Expectation Vs Experience, And Why I’ve No Idea What No Man’s Sky Will Be Like

I’ve been thinking about expectations a bit, recently. Not least with No Man’s Sky only moments away. And not least because Graham recently wrote about how he sometimes prefers to enjoy the expectations more than the games themselves. Few games have so many expectations hanging around their neck like mighty millstones as next week’s indie space adventure, and it means it’ll be released into a frenzied madness of people’s own imaginations with which it can never compete. But unlike Graham I don’t enjoy the build-up at all – in fact, as contrary as this is to my job, I try to ignore it as much as possible.

That definitely needs a bit more explaining. I don’t ignore games during development, clearly, or I’d struggle to do my job properly. But I definitely compartmentalise in a way I’ve developed over the last couple of decades, allowing myself to see – perhaps write about – the latest trailer for Game X, and yet not decide what I think Game X is going to be like despite it.

No Man’s Sky has certainly made that tricky, after the enormous Summer fuss it’s seen over the last few years. I feel enormously for Hello Games in that respect, this small indie studio in my home town of Guildford, suddenly treated like a AAA developer with the marketing hype of a desperate Sony behind them. I don’t imagine it was ever anyone at the studio’s intent to stand up in front of tens of millions of eyes and say, “We’re going to build something infinitely complex,” when they clearly weren’t, can’t, etc. They certainly over-promised, but the receiving ears and eyes took it far further, and now no matter what they release it’s going to fall short of an imagined impossibility.

The reason I’ve been thinking about it is I’m down to review the game. And that adds a whole other dynamic to the expectation thing. One of the most tiresome comments that gets left on reviews is, “You clearly expected this game to be X, you made your mind up before you started writing.” It’s one of those comments that manages to be rude in multiple ways at once, not just implying that the author is being dishonest in some way, but also loudly declaring that the author is incapable of doing their job. And the thing is, I’ve never made my mind up about a game before I’ve started playing it, because – well – that would be really stupid.

The reason I play games, as a critic, is in order to make my mind up about them. Were I capable of the prescience required to decide my opinions without all the hours of actually playing a game, I could save so much time! I could write all my reviews for the next six months now, and then take the rest of the year off! As it happens, curse it, I’m not in possession of such soothsaying abilities, and as such have to go through the whole ordeal of playing the darned things. And since I’m there, doing that, I may as well make my mind up during all that palaver rather than waste even more time trying to do it beforehand.

Of course, this accusation speaks much more of the accuser than the innocent, handsome victim, because it betrays an attitude where minds are made up before events, where brand loyalty overrides reality, expectation defines experience, heart rules head. And I just cannot ever allow myself to think that way – it would be madness. My job is to report my experiences of a game, critically evaluate it, and attempting to do that based on anything other than playing the game itself is shitballs crazy.

But of course I heard the hype about No Man’s Sky. I saw those early E3 videos. I watched in actual slack-jawed horror at the embarrassing IGN hands-on-brains-off videos. And I started to imagine. I started to consider how I’d play it. And I’ve had to force myself to stop. I can’t pretend I didn’t decide I wanted to spend endless hours needlessly exploring alien planets without care for finding the centre of the universe (this is, I swear, the extent of what I understand you can do in the game), and of course I’ve no idea if this is something the game will offer me. Perhaps there will be restrictions, imperatives, enforced space shopping, maybe it turns into a corridor shooter? I don’t know, because I haven’t played it! And I’ve very deliberately not watched the trailers from the last few weeks knowing that the review is coming up. I genuinely don’t want to know more now than you explore planets and eventually go toward the centre.

Oddly enough, when I read a book I don’t want to know what happens after page 20 or so, and when I watch a film I rarely find out what happens at the end before I sit down. Games are a far more complex experience than a sequential narrative, but the same rules apply for me expanded to the criteria of mechanics, activities, and so on. The less I expect, the better time I have with a good game, and the better job I do of reporting what I’ve actually experienced, rather than what I expected. At least, I try. It’s really hard.

I know that I’ve gone into games expecting them to be terrible, because they’re made by developers who’ve only made terrible games, or haven’t been able to avoid what other people have said about them. But I think that offers you the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised. Going in expecting something spectacular means even greatness can feel disappointing, and that’s never helpful for anyone. So, as a rule, I assume as little as I can, and instead opt to hope to have a good time. Then just write down what it was like when I played it. That’s my plan for No Man’s Sky.


