There is no better example of pre-release hope-frenzy than the No Man's Sky subreddit

March 2, 2016 by Laura Michet

Enthusiasm for a new game is great, but there's no way any game can meet every player's expectation.

I remember that in 2010, before Star Wars: The Old Republic launched, I visited the game’s official forums and found an extremely long, angry discussion -- well over ten pages long, if I recall correctly -- about whether or not characters in the game would be able to sit in chairs.

If I had the energy to navigate back through years of posts to find this conversation and show it to you, I would, because it was absolutely golden. Some of the people in the forum did not care much about chairs, but others were extremely adamant about having a place to rest their avatars' butts. Several posters stridently announced that chair-sitting was absolutely necessary to achieve 'true immersion.' They were very specific about why and how they would use chair-sitting, too. "Imagine that you and your friends are roleplaying in a cantina. You go to the cantina with your friends and get drunk and have a good time. How can you do this unless you can sit in chairs?!?" (This is obviously not an exact quote, but my memory is a steel trap, so just take my word for it.)

In other threads, future-SWTOR-players were arguing about whether or not they would be able to have pets in the game -- and whether or not they would be able to pet the pets. The entire SWTOR forums were full of this kind of desperate speculation. Fans were spending hours discussing different imagined versions of a barely-explained, unfinished game. For many of the features they were discussing, there was no proof they would even be in the game at all.

I’ve seen it for loads of other games, too. For Kickstarted games in particular, backers feel ownership over the project, and they tend to get very very specific -- and very very vocal -- about the tiniest elements of gameplay they hope to see in the final version. But there’s no better place to see this phenomenon in action, I think, than the No Man’s Sky subreddit.

I’ve been lurking in this subreddit since 2014. While most of the highest-rated posts in the subreddit are about concrete announcements and public teasers, there is a vast underworld of nervous speculation and imaginative fan-creation which sustains a lively and obsessively self-reflective (charmingly obsessive, anyway) fan community. Over the past year on the NMS subreddit, you could find people speculating about:

Some rule changes have reduced the number of these kind of ‘wishlist’ posts, but there’s still a low buzz of feature-speculation and suggestion every time I check the subreddit. Most pre-release game fan communities have an ultra-dense mass of of nervous, info-starved hype whirling around at their core, but the phenomenon is more pronounced in the NMS subreddit than anywhere else I’ve seen it. The more-plaintive posts are the endless discussions about how its members will actually play the game on a day-to-day basis. How many screenshots will you take? Do you have a planet-naming system in mind? And then there’s their greatest worry: whether the game will be simply mediocre.

I’m not trying to criticize this subreddit. They’re making tons of fan art (including an animated video series), writing flash fiction, and clearly enjoying themselves a lot! But lurking on this extremely hype-tastic subreddit has had me thinking very hard about what game marketing and pre-release hype really does to our poor little brains.

Hype harnesses our creativity. We’re doing all the real work for the game’s marketing team inside our heads.

You see, traditional game marketing -- with its cutscenes, bullshots, and CGI-enhanced gameplay footage -- rarely expresses exactly what the real experience of playing a game will be like. No Man’s Sky sailed to prominence on the strength of a single magnificent trailer. At the time, we didn’t know much about what the actual ‘game loop’ would be like, and we didn’t care -- we had our imaginations working overtime. Pre-release hype is often more about inspiring us to imagine our perfect, desired game experience than it is about accurately conveying the experience we will actually have. Hype harnesses our creativity. We’re doing all the real work for the game’s marketing team inside our heads.

This is why, I think, the rise of Early Access games has been such a shock for so many people. In the process of selling itself to you, an Early Access game undersells itself. It shows you its worst, buggiest, most hideous face long before you’re able to imagine what the final version of the game will feel like. Creative speculation and suggestion is still a big part of participating in an Early Access fan community, but the ‘hype’ often feels very different, and there’s less room to romanticize the experience you’ll eventually have.

I’m personally quite pumped for No Man’s Sky, but I’ve quit reading the subreddit lately, and I think it’s for the best. I, personally, would like to pet all the animals in the universe, and I wouldn’t mind sitting in a bunch of procedurally-generated space-chairs, or dodging sideways to avoid the giant crushing feet of all those dinosaurs I am so convinced I will definitely see.

But, you know, I’ve got only so much brain-power to spend on my creative imagination per day -- and I’d like to spend it on things I can call my own.

Laura Michet is the Editor in Chief of ZAM. She is a double cyborg and has the app on her phone to prove it. Find her on Twitter @lmichet.