No Man’s...Sigh: What went wrong with the game-of-the-year that wasn’t

The lack of variety in No Man's Sky was the ultimate flaw.

No Man's Sky

There’s a sinking feeling you get in No Man’s Sky, the procedurally generated space exploration game for PS4 and PC. It’s when you suddenly realize there is a fatal flaw, one that makes you not want to play anymore. You realize the “game of the year” is barely the game of the week.

I’m a big fan of sci-fi and played the game long enough to explore a few different solar systems and progress through some of the narrative arc. (The ultimate goal is to go to the center of the galaxy, which then resets the galaxy.) It’s a fantastic experience initially, and some of the reviews I’ve seen don’t give it enough credit for the planetary exploration.

My favorite moments were on some lush alien world, falling into crevices and trying to get to the top of some weird rocky outcropping. I felt like I was inventing my own story about a lone survivor hunting for gold and seeking answers to the universe.

Sadly, the fatal flaw really hit me when a friend showed me a multiplayer video he made of Destiny on the Xbox One. The two games share some similarities -- namely, the sci-fi exploration. My friend doesn’t really see Destiny as a shooter. He likes the game because of how you can hunt around with a team of players. He’s even told me he hasn’t seen a Hollywood movie in months, and that the game has become so engrossing that he won’t bother playing No Man’s Sky. (He’s in good company -- LeBron James recently admitted he plays Destiny to relax.)

Importantly, I realized when I was creating my own game in No Man's Sky it was essentially a letdown -- the developers should be the ones creating the game.

What my friend was really talking about with Destiny is an incredibly variety in the gameplay. Destiny never quite plays out the same way. He uses a different strategy to kill the same boss over and over again. He collects items for his inventory, chats with friends, and seems content playing the same game, which was released way back in 2014 but has done an excellent job of adding new campaigns and content.

No Man’s Sky is procedurally generated but lacks the same variety. How is that possible? It’s because it takes an actual artist and some creative programming to generate long-term interest in a game. There’s something lacking when you have to collect the same elements over and over again on a planet that looks different but is essentially the same in every solar system. Ironically, that boss battle in Destiny is the same level with the same graphics, but to my friend, it feels different. He tries different tactics, he uses different weapons, he meets different friends.

We don’t call something the “game of the year” because it provides a different gameplay mechanic or a new programming technique. We single out a game as brilliant when it offers a compelling overall experience, an engrossing “ride” everyone should experience. When something is innovative, it has to stand the test of time. We can’t ever get bored with it. We tell everyone about it.

What would have really helped No Man's Sky is more gameplay. Give us stuff to do. Each planet should have offered a different mission, a different strategy. It's not enough that the conditions change. We needed surface vehicles to drive, aliens to battle, and objectives that changed. That was the promise of the early looks at the game, that you would have countless worlds to explore in different ways, not countless worlds that look and act the same, that you'd be doing the same thing over and over.

Can the game be saved? Maybe. I could see the developers using the feedback about variety and lack of gameplay depth to heart and created a "version two" game. They were onto something with the way the planets are generated and I stand by my original viewpoint that visiting a planet is still a unique thrill. But after only a few weeks, the game has lost almost all of its allure, and that's never good.

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