  1. Andy_Panthro says:

    I’m sure for many of us there has been a game, that game, one where you read every preview and were so keen to believe the hype and marketing that the end result couldn’t help but be underwhelming. Even a good game can be crushed under the weight of expectation.

    Most recently I found this with Kickstarter, as I went on a little binge backing all sorts of games with barely anything but concept art and promises to base my decisions on. I’ve been quite lucky in that regard, with more than enough being good, but it could have quite easily been a disaster (still might, as I still have a number yet to be released).

    I try to just ignore the updates now though, and wait for the final product. If nothing else, I don’t really want to spoil things too much by seeing all the updates and behind the scenes stuff months before I can play the game(s).

    • QSpec says:

      Guild Wars 2.

      I got into the first beta, and I didn’t really enjoy it. I thought “that must be because of such limited content, and how I am kind of forced into rushing around to make the most of the beta.”

      Then I got into the game, and I realized that I kind of like carrot/stick MMOs. That I was pretty nonplussed with GW2 character design, etc. I hit max level with my first character, and I never played it again.

      • Danarchist says:

        I have intentionally avoided reviews, just plays, etc for this after seeing the numerous articles all over the gamur-webz on it. I think we are having a decent game drought, and this is the only really shiny apple on the tree. I love crafting games and space, mush them together and I should be fairly happy.

        Funny you mention guild wars 2. That game was so insanely hyped that when the servers cleared up a little and I logged in for the first time I figured I must be missing something. Nope, it was another chase your tail/kill 10 wolves game with shinny wrapping.

        Anyone want to start a kickstarter to give Asheron’s Call 1 a graphics overhaul? That would be nice

  2. Nauallis says:

    I’m probably not going to wait for your review, but as always I’m interested in reading your Wot I Think.

  3. TightByte says:

    For no good reason, I’m reminded of the old days when there weren’t really any computer mags (or none that adequately covered your platform or your interests) and so the reviewers to whom you’d listen and over who, in turn, you might hold sway were your peers; friends, neighbours, classmates, colleagues. You ended up picking up the games they recommended, or going in blind and then (if you liked it) recommending it to them.

    I nowadays rather like reading reviews about games, perhaps because there are so many of them and there’s so little time (and, arguably, not unlimited funds.) At the same time, demos are apparently not a thing any more, owing to some idea I just don’t get which claims that releasing demos actually lowers sales. That’s either crazy or we’ve ended up in a strange place.

    David Braben has taught me never, ever, to pay money for something that doesn’t already exist in a finite form, because you ought to be buying a game for its features that you like, not those you hope it’ll have that you’d like. As concerns No Man’s Sky, I’m truly curious to know your verdict, John. Do let us know.

    • X_kot says:

      you ought to be buying a game for its features that you like, not those you hope it’ll have that you’d like.

      Somewhere, a game exec clutched their head and said, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of preorders suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

      • Nauallis says:

        ^ If Obi-Wan had ended up going to the dark side.

      • _G_ says:

        This comment is absolute gold; my wife wondered what the heck I was laughing about so loudly;

        “Somewhere, a game exec clutched their head and said, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of preorders suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.””

    • Xocrates says:

      “I just don’t get which claims that releasing demos actually lowers sales”

      A good game with a good demo would sell well regardless.
      A good game with a bad demo might actually lose sales.
      A bad game with a good game might gain sales.
      A bad game with a bad demo wouldn’t sell regardless.

      It’s not that a demo loses sales, it’s that the only case where having a demo is advantageous for a publisher is if they have a bad game and a good demo.

      However a demo not only takes resources to make, but it is often (necessarily) unrepresentative of your game, or shows so much of it that people might straight up skip the game itself – Defcon actually had this problem.

      The end result is that in the vast majority of cases the amount of work required to make a proper demo isn’t worth it for the developer.

      • Marr says:

        The ‘would/wouldn’t sell regardless’ is oversimplifying a bit. In all cases, a demo will increase discover-ability and lower barriers to entry. A representative demo should sell to the same percentage of a widened audience.

