Most reviews of No Mans Sky are in by now and it is not looking good to say the least. The average score of the critics is only barely above a 7 and the user score currently sits at a 4.7 at Metacritic. The reasons? Not enough to do, no story, repetitive, no tutorial are the main concerns with this sandbox game. I do not think any of these arguments are valid, because people have the wrong understanding of what a sandbox game is supposed to be, maybe even the people Hello Games.
Whatever you or others think it is that makes No Man’s Sky a bad game has something to do with what is promised, expectations of said promises and what is delivered to the players on launch. It seems from (mainly) the user reviews that players were expecting a smooth and exciting space adventure and instead we got a infinite sandbox that gives little clue about what one can do with it. Were the expectations of players not realistic? or were they not properly informed?
Few games see there price drop 50% within the first week of its release, but with No Man’s Sky this is very much the case. When you look at the amount of second hand copies of No Man’s Sky online, it is just to easy to say that it is those people’s fault that they bought the wrong game.
At least something must be wrong with the communication by Hello Games and the media that got players thinking they were buying something else than they were expecting. However, the description on the website of No Man’s Sky is actually very straight forward:
No Man’s Sky is a game about exploration and survival in an infinite procedural generated galaxy
It is a broad description, but from this you can really not expect that No Man’s Sky is a game with a grande story or completely unique world designs. The website does mention a great mystery that has to be unsolved, what could suggest a story driven adventure. Still I do no think Hello Games has been misleading in their communication about No Man’s Sky, but maybe they could have been less cryptic.
A different genre
So what went wrong if the description from Hello Games is more or less accurate? I believe it is the genre that people put No Man’s Sky in. Exploration game, survival game and open world game are the most often used genres describing No Man’s Sky. Exploration and survival is indeed a very large part of No Man’s Sky, but neither are its genre. Open world is not even a genre, let alone NMS’ genre.
There is only one genre that fits No Man’s Sky in my opinion and that is Sandbox. The game is a sandbox game in the purest meaning of its genre. It has no story, drops the player in a world with little introduction or help, you have to create your own aventure and there are no restrictions on what one has to do or where to go. It fits perfectly among sandbox titles like Minecraft, Sid Meier’s Pirates and Mount and Blade.
These are games with very specific elements and are meant for a certain audience. If you like action or story driven games, chances are you will not like sandbox games. This is fine. Like with LEGO some people enjoy building non-existing creations, others rather play with a certain set and replay stories with characters from movies. The problem is that people who like to play with sandcastles got a game where you have to build your own.
A bigger problem, but not as big as No Man’s Sky
Not No Man’s Sky is at fault, the use, misuse and misunderstanding of sandbox as a genre is the key problem here. No Mans Sky is above all a sandbox game and should have been promoted as such. Yes is adventure elements, yes you explore, but those elements are all subordinate to the sandbox genre that this game belongs to. Hello Games has never really communicated the game as such and the media never got a chance or didn’t understand from their own analysis that No Man’s Sky is a sandbox game.
That is why I believe – and I wrote about this before – people working in the game industry should have a better understanding of what a sandbox game is and communicate this genre clearly to the public, because then fewer people would have bought a game they were never going to like.