Sean Murray’s No Man’s Sky Talk Is Worth Watching

Sean Murray’s No Man’s Sky Talk Is Worth Watching
Image: Reddit (Omkitron)

There’s always plenty of news, announcements and personal stories from GDC every year that are worth listening to. But one of the most fascinating was from Sean Murray talking about what the No Man’s Sky journey has been like.

Considering how apocalyptic things seemed for No Man’s Sky at launch, Hello Games has done a remarkable job turning the game – and a heavily divisive public reaction – around. The game has received one substantial update after another, with the upcoming Beyond updating adding a second multiplayer and social experience on top of the one introduced through No Man’s Sky: NEXT.

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But getting to that point, as Murray explained on stage at GDC, was exceptionally difficult. For one thing, a heavy amount of criticism levelled at the company through their official email actually went through to Murray’s phone and watch.

“I decided to drink from the firehouse: Every mail that you send to Hello Games goes directly to my phone or my watch; we didn’t block or mute people. If you talked about No Man’s Sky, then I probably read it. Again – I wouldn’t really recommend it – it helped me gain a new perspective, and that perspective is that everything is just data.”

External consultants were brought in to assist the studio, and slowly they began to filter actionable data through the torrent of criticism. One statistic Murray mentioned: 37 percent of players stopped playing because they were frustrated with the inventory system.

Murray didn’t directly address the most aired criticism during No Man’s Sky launch, chiefly the promotion of the game’s multiplayer. The majority of criticism, according to Murray, was “talking online about topics that are very common and very recognisable and most games become a lightning rod for, like pre-orders and marketing or whatever”.

“They aren’t providing good data to use as a developer, and that was where a lot of press and prominent voices focused,” he said.

To help morale, the team created a separate Tumblr page where they posted positive notes from fans or things they discovered where they were making a positive impact on the community. They also decided to interact directly with the community via patch notes, rather than interacting with the media, because they discovered that the media “operated downstream from the community”.

“We would find that glowing articles would disappear from the front page, but a rumour would surface from Reddit straight to the front page of every website in a ridiculous amount of time. So if we want to talk to our players, we needed to do it directly. So we just shut down all communication with the press, and it was fun. I really enjoyed that; I never wanted to talk to the press in the first place, I’ve never really got into games for that, and I think I’m terrible at that.”

Murray then described how the studio began their ethos of communication through shipping. Based on the view that people are judged on their actions, rather than their words, the studio set a rule. “If we wanted to say something to our players, we had to put something in a build, ship that build, and tell people about it,” the Hello Games founder said.

An important element of the No Man’s Sky became a better understanding of accepting, and enjoying, the act of development. For Murray, and other developers he asked to plot a chart, the release of a game was the most unhappy period of time. Within that was a constant rollercoaster ride, where the happiness constantly peaked and receded on small things: A bug completely breaking a build, finally fixing a major problem, shipping a feature, but then finding that feature wasn’t fun.

Murray also briefly mentioned some of the worst elements of that launch period, noting that Scotland Yard got involved at one stage. But he opted to focus more on how the team moved forward, because he felt much of the existing narrative around games and the launch of games was too toxic, or focused on toxicity, as is.

It’s a fascinating talk, and there’s lots of little elements that are intriguing on their own. The whole talk only runs for about 16 or 17 minutes, and the perspective is fascinating to listen to. It’s also warming to know that, despite everything, Murray is still committed to developing “insanely ambitious” projects.

“I know that games and making games is never easy. So if we’re going to do it, then let’s not do it for anything that doesn’t make an impact, that can’t change things or can’t push the boundaries,” he said.

You can view the full talk through the GDC Twitch channel below; Murray’s piece begins just around 45 minutes.


  • So basically he blamed the bad launch on the media and thinks people commenting on things like false advertising aren’t helpful so should just be ignored…

    Wow, I had mostly forgiven the team for the launch considering the amazing job they’ve done since but this is a level of denial I’ve never seen before. The media didn’t put words in his mouth, he was asked questions (shocking for an interview I know) and answered them – sometimes with blatant lies…

    Before anyone jumps on me about “he was just giving his vision for the future” or something, the big problem for me has always been that he said it was a complete universe simulation – no skyboxes, just space with entities in it. The truth is that was never (and will never) be part of the game as it’d require rebuilding everything from scratch.