        • Xocrates says:

          But the question becomes, is demo (and the work put into it) more worthwhile than, say, a trailer?

          Because what little data we do have, suggest no.

    • _G_ says:

      “you ought to be buying a game for its features that you like, not those you hope it’ll have that you’d like.”

      I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

  4. caff says:

    As much as I love games, and even though I read RPS daily, I have a huge respect for the lack of hype this site provides. Any new release is treated with respect but due cynicism and suspicion where required. It’s so British it’s lovely.

    • Harlander says:

      It’s just the right amount of cynicism and suspicion, too. Other places ladle the cynispicion too heavily, and the resulting flavour is a bitter and unpleasant one.

      • Marr says:

        The trick to a good cynispicion bun is plenty of grass fed Irish butter.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Well said. RPS is probably the sanest voice in games writing, whilst also being the funniest. The coverage of No Man’s Sky has been excellent.

    • QSpec says:

      Honestly, and this might be indicative of a mental disorder or something, but I think the more tentative approach to NMS will allow me to actually enjoy the game for what it is.

      I have a habit of drinking up hype like some kind of hype-vampire, and when I realize that the perfectly average game isn’t the above average game I was promised, I lose enthusiasm fast as hell.

  5. C0llic says:

    “The reason I’ve been thinking about it is I’m down to review the game. And that adds a whole other dynamic to the expectation thing”

    I’m not using quote code because if I get it wrong.. well. I’m glad you’re on this one. As RPS’s resident Curmudgeon, I know if you like it, that’s a not insubstantial bar to meet.

    PS: One my most beloved friends in the world is a curmudgeon, so please, no offence intended.

    • frymaster says:

      “As RPS’s resident Curmudgeon, I know if you like it, that’s a not insubstantial bar to meet. ”

      I love that you can read RPS and have an idea of the lens through which the game was viewed, rather than struggling with some generic faux-objective style that leaves you guessing what baggage the author brought to the table. For example, I’m very unlikely to ever play a puzzle game Mr Walker has recommended, but if he advocates a stealth FPS it’s going straight to the top of my “to-buy” list

  6. Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

    Arrange an interview with the lead developer, John! See if he’ll admit to being a pathological liar.

    “So, Sean Murray, IF THAT IS YOUR REAL NAME…”

    • Marr says:

      Be fair now, give him a decade or two to waste millions of dollars and destroy a few dozen careers first.

    • Josh W says:

      Sean Murry’s crime is being enthusiastic about collecting things and looking at pretty landscapes, Hello games did a great twitch stream of them playing the game, and enjoying it, while constantly teasing themselves about marketing ambitions.

      Watching that and you couldn’t help but think “this is going to be a very particular game, but it could be a wonderful cool down after other more intense things”. And so far, that’s pretty much exactly what it’s been.

      You play it, and you do think of all the other things it could be, what could be happening there, and the fact that the game itself doesn’t contain those things is a shame, but it’s fun what it makes you imagine, like a book or something, except instead of filling in the gaps with visuals based on the words, your filling in gameplay based on the visuals.

  7. stringerdell says:

    All Ive seen is the launch trailer and a few pretty screenshots so I’m basically in the same boat. Going to buy it Friday anyway because its so damn pretty and Im a sucker for games about exploration.

  8. Eight Rooks says:

    I’ll be a tiny bit of a devil’s advocate here, because I have become heartily fed up of stating “No, I’m not watching/playing/reading X, because I’m pretty sure it’s rubbish”, being told “How dare you presume to say any such thing, you can’t possibly have any idea what it’ll be like, if you don’t experience every last minute for yourself your opinion isn’t worth squat” – then watching/playing/reading X and discovering that what do you know, I was right all along, and whoever I was talking to was glossing over faults as wide as the Grand Canyon which were obvious from minute one. Sometimes preconceptions are perfectly valid, or at least well worth listening to. I’ve seen enough people offering quite rational, considered appraisals of No Man’s Sky alongside all the shrieking internet hate, which it seems – surprise, surprise – were pretty close to the bullseye, if not dead center.

    That being said, yes, while I won’t be playing the game myself any time soon, I’m also looking forward to your WiT, John. I hope you enjoy it.

