norm, but I would caution critics against accusing Sean Murray of explicitly lying to his audience.

Murray made mistakes — one very big mistake, to be precise, which I’ll discuss in a moment — but if you sincerely believe that his intention was to deceive prospective consumers, you may want to reconsider your position. Hello Games is a small studio, and this is their first “big” game. From a purely financial perspective, orchestrating a purposeful deception meant to sucker gamers into throwing their hard-earned cash at a game that doesn’t come close to fulfilling its potential just doesn’t make sense. Generally speaking, developers don’t get rich off of a single title. In this industry, it’s all about sustained success. A one-off smash hit isn’t the road to a comfortable retirement, and it’s hard to believe that Murray figured he could ride his alleged lies all the way to the top of a mountain of gold and treasure.

Furthermore, if you’ve played NMS, then you have to recognize that a lot of love went into this game. It isn’t some cookie-cutter, open-world adventure game lacking in soul or spirit. Those games do exist, and most gamers know which titles fall into that category. NMS isn’t one of them. Murray and his team obviously had a grand vision that, had it been executed properly, would have represented a huge leap forward in 21st century gaming. That’s why some gamers, including me, have still managed to find a lot to like about NMS. Buried beneath the bugs, technical glitches and unfulfilled potential is the foundation for a truly groundbreaking experience that still scratches a certain itch despite being incomplete.

The point I’m trying to make here is that disappointment is not synonymous with deception. You might not be happy about the slim ‘n trim version of NMS you ended up with, but that doesn’t mean you’ve been deliberately lied to, nor does it mean the Murray and company decided to just phone it in during the last phase of the development cycle. The more likely explanation is much simpler; Hello Games bit off more than it could chew.

Still, Sean Murray did make one glaring rookie mistake, and that mistake can be summed up in one word: Ambiguity.

In the weeks and months leading up to the game’s release, I noticed that Murray often seemed a bit aloof and evasive in interviews. At the time, I chalked it up to sheer exhaustion. The beard was a dead giveaway, I thought. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems entirely plausible that Murray was beginning to realize that certain features might not make it into the game and either didn’t know how to communicate that to fans without inviting a major backlash or didn’t know which features would ultimately end up on the chopping block, hence the frequently ambiguous responses he gave to interviewers’ questions about the particulars of the game. And in this industry, that’s never a smart play, especially after the hype surrounding your game has reached a fever pitch in part because of the features you’ve been bragging about for years.

Maybe it was a lack of public relations experience. Maybe it was the exhaustion. Maybe it was just plain old fear. No matter the reason for it, though, Murray has to accept his fair share of the blame for this controversy.

The question is, how will Murray try to rectify the situation? And make no mistake about it; he does need to tackle this controversy sometime in the very near future. Hello Games has too much to lose if he doesn’t. The mainstream gaming press isn’t going to place itself in the crossfire and rally to the studio’s side the way they did for Bioware when the Mass Effect 3 debacle erupted. Hello Games doesn’t have the necessary prestige to inspire such a reaction. Additionally, they can’t expect to ride out this storm by resting on their laurels. They don’t have the requisite résumé to skate by with that approach.

The ideal course of action would be to just come out and give gamers the straight and simple truth, though that’s much easier said than done when you’ve got the collective fire of thousands of breaths swimming down your neck. Still, the pressure being applied to Murray notwithstanding, it’s incumbent on him to offer up some explanation for why the final version of NMS is so much thinner than advertised. It would also be wise to announce his plan — assuming there is a plan, of course — for filling in the void left behind by the aforementioned missing features and content.

I say all this because, to be perfectly blunt, I want Hello Games to succeed. When I play NMS, I can literally taste the passion that Murray and his colleagues have for their craft. And as a longtime fan of science fiction, it’s plainly obvious to me what Murray was hoping to achieve with this game. I don’t want to see the studio’s reputation irreparably harmed by this controversy. Rather, I’d prefer that they be given a second chance. How far can their ideas and imagination carry them? What could they accomplish with the time, money and resources afforded to AAA studios? I want to find out the answers to those questions. I want to know what Hello Games is capable of. I want them to stick around for a while. For that to happen, though, Murray needs to confront this issue head-on. It’s the only way he’s going to reestablish trust with the broader gaming community, which, as we all know, is the single most important ingredient to long-term success in the world of game development. Here’s hoping he manages to do just that.

