No Man’s Sky: when game developers are worse than politicians

I’m proud how the general public is dealing with this. It means there are still built-in defense mechanics about bullshit and that marketing won’t have such an easy job. But I’m a cynic, so I’m just happy the situation is marginally better than the disaster scenario I usually see.

Quite long but elaborate comments about No Man’s Sky “meta” are these two. Wonderfully written. Both great and complete analysis:

So here I talk exclusively about the “meta” and not about the game’s own merits or demerits.

There are a few explicit things NMS did very wrong:
1- No faithful information about what the game is about. They’ve been deliberately very vague and “mysterious” because they exploited deliberately the hype.
2- No review copies until launch.

This created a situation where no one really knew exactly what the core of the game was about, until launch day.

But beside the final game looking nothing like the official trailers, and features missing that they’ve boasted about at length, the real big issue is that this game is being closely observed by other game developers out there, and they are learning ALL THE WRONG LESSONS.

The first aspect is game developers are directly seeing this as: the hype sells what is being otherwise considered very poor game, see metacritic low scores. It’s hype that sells, let’s make more hype and let’s marketing handle our game presentation for maximum effect. (which is obviously false, the game sells because it has an unique aspect NO ONE else offers)

But while that’s becoming the norm and even if that’s not making it acceptable, what enrages me is a different aspect that comes up only when developers are “sincere”. Meaning almost never. Developers are only sincere when they talk to each other semi-privately, and that’s why I started to spot discussions on twitter among devs I follow and have respect for. Their reaction is LUDICROUS. Here some quotes:

“from now on when a customer complains that we won’t tell them what we’re going to ship, I’ll just link this thread”

“The list of “lies” consists almost entirely of quotes like “maybe we’ll do this,” or “in the current build…”

“the moment you mention “oh, it’d be nice if we could do X”, a flood of rabid hyenas begin preparing to eat your face off if you don’t ship X”

“they didn’t promise things. people interpreted suggestions, ideas, as promises.”

“Wonder why AAA devs have such controlled PR? Candor about anything not utterly locked down gets you these idiots”

“crux of problem being too open/communicative. Candor is a dual edged sword. Silence is safe.”

You see this?

This is being actively spun as “they’ve been TOO SINCERE”. They should have been more silent about what the game was about.

As if not releasing any review copy before the release date, and no review copy AT ALL on PC wasn’t to hide the mess, but just because they didn’t want the players get spoilers. HOW KIND OF THEM.

Now this other perspective is surfacing even more officially, see Kotaku.

Of course due to the nature of game development a lot of original plans have to change when you faceplant on reality. And of course this happens for every game, and features always get cut. THAT’S WHEN it’s most important you inform your playerbase. But nope, it’s okay to talk at length when it comes to build hype, it’s great to stay silent when it comes to inform a feature had to be cut.

How the hell is acceptable that information is shared ONLY when it’s convenient? Is that your idea for being “candid”?

Why it is that if politicians overpromise because it’s convenient for getting votes it’s seen as legitimate when we get angry and expose their lies, but if it’s about hype to sell a game then it’s all tolerated and normal? (and journalists ask questions, instead of the “prescribed way to ask questions about NMS”, as seen in that video)

You talk when it’s convenient to you, but then resent if people hold you accountable about what you said? That’s an example of selfishness, not of candidness.

On a forum someone replied to me with:

Curiously, I had always sort of dreamed of the kind of game that that post describes. But I’d also always figured that there was no way NMS would pull off that kind of game.

And would you give free passes like that even to Star Citizen? Immunity from criticism?

Go with a total scam and eventually just blame the players because they haven’t been cynical enough?

I repeat, what enrages me are not the false trailers, nor the lies in the interviews. What enrages me is that certain devs are blaming the PLAYERS, calling them “idiot, rabid hyenas” because they held developers accountable for what the developers themselves used to hype the game, especially on media that are more generalist, and so to reach out and catch the largest public possible.

It’s a dishonest, perverse twist of what actually happened.

Developers are taking NMS success as a success of the overhype model. Of showing what the game is not because the players are too stupid to be skeptical and will swallow everything you throw at them. This is setting a precedent where what they learn is that a pretty fake trailer SELLS more than an honest one.

On the other hand they use the typical straw man argument, saying: ok, lesson learned, we should never say anything. Let’s leave that stuff to the marketing guys who know how to exploit it properly.

Nope, the simplicity of the issue is that devs love to speak when it’s convenient, but will refuse to speak when it comes to announce features were cut. Because that wounds pride, it doesn’t give a flattering picture. And developers love cult of personality. It’s almost religious. You have to BELIEVE and have FAITH.

The idea I have is that Seam Murray & team aren’t as cynical about doing all this to simply exploit the hype. It’s way more subtle. We don’t have skillful liars, we have instead developers who fell in love with their algorithm and ideas. In order to make people believe that hype, they have to believe it THEMSELVES. The hype poison they fed players is hype poison they swallowed themselves.

