Video game fans will be familiar with the Peter Molyneux effect: games which promise a whole host of revolutionary, industry-changing features, which somehow end up conspicuously missing when the game finally makes it to shelves. The much-hyped, procedurally-generated video game No Man's Sky is under investigation by the UK Advertising Standards Authority for allegedly misleading consumers as to the content included in the game's final release. Customers have argued that videos and stills released ahead of the game showed features which did not exist in the final release.

It's not uncommon - whether in the game development world or in software development generally - for developers to promise a wide range of fantastic features, only to slash them once they realise those features all cost manpower and resources, and potentially knock back their launch date. And this is hardly the first time that game or game tech developers have had trouble with withdrawn features: players of Aliens: Colonial Marines filed a California lawsuit in 2013, alleging that pre-release footage misrepresented the game. But when does that feature-dropping turn misleading?

With most products, wild pre-release claims which turn out to be overblown don't impact consumers much: if the product comes out and doesn't perform, people don't buy it. But video games (and other software products, to a lesser extent) are different - because screenshots and videos are a major selling point, and because a lot of consumers buy games ahead of time through pre-ordering, people often throw down money before they're sure the product will be any good. If a developer represents that a game will have certain features (for example, in No Man's Sky's case, multiplayer elements), and consumers buy the game on that basis, it's easy to see a case for a breach of the Fair Trading Act if the game is released 'incomplete'.

Of course, that isn't the whole picture: it's widely known that features change during development, and developers and publishers alike have to keep some power to trim back their products. So back to the tough question - where do we draw the line? A few factors are worth thinking about:

  • how close to release the representations are made;
  • whether disclaimers are used (i.e. "this is Alpha footage, and does not necessarily represent the final game and its features");
  • whether the developer and / or publisher are transparent in making announcements when key features are cut; and
  • whether there are opportunities for customers who have pre-ordered to seek a refund if important features are removed.

So No Man's Sky's problems are a timely reminder that even pre-release, developers (particularly in game development) need to be careful about what they promise, particularly with the rise of Kickstarter and Early Access. If you're cutting major features, warn consumers in advance, and be careful of what you promise people who pay in early - if you don't know what the final product will look like, be open and transparent about that.