No Man’s Sky Could Be Headed Toward Redemption (And Why This Might Be a Bad Thing)

No Man's Sky's "Foundation" update is bringing back thousands of players to Steam. Here's why that might be a bad thing...

It’s no secret that No Man’s Sky has had one of the worst debuts in recent video game history. The game has not only seen a steep drop in player count and price only three months after release, but it’s developer, Hello Games, has even been investigated by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority for misleading consumers during No Man’s Sky‘s marketing phase. (The ASA found Hello Games not guilty, by the way.) Even the game’s Amazon page is riddled with negative reviews regarding false promises and a lack of content. To make matters even worse, Hello Games founder Sean Murray seemed to have a meltdown in October, tweeting over the studio’s official account that No Man’s Sky had been a mistake. (The studio blamed this on a hack of its Twitter account and email server, although Murray’s purportedly fake statement to Polygon does seem to speak many truths.)

Once touted as one of the most ambitious games ever made – with the promise of 18 quintillion planets to explore, mine, settle in, and fight for – No Man’s Sky has had a fall from grace that’s been fascinating to watch. I’m not sure I’ve seen this much ire towards a single game since Assassin’s Creed Unity failed to animate women’s faces correctly (or be a playable game at all).

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Yet, this might not be the end for No Man’s Sky after all. While AC Unity‘s mistakes seriously affected the sales of its successor and changed Ubisoft’s attitude regarding yearly releases for the franchise, No Man’s Sky has actually gained quite a few players back this week, according to Kotaku, who found that the game’s concurrent player count on Steam had gone from 200-500 to a peak of 8,090 players this past Sunday. This puts the game back on Steam’s Top 100, where it first debuted in August with an average of 36,976 concurrent players at its peak. As of Wednesday evening, No Man’s Sky had a peak player count of 6,661. While No Man’s Sky player count on Steam is slowly falling again, it could be an indication that players, no matter how angry they might be, are willing to come back.

(Admittedly, Steam numbers don’t account for No Man’s Sky‘s entire playerbase. We don’t know how many people are still playing the game on the PlayStation 4, although it would be reasonable to assume that there’s a direct correlation between Steam’s player count and the PS4’s.)

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The recent increase in players is due to the “Foundation” update that introduced new content to No Man’s Sky late last week. The update added a survival mode in which resources are scarce as well as the ability to build settlements on planets in creative mode.

— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) November 27, 2016

While Hello Games has a very long way to go to deliver on all the promises made, the “Foundation” update could indeed begin to make things right, even if the game never meets its true, unattainable potential. Many players seem to be willing to give the game a second chance. This could be the start of a redemption story for Hello Games and its severely overhyped procedurally-generated space exploration game that couldn’t possibly meet fans’ expectations. 

In a blog post, Hello Games promised that the “Foundation” update is, like its name suggests, “a foundation for things to come.” Of course, a promise from Hello Games isn’t worth as much these days, and many former fans have responded to the return of Murray’s studio with even more anger due to the lack of transparency in the game’s post-launch development. Murray and Hello Games had gone pretty much radio silent since late September, not offering as much as an update on what they were doing to improve the state of the game. To many, this was a statement of defeat, a sign that the studio was abandoning the game so many fans had doled out $60 for (and in one case $1300 to play the game early).

Fans have every right to be mad. Hello Games’ silence is pretty much unfounded, especially so soon after releasing a game. It’ll certainly be written in the history books that the studio was ill-prepared for any sort of damage control. (Yet I can’t imagine a scenario where Hello Games didn’t expect at least a little backlash for the game’s lack of content, even if the internet actually eventually taken to completely revisiting all of Murray’s allegedly false promises. Did the studio severely underestimate internet outrage culture?) But will fans continue boycotting No Man’s Sky if Hello Games is able to deliver even a sliver of the game’s proposed ambition? 

