How The Sky Fell: An Ethical Tale of Hello Games

The tale of No Mans Sky and how it became one of the biggest cluster-messes in recent gaming history is a long and winding one. One that was alluded to in my previous article on the hacking of Hello Games email accounts. There is so much to the exact nature of this series of events however that could not have possibly been contained in that one short article.

Strangely, in doing the research for that piece I found that there was little written on the whole debacle in a comprehensive manner. There were articles yes, but none of them really seemed to actually lay the whole thing out and explain it. Perhaps because the traditional games media had it’s own part to play in what went on. So I decided that I would take this mess and make sense out of it for the average gamer who’s lost in the confusion.

I should state from the outset that I have not played No Man Sky myself (beyond a few hours prior to writing this, just to have a foundation). Nor have any particular interest in such. It was not a game that I was overly interested in when I first heard it, so I hold no emotional investment in the game itself and the hype that surrounded it for several years.

No Man’s Sky was released on August 9th of this year in North America. A composite action-adventure, survival game developed by the independent Hello Games studio and released on Windows and the PS4. There are theoretically four basic modes to the gameplay consisting of survival, trading, exploration, and combat.I use the term “theoretically” because many aspects of these modes are not fully implemented or are too simplistic to really be considered a main aspect of gameplay. More on that later.

The general idea was that all players would occupy a shared universe. Players would be able to exchange coordinates with one another and travel to worlds other player have discovered. As virtually all aspects of the game are procedurally generated, the coordinates would allow a complete recreation of the world data that they had been sent with no other data needing to be stored on servers. The game proudly boasted the potential of over 18 quintillion (1.8×1019) planets that a player could discover and roam across. Promising an epic gaming experience in which each player would have unique worlds and adventures to experience in a massively diverse and complex world that changed and grew with them. A claim made before by games like Spore and Fable.

Which worked out equally as well as with those games.

When No Mans Sky was first unveiled at the VGX Awards in December 2013 the gaming press latched onto it as a potential game changer for the industry. In much the same way Minecraft was a revolutionary step in gaming. In fact comparisons to minecraft have not been uncommon, at least in regards to how the game was described as being developed. Sony was persuaded by Hello Games to help finance publication and promotion and presented the game at E3 2014 as a part of their own media event. The New Yorker featured the game as a part of its techfest, while Sean Murray (the games lead developer) went on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert to show off the games technology.

This is one of many video demonstrations of the game that were shown to the public that gamers would later come to realize were deceptively pre-scripted for marketing purposes. From the motions of Seans hand it is clear that he is not actually playing the game. As well as the graphics and frames per second are clearly greater than in the finished product. Several other falsehoods were clear in this games demonstration that would come up in  the near future as well. One of the most egregious would turn out to be the claim of being able to see and meet up with other players at 5:47.

Sony would later release a four part video hyping each of the different modes of the game. Meanwhile the gaming press lined up to be the first to give Sean Murray and No Mans Sky the most spectacular review blowjob imaginable. Adding more and more fuel to the hype train as the game promised more and more features, delaying it’s July 2016 release until August so that they could polish some key details that needed work. Sean Murray is quoted as saying in response to the companies no-show at E3 2016 “we get one shot to make this game and we can’t mess it up.”

You don’t know how funny that is yet.

Blinded by their own hype, there are several red flags that should have been instantly apparent to anyone in the press listening to the claims made by Hello Games. Most obvious is the fact that the gameworld is procedurally generated. Which while a good idea in theory, suffers from the problem that no matter how many configurations you can make the game still utilizes the exact same assets. Or to put it more simply; no matter how you rearrange the trees and rocks a forest will still be a forest, and largely indistinguishable from every other forest.

Given that Hello Games is an eleven person team did anyone in the gaming press really think that they could come up with anywhere near the number of assets needed for the game engine to not get repetitive very quickly?

If one looks at a lot of the interviews and articles that were coming out about No Mans Sky from Hello Games it’s not hard to see that so much of it is utter nonsense. Admittedly part of this could be myself having the advantage of hindsight but I find it hard to believe that claims like the following made sense to anyone who was really paying attention to them.

“Because it’s a simulation,” Murray stated. “there’s so much you can do. You can break the speed of light—no problem. Speed is just a number. Gravity and its effects are just numbers. It’s our universe, so we get to be Gods in a sense.”

The team programmed some of the physics for aesthetic reasons. For instance, Duncan insisted on permitting moons to orbit closer to their planets than Newtonian physics would allow. When he desired the possibility of green skies, the team had to redesign the periodic table to create atmospheric particles that would diffract light at just the right wavelength.

Redesign the periodic table? How exactly would that work? I realize that the claim was that they made their own periodic table, however I find it highly unlikely that a handful of game devs had the computing skill and scientific knowledge to account for  light defraction at the molecular level.Actual scientists would have trouble doing such things in a simulation.

Instead they could just be honest and admit that what they really did was move the colour sliders slightly to the right. However all throughout the interviews and promotional materials a continued thread is that they are making everything much greater, more complicated, and more epic than any game has done so far.

“The physics of every other game—it’s faked,” the chief architect Sean Murray explained. “When you’re on a planet, you’re surrounded by a skybox—a cube that someone has painted stars or clouds onto. If there is a day to night cycle, it happens because they are slowly transitioning between a series of different boxes.” The skybox is also a barrier beyond which the player can never pass. The stars are merely points of light. In No Man’s Sky however, every star is a place that you can go. The universe is infinite. The edges extend out into a lifeless abyss that you can plunge into forever.

“With us,” Murray continued, “when you’re on a planet, you can see as far as the curvature of that planet. If you walked for years, you could walk all the way around it, arriving back exactly where you started. Our day to night cycle is happening because the planet is rotating on its axis as it spins around the sun. There is real physics to that. We have people that will fly down from a space station onto a planet and when they fly back up, the station isn’t there anymore; the planet has rotated. People have filed that as a bug.”

