Even in the run-up to No Man’s Sky’s debut, it was clear that no single game could possibly fulfill the sky-high expectations of its player base. Since the game launched, a number of websites have collected numerous examples of behaviors that were originally promised and never implemented. The animals on the various planets you explore never demonstrate the interesting behaviors they exhibited in launch trailers, there’s no variation between factions, the combat model is painfully simplistic, there’s no stealth capabilities for your own ship, no variations in ship types, no atmospheric modeling, no ability to fly your ship below a predefined height, no planetary physics, and minimal variation in functional ship types. Space stations were supposed to be destroyable, they aren’t. The freighters you engage with were supposed to move, they don’t. Planets and moons do not orbit on their axis or orbit a sun. The trading and resource gathering components of the game were supposed to be robust and offer enough variety to allow players to focus on them.
Any handful of these changes could be fairly explained as the inevitable pruning process that all games follow from conception to delivery — but taken in aggregate, they’ve left many players feeling as though they were bait-and-switched. Nor can all of this be laid at the feet of the Internet hype machine; many of these features were showcased by Hello Games at various points, promised, and declared to be a component of the shipping game. An archived post on reddit listing all the features that were promised and cut can be viewed here.
Amazon, Steam and Sony have both taken notice of the problem and have begun offering refunds for NMS, even in cases where players have logged far more time than normally would qualify them for a refund. The number of people playing the game at any given time has fallen sharply since launch, as shown in the graph below from SteamDB.
Unlike Steam, which has a well-known refund policy, Sony doesn’t normally grant refunds for games purchased over the PlayStation Network, at least not once you’ve started downloading a game. Sony’s former Strategic Content Director in the UK, Shahid Kamal Ahmad, initially blasted people seeking refunds, claiming “If you’re getting a refund after playing a game for 50 hours you’re a thief.”
While that’s a particularly blunt opinion, from the perspective of the developer (which is what Ahmad is), it also makes a certain amount of sense. 50 hours is more than enough time to play No Man’s Sky and experience the majority of its content, and to determine whether or not you like it. The flip side to that, however, is that players could fairly argue they played the game for more than just a couple hours to see if the content they were promised was actually buried deeper in the title. There’s no “right” answer to this kind of question and it’s hard to avoid the fact that the No Man’s Sky that was advertised and talked about in the years before it launched was a fundamentally different title. We’ve seen gamers become vocally unhappy when games like Watch Dogs or The Witcher 3 didn’t measure up to the graphics of their early demos, but this isn’t just about eye candy — NMS is a procedurally-generated game that’s missing many of the key systems and capabilities that were supposed to make its universe interesting.
On a personal note, the issues with NMS neatly capture why I consider procedurally generated games generally inferior to hand-crafted ones. While there’s some minimal replayability benefit to randomized dungeons, no one has mastered the art of creating procedural building blocks that don’t quickly become repetitive to the human eye and ear. I think part of the problem here is that humans are naturally extremely good at pattern matching — and procedural generation relies on using common building blocks and patterns, even if those patterns are generated algorithmically rather than by hand-crafted placement or design. Many of the complaints around NMS revolve around its sameness — all of the planets have the same atmosphere, resource allocation doesn’t appear to be fine-tuned or subtle, and there’s no sophisticated interaction between different types of species.
No Man’s Sky isn’t a disaster like Arkham Knight, Quantum Break, or Gears of War were a disaster — but its failure to live up to its own promises can’t be blamed solely on the media hype cycle, either. The developers of the game oversold their own product, then failed to communicate how many of the previously promised features wouldn’t show up on launch day. That’s a genuine problem in and of itself, because it feeds the consumer perception that companies can’t be trusted to talk about their own products. Whether you love NMS or dislike it, it’s not the game Hello Games promised — and the studio didn’t make that clear.