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.
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 ...
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.
A lot of the hype surrounding No Person's Sky was over its sheer size. It promises over 18 quintillion planets, but that's like me promising you 18 quintillion pieces of bubble wrap. At first it sounds fun, if you ignore the economy-annihilating effect producing 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 pieces of bubble wrap would have on civilization. But after you've popped a few it gets old, and you soon realize that there's nothing to do but keep popping over and over again.
For example, the developers bragged that, within a day of launch, over 10 million species had been "discovered" -- more than exist here on Earth. But Earth is a carefully balanced biosphere full of animals that we eat, hunt, befriend, dress up like to have sex, and run screaming from. In Women Can't Have The Sky Either, one planet will have "big brown lizard" and the next "big brown lizard with slightly different legs." What few interactions you can have are shallow, and they never feel real in the sense that the planet existed and had a multi-billion-year history that produced the life you see before you. It's an artifice that popped up the moment you showed your rube face.
And that just sucks the joy out of naming a new species Hymenas.
But those fawning previews, instead of talking about what makes the game fun, talk about the technical innovations that led to its sheer size. No one wants to read about a game that's a precise refinement of a pre-existing concept. When you're dealing with a quintillion anything, the attention-grabbing headline writes itself. We want big, bold, ground-breaking ideas, even if those ideas fail. Here's a video that defends the game's many glitches as the inevitable by-product of ambition. But why does failure get a pass if it's bold? If I try to mix you a fancy cocktail and accidentally create something that tastes like rat semen, I don't get thanked for trying. I get yelled at for making someone drink rat semen again.
But gaming is an industry obsessed with size, even if, much like going on a third date with me, all the hype about length and creativity ultimately produces a bland experience. Fallout 4 is an 80-hour game with an infinite number of quests, but everyone in Boston shares three personality types, and every conversation in a supposed role-playing game is guesswork played out by a stroke victim. Reviews of Fallout 4 were unanimously positive, but if you read between the lines they boil down to "Sure, the role-playing is weak, and the combat is flawed, and the story's kind of boring, and it's glitchy, and they haven't improved the graphics, but it's massive! And lots of fun!" Really? At what point?
"Player character hate newspaper! Grr! Words too confusing!"
That's also what killed the Pokemon Go craze. Once you get past the novelty of the entire world as a setting, you realize that there's actually not much of a game to play. There's no goal beyond catching dozens of the same Pokemon so you can reach a higher level and catch dozens more that are slightly stronger. It's a game that could theoretically last forever, but the novelty wears off after a week because it offers only slightly more interaction than your toaster.
Whenever a game isn't a sprawling epic, fans debate whether it's long enough to justify the cost. Some players demanded a refund for Firewatch despite liking it, because they didn't feel that $18 justifies three hours of enjoyment. Even 20-hour games can start this discussion. You know, because 60 hours of mediocrity is better than eight hours of joy. You don't see an association between length and quality in other media -- no one's saying that Up would have been worth the ticket price only if it was a five-hour epic. And that association exists despite the fact that 90 percent of people who start a game will never finish it. So why do we want games that all of humanity couldn't explore in our lifetimes if the tradeoff is bland, repetitive gameplay?
"But Mark," I know you're saying. "Did you not, earlier in this very piece, point out that the backlash was anything but severe? What kind of man are you, sir, to change opinions as frequently as you change your trousers?" I assume that all Cracked readers talk like Victorian industrial barons, because it's the little things that get you through the day.
Sure, I did say that. But let's look at the kind of criticism the game did get. A lot of it was reasoned and nuanced. And a lot of it wasn't.
That kicked off the world's worst chain reaction, as a Kotaku writer got threatened for reporting on the delay.
Here's a random Reddit user who got one for making a YouTube video:
And here's what happened to a game developer who called the people demanding refunds after playing the game for 50 hours thieves.
Who could've guessed that angry thieves wouldn't react rationally?