A rather hypocritical statement considering one of the most complained about features is the games horribly unrealistic physics.

And yes Virginia, there is a skybox.

Physicists still debate whether our own universe is deterministic or random. While some scientists believe that quantum mechanics almost certainly involves indeterminacy, Albert Einstein famously favored the opposing position, saying, “God does not play dice.” No Man’s Sky does not play dice either.

Really, no normal human being who isn’t trying to blow smoke up your skirt is this pretentious. Again it could just be hindsight vision on my part but the warning signs were everywhere. Yet for some reason were not picked up by the gaming press at large.

One intrepid gamer managed to get his hands on a leaked copy of the game that was being offered on Ebay for a supposed sum of $1300. He and others who had managed to score themselves leaked copies began showing off gameplay footage from their playthroughs. Some retailers also broke the street date of the game which allowed others to get in on the act and put up their own video playthroughs before the game was released. Including several major gaming sites like Polygon.

Part of the reason for this was that Hello Games had pushed back the date to give out early review copies for the games review sites. This is generally treated as a bad sign in the gaming world as it tends to mean that the developer is aware of problems with the game and does not want reviews to ruin their day one sales. Indeed many of the playthroughs that were popping up online showed the game frequently crashing and much shorter than had been previously advertised. Sony and Hello Games had promised to give out the review copies once they had implemented a day-one patch. Likely in an attempt to fix many of the problems that those with leaked copies were already reporting.

A day prior to it’s release, Sean Murray took to the game’s website and spoke about No Mans Sky. According to Sean, No Mans Sky was never intended to be a multiplayer game, regardless of what had been said and hinted at before. He warned gamers that the game may not be what they imagined based on the trailers…..

Seriously, why none of those game sites saw this coming is beyond me.

Early into the games official release date two players on the PS4 attempted to meet up with one another in the games virtual space after one noticed the others username associated with a planetary discovery. Previously Hello Games had said that the odds of one character finding another in the near infinite universe would be practically impossible. Possibly as a way of trying to excuse why no one was going to be able to see their friends in the game despite the implied promises made earlier. True enough when the two friends traveled to the exact same world space and confirmed their positions, neither was able to see the other. The pair even mutli-streamed it on Twitch so that others could witness the meet-up. Many gamers took this to mean that the game was indeed not multi-player capable, which seems to have certainly been the case.

One enterprising young go-getter on Reddit took the time to create a long and extensive list of all of the features that the game was promised to have which did not end up in the finished game. Some of the major issues mentioned within the list are:

  1. No planetary physics within the games many systems
  2. Ships being altered to all be identical in function, control, and ability. As opposed to the many different varieties of ship which were initially promised.
  3. Factions being remade into something overly simplistic as opposed to the depth that was promised.
  4. Resource distribution being entirely different than what was advertised in the trailers and promotional materials.

View the extensive list yourself to see just how badly Hello Games dropped the ball in delivering on it’s promises to it’s consumer base.

No Mans Sky is hardly the first space-based game to make huge promises about massive open worlds and deep interaction and not to deliver. The aforementioned Spore is an offender most will recall. As was Destiny, and games like Starbound. What marks No Mans Sky and Hello Games as exceptional is the sheer degree to which they misled their audience. Once very optimistic and defensive about the game prior to it’s release, the subreddit devoted to the game has become angry and hyper-critical of the developer. Spawning several threads a day where it’s members air their grievances against Hello Games. Some in rather creative ways.

It’s even better if you sing along in your head.

At release No Mans Sky sold phenomenally well. In the UK the game was the second highest selling PS4 launch release ever, saw over 212,000 people playing it on Steam the first day. Numbers that dropped off very quickly within the first week until barely 2,100 players were playing on Steam by the second week (561 max at the time of writing this) and sales in the UK had dropped by 84%. While I’ve yet to find any information on the exact profits that the game made over all platforms, based on its steam sales numbers the game has made over 52,000,000 in sales (most of that in the first two weeks). I’m not certain how that breaks down in terms of what Valve and Sony get out of that, but I think it’s fair to say that the eleven man team that makes up Hello Games is set for life.

Sean Murray made his last tweet on August 18.

Since then he has been utterly silent to all of the fan complaints, accusations and anger directed at him and his team.

Hello Games itself made it’s last contact with it’s customers in a tweet on August 27.

And received much the same response.

This is not to say that the game does not have it’s defenders among the gaming community. There are certainly voices speaking up in defense of the game as well. Stating that despite all of its flaws and lack of features they still find the experience enjoyable. And as fine as that is, it does nothing to alleviate the fact that Hello Games has flat out lied and run a con on the gaming community. Hyping a game that they had no intention or no skill to actually create to anything near the capacity of what was promised.

With Hello Games now choosing to remain completely silent the negative voices are ruling the dialogue unopposed.Greatly increasing the general negative perception of the game. Sony president Shuhei Yoshida admitted in an interview that Hello Games did not have a great PR strategy; something of a vast understatement perhaps. Though a great part of the failure also belongs to the gaming press who should have been asking the right questions, instead of buying into the hype themselves. An act as simple as calling Sean Murray out on some of his more outrageous claims may have done a lot to mitigate the damage to both Hello Games credibility and gamers pocketbooks.

As it stands now the Advertising Standards Authority of the UK has launched an investigation into Hello Games following many complaints. Specifically complaints that the Steam store images show features of the game that do not actually appear in the game itself. Which may have something to do with Steams new policy of banning misleading images from the Steam store.

Hopefully this debacle has ended as a learning experience for gamers and media about ganes laden in gold.

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