digital storytelling
Marketing Content Strategy

What No Man’s Sky Teaches Us about Digital Storytelling

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In the 1960s, Lost in Space captured the imaginations of families across the country through television and spin-off writing, long before the rise of digital storytelling. From galaxy-trotting misadventures to the endearing qualities of the most paternally concerned robot ever created (“Danger, danger, Will Robinson!”), the show held an essentially engaging appeal for its three-season run. The bonds of family loyalty, the importance of ethics in stressful situations, the unifying joys of exploration and discovery—the show’s story evoked all these feelings in even the most alien environments.

Fast-forward to 2016, and households have once again been offered a chance to brave the wonders and hazards of the galaxy from the comfort of their living rooms with the much-anticipated release of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky. In many ways, the anticipation has been warranted, thanks in no small part to massive advertising support from Sony Entertainment and a by-the-books example of great content marketing by the Hello Games team. But what begins as a case study in digital storytelling and content strategy excellence can still quickly turn into a brand nightmare without proper forethought or preparation.

Understanding Context

So what’s all the hype about?

No Man’s Sky is a video game released across a number of platforms that allows players to explore a universe that has been generated at a massive scale. Players are rewarded for exploring this universe—documenting new alien life, mining and trading resources, discovering lost settlements and crashed space crafts—with the ultimate goal of working toward the universe’s “center” guided by a mysterious system called The Atlas.

People were excited about the game, and understandably so. But what’s more interesting about this story is the way in which this small, indie game publisher was able to get people so excited about its inaugural title in the first place.

Personally Small, Vocally Big

One of the more notable aspects of No Man’s Sky’s promotion was the two-pronged approach Hello Games took to public communication. On one hand, the company had added many of the bells and whistles that you might expect for an entertainment product: pervasive video, physical, and digital advertising largely thanks to the support of Sony Digital. The company took an approach that’s proven to be effective for big-budget games and blockbuster movies: by surprising and fascinating its audience, ads for Hello Games’ product could serve as an invitation in the form of impression, rather than understanding.

But No Man’s Sky wasn’t a big-budget game from a known brand, it was an indie game from a small studio. In comparison to AAA gaming franchises, a common tactic for indie developers (especially new studios on their first product) is to save budget and focus on community development. Social media, blog updates, Q&As in interested digital communities—all these expected practices were employed effectively by Hello Games, in particular through regular updates and social Q&As made by the studio’s CEO, Sean Murray. In fact, through these media, No Man’s Sky took on more shape than it did through its emotive ads. The seemingly blockbuster game took form as the underdog—some crazy idea developed by ambitious game lovers, a love letter to bygone sci-fi paperbacks and toy rocket ships.

It was a combination that worked brilliantly. The more traditional ads grabbed visibility, but the true community nurturing happened on the personal level for Hello Games. That community likewise served as a loud mouthpiece, helping to relay the team’s story and vision across communities and social platforms internet-wide.

This is positioning that many brands can take a hint from—particularly those working with ad agencies or PR firms. If another team is doing the work of cutting through noise, what can your team do to ensure that there’s something worthwhile and trustworthy for the audience to listen to? Once you get enough people listening intently enough, you might find that your audience does a lot of the work for you, removing dependency on ads.

Combining Ideals and Video

In terms of specific content, No Man’s Sky struck a powerful balance with video marketing that brands should take note of.

For context, in the gaming world there are typically two types of video content: cinematic and gameplay. Cinematic video is akin to what you might think of as a movie teaser or a company brand piece. The goal is to quickly convey the feeling, setting, and general interest of a game, but the visuals typically don’t actually correspond with the final product. It’s content that can build hype, but it won’t satisfy your audience for long, and it does little to build trust with more dedicated audiences.

Gameplay videos, on the other hand, are the equivalent of product demos (or other informational video content or tutorials brands might put out). Ranging from short, edited trailers to “extended plays,” this type of content gives viewers a chance to see the game itself in action with varied amount of emphasis on story or mood—for instance, it’s not unusual to show five minutes of gameplay with commentary from halfway through a game, giving players a look at many of the game’s features, but little context for story or how they got there.

Striking a balance between these two forms, however, may be the conceptual ideal for brands trying to consider their next video project. No Man’s Sky achieved this through a series of three short videos that were based around the game’s intended three major emphases: fight, trade, explore.

Taken separately, the pieces give an impression of the universe, while watching them in succession can give viewers a sense of breadth and purpose. It also offers the additional benefit of encouraging viewers to return for more video content, through the ever-implicit suggestion that there may be one more video coming at any time.

The Bait and Switch

Had the story ended here, No Man’s Sky might have been a shining example of strategic content marketing. The Hello Games team did an excellent job of seeking out powerful partnerships, producing high-impact content with what resources they had, and making themselves accessible through their website, blogs, and streaming events. But after all of this, they also broke the foundational rule of content marketing: story needs to match experience.

Upon the game’s release, No Man’s Sky failed to deliver on many features and experiences that had been suggested through their marketing. The universe felt lacking in diversity, player control of the game was more limited than originally promised, and the PC release turned out to be a poorly optimized mess that many players couldn’t even run—all of which incited a massive push for refunds.

Beyond not delivering, Hello Games’ message to players has effectively been “wait and see.” The company has made promises of patches, new content updates, and a fuller experience perhaps just around the corner or years into the future—swinging the narrative from “look at this experience you could share in,” to “please hold.”

There is a lot to learn from the way No Man’s Sky gained attention and a huge, cultish following. But make sure that the story your content strategy tells matches reality, or you may find yourself in “danger, danger!” of losing your audience, and any trust they may have had in future material.

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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