No Man’s Sky and Shadow of War – Are they worthy of a second chance?

When does somebody deserve a second chance? What do they need to do before you’ll part with your hard earned money? Today we’re going to be looking at two games and their associated publishers and discuss whether or not they’re deserving of a second chance.

No Man’s Sky, created by Hello Games founded by Sean Murray, promised the universe on a platter. It promised epic ship battles, multiplayer functionality, unique biomes and alien races, customisable ships, different factions players could ally with; the ability to play the game any way you wanted with no restrictions. The hype was overwhelming and every time Sean Murray was interviewed he was promising still more features, assuring us that No Man’s Sky would be an experience like no other.

And then the game launched in August 2016.

It is a date that will live in infamy for much of the video game community as it swiftly became clear that No Man’s Sky was far, far from the game that was promised. Vast chunks of promised features and gameplay elements were absent from the game without explanation. Rather than the space game to end all space games, No Man’s Sky launched as a buggy, barebones survival game with a huge focus on resource gathering and crafting.

Epic space battles? Missing. Factions to grind? Trivial. Even the survival aspect was barely anything of the sort, with most planets so rich in resources that there was never any incentive to really explore in any meaningful fashion as almost every planet had what you would need, so why bother looking elsewhere?

As the critical backlash gained volume, Hello Games abruptly went radio silent. No more twitter posts, no more interviews, nothing. Then, little by little, content started to trickle out. Update followed update, missing features were added, gameplay was tightened, communication with the community slowly started to resume. Two years passed with incremental updates slowly giving players what they had expected at the beginning through the “Foundation”, “Pathfinder” and “Atlas Rises” updates.

Then at the end of July this year came the single largest “megapatch”, called “No Man’s Sky: Next“. At the time of writing, it is being met with near universal critical acclaim. Finally, No Man’s Sky is close to being the game we all hoped it would be when it launched, with a laundry list of new features being added: Proper multiplayer, a third person mode with new player models, a graphics overhaul, meaningful differences between ship types, improved crafting and base building, space and atmospheric combat, freighter fleets. It’s taken two years, but finally that long list of missing features is being checked off, one by one.

So, we’ve set the scene. We have a game that was initially released in what could be considered an “MVP” state. This is industry slang for “Minimum Viable Product”. In other words: it works, you can use it, but it’s going to be missing a whole lot of stuff that we’re going to add in down the line,. If Hello Games had just come out and said that at the time, perhaps things wouldn’t have gone the way they did?

Hello Games is a small studio. No Man’s Sky was meant to be an indie game until the hype train swept it up and carried it away. What we have here is a studio that ended up in a position where they couldn’t say “no”. The attention and the pressure on them from both their publisher, Sony, and the gaming community had reached the point where they couldn’t back down.

That’s the generous interpretation. The less generous viewpoint is that they potentially sought to deceive the public and shipped the game out, knowing they were planning to patch in all the features later on. It is a mindset that is becoming all too common in the gaming industry. The near ubiquity of high speed internet access means that often you will see patches for games that are near as large as the original game itself, games pushed out buggy and unfinished, with publishers instead relying on huge day one patches to ensure that they are actually functional. See also Batman: Arkham Knight, Sea of Thieves, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Forza 7, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Assassin’s Creed: Unity; the list goes on and on.

So the question is: Do you give Hello Games your money and buy No Man’s Sky now that it’s becoming the game we were all promised two years ago? Are they just a small studio who bit off more than they could chew, or are they a more cynical operation who promised the world knowing they could just deliver it patch by patch after the fact?

Personally I genuinely think they just got swept up in the hype. This was a small studio propelled to the Triple-A stage. A minnow swimming in a sea of sharks. These people were even being sent death threats when it looked like the game was delayed. So when it came out to a critical mauling? They panicked. It appears as though they did not know what to do, so they shut down and went radio silent; as though they realised they had dug themselves into a huge hole and it’s taken them a long time to dig out of it… but they have managed it. No Man’s Sky is now a game worthy of your money and Hello Games have shown a continued commitment to delivering the product they originally promised.