The easy answer is that, even if people eventually get over 2016’s biggest gaming controversy long enough to stop tweeting about it, it doesn’t even matter. Interest always wanes in the months following a big game release. Especially in the case of a failed one. Even a game marred by significantly fewer problems, such as Evolve, struggled to bring people back after Turtle Rock Studios relaunched the game as a free-to-play title, Evolve: Stage 2. (I have to point out that Square Enix also relaunched Final Fantasy XIV years after it originally bombed and FFXIV: A Realm Reborn now enjoys a playerbase of 6 million people. And you still have to pay for it.) It might be too late for No Man’s Sky, no matter what happens.

Yet, No Man’s Sky is unlike any failure we’ve seen before, dominating the conversation from game of the century to biggest disappointment of 2016. The game was so over-hyped for so long that many players may be willing to return at the first hint of an improvement – such as the one they’re currently enjoying – anything that might begin to give them what No Man’s Sky originally promised.

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After all, there isn’t much functionally wrong within the unfinished package. Beyond a clunky UI and minor bugs, No Man’s Sky is certainly playable if you’re into walking and not much else on different colored planets. Instead, No Man’s Sky‘s problems orbit around it like a floating ring of space garbage made up of hype and expectations. Many fans feel that Murray built a wall of lies between the game and its anxious consumers in the months leading up to the release, and there’s more than enough evidence to show that a lot of what was promised did not end up in the game. But Hello Games isn’t the only party to blame here.

Sony, the media, and the consumers share equal amounts of the blame for building up No Man’s Sky to an almost god-like status. Not many people stopped to question how the studio behind a little side-scroller called Joe Danger could create such an enormous game that “would take 584 billion years to fully explore if a planet were discovered every second.” Instead, Sony championed it and gave the game plenty of time on its E3, PSX, and Gamescom stages. Even if Sony didn’t control promotion of the game, the company made sure to provide Hello Games with the podium it needed to make whatever claims it eventually did. If you were to look back at Hello Game’s partnership with Sony, you might mistake No Man’s Sky for a first-party release.

The media didn’t help when it came to questioning the message, either. Headlines such as this one only perpetuated the belief that this game would be the be-all end-all of gaming. And there’s the question of the many best of show awards the game won at E3 and other conventions based on promises and not the actual product. News outlets didn’t act as a watchdog as much as they regurgitated whatever Murray and Hello Games said about the game, and this is only the most recent example of how coverage is being increasingly dictated by game companies. (Like in the case of Bethesda’s new review policy, which means that critics won’t be able to review games before they hit stores. Gamers will be buying blindly, so to speak.)

Of course, consumers have proved in the past few years that they’re willing to “buy blindly” regardless of when review copies are made available to the press. Gamers’ susceptibility to things like pre-order bonuses has made it easier for publishers to release increasingly unfinished products that are completed after the fact with a few patches. Gone are the days of a game being finished once it’s in the box, and that’s because people are willing to buy them no matter what they look like at launch. This need to have everything first, before there are any informed opinions, is hurting gamers in the long run. 

Actions speak louder than words, as the old cliche goes. More than word of mouth or reviews or outrage or angry tweets or the hacking of an email server, gamers speak loudest with their pockets. If you don’t want games that break promises as blatantly as No Man’s Sky did, don’t buy them before you truly know anything about them in the first place, before there’s any proof of product beyond a trailer or a scripted gameplay demo. Think back to my earlier example about the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Sales are the main reason why Ubisoft has had to go back to the drawing board for the next installment. Not the hashtags or the meme of a woman’s disfigured face. It was YOUR pocket. 

The same can be said about buying back into a game that misled you just a few months ago. The last few days have certainly sent the wrong message. The fact that people are returning to No Man’s Sky after everything that’s happened can be interpreted as forgiveness. Plain and simple.

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So I return to the initial question: can gamers stay angry long enough to send a message? No Man’s Sky‘s growing numbers could set a precedent for future failures. If the game proves to be a success over time, as more updates come in and the experience is improved by an increase in content, it will be good news for the fans who put so much hope into No Man’s Sky in the first place. Yet the game’s potential redemption story could mean something worse for the future. Will other companies exploit the fact that their audience is willing to forgive being lied to? Undoubtedly.

John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Find more of his work on his website. Or just follow him on Twitter.