The much-hyped No Man's Sky was recently released, and one thing everyone can agree on is that it's undeniably a game that exists. No Man's Buy, which I like to call it because I am a comedy writer and it's not a very good game and therefore you shouldn't buy it, is the latest game to get caught in a cycle that gives us impossible expectations. Games are hyped to an absurd degree, then inevitably fail to deliver, kind of like if losing your virginity was a multi-billion-dollar industry. And since that cycle will continue until Half-Life 3 is released and unlocks the seventh seal of apocalyptic nerd rage when it's inevitably less than perfect, let's examine the problem to help our grandchildren prepare for that eventuality.
5 We Keep Buying Broken Games
To diagnose a disease, you have to look at the symptoms. So here's a dinosaur monster break-dancing in defiance of the developer God that created him.
Disgruntled buyers made a list of promised features that were cut, and it's long. And they're not trivial -- interstellar war, multiplayer, a variety of spaceships, planets that vary wildly in terms of appearance, resources and physics ... those are the kinds of features that sell games and make buyers feel betrayed when they're absent.
But that prompted a huge backlash, right? Steam is issuing refunds even if you've blown past the usual limit on hours played, and peak numbers of concurrent players dropped massively. The system works!
Oh, except despite grave-dancing headlines like "No Man's Sky Loses Nearly 90 Percent Of Players," such drop-offs are perfectly normal. Man, This Sky Ain't Yours' drop-off is worse than usual, but it's hardly apocalyptic. People just rush to play a new game, then pace themselves once they have to get back to their daily routine. And those refunds? People are tricking their way around Steam's policy, to the point where Steam had to put a disclaimer on the sales page.
Yeah, it's premature to declare that, wait for it, the sky is falling around the developers, Hello Games. There are certainly still angry fans -- just ask the 36,000 negative Steam reviews, which represent a staggering, uh, 4.8 percent of the estimated 750,000 Steam sales. At least 4.8 percent of people hate anything. And another way of looking at 212,000 concurrent players is "Wow, this indie game set the 2016 record for players at launch!" That's right, this whole debacle was secretly a lesson in data manipulation.
Does that make it a good game? Not in my opinion, which of course will be respected by the Internet. I think it's a boring, tedious mess. Some reviews and players disagree, but whether it's actually any good is irrelevant to the fact that it accomplished exactly what it set out to do, which is make a lot of money. So what if it left tens of thousands of remorseful buyers in its wake? They fell for the hype.
And we fall for it all the time. Truly hardcore gamers might know Pokemon Go, a mobile game in the very broad sense. It was supposed to include a tracking feature that told you how close you were to a Pokemon, because the search is part of the fun. But the feature was broken, and their eventual "fix" was to just patch it out, which angered fans. They also shut down third-party tracking services, and another update wiped all the progress of some players. Having to re-catch fictional pets is admittedly the ultimate first-world problem, but if you had dropped 20 bucks on in-game purchases, wouldn't you be pissed? Fans have been demanding refunds, but at its peak, Go was making an estimated $1.5 million a day. What do they care if they have to give $10 back here and there?
We can all name examples. Remember how Spore promised us a sprawling universe but was only fun to play for an afternoon? How about literally anything Peter Molyneux's ever made? Star Wars Battlefront, Destiny ... sometimes overhyped games get patched, sometimes the modding community fixes them, and sometimes they just suck forever. It doesn't matter to the developers, because they already have their sales. So why do they care if their game is finished or properly tested or, you know, fun? Especially since ...
4 The Hype Cycle Is Getting Worse
I mentioned Molyneux because he admitted to making up features to keep game journalists interested, then admitted it again three years later, because instead of learning our lesson we gave him a bunch of money on Kickstarter. But can you blame him? Just look at some of the pre-release hype for Something Something Firefly Reference, You Know, Because Of Its Theme Song. Here's a lengthy Guardian feature about what a fascinating man Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray is.
Here's Murray on Colbert, in a clip called "Sean Murray May Have Replaced Morgan Freeman As God."
Here's a CNN article, three BBC articles, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and breathless previews from the industry itself. Read some and you'll quickly notice a trend -- the developers are always taken at their word.
They occasionally admit that the game might not be perfect because the future is unknowable, but otherwise they're all incredibly flattering previews that take every promise at its word. Perfectly realistic physics? Cool! Complex animal behavior and interaction? Can't wait! Note that the earliest preview dates back to June 2014, 26 months before launch. I'm all for optimism, but come on. I can't sell a million books by announcing that I have a great idea that will be written in two years, so why do games get a pass?
Game journalism tip: Don't write "boundless empyrean province" in your fucking preview. Tell me what the game is about.
The year 2014 was also when Dude, Where's My Sky? went to E3 and stole the show, wowing critics and winning multiple awards. So hey, here's a question -- why do we give out awards at E3? It's a controlled environment where every presentation is carefully designed to hide flaws, and any questions from journalists are lobbed at developers like it's a preschool softball game. That's like giving "Trailer Of The Year" to Suicide Squad because it had a couple jokes and a fun song. Except, of course, we don't give movie trailers awards -- they're met with honest skepticism, while game previews are greeted with the wide-eyed glee of a child who's just learned about Christmas. Just look at how previews compare to reviews.
When a game is released we get critical, but until then we take everything the developers say at face value. It's a problem that goes all the way back to Daikatana, yet we still haven't learned. For years, the talk around Shouldn't It Be Called No Man's Space? was all about how this one indie studio was going to forever change how games are made. But no one ever talked about what the hell the game was about. Even just weeks before its release I had no idea what you were supposed to do for fun. No one seemed clear on that, and apparently that's because there's simply not much fun to be had.
This was a game tasked with revolutionizing the industry and giving players an artificial universe to play in for years to come. It doesn't deliver, but is that the developers' fault, or ours for letting the hype build and build and build until it escaped containment and ran unchecked? Developers want to make art, but they need to make money. And if we give them endless opportunities to advertise without ever questioning them, well ... shit, I'd take that opportunity too.