This means Sean Murray’s brain is very skilled at painting a flattering picture of his own work. He’s the First Believer. When he “lies” he does because he believes his own bullshit. And you can see that reflected pretty much EVERYWHERE. Read again that letter in the manual, or read the kind of PR that is going on now.

Here’s two examples of how you rewrite facts to paint always a flattering picture no matter what:

1- “Even though less than one per cent of players have raised support issues, we’re going to resolve roughly 70 per cent of them this week”

2- “Thousands of lines of assembly have been rewritten overnight”

About the first, 1% of the players are having technical problems. IT’S A SMASHING SUCCESS, BEST PORT EVER. But we are so committed to deliver a flawless game that we care even about that tiny 1% and will resolve their problems too, even if they are so negligible.

About the second. I seriously doubt they have a mad math genius who can rewrite “thousands of lines of assembly overnight”. If such person exists, AMAZING. But it’s far more likely they changed a flag in the compiler (-msse2) and it is recompiling the game overnight.

Oh, of course they aren’t LYING. Thousands of lines ARE being rewritten. But automatically by a CPU and not by some guy who didn’t go to sleep and is chocking on coffee. And of course they didn’t say only 1% of players are having issues, but just that 1% bothered to report them.

But again this is how you exploit the false perception. It’s not being dishonest, it’s about denying what’s obvious at every step because you can’t deal with it. You live in a bubble of self deception and that bubble is completely impermeable to reality. Your brain will automatically create endless excuses before it will accept an unflattering picture where you are not a hero worthy of worship. True believer of an egomaniac personality.

And, notice how the hype works: the game in general didn’t quite deliver. We learned devs are not to be trusted, BUT… What happens at this point? You drop the ball? You admit defeat of the hype?

Nope! Sean Murray says they will patch this game. He says the game will evolve and content that was promised maybe will make into the game. He’s just about ready to replace that hype with more of it. Expansions, DLCs, content patches. WHATEVER IT TAKES TO KEEP THE HYPE TRAIN GOING. Don’t look at what’s in the game, look at what comes NEXT. Believe!

One Man’s Bullshit

If the previous title was to point out the hype is embedded in the procedural generation tech, as a sort of baggage it carries and continues to be pervasive along the years, this time it’s about very specific and very deliberate bullshitting.

That article is RIPE for misplaced hype and dishonesty, but I’ll just focus on this an an example, not even the most meaningful (the meaningful one is how most of the animal AI seems to be gone in the final game, or never coded and only appearing in a wishlist on the dev studio’s wall):

The physics of every other game—it’s faked,” the chief architect Sean Murray explained. “When you’re on a planet, you’re surrounded by a skybox—a cube that someone has painted stars or clouds onto. If there is a day to night cycle, it happens because they are slowly transitioning between a series of different boxes.” The skybox is also a barrier beyond which the player can never pass. The stars are merely points of light. In No Man’s Sky however, every star is a place that you can go. The universe is infinite. The edges extend out into a lifeless abyss that you can plunge into forever.

“With us,” Murray continued, “when you’re on a planet, you can see as far as the curvature of that planet. If you walked for years, you could walk all the way around it, arriving back exactly where you started. Our day to night cycle is happening because the planet is rotating on its axis as it spins around the sun. There is real physics to that.

Turns out the game has a skybox. The sun doesn’t actually exist, as it’s painted on that skybox.

Also, night/day cycles are disconnected from the planet rotation, they happen in a completely faked way. (it seems the day/night cycle has a fixed duration and the same on every planet or moon)

Planets and moons rotate, but do not orbit anything. (all planets sit statically at one side of the statically painted sun for “ease of travel”, and maybe of screenshotting)

EDIT: Planets do not rotate either. There’s a nice Reddit page that lists all the things announced and missing. It’s as if 75% of the game just isn’t there. I’m fairly sure Frontier, the 2nd Elite, was more advanced as a simulation. That was 23 years ago. Planets orbited and rotated. Now we can look at ugly cartoonish puppets, the myth of the space simulator has been slaughtered for THAT.

“In terms of ecology almost everything is possible.” Oh yeah, you certainty didn’t TRY to sell the game for what it is NOT. Honest.

No Man’s Scam

I’m discussing this on the forums, so I thought I would write something here too. The important thing is that what applies to this game is going to happen again and again.

Here’s a schematic approach to how to judge “No Man’s Sky” and understand the debate going on right now.

1- The “over-hype”. There’s lot of discussion about the hype of this game. Every review will mention this. People will argue endlessly about who’s responsible of this hype and whether the game is good or bad depends strictly on how close it lands to someone’s expectations. As if good or bad depends solely on expectations management.

