Or, A Historiographic Account of Structural Tendencies in No Man’s Sky: Deconstructing the Retroactive Improvement Vectors in Hello Games’ Meta-Design Process
No Man’s Sky was one of the most overhyped failures of its time, eliciting reactions ranging from death threats due to the delayed release, to inspiring an untold number of refunds after it didn’t fulfill its promise of leading humanity into a second age of enlightenment. That said, there are a lot of things any aspiring or would-be game developer could learn from Hello Games by examining this turbulent period of their history – like that maybe having the lead developer as your PR mouthpiece isn’t always the best idea.
I’m not here to talk about any of that though, or about any of the insanely massive lies about multiplayer and game mechanics, or about the disappointment I felt upon playing the release version of the game, or even about how infantilizing it felt to slowly realize that I’d been swindled out of sixty whole dollars for nothing more than a spectator-mode to Spore 2. No, I’m here to talk about No Man’s Sky NEXT, Hello Games’ fourth update in their ongoing attempt to prove that they’re one of the good ones.
The most significant improvement, at least for anybody that was involved in the original release, is the terrain generation. Before NEXT, spacefarers would often find themselves on worlds a bit too alien – that is, a common terrain type would be massively overgrown hollow stone cubes dotted across a planet along with giant resource nodes that would float stationary above the ground. Admittedly, giant repeating geometric shapes and floating resource nodes sound kind of cool out of context, but besides being an eyesore, the fact that you could find one of these two things on almost every planet pre-NEXT massively impeded the diversity you were supposed to feel from visiting a new place.
So, with that as the expectation, terrain generation seems to have improved significantly in the sense that the alien worlds you’re exploring feel, well, a bit closer to real worlds this time. I haven’t come across any planets sporting a terrain consisting of a single repeating geometric shape, and all the previously floating resource nodes seem to be in their proper place in the ground. Aside from these obvious fixes, terrain generation seems to do its thing more organically, something that isn’t fully intelligible until you look out over a vast distance and see natural canyons and mountains, a forest, or a volcanic shape protruding from an island in the middle of an ocean.
The core gameplay loop remains the same, for better or worse: Travel to a planet, explore and extract resources, use the resources and blueprints to build and buy better things, repeat. The tutorial has been reworked and is in a much better place for introducing players to these mechanics, though I did experience a bug on my first planet that had me restart entirely: a piece I needed to fix my ship was in another system that I couldn’t travel to until I fixed my ship. Speaking of, the ship handling hasn’t really improved in any significant ways since release, and in and of itself remains one of the most rigid and unsatisfying experiences that the game has to offer. Since the ship handling now feels secondary to things like on-foot exploration and base building, it seems like an easy choice for the next big update.
Though multiplayer is one of the biggest selling points of NEXT, the framework was implemented in the previous update. Travelers would see each other as uninterruptable floating orbs of light and were also able to see each other’s bases. This sort of implementation was still sorely underwhelming, but to those who could read between the lines, it was kind of smart: Hello Games was setting up for a full feature multiplayer release that they could drop on their snubbed community with a minimum of bugs and broken mechanics by implementing and troubleshooting the framework that it would run on months before the full release ever dropped. NEXT has taken this framework to its logical next step by adding the ability for players to customize an online avatar into various alien species, and by adding the ability to join random players and friends alike for missions, base building, and other jolly co-operative shenanigans. When reached for comment, fellow SomethingAwful goon motorocker described his experience: “I just joined multiplayer and told a dude who had his TV on loud that I was new and lost. He said ‘what you need?’ I said, ‘fuel and money and shit,’ and my inventory filled up with things then I punched him multiple times and jumped into my ship and logged off.”
The resource gathering is more smoothly implemented than before: for example, you will find patches of plants or resource nodes that give generous helpings of whatever fuel you need to launch off the planet, whereas before you might occasionally find a single flower in the middle of nowhere with only 1/10th the amount of fuel you need for your launch thrusters. After No Man’s Sky 1.0 was revealed as the sham that it was, it felt like this scarcity of resources only existed to slow players down so that they would see less embarrassingly unfinished content.
Overall the update creates a more robust exploration experience that is only as goal-oriented as the player makes it. At the end of the day though, the free-form exploration genre doesn’t jive with me – I enjoy goal-oriented gaming, and although No Man’s Sky has missions and a main story to follow, the meat and potatoes of the game is no doubt the exploration. So if you prefer more goal-oriented experiences, find a group of friends that have ideas about where they want to go in space, wait for a sale, or avoid the game entirely.
Almost two years after its initial release, Hello Games somehow continues to add updates to No Man’s Sky filled with crazy amounts of content. At this point, it’s still impossible to tell whether this is the developers’ attempt at repairing a shattered reputation, or if they sincerely wanted to make this game from the beginning. Here’s the thing though: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the progress made on No Man’s Sky since release is commendable and it’s refreshing to see a developer continue to improve even after one of the biggest failures in gaming release history. It’s something I wish we would see more of in 2018’s chaotic gaming hellscape where every failed release becomes akin to a shitty pump-and-dump scheme.
These days however, if you’re looking for an overhyped space game to trash talk, it seems like the perpetual non-release of Star Citizen remains your best option.