Hello Games wowed viewers last year with a debut trailer. At E3 2014, the developer showed us how to build a universe and what to do there.
To a close approximation, everyone we've ever talked to about No Man's Sky is excited and wants to play it. They also have no idea what in the world the massive, open universe game from the tiny British developer actually is. You could count Polygon's staff among the hopeful clueless — or at least you could have before E3 2014. We met with the developers at Hello Games. We saw No Man's Sky in action. They made believers out of us.
The pink-orange grass sways in the wind as the unnamed character walks out of the cave. For an instant, the right wall flashes like rows of yellowish cubes, then returns to normal. Horned animals that might be deer if you don't pay too much attention sip from the aquamarine creek. An enormous orange brontosaurus looking monster stands atop the hill to the right.
This is just one of a vast number of worlds in No Man's Sky, and Hello Games' Sean Murray is showing us around. He hops into a spaceship, points it to the sky and seconds later, he's in outer space shooting asteroids. The pace at which the scenery changes is striking, as he transitions seamlessly from planet to atmosphere to the cold vacuum of space. A minute or so later, after avoiding an armada of battleships that popped in from hyperspace, he's entering the atmosphere of another planet. He touches down. Its barren, rocky surface stands in stark contrast to the planet he left minutes ago.
This, he explains, is No Man's Sky's 90/10 rule in action, and the best way to explain that is to talk about deer again.
"It's actually pretty rare to come across a deer in the woods," Murray said "And if you fly into space, and you go and visit planets, most of them will be dead, they will be rocks. What we want to do is, 90 percent of the time that will probably be true in our game. A planet will be like this where it's barren. A lot of them won't have atmospheres. Actually finding something like the rainforest that we were down on, that's really rare — and even then, if you find a creature, most of the time it will be brown and have four legs and look a little bit earth-like."
In other words, the universe of No Man's Sky — and it is a literal universe — won't be full of feathered orange dinosaurs. It'll be filled with rocks. It's up to you to find the diamonds in the rough.
"We haven't shown any of the crazy creatures we're doing or how far we can mutate things or the crazier ships or anything like that," he said. "And we won't. We will hold that back, which means, say, only 10 percent of the worlds will have that full ecology. Only 10 percent of those will have something like a rainforest on it that has birds and fish and creatures and only 10 percent of those will have something like those dinosaurs we saw and 10 percent of those dinosaurs will be wild and crazy and really mutated."
But before you do any of that, you have to leave home. And you can't — at least not yet.
Everybody gets a planet. That's how No Man's Sky starts — with at least a planet and a ship. If you want to move skyward, you've got things to do.
"You're going to start out with a ship that isn't even capable of interstellar travel," Murray said. "Your very first ship is only going to be able to go around the solar system, and you're going to have to upgrade the ship to be able to travel further and then upgrade your ship again and travel a little bit further than that and jump to the next little existence, get your hyper drive, upgrade to hyper drive."
On the outer rings of the galaxy where you start, resources will be relatively plentiful. But as players inch their way lightyear by lightyear to the galaxy's center, resources become rarer and more valuable. There's a built-in economic incentive to travel.
This is the gameplay loop. Or, to be more accurate, this is one possible gameplay loop. You don't have to do any of that. You can spend your time with your feet planted on terra firma. Become a botanist, if that's your thing. The world is yours, after all.
Or you could become an interstellar explorer. Or a pirate. Or a zookeeper on Tralfamadore, a planet you discovered and named. Whatever boosts your rockets. Point is, you can make your own way and write your own story because that's what Hello Games wants you to do.
It's not, Sean Murray explained, all that dissimilar from a roguelike, the genre known for its procedurally generated levels. Except that in No Man's Sky, Hello Games is procedurally generating a universe.
"What we're trying to do is reasonably well traveled, which is, actually, the way I think the game is a roguelike," he said.
"So you start out in a room and there are some enemies, and you kill the enemies and you get some loot and then you can progress to the next room, next room, next room and eventually you'll die and you go back to the start. And the rooms will regenerate themselves. They'll be in a different order and then you go through again."
It's not a perfect comparison, he admits, but that same dungeon room framework sits in the empty space between the innumerable planets in No Man's Sky.
