Games don’t blow up in the popular imagination by themselves, contrary to popular belief, and No Man’s Sky needed a lot more than a heavy push from Sony to take it from a game being developed by a small team to a cultural force in the industry.
That requires skill, and clever messaging. Developer Rami Ismail, who also wrote an informative piece about day one patches, has broken down how Hello Games crafted the messaging and pitches for the game, and there’s a lot of great advice here for other developers hoping to get the attention of the press or players.
The difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch can mean the difference between a game that’s released to yawns, and a hit that funds your next release. Ismail discusses the importance of understanding how the end user thinks and what they care about when talking about your own game.
"Apple famously stopped using Gb/Tb to discuss their storage space, and now uses a made-up statistic of ‘how many photos, songs or movies will fit on this device.'" he explained. "The average person does not understand data storage, data requirements and data limits. They just know when a device is full, and then generally assume it’s the device’s fault."
It’s a good point. I don’t remember the storage size of the original iPod, but the idea that it stores "1,000 songs in your pocket" was effective. It was a way to cut through the bullshit (even though treating songs as if they were all the same size is its own form of bullshit) to get at what customers actually desire.
"[Hello Games] properly identified that communicating the astronomical size of the game in terms of our own universe works," Ismail wrote. "No Man’s Sky is a game in which there are 18 quintillion planets (wow, a number that sounds bigger than a trillion!). Even if a planet was discovered every second by a player, our own actual sun — not the one in the game! — would die before every player in the world combined would have seen them all (wow science). Not that they specifically avoided the term infinite, because infinite sounds video game-y and doesn’t actually sound all that special. 18 quintillion sounds specific, and scientific."
Ismail also noted that Hello Games talks about the game one way, but they show it another way. One approach works for a verbal description, while another is needed for visuals.
"They properly identified that a top-down approach works really well in words, but bottom up works really well in visual," he stated. "Their pitch starts with talking about the universe, and then goes down through planets and creatures, down to the elements (so much detail!). Their videos tend to start with the periodic makeup of a place, then a creature, then a planet, eventually zooming out to the universe. A universe isn’t a scale or mental model most people can grasp, but it is a thing that’s easy and impressive to show (so much scale!)."
Watch the 2014 E3 trailer to see what he means:
The entire post is worth your time if you’re curious about how to create an effective pitch for your game, or even to think about how much time and effort goes into selling people on games that "come out of nowhere." This stuff isn’t accidental, and it’s not easy.
It’s also worth noting that Sony and Hello Games, once they had the attention of the press and players, milked it rather effectively. Curious about what you actually do in No Man’s Sky? Read about it! You can watch videos showing you different aspects of the game! They knew how to stay in the news cycle, and how to stoke demand for the game. It was all ridiculously effective.
This is a list of what Hello Games said No Man’s Sky "definitely is:"
- Exploring a universe of pretty procedurally generated worlds, with beautiful creatures
- Trading with NPCs
- Combat against robots/mechs and cool space battles
- Survival/crafting in a universe sized sandbox
- An awesome procedural soundtrack from my genuine favorite band (check the NMS album out here)
- For one small moment, you might feel like you’ve stepped into a sci-fi book cover
That’s such a good list of things many of us like to do, backed up with a series of trailers that show many aspects of the experience. That steady trickle of information and trailers made sure the game stayed in the eye of the press, and by extension in the minds of potential customers. The desire for more information about the game fueled the press' interest, and created a self-enforcing circle of buzz.
I’d argue that the hype actually got away from them a bit, with many players still not understanding that it wasn’t designed to be a multiplayer experience, but the effectiveness of the game’s pre-launch media blitz speaks for itself. We know the launch has been huge, even if no official sales numbers have been released.
"Looking at the challenges they faced in communicating the game to this many people of varying understanding, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky core pitch is a little masterclass in explaining an abstract concept to the largest possible audience," Ismail wrote. I agree.
Not every game can get this much time at a press conference during E3, but No Man’s Sky’s success was never locked in; the game was part of an ongoing, incredibly effective campaign to explain and sell itself. No Man’s Sky’s success wasn’t set in stone, and there are plenty of lessons here for developers struggling to describe their games to the press.