No Man’s Sky would not be made available to the gaming press before the game’s launch this week. That fact led to a large amount of speculation of whether the game wouldn't live up to Sony's — not to mention the game's outspoken fans' — expectations.
While this is often the case with movie reviews, despite the fact that poorly reviewed films can still break box office records, this theory is almost always bunk in video game land: Many terrible games are sent to the press weeks before launch and many amazing games (most recently? Doom) weren’t given to the press before launch.
The reality, learned after playing copies of the physical release bought from retailers and reading the recently-released patch notes, was that the game simply wasn’t done. There was no way for the press to play the finished version of No Man’s Sky; it didn’t exist.
Developer Rami Ismail wrote a very helpful post about how and why this happens, and I urge you to read that before going any further. Here's a key takeaway:
For a game that goes on disc, the "gold" build that went through certification is one to three months old by the time the game launches. That gives developers half-a-month to two-and-a-half months to do a month and a half to three and a half months’ worth of work to make the game "perfect" while still hitting the release date with the patch.
Because I’m about to discuss the game that exists in a polished enough state to pass Sony’s certification process, but not fun enough to be released as No Man’s Sky. Let’s discuss what actually exists on those discs, and why we’re so happy the patch is extensive.
Why we're writing this
Let's get this out of the way now: This is not a review. Nor am I the writer who will be reviewing No Man's Sky. My time spent on the unfinished version of the game doesn't mean I'm pissing in that well, nor will I be bringing my feelings from playing this version of the game into Polygon's final review. I'm not involved in that process.
We're also very much aware that Hello Games and Sony would rather us not play this version of the game, and certainly not write about it.
If you are reviewing/playing our game without our update, on a leaked copy, then please don't. It's not what players will experience.— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) August 6, 2016
While that’s undoubtedly true for nearly everyone interested in playing No Man’s Sky, it's not true for everyone. This is the game as it exists on the disc before an extensive patch. To get why that's such a big deal, I'll defer to this comment from a reader who took issue with that argument in another post:
"I understand and sympathize entirely ... but no amount of justification is going to make the people in areas with lousy or capped Internet access not feel like they’re getting royally fucked over with their physical copies that, as it turns out, are wildly inferior to the 'real' version of the game."
So yes, people will be playing this game. It may not be a huge number of people, but they exist. It's important to cover the game on the disc, even if everyone agrees it's not the ideal or even intended experience.
So how’s No Man’s Sky, the first edit?
There is no beginning to this release of No Man’s Sky, and not much in the way of tutorials and handholding. You’re stuck on a planet, your ship needs to be repaired and every aspect of your survival relies on equipment that needs to be constantly fed with resources around you if you hope to remain functional. Better get to work.
The game works moderately well even without much in the way of instructions. You’ll get an alarm when your life support begins to fail, and you can go into your menu to see what resources you need to find to keep it running. The opening hours will mostly be spent exploring, managing your inventory and learning how to stay alive. Much of the game in this beginning section feels like busywork.
Game design is iterative, and developers have often admitted that their games existed in a functional form for a very long time while they experimented to try to make things fun. That’s the state of No Man’s Sky on the disc, before the patch: a functional game that, in my opinion, isn’t much fun.
Patched: The intro
The day-one patch is so extensive that it seemed like almost all of my problems with the game were to be addressed in some way once it’s applied. Hello Games released a version of the game that works when it went gold, but then spent five weeks adjusting, tweaking and updating in what seems like an attempt to make it more enjoyable.
"There are now new, unique ‘paths’ you can follow throughout the game," the blog post states. "You must start the game on a fresh save, with the patch, as early choices have significant impact on what you see later in the game, and the overall experience." The experience players have with the game in the opening hours sounds like it will be heavily adjusted.
In the patched version of the game you quickly find a beacon that makes you question whether it's "the face of creation itself." You're given the choice to accept guidance from this force, or to ignore it and explore freely. We've been told there are three unique paths, but this is the only decision I found in the early hours of the game that seems like it will impact my playthrough.
Patched: The inventory
The game’s inventory system has also seen an overhaul, and thank the maker. So much of my time in the game’s opening hours was spent managing inventory; trying to keep supplies for my ship, suit and weapons at all times so I was well-stocked while also exploring for resources to build new technology or advance in the game. The number of slots and the amount of each resource you can keep in each slot was limited; it often became a game of trying to decide what I could stand to lose. You can move some supplies to your ship, but even that filled up quickly.
Inventory management is rarely fun, and this aspect of the game didn’t do much to help make the experience enjoyable. But it's been adjusted.
