Gamers hold a very particular vision of the future of entertainment. We were born too early to untangle dark matter and eclipse Alpha Centauri in our own intergalactic freighters, and while those fantasies can be teased and inflated by Star Wars or Star Trek, videogames are the only thing that can simulate them. A pure representation of life between the stars—docking on space stations, exploring planets, carving out a subsistence on the bleeding edge of reality—requires a profound amount of processing power, so for decades we settled for half-steps. Star Wars Galaxies, FreeSpace, Eve Online—all capable games, all leaving us with a desire for something more.
No Man’s Sky was supposed to be that game. A limitless, psychedelic vision of space, promising a dynamic universe with hours of mystery and curiosity spread across the void. It generated a massive amount of grassroots buzz centered on a few killer trailers, but when the faithful got their hands on the product, they found a nice, low-key procedurally generated survival game. Not bad, but it wasn’t going to carry anyone through the looking glass. 10 years ago, or even five years ago, No Man’s Sky probably would’ve been lauded, but in a moment where videogames seem so mouthwateringly close to delivering a singular, second reality (and the way the development team leaned into those hopes), disappointment was inevitable.
Like most people, a gamer and Reddit poster named Chris got interested in No Man’s Sky following its stellar showing at E3, and followed the development for a year before its 2016 release. "With each video and interview it appeared that the game was going to live up to the original trailer," says Chris. "That E3 trailer, and the hints of multiplayer dropped by Sean Murray in various interviews, was really the only bar I had personally set for the game. I figured I would get about 100 hours out of No Mans Sky."
Chris was equipped with a middling PC and an Xbox One, and decided to make the investment into a $600 Alienware Alpha to be ready for release day. After 20 hours with the game, he started having some serious doubts.
"The art assets were getting old: repetitive building design, lifeless NPC’s, repetitive flora, bizarre fauna—random mixes of reptile and mammal parts—the same terrain and single biomes," he says. "I never really felt like an explorer because over every horizon there was a landing pad, observatory, or trading post with several NPC’s casually glued to their chairs. Exploring the game was no longer fun for me. I can honestly say that it's not a horrible game, it was just marketed wrong, I think most people would agree with that. As I posted on Reddit, NMS actually felt like a Wii version of a space exploration game."
$600 to power a Wii survival game would probably leave me pretty annoyed. But Chris did now have a powerful PC lying around, and he decided to throw his weight behind Star Citizen—the other super ambitious, controversial space sim on the horizon. In a Reddit post he made three months ago titled "If I hadn’t met NMS, I probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with SC," he lays out his reasoning.
"After a few underwhelming weeks of NMS' ‘chill’ gameplay, I immediately started looking for something more to satisfy this craving for an awesome space sim that's been growing within me these past few years... and that's when I came across the [Star Citizen] 3.0 Demo. It was everything I thought I wanted from a space sim," he wrote. "Even in Alpha I am having a lot of fun and I'm excited to hop inside my Avenger each night and blast off into the 'Verse! So this is it, I think I've finally found the game; it took me a little longer than most, and I lost $60 along the way, but at least I made it!"
To be clear, Chris is only invested into Star Citizen for $80. He might not be nearly as optimistic if he had to plunk down the cash for a new machine like he did for No Man’s Sky. But it’s still interesting that he’s willing to risk disappointment on such a similar project. The dreams of Chris Roberts are cached in more experience, a larger team, and a different business model, but they aren’t that different from the hopes of Sean Murray. The logical reasons are all sound—Chris states he’s attracted to the lore, multiplayer, and the open-ended gameplay that No Man’s Sky lacks—but he still admits that this breed of hype is a little bit destructive.
"At the end of the day, gaming is one of my hobbies. I don’t mind spending money on my hobby, and I recognize that not every game is going to be great—that goes with anything in life," he says. "Hell, I took my family to a movie the other night which cost $40 in tickets and $30 in food, and the movie sucked. That was $70 for two hours of dissatisfaction. Needless to say, I don’t get worked up over ‘wasting’ money on videogames. I’m fortunate enough to say that losing $60 on a bad game won’t ruin my day."
However, there are other people who’ve migrated from No Man’s Sky to Star Citizen who won’t be quite as satisfied if Cloud Imperium Games fails to deliver. Another gamer named Jules has been playing PC games since the first Ultima and has dealt with more heartbreaks than the average dejected No Man’s Sky fan. Like Chris, he was drawn to Star Citizen late last year after Hello Games left him cold, but he’s not going to pull any punches if it fails to deliver.
"If Star Citizen does fail, I think it might finally make me hesitate to back games of that magnitude early on in the development cycle," he says. "Buying your way in is a new concept and I'm not sure it's all that positive in helping developers achieve their goals. If you can easily get funded but then still fall flat because you just didn't have a good game concept then there's something wrong with the new trend of funding games via buy-ins, crowd-funding and early access systems. I do think Star Citizen has a winner though and I hope they succeed!"
Jules and Chris have been chasing this fantasy for a long time. All they want to do is explore without any evidence of the machine behind the curtain. No invisible walls, no repetitive landscapes, no cut-corners or processor shortcomings to disturb the dream.
"I want to explore, that's my main motivation for a good space game," says Jules. "I'm actually not that enthusiastic about dozens of ship types and dog-fight PvP and all that. But I am very interested in a community of players interacting within a given universe with an economy and story unfolding. I was an old-school Star Wars Galaxies player and in its beginning it was an amazing game until they changed the fundamental way it worked. I hope for another game with that sort of expansive dynamics and gameplay where traders, explorers, and fighter pilots all have a place to share in the game's universe."