Another Friday, another fifty dollars.
The first time Ron Carpenter received the generous donation to his PayPal account, he figured it was just a courteous one-time gift from a viewer of his YouTube channel, Cobra TV. Then week after week, the same donation continued to pop up in his account.
Another Friday, another fifty dollars.
Carpenter – like most YouTube personalities – started his channel on a whim, without much of a plan or very high expectations. Wearing a mask to retain anonymity, he ranted about games in stream of consciousness videos on a crude, but functional, webcam set-up. “I was depressed, and I was making videos,” he tells me over Skype. Those early videos featured Carpenter farting and making crude, offensive jokes about games. He doesn’t harbor much pride for those early days. As he recalls, “I guess you could say I was a troll back then.” Soon after, he discovered No Man’s Sky, a game that at that point remained a mysteriously intriguing space exploration title from an inconspicuous independent developer. Hello Games had made a splash at the 2013 VGX awards when it released a trailer for its procedurally generated space exploration game. Like many people in the games industry, Carpenter took notice right away.
The budding influencer’s curiosity piqued further when Hello Games director Sean Murray came onto Sony’s E3 stage in 2014 to show more of No Man’s Sky in a demo that has since become infamous. Carpenter watched as Sean Murray explored a planet full of dinosaurs and other creatures, hopped into his spaceship, launched through the atmosphere, and immediately started dogfighting in outer space. “It blew my mind away,” says Carpenter of the stage demo, which would prove to be a slight exaggeration of what the final product turned out to be. Misrepresentation or not, the demo was enough to hook Carpenter. “After that,” he says, “I searched for anything I could find on the internet about this game. I didn’t even know what Reddit was at the time. I started taking down notes just because I wanted to learn more.” His excitement for the game fueled his content from that point on; a commitment that proved infectious.
Carpenter doesn’t look back fondly on his early videos covering the game. “My first No Man’s Sky video, I’m sitting there in a mask and burping and farting through the thing,” he recalls, “when I realized I had such a passion for this game, those videos just seemed really disrespectful.” It might be strange for current followers to hear that Carpenter’s early videos contained such vulgarity, when he’s built a reputation for objectivity and candor. But regardless of quality, he eventually realized he wasn’t alone in his passion for the game. His viewership and subscription numbers began to reflect that fact. “People were taking me seriously finally. So I thought, ‘they deserve respect and I need to be better.’” As his audience grew, he began to accept donations through PayPal, to help improve the overall quality. He earned just enough to buy a new computer, webcam, and microphone.
As his channel found an audience, Carpenter’s Cobra TV became a prominent outlet in the burgeoning No Man’s Sky community. He began to see his videos pop up on Reddit and in Facebook fan groups for the game. In hopes of cultivating and providing a voice for that community, he soon began inviting fellow fans onto his shows to pontificate about the seemingly infinite possibilities of Hello Games’ universe. As such, he became the sort of de-facto leader of the word-of-mouth hype surrounding the game prior to launch. Carpenter had become the pope to god, Sean Murray – preaching to the flock for an increasingly capricious deity.
Hyping No Man’s Sky had itself become a popular pastime on the internet, and a burgeoning cottage industry for content creators like Carpenter. While the information that Hello Games released to the public was vague at best, Carpenter found himself filling a need. As he explains, his motivation had less to do with exploiting the game as it did with satiating his own desire to learn more about this mysterious universe. He tells me that what captivated him most about No Man’s Sky was the sheer creativity of it all. “It was the overreaching of the entire game as a package. I say overreaching now, not because of what happened, but because that’s what I wanted to find,” says Carpenter, alluding to the underwhelming state of the final product, “I wanted to find a game where the developers did overreach. They went out of the box and pulled out what was normal. They pulled out something special, put it into the limelight and tried to do something that nobody else has done. That’s what drew me in. The fact that somebody for the first time in a long time, was overreaching.”
As a kid, growing up in the marshlands of Florida, some of Carpenter’s most vivid memories are of long walks in the woods near his childhood home. As a child, he would join his father on exploratory walks through the swamps, with little intention other than to observe nature. “I would just look and see, and I was so amazed,” recalls Carpenter. These trips consisted of no hunting, no taking pictures, but just being in the moment and seeing what there was to see; an activity that would sound more than a little familiar to any diehard No Man’s Sky devotee. Later in life, he would take his dog Jasper, a mix of pit bull and German shepherd for long walks through those same marshes. Once in awhile, when Jasper began to snarl and sneer at the water, Carpenter says, “a gator would come out and my dog would sit there, run away a little bit and just bark and bark.” He recalls with a nostalgic chuckle, “I would stand on the top of the hill and yell at [the gator] to get back in the water.”
For those anticipating the game, the potential in No Man’s Sky wrested on the promise of finding metaphorical gators in that digital universe’s water; the potential of encountering epic space battles, long-necked dinosaurs, and giant sandworms. Even now, months after launch, and with the release of the Foundation update – a long-awaited content dump of new modes and gameplay tweaks – a common refrain can still be heard around the community: But where’s the giant sandworm?
For fans and detractors, so much of what makes No Man’s Sky’s story intriguing, even months after a failed launch, is best exemplified by that one question:
But where’s the giant sandworm?