Answer: the hype doesn’t depend on Sony, or the dev team, or the internet. The hype of this game is caused by the use of “procedural generation”. It’s this piece of tech that carries a baggage of “over-hype” and every future game that heavily relies on procedural generation to build its content will face a similar over-hype. It has embedded the myth: “with just a few rules (or a small team) I can create an almost infinite UNIVERSE that you can have fun to explore endlessly”.

The idea that you can produce a large amount of content with little effort is just plain stupid. It’s the opposite: procedural generation requires MORE work to be good or on par with handcrafted content. Dwarf Fortress is great because it’s been developed non-stop for more than 10 years. There are no shortcuts, there’s no magical formula to produce interesting content.

2- This game uses procedural generation in a very stupid way.

There’s a “good” and “bad” use of procedural generation (tech is not good or bad on its own, it’s the use that matters), and it’s also easy to analyze since it depends on a simple thing. “Good” procedural generation makes the environment dictate gameplay. If the player has a plan, or a list of activities to optimally reach a goal, then for every new game that plan might be followed closely to produce the optimal result. But if you instead “procedurally generate” the environment and make it the center of the experience then it means you force the player to observe and adapt. Not anymore you arrive with a pre-made plan, but your strategy needs to adapt and learn from what you find. Every time the context changes, so every time the experience changes too. This is also the seed for interesting “exploration”. It’s not simply about sightseeing, it’s about making gameplay be shaped by the experience. Changing radically that experience. You transform the environment because you want the environment to transform gameplay (where the best result becomes “emergent”, in those rare cases when the rules are really solid).

But instead this game uses the “bad” kind of procedural generation, which is: cosmetic variations of functionally identical elements. This game is all about stuff looking slightly different but having the exact same function. You travel to a new planet, the previous one had a bluish tinge, this one a greenish one, but what you actually do on every planet is repetitive. You shoot a different looking rock or a plant to obtain the same material. It’s as if every object in this endless world is a box containing the same content, but a different shape on the outside.

It’s the same “sin” in Oblivion: what’s the point of “exploring” and finding a dungeon hidden at the border of the map when the spawn list of what’s inside is always the same? You’re going to find in that far-away dungeon the exact same content because they share the same exact spawn list.

Since this game uses procedural generation mostly for cosmetic reasons, the result is that the gameplay feels “dull”. Not because “there’s not enough to do”, which is what has been discussed for months, but because what you do DOESN’T DEPEND ON WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO FIND. That’s the “sin” of this game, the core of its bad game design. The gameplay function is independent from the procedural generation. There’s a total disconnect between the “exploration” and function. Between what you see and what you use.

Every planet LOOKS different but PLAYS the same. This is bad game design, and a very bad use of procedural generation.

3- Deliberate scamming:

It was one of the most frequent questions whether or not you could meet another player in the game. They always answered vaguely, stating it’s not what a player “should be looking for”. But the question is very precise, did you write that code or not? Can you see another player or not? Turns out you just cannot. No Man’s Sky is entirely single-player. The code is just not there. There’s some indirect information that goes back and forth, so you could see what another player named that planet he discovered, but that’s the limit. It’s not that you cannot see another player because the universe is too vast to meet, which is what they said over and over, you cannot see another player because the networking code just wasn’t written.

And that’s one sign that says that, even if the over-hype is mostly due to a misuse of tech, the devs themselves heavily exploited that over-hype to sell the idea of a game over the actual game. They chose marketing over honesty.

They have a small team, they’ll make tons of money thanks to that hype. The game is a success. But they’ll also deservedly earn a very nice amount of bad reputation because of this, and maybe in the future players will be a bit less gullible to the false magic of procedural generation sprinkled by good programmers turned into bad game designers.

“No Man’s Sky” is a cute piece of tech wrapped around very bad game design.

Disclaimer: most of this was written *before* the game’s release. The point was to determine how to judge between a good and bad use of procedural generation. My comments about the game come from what I read and saw about the game in these first few hours, so you can judge by yourself if what I wrote also holds up as a complete description of the actual game.

Why is this important, why not wait before judging? Because opinions on the internet are entirely worthless. It doesn’t matter what *I* think about the game, it doesn’t matter what *you* think either. What matters and is worth writing and reading is about motivations. It’s about the discussion on the whys and hows. So here you can see my thought process while judging the game. It doesn’t matter if I think its game design is bad, what matters is that I described what, potentially, makes its game design bad. And all that stays valid even if eventually the game turns out differently.

Disclaimer bis: The “scam” of the title refers to the fact no one is actually responsible for the “scam”, or the over-hype, or the chimera. It was all embedded in the misperception and misuse of the procedural generation tech. That the devs have very deliberately and maliciously exploited just to make more money rather than offer an honest image of the game. It’s just intellectual dishonesty, of course. It’s pretty pervasive. I remember at least one occasion commenting on building hype by exploiting false myths. It was Vanguard, or selling the vagueness of an idea so that people’s mind would fill the picture with whatever it is they love.