Disclaimer: These are my own private opinions, and do not represent negative reflections towards the developers who put countless hours into any mentioned game(s).
Let's go there. Let's talk about the biggest game of 2016. Let's start some dialogue because this game has become one of the most polarizing gaming experiences in recent history. Let's talk about No Man's Sky.
Like many other gamers, I saw that trailer during E3 coverage and I immediately wanted this game. Scratch that, it wasn't a want, it was a need. I needed No Man's Sky. It was lush and colorful and exciting and looked fantastic and was breathing some fresh air into the PS4 and everything anyone could ever want in a game. The rest is relatively well known history: the game came out, it wasn't like this trailer, many considered it a failure and a disaster, and many people got upset.
It's important to take a step back here and for me to say something: I like No Man's Sky. I find the game entertaining and enjoyable. I have put a handful of hours into the game, and I intend on putting in more. I paid $60 for the game and I'm okay with that. A very strong argument could be made that I have a bias in favor of No Man's Sky, and I want to acknowledge and own that. I'm not here to defend No Man's Sky or make you see what I see in the game or change everyone's mind and Steam reviews to a thumbs up because everyone is entitled to their opinions. I'm here to talk about why No Man's Sky, regardless of what you think about the game, is the most important game of 2016.
So back to No Man's Sky, and why the vast majority of people are upset about the game. Ultimately, the main argument against No Man's Sky is that people feel like they were lied to. People feel like they didn't get the game they were promised. People were told they would get multiplayer and they didn't. There are several things that people thought they would get and they didn't. The list goes on and on. Hello Games, No Man's Sky's developer, marketed one game, and the perception is that people got another. In short, No Man's Sky got on the "hype train" and didn't live up to the hype.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a previous example of a game on the 'hype train'
No Man's Sky isn't the first game to get hyped up and not live up to the hype, nor will it be the last. In fact, there are several lists online that describe this exact phenomenon. Some games are repeat offenders to these lists, and others are unique. The hype train works in mysterious ways, with several factors going into a game catching a ride on this train. It's never exactly clear what games will and will not get hype or why, but every year there is "that one game" that everyone just goes nuts for, and No Man's Sky was that game.
Let's forget game design for a minute. Let's look at all of this from a business perspective. Hello Games is a company, and as a company, they have one singular product to sell to consumers. That one singular product is No Man's Sky. As with any company, Hello Games needs to sell enough of that sku in order to pay their employees, pay their office space rent, acquire new talent... they need to sell that sku to stay in business. Clearly, it is in Hello Games' best interest to sell that sku and for No Man's Sky to catch hype. Strictly from a business perspective, the No Man's Sky launch couldn't have gone better.
So we've talked about what happened to No Man's Sky, now let's talk about why it's important. There are several pseudo unique factors at play here behind No Man's Sky which make it a trailblazer in it's own unique way.
One of many marketing materials perceived to be different in game with No Man's Sky
No Man's Sky is a $60 indie title. The market is flooded with indie titles right now. The explosion of the indie dev scene has been alive and well for about six years now, so by itself, the launch of No Man's Sky is relatively unimportant. What makes this launch important is the fact that Hello Games is charging $60 for their game. Most indies keep their games quite cheap, and several indie titles priced lower than No Man's Sky are considered expensive. A quick glance though the Steam reviews will reveal that this $60 price tag is a common argument and point of frustration against the game.
No Man's Sky underwent a very unique marketing campaign. Ultimately, not much was known about No Man's Sky on launch. Gameplay elements were not openly discussed or showcased, so really the only information gamers had was what they were told by the developer, and what they saw in trailers. Although there is some crossover between the trailers and information the developers provided, by and large this crossover is overshadowed by a perceived disconnect. That perceived disconnect goes beyond the "this game didn't live up to the hype" argument and into the "I as a consumer of this product was lied to" argument.
No Man's Sky is not the only product that has struggled on launch day. There's another argument against No Man's Sky that we haven't touched on yet, and in this particular instance, it's pretty important. Not only was No Man's Sky criticized from a gameplay perspective on launch day, but people also experienced issues with the game from a technical perspective. Yes, the launch of No Man's Sky was bad. However, the launch of No Man's Sky is not the only bad launch in gaming's history. There have been other games that struggled on launch day. Many considered Assassin's Creed Unity unplayable at launch due to technical issues. Like No Man's Sky, Assassin's Creed Unity isn't alone when it comes to launch day woes.
An in game screenshot from No Man's Sky
So here's where we go full circle, and here's where we look at why No Man's Sky is the most important game of 2016. No Man's Sky has the potential to set several precedents for game development moving forward. Although some people are using the game launch as an opportunity to make jokes or poke fun at the game, others are taking more serious measures. Most of the gameplay arguments against No Man's Sky have gone beyond the realm of not living up to hype, and into the realm of false advertising. Whispers in forums and online communities look towards class action lawsuits, with many theorizing these will be coming soon. A unique refund policy, initiated by the retailers, has been applied to No Man's Sky (although that refund policy is still relatively up in the air). Something like that has never happened before with the exception of Batman: Arkham Knight, and that refund was initiated by the developer. Sean Murray, founder of Hello Games, will be the poster child for why your small indie studio, regardless of how big, how small, or how much money that studio has, needs a dedicated PR and advertising position. Many will look to No Man's Sky as a reason why your indie game shouldn't be priced at $60, and the unique refund situation behind the game will further intensify that argument. All of the above events are being applied to an indie development team of 16 people, which is interesting when juxtapositioned against AAA developers who have had similar issues on launch day.
In short, No Man's Sky will answer the questions of "What is false advertising in game development?" "What is a game worth?" "What are the standards of quality for launch day, and are those standards of quality equal among AAA and indie developers?" "What is game dev PR and who is in charge of it?" "What role does the 'hype train' play in game development?"
In short, No Man's Sky will be a part of game development history.