No Man's Sky And The Power Of Saying No

Image: Kotaku

There have been a lot of articles on No Man's Sky since launch, but I haven’t read anything I completely agree with. I think that’s largely because the game and its marketing are simultaneously great and terrible, and most people have focused on one aspect or the other.

To my mind, articles to date have missed two key points.

  1. Most have focused on whether the PR approach for NMS is good (see Rami Ismail) or bad (as Ben Kuchera says). I think both of those perspectives are wrong. because NMS’s PR has included elements of both — which is what makes it an interesting case, and is why people are still talking about it now.
  2. Lots of people are discussing whether the current response from Hello Games (silence) is a good idea, and are asking what they could be doing instead. I’m going to discuss some concrete ways Hello could get past this situation.

I’m not going to try and talk about the merit of NMS as a game; if you want to read about that, there are many excellent articles. I like Brendan’s notes.

I’m going to focus on the marketing, and why a significant part of it was very poorly handled, and also why that’s a bad idea in the current market.

I can’t count the number of times during the Kickstarter or Early Access for Hand of Fate that we were asked about character customisation or multiplayer. The easiest answer to anyone who might buy your game sight unseen is “Maybe? It’s not in now, but we’re trying.” The second easiest answer is simply to ignore the question.

The hard answer, at least at the time, is to say “No.” No means that the person might decide not to buy your game. No means that you’re failing to be all things to all people. No drives people away.

Image: Hello Games
Before the game launches, Yes is always an answer that grows your market, and No will always turn somebody away.


During development, and after ship, we’ve said yes to a lot of things, when we determine that they align with the goals we’ve set out to achieve. The best parts of our game come from honing our relationship with players and building on their feedback. At the same time, we’ve had to say “No” a lot more times.

When we were coming to the end of Early Access for Hand of Fate, we were lucky enough to watch Planetary Annihilation go through the process of going from EA to full release first. Despite releasing a game that was damn close to the game they announced way back at the start of their Kickstarter they missed out on providing an Offline mode. That feature got rolled into the a patch a month later.

Their audience — at least the vocal parts of their audience, ate them alive for that. What should have been a glorious launch became a lot less glorious, despite them achieving an incredible amount with their backers support — and in many areas delivering above and beyond their initial proposal.

Because of Planetary Annihilation, and because we understood No, we took a very gradual approach to moving out of Early Access. With every build, we’d been busy telling people what we were working on. In some cases, that meant saying “No, we haven’t fixed specific issue X or Y, but that’s because this month we’re working on Z.” Through regular (every 4–6 week) releases we built the trust that even if we weren’t dealing with the specific issue in this build, if we said we were going to address it we would.

Image: Supplied
Players consider you talking about a feature to be a promise. Developers talk about features all the time, and sometimes they don’t get into the final game.


Finally, we prepared for launch. We did this over the course of three months. First we gave our players a warning that features would lock next month, and the next month we hit lock. The game was feature complete, and from here it was bug fixes and polish. By being utterly clear about what would and wouldn’t be in the game, we managed to reach launch without any misunderstandings about what Hand of Fate would be.

In any case, I think that makes my initial point. Saying “No” to player requests is hard, but necessary during development. Most importantly, “No” sets up a reasonable set of expectations so that you can launch to excitement about what you have done, rather than what you have not.

The counter to that is that marketing is always about selling the dream, not the features. Great marketing campaigns always approach from the position of the player fantasy rather than coming in with a list of features. No Mans Sky captured an amazing player fantasy early on, and sold it incredibly well. From the very first videos, it conjured up free travel and exploration through an infinitely varied universe.

As I said in my intro — there are two marketing campaigns wrapped around each other here. One is a brilliant example of selling the sizzle, not the steak. It sets up a clear fantasy for the player, and allows them to dream of the ways they’ll interact with it. The other is a complete nightmare of saying “Yes,” to every question that arises from that dream, even when those features are not actually at a point where they’re ready to be spoken about (or potentially were planned at all). In some cases, those two approachs are present in exactly the same sentence.

