One Giant Leap – hands on with No Man’s Sky

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No Man’s Sky is the game we’ve all been waiting to see up close. Finally, games™ has been given the chance to play it at length and speak with the team behind it

It started with four guys and a small room with walls covered in sci-fi book covers.

Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, it started out as a bit of a joke. “We had this thing that we called Project Skyscraper, which we always had on our website under ‘Games that we make’, explains Sean Murray, Hello Games managing director as we chat about the formative days of No Man’s Sky. “The other game that we make in the description said ‘Secret Project: The most ambitious game ever made’. And it was this nice little joke that we had going on amongst ourselves. ‘We could do this or this and this is how it would be built’ and so on.”

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‘The most ambitious game ever made.’ That’s an apt way to describe what we’re now sitting in front of, with its 18 quintillion possible planets. No Man’s Sky is ambitious in its scale; ambitious for an indie team of around 16 developers (the days of Hello Games being just four people ended during the development of Joe Danger, much as some continue to share that number); ambitious in its use of technology; ambitious in the variety of gameplay it’s offering, something that’s been somewhat unclear until this moment.

Clearly, the idea of making something hugely ambitious stuck in the minds of the Hello Games team, even if it hadn’t been intended as something to follow through. Given that Joe Danger had been born from the original four founders of the team playing around with some old toys and being drawn to an Evel Knievel doll, we wondered what process had spawned such a gargantuan new project. “We took four of us and we went back into that little room trying to almost recreate the situation we had when we were making Joe Danger,” says Murray. “It was like ‘Let’s have this little, new startup before we think of another game’. We didn’t tell any of the rest of the team about what we were making or what we were doing and we properly blocked off the door, so we had our own little entrance and stuff.”

That’s where the sci-fi book covers came into play. “We covered the walls, floor to ceiling, with sci-fi imagery. You can’t sit in a room like that and not just soak it in, even if you don’t want to.” That original inspiration still holds firm in the spirit and execution of No Man’s Sky. As we experienced walking around a planet for the first time in the game, the bright colours and strange creatures that surrounded us looked like they could have been taken right off the pages of a pulp sci-fi novel. Like so much of this sort of fiction, No Man’s Sky is steeped in an earnest love of exploration and science.

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As we walk amid deep red grass, with small mole-like creatures skittering around our ankles, we can see on the misty horizon mountains and miles upon miles of more vegetation and potential life. Pulling out a set of binoculars, we scan the animals and planets around us, identifying them and registering what minerals or resources are available. As has been mentioned before, any new discovery you find can be named by you and that will remain in place for all other players who happen to land on the same planet (if that ever happens; more on that later). Feeling satisfied that we had named enough animals some variation of the name ‘Bob’, we hopped into our ship and began to launch ourselves out into the cosmos, the sky turning from blue to a rich purple as we broke through the atmosphere and into near orbit around the planet. Where to now?

That was pretty much the question that seemed to plague Sean Murray in the later stages of Joe Danger 2. While the concept of what would become No Man’s Sky was floating in the air, it hadn’t actually been started yet and as managing director of a recently expanded team, he needed to make a decision about the future of the studio.

“I couldn’t picture myself making Joe Danger 3 or something that was of a similar size,” he tells us. “And I could see that coming, almost like the lights of this truck that’s going to hit you and it’s moving really slowly but you can’t stop it. I just wanted to get away from that. I was like, ‘What I actually want to do is start up a new studio, and that sounds really bad even though I’m here with all you guys and we’re all having fun and I’ve employed you all, I sort of just want to get away from all this’. This is the responsibility: I have to think of a game idea that will require ten people. I have to think of something that’s just about doable. But not too few people needed and not too many. You end up coming up with something that’s a bit like Joe Danger. I just wanted to do a different thing.”

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And so as Murray waited through the night for a conference call with Microsoft (to talk about getting a little more attention for Joe Danger Special Edition on XBLA) he began to write some prototype code, fleshing out something new. “Everyone else had gone home and I had to stay until five in the morning, so I just started writing code,” continues Murray. “The guys came in [the next] morning and I had stayed all night and I was like, ‘We’re doing it! We’re going to do Skyscraper!’. And I had this awful demo. It looked a bit like Minecraft, but on a planet and I said, ‘Aren’t you all excited?’ And no one was because it looked terrible and impossible. But I then just developed that over a year.”

At this point the rest of the team began in earnest creating the game we see today. “A huge amount of the development has been into the tools and systems just to make it possible,” says Grant Duncan, one of the original four founders of Hello Games and art director on No Man’s Sky. “If it was just the play aspect, it wouldn’t have taken nearly so long. So much time has been spent on iteration and the back and forth. I like the word ‘research’; it makes it sound very serious, like we’re scientists. ‘We do important work here!’ But a lot of it has been trial and error as well, and a lot of it has been born out of necessity, the procedural tools, and choosing that path.”

