Hello Games’ ‘No Man’s Sky’ is a story of redemption. But the 2016 launch of the procedurally generated space exploration game was an unmitigated disaster.
In addition to complaints about the game’s relatively basic loop, players quickly discovered that promised multiplayer support was completely absent at launch. Those features were later added in July 2018, nearly two years after the game’s release.
Hello Games continues to iterate, with another major update due this summer. Today, “No Man’s Sky” is one of the biggest selling new IPs in gaming history according to studio founder Sean Murray at a GDC main stage talk.
But in 2016, things were dire. Fans felt deceived, and the studio wasn’t giving answers.
“Our release was one of the most intense and dramatic that I think the game’s industry has seen,” Murray says. “This is something that’s becoming increasingly common in the industry. A lot of games have faced this before us and after us. But unlike some of those, we weren’t facing just one technical issue that we could fix, and we were also a tiny team. We were six people on average making ‘No Man’s Sky.’ We were just 15 when we launched, and we were a little family. And as a family, post-release we faced some really difficult challenges. Everything that you can imagine from the worst of the internet, we hit. There was regular intervention from police and Scotland Yard and things like that.”
Murray’s solution was to go completely silent. The company took two years to address the issues around the missing multiplayer component and did not respond to press inquiries.
“We learned that the press wasn’t necessarily the right way to communicate with our players,” Murray explained. “When I grew up, the press led my thinking. I read Edge or whatever to tell me how to feel about development and developers. In 2016 and 2018 we found for a variety of reasons that the press operates downstream from the community, because things are click-driven as to what stories you would get served, we found that glowing articles would disappear from the front page, but a rumor would surface from Reddit straight to the front page of every website in a ridiculously quick amount of time. So, if we wanted to talk to our players, we needed to do it directly, so we shut down all communication with the press. It was fun. I really enjoyed that. I never wanted to talk to the press in the first place. I didn’t get into games for that, and I think I’m terrible at it. It felt like we were being true to who we were as a company.”
Hello Games didn’t just stop communicating with the press, though. Nearly all outgoing communication ceased. Instead, Murray went into data gathering mode. He directed all studio correspondence to his personal devices, insulating the team from an angry player base. Murray said that “drinking from the firehose” in this manner allowed him to start seeing player complaints as raw data.
He determined that most (80 to 90 percent) of what he labeled as “toxic commentary” was coming from people who were railing against industry practices like pre-ordering and marketing. After filtering out that group, he started to see a picture forming.
“The second most negative cohort of players was people who had played the game for about a hundred hours in the first week,” Murray says. “Their feedback was incredibly useful. Suddenly from this overwhelming news of millions of hot takes, we discovered some real incredibly clear signals, like 37 percent of people were stopping playing or frustrated in playing just because they didn’t like the inventory system. That I can fix. Not just that, I agree with you.”
So, instead of engaging the press or speak to the community in blog posts, Hello Games opted to use patch notes as their only form of outgoing communication. Instead of talking, the team opted for action.
“If we wanted to say something to our players, we had to put something in a build, ship that build, and then we had to tell people about it,” Murray explains. “There’s something really pure and simple about that. It informs the way we develop, and it will inform the way we develop going forward.”
He is also more focused on defining metrics for success. Murray believes that decisions become easier for a team that refers back to those metrics to drive development. However, metrics can also lead to challenges when teams compare themselves to others in the field.
“Remember that comparison can be the thief of joy,” he cautions. “When you release a game, it is so easy to fixate on how another game is achieving your metric better than you are. It doesn’t matter. Focus on you and your game.”
With “No Man’s Sky” now considered a triumph of perseverance and the next major update (Beyond) on track for release this summer, Hello Games is looking forward. The studio is currently working on its next game, which is currently in the concept phase.
And while happiness is highest now, Murray anticipates that just like with “No Man’s Sky,” things will get more challenging. At the start of his talk, he posited that his lowest emotional point is at a game’s release. He compares that to having kids and, eventually, sending them off into the world.
“It suddenly makes sense to me why I would feel so rudderless once my game comes out,” Murray says. “It’s my empty nest. My game’s out there doing its own thing, occasionally calling me. For me, over the last few years, I’ve learned to love tending my garden. ‘No Man’s Sky,’ for me, became the perfect outlet. It’s this huge universe filled with players and somewhere anything could exist.”
Looking ahead, Murray hopes that other developers can learn to rally around those that stumble as Hello Games did. He urges that the industry shift its focus from first week sales to long-term impact.
“Making games is never easy,” he says. “So if we’re going to do it, let’s not do it for anything that doesn’t make an impact. Let’s make sure it’s insanely ambitious and let’s make sure we savor the journey every single step of the way.”