It’s this duality that makes it hard to discuss NMS clearly. Anyone who says the marketing is bad is wrong. Some of the marketing was genius. Anyone who says the marketing was good is wrong. Some of the marketing represents the worst stumble any developer has made this decade.


What Next?

Image: Kotaku

It’s no surprise that Hello Games has gone silent post release. Presented with an enormous wave of vitriol, the natural response is to pull ones head in for fear it will get cut off. I’m sure that Sean is thinking “My mouth got me into this, I better not risk it getting me in further.”

That’s not the worst approach by a long shot. There are a lot of reasons that Hello Games should be careful about what they say from this point on. They certainly have the potential to make a bad situation worse, and over time the fire will die down on its own.

That said, I don’t think the current situation requires a professional in order to achieve a better outcome than Hello Games has managed through silence. People love to watch somebody fall from grace, and the public loves to watch somebody cut down to size, true.

They also love a redemption story. Remember Marion Berry, the DC Mayor who was arrested for smoking crack, while his city was caught in the midst of a crack epidemic? He got out of jail, ran for Mayor again and was elected. Public repentance followed by redemption is an even more appealing story than the fall from grace.

How does Hello Games reach the point where this becomes a story of redemption, rather than horror? First they need to clearly own and apologise for the error. Then they need to discuss with the public what they’re doing, and what they’re not.

Image: Hello Games
Now, if I’d just released a game that had made millions of dollars in profits while also causing a complete shitstorm of PR, I’d use some of that money to get me out of the situation.


Pull the bandaid off, rather than let people wonder what features are coming in the future (at the moment there’s a laundry list of features that players think have been “promised” — get rid of the speculation. Say no to a bunch of stuff). Then support the hell out of NMS for the next year.

It sounds simple, and in one sense it is. It’s also an incredible amount of work, and if NMS hadn’t made a tonne of money it might not be worthwhile work. Yet the fact remains that NMS does something amazing, and fulfils a unique fantasy even in the state it’s in now.

If Hello Games can turn this into a redemption story, they can create something with a long and happy life — and they can have an engaged fanbase for the future.


Morgan Jaffit is the founder of Defiant Development, makers of Hand of Fate and the upcoming Hand of Fate 2. This story was reproduced from Morgan Jaffit's Medium page with his blessing.


Comments

    good read. and thanks Morgan for Hand of Fate, i grabbed it after being made aware of it on this site, and i do not regret one cent of the money i spent on it. cant wait for the sequel.

    really looking forward to seeing where Hello Games goes with this fallout and i dont blame them for silence in such a toxic cluster fuck of hate that people spewed out. yes, i get you can get angry for un-met expectations, but there is no need to be an absolute wanker about it spewing forth hate. there are ways of communicating that get results, and unfortunately the reality of widespread hatred can indeed do this, but at the cost of peoples safety/sanity/well being/etc etc.

    flip the coin, and yes, Hello Games could have certainly handled the PR differently, but, they are human too.

    i hope they do release something that is great and redeems them, i hope for their sake they are in healthy mindsets and havnt been down trodden by the hatred.

      i hope they do release something that is great and redeems them...

      Hell, I thought NMS was pretty great. Not necessarily what I hoped it would be, and I can't play it without being glaringly aware of all the things they could've done better, but I didn't have that 'unmet promise' let-down that some devotees had.

        i should have clarified more. i meant that i hope with further updates, it redeems them in the eyes of those that were unhappy.

        me personally, i love NMS, sure there are some niggly things i wish that were different. but i rarely think about it while im actually playing.

    Saying no may turn away customers, but for me at least, I'll take honesty any day. I'm hopeful for a future where I see more news stories about expectations being met or exceeded, rather than the reveal of another nasty scandal about how everyone's been swindled.

    I must admit, not long after the release of NMS, I started to ignore the media and public comments and just enjoy the game. It's the best move I made, and I'm still loving the game today.

