When it was announced in 2013, No Man's Sky seemed unimaginable: a sci-fi exploration game boasting more than 18 quintillion planets, all generated by math and algorithms as players move through the game.

Gamers rode a wave of hype and anticipation in the years ahead of its release. But when it finally launched to mixed reviews in August, customers demanded refunds en masse.

The gulf between expectations and reality presented unusual challenges for Andrew Reinhard, a Manhattan-based researcher and leader of the team currently playing the game with the same methodology as an archaeological survey.

The game promised fertile ground for a survey bigger in scope than anything he's ever worked on before — conducted entirely from his couch.

"The way it was pitched was really interesting to us just because of the scale and the scope of the universe that was about to be created," Reinhard told CBC News.

Archaeological gaming

Reinhard and a team of 18 scientists and researchers dove into No Man's Sky when it launched on Sony PlayStation 4 and PC, treating it like an archaeological site, only one built with columns of code instead of columns of marble.

​Reinhard calls this "archaeogaming," or the study of archaeology inside a video game's world.

"It's no different than going into a house or a shopping mall or something like that — it's something made by people, for people to inhabit, live, work or play in. That's what archaeology is, and what archaeologists study, by and large," he said.

He previously led the excavation of a landfill in New Mexico that unearthed hundreds of copies of abandoned Atari games, but also has experience excavating in Italy and Greece.

With No Man's Sky, they would map and record their findings, including plant and animal species indigenous to the planets they encountered, survey inhabited buildings and abandoned ruins, and learn more about the alien races they encountered on the way.

The team even constructed a code of ethics, mixing real-world archaeological ethics with elements of Star Trek's Prime Directive, which outlaws interfering in the proceedings and culture of alien civilizations.

Desolate galaxy

They soon found out, though, that the original outline for the project was more ambitious than the finished game could offer.

No Man's Sky was "not the game we were prepared to study," Reinhard wrote in a report he filed after one month of archaeogaming, studying roughly 70 separate planets and logging hundreds of hours of playtime.

No Man's Sky screenshot - Korvax Convergence

Players will encounter three different alien races in the game. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

"We had to revise our methods almost immediately upon launch because certain key features that players expected — namely, mapping functionality and co-ordinates assigned to waypoints or features — are (and remain) completely absent," he told CBC News in an email.

That means there is no system to chart where you've been, where you're going or how to retrace your steps, something that would have been of particular interest to his team. The galactic map can thread a straight path towards the centre of the galaxy, but that's about it.

Mass refund requests

Reinhard and his team weren't the only ones disappointed by what they found — far from it. Developer Hello Games and publisher Sony have weathered a storm of criticism and customer dissatisfaction, arguing that trailers, interviews and other promotional information promised features and a deeper breadth of gameplay than the final product delivered.

Commenters noted that several kinds of creatures that appeared in promotional trailers were nowhere to be found in the final game, and that game designer Sean Murray had suggested in some interviews that players had a small chance of running into each other while exploring. Players have so far been unable to do so — even if two players stand on the same spot on the same planet.

No Man's Sky screenshot 517

Abandoned ruins, monoliths and other buildings can be found on most planets in the game, but Reinhard has so far found little variation in their architecture. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

Players demanded refunds in such large numbers that PC retail outlet Steam added a disclaimer on its No Man's Sky store page stating that its standard refund policy was still in place — no exceptions.

Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida told press last week he understood some of the criticisms, particularly from some of Murray's interviews prior to launch. "It wasn't a great PR strategy, because he didn't have a PR person helping him, and in the end he is an indie developer," Yoshida told Eurogamer.

3-year mission

When asked about the reality of No Man's Sky's galaxy compared to his expectations, Reinhard releases an audible sigh of disappointment.

"I have to remind myself, and the team has to remind themselves also, that we have to work with what we're given. And that's true of any kind of archaeological site," he said.

And as with many archaeological studies, this is just the beginning. He and his team plan to release a three-month report this fall, and another after a year.

Reinhard confesses he has been drawn into the game's digitally generated galaxy despite its limitations.

"I wanted this project to go on for at least three years," he said. "It might just be me, that I'm the last person standing at the end of all this. What happens to a universe that has been abandoned?"