2016 was a huge year for gaming that saw a number of long-awaited games finally make it out of development hell and into our grubby gamer hands. Hype has been a growing danger in gaming for a while now, with the excitement for certain games threatening to overwhelm the games themselves. This year brought that to a huge, explosive conclusion with No Man’s Sky.
With the exception of Star Citizen, No Man’s Sky might be the single most-hyped game of all time. But I’m going to argue that the way No Man’s Sky’s bubble popped helped save other games from their own inflated reputations.
It’s a miracle that games manage to see release at all. The amount of work a small team faces when creating a game, any game, can be monumental. Getting hundreds of developers to work together and deliver the code is a logistical nightmare. Video games probably shouldn’t work. But they do and, a lot of the time, they don’t suck.
What we, as gamers, see, is the final product – the theatrical show all that coding work puts on for us, and it’s easy to forget that there are a million little gears cranking away in the background. Our fifteen hours of gameplay is their months and sometimes years of development time. The grinding of the gears only becomes audible when a game glitches or breaks, and so those delays can seem like broken promises and outright betrayal.
As a game’s development goes on, hype inevitably builds with the trickle of information and media the publisher releases to keep their game in the minds of their core audience. As hype climbs, delays bristle. The hype either starts to swell toward an explosion … or sour into something like an angry mob.
No Man’s Sky is the ultimate expression of this.
The realities of a small team’s development capabilities crashed headlong into the optimistic promises of the game’s creator. His promises were fueled by the possibilities of video games as a medium, but ultimately reality had to break in and spoil things. No Man’s Sky promised infinity, but was developed by something like 20 people. The game saw a bunch of delays, each accompanied by more and more vicious response from fans — up to and including death threats — until it finally released this August.
The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV weren’t victim to the same intensity of hype that No Man’s Sky was, but they both rode the train three times long as it did, with each seeing about a decade of development.
In a vacuum, none of these games are bad. If you could separate any of them from the years of promises, expectations, development time and delays, you’d see three very different and interesting games. What No Man’s Sky lacks in variety, it makes up in spectacle. Dropping out of hyperspace, into a galaxy, and then landing on a planet that first time was a truly impressive experience. The Last Guardian offers the emotional thrust we expect of Fumito Ueda’s games despite not looking quite like the PlayStation 4 game we’d hoped for. Final Fantasy XV has a pretty homogenous cast and more systems than one would want to handle, but makes up for them with great characterization and fun gameplay.
But no game (or any piece of media) exists in a vacuum. No Man’s Sky was accompanied by countless promises. It fell short of many of those promises and seemed to forget entirely about some others. The reaction to the gap between the expectations and reality of No Man’s Sky was like none we’d ever seen, with jilted gamers taking measures like hacking director Sean Murray’s social media accounts, starting crowd-funding campaigns, and hassling him on Twitter. The blowback lasted months, with some of these events occurring two or three months after release.
In another year, in a pre-No Man’s Sky world, both The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV might’ve fallen victim to harsh blowback that affected No Man’s Sky. Instead, the blowback did a lot to reset expectations. Maybe it even tired out the gaming community.
When Final Fantasy XV — and, a week later, The Last Guardian — were released, the gaming community felt like it was heaving one big sigh of relief. The blowout of No Man’s Sky shielded these long-awaited games from the kind of anger they might’ve otherwise incited for some rather minor shortcomings.
It’s also likely this whole mess further showed people how the hype train gets created in the first place. It’s given its initial push from enthusiastic creators, who just want to do well by their game, but gets fueled by the publisher and, often, those of us in the press. I don’t blame the gaming community for getting tired of this cycle.
Now that No Man’s Sky is out of the way, the next big target for the hype cycle appears to be Star Citizen. Expectations among the gaming community are high thanks not only to promises from creator Chris Roberts, but also thanks to the game’s status as the biggest crowdfunded project ever. The game has collected over $140 million from the community and has the potential to disappoint on an unprecedented scale.
Unlike No Man’s Sky, though, fans of the game aren’t subsisting solely off promises. The promises are there for sure, but Roberts and his studio, Cloud Imperium Games, have continued to release smaller modules for the game, letting people play bits and pieces of it as they continue development. The pieces still have to be put together and fit into the greater picture Roberts has promised, but these smaller releases have the potential to pull high expectations back down to earth. They have delivered something instead of nothing at all, and that’s laudable.
Whether or not gamers are truly tired of hype will become clear once Star Citizen releases. It’s not likely we’ll ever be free of it — hype is as human as flattery — but at least for now, it seems like we’ve managed, as a community, to ground ourselves.