    For me, I can sort of appreciate their silence. This team poured their heart and soul in to the game and it's been torn to shreds. A lot of that had been "I'm jumping on the bandwagon" hate, but there has also been the issues of missing features and a somewhat buddy PC build. Like you said, they need to come out and discuss what's going on. Personally I don't need an apology from them, the game I'm playing now is, for the most part, what I had hoped for after watching all the vision released from E3 and beyond, whether or not Shaun did talk about features not yet included. But, in saying that, I would like to know what is next, what the updates are fixing, what additional content is being added? Just seeing 'Bug fixes' doesn't tell me anything.

    It's a fantastic game and it also has so much more potential. I'll be sticking around for a long time to come.

    How many times did Sean Murray have to sit through hour long interviews of non-stop fan questions? He said no to so many features. SO many. He was straight up like "look if you don't like the core concept of a chilled out space exploration game, don't play No Man's Sky you're not gonna have fun". He actively said that so many times and yet everyone pins their expectations to it and gets angry when they're not met. How about if everyone calms down for 80 years

      That's exactly the problem though, he said "no" to a bunch of things, and then said "yes, it's already done, I'm playing it right now" to a bunch of other things - which he really should've said "no" about as they (almost definitely) never existed.

      Most people I've seen are upset about the absence of features he said yes to, like multiplayer/being able to run into other people in the game.

        how many times does he have to say "for all intents and purposes no man's sky is a single player game" for it to get through people's heads though

          "For all intents and purposes" is a "yes with caveats" answer, not a "no" answer. All of Murray's responses about multiplayer are yes-based responses.

          Colbert: "Can you run into other people, other players in the game?"
          Murray: "Yes, but the chances of that are incredibly rare, just because of the size of what we're building."

          Interviewer: "How much interaction is there with other people playing No Man's Sky?"
          Murray: "Those were AI, those wingmen, but you could encounter other players."

          Interviewer: "Will you be able to play with your friends?"
          Murray: "Yeah."

          "We added a 'scan for other players' in the Galactic Map to try to encourage this [finding other players] happening." (note, this tweet was after launch)

          Meanwhile, game packaging in certain markets was printed with multiplayer logos on the back that had to be covered up by a sticker when the truth became apparent.

          It's since been found the game has no multiplayer at all. There's no network synchronisation to support it, and the game tick cycle pauses when you enter a menu. Running into another player isn't 'possible but super rare', it is outright impossible.

          A reasonable person would take "yes but" to mean "yes but", not "no". A reasonable person would take "very rare" to mean "very rare", not "impossible". Any form of "yes", no matter how qualified, ended up being a lie. It's perfectly reasonable for people to be upset that they were lied to about a product they purchased. And it's not even like the multiplayer thing was the only area he did this with, it's just one of several.

      The big problem with a game like this though, is that no matter how many no's you say, all the yes's are well within PR speak that amounts to, "you can do anything!" or "the possibilities are endles!" or "the limit is your imagination!" NMS was marketed as a concept more than an real product and like... how do not disappoint?

    A huge problem with gaming and marketing these days is the hype train created by developers, fans and the gaming media across year long lead ups to a title.

    I was not let down by No Man's Sky because I watched one or two trailers, maybe one a year, and decided I liked the vibe it was pitching and it's be worth the time I gave it. I was not expecting epic space battles or a giant snake. Was it my game of the year, far from it, but I enjoyed most of what it gave me.

    Keep your expectations low and your almost always pleasantly surprised.

    The marketing was fantastic. It was the game that was terrible. If NMS have lived up to even half of its mystery and wonder it would've been a revelation.

    I look at that second last picture and shiver. I imagine a broken door hidden from view with a bit of slime inside and a plant that whips down to steal a few HP. I imagine a "you already have this" and then flying up to head to a manufacture base on the other side of the planet for 20 minutes. I imagine a busted upgrade ship than needs me to gather 800 Al and 800 Ni plus a bunch of other things before I can leave the planet. I also imagine that one last animal for the catalogue that won't pop for another few hours on the surface as my suit constantly chimes that it's down to 75% power.

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