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.