The flood gates are about to open, and a precedent is about to be set. For the first time in the history of gaming, consumers genuinely angry with a developer over the quality of a finished product may receive their comeuppance in a fairly substantial way. Multiple mainstream sources have reported Hello Games are under investigation from a UK-based entity known as the Advertising Standards Authority in regards to their 2016 commercial success-turned-critical flop, No Man’s Sky. The investigation primarily draws attention to the content of the game’s promotional material, compared to what was actually available and functional for consumers to explore in the final product; the outcome of which is certain to send shockwaves throughout the entire gaming industry. They might not shatter windows or knock people to the ground, but they will exist, and that’s good enough for us.
There are no set instructions to follow when creating a video game. If you’d like to compose a simple text adventure allegedly simulating the effects of depression on the end user, you’re welcome to do so. Your campaign mode is not required to be longer than six hours and thirty seven minutes, nor are you obligated to include online multiplayer functionality or a host of bonus content. However, the preposterous claims made about No Man’s Sky by Sean Murray of Hello Games throughout the pre-release media campaign simply did not match what customers received when they opened the package on launch day. The Advertising Standards Authority will most certainly find Hello Games in violation of several false advertising guidelines, and with the current state of sim racing allowing developers to get away with unfinished eternal science projects, the specific results of this investigation may give our little genre a subtle kick in the ass it so desperately needs.
If you haven’t been following the endless drama surrounding the multi-platform space exploration sandbox No Man’s Sky, the synopsis is surprisingly easy to grasp. An indie developer with a very limited back catalog announced plans to depart from their previous series of games create a procedurally generated next-generation space simulator, dazzling the E3 2014 audience with an impressive trailer indicating this might be the next big thing to take over gaming. Sean Murray, the individual in charge of Hello Games, let the new-found popularity inflate his ego, and made extremely outrageous claims about what you could see, do, and explore in No Man’s Sky throughout various promotional campaign appearances. Upon the title’s release, which raked in enormous sales figures and generated what’s possibly the most hype ever for a PlayStation 4 title, customers were unanimously disappointed with the game’s mammoth list of bugs, and slowly discovered many features discussed at length in promotional videos by Sean Murray himself – such as the entire online multiplayer component – were nowhere to be found.
Long-winded complaint monologues outnumbered genuine gameplay uploads on YouTube, Valve’s Steam platform allowed full refunds of the title outside of the allotted 120 minutes of trial time, and lengthy compilations of Sean Murray discussing gameplay elements that did not exist in the retail version of No Man’s Sky earned more individual views than the game had active players. While it’s not uncommon for even the most polished of titles to have a core group of online trolls embarking upon a smear campaign for one reason or another, nearly the entire audience of No Man’s Sky unanimously dug out their pitchforks and began writing nasty emails to anyone who would listen – because the footage didn’t lie. To everyone’s surprise, entities like the Advertising Standards Authority actually listened to them and confirmed that their outrage was justified. So even before any action has been taken against Hello Games, Sony, or Valve, the mere fact that a United Kingdom-based consumer rights group has sprang into action indeed confirmed that bad video games with misleading advertisement campaigns are something no customer should be forced to deal with.
But how does this affect sim racing?
Some say we’re currently in a Golden Age of Sim Racing, but I find that hard to believe. Developers openly despise their audience, and pick fights with specific users across multiple message boards with little to no reprocussions. Games like NASCAR Heat, Assetto Corsa, MX vs. ATV Supercross, and Project CARS all arrived on store shelves in a less than satisfactory state, yet failed to attract any meaningful attention to the underlying problems thanks to the decline in popularity of modern racing games.
We’ve had to put up with some phenomenally buggy games, hostile developers, and advertising campaigns that your average consumer could see right through – or in some cases, easily prove they were outright lies. Any sort of precedent being set through the eventual conclusion of the No Man’s Sky investigation means all video games, including obscure race car titles that only a few hundred people care about, will hopefully be held to a higher standard. That means better games for us, and less developers trying to see how little of a product sim racers will still hand over money for. We’re at a point where Assetto Corsa on the PS4 won’t let you create a room for just you and your friends to race in & was buggy as hell, and NASCAR Heat suffers from massive framerate issues and doesn’t even have yellow flags in online races. This isn’t cool, and it would be nice if developers were forced to listen to the complaints, rather than strategically write us off as trolls.
And developers who openly discuss certain features that eventually don’t make it into the retail game? That’ll stop, too.
Let’s look back on some instances we’ve seen of false advertising or deceptive media as it relates to four wheels and a closed circuit.
It wasn’t the greatest open world driving game, and the car roster had been significantly reduced compared to the original, but Test Drive Unlimited 2 featured two massive islands to explore, and an increased emphasis placed on competitive multiplayer racing. The main bullet point of the new online features, Car Clubs, had been intended to be a way to team up with your friends and hold automotive clan matches in what was a lighthearted yet functional street racing environment. Yes, the driving physics weren’t all that engrossing, and the NPC dialogue was insufferable, but underneath the distinct warts, there was an enjoyable online experience waiting to be unleashed, and on paper it seemed like this might keep people playing for a while.
For the first three, maybe four months of the game, Car Clubs didn’t work. The entire mode simply wasn’t functional. Online events as a whole were quite sketchy and suffered from prominent lag & connection issues, but car clubs didn’t even exist at launch. And this was a pretty big deal. Lots of people loved the original Test Drive Unlimited, and were really hyped for the sequel even though a new developer had taken over the franchise. This was supposed to be the main reason you and your buddies would purchase the game, yet it didn’t actually work when it needed to the most. By the time it did, most customers who bought TDU2 had already moved on or returned it entirely.