    • Thankmar says:

      I’m with you here. You get a certain amount of experience, you can estimate your experience with games, movies, TV-Series, whatever, from their advertising and claims what its gonna be like. The more the business-side of these hybrid art-forms is involved, the more exact your estimation will be, meaning: its easy to guess your experience with a new political TV-Drama, or the next Tom Cruise action flick, not as easy with an unknown indie director. As is the case with NMS.

      With NMS you have a part unprecedented world-building (at this scale), a part well-known survival-mechanics and some parts of intended vagueness. Many people focus on the world-part, which combined with the vagueness builds a giant canvas for all kind of projections. Other people focus on the mechanics, which seem to be pretty generic. So, the point here is: Do HG have some things up their sleeves, which rocket NMS into greatness or not?

      I’m thinking John wrote first about an ideal, and second about games that try something new and therefore cannot be estimated by having experience (which is synonymous with indie production these days). Therefore I think games like this should have the benefit of the doubt, and the player (the critic) should try to have an open mind and the willingness to let the game surprise you.

      Even if NMS is everything so many people want it to be, its not gonna be my kind of game. I do fear it plays out as generic as the other many people think. But I’m rooting for it anyway, just because it seems to try very hard to be something new and unique.

  9. Captain Narol says:

    Have a great time, John ! I won’t wait for your review but I’m curious to read your impressions !

  10. Xocrates says:

    “I’ve never made my mind up about a game before I’ve started playing it, because – well – that would be really stupid.”

    Thing is, this is both entirely accurate and completely wrong.

    Even the most rational person will be affected by their emotions, frequently subconsciously.
    Whether you want it or not, you will be influenced by what other people are saying, and what’s worse is that living under a rock might not actually help you because that out of game experience can be crucial to enjoying or understanding the game itself.

    I’ve certainly played a fair share of games where it felt the reception to it was due to people expecting something different, as well as games which I would have dropped entirely if I didn’t have any context going in (Minecraft being an obvious example).

    Okay, so you won’t have made up your mind before playing it, but you’ll often have made up your mind on whether you should like it – even if you’re not aware of that.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      I helped to mark university exam papers as as part of my job for quite a few years, and one of the things that always, always made me groan/burst out laughing was students who (at any stage of the process) put something like “In order to eliminate all bias from the results (or the data, or the conclusion, or whatever), I plan to do the following…”. Everyone has bias. No-one can go into anything truly blind. The best you can do is mitigate it and/or plan accordingly.

      (Merely an observation, mind you, I’m not part of the JOHN WALKER HAET EVERYTHING brigade. I say I want to read his review, I mean it quite sincerely. But still, just saying.)

    • khamul says:

      From the Dosadi Experiment, by Frank Herbert:

      “All persons act from beliefs that they are conditioned not to question, from a set of deeply seated prejudices. Therefore, whoever presumes to judge must be asked: ‘How are you affronted?’.”

      – a smart man, was Herbert. The more I read it, the more I think The Dosadi Experiment was his masterwork.

  11. Massenstein says:

    I’ve been very anxiously waiting to learn what this game is about. Soon I will know. So many things sound very promising, but there are so many little things that can mean never buying it.

    I hope it will be a good and succesful game.

  12. Godwhacker says:

    Looking forward to the review. Been very much trying to keep my expectations reasonable- though that first trailer was such a marvel it’s been very tricky.

  13. grve says:

    I just want my crap jetpack, ambient music, and veiled alien history.

    And DLC to jump out of an airlock a la Rodina. so cool

  14. jonahcutter says:

    “I don’t imagine it was ever anyone at the studio’s intent to stand up in front of tens of millions of eyes and say, “We’re going to build something infinitely complex,” when they clearly weren’t, can’t, etc. They certainly over-promised, but the receiving ears and eyes took it far further, and now no matter what they release it’s going to fall short of an imagined impossibility.”

    You imply they did stand up and say they were going to build something “infinitely complex”, even against their own intentions. Did they ever actually do this?

    What did they over-promise?

    I may well have missed it if they did do this, but I’ve not seen evidence of them promising infinite complexity. Perhaps it’s this supposedly “brain off” IGN video, which I did not see? What are you referencing when you imply they promised such immense things?

    • funky_mollusk says:

      I would assume that he is referring to, like all of the media coverage over the last year or so…

      For example: the New Yorker article which is literally called “World Without End”.

