I spent much of 2017 defending Hello Games and explaining why I was convinced that Sean Murray never lied in the comments sections of various articles and extremely negative YouTube videos. I was concerned that we would lose insight into the early stages of development of other games if everyone who spoke about their work-in-progress had everything they said about their prototypes regarded as a iron-clad promise of that feature’s inclusion. I didn’t want to see this unreasonable backlash make other developers timid to talk about their games without every question being mediated by a cagey PR or in all likelihood lead to us losing all contact with those who actually make our entertainment products and who will act as spokespersons, talking about safe subjects like the identity of the protagonist and some idea of the story they get involved in sufficient to whet our appetite, as these aspects tend to remain the same even if the feature set changes in the years it is in development.
I felt this way because I had been working on my own dream game (much like Sean Murray, but for far longer), and thought that the out of control hype for No Man’s Sky could never be satisfied. This was largely stoked by its unofficial subreddit cataloguing every feature Sean Murray alluded to in interviews in their Information Repository, simultaneously taking it way too seriously, whilst also engaging in wild speculation about all the myriad ideas they would want to be surprised with on their travels. Many in the subreddit thought these would be Easter Eggs which they would stumble upon in the game, such as Space Whales. However, the games media was equally to blame as various irresponsible publications having headlines like: “No Man’s Sky, You Win E3, Forever”, which has to be the most ridiculous over the top headline imaginable (thanks Kotaku), didn’t help to check consumer’s expectations. Even if it had had a flawless launch and contained every feature ever mentioned in an interview, including those where Sean is asked if he can play the bongos, I think this hype would have left many underwhelmed. It seemed to me that only a few people were questioning “What do you actually do in this game?” and that struck me as a concern, not because a game of exploration and discovery should explicitly state everything you are likely to encounter in it upfront (quite the reverse, as to do so would dispel a vital sense of mystery that would motivate continued, perhaps, endless exploration), but because too many seemed to latch onto the unfounded notion that it was “an everything game” (with this categorisation being deftly parried by Sean Murray when it was levelled at him during the PC Gaming show in 2015), confusing the notion of a procedurally generated setting with procedurally generated roles to play in radiant quests with generative narratives that contained virtual dramatis personae which would engage in conversation with you using spoken dialogue that was neither prerecorded or prescripted line by line by human actors and authors but assembled from an jigsaw of interchangeable objects related to the topic at hand and spoken by assembling the sound files which not only matched the text but the ending inflection so that exclamation and interrogation sounded different from a statement, and unlimited tech trees of procedurally generated equipment could be disassembled and upgraded and tuned and traded as you hunted for those elusive Space Whales…
See the problem?
Expectations got totally out of hand.
So, why do I feel that Sean Murray never lied? Well, simple really. Nothing he said in early interviews is a promise that that feature will appear in the game at launch or with any subsequent free update. I am not even going to rely on the excuse that he never specified “When” to absolve him of guilt for features not being present at launch as every feature that was in the Steam store description of No Man’s Sky was in the initial launch version of the game. I take the view that these features are the only things that constitute a promise as they appear at the point of sale. I also repeatedly remind people that it said it was a Single-player title in large letters about an inch to the right of its BUY button.
People were so hard to convince out of the mindset that they had somehow been scammed by Hello Games that I became a little paranoid and decided I might be on weak ground, so I used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine on the Steam page to get to the first version where the game was made available for Prepurchase. It didn’t say it was Multiplayer. Phew.
Sean Murray told everyone No Man’s Sky was Single-player on Hello Games’ official blog, on his twitter account, the IGN News had a story on 8th August 2016 whose YouTube video is called “No Man’s Sky ‘Is Not a Multiplayer Game,’ Hello Games Founder Says”, following the link to the article shows that Sean then goes on to say “The chances of two players ever crossing paths in a universe this large is pretty much zero” this could have been phrased as “The chances of two players meeting in a universe this large is pretty much zero” and you might think the meaning is unaltered, but it there is a big difference as what he goes out of his way to explicitly commit to is something the game supports and was demonstrated by one player crossing the path taken by another and seeing the discoveries they had named. Sean didn’t expect people to see other player’s named discoveries and therefore evidence of the path they had taken through the game so early on, and I expect it was the motivation to get everyone to start off spread out around the rim of the initial Galaxy and work their way towards its centre as that way there would be more chance of finding planets and indigenous life named by other players lone gone. This would be the collaborative process of discovery that would make you feel that you weren’t totally alone.