 

SHARE
  • Brian Wright

    To justify my previous comment, I put forth the extra 3 months delay that Hello Games added to tweak and improve NMS (or so we were told). However, based on the buggy launch of the PC version and the somewhat buggy release of the PS4 version (and, of course, the missing features), it seems more likely that Hello Games was hard at work on something other than bug fixing. For this reason, I suppose that when Sean was asked about his strategy for DLC sometime in April or May, he had no answer, no strategy and, more importantly, no DLC. So, my supposition is that he quickly back peddled by asking for an additional 3 months to pull features out and formulate with a DLC content strategy… hence, the missing features.

    This is further justified by the fact that it’s a 15 person (or so) team at Hello Games. This team has likely spent the last several years working solidly on NMS, not DLC. In fact, I’d guess they were working on NMS all the way up the June ship date when those resources may have been diverted into “creating” DLC from existing promised features.

    Note that removing features from any game may cause a game to get more buggy. By removing code paths that other code paths may rely on at edge case times, it’s very possible that the removal of these content features actually caused NMS to become more buggy. And, that seems to have been the case with the PC version. Though, the PS4 version seems to have fared a little better.

    Just to be perfectly clear, Hello Games never did state what would be available in the day one release. It was always assumed that what was demoed would be in there. Worse, Sean didn’t refute that thinking. He just let people think that. If he had cleared the air up front and said that not all content would be available day one, expectations would have been set and people wouldn’t have been so upset at what’s missing. Instead, it seems that Hello Games may have intentionally hobbled the game for the sake of a DLC strategy and told no one what’s what they were doing. Seriously, if you’re going to follow this DLC strategy, then you should have sold a season pass.

    However, if Sean had stated that not all content would be available on day one, not many people would have plopped down $60 for a half-finished game. To be perfectly fair, if what I put forth above is anywhere close to reality, then Hello Games did rip us off. Instead, this game title should have cost $30 (or less) and then they can charge for the DLC at a reasonable price to add the missing features.

    There is no excuse for pulling out core features, continuing to charge $60 and then repackaging those missing features as paid DLC. That’s just plain greed.

    • SFGZ

      Hi, Brian! So first off, I’m not sure why your original comment isn’t showing up. Sorry bout that. Must be a Disqus thing because I don’t see any other pending comments from you on my moderator’s profile.

      In any case, your comment is one of the most interesting comments I’ve read on this situation so far. If your theory proves to be true, then yes, I wholeheartedly agree that Hello Games ripped us off deliberately. It sounds like you’ve got some developer experience – or at least a better understanding of the technical aspects of all this than most people do – so I really appreciate your perspective on this.

      So basically, if Hello Games starts rolling out the missing features in future DLC updates and chooses to charge us for them, it would seem to confirm what you’re saying here. If that happens, I don’t see how their reputation could possibly survive that. No one would ever believe anything they say in the future, and rightfully so. Of course, I’m not even sure if they can salvage the situation as it stands right now, sooooo…

      Anyways, you’ve given me a lot to chew on. Thanks for the insight. I’m really going to pay attention now to what happens with the DLC. If it all plays out the way you’re suggesting here, I’ll be the first to jump all over them for it. And I’ll be sure to mention how you figured it out long before anyone else did! 😉

      • Brian Wright

        It may not show it. Disqus seems to have detected it as spam. Here’s the text I found it in my Disqus profile and I’ve modified it a little based on the above…

        The article states, “it’s all about sustained success.”

        Exactly.

        And to that end, I believe Hello Games made a critical error in judgement. I contend that between the original spring release and the actual late summer release, Hello Games systematically pulled features from the game with the expressed intent of reintroducing that content as for-pay DLC packs. This DLC content would allow Hello Games to realize sustained success. I think HG (i.e., Sean) realized they had nothing to offer for a long time after the game’s release sometime around the early spring timeframe if it were released whole. So, to hedge on sustained income, they delayed the release and spent that extra few months intentionally disabling parts of the game with the intent of adding it back as DLC content. A risky move to be sure.

