In 2016, every sign pointed to Hello Games throwing in the towel after the poorly-received launch of No Man's Sky. The indie space exploration game released after a marketing campaign that seemed to promise nigh-infinite possibilities for bopping through procedurally generated worlds, getting into space fights, and discovering bizarre creatures on uncharted planets. From trailers at The Game Awards to E3, No Man's Sky was one of the most hyped games of that year.
That hype died down fast after August 9. With critics dramatically divided, a UK ad watchdog investigating the company for misleading marketing, Sony Worldwide Studios' president throwing the game's PR under the bus, an audience frustrated by what they saw as an overhyped, empty title, and an angry mob at the door, no one would have been shocked if the company quietly stepped back and let No Man's Sky run its course. The game seemed to have sold well enough to allow it, and it would have been simple to call it done and move on.
But Hello Games didn't give up. It did shut up for a while - managing director Sean Murray disappeared from the eyes of curious press until earlier this year - and dove into making the game into what fans felt had been promised. And now, there's hope that its audience might have forgiven the studio for its pre-release PR strategy, allowing Hello Games to move on.
Even without the context of its bounceback from two years ago, Hello Games has had a stellar 2018. The studio saw No Man's Sky reach nearly 100,000 concurrent players on Steam alone in July with the drop of its Next update, to say nothing of returning players on PS4 and new ones on Xbox One. For comparison, the game peaked at 212,000 at its launch two years ago.
And the Next update certainly earned that peak. The most prominent change it brought to the game was the addition of true multiplayer, a feature many had expected to be in the game at launch. Other features such as base building, character customization, and numerous quality of life adjustments also made an appearance. All this Hello Games provided for free, without microtransactions or DLC costs.
The sustainability these additions gave to the game has been proven by the fact that this time around, players are feeling more positive and sticking with it. The game's Metacritic scores for both reviewers and users are much brighter for the game's Xbox version, which launched alongside Next. And looking again at Steam numbers (via SteamCharts), No Man's Sky has turned its lot around in terms of active users, too. The game saw monthly "highs" of less than 2,000 concurrent players in the first half of 2018. Since Next, those numbers have improved, and the inevitable fall-off after any update has been slower. 9,118 is the current high for the last 30 days, bolstered by yet another, smaller update entitled Visions. And at least for now, Hello Games shows no sign of stopping free support for a game that two years ago was widely considered a disappointment and an example of hype gone wrong.
The story of Hello Games' rocky 2016 game release, its quiet year, and the success of its return is a rare one in the games industry, and is especially pleasing to hear given the awful year 2018 has been for studio closures and shuttered projects. Murray himself acknowledged their uniqueness in an interview with Eurogamer earlier this year.
"We're still working on it, and we're the happiest we've been, and the game is like that. We are those kind of people"Sean Murray
"It's a thing that a lot of studios are having to deal with over the last couple of years - making a game and releasing it, and dealing with a super-polarised audience, hyper criticism and very very vocal and directly aimed at you personally, not just the company," he said. "That's something I'm not a massive fan of, but it's a thing a load of studios are having to deal with. We're one of the few companies that have faced that, and continued."
Despite showing every sign of ending as a cautionary PR tale, Hello Games has turned its game and itself around. When Murray emerged from his radio silence earlier this year, his tone was far more closed off than before, but still full of optimism. As he said himself to Waypoint:
"I am an optimist. And you can tell, hopefully... We're talking about some real fucking shit that we went [through] post-launch. You can use your imagination. You were aware of some of these things, you've written about some of these things. The bingo card of all the things the Internet can do. It ticked all of them. We did them all. It got as bad as it can get. And I still really love our community. And I'm still really excited about the game, having gone through all of those kind of things. We're still working on it, and we're the happiest we've been, and the game is like that. We are those kind of people."
No Man's Sky will persist thanks to the optimism of the not-so-little-anymore Joe Danger studio, but it now also seems Hello Games is ready to move on. The studio has since become a bit more vocal about its updates and progress after nearly two years of quiet. And at The Game Awards a few weeks ago, the name Hello Games returned to the venue that initially buoyed No Man's Sky to popularity with a new title: The Last Campfire.
Though details on this new project are still scarce, The Last Campfire appears to be a drastic downscaling in ambition from No Man's Sky. It was classified ahead of the trailer as a "Hello Games Short," and it's only being made by two members of the team - Steven Burgess and Chris Symonds. Still, it's a sign that after a phoenix-like year of success, Hello Games is moving forward not only within their biggest game, but also optimistically alongside it.