People are polarized about hype. Some love it because it’s like a self-serving incentive to wait for something. Others loathe it because it feels like a PR with confetti.
But I think there are two types of hype. One is positive and the other – false.
The positive hype is a promise that lies on the shoulders of a proven track record. “You know our existing products are great. Now we promise you even more greatness”. A perfect example for this is of course Apple. I don’t remember the hype for the first iPhone. I do remember it for the ones that followed. And like it or not, hype is an essential need for Apple to make sure that new customers buy their products as well as existing ones will upgrade forever. Sure there are other reasons for people to upgrade, software and hardware wise, but some people will upgrade because of what the new product promises them, not because the existing one is too slow or its battery is dying and irreplaceable.
The false hype, on the other hand, is the promise either from someone without enough track record, or someone with such a record, but promising something that is focusing on the wrong elements of the game. In the case of Hello Studios, in my humble opinion it was the worst of both cases.
Now is the time for a few disclaimers:
- I did not play No Man’s Sky.
- I hardly played Joe Danger and that’s about it.
- This is a personal observation that I wanted to write a long time before the game came out, so although this is long after the fact, try to believe me when I say I knew this was coming.
- I write my opinions with the utmost respect.
First of all the problem was with the studio itself. They made a nice and fairly successful game but it was tiny in comparison to NMS and in a different genre altogether. It was obvious they jumped the shark.
Even more importantly I think the entire hype was based on the technical aspects of the game. It also didn’t hurt it that it looked great, but none of these things are really sufficient to making a successful game.
Let’s explore the procedural content generation (PCG). Personally speaking I love this feature from both the design and programming aspects. But here’s the thing: the notion of a virtually limitless universe is really good in theory. In practice it’s almost meaningless.
I’ll try to illustrate the last point with an theoretical example. Let’s assume you design a space exploration game which contains 100 stars. Let’s also assume that in order to finish the game perfectly you will need to complete 10 missions on any of 10 stars, each mission should take you an hour or so. So without failing you’ll need to invest at least 10 hours to finish the game. If you are the obsessive type you may wish to explore the other 90. This gives you a potential of 100 hours of gameplay and all of that without time cost of failing. Many players today are willing to pay (and pay well) for even a single digit hour span. And our imaginary game is only a 100 stars wide! It shouldn’t be difficult to stretch this mini-universe even 10 times fold, with or without PCG.
Spelunky is the antithesis of NMS. It does have PCG, but only 16+ levels and that’s it. By trying to reach infinity Hello Games simply bit more than they could chew.
Even worse it seems that the developer made some horrendous game design mistakes (e.g. the flawed inventory system) that showed that someone fell in love with his own hype. Another big no-no. When you think about the fact that games such as Elite had already achieved something similar, but with gameplay excellence, you realize there was enough inspiration to make the game better as a game.
But I would like to end this article with a positive note.
Years ago gamedev.net had a gallery section and every now and then an amazing screenshot would promise something really amazing, such as planetary exploration with amazing graphics. This never ever matured into anything. There are many visionaries and there are plenty of people with enough skills to produce an amazing tech demo. Most people stop there. The good people at Hello Games did not stop until they made it. Hats off to them! Even if you feel that the game is a failure, it’s a glorious failure. That team has enough skill and determination to come up with a better experience next time, or maybe even fix this one’s.
As long as they don’t fall in love with their own hype.