        The critical error here was that these were pieces that were promised from the outset and that were demoed. These promises weren’t explicitly stated as release-day content, but they were promised none-the-less. I also believe that because Hello Games has such a small staff, they need to support a sustained success going into
        the next 6-12 months and, to that end, they need features that are ready to ship “now”. Meaning, they can turn these features on quickly by easily rolling out a patch. Though, to be perfectly honest, considering the amount of dough they apparently raked in from sales of the game alone, they have enough money now to hire a much larger staff.

        This strategy buys Hello Games a much longer development window to create brand new unseen content rather than being under the gun to get something new out in a much shorter time frame (like early next year). In fact, this strategy may even buy them 9-12 months of sustained releases. This extra time would give Hello Games at least 1 full year to create and release brand new content into the NMS universe.

        Unfortunately, this strategy introduces a critical judgement error because it requires removing promised content… and that’s something that has severely backfired on Hello Games. At this point, Hello Games has to make a choice. Do they placate the gamers and give what was promised for free and have no DLC packs for the next 9-12 months or do they continue with this DLC strategy and charge money to enable the things that should have been in the game from the start?

        Only Hello Games can make the right choice here.

        • SFGZ

          Thank you for reposting that. The additional context helped me better understand what you were getting at.

          I’ll be honest — if they end up charging us for features that were supposed to be in the game initially, that’ll send me over the edge. From an ethical standpoint, I can’t think of any reasonable argument they could use to justify that. So yes, I absolutely agree that they need to make the right choice. And if they don’t, well, I guess they’re pretty much screwed. NMS has some surprisingly hardcore fans, but I doubt there are enough of them for Hello Games to depend on for DLC revenue. I imagine most people, including me, will refuse to spend a penny on content that was supposed to be in the game originally. I mean, like you pointed out, there were no *explicit* promises regarding which features would make it into the game and which ones wouldn’t, but it would be the mother of all mistakes for Murray to rely on that as a defense for charging us for those features.

          • Brian Wright

            Thanks for your reply. Unfortunately, I think it’s likely too late to back peddle and release these missing features. Those who feel burned have already moved on to other games and probably aren’t looking back. Can HG recover from this misstep? The odds are against them.

            I would say that HG’s biggest miss is the lack of multiplayer. Multiplayer gaming is a huge play feature. People want to play side-by-side with their friends. Saying the game will have multiplayer, then shipping the game without it is as bad as it can get. You just don’t do this one.

            As a game developer, you should know if your game is single player or multiplayer long before it is ever released. Enticing people to buy into a game because it has multiplayer and then foisting single player onto them is effectively fraud. Once bitten, twice shy. If Hello Games can survive as a game development company from that mistake alone, I’d be surprised.

    • SSBM Freak

      “By removing code paths that other code paths may rely on at edge case times, … removal of these content features actually caused NMS to become more buggy.”

      This implies shoddy design in general. There should never be so much coupling between features that it causes cascading failures.
      Then again.. ‘indie team.’ Most of them probably don’t have proper experience dealing with these sort of projects.

      • Brian Wright

        Hello Games has had 3 months from June to August to pull out the necessary pieces cleanly to repackage as DLC. When you’re writing code for additional functionality, you don’t write it with the intention of being modular or removable. For modular or removable code, if you aren’t careful to follow through with all uses of any specific code path, you can end up in edge cases that fail bad.

        Today, few coders write code for graceful failures. Most coders today write code for the happy path (because it’s faster to release). Removing code means appropriate additions to the happy path or you end up off into unhappy paths with ungraceful failures. And believe me, I’ve had plenty of ungraceful failures on the PS4 version. I’ve had hangs to total PS4 lockups that have required pulling the plug and power cycling the PS4. Since I’ve owned the PS4 from day one, the only other game that has ever caused a full out system lockup was Fallout 4 (when it was first released). After a few patches in (a few days), Fallout 4 has never locked up that hard again.

  • Karen Pease

    If you deliberately lie to your customers, you deserve no quarter. And that is precisely what they have done. Sean responded, in simple yes-or-no answers to yes-or-no questions just days before release, things that were lies. Then, *after* release when it was discovered that players couldn’t see each other, he pretended that it was a “bug”, when he knows damn well that there’s demonstrably no real-time networking nor player models in the game.