Promotional materials and early footage showed a giant sandworm. Common sentiment among the community is that it must be in there somewhere. This is a near-infinite universe full of eighteen quintillion planet-sized planets, after all. Due to the sheer size of this world, it’s quite possible that simply nobody has found it yet. Not for lack of trying; Reddit and dedicated Facebook groups are full of fans posting videos and screenshots of worm-like creatures that could be long-removed cousins to something that might vaguely resemble a giant sandworm. However, not one player has recorded an instance of encountering such an animal.
It’s much more likely that the beast just doesn’t exist. But it’s also possible (if infinitesimally so) that it does. And that’s all that matters for some fans.
No Man’s Sky fandom is a strange place. Prior to release, fans of the game scoured the internet for any information they could find on Sean Murray’s creation, including Cobra TV videos. They created fan art, bought t-shirts, took to reading old science fiction novels (the Asimovs and Clarks that Murray likes to name-check in interviews), and even made fan videos thanking Hello Games for its time and effort in creating this procedural universe that none of them had yet experienced.
On August 9th, 2016, the game released and that fandom grew even stranger. When No Man’s Sky failed to live up to expectations, the community split into two camps: those shouting “Sean Murray is a liar,” and those defending the developer even as they acknowledged the product’s imperfections. The angry voices rang the loudest though, and hating on No Man’s Sky soon became just as sporting as anticipating No Man’s Sky had been just weeks earlier.
Here’s where this story gets weirder for me, as the author. I’m going to break a cardinal rule and insert myself into it a bit. I was one of those people who hyped No Man’s Sky far more than it may have deserved. I was one of the people playing gameplay trailers for family and friends, evangelizing the gospel of Sean Murray. I was one of the people that considered themselves a fan of a game that I hadn’t even played yet. Heck, I even found myself re-reading Frank Herbert’s Dune in the weeks before the game’s launch, because, well… giant sandworms! Prior to release, many people would say that anticipating No Man’s Sky was already fun enough, that the game itself didn’t even need to be any good. They had already gotten their money’s worth. Oh… if only that were the case.
As I began to research this story, I started to suspect that it was far beyond my scope of practice. I reached out to a few prominent individuals in the community, which soon became a depressing exercise in futility. One source, for example, would only speak to me off the record for fear of being ostracized for his criticisms of the game. Some other people who openly disliked the game declined to comment, and just quietly retreated from the imploding community. When the subreddit was abruptly deleted overnight on October 5th, I reached out to the moderator responsible only to find that he had deleted his own account, my only means of contacting him, due to the overwhelming backlash. That same subreddit, with over 150,000 members at the time, would soon be replaced with another dedicated page for the game, before finally being turned into a Mr. Robot subreddit as a sort of joke at the expense of Hello Games.
Did I say this story was strange?
I began to get the sense that I was working on uncovering some deep government conspiracy, when in reality, I was simply trying to talk to people about a video game. Even the game’s developers seemed to be susceptible to the drama. After having been silent on Twitter for months, the Hello Games official Twitter account tweeted out that “No Man’s Sky was a mistake.” It would turn out to be the work of a hacker, but it only further demonstrated just how divisive this game had become. Having started my research in October, I began to wonder if I should ever write this article at all, for fear that this story – like the game’s universe – was never ending.
And it most certainly isn’t over yet.
Hello Games recently released the Foundation Update, which adds base building, freighters, survival mode, creative mode, an online message system, and more. The game finally resembles what it probably should have been from the start, save for a few major features including full online support, factions, and, as far as anyone can tell, giant sandworms. Despite selling millions of copies at launch, No Man’s Sky’s player numbers had since dwindled to the hundreds. Those numbers have seen a minor surge with the update, and the game’s most ardent fans have seen their faith rekindled and rewarded, but it’s still not the smash hit that so many people expected it to be.
Those same fans never stopped watching Cobra TV and talking about the game, even if they stopped actually playing the game. Carpenter remains a spokesman for that community, despite never really aspiring to that label. With his smooth baritone and casual dialect, he has a voice for radio, something he’s aspired to since his youth. Although he never wanted to just be known as the guy that talks about No Man’s Sky, he appreciates the experience the game has afforded him. He just wanted to talk about fascinating games, but for Carpenter and his followers, the most fascinating game remains the one that earned him all this recognition in the first place.
Another Friday, another fifty dollars.
During Hello Games’ self-imposed sabbatical, many people wondered how Carpenter could continue making videos about a game while the developers themselves remained silent. But those same people were still watching. Just as 130,000 people re-subscribed to the new No Man’s Sky Reddit during that time, Carpenter’s viewers kept coming back. “Lots of people on my YouTube channel comment saying, ‘I feel sorry for this mother f___er for wasting his life talking about this game. He’ll never get these years back,’” reflects Carpenter. “I get comments like that all the time.”
Another Friday, another fifty dollars.
Carpenter had no intentions of accepting this money week after week. So he decided to email the donor to inquire, thinking that maybe it was a mistake, or maybe a glitch with PayPal’s system. It wasn’t.
The donor wrote him back to explain. “I received back, this email. [The email] said that one night he was sitting on his couch and he had a gun in his mouth, and he said that one of my No Man’s Sky playlists was playing on his computer,” Carpenter’s voice cracks ever so slightly over Skype. “He never told me what I said, but something that I said in one of my sub-casts, made him yank the gun out of his mouth and reevaluate his situation. He said fifty dollars is nothing compared to what I made him feel like his life was worth. He tried paying me that fifty dollars every week. Finally, I told him that if you continue to keep paying me fifty dollars I’m going to refund it to you every single time.”
“That,” he says, “That’s made it worth it.”
Edited by Daniel Jones