So much potential, not enough developers. Is the time right for No Man's Sky to go crowdsourcing?
Sitting down to write something meaningful about No Man's Sky isn't easy any more. Prior to launch it was all hands to the hype pump; after launch, well, it became a bloodbath. What's to make of the most pumped-up game of the last few years, aside from the crushing disappointment so many now feel?
Now prices are being slashed to win back players, maybe it's a good time to talk about what steps Hello Games could take to revitalise the game.
Background: Sci-fi chill
Obvious, templated reviews just won’t work with this one, so let's rattle through a little background. For starters, there is the whole number of planets thing: 18 Quintillion - 18 with 30 zeroes. In other words, more planets than you could ever visit.
Unusually, there is no end game. You do not and in fact cannot 'win', and nor can you ever finish or complete it, given the estimates that it would take 584 billion years to explore.
So, before you fire up the game, it’s time to make your first decision: why play something you can’t complete? And one condemned by so many? At the root of it is that No Man's Sky is more a concept than a game: a universe procedurally-generated to be ever-new and ever-changing.
The game was described by one of Hello Games founders, Sean Murray, as a sci-fi chill game. And he ain’t wrong. To start with, No Man’s Sky is a gorgeous looking game, and quite relaxing. There are no timers, no pressure to finish something at a particular moment in case you fall behind. It sort of has a stoned, chilled feel to it, even though there is some shooting and space combat.
And that in itself provides a first challenge to many: given the linear nature of so many games, No Man’s Sky may feel too open-ended. Even 'open world’ giants like Fallout 4 and GTA V have a beginning, middle, and end, tied together by a storyline and challenges that could take a staggering amount of play hours to complete.
The overall feel is that of being the starting point of a proper adventure in which you must devise your own way forward. The game offers very little advice, and you are expected to just pick things up along the way - game objects and tips alike. Critical management of resource and inventory give it a survivalist feel, which is apt given you start the game next to a crashed spaceship.
Gameplay reality vs procedurally-generated expectations
Gameplay is smooth, with very few pathing issues. Worlds, or at least the few procedurally generated planets in our starting solar system, are pretty and interesting. However, give the game some time and this soon wears off as despite the limitless possibilities promised, the need for some kind of templates means it can only deliver so much variety. Templates and logarithms take people and time to create, and soon enough, you'll be thinking "Hmm... seen this before."
Controls are good, and well considered on the PS4, easily bringing a game type more usually associated with PC gaming to the console. There are issues of course, but given the complexities and number of actions versus buttons, it works pretty well.
If you are a fan of, ahem, chilling with some games, or of relaxed exploring or a bit of sci fi, No Man’s Sky is for you - a low stress break from constant alertness and violence found elsewhere (Destiny, Fallout 4, GTA V, COD, The Division, and countless others). Whilst combat is present, it’s not the reason for the game: it’s nice to have an optional approach to life.
Turn to the masses?
If we regard the standard installation as a starting point, the future for No Man's Sky appears much more open-ended. The next step, if Hello Games has reached a natural limit imposed by being barely a dozen people, is surely to open up the game to modders and enthusiasts.
Of the millions who downloaded the game, it would need only a few dozen dedicated fans to inject an immediate burst of creative spark that will allow the algorithms to work more widely. Give them the tools to turn the procedurally-created universe-sized into a limitless sandbox - a Garry's Mod for No Man's Sky that will be a step closer to the original idea of a game without limits.
If this sounds new to No Man's Sky, it's not: almost as soon as it was released, modders were releasing tools to adjust the game experience, with one site having over 60,000 downloads of a graphics modifier within a few days. The hunger is there.
The major adjustment would be in Hello Games' approach to mods, especially as Murray has previously expressed fear of how mods would fundamentally alter the game universe.
But with so many players turning their back on the game, perhaps Hello should instead embrace the possibilities offered and direct their energies to creating tools and pathways for dedicated modders - or anyone with the game - to inject mods back into a marketplace for other users to use them. There's more than 40,000 for Skyrim, a big part of the game's enduring success.
If we can't rely on algorithms and templates to create an enduring game experience, one needs only look at some of the hair-raising and hilarious mods for Skyrim to understand how quickly creative crowdsourcing can return results.
I so want to explore more of No Man's Sky, and am convinced that if it survives its setbacks it could become something like the game we all hoped for. In doing so it could transform itself from an object lesson in how to deflate expectations into one of how to build upon a premise with the help of the masses.