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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