      • jonahcutter says:

        Well, that would be the press exaggerating things, not the developers themselves standing up and promising something “infinitely complex”.

        Like I said, I may well have missed if they indeed did as Walker implies here. But I haven’t myself seen it. So, what examples of the devs actually inflating expectations into the infinite are we basing such accusations on?

  15. PancakeWizard says:

    I suspect you’ll have a good time with it John, just be aware that Hello Games takes the ‘discovery’ angle pretty seriously, right down to how things work within the inventory system. Just pay attention the visual cues, and you should be alright.

  16. DeadCanDance says:

    As anyone seen metacritic’s users review or jim sterling’s?

    • KastaRules says:

      Here’s the cached review by Jim Sterling:

      link to webcache.googleusercontent.com

      “I’ve seen so many planets, met so many aliens, and mined so much goddamn carbon and not once have I been surprised. Not once has the game thrown me a curveball. Every new location is just a different colored home for the same old routine, and the procedural generation means that things feel far less diverse than they could be – when randomized pools replace handcrafted designs, the lego bricks piecing everything together are far too obvious.


      I’ve seen things you people would easily believe. I’ve not seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched no C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. There are no moments to lose in time like tears in procedurally generated rain.
      Time to Sky.

      Doesn’t sound good.

      • caff says:

        I think that sounds like a fair assessment of what I’ve glimpsed so far on youtube playtests. I have a feeling Steam’s refund request system is going to get bombarded over the next few days.

        • Fry says:

          Maybe, but I think it will be difficult to decide how to feel about this game in two hours.

      • Press X to Gary Busey says:

        I wondered why his website was down. The superfans went to Defcon 1.

        • Stompywitch says:

          As ever, they will defend to the death your right to disagree, as long as you don’t disagree with them.

  17. phelix says:

    Of course, this accusation speaks much more of the accuser than the innocent, handsome victim, (…) </q)

    Oh, John. Never change.

  18. PoulWrist says:

    Well, Jim Sterlings review seems to be rather on the money on it.

    But maybe he just plays too many games like it that are all generally shit, so it comes down to too much exposure to indie-openworld-survival with no gameplay.

  19. UncleBAZINGA says:

    A great plan it is, John. I think a huge problem in the age of internet is how fast biased people can get because of all the opinions or how fast a shitstorm or hype can start rolling. Therefore I try for a while now to experience media which I’m interested in completely by myself without any internet gibberish in mind. Sometimes I might waste money for a product this way, but often I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying i.e. a game which has been destroyed online.

  20. ZXDunny says:

    Back in the day, when I were a nipper, I used to pratt around on a Sinclair Spectrum, as many of us did around here (or a C64). There was one game I saw in my local games shop – Explorer by the RamJam Corporation. I read the blurb on the back (2 million locations!) and read the reviews, which were awful. Really dire.

    Nothing to do, but some nice graphics all the same. 30%-ish scores. Huge game world, first person perspective flick screen affair, tracking down parts of your destroyed spaceship by following beacons in an orienteering style.

    I bought it anyway.

    And I bloody loved it. Played it for months. Spent hours and hours tracking down spaceship parts by pinging beacons, being wary of teleport doors which could seriously disorientate you, and drinking in the frankly gorgeous 8 colour representations of waterfalls, jungle, lakes, mud huts and the occasional insect that I had to shoot to progress.

    Everyone else I’ve ever met (that knows of its existence) hated it, yet it made my entire summer.

    I’m hoping that NMS will do the same, and having seen some early videos of gameplay I’m certain that it will.

    And that’s all I have to say, really. Carry on.

    • KastaRules says:

      I agree, as long as it makes you happy I see nothing wrong with it. Live and let live, no need to force our conflicting opinions on each other.

      Still, we are talking about mankind: we’ll never go along, especially on the Internet. There will always be that mentality “I am right, you are wrong”

  21. kromeboy says:

    I am just happy that this NMS hype train made me rediscover Space Engine

  22. DantronLesotho says:

    I got burned badly on Too Human by getting my hopes up too high. Never again. I still enjoyed the time I played with that game, but it wasn’t anywhere near to what I had expected. The positive side is that it tempered my outlook and can enjoy games with a more level head.