Now I know what you're thinking again, for I have been given a great gift that is also a terrible curse. Death threats on the internet are a Bitcoin a whatever number a lot of something to buy with a Bitcoin is. Some grandma who uploaded her chocolate chip cookie recipe to YouTube got death threats for not making peanut butter cookies instead. She also got one request to make the cookies naked, and then that person got threatened and, of course, none of them will ever be acted on.
But that doesn't make them any less pleasant. Imagine that you're a game developer who's worked long hours for years on a passion project. You're not just a cog in a massive studio; you're on a small team with a personal investment in your creation. You announce a delay and get death threats and then, once you finally get the game out the door, you're lambasted with criticism. Not objective criticism -- that's there too, but it's buried under waves of more threats, of people calling you a liar, and of obnoxious idiots generally acting like you murdered their loved ones. What developer is going to look at that and say, "Look at the awesome way their hard work and ambition was rewarded! I feel inspired to outdo them with an even more ambitious game"? I'm guessing, oh, no one. It's a toxic environment. Polygon pointed out that Hello Games' lack of dialogue with upset fans has fueled their problem, but can you blame them for not wanting to engage a hornet's nest?
I'm sure the creator of this YouTube video is open to reasonable dialogue, though.
But that's what the hype cycle does. We don't judge games after they're released; we build them up in our minds beforehand and then hate them when they fail to live up to our impossible expectations. We lift developers up, then cut their legs out from under them. The message isn't "Nice try, here are some notes so you can do better next time." It's "You failed, and fuck you for trying." Then we wonder why games that try to break the mold like No Man's Skies Of Arcadia are both rare and inevitably disappointing. Gee, I don't know.
Oh, It's A Play On No Man's Land; I Just Got It will be getting free content updates, and the modding community is diving into it too. The game will probably be significantly better in a year or two. That brings to mind another disappointing game -- Destiny. When I bought Robo Peter Dinklage's Magical Standing Around Adventure on launch day in 2014, it was a lackluster shooter with a nonexistent story, vague and poorly structured post-game content, a shocking lack of multiplayer features, and a loot system that nakedly exploited tedious grinding. It was another victim of the hype cycle, a huge disappointment for a game that was touted as the most expensive ever made -- a budget that would supposedly be worth it when it revolutionized shooters forever.
Well, it didn't. I got bored and moved on within days. But, in the two years since I left Destiny behind, I've been reassured that it actually got pretty damn great thanks to its multiple large content expansions. You just had two wait two years and spend $140 on all of the content. Oh, and there's another $30 expansion coming, so make that $170.
They also had the audacity to charge you for a hammer dance emote.
When people say that Destiny is a lot of fun now, I fully believe them. But I also have no interest in spending that much to experience the non-garbage version of a game I already bought two years ago. Many other games have come out in that time, and they're not demanding nearly as much from me. It's nice that Destiny was able to turn itself around, but maybe, just maybe, instead of promising the world, delivering a slap in the face, then spending two years charging money to repair the damage, you should try to get it right the first time. I don't get to slap my dick around the keyboard, publish the results, then edit it into something coherent two weeks later after readers point out that "6 Things That Stuff" isn't actually a subject.
But Destiny will ultimately be remembered as a good game, not one that launched as a disappointment missing important features. And it's easier and more financially viable for developers to hype their game up, release a broken mess, rake in sales anyway because we fell for the hype, then spend years slowly building the game up to what it was supposed to be from the start. Hell, sometimes fans can take care of that last step for them.
Even if they have to struggle the whole damn way.
The economics of why games are so expensive to make that they eventually need to be shoved out the door like unprepared baby birds is a whole different subject. But regardless of where the fault of overhype lies, we get lured into a false sense of security by the slow improvement of bad games, then fall for the same crap all over again when the hype cycle restarts with the next game. You want Half-Life 3 to blow everyone's mind without disappointment? Have it show up completely unannounced. Because if it gets its dick sucked for years like No Man's Sky did, we'll hate it too.
For more from Mark, check out 7 Random Pieces Of U.S. Culture That Are Weirdly Huge Overseas and 6 Famous Movie Moments That Look Hilarious With CGI Removed.
Also, follow us on Facebook, and come play No Man's Buy with us.
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The smallest changes in these men's lives would have changed all of history.
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