The release of hotly-anticipated video game No Man’s Sky has been delayed, and the reactions of some people have been absurdly over the top. A few imbeciles even issued death threats to the journalist who broke the story, Jason Schreier. If life was fair then Schreier would get a medal: he forced the truth from NMS makers Hello Games and their colleagues at Sony. Any business deserves criticism if they take money for pre-orders, but do not share with the public the certain knowledge that their product will not be delivered on the date currently being advertised. I am not the sort of person who thinks video games as so important that they are worth killing for, or even so important that they are worth getting angry about. But marketing is all about managing the emotions of customers, and this sorry episode does at least demonstrate what a terrible job Hello Games and Sony have done of marketing one of this year’s flagship games. There are reasons why some self-described ‘fans’ are increasingly upset, and one important root cause is the disastrous communications strategy adopted by Hello Games and Sony.
I have no doubt that NMS will be a big success, and generate tremendous revenues. Terrible marketing will not destroy a star product, whilst the best marketing would struggle to breathe life into a dead dog. The basic concept of NMS – 18 quintillion explorable planet-sized planets in a universe that looks like the cover of a science fiction book – is so enticing and novel that I believe the game will generate healthy returns for its makers and for Sony, even if there are some problems with execution and marketing. But that is the heart of my argument: the concept of NMS is so appealing that there is no need to stoke expectations with unhelpful and unnecessary hype, no need to mislead, or overpromise, or make all the other mistakes that Sony and Hello Games have made with the public communications for this game. They have a potentially great product in the pipeline. So they should shut up and deliver it, instead of tarnishing it with their amateurish approach to engaging customers.
To some extent Hello Games has been unlucky, in the sense that they could not have anticipated the extraordinarily positive reaction to the NMS demo at the E3 trade show in 2014. But having seen that reaction, the smart play would have been to shut up and keep quiet, instead of further stoking the passions of fans who were not conscious they would be waiting over two years to play the game. Two years is a long time, especially bearing in mind the kinds of people who buy video games. During that period Hello Games have made every stupid mistake possible, from repeatedly saying the game was coming ‘soon’, to going on major television shows and hanging out with celebrities in order to further increase the buzz surrounding the game, to publicizing a launch date that was much later than anyone expected, to still failing to deliver on time.
The worst mistake is Hello Games’ haphazard engagement with the public, which means much of the surrounding publicity has been semi-outsourced to self-appointed fans. At date of writing the ‘news’ section of the official NMS website says nothing about the delay to the game’s delivery, though you do not have to look far to see the old, wrong delivery date being repeated alongside various promotions of pre-order packages that have boxed the game with overpriced toys and comics. In contrast, the ‘about’ section does point to the NMS subreddit, because what could go wrong by allowing the lovely level-headed and highly mature people who dominate Reddit to become the major source of updates and speculation about your product?
Sean Murray of Hello Games is clearly no fool, though he may lack useful experience at communicating with the public. At times Murray is obviously uncomfortable with being in the public eye; I cannot think of his interview with Stephen Colbert without visualizing the cringing way Murray bowed his head forward and stooped over as if he was trying to make himself smaller. Murray has sometimes talked about the goodwill of fans, and he is astute to do so. As Murray pointed out, the criticisms received from some quarters will matter less if there are many other people who feel goodwill towards you. But Murray should also reflect on the historic Chinese method of torture and execution that we call ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Murray and his colleagues repeatedly inflict small but avoidable wounds. They are not a thousand-fold, but they keep adding up. So whilst Hello Games have not killed their game, they have injured it.
Instead of reflecting on the goodwill that NMS still retains, and which will continue to be evidenced by diehards around the internet, Murray should think about the goodwill expended by every careless stumble, every pointless slight, every unforced error, especially as most of them appear to be motivated by money, glory, or both. If you have a million fans you can afford to lose a fan here or there. But if you keep losing fans then soon you will find your support has diminished significantly. And it is not hard to think of how Hello Games has repeatedly taken fans for granted, when they could have made different decisions and inspired even greater loyalty.
- Differing release dates are unquestionably prompted by marketing strategies designed to maximize sales. But when a British studio releases a game that fans have been waiting two years for, and will buy irrespective of any marketing material displayed in their local game store, is it really necessary to force British consumers to wait an extra three days to download their pre-ordered purchase, compared to gamers in the USA?