"Ship inventories now store five times more resources per slot," the patch notes say. "Suit inventories now store 2.5 times more per slot. This encourages exploration and gives freedom from the beginning. We’re probably going to increase this even further in the next update, for people in the latter game phases, and will allow greater trading potential."
This is an interesting middle ground to take. Each discrete resource takes up a slot, so if you want to find iron and heridium that's two slots. But Hello Games increased the amount you can carry per slot. So instead of 200 plutonium taking up two slots due to each slot only holding 100 units of each material, you can now hold 250 units of each resource in each slot. This removes some of the inventory pressure, but I'm hoping I can craft some mechanism to add more inventory slots later.
Patched: The scanning
The game on disc gives you distances in time, which means you know that reaching that point of interest will take you five minutes of walking in a more or less straight line, and your limited inventory means that won’t leave much room for grabbing resources on the way if you’re already happy with what you’re carrying. You could try to fly there on your ship, but your ability to scan the landscape with resources or points of interest disappears once you take off. It’s a frustrating state of affairs before the patch.
"Scanning for points of interest from your ship is now possible," the patch says. "Buildings generate earlier and show up in ship scans."
This has made all the difference in the final game. While you can't scan for resources from the air, you can fly around and find points of interest with your scanner and then fly directly towards them. I set out to explore the starting planet from the air and even found a suit upgrade that added an extra storage slot, which also helped my inventory complaint. The visual upgrade in flying post-patch is also notable.
Patched: The pop-in
"Pop-in and shadow artifacts have been reduced," the patch states under "flying over terrain." "Generation speed has been increased two fold (planets with large bodies of water will be targeted in next update)"
The game on the disc has texture issues when you fly, and they're impossible to ignore. The post-patch version of the game adjusts textures and detail with a shimmery effect that you can still see if you're looking for it, but it's much easier on the eyes and easy to ignore. Flying around the planet, looking for places to explore, and then taking off again feels like a much more fulfilling prospect now.
When the patch notes were released and it turned out so many of the game’s systems of visuals would be extensively overhauled before launch, I felt like I could breathe out. I want this game to be good, and over the course of the weekend it became clear that the game on the disc wasn’t, the team knew, and they were fixing it before launch.
And the post-patch version of the game feels a bit like the No Man's Sky I was expecting. I quit the pre-patch version of the game and didn't want to pick it up again. I can't wait to play more of the final release. The patch notes also make it clear the game will continue to evolve, which is a process that will likely now be guided — at least in part — by player feedback.
* * *
Is it fair to play a game before the developer wants you to and share your thoughts on the experience in its liminal state? Anyone can play the game I played: Just grab a physical copy of the game, even after launch, and disconnect your PlayStation 4 from your network so it doesn’t update. If you’re curious about game design, the difference between how a game exists after certification but before release could be eye-opening. A lot has changed in a short amount of time, and the players who can't easily download the patch will be playing a much less enjoyable version of No Man's Sky. I hit on a few big topics here, but the writing has been improved on the path I've taken. The shooting has been improved. Nearly everything I've seen in the opening hours of the game looks and feels better.
The game will continue to evolve and, hopefully, improve after launch
I’m sure neither Sony nor Hello Games will be happy that we’re discussing our time with the game in this state, but this is a rare chance to look at a hugely anticipated game during a window when most games are kept away from the press. When given the opportunity, I couldn’t say no, and sharing my experiences helps educate the reader about the realities of day-one patches and the state of the game before launch.
So much of the game will be shifted and hopefully improved by the patch that it’s a bit shocking to me as a writer.
"Several hundred upgrades have had stat changes (mainly exo-suit and ship, but also weapon), new upgrades have been added," the notes explain. For combat "auto aim and weapon aim has been completely rewritten to feel more gentle in general, but stickier when you need it. Sentinels now alert each other, if they haven’t been dealt with quickly. Quad and Walker AI is now much more challenging, even I struggle with them without a powered up weapon."
If you’re ever curious about how much work there is left to do after a game goes gold, this should help answer that question. It sounds like much of the team celebrated, took a picture and then sat right back down to crunch on the game they wanted to release, not just a game that could pass certification.
"If you had an early copy somehow, your save game will technically work post update, but you will miss out on new content and experiences if you don’t delete your save before updating (should be obvious why from notes below)," the blog post told players and the press. "We highly recommend deleting your save if you have played before updating your game (we won’t do this in future, but it’s a day zero update)."
Hello Games is a small team working on an ambitious game; it's not surprising that the extra weeks of hard work have led to a game that's substantially better than what shipped on the disc. There's no reason for anyone with a working internet connection to play the game as it shipped on the disc, and I'm glad I never have to go back. See you in the skies.