No Man’s Sky is a game I’ve discussed before on this website. Now, two years on, No Man’s Sky has changed, and so have I. No Man’s Sky recently released its most recent, most ambitious update for the game. This is known as No Man’s Sky Next. Surrounding the game is a lot of discussion about the game as the developers poke their heads out to see if it’s safe. Back when the game launched, there was a whole fiasco about how big the gulf was between the marketing and the finished product. In my previous discussion of the game, I noted that the game was enjoyable enough albeit overpriced. As part of all this, it seems that No Man’s Sky is now remembered as a game that overpromised and underwhelmed. Discussion centred around a cynicism about returning to No Man’s Sky now that it had the “promised” features. The language around the game is about meeting a standard that was previously lied about. Here’s the thing, I certainly think there were deceptive elements to the pre-release marketing. However, No Man’s Sky is a perfect storm in a teacup to examine gaming culture’s attitude towards developers as a whole.
Look, it is certainly possible to unfavourably compare the early marketing to the final product and feel deceived. That was an issue. I do think that it’s also valuable to look at what Sean Murray has said around the release of NMS Next. Sean Murray agrees that he talked about a version of the game that didn’t exist. Did Sean Murray lie? That’s harder to parse. I’m a creator, just like Murray. I think that Sean Murray talked about a game that was still in development. Murray admits that he talked to the press eagerly about features they were exploring. There is definitely a fault here in not hiring a PR person/community manager as soon as the game began to reach a wider audience. That was a mistake. However, I think the way we talk about No Man’s Sky reveals something else about us.
The games industry loves its auteurs. The Hideo Kojima’s, the Sid Meier’s, the Shigeru Miyamoto’s, the Peter Molyneux’s. The way that games press talked about No Man’s Sky, Sean Murray became synonymous with NMS. Granted, by all accounts, NMS was his passion project. However, what this auteur theory often neglects is that there are people behind the face of the game. Death Stranding is not just the work of Hideo Kojima. Super Smash Brothers is not solely the child of Masahiro Sakurai. Sean Murray is not the sole developer of NMS. He had five or six other people with him. A handful of people worked on NMS and when it wasn’t a rollicking space adventure, some gaming press lost it. Sean Murray has talked about how the whole team has received death threats and all the terrible things that the Internet can do. All over a game. The worst a game can do for me is waste the time I spent on it and the money I spent on it. No Man’s Sky didn’t shoot somebody, it was a game that was perhaps a touch dull. I still invested a worthwhile amount of time on it at launch. I found it to be a deeply calming game.
Now, the point I want to make when looking at this whole situation is that Sean Murray fucked up. He did. No matter that the game upon release could offer its own worth as a game. However, I think that two years later, that lane has to go both ways. Terrible things were lobbed at the team at Hello Games at the time. For that, I’m sorry. The reason this is important to me is that we as a gaming public tend to be a bit entitled. We bug Todd Howard and Bethesda that they should be working on the game we want, not the game they want to make. Their current projects might not interest me, but I’m not going to harass the developer to pursue something they might have no interest in. It’s unfair to treat a creator as an art dispensary. Creators make what they want. Elder Scrolls 6 will arrive eventually. Feel free to express your passion for the series, but demands don’t make a creator feel inclined to listen to you.
As part of this, I think we often don’t see the hundreds of humans working on games. We see the people who stand in front of the camera. Thus, the games industry becomes this collection of many notable individuals instead of the monolithic machine that it is. Why does it matter how we frame this? Well, it means that figures like Sakurai working insane hours on Melee are idolised for overworking themselves because we got a great game. The news that Cuphead was built on people’s mortgages was a parochial piece of news (when generally reported on, the article linked notes the human cost) instead of the concerning news piece about what it takes to become a console manufacturers darling indie.
The way we talk about games allows us to throw developers under the bus that is crunch, because often the game is the face. The game is the be-all-and-end-all of the game industry and who cares the broken people it leaves behind it if you got a great game. This sort of mentality allows companies to think of developers as expendable. That’s how someone can get fired over a Twitter blow-up. Because it’s easier to fire a couple writers than risk the wrath of the audience. The way we talk about games now and the way that we don’t talk about developers is a gaming cultural blind spot that allows people to be chewed up and spit out by this industry. I kind of hoped that introspection would come with people reassessing Sean Murray but for some, there’s still bitter vitriol after two years. Sometimes even pro-consumer pundits can throw the developer under the bus for the consumer and that’s not good for anyone.
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