When No Man’s Sky launched in August, it was already clear that the game would primarily appeal to a niche audience. The title’s lead designer and head of developer Hello Games, Sean Murray, has been blasted for promising the game would include features that didn’t actually ship. Not long after launch, Murray and Hello Games went radio-silent as players began requesting refunds. Now, nearly a month later, the game has transformed into a ghost of its former self.
Some articles have implied that Hello Games has ceased communication altogether, which isn’t quite true. While Murray hasn’t tweeted since August, HG has continued patching the game and releasing patch notes for each update, including a 1.09 update that dropped today and contains a fairly significant list of patch notes. But the facts don’t lie — No Man’s Sky has seen a cataclysmic drop-off in players. While it’s hard to find an exact title to compare against, Subnautica, a similar action-adventure open-world survival game with an emphasis on crafting and exploration, has seen nothing like No Man’s Sky falloff. In the graphs below, we check daily concurrent player totals in Subnautica, Don’t Starve, and No Man’s Sky itself. Note that the y-axis peaks are set differently for each title by Steam Spy — we’ll take that into account below.
The first thing to note is that we’re dealing with very different titles here. Small games like Subnautica, without Sony’s marketing power behind them, have built their markets organically and over time. The peak number of players in Subnautica since late June has been 7,480. It’s been averaging around 2,600 of late — higher than No Man’s Sky, certainly, but not enormously so. Don’t Starve, at 2,638, is in similar territory.
What sets this apart is the size of the decline and the speed of the fall. The other titles in our list are small games with dedicated fanbases, not AAA (or seemingly AAA games). I’m not surprised to see that players are leaving NMS in droves, mostly because the game seems a near-perfect example of a title that’s 50,000 miles wide and a quarter-inch deep.
One claim that’s been put forward at length is that Sean Murray lied about One Man’s Sky. I think there’s some merit to the claim, if only because Murray should’ve transitioned from talking about features he wanted to put in the game to features he was actually going to ship much earlier than he did.
Did Sean Murray inflate the hype cycle well past the point he should’ve stopped? Absolutely, yes. But he’s far from the first developer to fall into this category: Peter Molyneux is practically the godfather of over-promising and under-delivering on titles, and he’s been doing it since Black & White, which shipped in 2001. Sometimes, being immersed in something day-in and day-out leads people to overpromise what the product will be capable of, because they’re focused so hard on what they want it to be that they blind themselves to the facts of where the product actually is.
Having spent the better part of three years over-promising and under-delivering, Murray seems to have gone full recluse, and isn’t talking about the game at all. This, too, is a mistake. Yes, there are plenty of people who are angry about the current state of No Man’s Sky, but Hello Games has repeatedly stated that they are in this for the long haul and that the game is a labor of love. If that’s true, they need to show it — by delivering a roadmap for which features they intend to add for free, and some kind of timeline for when those features will arrive.
No Man’s Sky’s early sales were huge. Its post-launch has been a disaster. The company still has a chance to win back players, but it needs to demonstrate that it’s listening to what features the community wants most, has a plan for implementing said features, and can stick to that plan over the long term.