No Man's Sky's player count has dropped 88 percent, but that's not unusual

For the moment No Man's Sky holds the title for the biggest launch on Steam of 2016. 212,620 people were playing it simultaneously on launch day, according to Steam Stats, putting it far ahead of everything else to come out this year. But it's subsequently suffered a tremendous fall-off, shedding 88 percent of its concurrent user count in less than two weeks. That sounds like a lot, but is it?

If you look at this Reddit discussion of No Man's Sky's decline, you'll see plenty of eager grave dancing. One poster notes that even the infamous bomb Aliens: Colonial Marines “only” saw a concurrent user loss of 85 percent over its first month of release. "The only way to keep people playing at this point is to make it free," another poster said, claiming that he was bored after a single day; a third, riffing on the apparently-failed promise of being able to meet other players in space, added, "Players sure as heck aren't going to be running into each other now."

SteamSpy and SteamDB help us take a closer look at the data: No Man's Sky peak concurrent player count on August 11 was 212,604; on August 22, it was 25,689. Hourly concurrent players are similarly down, from a high of 127,224 on August 14 to 22,852 on August 23. That's a hell of a drop, but it comes with some caveats: It doesn't reflect the total population of the game but rather the number of people playing it simultaneously, and that measurement of intensity of interest is bound to drop as a game's newness wears off and players become less likely to sink 14 hours at a time into it.

But compared to other, better-received recent releases, NMS may not be cratering as badly as it appears. Far Cry Primal, for instance, saw its peak player count slide 82 percent over its first month of release; Fallout 4 dropped by 74 percent; Doom fell by 85 percent; Battleborn slid by 82 percent; Stellaris dropped by 82 percent; even The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which we recently placed atop our Top 100 Games list, saw its peak player count slide by 71 percent during its first month of release. The hugely popular Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain slipped by an almost identical amount. One notable exception is Stardew Valley, which saw its peak user count slip by just 30 percent over its first month.

So although No Man's Sky has tailed off faster than other big games, it's not too far outside the normal decay that recent blockbusters seem to experience. Arguably it's a larger drop in concurrent players than you'd expect for a game that promised virtually endless hours of open-ended exploration—18 quintillion planets and all that. A single-player shooter with a ten-hour campaign is obviously going to see a more precipitous drop in its peak player count than an open-world RPG with 127 side quests waiting to be cleaned up. And that really speaks to what we found in our review: 45 hours of gameplay yielded 200 planets, 500 new species, and a dearth of interesting stories. When the core of your game is discovery, you'd better have some cool stuff to discover.  

It's arguable that the huge launch of No Man's Sky made the corresponding fall-off inevitable, and it's also worth bearing in mind that none of this touches on the PS4 version of the game. But as a case study in hype, expectations, and disappointment, I have no doubt that we'll be talking about No Man's Sky, and its fallout, for a long time to come. 

Andy Chalk

Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.