No game this console generation has been met with such widespread disappointment, backlash and outright hate as No Man's Sky. The universe exploration simulator for PC and PlayStation 4 from creator Sean Murray and Hello Games seemed poised to take the gaming world by storm in the months and years prior to release, only to immediately fall into a dark pit of controversy and lies when it did finally arrive in the hands of players.
What happened? How did a game set to be one of the biggest releases of the year turn out the way it did? Who's to blame? Those are questions more than a few players have been asking themselves in the nearly two months since the game's release.
The answer isn't simple, but in some ways is. We're all to blame for No Man's Sky. Hello Games. Sean Murray. Gamers. The press. Sony.
No Man's Sky was a victim of runaway hype. That hype train was slowly built over time by the game's creators, looking to hit it big. It was built by the press who blindly accepted No Man's Sky's promises and praised its ambition without ever looking deeper. And it was built by fans, fans who obsessed so much over the game that Murray himself received death threats upon announcing the title would release a little later than previously expected.
Expectations were layered on top of one another like bricks. Unfortunately, No Man's Sky's foundation wasn't solid. Each extra brick added meant only that No Man's Sky's collapse would be all the more catastrophic.
Those expectations, however, do have a clear starting point. In the premiere episode of video game journalist Geoff Keighley's new YouTube show, Keighley remarked on how perhaps it wasn't the best idea to give Hello Games the massive stage he did when No Man's Sky made its debut at Keighley's VGX Awards in 2013. Almost immediately afterwards Keighley says he saw a change in Murray and his team.
"It captured our imagination," Keighley says about the game's initial trailer. "But as I sat with Murray and his team at the after-party, I could tell the weight of the world was now on their shoulders."
That weight would only continue to grow, as numerous E3s came and went where No Man's Sky was proudly shown by Sony as one of the PS4's system sellers. Reporters from an enthusiastic press couldn't get enough of the game, with Kotaku declaring the game to win "E3 forever" and saying it looked like "the most exciting game on the planet."
It didn't matter that almost nothing was actually known about the game until only a few weeks prior to the game's release. Gameplay mechanics, the true extent of the game's universe and much, much more were all shrouded in secrecy, and reporters seemed largely uninterested in learning the truth behind what the game was and wasn't. Murray's promises seemed to be enough.
Of course, when publications did try to get answers, they most often found themselves getting nowhere. Learning more about No Man's Sky meant talking to Murray, and Murray, as has been frequently brought up in the months since the game's release, wasn't entirely honest. There's only so much the media can do when a game's creator chooses to not divulge information or misconstrues it. If a site straight up asks if players can run into one another while exploring No Man's Sky's universe, and Murray says yes despite that not being the case, there's nothing more that can be done.
Keighley in his segment on No Man's Sky continues by saying he's "fretted" over the years that "we" - himself included - gave Murray too big of a platform, one that destined the game to fail. Sony, Keighley and others gave No Man's Sky the front and center promotional treatment typically reserved for AAA, first-party games that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to create. But "AAA" wasn't what No Man's Sky was. It was a small, independent game crafted by barely a dozen people.
"But no matter what, you have to be honest with your fans," Keighley says on the subject. "You can't lie. And Sean wanted to preserve the promise and mystery of the game so much he started to disrespect his audience."
In fact, most of the concrete information about No Man's Sky prior to release only came thanks to a few gamers snagging themselves early copies ahead of its official release date and posting details on Reddit. From that point onward, it was all downhill. The cat was out of the bag. Murray did end up writing an in-depth blog post on the day before No Man's Sky's release detailing what the game was and wasn't, but it was too little, too late. Thousands of preorders had been made. Hype levels were through the roof. Years of anticipation and excitement were already in place, and no blog post was going to change that.
The lesson of No Man's Sky, then, is one of expectations. Had Murray been honest with both himself and fans about what No Man's Sky was and wasn't, the backlash and disappointment would have been far smaller. Had the game not been marketed as an AAA system seller, expectations would have been lower. Fans wouldn't have been clamoring for refunds. No Man's Sky wouldn't be under investigation for misleading marketing. The game's subreddit wouldn't have just been purged because of being a "hate-filled wastehole" of angry fans.
But in the end, what happened is no one group or person is at fault. No Man's Sky was a perfect storm so to speak, a storm where one creator's unruly vision, big budget marketing and runaway expectations from both the press and gamers alike all came together unlike anything seen before. It might be too late for Murray and Hello Games to deliver on their promises, but it can at least be a lesson for the future for both players and developers alike.