No Man's Sky: From near zero to near visionary
The genesis of an immersive open-universe experience
As far as computer games go I feel like I might be a little odd. I mean I know I am odd generally, but with regards to computer games I don't really like playing competitive games against other players online, or battling against the machine to complete a game and feel like I won something. Those things just aren't that important to me.
Measuring by sheer number of hours played since I was a kid I think I can safely say my preferred genre is 'Civ-like' whereby you usually guide a rabble of technologically unadvanced people from 3000BC to c.2250AD, exploring a map and settling along the way, all the while propelling your people forward technologically, financially, socially and in later installments, environmentally. Even playing this single player I am frustrated to bump up against other computer-controlled Civilizations and their constant trading or military interruptions. Leave me alone!
I always thought that there should be something better out there where I can play my game, do ma thing and generally just bumble along with whichever whimsical fancy takes me next. And then it arrived ... No Man's Sky.
First released on PS4 in Aug 2016, the game created an immediate buzz by offering a procedurally-generated open world universe, which includes (according to its developers Hello Games) over 18 quintillion planets. In case you are wondering how many planets the game claims to have, it is this:
As cnbc said the day after release: Would you play a game that takes 584 billion years to explore?
It's a fair point and in all honesty it's a question that most gamers (even those who had been eagerly awaiting No Man's Sky) said NO to after a few plays. I mean it was exciting and all discovering a planet and being able to walk anywhere on the surface (or under the surface if you found a cave) and see all of the weird and wonderful flora and fauna that had generated on its surface. And then flying off to the next planet in the system and being able to walk anywhere on its surface (or under the surface if you found a cave) and see all of the weird and wonderful flora and fauna that had generated and then flying on to the next planet and ... wait ... I'm getting bored of typing it let alone doing it.
And that was it's big problem at the start. In all the urgency to release the game (alongside well-documented marketing missteps) some advertised content was not included and the game lacked any purpose. The survival aspects were repetitive and tedious to use some of the critical review language. It's all well and good giving people an essentially-infinite playground but generally speaking we like some sort of goal or idea of what to do. Just looking at constantly new stuff turned out to be dull. The universe was so vast that you never ever saw another live player (in fact at initial release there was no multiplayer content).
As at today and in my opinion Hello have done a great job to improve and expand No Man's Sky to bring it close to the experience they set out to build. The developers have released multiple significant content updates that have introduced features such as multiplayer, surface vehicles, base-building, space fleet management, cross-platform play, complex economies, multiple ways to measure success and virtual reality support all of which have substantially improved the gameplay.
For me now it really does offer an escapist alternate reality where you can literally spend hours going merrily about your business, trying to build a base or trade your way to more money or find that elusive rare species on a planet or hunt space pirates or swim in alien oceans or uncover the secrets at the centre of the universe or collect resources to build a better hyperdrive or ... the list goes truly does go on.
I'm well aware that this kind of game is not for everyone. There can be multiplayer interaction but it's not the focus - while technically possible to damage and kill other players (not permanently they just respawn at their base) most of the experiences of this style of play I have read (here's one) are clear that it's just not worth it.
The focus of multiplayer is deeply rooted in the 'many hands make speedy work' concept but I'd wager that most players never touch multiplayer, although now you do see many other players scampering around the (weapons-disabled) quest-hub and trading centre called the Anomaly.
I'm what I would call a level 3 Traveller - not a total noob but also fairly inexperienced in all that the game has to offer. I've never made any attempt on the main story lines - to head inwards to the galaxy centre or follow 'the Atlas Path' to discover something deep and meaningful about myself (sorry, my in game-character). I'm content to slowly drift around discovering new, interesting and often weird-ass things and gently completing whatever it is that I fancied doing next. It's a game that offers something different for everyone and I thank Hello Games for all their continued hard work to bring No Man's Sky to where they wanted it to be.