    Yes, they can turn it around. But 1) the lies must stop, 2) the admission of failings must occur, 3) the plan to fix these failings be laid out, and 4) the plan followed through in an open manner.

    • SFGZ

      I understand and share your frustration. It’s been more than a week since I posted this piece, and Murray is still silent about this. The longer he stays quiet, the bigger the hit to Hello Games’ reputation (and rightfully so). Bear in mind that when I posted this, it was still uncertain whether or not players could actually see each other in the game. Now it seems pretty obvious that they can’t. I’m still just a little uncomfortable calling Murray a liar, but there’s no excuse at this point for failing to address this issue (and the many others that have popped up).

      I’d like to think they’ll turn it around, but I’m not sure if they can at this point. They do have the money now, like you said, but it might be a case of “too little, too late.”

      In any case, I’m planning on posting an updated review of the game soon. I think you might appreciate it (Spoiler Alert: In light of everything we’ve learned over the past week, I plan on lowering the initial score I gave the game).

      • Rafael Heria

        Why in Gods name are you uncomfortable with calling Murray a liar? That is what he is, a bold faced liar. It is what it is. Would you be uncomfortable with calling a dog a dog? A police officer a police officer? A teacher a teacher? That is what they are, same goes with Murray being a liar. These are the mechanics that Murray said will BE IN HIS GAME, that he straight up lied about:
        planetary physics
        ship classes with meaningful differentiation
        faction reputation with meaningful gameplay impact
        homogenous resource availability
        asteroid landings
        space station and fleet destruction
        large fleets
        traveling freighters
        large scale battles the player can join
        in-atmosphere battles
        NPCs outside trading posts and other docks
        ringed planets
        sand planets
        flying between stars (as opposed to warping via the Galactic interface)
        complex creature behaviour including environmental interaction
        rivers
        points of interest such as large structures and crashed freighters
        hacking locked doors
        radio chatter
        interaction with other players

        Feeling uncomfortable with calling him a liar is exactly how he wants you to feel. We should all call him a liar. And you know what? AFter all the lies, I hope his company does fail and I hope Murrays life is RUINED as a game developer, because that will send a clear cut message to the rest of the gaming devs out there, do NOT f**k with the gamers. I am sick of all the shit these modern devs try to get away with!

        • SFGZ

          I suppose the reason why I’m *slightly* uncomfortable with calling Murray a liar is because I haven’t seen any evidence that he intended to deceive anyone from the outset. When I go back and look at his interviews from two, three, four years ago, and I listen to him talk about all the features he planned for the game, I get the sense that, at that point in time, he intended to follow through. And to me, there’s a difference between making false promises (aka lying) and failing to keep a promise you once made (which I don’t necessarily categorize as a deliberate lie).

          On all other aspects of this issue, I stand 100% with Murray’s detractors. I do not at all agree with the argument that refunding NMS somehow makes you a “thief,” even if you’ve gotten twenty or thirty hours out of the game. This game isn’t the game we were told it would be, and there’s absolutely nothing unethical about asking for your money back, IMO.

          I also think Murray’s silence is completely indefensible, which is one of the reasons I wrote this piece two weeks ago. And if I felt that way two weeks ago, you can imagine how much more strongly I feel about it now.

          When it comes to the lying thing, I want to first see how this all plays out. If Brian (see his comments above) turns out to be right, and Hello Games ends up charging us for DLC that includes the missing features, then that will be all the evidence I need that Murray did indeed lie to us all.

          The most damning thing for Murray is his failure to clarify what would be in the game and what got cut out in the weeks leading up to the game’s release. That’s the best evidence there is to support the claim that he lied, and that’s why I said I’m only a “little” uncomfortable calling him a liar right now. Point is, I’m definitely leaning that way, but I’m always just a little extra cautious when battles between consumers and creators start to get personal, if you catch my drift. I very much agree with the overall sentiment of your comment, though. Developers need to be held accountable for this sort of stuff, much more so than they have been in the past (the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer lie, which was most definitely a lie, comes to mind). Whether it was deliberate or not, NMS is not what it was supposed to be, and that’s not acceptable. Consumers deserve better.