Vague Patch Notes: No Man’s Sky is the real reboot success story

Sky sky sky

Whenever an MMO of any type has a launch that resembles the Nedelin catastrophe, people start talking about what the studio should do to get things back on track. Inevitably, this discussion circles back to Final Fantasy XIV, which has become the absolute shining example people hold up as “look at what can happen when you pull a game back and rebuild it! If your game fails at launch, you should pull an FFXIV and fix it!”

You might think this would make me happy, as I am well known as an FFXIV fan around here and even run MOP’s weekly column on the game, but it does not. It actually fills me with a weary sense of exhaustion almost immediately because FFXIV was, in many ways, a unique case.

But rather than just talk about that, I want to talk about a game that actually pulled off something closer to the trick everyone credits FFXIV with pulling off very well. No Man’s Sky launched to a reception that was perhaps even more vicious than you might expect based on the overall player hype, and yet at this point, the game has come around to a point where lots of people are playing and have actively nice things to say about it. And it strikes me that if you want to point at an online game worth replicating here, well, this would be a far better example.

If you’ve managed to block out the memories of NMS at launch, let me remind you that it was an absolute bloodbath. For years, the game had been hyped up – both by its fans and by the developers, to different degrees – as an infinite game in which you could just go wherever and explore infinite numbers of worlds for resources. You could go everywhere, discover things, name them, share them with other players, and wander as much as you liked! It would be truly an infinite video game!

Then it launched, and a few things became clear. First of all, it was clear that “you can wander everywhere forever without any worries about where you’re going” isn’t actually a compelling gameplay loop. Second, the online functionality apparently didn’t exist. And in lieu of any actual compelling things to do or any goals whatsoever, that “endless gameplay” quickly turned into rage that you could have a game full of so much stuff with so little substance. Riots hit the street. Rage was everywhere. Literal death threats. Etc.

This part of the story is not too different from what happened when FFXIV launched. But the next part is fairly different.

Under my umbrella.

See, FFXIV was being backed by Square-Enix, and it’s possible that you either aren’t aware or don’t really care how big that company actually is. The reality, though, is that Square-Enix is easily in the realm of Activision or Ubisoft, and it is not only the publisher of the game but the developer. The company could spend as much money as it wanted on rectifying this situation.

Furthermore, it didn’t just say “let’s iterate upon this and fix it.” The game was basically rebuilt from scratch on fragments of the engine. This is one of the reason that many people, including myself, like the idea of Naoki Yoshida leading a new MMO from development onward; we’ve seen what the man can do without that freedom, after all.

By contrast, No Man’s Sky was from Hello Games. It was still both the publisher and developer, but Hello Games is much smaller than Square-Enix. The studio did not have money to throw around endlessly, and it certainly didn’t have the option of “fire the development team and hire a new team” like Square-Enix did.

Why is this relevant? Well, for the vast majority of MMO studios out there, the situation looks a lot more like Hello Games’ than Square-Enix’s. It’s not that SE is the only big company in MMOs, but games like Torchlight III don’t usually have “tear down and rebuild” as a viable option. “Tear down and rebuild” is just “tear down and go away forever.”

And then Hello Games pulled it off. The studio managed to course-correct and turn the game into an actual success, starting by embracing a very basic lesson that is deceptively simple and straightforward even as a lot of studios fight back against it, including much bigger development outfits.

That lesson? “We made a mistake and need to fix it.”

Trying to!

Seriously, everything that has been added to the game or improved has been a direct outgrowth of the developers recognizing that the initial launch was poorly received due chiefly to promising too much and not delivering nearly enough. Players wanted something more out of the game, and Hello Games immediately knuckled down and started working on bringing the game closer to that pictured version of the title. It meant doing a lot of work to add features from launch, to make online spaces (and shared spaces) functional and fun, to give players some guidance and a path to move along.

None of this ever changed the core of what was at the game’s heart, of course. I even wrote a whole article about the remarkable feeling of stumbling across a wrecked ship and turning that into my new goal, restoring it and making it function once more, but by having some starter guidance, I had a road to walk off of in the first place. The game remains true to its core, but it found better ways to teach players what it wanted to be and how to access what made it fun.

