We’ve spent so long on negative stuff here on the op-ed side of the site that I wanted to take a moment to step back, have a breather, and celebrate some of the actual good news that’s coming out of the games industry. And that means looking at one of the best comeback stories I think the gaming world has ever produced (Editor's Note: outside of A Realm Reborn's rebirth): Hello Games and their infamous No Man’s Sky, a game that went from the industry’s most reviled con-job to a game that’s actually quickly becoming a must-buy for any serious or casual gamer.
If you missed the No Man’s Sky adventure, then I don’t know if you’re super lucky or super blind. But here’s the short version: No Man’s Sky was announced during 2014’s E3, and in that show, it promised gamers the world – a seamless, richly-populated universe full of goodies to discover, a game that would let you carve your own path across a digital galaxy that was so enormous the chances of you running into another player was astronomically small. The game said there would be endless opportunities to discover, explore, and grow, with lead director Sean Murray making the rounds across any journalist outlet that would host him to talk about what a revolution the game would be. And in the process, he made promises. He promised the world was complex. He promised there would be multiplayer. He promised the sun and moon and stars.
He also lied. Because when the game came out, it was just a shell of the experience promised. Planets were boring and only arbitrarily different. The beautiful wildlife shown off at E3 in 2014 was shown to be lifeless husks that you couldn’t even ride. The gameplay was little more than a slow grind of gathering materials and flying off to some other desolate corner of a lifeless galaxy, and the promise that the universe was so large it was “extremely unlikely” you’d run into another player? Well, two players found each other in three days. And in the process, discovered that the “multiplayer” literally didn’t exist. Try as they might, they couldn’t even see each other.
Indeed, people were promised the sun, the moon, and the sky. And all they got was the empty space in-between. There was a shitstorm, Sean Murray’s victory lap became an apology tour, and Hello Games made an ominous promise: that they could fix this.
No one believed them. Why would they? The only thing Hello Games had ever shown was a willingness to lie and cheat. And the game was so broken, so shallow, it was hard to believe that it could even be fixed even if they were serious. The game was dismissed and forgotten, sitting in the trash bin of Steam with overwhelmingly negative reviews. And if Hello Games were like any other company (looking at you, Boss Keys and Xaviant), they would have simply let it slip into obscurity and try their luck again with a new game.
But Hello Games was not like other studios. And slowly, No Man’s Sky began a transformation. In November of 2016, they released a free “Foundation Update”, which added new difficulty modes, allowed people to pin a planet as their home, and construct a small base for themselves they could return back to after each adventure. In March 2017, the “Path Finder update” let you share a base with other players so you could all contribute to its growth, make new vehicles to explore planets, and added a host of other small new features and content. In August that same year, a third update, “The Atlas Rises”, allowed players to see each other and communicate in-game for the first time via glowing sprites, improved the game’s lackluster story, and added procedurally-generated missions to the game.
And they released all these updates for free.
Life started to return to the game. Slowly and surely, the game’s silent loyalists became outspoken defenders. Old, disappointed fans returned to see what changed. The game started getting an actual culture and fan-base, with player-wide factions and groups spanning the galaxy like a much more peaceful, casual version of EvE. You started hearing about people having fun in the game, role-playing everything from evil empires to pirate kings to café owners. No Man’s Sky was finally getting some depth.
And just recently, the biggest update of all was just released: Next. It improved the game’s graphics to make everything look better. Bases can be built almost everywhere and anywhere now, including underseas or in the sky, and will be visible to everyone in the shared universe. People can make their own fleets to send on missions across the universe. And most importantly, you finally have a customizable avatar, which can explore, fight and build with up to four friends.
The game is not only becoming what was promised: it’s becoming something even better. And Hello Games has made it clear they’re not stopping yet. More free updates are coming as the months pass on, which will expand the game into new and unexplored territories. Soon it very well may rival EvE – or even surpass it – in creating a living, player-driven universe. And it’s finally being celebrated rather than scorned.
This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about No Man’s Sky amazing recovery after a terrifying nosedive. Earlier I wrote a piece on if it’s worth it to forgive the company for the terrible things they pulled, where I came to the ultimate conclusion that it’s subjective if the lies or the recovery was more impressive, but I personally thought it was more important to reward the rare effort to turn things around than punish the all-to-common tactic of lying about your product. And with recent events the way they are, I find that belief reinforced, but for reasons you might not expect. So let’s bring back the two companies I brought up earlier in passing: the late Boss Keys and Xaviant.
Both companies were in similar, but not exactly the same situations. Boss Keys entered the Hero Shooter game at the same time that Overwatch came out, and tried a last-minute Hail Mary by releasing a rushed Battle Royale game called Radical Heights in an effort to release a smash hit that could save them from their financial woes. Xaviant, meanwhile, had a pretty good game with The Culling, which they ruined, and eventually completely shrugged off by releasing a PUBG clone called The Culling 2, which was worse than PUBG in every respect by a wide, wide margin.
Both companies try to ape the flavor of the month and got bit in the behind for it, true, but that’s not actually what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to point out that all three of the companies above had failing games: but whereas Hello Games took the bold and frankly unprecedented decision to fight a slow, desperate, uphill battle to fix their failing game, Boss Keys and Xaviant took the more industry-standard and clearly wrong decision to put all their eggs into a new basket… before that basket was even finished when there were much bigger, better baskets on the market they could never even hope to compete with.
But here’s the thing: if you think the moral is that you can’t give up on a game just because it’s going badly, then you’re mistaken. I’m not going to say that both Boss Keys and Xaviant could have fixed their problems by sinking more time and money into their failing games – that might have helped, sure, but I think it would be derivative to suggest that they somehow hadn’t already tried that first. A lot of games, from MMOs (like DC online) to first-person shooters (like Battlerite) have long and storied histories of taking new approaches and bold new risks in the effort to reinvigorate a failing playerbase.
What I’m saying is that Boss Keys and Xaviant had shot themselves in the foot from the word “go” when they invested anything into Lawbreakers and The Culling, respectively. Specifically, no matter how much time and money and effort they put into improving those games, they would still be a Hero Shooter and a small-time Battle Royale game, respectively. And as long as those games were in those genres, they would always be competing with better games that had a better head-start and weren’t going to be dethroned. No one was going to stop playing Overwatch for Lawbreakers. No one is going to say, “I’m not up for Fortnite right now – who wants to do The Culling?”
No Man’s Sky, however, is in a different ballpark altogether. People had to give it a second chance because it was the only act in town. People were willing to come back to it because the niche that it promised to fill hadn’t been satisfactorily filled by other games, or if it had (by, say, Subnautica), it was a finite experience that people would want more of. Unlike, say, a Battle Royale game, where it’s designed around replayability and you only need one game to satisfy that need.
The fact that No Man’s Sky was different in the first place was why it could make this amazing comeback. The fact that No Man’s Sky was willing to be something new at all was why people kept coming back to it. And as long as we have stupid developers chasing trends – no matter if they’re hero shooters or Battle Royales – they’ll never get the chance to be as inspiring and cool as Hello Games.
So that’s the real lesson folks should be taking from No Man’s Sky.