The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled No Man's Sky's controversial Steam page did not mislead consumers.
Its decision means screenshots, videos and text currently on the No Man's Sky Steam store page may remain. While the ASA's investigation looked at Steam specifically, its ruling applies to the PlayStation Store, too.
The ASA had received 23 complaints about No Man's Sky's Steam store page, with most accusing the assets of painting a misleading picture of Hello Games' space title.
Complaints centred around screenshots and videos that depicted advanced animal behaviour, large-scale combat and ship-flying behaviour believed not to have ended up in the launch version of the game.
Complainants also said screenshots misrepresented the graphical quality of the game, and insisted a reference to a lack of loading screens and factions that contest territory was misleading.
The ASA contacted both Valve and Hello Games as part of its investigation, but because Valve doesn't handle the individual store pages for games sold on its platform, the buck passed to Hello Games. And based on emails sent to Eurogamer this month, it's clear the Guildford developer put a lot of effort into defending itself. It provided footage of the game and detailed responses to each allegation, stressing at every turn it did not mislead consumers.
The ASA's ruling is based upon Hello Games' assertion that No Man's Sky is a procedurally generated game, and so the player experience varies from playthrough to playthrough.
"The summary description of the game made clear that it was procedurally generated, that the game universe was essentially infinite, and that the core premise was exploration," the ASA said.
"As such, we considered consumers would understand the images and videos to be representative of the type of content they would encounter during gameplay, but would not generally expect to see those specific creatures, landscapes, battles and structures."
The ASA's investigation note is lengthy - in fact it's the most detailed we've seen from the watchdog regarding a video game - so we've broken it down by complaint to help make sense of the ruling.
Did the gameplay footage on the Steam store misrepresent the game?
As part of its detailed defence, Hello Games stressed to the ASA that No Man's Sky was procedurally generated rather than manually developed. Each user has their own individual experience, beginning the game on a unique planet in a different part of the universe.
Because of this, Hello Games said, "it would be difficult to recreate the exact scenes from the ad". But, Hello Games believed "it was fairly straightforward to locate content of the type shown in the ad and to demonstrate that such content was commonly experienced by all users who played No Man's Sky for an average period of time".
There's more on this point: the ASA said Hello Games stated all material features from the ad that had been challenged by complainants appeared in the No Man's Sky universe "in abundance". "While each player experienced different parts of the No Man's Sky universe, there was a low probability that anyone playing the game as intended would fail to encounter all these features in some form within an average play-through."
In its ruling, the ASA said it believed No Man's Sky's interface and aiming system had undergone "cosmetic changes" since the footage for the videos was recorded, but it did not consider these elements would affect a consumer's decision to buy the game "as they were superficial and incidental components in relation to the core gameplay mechanics and features".
Could the structures and buildings shown in the screenshots and videos be found in the game?
Hello Games provided the ASA with footage of buildings and structures that were "similar" to those pictured. The water, too, came under fire: "We reviewed the Hello Games footage and noted that it showed bodies of water broadly consistent with those shown in the ad," the ASA determined.
Were the large-scale space battles shown by marketing materials a part of actual gameplay?
Hello Games admitted to the ASA that larger battles "were more unusual", but it provided footage showing a similar type of battle. So, the ASA said on this point the assets were unlikely to mislead.
Did the behaviour of player and non-player ships and sentinels in the game match-up with the ad?
Hello Games provided footage showing ships and the player's vessel behaving in a similar manner to that depicted in the ad, the ASA said. But, the ASA acknowledged the footage did not show a ship flying underneath a rock formation, as in one of the videos. The ASA tried - and failed - to replicate the effect in-game.
"However, this was a brief shot within a wider sequence and we did not consider that, in the context of the ad as a whole, this was likely to mislead," the ASA said.
Did the footage of animal behaviour mislead?
Again, Hello Games provided footage in response, "which we noted showed similar animal behaviour to that shown in the ad," the ASA said.
"Although animals in the trailer were shown moving large trees [this is a reference to a large animal smashing through trees as seen in the 2014 gameplay trailer, above], which was not observed in the footage or during gameplay, we considered that this was a fleeting and incidental scene, unlikely in itself to influence materially a consumer's decision to purchase the game, and that it was not misleading."
Did the in-game graphics match up to the ad?
This one has been a point of particular controversy since No Man's Sky came out in August. The common complaint was that Hello Games exaggerated the quality of in-game graphics. But the ASA said it understood the graphics would be determined by the power of the PC used by the consumer, and believed most consumers shopping on Steam would be aware of this.
"From the game and the footage provided by Hello Games (including material from third parties), we understood that the game was capable of producing graphics of much higher quality than that shown in the videos and of comparable quality with the screenshots, and considered that the images used therefore did not exaggerate the game's performance in this regard," the ASA ruled.
Does the ad accurately represent "warping"?
Some of the complaints said "warping" between systems in the game was not as fast as shown in the ad.
"As with graphic performance, we understood that speed of warping would depend on the complexity of the destination system and the characteristics of a player's computer, and considered that consumers would generally be aware of such dependencies," the ASA said.
The footage provided by Hello Games showed a warp that was a couple of seconds longer than the one in the ad, the ASA said. "We understood that this example involved a more complex planetary system."
In its correspondence with the ASA, Hello Games went into great detail on how the warping works. It said factors that defined how quickly a player would warp to a new system included the specifications of the user's hardware and the complexity of the system or galaxy to which they were warping. So, a system with fewer planets or less complex life would be warped to more quickly.
