No Man’s Sky: The end of the AAA indie game?

No Man’s Sky has been receiving a lot of press recently, an incredible amount if you take into account that Hello Games only had 18 employees at the time of launch, and I don’t think this is taken into account enough. A lot of reviews and critiques of the game comment on the prevalence of bugs, missing features, and the sluggish response to bugs, and the slow release of patches, however No Man’s Sky is an indie game developed by an incredibly small team, with excessive feature creep, and a compressed schedule given these factors.

no man sky release

Hello Games with the final release vision of No Man’s Sky July 2016

Now one may say I am out to say No Man’s Sky is a great game, and will have potential if we just give it some time, and I may have, over the first day. However since that first day after release the intense lack of features, the excessive bugs, and, to be blunt, poor game design, I no longer feel this way. Don’t get me wrong, No Man’s Sky has appeal to a specific group of people, who love the game and will love the game to death, like most indie games. So where did No Man’s Sky go wrong?

 

The Hype Begins

e3 2014

Sean Murray at E3 2014 at the sony press conference.

 

Hello Games was founded in 2008 by a pair of friends who, by all accounts, had excellent careers at some of the largest developers in the gaming world. They quickly found a niche creating a line of games in the Joe Danger series. This continued, and the pair was happy with this success until 2013, when like most good indie developers, they decided to branch out. At this point most good indie developers create an exceedingly ambitious title which achieves a cult like following, who stick with the game though the good and the bad, allowing the studio to grow and mature, and create greater and greater titles with increasing audiences. So why didn’t this happen for Hello Games? What was so different about No Man’s Sky that caused it to achieve legendary status before releasing?

 

At E3 2013 a small studio released a trailer for an incredibly ambitious game. No Man’s Sky’s development team consisted of only 4 members at this time, and most who saw the trailer likely viewed the game with cautious optimism… except for an unnamed executive at Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE). I can only speculate about what went through the head of the executives at SIE, or how the concept was pitched to the board, but by E3 2014 No Man’s Sky was a key piece of Sony’s presentation, one of the largest of the conference.

 

Hype can be good… to a point.

 

This exposure to a huge audience catapulted No Man’s Sky to the forefront of the media circus. Allowing No Man’s Sky to achieve an incredibly huge audience, which under normal situations would be great, in this case was a death stroke to the title, and possibly the studio.

 

This deathstroke has only recently landed, and the ripples are obvious to most observers. Most retail sellers of the game have since allowed those seeking a refund to receive one. Media outlets are citing the game as an example of how hype sells, and the vast majority of players have stopped playing the game, some sources indicating that upward of 90% of the player base has since left the game.

 

Hello games as a company, excepting an act of god, is likely dead. Those involved are likely secure however. Those who had stock in the company are likely well off, over 765,000 copies have been sold, and at $60 a pop, that’s a revenue exceeding 32 million after Steam takes their cut, and that’s only from Steam, sales are likely to be as high from sony. That’s 3.55 million per employee in revenue.

 

A Disastrous Legacy, or a Cautionary Tale?

 

So in what way can No Man’s Sky be considered a failure? Hello Games had an unheard of opportunity to transition directly from small indie developer to AAA developer. This was a poisoned apple however, as we covered above. This incredibly public failure has ensured that any large companies will approach indie developers with an abundance of caution until the memory of No Man’s Sky has sufficiently dissipated.

 

This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, Hello Games was thrust into a situation they were not ready for, and likely any indie developer in this situation would not be ready for either. The fear that results from this incident is the withdrawal of support from indie games, which I sincerely hope does not come to pass. Indie games give us the potential to create niche games, which appeal to a small but devoted crowd, they keep large developers on their toes, and give us a viable alternative to incredibly bad decisions these large developers may make.

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