I think that “player encounters” had been a feature early on in development and actually worked, hence they mentioned them. A lot of potential players got unreasonably excited by something intended to be a cool thing (which arguably ought to have been kept secret as an Easter Egg as it would have had far more impact were it to then happen in the normal course of play to someone not expecting it). I’ve seen Sean Murray since this “debacle” give a presentation at the Games Developer Conference on the topic of terrain generation and he talked about the difficulty of testing and how they had thought it would get roughly the same number of concurrent users on Steam as Inside (about 3,000) and then Sony told them to revise their estimates as they would be pushing it hard with equivalent marketing to an AAA in exchange for it being exclusive to their console, so Sean looked at Far Cry Primal (about 14,000) and admits, candidly, that this made him nervous as to the number of players booting up their game day one and the load on their servers. When No Man’s Sky was released it exceeded this estimate by some margin (about 500,000 with a roughly even split between PS4 and PC) and it was just as well that, I think, he took the strategic decision, to remove player encounters and clearly identify it as only being a Single-player game for the entire time it was available to purchase on Steam to avoid what had only been conceived as a cool Easter Egg causing their servers to collapse on day one and impair the ability of players to share their discoveries, which was far more central to its gameplay dynamic than the extraordinarily rare occurrence of actually “meeting another player” and seeing their avatar, which I do believe the game supported at some earlier point in its development.
Obviously, had they kept quiet about this feature as it was planned to be a cool surprise that may or may not even get triggered by anyone playing the game, but would be more likely to occur sometime after release as most players were heading to the same destination, and I thought, as a programmer, that the only reason that you would go to all the trouble to implement such a rarely triggered feature, would be is if it became an inevitability if players completed the game by going to the centre of the initial Galaxy, where I thought they might encounter each other, and perhaps find The Atlas and as I had seen the Game Informer cover where multiple ships are shooting pieces off the outside of an ancient double pyramid suspended in space, I theorised that there may be a wormhole inside that would take that small lobby of players to another randomly selected destination Galaxy where they could explore, claim territory, and finally build the bases that were explicitly not promised by Sean Murray during his interview with Inside PlayStation free from the harassment of the Sentinels. As I thought everything I had seen of the gameplay looked like a progression curve with no mention of its application to an end game and with everyone told to head to the same destination there must be a big clue in that Game Informer cover art as to what to expect.
It’s entirely possible that I was right, and that Sean Murray did indeed intend to provide this end game, hence the illustration, but lack of money and Sony’s insistence that No Man’s Sky hit its unopposed launch window meant that he had to delay it to make up an inferior story that undermined your journey (I’m talking about the Nada story that is covered in “No Man’s Sky Ending Explained” on craveonline) in my opinion and wasn’t what the team at Hello Games would have wanted to have happen if they hadn’t had to remove the drop-in / drop-out instanced multiplayer lobbies that would need to support not only two people meeting, but the same number of other players as in “joint exploration” (which isn’t smoking weed whilst engaging in a chill out stroll whilst in Creative Mode with the HUD turned off) which allows up to sixteen players to see where each other are located, if not what they actually look like.
I’ve tried telling people that games change during development for aesthetic, technical, and business reasons, but that this has fallen on dear ears. People seem to want to feel cheated about a game that clearly wasn’t misrepresented at the point of sale, many obtained refunds on long after Steam’s refund window had elapsed and they had continued to play it obsessively for hours. These are entitled scum.
Does no one want independent developers to take creative risks and make ambitious games entirely free from paid DLC, Microtransactions and Loot Boxes, but given exemplary free post launch support – which includes many features not only mentioned in those “controversial” early interviews, but which were in many cases not guaranteed as being part of the initial game, and explicitly identified as being a feature that would come after the game’s release (as in the case of base building, which Sean Murray said would make people settle prematurely, rather than explore further and see more of the game if it was made available at launch), along with other free features never even mentioned in interviews like the addition of ground vehicles, which Sean Murray never needed to add to appease anyone and has clearly included for himself as he continues to work on his dream game, his forever game?
I can deeply empathise with that as I have been working on my own ridiculously ambitious intergalactic asynchronous MMORTSFPSRPG for over twenty-two years as a hobby project to stop me from getting bored and depressed. Much of that time has been spent conducting the research and development of the new multiparadigm programming language that I know I will need to boost my productivity about a thousand fold in the creation of my own middleware tools, which will then allow me to create my own universes with a mixture of mathematics, simulation, recycled thematically consistent user generated content, and incredibly sophisticated state of the art coauthored narrative.
