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No Man's Sky advertising complaint not upheld by ASA

Trailers not deemed misleading

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority has decided not to uphold the complaints against No Man's Sky's Steam page. The regulatory body announced they were investigating the complaints in September but after consultation with both Valve and developers Hello Games they're satisfied that the trailers, screenshots and text desriptions on the game's Steam page did not breach the advertising code. I am not entirely satisfied.

No Man's Sky has disappointed a lot of people since its release and the ASA received complaints from 23 people "who believed that some of the game content was not as depicted or described, [and] challenged whether the ad was misleading."

The ruling, which you can read in full here, details at length both Valve and Hello Games response to the complaints, the evidence they provided to counter them, and the ASAs resulting decisions on each point of complaint. It concludes:

Taking into account the above points, we considered that the overall impression of the ad was consistent with gameplay and the footage provided, both in terms of that captured by Hello Games and by third parties, and that it did not exaggerate the expected player experience of the game. We therefore concluded that the ad did not breach the Code.

The complaints about No Man's Sky were broad, including the game's ship flying behaviour, apparent lack of large-scale space battles, inability to fly close to the ground, animal AI behaviour, the speed of galaxy warp and loading times, and more. We covered some of our own disappointments with the game here, though many of us still enjoyed playing it.

Hello Games response was therefore equally as lengthy, as detailed in the ASA ruling linked above. You might not have time to read all of it, but it begins by saying that Hello Games explained procedural generation and that:

Hello Games said that, as each user’s experience would be very different, it would be difficult to recreate the exact scenes from the ad. However, they believed it was fairly straightforward to locate content of the type shown in the ad and to demonstrate that such content was commonly experienced by all users who played NMS for an average period of time. They stated that all material features from the ad that had been challenged by complainants appeared in the NMS universe in abundance. While each player experienced different parts of the NMS universe, there was a low probability that anyone playing the game as intended would fail to encounter all these features in some form within an average play-through.

ASAs assessment of the complaint therefore begins:

The ad contained several screenshots and two different video trailers for the game, as well as a text description. We understood that, as NMS was procedurally generated, player experiences would vary according to what material was generated in their play-through. The summary description of the game made clear that it was procedurally generated, that the game universe was essentially infinite, and that the core premise was exploration. As such, we considered consumers would understand the images and videos to be representative of the type of content they would encounter during gameplay, but would not generally expect to see those specific creatures, landscapes, battles and structures. We therefore considered whether the game and footage provided by Hello Games contained gameplay material of a sufficiently similar type to that depicted in the ad.

The rest of the assessment continues in the same vein: although elements from the trailer were not present in the game, "similar" elements were, or the elements were considered too minor to mislead. For example, "The footage provided did not show a ship flying underneath a rock formation, as in one of the videos, and we had been unable to replicate similar behaviour in the game. However, this was a brief shot within a wider sequence and we did not consider that, in the context of the ad as a whole, this was likely to mislead." Or, "With regard to the claim 'factions vie over territory', we considered that consumers would understand from this that more than one faction would be present in the game, holding specific territory, and that there would be aspects of the game relating to tensions over territories and faction activities."

This feels to me like there's a gap between the knowledge of people who regularly play games and the knowledge of the regulators at the Advertising Standards Authority, and the resultant expectations that are created when seeing No Man's Sky's trailers and screenshots. The "factions vie over territory" line, for example, seems likely to create an expectation of shifting galactic control in the minds of people who are familiar with similarly dynamic systems in other games, rather than the mere presence of different factions, brief conversations with them, or consequence-free battles.

The same seems true of the procedural generation and animal behaviour. Players see creatures moving like herds in in-game trailers and, because it's unusual and complex behaviour, expect more than random scampering and individual animals fleeing from larger animals. Players see long-necked dinosaurs in the E3 trailer and their scale makes them as unusual, cementing them in the player's mind as something specific to look forward to rather than the smaller, "similar" dinosaur-ish creatures found in the eventual game. It seems unlikely that the existence of these features would have satisfied players who did not enjoy the experience of playing No Man's Sky, but in the context of existing games and our knowledge of them, the trailers and screenshots do seem more misleading than ASA have decided.

The ASA measure advertising against the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing, or CAP code, which is available online here. In this instance No Man's Sky was investigated under rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation) and 3.11 (Exaggeration), which you can find here, and it was these specific rules that the game's advertising was found not in breach.

For their part, Valve are said to have responded to the complaint by arguing that, "Developers were responsible for the content of their games, marketing materials describing the games (including screenshots, narratives and videos)," and that "neither Valve nor Steam wrote marketing copy for games hosted on the service." They also mentioned their refund policy, which allows customers to refund games "that had been played for less than two hours in the first 14 days after purchase."

Though No Man's Sky does not contain many elements players were expecting prior to the game's release, Hello Games are continuing to update it. They released their first major content addition last weekend, adding base building among much more.

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