On the flip side, though, we have companies who put profit before their fans, even when it completely undermines the mechanics of the game they’re trying to sell. Step up to the stage the 2017’s Middle Earth: Shadow of War by Warner Brothers, a sequel to the critically acclaimed Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Hopes were high for this game. Shadow of Mordor had been something of a surprise hit with its open world, fluid combat and “Nemesis system” which was singled out for particular praise. Nemesis tracks Orcs that do something particularly notable, such as surviving an encounter with the player, or even killing the player. These Orcs then get promoted from the rank and file to be captains. Should that Orc then kill the player again, they will grow in power once more, making them literally the player’s Nemesis, their personal enemy that was unlikely to be exactly the same for any two players, helping the player connect on a personal level to their story.

Enter Shadow of War and its infamous lootboxes and marketplace, where you no longer have to wait for your Nemesis to appear organically through the game. Oh no. Now you could just buy one and make them into your follower. But even then you couldn’t specifically buy the Orc you wanted, because this is the age of the lootbox and you don’t simply buy items anymore, God no. Now you gamble for them, buying box after box in the hope of getting something you really want, with the really good items having a pitifully small drop chance.

Not only could you buy the followers, you could also buy XP boosts (unobtainable in game) and gear to give you a massive advantage, help you level faster and essentially completely break the balance of the game. At the time, both Warner Brothers (publisher) and Monolith (game dev) defended this behaviour, trotting out the tired arguments of “player choice” and “making access easier” and for people “protective of their spare time”. I’ve seen this argument trotted out by more than just this game, encouraging you to spend real life money to actually skip parts of the game. I’ve never quite understood that. If all this gameplay can be skipped, are you saying it’s not worth playing, that it shouldn’t be there?

Not only does this undermine one of the most critically praised features of the original game, it turns out that the “real” ending of the game was locked behind a massive late grind that, unless you were willing to spend money to shorten it, would take a vast amount of time to get through, repeating the same actions and battles you had already completed again and again in a clear attempt to grind the player down into spending money to make things easier.

The reason that this is still relevant is that last month Warner Brothers issued a patch for Shadow of War, removing all microtransactions and the marketplace and adding improvements to make up for the fact that you can no longer simply buy your way to success. This seems to prove that the microtransactions did impact the way the game was played, regardless of how much you tried to ignore them. So much for “player choice”, I suppose.

As with Hello Games, there are two ways to look at this. Firstly – and cynically – WB are only now removing microtransactions because they have made all the money they are likely to make with them; and thanks to high profile disasters like Star Wars: Battlefront II, lootboxes are now distinctly out of fashion. Therefore the decision to remove them is solely driven by money and an attempt to garner some positive publicity by coming across as “doing the right thing” – even if it’s taken nearly a year.

Or there’s the flip side where they did cynically push this out the door with game-impacting microtransactions; but now they have removed them, is the game worth buying? Do we reward them for finally removing what could appear to be a shameless attempt at cash grabbing by giving them our money, helping to show them that they do not need these mechanics to make money on a game?

With No Man’s Sky, my feelings are plain: You should buy it, Hello Games deserves a second chance. They got their heads down, took the criticism on the chin and worked to make the game better. They could have cut their losses and run, abandoned the game, maybe even dissolved the studio to escape the negative publicity; but instead they set out to make the game they wanted to make and I can’t help but respect that. The biggest thing, though? All these updates are pushed out free of charge. No season pass, no expansion passes, all these changes and enhancements are entirely free as they try to do right by their customer base. That is a rare thing to see in the gaming industry these days.

But with Shadow of War, I am ambivalent, even now. The whole lootbox thing weighs heavy on me, but at the same time they have finally removed them, so isn’t it better that we try and encourage that by purchasing the now microtransaction-free game? I hoped that writing all of this out would help me to decide, yet I still don’t know if I want to support this game or not.

What do you think? If you haven’t bought Shadow of War, will the removal of the microtransactions make you more likely to buy it? Or, knowing how they have tried to justify them, would you continue to punish them by spending your money elsewhere? Let us know in the comments section below – and hopefully you can help me decide where to spend my money!

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