    • I think he was blaming media for making it difficult to move forward from their mistakes. Dwelling on it meant they couldnt move forward… by tackling small changes they worked towards big changes and despite taking years they turned it around.

      I only wish more developers turned around a game like this… the GDC talk is about that change to themselves and the game.

      That “denial” is more of an omission at this stage… if he went on stage and said “I Fucked Up” that would be the Title of this Article, that will be the trending twitter, facebook and google search… that does NOT do anything for the game bringing up a history he has turned around.

      They could of abandoned the game… they didnt, thats brave in an industry that will just completely shut down a studio for not being profitable enough… an industry that is watching every Anthen update wondering if EA will shutdown Bioware sooner rather than later, an Industry that is waiting for Bethesda try and avoid talking about F76 disaster while hyping whatever comes next…

      … Sean Murray talking about this is what we need more of, companies admitting they are improving and how, they dont have to fall on a sword and disembowel themselves on stage to be honourable.

      • I agree that Hello Games have done an amazing job post-launch, the game went from something I felt like I love-hated to a game I have happily recommended to friends – and they just keep making it better (dying to try it in VR).

        I guess to me it just feels a bit shitty to brush the launch complaints aside as ‘not useful’ rather than acknowledging the past mistakes and pushing on from there. I guess to put it another way; the amount of care and attention they’ve given NMS definitely has me very interested in their future games (including The Last Campfire) but without even really addressing the NMS marketing/launch, I won’t be pre-ordering them.

    • I watched a lot of the interviews, and to me it was clear, especially on the multiplayer stuff, that he was struggling to distill the answers down to something that made sense to the interviewer, and at any given stage, was talking about features that were in a current build or were dipping in and out etc.

      He was definitely inexperienced with the media, and when you are excited and inexperienced and being asked a ton of questions when you are also a bit brain fried and tired, it is easy to say the wrong things, trip over yourself, say stuff about things that are still in development and might end up not making it into the final build and so on. I ate up every interview, and watched them many times. I didn’t think there was really anything where he brought up a feature himself and talked about it directly that didn’t make it into the release, or didn’t make it into a post release patch. Having worked on games, sometimes the thing you want most to go in the game gets scrapped at the last minute and has to wait for a patch. He was naive, excited and probably a bit drunk on the attention, he probably said some things answering an unexpected question that weren’t quite correct, or were where he thought he could get the game to by launch. He is human, he didn’t run over any babies and the whole studio knuckled down and released an amazing amount of content and updates for free and are continuing to do so. He may have effed up a bit at the beginning, but has done everything to deliver since then. I think people can be very harsh, under the crush of development, and in the excitement of the moment, any of us can be fallible, and probably regret it later and hopefully learn from it. Did you watch this video btw?

      • For a lot of the ‘lies’ I agree with you, it can easily be written off as a bad interview or Murray thinking stuff was further along in development than it actually was (multiplayer is a good example of that). The part I always took issue with though was what I said above about the game being an open universe simulation where there was actual space between systems and in those systems the planets actually orbited their sun. He said that a ton of times from announcement right up to launch (the Steam page even indicates this to be the case as it talked about ‘every star you see in space is a possible destination’

        Except there’s no way he didn’t know that wasn’t the case. Building a simulation like that takes years of work, it’s not the kind of thing any developer would or even could just have in testing while the game being showed off is the exact opposite – a bunch of instanced little spheres of space with a skybox for the sun/stars and planets just sitting in there.

        TL;DR: Basically for him to have been telling the truth about the universe design, it would mean either he had no idea about how his own game was being built or Hello Games actually built two completely different game engines but dropped one close to launch – in which case why not just say that rather than blaming the poor launch on the media?

    • I agree that he made some terrible choices in how he interviewed and what he promised.