I nearly gave up on doing my own game when I first saw No Man’s Sky as I thought that no one would be interested in my procedurally generated space adventure, but then I got the opportunity to ask Sean Murray the question “Will it have cities?” and he basically gave a long, circuituous, reply that amounted to “No” for aesthetic reasons of wanting it to be more Tatooine than Coruscant, with more of the emphasis on the wilderness than crowded urban spaces. Since then he has mentioned doing cities in their official blog as a long term objective, but I was relieved by his answer as it meant that he wasn’t simply saying “Yes” to everything put to him in an interview (out of a fear that saying “No” would lose him potential customers looking for that specific feature), and it meant that I could distinguish my game by keeping to my original plan to have cities (indeed, it had never occurred to me to have animals in my game until I saw the VGX 2013 trailer as I couldn’t see what relevance they would have to gameplay compared to another sentient individual with their own motives).
As to the whole, forever game / everything game, topic at hand I am actively trying to make a game that has no end, where you are rewarded for consistent role play as a succession of characters that then unlocks more challenging parts, where the gamepad is geared towards resolving conflict through communication before holding a bumper to shift into a quasimode where weapons and equipment can be utilised, any characters you out rank which form your squad can be optionally ordered around, you can “hotswap” between different characters at any time provided that they are in your line of sight and of equivalent or lower rank, then progress up through the ranks until you regard the battlefield from an aerial perspective and keep going until the scope of the conflict is seen from a flagship in space, then from the point of view of an admiral commanding multiple flagships across multiple star systems, and finally up to the political level of commander in chief, which equates to the role of president which can be reached through non military progression as a civilian character too, in an emergent narrative that coauthors itself in response to player action, where you are not the centre of the universe as far as it is concerned and plenty happens that is of importance “off stage” as it were, which you may not even find out about, but which is important to the operation of the simulation and history of where the action is set and your character(s) interpersonal relationships with those that they meet.
Whenever there has been a choice between making it have a larger scale, scope, depth, complexity, I’ve always picked more in the knowledge that it is only there to provide an authentic choice and not to be content that has to somehow be completed. That would be impossible. Every choice excludes the alternative, you have to move forward and own your mistakes and adapt and maybe fail and then go at it all again with a new character. I have toyed with the idea of allowing the player to not “save” progress but to “rewind” back along the mistaken path they have taken as far as technology will allow and then resume from there with a wisdom of one more thing not to do. This can work in an asynchronous MMO as you aren’t in synchrony with other player’s histories in a persistent universe. You merely see space populated by the AI mimics of absent players and they don’t care what actions you take against them as those players see you as an AI mimic which they can choose to destroy if they want without having any persistent global effect on your status. It is essentially the same tech as the Drivatars in Forza 5.
Obviously, I recognise that the whole process of making this forever game has become a forever thing in and of itself, so I am focusing on getting the core of my language finished this year after losing all of my R&D recently when I mistakenly formatted the wrong external HDD to NTFS.
It has been a lot to remember, but a few all nighters and I have the majority of the core syntax, order of precedence of its operators, naming conventions, lexical analyser, and understanding why it supports distributed processing through the use of the command-query separation principle even if I don’t rush into implementing that aspect of things anytime soon. It will support live programming thereby avoiding the wait for code to compile-link-run and not be how you wanted it to be and require another edit. Here it will just be a case of changing code on the portrait monitor to see it instantly impact the still running game on the landscape monitor. Highly productive tools making even more highly productive tools that form a virtuous circle of increasingly high productivity is the only way I can see myself finishing this and it will take a long time even then. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I am encouraged by a playable prototype. Someone who asked me about it recommended I support VR and I’m a little unsure as I feel it is something that deserves to be played for four hour sessions at a time and that can be nauseating with a headset, even whilst seated, so I think I’ll leave that to others to implement as I doubt that I’ll see the final version of my game as I will leave it to others to build upon what I have already done – hence, the user friendly middleware tools, and eventual reveal of the source code in my new language once it has been used enough to have become mature and well documented.
I won’t promote my game by name, or do a Kickstarter for it, as I don’t want to be pressured by those who would like to see it come out yesterday because they are excited by the sound of it. If I feel that Sean Murray made a mistake with No Man’s Sky it would have been agreeing to a simultaneous launch on PC which I feel would have been better to have been postponed a year so that they could use the initial profits from the sale of the game on PS4 to hire a QA team to fix all the bugs in the PC version ahead of its release and have fewer refunds and toxicity from those who had had it crash a lot and not even run at all on their rigs. Also a delay of a year would raise the average performance of most PCs on Steam, as No Man’s Sky is quite a demanding game, and many tried to run it on PCs that weren’t up to the job.
That said, I don’t know anything about Sean Murray’s finances other than he wasn’t funded by Sony, so it seems that he may have needed money for the PC version early. I’ve only put £22,000 into my game over the years, I expect No Man’s Sky cost him a lot more. I hope he has made back his investment.