A month after release, four crew members of the good ship RPS have gathered to discuss their experiences in the vast reaches of No Man's Sky [official site]. Do those procedural planets and creatures keep the game feeling fresh after hours of play? Do we enjoy collecting minerals to upgrade the laser that helps us to collect more minerals? And are we still going to be playing a hundred years from now, determined to uncover all of this universe's secrets?
Here's wot we think.
Adam: No Man’s Sky has been out for almost an entire month now, which is enough time for the four of us to have seen every single planet in its universe, given our dedication to space exploration. Sadly, I’ve only actually seen three star systems because I spend hours and hours on every single planet and moon that I encounter.
I’ve played for around forty hours, all crammed into my first week with the game, and I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. But I really enjoyed those forty hours. How about the rest of you…?
John: Look, this had better be important, you’re interrupting my playing No Man’s Sky when I should be working.
Adam: Aha! I’m going to ask a blunt question. Two, actually.
1) Why are you still playing No Man’s Sky?
2)Do you play it during your lunchbreaks as well as actual working hours?
John: 1) I really wish I could answer this question, but I’ve given it a great deal of thought. 2) Yes. And evenings. And early mornings. And during Toby’s naps at the weekends. Help me.
Adam: We’ll come back to John. Graham and Pip; are you still exploring and gathering resources and learning alien languages, one word at a time?
Pip: No. I mean, that's not a hard no as I guess it could come back onto my play rotation if I was in the exact right mood or something changed in one of the patches which caught my interest, but with 40 hours on my Steam account for it I do feel done.
Graham: I am not. That's in part because it doesn't work on my main PC; it crashes as soon as I try to run it. I can play it on my media PC downstairs but that's garbage and also downstairs, which is too far away.
It's also in part because the grind got to me. Or rather, the thought of what I'd have to do to mitigate the grind: all the dumb little tricks to making quick money that I either had to willfully ignore, knowing that the game was therefore longer and more boring, or look up and perform, knowing that they were making the game shorter and more boring.
I like the planets though, and I do think I'll return to the game to see more.
Adam: We should talk about grind. John, you seem to have actually enjoyed trying to earn a better ship or suit? Or at least, much more than I did. I just felt all of that stuff needed more flavour - in principle, I don’t mind finding new incremental techs, but there was no joy to them. They felt like numbers increasing, new slots and faster mineral zapping, but with no sense of discovery about them.
John: friend! Gek trading federation uhteid kuje eftir huvu omvar!
Adam: I didn’t play enough of the game to understand ANY of that. Except friend. Friend is good!
John: Oh, sorry, let me translate. Yeah, no, you’re right. The game’s terrible. Seriously, it’s such a giant mess. There is absolutely no reason to keep going, and the more I play, the more it becomes clear to me just how poorly thought through and deeply uninspired it really is. But then I could get a ship with more inventory slots you see, and then when I have that, it won’t be so inconvenient to get another ship with more inventory slots. And I like it when the plutonium crystals explode.
Pip: Is this your version of AdVenture Capitalist, then?
John: It… might be. It definitely sits in a gaming sweet spot for me, which is something absorbing and brainless that lets me listen to audiobooks at the same time. I can mill about looking for ores and selling them for maximum profits and trying to find a crashed ship and then when I’m bored of that planet leap into another solar system and potter around for an interesting planet and blah and blah and so on. And right now, in a time when I’m super-stressed and emotionally exhausted, it’s a really lovely safe cave to sit inside. But really, a very poor game. (I’m literally switching to play some more while you lot write.)
Pip: I had a similar thing very briefly with The Elder Scrolls Online as it gave me a quiet space to do small things away from the world and it didn't matter that it wasn't a good game. For my own NMS experience, though, I stopped being entranced by the planets and it felt like that was the end of my interest. The collection of systems, such as they are, just don't sustain my interest.
I mean, let's talk about my inventory/loadout/upgrades. Actually, I say "let's talk about it" but it would be impossible because I don't remember anything about it. None of the upgrades seemed to be particularly interesting or made for a vastly different experience so I stopped paying attention. Contrast that with Destiny. I can tell you about why I've made the decisions I have with loadouts and perks and particular armour and so on because it feels like they actually matter.
Towards the end of my time with the game I noticed I was swapping weapons or ships based on how many inventory slots they had, but even then it didn't feel particularly meaningful. I wasn't bothered about upgrading things so I wasn't really using those extra slots and I found a rhythm in terms of the amount of Plutonium and Thamium and Zinc and whatever which was enough to keep me alive and skipping between planets/systems and then just ignored the rest.
