'No Man's Sky's Surprise Release: Good Idea?

Would we be prepared for the biggest game of all time?

Hello Games

Even when he was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, game director Sean Murray didn’t reveal the release date for the hotly-anticipated No Man’s Sky, the space exploration game from UK studio Hello Games. But rumors circulated this past weekend that the game, first announced in late 2013, could be released as early as this October 27th.

Is an early, “shock” release date a sound plan for No Man’s Sky?

Fueling speculation that No Man’s Sky could be out as soon as this month is an Amazon UK customer as well as a Forbes writer who were told their orders would arrive “October 27.” Also, it was on Colbert. You don’t go on late-night TV talk shows without having something to promote that’s coming out soonish.

Out of curiosity, I went on Amazon’s U.S. page to preorder No Man’s Sky and it doesn’t show up at all. I could preorder Horizon: Zero Dawn, though.

But there is a page for it, which I had to Google for separately. It looks as empty as it could possibly be.

I want to believe the Amazon release date is some kind of mistake, an oversight or some random placeholder date that coincidentally cuts too close to the next gaming conference of the year. I also want to believe that Sony will tell us a definite release date at the upcoming Paris Games Week on October 28th through November 1. Twitter user @Tidux, a known insider who has spilled some secrets before, speculates as much.

Let’s say No Man’s Sky shows up by some magic on October 27th. Frankly, that leaves only one question: Why?

The first big obstacle is that October 27th is the same release as Halo 5: Guardians. No Man’s Sky is certainly attracting a different audience than Halo 5, but they’re still competitors.

Is Hello Games hoping to be the cool alternative to Halo 5, whose commercials I’ve been fast forwarding on my DVR since July? Sisters, an adult comedy starring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, may not be the same audience as Star Wars: The Force Awakens but Universal is banking to be the alternative to that when it premieres against Star Wars on December 18th.

Shock releases are in vogue in music, the most recent being Drake and Future’s What a Time to Be Alive coming out a day after they announced it on Instagram. But video games, arguably a more complicated venture with user experience a crucial element, shock releases pose too much a risk. Without even a beta test, releasing a game to an unsuspecting public is like playing a movie while the audience are still shuffling to get in their seats.

It still feels like a stunt, largely because there isn’t much of a track record to reference. Five Nights at Freddy’s 4 and Fallout Shelter were pleasant “surprise” games that worked very well, but those games had a few benefits that No Man’s Sky does not.

For one, the size of the games were smaller. Fallout Shelter was a mobile simulation game not unlike The Sims. Though Five Nights at Freddy’s and No Man’s Sky bear remarkable similarities (both indie games made by small teams), Five Nights is quite literally a smaller game. No Man’s Sky is promising boundless galactic exploration, while Five Nights at Freddy’s was a survival horror game with barely a “walk” mechanic.

Freddy’s 4 and Fallout Shelter were also part of established franchises that promised familiar experiences that didn’t deviate, which is the opposite of No Man’s Sky. Freddy’s 4 was the final installment of the popular Five Nights at Freddy’s series and was released when Freddy’s 3 was still relatively fresh. Fallout Shelter came from the VERY popular Fallout games; Fallout 3 shipped over 4.7 million copies around its launch.

No Man’s Sky is the first of its kind. Sure, there are some references to look for, like first-person shooters or Journey which Sean Murray spoke of at the New Yorker Tech@Fest, but they’re still just guesses. Strictly speaking, No Man’s Sky is a new IP promising a new experience on a scale very few games have been able to achieve.

Hello Games is also ditching an open beta — There wouldn’t be much time now anyway, if the release date is projected to be less than three weeks away. Murray chalked up the lack of beta to wanting the game to be “finished” before it’s played by anyone outside. Speaking in an interview with Game Informer:

“I know it sounds ridiculous, but I want it to be finished before it comes out. Maybe this is hubris, but we plot out millions of people making journeys starting from different points. Then guess what their upgrade ramp will be, see how long it takes, and how many jumps. [Estimating it will] probably take 20 percent longer than that and kind of averaging it out.”

It’s not ridiculous, but it is chin-scratching. Beta access for video games have become commonplace, allowing developers a chance to understand just how people will play or encounter kinks they hadn’t yet discovered. For a game as nuance as No Man’s Sky, wouldn’t Hello Games want input from players? Or some data on player habits in what is expected to be a very open ended experience?

Then again, Hello Games are notorious perfectionists. If they did have a beta and by some happenstance No Man’s Sky disappointed, it could kill whatever buzz No Man’s Sky had going forward. That is currently happening with Star Wars: Battlefront.

Maybe the “Colbert Bump” was all the marketing they needed.