No Man's Sky recently released for the PlayStation 4 and PC, and it's been getting mixed reviews – some fairly negative, like Polygon's rating of 6. What's interesting is how negative some of the social media reaction has been, and I think part of that is due to the sky-high expectations that had been set for the game. Kyle Orland over at Ars Technica summed up the situation pretty well in this article: "After years of vague marketing, this might not be the game you imagined."
Ever since the teaser video for No Man's Sky dropped at the VGX awards in 2013, people have been waiting breathlessly for the game. A dedicated fan base developed even before release, and there were many times in the media that praise was lavished on the game for its immense size and procedural techniques for generating huge numbers of worlds.
On release, though, many have been disappointed with No Man's Sky. The gameplay has been criticized as rather dull and repetitive, the procedural generation may generate lots of different visuals but planets feel very similar in the resources and other aspects. Numerous bugs with the initial Windows release added to the criticisms.
Often, the complaints seemed to be that the game was not what the player expected. I suspect that this was the result of players getting excited about the game from limited information, and then projecting their own desires onto what was essentially a tabula rasa. Hello Games talked about the procedural generation algorithms, and showed some beautiful planetary scenes, and threw around numbers like 18 quadrillion planets. As far as describing the game play went, though, the information was pretty sparse up until right before the release. It seemed like there would be exploration, and some crafting, and some combat, but exactly how these worked and what players would actually spend their time doing was not at all clear.
Here's a very revealing quote from Orland's article, talking about a post by Hello Games' Sean Murray, made right before the launch: "Murray clearly and concisely laid out the four key pieces of No Man's Sky's gameplay loop: exploring, trading with NPCs, combat, and survival/crafting. He also acknowledged, however, that the game exists in quite another form in many potential players' heads.
"That means this maybe isn’t the game you *imagined* from those trailers. If you hoped for things like PvP multiplayer or city building, piloting freighters, or building civilisations… that isn’t what NMS is. Over time it might become some of those things through updates. For instance, freighters and building bases *are* coming!... At launch though, it’s an infinite procedural sci-fi-space-survival-sandbox unlike anything you have ever played before" [emphasis added]
Basically, by keeping very quiet for a long time about what the game actually had you do, Hello Games allowed people to spin their own ideas of what would be in the game. It became some sort of Minecraft/EVE Online/Destiny mashup... a far cry from what it actually is.
So what's the result of all this hype? Right now, it seems like the game is selling very well on Steam. The game hit 212,620 people playing it concurrently on launch day, which is the biggest Steam game this year. It compares well with 2011's Skyrim, which went on to sell 3.5 million copies.
Is the message then that vague marketing and hype is a good thing? If your interest is a short-term one, it would seem so. It may well be that in the long run, Hello Games will make more from the game because of this early hype than if they had been more restrained about marketing it. Or, perhaps, the game may fizzle out quickly, with people not sticking around to see improvements made to bring it closer to what they had imagined it to be. Right now, it certainly seems like the added hype has paid off.
That's something I'm uncomfortable with, though. I'd rather let the audience generate enthusiasm based on how good the game actually is for them, not based on how good I was at igniting expectations. I suppose it means that at heart, I'm more comfortable as a game designer than as a marketer. At some level, though, I'd like to believe that in the long run I'd make more money by honestly marketing great products than I would by promoting them in ways that the games don't really live up to. Or, at least, I'll sleep better at night.