I think the only thing I was interested in by the end of it was the lucky dip of landing on a planet and stepping out for a first look (and that was really waning) and collecting words from the languages.
John: (I have to defend the upgrades a bit. But only a tiny bit. Run speed is essential, and you can turn your mining beam into a real force. And most of all, improve the warp drives or whatever they are to leap multiple stars in one go.)
Pip: I'll modify what I said slightly to be clearer – there was a stamina upgrade and a mining laser upgrade – a few housekeeping-ish things like that which I wouldn't be without, but they just felt like basic quality of life things rather than anything that gave my character or that playthrough any real meaning.
Graham: I think that's the difference. In Destiny you're defining how you want to play the game, in No Man's Sky you're grabbing at things that feel essential because they're needed to make the game less annoying.
Like all of you, I don't mind a bit of grind in games, or the satisfaction of upgrading and levelling, but it didn't help that the core verbs (beyond maybe "explore") of No Man's Sky didn't entertain me after the first ten hours. I don't like the feel of the mining. I don't like the feel of the combat. Honestly, it made me want to go back to playing The Division, where there was at least satisfaction in headshots, in unlocking plot, and in finishing each small quest.
Adam: The only one of those core verbs that had meaning to me was “explore”. The rest of the game, whether it’s combat, upgrading, mining, gathering or whatever else, feels like a bit of scaffolding around the central concept. You search for things so that you can travel quicker or further, and you fight things because they’re stopping you from having the things that you need to explore, or actually standing between you and the thing you want to get to.
John: I guess what makes the difference for me, then, is that I love the feel of the mining, and the exploring, although the combat is the shittiest shit of all shitland. But what makes me so bloody angry about this game I spend every spare second playing is what it COULD have been. In fact, what it SHOULD have been. The fact that if you gave me six months and a budget, I’d give you a sprawling, universe-wide mystery adventure, where clues would lead me to particular places (randomly spawned in star systems players visit) where parts of the mystery could be put together, clues found, intrigue developed, plots unfolded. Not some utter fucking bullshit about Atlas, which drags you down the dreariest and most repetitive path imaginable and ends in such a bloody insult to anyone who bothered with it that Hello Games owe me a written apology and flowers.
Pip: Is this a good moment for my Ayn Rand joke? What's the difference between No Man's Sky and an Ayn Rand novel? In No Man's Sky the player shrugs at Atlas.
John: *bows head in reverence*
Adam: Oh my. I can’t really follow that. BUT HERE GOES
I cared so little about following any of the paths that I didn’t even work out how to switch between them on the galactic map, or whatever it’s called. I just went wherever I hadn’t been.
The thing is, for all this negativity, I absolutely loved arriving at a new system or planet. Every single time. I loved seeing huge planets filling the screen and then landing on them and seeing how the light spilled from the sun to the surface, and I loved getting lost in caves, and finding a sea of Tizer, and watching a big herd of scuttling cow-insects arriving over a hill. Some of my favourite moments of the year are definitely in No Man’s Sky and I don’t resent spending forty hours with it. They were very good hours.
But if the whole thing had been packaged as a slot machine that just spat out a new star system for me every time I pulled the lever, I’d probably have enjoyed it just as much if not more. At first, I quite liked having to deal with the scarcity of resources or toxicity of a planet, but it quickly just became a drag.
Graham: I think if it had been a slot machine, I'd have lost interest instantly. I need the structure.
But I also loved the planets, and they're why I still plan to return to the game. I think I've played for around 10-15 hours, so less than all of you, which means I'm not yet sick of hopping down to a new planet surface to find out what colour the trees are and which lizard tail is stuck on which duck head. I am not sold by the notion of No Man's Sky as a "chill" game - at least as far as that's meant as a response to a lot of bad design choices - but the procedural generation definitely works in as much as I, overall, enjoyed my time with it and want to spend more time with it.
Also, it's so easy to overlook the wonder of being able to fly from space all the way down to a planet, or the scale of the space stations found in each system. I know other games have done the same thing recently, and that experience eventually wears thin here, but it is magic for a spell.
Adam: The actual size of the planets is one of my favourite things. They’re not just little tiny patches of land, they’re enormous! You can walk for days!
Just going back to what you said about structure though, Graham, I generally need structure as well; it’s why I find what’s there so frustrating and it’s why I’ve moved on so quickly (relatively speaking), I think. And it’s why I wish the tech and the ships had some character. It’s surprising how little effort there is to hide the cogs and gears, particularly with the upgrades. They’re very functional and, like Pip says, that made it all unmemorable. Just adding to a thing rather than choosing from several things.