There is no “NMS version 1.0″ or the equivalent, a game that doesn’t exist in any form whatsoever. While the game has changed and expanded, it has ultimately iterated on the base of what it already had, and it has done so in a way that is additive rather than using the existing title as a palimpsest.

One of of the things I’ve railed against more than once – to the point of doing an entire other article about it – is that FFXIV’s path is the road to success for every MMO that launches badly. Yes, FFXIV is definitely a success story, and I have no doubt that every online game would love to replicate what it has accomplished. But it’s a success story that came about in part as a result of a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events.

Literally, the reason Naoki Yoshida is producer and director of the game is so that he could make all of the decisions with no one second-guessing him. Can you not see the hundreds of ways that could go badly? It’s a miracle that this was done to what may be the only person who is qualified for both of those jobs and wouldn’t go mad with power at that amount of control. And that he then had a team backing him up willing to also step up to that workload.

But what Hello Games did required only one “unusual” set of circumstances. It required a development team that loved the game it had made and was willing to accept humility in order to fix that game. That can be nerve-wracking, but it has a lot more probability of happening with other studios… and it costs a whole lot less than totally rebooting your title.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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1 year ago

Really happy that Hello Games is getting some acclaim for all their work on this game – it’s well deserved.

But when talking about the redevelopment that started with NEXT, I strongly disagree that “None of this ever changed the core of what was at the game’s heart”. Since NEXT, NMS has been a completely different game with a lot less to say about anything. We’ve gone from something austere, cosmic and meaningful to Minecraft in space.

“The universe of No Man’s Sky is so large that your chance of meeting another player is tiny”, as Sean Murray said early on. That’s a profound statement to make about our place in the cosmos. And yet, since NEXT it’s all about fun with friends. The aliens even do a little dance when you talk to them now.

“When we launched … It was this huge, broad game. And it delivered on a thing that I always wanted, which was this feeling of loneliness, which sounds strange I know, but a kind of a science fiction loneliness. You, out in the world, amongst the vastness of the universe.”
(Sean Murray, IGN interview)

I think they made the game they wanted (and basically the game they promised), but gamers don’t really do existentialism. So Hello Games deleted everything to make more palatable content.

Good luck to Hello Games and much love to them too. My several hundred hours playing the original NMS were sublime. I’ll keep hoping for a “No Man’s Sky Classic” one day.

1 year ago
Reply to  OlaaafQ

“That’s like, your opinion man.”

All kidding aside, you make a very good point. It reminds me of a positive launch review of the game by Noah Gervais-Caldwell. He’s since done a re-review of the game right after Next: If you haven’t seen his videos, check out his channel and watch them. I think you’ll find a kindred spirit there, though there’s nuances to the post launch expansions you might find interesting.

1 year ago

It’s much better than it was at launch. Personally I feel that the multiplayer is a massive drawback and do my best to avoid it – at best it’s the equivalent of casual graffiti scrawled everywhere if you trip over a discovered planet and someone took the time to name anything, because it’s almost always their best collection of genital puns. At worst it’s people being actively hostile with base placement blocking off access to a point where a rare wrecked ship or valuable resource happens to spawn.

Which is a serious problem with the “Living Ship” unlock mission, because everyone is sent to the same pre-selected planet for the final mission and it’s basically a hellscape of openly hostile base placement, along with random beacons spammed everywhere just to be sure that there are at least fifty things floating around your HUD at all times. Even playing in single player mode doesn’t help, because the game still helpfully loads the trollbases even if you can’t see the other players.

Other than the multiplayer aspect being (in my opinion) completely awful, the game is greatly improved. To be honest I’m a little confused how Hello Games is still around at this point – every single one of the updates has been added to the game for free, and as far as I know the game goes on sale frequently. I have no idea where they’re getting the money to keep going.

1 year ago
Reply to  EmberStar

Hello Games is a tiny studio – Like, tiny, massively tiny. At launch they had 16 employees *total*. Currently they’re at 25.

I did the (rough) math a while ago, given estimated sales numbers and estimated expenses. I won’t bore you with that, but with the amount of copies the game sold across all platforms in the first month of the game’s existence, all employees then would have been millionaires and could easily retire on the spot.

