Whatever else the game may be, the launch of No Man's Sky is a milestone for videogames. It's the moment when the years of progress that have followed on from the liberalisation and opening up of game development - the tools, the technologies, the know-how and the platforms themselves - came to a head; the moment when an indie game, created outside the traditional studio and publisher system, got an AAA launch. No Man's Sky is Sony's summer blockbuster, a game with a weight of anticipation and a torrent of marketing that would normally be reserved for the biggest of the big franchises.
It's hard to convey just what a big deal that is, and perhaps as a result, many people will dismiss No Man's Sky's indie credentials to some degree. Yes, Sony was involved from a relatively early stage, and yes, it's thrown its formidable weight behind the project; but by all accounts it has remained hands-off from the actual development process, with Hello Games' labour of love remaining precisely that. The instant touchstone for comparison when talking about changes in the games industry is film, and indeed, the indie revolution in games has been compared to the launch of accessible technologies like Super 8 for film-making. With No Man's Sky, the democratisation of game creation takes another huge leap forward; it's as if an indie film suddenly leapt from the obscurity of the festival circuit to become the summer's biggest multiplex hit. That's not without precedent (The Blair Witch Project arguably did precisely that), but it's still a noteworthy line for games to cross.
"...people and publications who chose to stream extended footage of the leaked copy...with the conceit that it represented the final game did so either in inexcusable ignorance, or with inexcusable, self-serving, hit-chasing cynicism"
That triumph should serve as an inspiration to indie developers everywhere - just as No Man's Sky redefines the idea of a game world in terms of sheer size, so too does it expand the potential size of any indie creator's dreams. Yet the importance of the game in terms of its place in the industry's business culture, let alone its creative achievement, only makes it even more disappointing that its launch has been marred by the leak of an unfinished version, and the deeply cynical and self-interested behaviour of those who exacerbated the impact of that leak.
The version of No Man's Sky that was leaked several weeks ago, and trotted about the Internet as being "finished", was not finished. Vlambeer's Rami Ismail has explained the how and why of that patiently and excellently in a blog post on the subject, so I won't belabor that specific point - the concise summary is simply that games sent to be pressed to disc are still months from completion, and day-one patches routinely make major changes to the game, not just small bug fixes.
It's fine for gamers, for consumers, not to know that, but anyone claiming to be part of the games media has no excuse for being ignorant of the basic functioning of the companies and creators of the medium in which they claim to be expert. That means that those people and publications who chose to stream extended footage of the leaked copy of No Man's Sky with the conceit that it represented the final game did so either in inexcusable ignorance, or with inexcusable, self-serving, hit-chasing cynicism. Someone with the basic knowledge of the industry required to recognise the unfinished nature of the game would also know the damage that streaming hours and hours of footage of an unfinished game and labelling it as a finished product would potentially be hugely damaging to the game and its creators. Quite a few people, knowing that, apparently didn't care. Gotta chase those hits!
What's been done to Hello Games here is not comparable to the much more regular early leaks of games, which involve retailers breaking street dates and letting some people have the game early. That can be problematic too - again, the day one patch might not be ready, server infrastructure might still be patchy, and of course other players will be annoyed, especially if they've preordered the game and now see the Internet filling up with videos of other people playing it. In general, though, those leaks happen a matter of hours or days before the game launches, and the vast, vast majority of players never see any of the teething troubles they can expose.
"Now, however, one copy in the wild can translate into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people being able to watch hour upon hour of footage of your unfinished game"
In the case of No Man's Sky, the unfinished version was circulating weeks ahead of launch. To use another film analogy, this version isn't like a leaked copy from a preview screening; it's like the leak of a work print of the film, with incomplete editing and rough special effects. Worse, it's like that work print is then seen by millions of people who don't know that the final movie will be different; who are, in fact, being actively told by people they assume to be experts that this is the final cut of the film.
This isn't the first time that this has happened, but in the case of No Man's Sky, there's been a perfect storm. The game is enormously anticipated, the leak was well ahead of the launch date - and we are now living in the age of streaming, which served to vastly amplify the impact and damage of the leak. In the past, a few leaked copies of a game turning up somewhere would have been annoying and upsetting for a developer, but not actively damaging - the worst case scenario being that someone who got their hands on a copy would post some screenshots and a write-up. Now, however, one copy in the wild can translate into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people being able to watch hour upon hour of footage of your unfinished game. I can't imagine how that feels for a developer, but I'm guessing that "heartbreaking" isn't far off.
There's no point being angry at gamers who watched the streams; but criticism of those people and publications who broadcast the footage is perfectly valid. Moreover, I worry that there may be a sting in the tail of what's happened here. Streaming is a huge part of the wider games media now; it's a big deal and getting bigger and bigger with each passing month. Watching people play games online turns out to be a very popular pastime. However, there's a somewhat uneasy relationship between game creators and streaming services. On the one hand, creators are generally excited by the potential of streaming to reach new audiences and craft new experiences, and they're very aware of how big the commercial impact of being featured on a popular streamer's channel can be. On the other hand, creators are also aware that hours upon hours of footage of their game is being sent out to millions of viewers without any compensation whatsoever for the people who made the game. When your game is an online multiplayer title, an eSports focused game or similar, you're probably somewhat comfortable with that (though as streaming revenues grow your comfort levels may well decline); if your game is a single player experience, though, the trade off between reaching new audiences and simply showing off all your secrets, stripping your game of all mystery and demotivating potential players is a tricky one to calculate.
"What's been done to No Man's Sky will sit heavily in the minds of industry executives trying to figure out what to do about streaming"
At some point, game creators and publishers are going to have to figure out where they stand on streaming services, and what legal framework they want to hammer out for that relationship. Different territories have different legal systems, of course, but there are few of them where unfettered streaming of game footage does not exist largely on the basis of tolerance by game creators. If that tolerance goes away, streaming services are going to find themselves forced to find compromises with the people who make the games they stream; compromises on revenue, compromises on content, compromises on control.
What's been done to No Man's Sky will sit heavily in the minds of industry executives trying to figure out what to do about streaming, and will weigh down the scales as they try to balance the enormous potential and positive impact of streaming against its negatives and downsides. If and when the hammer falls, and the Wild West freedom of the current streaming market is lost, those who chose to boost their profiles at the expense of Hello Games and its long-awaited game will bear at least some part of the blame.