- Maybe some people will buy a game because it attracts the attention of Steven Spielberg, Elon Musk, and Kanye West. But not me, and not many others. So if you need to work 14 hours a day to finish the game on schedule you should expect no sympathy if you also pump up your hype machine by making time to give various celebs an exclusive demo of your overdue product.
- All that stuff about the lore of NMS is bullshit, and the makers must know it. Some fans will also see through it, and shake their heads at the comic that is being used to extract even more money from kids who do not know better. Hello Games started making a game and, years later, a few guys who routinely profit from SF tie-ins were drafted in to come up with some kind of explanation for why the game is the way it is. This is a graft-on, an afterthought, a rationalization. And the worst thing is that we have to wait until the game is released to find out what this trivial ‘lore’ is, whilst knowing it will lessen the space for fans to dream up their own imaginative explanations for what they discover in the game.
The last point also touches on an important way that the makers of NMS have failed to understand their market. Time and again we have been told the game is inspired by science fiction. Fine. I like science fiction. But not everybody in the science fiction playpen gets along with everyone else in there. Selling to one does not mean selling to all. The superficial understanding of a casual fan or business person might lead to the erroneous conclusion that all SF fans read comics, all buy the merchandising toys, all watch Star Trek, all read novels with covers by Chris Foss. But the truth is that hardly anyone knows who Chris Foss is, slightly more have read the novels with his artwork on the front, many of them have also watched the latest Star Trek film, and the teenage comic readers that saw the Star Trek film have no idea what Foundation is, and no interest in the other SF books that are supposed to have inspired NMS. So which of these SF fans is NMS aimed at? Can anyone in Sony or Hello Games even answer that question? Or do they treat SF fans as a homogenous lump, in the way that Hollywood often does? Hollywood can get away with treating SF fans like that because the fraternity can be relied upon to pay 10 bucks for a two-hour movie, just so they can talk about it later. Paying 60 bucks for hundreds of hours of gaming is a far less obvious pitch.
Have the majority of the SF community even noticed that NMS is coming? If not, then why does Murray sometimes talk about the classic SF books he has read… and hence inadvertently signal that he probably has not read that many? Nobody would think less of Murray if he presented himself as a nice guy who spends a lot of time developing innovative games, and so never had much time for books. But for reasons that baffle me, Murray seems intent on presenting himself as a card-carrying stalwart of SF fandom, even though he is certainly too busy to read through all the good, bad and indifferent stories that an über-fan must plough through every week. It is sufficient that this game will be sold to people who like to play video games. Some of the links to SF fandom seem motivated by pushing gimmicky merchandise instead of genuinely appealing to the tastes of hardcore SF fans.
And therein lies another sin committed by Hello Games. They created an open universe. SF fans love to populate universes with their own ideas. They write fan fiction, make fan films, dress up and turn themselves into the characters they love. But instead of embracing and encouraging the potential for fan fiction, the insistence on the top-down delivery of NMS ‘lore’ has diluted the potential for good fan fiction during the long wait for the game’s release, and damaged the likelihood of any emerging afterwards. If Sean Murray wanted to write a game with a story, he should have given his game a story. Attaching a lore is the worst possible compromise – it limits the way fans might explore the back story and origins of the game, but creates no characters for other fans to build upon. So why create a ‘lore’? To make a few extra dollars by selling a crappy comic that will soon be forgotten by the people who spend their time actually enjoying the game?
Bad marketing decisions have been made at every turn. Lots of opportunities have been missed or messed up, from managing expectations about launch dates to engaging in constructive conversations with the public to formulating the narrative that will surround the game. Hello Games appear to lack the professional skills to engage with the public. That is understandable; they are a small business. But if their colleagues in Sony have helped, it is hard to tell how.
Maybe this game is too different, and the hype too extreme for either business to have properly thought through the ways they should manage and connect with their market. Their marketing playbook looks like that applied to many other games, but the messages are confused, timid, contrived, and fail to embrace what makes NMS so special. The game will likely be successful, but with the right strategies for outreach – to the SF community, to social media, to the people who are more excited by the maths behind NMS than by the tin models packaged with it – the taste of success could have been much sweeter. Nobody wants to make people angry, even if the angry mob is populated by silly, unreasonable people. Sony and Hello Games have made a lot of people angry because of the way they have marketed No Man’s Sky. They forgot that the essence of marketing is to encourage positive emotions amongst their customers, not to ramp up desires that lead to disappointment.