Graham: Give me six months and a budget and I'd add the ability for players to design and construct their own spaceships from a hundred craftable pieces. I think that's what would give meaning to the resource collection for me, as building a home does in Minecraft even when that home is only used to mine and store more resources.
John: I think, Graham, as you carry on you’ll discover that the procedural generation is the one of the weakest aspects of the game. In that you see through the formula pretty soon, and realise it’s a lot more like one of those kids books divided into three, where you mix and match the flaps to make new HILARIOUS designs. In everything from animals to plants to ships.
Pip: !!! I made the exact same comparison to Graham on a Skype call the other day! I'd agree that you start seeing the ingredients that go into the creatures after maybe a dozen or so hours. I had a lot of variations of a kind of gazelle or deer but with a neck that seemed to be made out of squeezed toothpaste and terminated in either a tiny head or just a sphincter. I'm not sure if that might be because generation is linked to particular systems and perhaps I'm seeing similarity because the game is trying to represent a kind of geographical proximity or a genetic link, but I think that's unlikely given a fair few people have been in touch to say "I saw something like that" when I've posted screenshots or videos.
You also get it with the planets. Foliage is more varied in my playthrough but there are so many similar-looking caves and the resource plants seem to switch between maybe two or three models. I get that you want players to know where they are easily, but they got so samey so fast. Oh, and the buildings. Everything looks the same there. At first it's properly amazing, but after a couple of dozen hours (which I'd stress is a big chunk of time with a game that's not a MOBA for me) I found myself ping ponging between planets, landing, seeing if it caught my interest in those initial moments and, if not, or if it was barren or whatever, I'd just head back into space. I've probably missed a bunch of cool creatures and views, but the amount of time I was willing to invest in planets that didn't grab me shrank as I played. I mean, the more you play the more the novelty decreases, as you'd expect.
John: Saying that, after dozens and dozens of hours, I have just stumbled on a creature that’s a bit like an eyeballed jumping mushroom, but with a vagina with giant teeth for a head.
Adam: I’d played for at least twenty hours before I saw proper mountains. The scale of them was so impressive I spent an hour just walking around taking pictures, and there was a big red moon hanging behind them. It was great.
In fact, thinking of that makes me want to go and play some more because I want to see
a vagina with giant teeth more mountains
John: I just put up a supporter post in which I listed my fantasy patch notes, and I think it’s worth pasting a couple of key ones in here:
– Sometimes there’s a star system not previously occupied by one of three alien races
– You can bloody well sell your previous starship because what the hell were we thinking?
– Updated procedural generation systems for following:
> Flying creatures now sometimes don’t have otter heads
> Not every single planet has the exact same giant shell plant thing, nor those green glowy light plants
> Added more than four possible ship designs to land in any one space station
> Buildings on planets now procedurally generated, rather than mystifyingly all built to one precise design
Pip: Something I realised I missed was the ability to save up for something I wanted. Once, during my playtime, I found a ship that I craved. It was a weird colour combination and I coveted it, but hadn't saved up anywhere near enough to get it. In any other game it might have become a personal goal, like in GTA V when I waited for hours, trying to find the exact car I wanted and then had to get it resprayed just right and all that faff. In Gran Turismo 3 the Subaru Impreza was something of an obsession. This one… I wanted it enough to start playing the game in the grindy, savey-uppy way but… there was no point. It would leave before I could do anything useful financially and then… what? Wait for the game to generate one and keep a few squillion in the bank just in case?
Graham: I loved that Subaru Impreza! I don't care at all about cars but I spent weeks or months getting that in Gran Turismo 1.
John: That is, I guess, what I’ve been doing. And it’s frustrating, but then when a 37 slot beauty landed in a space station, and I’d saved up over 20m, it was a brilliant moment. And a “moment”, as it was incredibly fleeting and I had to see a 45 slot ship land before I found that stupid-headed motivation inside me once again.
Adam: The whole process of discovery when the game was actually on my hard drive and I started playing it - the process of discovering what the game actually did and didn’t do rather than discovery WITHIN the game, I mean - was really interesting. The biggest surprise for me was something your dream patch notes touch on, John. I’d thought it was going to be a game about exploring a mostly empty universe, being a pioneer, or being lost and alone.
It’s so busy though! There’s always traffic overhead, there are buildings everywhere. You’re not boldly going where no one has gone before, you’re travelling well-used routes and stopping by service stations to top up your supplies. I didn’t expect that AT ALL.