It’s certainly not everyone’s favorite discipline of auto racing, but a company by the name of Motorsims/Moto1.net had a string of critically acclaimed drag racing games in the late 1990’s, during a period in gaming where basically every major motorsports series – from SODA to the BTCC – had an officially licensed simulator. The third iteration of the series, NHRA Top Fuel Thunder, arrived on store shelves in 2003 and advertised online multiplayer functionality; building on the success of the Moto1.net online racing hub seen in NHRA Drag Racing: Main Event. Now I can confirm there’s an online multiplayer menu in Top Fuel Thunder, but it was never functional during any point in the game’s short lifespan. The developer behind the NHRA series, Moto1.net, closed its doors shortly after Top Fuel Thunder was released. Many of the staff members got on-board with ValuSoft and Lucky Chicken Games, continuing to release NHRA products for the PlayStation 2 – some of which are actually quite good for hardcore drag racing fans.
Bugbear, the company behind FlatOut, came back in a big way during the 2013-2014 holiday season. Resurrecting the style of chaotic racing found in their previous franchise with modern graphics Wreckfest arrived on Steam’s Early Access platform in January of 2014. With three months to go before I’m forced to buy a 2017 Taylor Swift calendar, the game still hasn’t been released, and looks virtually the same now as it did almost three years ago.
Valve’s Early Access program allows developers to sell unfinished games at a fraction of the price as a full game, but doesn’t force developers to actually finish their game and deem it to be completed. Wreckfest, although sitting in the relatively obscure land of racing games not many people care about, is a prime example to use when pushing for a reform to the entire Early Access system. Yes, people paid a discounted price to play the game early and give the developers relevant feedback that can help shape the final product into something satisfactory, but that in itself is the catch if you will – there is no “final product” when it comes to Wreckfest. It’s not even close to being done despite sitting on the market for 36 months in beta form, and users were expecting it to be. That’s generally how this stuff is supposed to work.
When people buy into an Early Access game, they’re under the impression that the game will eventually be finished or deemed “done” by the developers. Wreckfest is just sort of sitting there on Steam, neglected by Bugbear, who instead announced there will be two more Early Access versions of Wreckfest.
An entire year before the game’s release, Slightly Mad Studios posted a lengthy press release proudly announcing that the Indianapolis 500, as well as the entire 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series, would be available in Project CARS when it launched later that year – eventually being pushed back to the spring of 2015. By the time the game actually landed on store shelves, there were no oval tracks to be found, even despite the presence of an American Stock Car, and only the Dallara DW-12 made it into the game – albeit as part of a larger DLC pack; the drivers, teams, and liveries of the current Verizon IndyCar Series campaign were nowhere to be found. Any kind of content that inserts the Verizon IndyCar Series into Project CARS has still yet to materialize.
An official statement in regards to both the Indianapolis 500 license, as well as the presence of oval racing, has never been made. Instead, Project CARS fans were told deep inside an already lengthy thread on the official message board for the game that Slightly Mad Studios couldn’t get the artificial intelligence to navigate oval tracks in an acceptable manner, and the functionality would be held off until the game’s sequel.
It’s less false advertising, and more of a strategic lack of information. This one’s pretty easy to explain: Fanatec is a company that makes high-end toy steering wheels to be used on a multitude of devices. Earlier in the year, many of their products worked for all major racing games available on the PlayStation 4. Within a week or so, compatibility was dropped. A flock of new titles that arrived on the shelves, including the highly anticipated F1 2016, alongside the now-redundant Assetto Corsa, were not compatible with Fanatec products.
There was no major announcement for this lack of compatibility, and no effort made by mainstream sim racing news outlets (aside from us) to let people know that it was time to get rid of your Fanatec stuff. Sim racers were supposed to infer, from the official wheel compatibility list released for each individual game, that Sony and Fanatec had a falling out for whatever reason. It would have been great to see this discussed on Kotaku, Giant Bomb, or VirtualR, but all outlets suspiciously declined to talk about something that actually caused major problems with a lot of sim racers. As I said, they basically woke up one morning and discovered the mighty expensive wheel they just purchased was now a fancy paperweight due to licensing agreements which had changed overnight. Again, not entirely false advertising, but it was extremely dirty how the industry as a whole handled this situation. Consumers basically didn’t know until it was too late. Not everyone who bought Assetto Corsa or F1 2016 was dedicated enough to comb through the support forums for their favorite title.
Realistically, the No Man’s Sky investigation will force Valve and Hello Games to change the promotional material revolving around the game to reflect what’s actually included within the retail experience. I’m not completely delusional here, this isn’t some massive supreme court case that will sculpt the future of gaming. However, the fact that we’re at this point indicates there is indeed a line in the sand that developers can’t cross when selling a $60 video game to the masses. There’s proof virtually everywhere that Sean Murray and Hello Games did not deliver on what was promised in No Man’s Sky, and there’s a whole host of other problems documenting widespread technical issues that quite frankly shouldn’t be appearing in a $60 video game.
For any sort of agency to physically research why so many people are upset with the experience found in an entertainment product, it’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s one inch closer to a point where customers can hold developers fully accountable for a sub-par product. In sim racing, with so many unsatisfactory releases and hostile personalities showing up on a yearly basis, we need the industry to keep progressing in this direction. I’m stoked that we’re progressing away from cucked businessmen who chalk up negative reviews to hostile nerds on the internet; the sheer fact that someone with more authority than a basic customer understands a video game can be bad and not worth the $60 asking price gives me hope for the future.