Hello Games insisted players were not likely to use warping very often. Apparently it's around three times in the first 10 hours of gameplay. In the video that featured warping, the player warped to a sparse system with a single planet, one moon and hardly any life. This took three to five seconds.
Hello Games provided the ASA with footage recorded on a PC with similar specifications used for the trailer. It showed a warp to a larger and more populated system, which took about five seconds.
"They therefore believed that the warp times shown in the ad were normal for the type of system shown, on a standard gaming machine," the ASA said. "They confirmed that they did not edit the video in the ad to suggest that warping of this type was quicker than was actually the case."
The ASA actually tested warping out itself in a bid to verify Hello Games' footage.
"Although we understood that some players may have experienced longer warp times," the ASA said, "in the context of an ad showing general gameplay we did not consider that such differences in speed were so significant as to be material. We considered that the ad did not provide a materially misleading impression of these gameplay aspects."
Did the text in the ad misrepresent the game?
Text in the ad stated: "Fly smoothly from deep space to planetary surfaces, with no loading screens, and no limits." Some of the complaints revolved around the question of whether the warp sequence shown when travelling between systems was in fact a loading screen.
"We understood that during the 'warp' sequence the new system would be generated and that, in this sense, it might be thought of as a 'loading screen'," the ASA said. "However, it did not represent an interruption to the gameplay experience, as it was contiguous and consistent with the preceding and following gameplay sequences."
There was also a question mark over whether trade convoys actually travel between stars, which the ad text suggests. Hello Games provided footage that showed trade ships warping into systems after travelling between solar systems. "We therefore understood that this feature existed in the game," the ASA determined.
Do factions actually "vie over territory"?
Based on the ASA's ruling, it has a detailed understanding of No Man's Sky's factions system. It said it understood players could interact with three different factions, who occupied specific areas, and could take part in battles between opposing factions.
On this point, Hello Games provided an explanation for how the system works. It said this was part of the story and manifested itself through "the player's journey" and "interactions" with the three factions.
"Hello Games explained that solar systems were occupied by a single faction," the ASA said. "When players interacted with a factioned non-player character, they would sometimes mention their dislike of the other factions. There would also be fights between factions which the player could take part in, and doing so could increase the player's reputation with the faction they sided with. Hello Games said they chose the word 'vying' purposefully because it suggested that there was an ongoing struggle."
"Noting the explanation and footage provided by Hello Games, we did not consider that this description differed materially from the relevant gameplay features," the ASA said.
The crux of Hello Games' argument was this: some elements of the game seen in the ad were rarer than others, for example larger space battles, but the more unusual they were, the more rewarding the experience. What it did with marketing materials - the videos seen on the Steam store page, for example - was show the game in the best light.
According to the ASA, Hello Games said "the game itself was documentary evidence in support of the ad" and, since No Man's Sky was specifically programmed to enable players to experience everything described in the ad, they were confident any average player could do so.
All in all, it's a detailed investigation by the ASA, which appears to have gone to greater-than-expected lengths to understand the way No Man's Sky works. Its investigation was heavily influenced by Hello Games, of course, and on many points it appears the ASA was satisfied by developer-provided footage, but it played the game in order to test the developer's reasoning concerning some points of contention.
And it's clear Hello Games took the ASA's investigation seriously, too. As well as offer a detailed written response, it backed up its claims by providing footage lifted from a playthrough that had started at the beginning of the game and lasted for four hours, the ASA said. Hello Games also provided links to third-party footage uploaded to YouTube by No Man's Sky players, as well as a copy of the game.
"Taking into account the above points, we considered that the overall impression of the ad was consistent with gameplay and the footage provided, both in terms of that captured by Hello Games and by third parties, and that it did not exaggerate the expected player experience of the game," the ASA said, concluding its ruling. "We therefore concluded that the ad did not breach the Code."
While Hello Games will no doubt be delighted with the ASA's ruling, others have expressed concern. Reddit user AzzerUK, one of the original complainants, told Eurogamer he had questioned the ASA's thought process in an email correspondence conducted throughout the investigation.
"I feel you have gone out of your way to defend a clearly over-marketed series of videos, screenshots, and store descriptions, play down complaints on individual points, tiptoe around certain other complaints, and do not wish to take action because it could lead to you having to take action on what is, in fact, a large problem throughout games media and could lead to more work if this opened the floodgates for more people to complain about marketing throughout games advertising in general," he wrote in one email seen by Eurogamer.
When asked for his reaction to the ruling, AzzerUK said he was disappointed.
"Such disappointment can lead to apathy in future," he warned, "as in - why bother making complaints in the future if you feel like even something as in my opinion blatantly misleading as No Man's Sky advertising is not considered misleading?"
AzzerUK now intends to take the matter further. He told Eurogamer he will write a letter of complaint to Sir Hayden Phillips, who acts as the Independent Reviewer of ASA Adjudications.
"I'll be raising all the points, and putting it in a clear way under the assumption that Sir Hayden Phillips perhaps might not know too much about video games (let alone No Man's Sky), and draw clear comparisons with rulings they've made against misleading marketing in the past to make it clear how something in a video game trailer can be misleading to somebody that doesn't know much about them," he said.
Interestingly, amid the ASA's investigation, Valve announced new policies regarding screenshots placed on Steam by developers. The message was clear: no more bullshots. AzzerUK claimed this as a minor victory.