Broken Promises: What Developers Can Learn From No Man’s Sky’s Failures

The hype in the lead up to the launch of the space exploration game No Man’s Sky was palpable. It promised a world with infinite opportunities in a universe that is mind-bogglingly vast for a video game. After five years of development, No Man’s Sky was finally released and while the general reception for it has been positive, vocal groups of gamers pointed to a swathe of missing features that were promised by the developer Hello Games. There’s a lot that software developers can learn from the No Man’s Sky disappointment.

The No Man’s Sky hype train had been gaining speed since the early trailers came out in 2014. A space exploration game that gives you the freedom to immerse yourself in countless planets with a fleshed out spaceship combat mechanic got many gamers excited about the prospects.

Hello Games kept the momentum going by dropping tidbits about features that would be in No Man’s Sky such as the potential to meet other players on different planets. But when the game was released on PlayStation 4, it became quite evident that there was a lot of things missing. A Reddit user has painstakingly detailed all the promised features that were never implemented in the finished game, which you can find here.

Kotaku’s review of No Man’s Sky also noted that the game seemed incomplete:

“It’s a frustrating failure in many ways, technically unpolished and seemingly unfinished. It’s full of perplexing design decisions and half-realized ideas. It gets a few big things right and a hundred little things wrong. It draws you in with a promise of endless splendor, then swiftly reveals itself to be something much more ordinary.”

Then the PC release of No Man’s Sky was riddled with bugs; another blow to the highly-anticipated game.

It’s important to remember that while No Man’s Sky had the Sony PlayStation PR machine behind it, Hello Games itself is a small indie studio. No doubt there was a lot of passion and hours that have been poured into the game and director Sean Murray excitedly revealed features that he probably had every intention of including in the final product.

But, in the words of veteran game designer Forrest Dowling: “Aspirations become promises once stated.”

Hello Games has remained largely silent as the storm of malcontent continues to rage on and that is what may be fuelling the fires. There has been no effort from the developer to clarify the reasons why features were cut or whether any of them will eventually arrive in the form of DLCs.

Dowling told Kotaku:

“My reaction to the Reddit post was a feeling that in some ways it was a predictable outcome, and that there’s a lesson to be learned there for developers who haven’t had the benefit of learning about PR and marketing from experienced professionals in the field.
“… I felt it was worth calling out in that context because those are areas where indies are often less experienced and I felt like it was a good object lesson as to why larger developers are often very controlled with their statements in interviews and press. I also felt really bad for Sean and the Hello Games folks… I can’t imagine how draining seeing that sort of post would be about seeing something you just spent the last 5 years working on.”

This is something that applies to broader software developers, especially the ones at the smaller end of town. We’ve emphasised the importance of marketing and communication skills for app developers in the past.

We get it. The words “marketing” and “public relations” conjure up cringe-worthy hard-selling (and sometimes exploitative) tactics used to flog products. But marketing involves customer relations and, to some extent, communicating the right message to the public. It’s not something to be taken lightly, especially now that customers are becoming more vocal online.

Communication is also an important tool to manage user expectations. You can get excited about a swathe of features that you intend to include in your software (or any product, for that matter) but be mindful that you will be held accountable if you don’t deliver.

Finally, if you’ve screwed up and didn’t deliver on promised features, have the guts to stand up and admit to it, whether you’re an indie developer or a large enterprise. In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook:

” It’s the only way an organisation learns. The classic big-company mistake is to not admit their mistake. They double down on them. Their pride or ego is so large that they can’t say we did something wrong. And I think the faster you do that, the better — change gears to something else. If you’re honest, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. But if you have your head stuck in the sand and you just keep doing it, I think you lose your employees and your customers as well.”

Software projects, by nature, can change at the drop of a hat. Most people aren’t going to blame you for shortfalls if you’ve been transparent about the changes, but they are going to crucify you if you remain silent.

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