No Man’s Sky and the journey into undiscovered country

, | Games

No Man’s Sky had one of the best launches on the PlayStation 4 since the console was released. It sold almost a million copies on PC in preorders and the first week of sales. It’s an unqualified sales success. Less than a month later, refund requests are in such volume that Valve has posted a special notice on the Steam store page. What happened? How did the indie darling go from being one of the most anticipated games of this year, to a swirl of controversy? Between accusations that Hello Games and Sean Murray lied about the game’s content, and a public debate about the merits of marketing, there is No Man’s Sky – a title that’s become the new poster child for an industry of hype.

After the jump, it’s the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning!

You’ve seen the memes by now. “No Man’s Lie.” Sean Murray is the new Peter Molyneux. The videos detailing every one of the game’s crimes against humanity. It’s a seemingly never-ending parade of insults and jeers, an ugly mob attack, on No Man’s Sky and the head of Hello Games.

Take a gander through the window of time and you’ll see the world premiere work-in-progress video at the 2013 VGX show. This is coming from Hello Games? The studio that made the Joe Danger joints? Incredible! Marvelous! Planetary exploration to space battles to another planet all in seamless real-time. It’s like Wing Commander: Privateer and Homeworld had a Spore baby. Everyone wants to see more.

Then, a flood. Hello Games’ equipment was destroyed. Perhaps all was lost. Hello Games soldiered on. The plucky developers cannot be stopped by a mere natural disaster.

E3 2014. There’s Sean Murray on Sony’s press conference stage. He’s nervous. Fidgety. A lanky collection of shuffling and pauses, but just endearing enough to win everyone over. The kind of nervous that makes you want to root for the guy. The lights dim. Sean flanked by gigantic screens shows off the impossible. 18 quintillion planets. Infinite gameplay. Again, No Man’s Sky steals the show. Who cares about the next Call of Duty when this is coming?

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No Man’s Sky on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The show chooses to post the video as “Sean Murray May Have Replaced Morgan Freeman As God.” This is where we’re at. Sean Murray is creating a full universe of life in which you can do anything. Anything!

It’s a couple of days before No Man’s Sky is supposed to launch on the PlayStation 4. Someone has broken street date on retail copies of the game. Videos and streams are popping up all over the internet. Murray entreats players to not spoil the game. Clunky creatures amble aimlessly over psychedelic terrain. This is it? Walk around, shoot rocks, fly to another planet, and repeat forever? There has to be more, right? But wait! There’s a gigantic launch update coming! Three Paths. The writer from Deus Ex is on board. Whew! All the missing possibility from the trailers must be there.

The official launch. Hundreds of thousands of PlayStation 4 players are online discovering the language of aliens, cataloging plants, giving names to the planets, and seeing things that no other human has seen and may never see. The patch did not actually change the game fundamentally, but there’s a universe to explore. Perhaps people just haven’t seen the stuff in the trailers yet. Patience, grasshopper.

Even if every person on the planet played the game on the same day, the probability of people running into each other is astronomically slim. Gamers laugh at odds. Two players streaming live within hours of the launch, travel to the same planet to meet, but fail to see each other. Calamity! Server issues perhaps? Or is the pre-launch talk of players meeting not true? Sean Murray is “blown away” that two players have coordinated this way, but why can’t they see each other? Silence. The questions begin.

Reviews pour in. No Man’s Sky is okay. Or maybe it’s awesome. Or maybe it’s the worst game ever.

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It’s a survival crafting exploration game set on lumpy planets. The gameplay is either sublime or inconsequential. Relaxing or boring. Mysterious or pretentious. You start from a crashed ship on a random planet, then fly to more random planets. It can be beautiful. It can be frustrating. It’s not for everyone, but it was marketed that way.

Things turn. The name-calling starts. Sean Murray is a charlatan or he’s a visionary. Someone posts an exhaustive, and somewhat error-filled, list of the ways in which the shipped game differs from Murray’s own marketing. Others make videos. The new social media version of gut punches. Battle lines are drawn. You either love the game for what it is, or you hate it for what it’s not.

Supporters arrive. Fellow developers explain the nuance of seeing a project through to finished product while in the public eye. The pitfalls are many. You can get derailed by imagination. Bite off more than you can chew. Disappoint the fans. The solution? Don’t talk so much, or maybe at all. The audience is dumb and cannot be trusted to comb through what-may-be and what-is-going-to-be. The detractors roar back. To them, “caveat emptor” is not a license for creators to say falsehoods. The argument continues.

Rumors begin. You can return the game, no matter how long you’ve played it! $60 coming right back! The rumor is false, of course. There is no such policy from Sony or Valve.

The standard Steam refund policy applies to No Man’s Sky. There are no special exemptions available.

Where is Sean Murray during all this? Presumably hunkered over his code, working on the game. His Twitter account, previously so active, now deafeningly silent. The clamor goes unanswered. Hello Games is goodbye for now.

The stars continue to beckon for some. Let me know if you comes across the planet Dikwhistle.

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