It’s OK to be upset about the lack of multiplayer in No Man’s Sky
There’s a narrative building that people are wrong to be disappointed about the lack of multiplayer in No Man’s Sky. To those of us fully embedded in the video games bubble, and with at least some rudimentary insight into the technical side of games and how they are made, yes it was fairly obvious that it would not be a single shared entirely persistent online game at a galactic scale. But people inside that bubble are not and should not be the entire audience for games. To argue that you must meet a certain level of technical understanding of games prior to engaging with them is an unworkable elitist perspective, and serves to push games even further in an insular direction.
Lots of developers make great efforts towards demystifying games and their inner workings (I’d give a particular shout out to Vlambeer on that front), and putting the effort in to educate people who are curious to hear tales about what goes on inside the sausage factory is absolutely commendable. But as things stand today, the bulk of the audience for games are not educated about how they get made, and should not be expected to be. That’s OK. Most film viewers have little or no understanding about the technical aspects of cinematography, most people who listen to music have no idea of how things go down in a recording studio, and most people using websites or online service wouldn’t have a clue how to program them. This is an entirely ordinary state of affairs.
People will have been sold on the idea of Sony’s new space game when they heard about it from E3. Maybe they have no idea about the size of the studio, the technical wizardry behind making it, or what exactly the relationship is between Hello and Sony.
People will have also seen it when studio head Sean Murray went on Colbert, a TV show which I’m told gets quite a few viewers. In an interview that I imagine was either organised directly by Sony, or came about at least in part due to the significant marketing Sony had thrown behind No Man’s Sky, in response to the question “Can you run into other people, other players?”, Murray said:
Yes. The chances of that are incredibly rare, just because of the size of what we’re building.
This is a sentiment that was echoed across lots of the other pre-release communication. It’s not a technical answer, it’s a experiential, or perhaps even emotional answer. If you dig through the other coverage, you can find instances where he said that the type of multiplayer he had in mind was more along the lines of Dark Souls or Journey than any kind of MMO.
But if you take the Colbert interview in isolation, to me, the simplest interpretation of that would be that “me and other players are always occupying the same game space, and if we end up in the same in game location, by chance or through planning, we will appear in each other’s game.” If that’s what people gleaned from the interview , I could not fault their reasoning. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, and if the interview wasn’t scripted it would have at least been rehearsed. Going off Sony’s track record, I don’t think they’ve ever strongly suggested a game would have multiplayer prior to release, then it’s ended up not having it on release day. Why would people not take this entirely at face value?
In the actual game, it seems like no, the reason why you will not run into other players is not because the scale of the game is so huge it will be hard to find each other. It’s because the game does not feature multiplayer of that nature. A feature which was implied, if not outright promised, is not there at all.
Using deliberately vague emotional/experiential language to describe a game and it’s features is a good idea. A dream is easier to sell than cold hard reality, omitting certain details lets the audience fill in the gaps themselves, and you can avoid ruining surprises. I think for the most part, this strategy was executed well for No Man’s Sky, but the question of multiplayer is where I think it went wrong.
Had Hello and Sony done a better job of this stuff, the confirmation that actually No Man’s Sky is not a multiplayer game would not have come in a tweet 48 hours before release, and perhaps you’d not have seen anywhere near this number of people feeling disappointed or misled.
I don’t want this to come across as is I’m having a go at Hello Games. I greatly admire their ambition, and you can go and check my position on the Joe Danger leaderboards to see how fond I am of those games. I’ve also interviewed Murray a couple of times back when they were doing the Joe Danger games, and despite his modest demeanor, he is clearly a very intelligent and sensible bloke.
But I do think they’ve made a few mistakes with the release of No Man’s Sky, I already wrote about how they handled the delay, it was utterly farcical to me that Hello Games said that the game that they printed on discs and shipped to retailers to sell wasn’t actually ready to be reviewed, and the messaging surrounding multiplayer is another area that they’ve dropped the ball. It’s perhaps to be expected given the extent to which this is new ground not just for the studio, but for the industry at large. We’ve never really had an unproven game from such a small independent team be thrust into the spotlight to this extent by one of the console platform holders before, or if we did it was back when the industry as a whole was far smaller. Regardless of what anyone thinks of No Man’s Sky the game, No Man’s Sky the product is a game changer as far as video games publishing is concerned. It’s worth having a listen to former The Man From Sony Shahid Kamal Ahmad tell the story of how he signed it.
At it’s heart, this is not a question of the quality of the game, but a matter of the pre-release communication and how it informed people’s expectations. To argue that the game should have multiplayer I think would be misguided, but to argue that the developer shouldn’t have talked about the game in such a way that people would think it had multiplayer is entirely reasonable.
I don’t think this is worth getting furious about, and obviously it’s not worth making threats or sending abuse to anyone over, but hopefully Hello and/or Sony can do better next time around. Some people are enjoying the game, some people are not, but everything would have gone smoother for all involved is there hadn’t been this mismatch between the perception and the reality of the existence of multiplayer.
It’s perhaps the strongest case we’ve had for a while for making refunds available not just for No Man’s Sky but for all games. Right now, if you bought the game from Steam and feel misled about multiplayer, you can get your money back should you so wish. If you bought it from Sony, your money is now their money, no refunds. You get nothing, you lose, good day sir. I think this is a poor policy in general, and an inexcusable position when you have an instance where plenty of people didn’t get what they thought they were paying for. I don’t think making a legal argument that No Man’s Sky was falsely advertised is worth the energy required, and I’m not sure how strong the case would even be, but Sony offering a blanket no questions asked refunds policy for all games, with reasonable time restrictions, would be a step forward. Same applies to Microsoft and Nintendo who also have no such policy.
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