The money they made in that first month alone is enough to cover *all* of the game’s development right up until this day.

Given how much money they made since then, and how tiny the studio still is, they can keep updating the game without any paid expansions or mtx for a very long time to come.

1 year ago

NMS went from being a game I was looking forward to playing because I love space exploration games where I’d get my own ship…to a game I’d never play because of the launch fiasco (not to mention the game not measuring up to what they said it’d be)… to a game that’s near the top of my list to buy after I’m able to get a computer capable of running the game.

And that’s because Hello Games has at least tried to make up for the hype BS they were slinging before the game launched by updating the game to be like they said it was going to be like in the first place.

I mean, they could have just been like, we made the game and released it as is, take it or leave it.

But, as it is now, with the updates, NMS is a game I’d want to play.

1 year ago
Reply to  Zero_1_Zerum

NMS was very playable at high-ish settings on my 10 year old PC (2500K), with a GTX 1060 in it, at 1080p it ran at 60fps locked in space and 40-60 on planets, to give you an indication of how the game runs on an ‘older’ PC. If it’s on sale it’s worth getting imho.

1 year ago

What the game is today is far and above what I expected at launch. I won’t forgive them for the lies (I’m sorry, claiming your game has multiplayer on Stephen Colbert just days from launch is a lie), but I can absolutely applaud them for not only sticking with it, but delivering a great game that is going to provide me many many hours of enjoyment.

1 year ago

I think that in attempting to make your point, you overstated the context and lessons from FFXIV.

I do not think Naoki Yoshida is some sort of inimitable benign god descended from the aether to grace us with the rebuild of FFXIV. As much as I *really* like the game there’s no shortage of clunky kludge that *doesn’t* work well even to this day. He’s an extremely talented developer, no doubt, but there are others like him who if given the chance could also rescue stuttering franchises.

And THIS is the FFXIV lesson; finding and identifying him was fortunate, no doubt, but the money-guys having the courage to give him the level of control he had contributed materially to his success – that’s the unicorn in this picture. I have no doubt there are other developers like him out there. But there are very, very few AAA companies that can step out of their risk-aversion and GIVE someone that sort of ability to execute their vision.

Artistic excellence can’t be designed by committee; that there’s so little of it in the MMO space doesn’t suggest to me a lack of artists, it suggests a lack of committees willing to GTFO of the way and let an artist work, because that is certainly a risk. What *maybe* they’ll someday understand is that handing the keys to an artist and then constantly second-guessing and micromanaging the project is indeed less risky…because it’s nearly guaranteed failure.

1 year ago
Reply to  Eliot Lefebvre

Tl,dr: Yoshi doesn’t live inside a hubris like a Blizz developer does…

1 year ago

According to the game, I’ve sunk about 100 hours into it so far, great game to chill down to.

Adam Russell(@adam_russell)
1 year ago

Ive never considered FFXIV to be an example of how a game should be redone. Only an example that it is possible.

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Tobasco da Gama(@tobasco_da_gama)
1 year ago

The other thing Sean Murray credits in particular with allowing them to turn the game around is that they paid very close attention to what the people who stuck around after the launch were actually doing and what they wanted. For all the grief they got about adding base-building (“that’s not even the point, it’s about exploration!”), that was based on noticing that the players who stuck with it wanted some way to “settle” on their favourite planet and make it their own. And then of course they also went back and added most of the stuff that was in the trailers but not the game. Except the sandworms. >.>

1 year ago

I feel like we’ll get the sandworms some day.

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Tobasco da Gama(@tobasco_da_gama)
1 year ago
Reply to  dreamer

I think technically the flying snakes replaced the sandworms. Plus now we have those underground bone creatures. Actual sandworms would be great, but I’m not holding my breath.

Although actually the sandworm model exists in-game, you can even see it during the Alien Containment space encounter.

1 year ago

FFXIV just copied WoW, so I guess in terms of rebooting it’s a success, but since fewer people want to play WoW retail and there is the problem where they keep needing to level squish. I think FFXIV traded a short term problem with a long term problem.

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Schlag Sweetleaf(@mar_x_teeg)
1 year ago


we have the technology....png