"Our game isn't like that in loads of ways, but the way I pitch it is: imagine every possible permutation of those rooms generate themselves, and then you stitch them all together and you build the most incredibly huge infinite dungeon that you can imagine. And then you start everyone at the outside of that dungeon and people try to get into the center. And that is the game, and that's, in a very reductive way, that's that sort of broad brushstrokes of the game.
"If you imagine planets and the space in between planets as rooms and everyone's starting from different places on the outside, and if you picture that dungeon game, that infinite roguelike. It's already kind of an interesting idea. I would play that game. That's what we're doing. You want everyone to have their unique story, everyone to have their unique journey through that."
Most people, Murray figures, will take the exploration path. But Hello Games doesn't want to be prescriptive, and the beautifully obtuse gameplay trailers reflect that.
"And so that's why, actually I think our gameplay trailers are a little bit vague," he said. "Because something I really want to resist is that dinosaur comes running out, kill it. I know that some people will play that way, but I don't want to say this is how you play the game."
Here's the real question: How on earth did a tiny team from Guildford, U.K. create No Man's Sky, a game that's less open world and more open worlds? The answer, according to Murray, is that about four people spent the first year of the game's development creating the technology that would build a universe. And it's a universe born of the constraints of Hello Games' size.
The developers didn't set out to create an MMO where players were always bumping into each other and learned the world map over time. They set to to create a vast, harsh and unexplored universe that players could discover.
"It's like, we're still finding things on Earth," Murray said. "There's five billion of us and we still haven't gone to the deepest depths. What we're building is way more vast than people probably consider it. And so, because of that, it's actually very freeing for us."
Hello Game approached No Man's Sky development without the nagging feeling that everything players see needed to be purpose built, Murray said.
"And so what we found is we're really freed by having to not worry about that so we can start just playing with our game mechanics and keep the team small and feel our way through it, which is what we have with the first year."
Instead of the approach that a developer like Ubisoft would take where every statue in an Assassin's Creed game would be hand built or a developer like Turn 10 Studios would take building a Forza Motorsport car model for a month, Hello Games created a relatively small number of core assets that could metamorphosize into thousands of variations. Take the trees on the planet you see in the E3 2014 trailer as examples. Every one of them is the product of a single tree prop, turned and twisted into something new.
"So, by doing that, he will create an entire jungle just by creating one prop," Murray said. "He doesn't actually do any textures and he doesn't build this in polys he builds it in voxels basically, a type of clay, like deadbrush if you've ever seen people working in that. It looks like you're modeling clay."
This is why Hello Games didn't need a team of 800 to create an universe. It needed a year of programming.
"I guess on a basic level what we're trying to do with our tech and what we spent our first year building was not what we showed at the VGX."
How did Hello Games build No Man's Sky? In short, math. How will it keep it running? More math.
"So as you're flying towards a planet," Murray said, "the planet has a seed and that defines what variants all the types of things will live there, what type of grass, what type of trees, whatever, and all of these have been generated as we fly towards that planet. By the time you get there it'll all be there. Yeah, but it will always be the same, so as far as you're concerned, if you fly to a planet and see a tree in that exact spot and I fly to a planet and see a tree, I'll see the exact same spot."
In a sense, everything you see in the game is a result of a mathematical formula that only exists when a player is there to see it. When somebody shows up, No Man's Sky crunches the numbers to show players their surroundings. When nobody's there, it's gone.
"It's then just thrown away when you fly away. It will always be the same. It's a mathematical function that will always return the same result. There's effectively layers and layers of math that creates the entire universe and it's this black box and you plug in whatever location you're at, it will generate it automatically."
That idea — that the game can create its own content and iterate on it to create countless variations — is the core of the technology behind No Man's Sky. It applies as much to palm trees as it does to alien dinosaurs, to lush planets with babbling brooks and desolate space rocks. And it's also the reason why there's no loading time: In No Man's Sky, there's nothing to load. Only a formula to execute and show in a universe purpose built for you to discover.
"We don't want to make it so that everyone has the same experience," Murray said. "I think games have just gone way too far down that route, and I like the idea that one person will find a planet on the outside edge [of the universe], and it will be like hitting the jackpot. And they won't tell anyone about it, and they'll keep it to themselves — or maybe they will post it and loads of people will try to get there. Maybe it will actually be a trap or whatever. One of those stories to just develop.
"We are not trying to think of all those stories of everything that could possibly happen and trying to make it happen. It's just the nature of this, the universe, that some things are possible or slightly possible."