My friends will tell you I’m quick to jump on games about exploration. I seriously adore the feeling of finding things never-seen-before by eyes other than mine. All of the Dark Souls series and the entirety of the Metroid Prime trilogy for example all scratch that itch of “No one’s set foot in here and lived to tell the tale about it” or “I wonder what’s over there?”. The feeling I get when going down a road few (if any) have traveled before automatically makes me feel a sense of immense wonder and sometimes power, setting out and writing my own story for myself by choosing this path. So, naturally, something like No Man’s Sky would catch my interest.
For the uninitiated, the few who are, No Man’s Sky is a game about exploring a procedurally generated universe filled with procedurally generated worlds, filled with procedurally generated aliens and fauna, and procedural procedural procedural. It’s like you took the dungeon generation of Enter the Gungeon and Warframe or the world generation of Minecraft and blew that up to the scale of an entire galaxy/universe. Planets are made randomly from a list of presets, which then are assigned classes of biomes, which tie into the kind of flora and fauna (if any) it can then make. Bam, you’ve got a single planet in No Man’s Sky. Now repeat that process for entire solar systems, economies, conflict levels, spaceships, sapient aliens, and loot drops and now you’ve got the entire game.
No Man’s Sky is known for three things at this point in time: its disastrous pre-launch and eventual release, its rise from the grave years on, and the constant love from developer Hello Games. As someone who loves the game, it’s really impossible to separate it from the way it launched back in 2016, running on false promises from the developer about things that would be present… only for them to not be. Players moved in droves to point out everything the game lacked that it was reported to feature (lack of multiplayer, a wonky terrain- and animal-generator, muddy visuals, etc.), and Hello Games (namely Sean Murray, the man behind the game’s promises) quickly found itself as the targets for massive waves of ire. I’m not going to defend either party in this situation, however, because both parties acted out-of-line, one by promising features that straight-up were not present, and the other for acting like Hello Games was part of a terrorist cell that would have to be violently purged from the world.
The game did have its defenders, but they also acted very very defensively at points and thus became a part of the growing feeling of “This game and everyone who’s a part of it sucks,”. Then things went quiet, and only the most dedicated of internet denizens remained to continue tearing apart the game and the devs. Talks were held about how to market a game properly, to avoid a repeat of NMS‘s pre-launch promises. Comments were made about how trust between players and developers in general were becoming strained in a “post-No-Man’s-Sky world”.
Suddenly, there was a ray of light from the small team at Hello Games. Patches began to be doled in through the rest of the year, culminating in the first sizable update to the game, “The Foundation Update”. It brought a few features to the game that the community was asking about, the biggest being base building, along with different game modes, freighters, UI and convenience changes, and general technical updates. It was a sign of life for what many had assumed to be a dead game, but it wasn’t really enough to put it back on the radar. From there, they kept rolling out new patches to make things more stable.
Then another update, dubbed “The Path Finder Update”, which really built upon what the Foundation Update brought earlier. It added planetary vehicles to use, base sharing, visual updates again, a soft version of “fleet building” wherein players could own multiple ships if they owned a freighter, ship specializations, PS4 pro support, a photo mode, and more convenience upgrades. People were starting to notice that the game was still kicking, but not in any groundbreaking ways. It hadn’t exactly won back all the goodwill from the gaming community at large, but positive word-of-mouth was beginning to spread: “It’s growing, getting better.”
Then, the prelude to the full resurrection: “The Atlas Rises Update”. The biggest update yet, it added a main storyline for players to follow, missions, dynamic solar system states, revamped planetary generation, new biomes and worlds to explore, trading economies, terrain manipulation, and once again general life improvements. But the most eye-catching feature was the “soft multiplayer” as I like to call it, which would allow for players to randomly happen upon one another and erect monuments to first contact. All they were were glowing orbs with names that you could make a monument with, but the implications of this feature evolving further was beginning to reach more and more people. Over a million new players got a copy for Atlas Rises, and the game’s “mostly negative” reviews on Steam spiked rapidly to “mostly positive”. Word of mouth continued to spread: “It’s good now, it’s fixed!”. But Hello Games wasn’t done.
They viewed Atlas Rises as yet another stepping stone, leading up to the true knock-out punch that would follow a year later: “NEXT”. The first time we as a community saw NEXT was its update art, which featured four astronauts. Four. More than one. MULTIPLAYER CONFIRMED!
The growing No Man’s Sky fanbase was ecstatic, and quickly put the hype train back in motion. Outside forces would continue to call the game dead and bad and all that, but folks who had stuck around were seeing something different: a living, healthy (if recovering) game that was being nurtured back to health by a devoted, driven developer. Hello Games was still its usual quiet self about NEXT details, but once they did emerge with specifics, the community responded with vigorous applause. A trailer was released that set the entire Discord server into hysterics, fans excitedly screaming about the ringed planets, the multiple characters running around mining and flying together, the third person camera… it looked like a completely redone game.
Sean Murray did finally break his silence in the weeks before NEXT’s launch, admitting to his failures before launch, expressing remorse for the way they handled it pre-launch, and lamenting the toll it had taken on the developer teams. But he also remarked the wondrous community backing, the opportunities presented to the team (including new offices and expanded numbers), and promised in multiple posts that he and the rest of the folks at Hello Games were committing to transparency and honesty with the rest of the gaming world.
As of the time of writing, NEXT is available on every system, and the game’s reviews are sitting at “very positive” on Steam. Sure, NEXT has its issues, namely some visual bugs and a few missing lines of dialogue and crashes, but the vast amount of the update is here and functioning. The game feels completely different and is, by all accounts, really good at this point.
Most developers would have distanced themselves from something like day-one No Man’s Sky. They would have left it to die amidst a sea of other games, owed up to screwing things up, then starting the next project. Hello Games didn’t back away. They got to work righting their wrongs, owing up to their mistakes, and going above and beyond to make this messy situation into one of the industry’s most fascinating cases of second chances. I personally haven’t seen such a rapid turnaround from the developers since the first run of Warframe, wherein it launched as a very barebones “game” that was written off by most but a small community of devotees who helped Digital Extremes refine and overhaul the game. It’s since become a total juggernaut of free-to-play games, and Digital Extremes has remained heavily in-touch with their community from day one.
I don’t know if the time will come when No Man’s Sky is ever able to truly bury its 2016 launch. It might not ever live it down, and people will still point to 2016 as a reason for avoiding it. That’s fine, and I don’t think it really should. A developer and their project should wear their mistakes, they’re experiences to carry along and learn from. Maybe soon, folks will be able to look at the product they have now and say “Well you started rough… but look where you are now?”. No Man’s Sky is, for me, the ultimate case of resurrection, the little game that could, the mess that became pristine (if just a bit rough). It’s not perfect, but it’s far-in-a-way one of my top favorites.
Congratulations, Hello Games.