No Man’s Sky Is Not the New Destiny

I have a few problems with Ben Kuchera’s recent piece for Polygon titled, No Man’s Sky is the new Destiny. I don’t believe the comparison is fair or offers a realistic insight into the future of NMS.

Mr. Kuchera starts with:

We gave it [No Man’s Sky] a six. Here is our original review of Destiny. We gave it a six as well. The version of Destiny that exists now, around two years after its original release, is barely recognizable to vanilla Destiny players.

Two years in any industry is a long time, and particularly so for gaming. Additionally, time gets lengthened significantly when you’re comparing the output of a team the size of Bungie’s with that of Hello Games’. In the winter of 2014, Bungie had a supposed 500+ people working on Destiny. Hello Games currently has less than 20. Regardless how ambitious Hello Games are with the next few DLCs and patches, delivering large content updates take time, and it’s particularly difficult when you lack people power. Later on:

Games that change after launch are nothing new, but Destiny was pitched a bit like No Man’s Sky in that it was supposed to be an all-thing. You can play it by yourself! There is a story and some kind of online play! New content will be added frequently! It’s not an MMO but it’s not exactly not an MMO either!

There are two things here: games changing after launch, and pre-launch marketing. Regarding the latter, both Destiny and NMS were difficult to fit into existing genres, and the marketing for each title didn’t come away completely honest. We won’t be diving into those details here. They don’t really matter anymore now that the games are out.

When it comes to games changing after launch, a key part of successfully pivoting is a clear communication channel between the studio and the players. Bungie got that part right. Destiny’s Weekly Updates became a rallying point for players, and it signaled a consistent cadence of communication. Even though some of the Weekly Updates became targets for player frustration, the very existence of such a channel made things feel a little bit better.

NMS, and Hello Games, don’t quite have this figured out. Most of the news regarding game development and updates is coming by the way of Hello Games Founder Sean Murray’s Twitter account, @NoMansSky. You can also find some updates on the PlayStation Forums for Games and Services, and more on the News section of NMS’s website. There’s no centralized place or predictable release of information to let players know what’s going on.

Sidestepping the communication debacle, Destiny had a staying power far greater than NMS for two specific reasons: multiplayer and universe scope.

There’s no arguing over whether NMS is or isn’t a multiplayer game: it’s not. However, if we’re comparing year-one NMS to year-one Destiny, you can see how having a basic form of multiplayer and online competition provided Destiny players with just enough to keep a lot of them playing. Having a hook to keep players playing is absolutely crucial, and Destiny’s multiplayer afforded Bungie time to push out new content and story fixes. NMS has no such buffer, so it’s first year will lean heavily on whether single-player gameplay is compelling enough to stick around for a few months. Yet, after just a few weeks, we’re already seeing how the repetitive and shallow nature of NMS’s gameplay may not be holding up.

A note on multiplayer — To all the players asking for multiplayer, I’d ask you stop and consider what that would even look like. I think the idea of NMS multiplayer is a far more attractive idea than any implementation would ever be. The universe is simply too large and gameplay too shallow to offer any reason why walking around a planet with two people wouldn’t become equally as boring as it was solo. Additionally, from a survival or resource collecting perspective, having more than one person in your game world simply offers no benefit. The same experience can be had by getting into a group voice chat and playing the game separately, together.

Finally, the scope of NMS’s universe (18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets large) will make any attempts to backfill with story and features exponentially more difficult. Here’s a quote from Mr. Murray in Mr. Kuchera’s piece:

“We do want to add a ton of features, like we’ve just discussed: Freighters, bases, these type of things,” developer Sean Murray told Red Bull Games on Aug. 9.

That’s what Hello Games is going to focus on? Sidestepping development constraints, how much impact will these features actually have on user retention? If Hello Games develops bases, freighters, or ship improvements, they may be missing the mark. The scope of NMS’s universe is not conducive to sticking around one place for too long, nor would you want to. Yours truly, in my review:

In this game, you’re perpetually a visitor, never a resident, and it’s this sort of superficial gameplay that leads to mundane repetition. Look, touch, leave. Now do it again for every planet in the universe.

Any feature that gets added to NMS will have to be one of three things: available on every (or most planets), which I imagine would mean procedurally generated; extremely rare; or player-built and available only on the planets or in the galaxies that you’ve visited. The first option runs into the same problem that the current game has: procedurally generating content for billions upon billions of planets means that many of the creations or experiences will be repetitive. The second option is equally damned by the same problem, as the scale would make finding things improbable.

The last option faces a philosophical problem. Part of what encourages and drives world altering or base building is the expected benefit of easier survival. There’s just one issue: NMS is not difficult game to survive in. Neither the severe weather, species, or space pirates pose much challenge, and there’s no evidence of increasing difficulty like one might find in Minecraft. Things are relatively easy, all the way through.

In contrast, Destiny was able to mitigate some of these problems because of its reduced universe size and built-in tiers of difficulty. With only a few playable worlds and areas, Bungie was able to flesh out the universe’s backstory and give its characters more depth and detail. Back to Mr. Kuchera:

Like Destiny, I have a sneaking suspicion there’s going to be a lot of loud criticism from the hardcore community around the game while huge numbers of players continue to play, enjoy and adjust to the changes. Hello Games bottled wine, not scotch. I’m looking forward to seeing how it ages.

The problem is that players weren’t buying NMS to see how it would age, they bought it because it was sold as a $65, decade-old Pinot Noir. What they got was $15 Yellow Tail. NMS is a good indie game and an impressive tech demo, but it is not the next Destiny. I don’t think it’s going to be the next anything. It will have been a good game, overpriced and overhyped at launch, but one that gave us an incredibly unique perspective on what adventure and exploration games can be.

If you find NMS hours 5-10 to be as enjoyable as hours 0-5, by all means keep playing, but taper your expectations of what Hello Games will actually able to deliver in terms of content and patches. If, however, NMS now strikes you as simply unpalatable, go sell the game back to your local exchange and recoup a little cash. Should you feel inclined to go purchase it again in six months, you’ll have no trouble finding copies going for what it should have cost to begin with.

As for a thriving, two-year-old NMS, we’ll see. But I’m betting we won’t.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

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