Originally published July 19, 2017
“Why try to copy other games (and even do it in a mediocre way) and add generic features, when you have a pretty unique game and features? Why [decide to] not enhance those, but copy others instead?”
- BA1969, No Man’s Sky subreddit
At this point in time it is no secret that I am a huge fan of No Man’s Sky, a game into which I have sunk over 400 hours and counting. However, as much as I love the game and what it does, it’s hard not to realize that its most lasting impact may not be in advancing the subgenre of space simulators, but as a cautionary tale in public relations.
In part because of poor expectation management by Hello Games — and in part because of a rising tide of hype that outstripped and expanded on the promises made by Hello Games — No Man’s Sky quickly became the expected saviour of space sims, a massive universe in a bottle that would deliver everything a space sim fan could ever want. When it failed to deliver on these expectations, the backlash was so severe that, for all intents and purposes, Hello Games received third-degree burns from it and, prior to their recent ARG with cassette tapes, only discussed the content of updates upon their release.
This has not, however, seem to have shaken the expectation that No Man’s Sky would become the great space sim to rule them all from the game’s shoulders. Media interest in the game remained so high that video game news outlets spent weeks repeating the same trickles of news over and over after the release of the Foundation update, and, when Sean Murray appeared on the schedule of the 2016 Game Developers Conference, began to repeatedly speculate that he would be announcing the next update there — a baffling conclusion to anybody who knows what Game Developers Conference actually is (a professional conference for video game developers to share their experience with their peers).
All of this is particularly tragic because the ultimate space sim is an impossible dream. It cannot exist.
The reason for this is simple: anybody developing a video game has to decide what experience it is going to offer, and concentrate their efforts on that experience. This prioritization is important — video game development can be so time-consuming and costly that concentrating on the core “pillars” may be the only way to get the game out the door in a reasonable time. And, many of the expectations put into an ultimate space sim are mutually exclusive — they cannot exist in the same game experience without undermining each other.
Take, for example, realistic space flight and Newtonian physics — you can have that in a game such as Kerbal Space Program, but it makes the game less accessible for the casual player who does not have a couple of hours to spend learning how to pilot their spacecraft. Likewise, an exploration heavy focus is possible, but not in a galaxy at war with intense battles between fleets of capital ships. You can have a galaxy the size of the Milky Way or bigger with millions of planets to visit through procedural generation, or you can have detailed star systems with cities and developed civilizations. The problem isn’t always one of features being mutually exclusive — sometimes the issue is that the time constraints are such that you cannot implement one feature without short-changing another. Or, put another way, a game can do a few things really well, or many things very poorly.
And this brings me to the next generation of space sims, many of which have now started their development and been successfully crowdfunded (and many are even in early access). Games such as Astroneer, Dual Universe, Hellion, Planet Nomads, and Lightspeed Frontier — all of which, in many ways, are taking what was created by games such as Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky and building upon them…and some of which have already been compared to No Man’s Sky.
What is coming is truly breathtaking, and I hope that none of them end up saddled with the same mantle as No Man’s Sky. They are all unique experiences of their own, and deserve to judged on their own merits. But, they are not going to fulfill the impossible dream of an ultimate space sim. To place that expectation upon any of them is just unfair — it’s not fair to the developers who are dedicating years of their lives to bringing their creations to life, nor is it fair to space sim fans who would otherwise enjoy these games for what they are, as opposed to being disappointed in them for what they are not.
I think it is time to set aside the dream of the ultimate space sim. The universe we live in is mind-boggling in its size, complexity, and wonder. I’d rather have a sub-genre that is filled with games all creating their own unique experience and appreciated for it than one where space sim fans keep looking for the ultimate experience, only to be repeatedly disappointed by games that failed to provide it while deserving to be treated better for the experiences they did provide.