      His statements in the video about which feedback listen to was more about which feedback to focus on. There wasn’t much he could do about what he had said or how the game had launched, but by using the feedback, turning it into actionable data, the team found positive ways forward to improve the experience for the people that were actually interested in playing the game.

      I’m honestly impressed by him. He literally had the worst possible launch, but has managed to improve the game, and sounds like he is still finding enjoyment in something that would have destroyed other people. Yes the terrible launch was mostly his fault, but it could be argued that most anyone would have done similar things when the world is set on fire by the concept of your game. Would the rest of us be able to stand on stage a few years later and discuss how we’re still finding joy in making games?

      I’m confused by your Skybox statement. Are you talking about the skyboxes on the planets, or in space? Can you elaborate?

      • That’s fair, they did definitely focus on the right feedback to turn the game around. I still think though, now that we’re pretty far post-launch and their next title has been announced, he should open up about what exactly happened. Be more like old-Blizzard who seemed more than happy to say “we fucked up but here’s why you can still trust us” rather than say… current-Blizzard “You think we screwed up? No, this is better, you *will* be happy with it.”

        The skyboxes I’m talking about are the star systems (so space). They liked to talk about how you could slowly travel from system to system through the emptiness of deep space or how you could fly into the sun, you know, if you feel like dying in an interesting way. But space in the game is just a bunch (ok a metric shitload) of spheres with entities (planets, moons, asteroids, etc) stuffed inside. There are no stars as they’re just a texture on the sphere and you can’t travel between systems, you just warp (loading screen) from sphere-to-sphere. Planets don’t orbit their sun either, because there is no sun other than the light-object placed on the sphere – instead the sphere itself rotates… around the middle-point I guess.

        I’m not saying that the game sucks because of a lack of realistic emptiness (because it doesn’t, technically speaking it’s pretty amazing) and I know a lot of people don’t care about this stuff in the slightest but to me, it is still a bit annoying to basically get sold on “complete planet earth simulator” then find out it’s just individual cities you teleport between.

  • APPARENTLY the big issue was Sony wanting to push it out ASAP. BUT STILL this should have been addressed, at least without actually accusing Sony outright, but it was never communicated.

    Anyway, the game today is stellar – pun intended.

    • I don’t know but they probably thought it a bad idea to badmouth a company they are financially beholden to. Also I’m sure they’d love to complain about them.

      • Actually they didn’t think it was a bad idea and they seemed to have no issue trying to deflect on to Sony.
        (Which surprisingly turned out to be bullshit, who would’ve guessed)

    • APPARENTLY the big issue was Sony wanting to push it out ASAP
      People have been saying that since launch but it’s crap. Sony has published tons and tons of games, none have had issues with being rushed like this, not to mention they technically didn’t even publish this one. Sean Murray himself said the only involvement Sony had with the team/game was to give them some help marketing (i.e. they were the first indie team ever on Sony’s E3 stage). Apparently Hello Games were offered funding/further assistance from Sony but they turned it down as they wanted to finish the game on their own.

      Here’s one source:
      Talks about how Murray refused any help until E3 when he decided he wanted a spot, so he agreed to let Sony market the game as if it was theirs to get the E3-spot. They mention that Sony wanted a firm-date but nothing about Sony setting that date or pushing that it must be met – for comparison inFamous: Second Son, DriveClub, The Order 1886, Uncharted 4, Horizon, Days Gone and of course; The Last Guardian were all major PS4 releases that were delayed from their initial release date. I find it hard to believe NMS was the exception there…

    • Unsubstantiated claims that were debunked long ago.

      Sony went above and beyond, giving substantial no strings attached support and unprecedented opportunity to Hello Games.
      Sony even offered further free support which HG declined, something Murray himself admitted after his own vaguely implied comments that Sony was to blame.
      (Not to mention blaming players and the media)

      I was extremely critical of HG and NMS but I will be the first to admit the game has come a long way since its release.
      However, one undeniable truth is Sean Murray sure likes to say a lot of things and point a lot of fingers.

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