John: And hilariously showing up like you’re in charge, naming everything, grabbing all the resources and then sodding off, like a true Brit.
Pip: To be fair Murray said in an interview (possibly with me but I can't remember) that it would be in the vein of Star Trek, as in you go to these places that alien civilisations have already been but there's still that technicality of "where no human has gone before" – or words to that effect. I will say that in reality it lacks the actual sense of civilisation or lived-in-ness that Star Trek worlds had, though.
Adam: I didn’t necessarily mean it as a criticism of the game, more a way that it went against my expectations. The Star Trek analogy is interesting - as the game stands, I can’t quite tell what my relationship to the universe is supposed to be. I’m not saying that I necessarily should understand that given my limited progress through the actual plot or even that it needs to be defined at all, but it didn’t work for me.
The aliens don’t seem to particularly care about any of these planets, they’re outposts or forgotten places, and there’s a sense that their civilizations have been around for so long that they’re almost falling into decline. But none of that is communicated, I’m imposing story and situational stuff where the game isn’t filling in the gaps. It’d be great if some systems had stronger infrastructure or cities or anything like that, but it just feels like a universe that has planets with outposts because I need those outposts to swap resources. They exist to enable the grindy part of the game rather than to make a credible world (or worlds). Or at least that’s how it looks to me and that disappointed me.
John: I’m not stopping playing, it seems. Until the next thing comes along. But it’s not come along yet. DXMD got trampled by this for me. And its broad and significant failings make it a game I can play while doing other things, and just switching my brain off. But it doesn’t stop me yearning for the game it should have been, where I’d need to be paying attention and have my brain switched on. Funny thing is, I think it could still be that game, although if I were Hello I’d want to fire it into a volcano and make something else at this point.
Adam: Even though I’ve stopped playing, probably for good, I wouldn’t give up the time I spent with No Man’s Sky. The first few hours were amazing and I told just about everyone who’d listen to me that it might be one of my favourite games of the year. In the end, it isn’t. For such a potentially vast experience, my love for it turned out to be very short-lived.
I still think it’s worth recommending though, especially now that people have a better chance of understanding what it is and what it isn’t. It might not last thousands of hours and it might not be the everlasting gobstopper of a game that some people expected and some people would argue was promised, but I found enough wonder and mystery in it to make me very happy to have spent all those hours with it.
What say you? Would you say people should give it a chance, even if it is a disappointment in some ways?
Pip: If it was a friend who lived nearby I'd suggest they come over and play it for a bit. I think it's a really difficult one to predict whether it will click for someone or not without them actually getting a bit of time to play with it. There's also a part of me which feels the price tag is way too high. It's a really really ambitious project and I don't want to say this to demean the things which do work well or are stunning or which create wonderful moments, but the individual parts really don't come together to form a game that works as a unified thing and I feel like if you pay a triple A price you'd expect something more coherent. I honestly think that if the game had been £20 there wouldn't have been *quite* as much vitriol, because the pricing does affect a certain amount of the perception.
Graham: I agree wholeheartedly. I enjoyed my time with it, I think it's a mess but ultimately worthwhile as an experience. I'd recommend anyone play it, because I think it does some remarkable things and there's nothing else quite like it in some ways. But I wouldn't recommend that just anyone buy it. Some people aren't going to care about the things it does well, and some are going to be more put off than others by the many things it does badly.
That's an unsatisfying answer.
Pip: It's a truthful one, though.
Adam: I hope that people don’t dismiss it (No Man’s Sky, not your answer) as either a complete failure, or a hyped-up version of the usual survival game. The resource collecting and especially that bloody mining laser could easily make it look like it’s far duller than it is; even though I don’t enjoy that side of it at all, and the exploration isn’t as exciting or varied as we all might have hoped, it’s still a spectacular game at times.
But fuck that whole inventory system.
Pip: It feels like one of those games which might be remembered as being the game that did a thing first that later games then… perfected? Improved on? Smartened up or worked out how to make the other bits of it tick? IT was such a cool and ambitious project in a lot of ways and I don't want those positives to just disappear.
Adam: I stand by what I said before it came out - it’s the new Spore and all the good things about it might be forgotten and treated as dead-ends rather than foundations. I hope not.
Graham: So we're saying that people should rent it from the local Blockbuster or Global Video, yeah?
Adam: Absolutely. I think they still do those ‘try before you buy’ deals where you get the rental price knocked off the retail price if you buy when you return? NOW THAT’S A GOOD DEAL.
Reminder: Alec did some writing for the game. No idea which bits but he probably learned the Gek words for "disclaimer" and "freelancer" in the process.