Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vaulting Ambition: No Man's Sky

In the gaming industry, hype can be a deadly thing. As a developer you’re never going to please everyone, no matter how hard you try, but crystal-clear communication from the marketing side – about exactly what your game is, what players will be able to do, and how they will be able to go about it – has become an absolute necessity if you want to avoid the pitfalls of excessive player anticipation. Promise one thing and deliver another (or, god forbid, don’t deliver on it at all), and you’re sure to be crucified upon the hilltop of self-entitlement and petulant rage that is the gaming community. Indie developer Hello Games, known only for their sidescrolling racing games in the Joe Danger series, learned this lesson the hard way this month in the lead-up to the release of their hotly-anticipated spacefaring exploration survival game, No Man’s Sky. Their relative inexperience in the quote-unquote “big leagues” of the gaming market is being sorely tested now, as they scramble to repair one of the year’s more disastrous game launches.

On its own terms, there’s a lot to like about No Man’s Sky. Players take control of a faceless, voiceless intergalatic explorer, using their mining tool to gather material resources, scanning alien flora and fauna, and hopping between planets and star systems in their personalized spacecraft. Soft ambient electronic music and occasional interactions with unintelligible alien species make for a powerfully lonely mood, as the majority of a your time is taken up by wandering desolate, harsh worlds, collecting the materials you need to sustain your life support and ship functions. Intense heat, cold, or radiation might force you to take shelter in caves, and hostile life forms might chase you around. Pirate spacecrafts can even attack you en route between planets. It’s an experience that’s rich in atmosphere, and the deceptively simple surface trappings belie an amazing technical framework built on procedural generation. Everything from the conditions and formations on a planet’s surface, to the beings that live there, to that planet’s placement in the firmament are randomly generated by a suite of powerful algorithms, making each player’s experience unique. This also allows for a galactic scale unprecedented in gaming: Hello Games boasts that their universe includes over 18 quintillion planets that are possible to explore. That’s a lot of flags for one explorer to plant! The ability to add custom names to the planets and beings you discover enhances this pioneering spirit, and also that sense of loneliness, since the vast majority of places you find won’t have been seen yet by anyone else (because even though the game is technically multiplayer, it’s too massive for player interactions to be statistically likely).

It’s just too bad that this remarkable technical achievement is overshadowed by the blandness of the core experience it provides. There are those for whom wandering lonely worlds and mining crystals, maintaining just enough oxygen to survive, occasionally seeing a weird creature and giving it a name (in my case, usually something infinitely puerile like “buttbear” or “pooptopus”), is enough to sustain long-term engagement. Some people enjoy survival games, where the moment-to-moment task at hand is the sole driving aim. I am not one of those people. I find that the same impressive procedural technology that powers No Man’s Sky is what robs it of personality and purpose. Rather than creating a sense of wonder, this computer-made content pulls me out of the experience, as it lacks the fundamental quality of intentional design. One world is barely distinguishable from another in any meaningful sense – all crafting materials can be found on all planets, and once you’ve seen one procedurally-generated monstrosity hobbling around, you’ve seen them all. The lack of a narrative hook that binds the experience together, or any sense of an overall goal, leaves me feeling stranded and bored. I could harvest materials and currency for hours and buy myself a better ship, sure. I could spend ages combing planets for stone artifacts that teach me alien words, so that I can communicate better with locals, yeah. But then what?

These problems with the core experience – which again I emphasize are subjective, and may not be problematic at all to some players – were exacerbated by a very confusing and rocky launch lead-up for the game. Early marketing material promised a gorgeous game full of seamless wonder, but many fans remained skeptical from the beginning (the rallying cry being “Okay, but what do you do in No Man’s Sky?”). Hello responded by announcing the four pillars of gameplay they had designed for the game: exploration, survival, trading, and combat. Focusing on any one, they claimed, would yield specific and unique benefits – if players preferred to be peaceful explorers, they could spend their time doing that, or if they wanted to they could focus on combat instead and become a sort of space pirate themselves. This soothed some people’s doubts, but left others still curious as to whether Hello could actually deliver on these elements to the level they were describing. About two weeks before the game’s official release, a Reddit user had purchased a leaked copy of the game on Ebay (purportedly for around $1250 USD), and reported an alarming number of bugs, missing features, and general gameplay and structure issues. Fans were dismayed, preorders were cancelled, and Hello game director Sean Murray pleaded with fans to stop spoiling the game for themselves, and wait for the official release. Further eyebrows were raised when review aggregator OpenCritic announced that there would be no pre-release review copies sent to journalists and gaming news outlets, and that the review embargo would lift on the day of release – almost always a smoking gun indicating that the developer is trying to minimize impact on sales due to poor reviews, based on concerns that the game will not live up to expectations. Review copies were eventually sent out, but arrived only a day before official release, meaning that most sites presented “in progress” reviews that were, generally, less than enthusiastic, matching the public outcry that had surfaced from gamers themselves (two of whom even managed to “meet up” at the same galactic coordinates, statistical unlikeliness be damned, only to find their ships weren’t even being rendered next to each other). The PC version of the game in particular was slammed for stuttering framerates, poor graphical rendering, and in some cases an inability to even start the game (I usually experience few of these types of issues, but my initial experience with the game was marred by frequent frame drops and screen tearing). It became very clear very quickly that No Man’s Sky was not the game fans expected it to be.

As a developer myself, my heart goes out to Hello Games. For an indie dev, their ambition was very admirable, and their technological achievements with the game are second to none. I’m willing to forgive Murray for his overenthusiastic interviews and broad, sweeping statements of intent – his lack of experience on the larger stage meant he confused talking about his dreams for what No Man’s Sky could be with hard promises to fans of what it would be on release, which is unfortunately how the industry interprets all public developer commentary. I refuse to join the chorus of self-righteous nerds chanting “I told you so”, because what I feel most of all is disappointment: that No Man’s Sky couldn’t engage me for more than a few hours, that entitled jerks on the internet were validated for their cynicism, and that a brave developer like Hello Games was met with such vitriol all the way through to launch. Hello, even though your game isn’t for me, please know that the vocal minority doesn’t represent the feelings of the majority, who are quietly loving every second of the weird, wonderful galaxy you’ve meticulously built for them. Ignore the haters, don’t give up on your big, badass ideas – and for god’s sake, hire a PR groomer for next time.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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