It begs the question: how much of what Murray originally built in that late-night coding session still exists in the game as we’ve seen it today? “I find this really… not depressing, but… after about five months you could look at it and look at it now and go, ‘that looks a bit like No Man’s Sky’,” Murray explains. “Which is a really nice feeling in some ways because there’s some consistency there. You could fly between one planet and another and in fact the first planet you flew to was snowing – and a lot like the one we just showed you in some ways – so there’s a moment of that being really nice. There was some consistency of vision. But there’s also a moment of ‘What on earth have we been doing for the last two years? It was there!’.”

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As we spend the day with Hello Games, this humility surfaces again and again, playing down what the team has achieved. Perhaps it’s born of wanting to make the game feel understandable and less intimidating than its number of planets and deep mathematical foundations might suggest. More likely, it’s a fear that too much hype might end up hurting No Man’s Sky more than anything, but it is extraordinary. We can understand the hesitation to blow their own trumpet, but allow us to strike up the brass band in their honour. No Man’s Sky is monumental.

The ice planet Murray mentioned is a desolate, dangerous place and one of many hostile planets you can find yourself on, dictated by their position in relation to the star they orbit. The planet is so cold in fact that, without shelter, our thermal shield is depleting. Murray explains that the shield can be upgraded, along with various other parts of your suit, as the game progresses, both by crafting new elements as you discover the designs and by trading. More on that soon.

While desolate is the word we used a moment ago to describe this planet, we wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression about how much was there to explore. Creatures still populated this world. There were caverns to delve into (offering some protection from the cold), rare mineral resources that could be converted into fuel and ammo for our equipment. While our own universe appears to be a largely barren place, Hello Games has made a clear decision to make sure every world you find has something of interest.

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“We don’t actually do completely spherical planets in the game; we always have some interest in them because people think the game’s broken if they land on a planet like that,” reveals Murray. “In the real universe you do get completely spherical planets, but not in No Man’s Sky.” Likewise, each planet is relatively uniform in its environment, which has a twofold advantage for the developer. “We could support sub-biomes and stuff like that and have poles that always have ice on them, but we want players to land on a planet and think ‘Right, it’s that planet with the red grass and the dinosaurs’, and not land on the desert part of it and then ignore the planet. And there’s a reason for that; every design decision that we make is held against a thing and that’s ‘Does this encourage people to explore and help people to want to go out?’. And I think that’s what’s different about the game. We’ve built a universe and that’s what it should be about.”

The other advantage, of course, is that it keeps the procedural planet formation a little easier to manage and save. Murray begins our session with the game by working through a series of test planets that shows how the mathematical algorithms at the heart of No Man’s Sky play out world by world. What this means is that we begin on a flat planet, with nothing but a sky and a ground texture. Then we’re on a uniformly bumpy world, formed from a single sine wave equation. The scale is still massive, but it’s very disorientating being surrounded by identical hills as far as the eye can see. Then we warp to a world with several sine waves forming the surface of the planet and now things are beginning to look a little more natural. We’re seeing how the equations that help form these planets on the fly as you discover them will create something interesting and believable.

“You can just about see how it goes up and down and if you look out at the horizon you can sort of see that it just looks like a graph,” Murray interjects. “To me, that’s all I see. Hopefully you’re looking at something that looks like an approximation of hills and stuff, but for me it’s like I’m in some kind of application that allows you to walk around inside a formula. It’s super obvious to me, so I can’t see it any other way.”

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The matrix code of the game falls away even more though on the final world where plants, animals and water are added to the surroundings. Leaping between these worlds (which we should emphasise are scaled like real planets and would take ages to traverse on foot alone) we’re almost seeing a slowed-down version of how each world in No Man’s Sky is formed in a matter of milliseconds as you approach the surface. The game reaches into its grab-bag of elements, puts them through its algorithms and a world is formed before your eyes. Once formed, it’s seeded and saved for all who might return. Even the major changes you might make to the surface of the world (you can use Land Disrupter grenades to mine the planet’s surface with the right upgrades) will remain.

And everything else is built this way too, from the plants to the animals. It’s been an adjustment for the rest of the design team according to Duncan. “Early on in the project, I definitely didn’t like the procedural aspect because I’m so used to having control over everything,” he admits. “I’ve had complete control; I know exactly how it’s going to look. And you just don’t have that with procedural things. It’s like a balance between adding rules to procedural systems to try and influence the results, but if you do that too much you end up taking away what makes procedural useful. You take the magic away because you’re trying to control it too much. That’s been a big learning curve for me, the need to relax a little bit and accept that sometimes you’re going to get results that aren’t exactly how you would have done it.”

“I do it a great disservice when people ask how it’s possible and I say ‘procedural generation’, but I say it as if it’s magic,” adds Murray, waving his hand as he repeats the words, ‘Procedural generation’. “Someone asked yesterday, ‘then presumably it’s all made for you, so do you have anything to do?’. Yes, we’re trying to make three different games. One where you’re on a planet and it’s a survival game and one where you’re in space with combat and another where it’s about joining the two up, fighting over planets and trading between them and all that sort of thing. Apart from just the content, which is procedurally-generated, it’s a huge game.”

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Because ultimately there’s a pretty big difference between random and procedural even if the latter can sometimes feel like the former. Procedural content is crafted. It’s only possible through making the right building blocks and creating the systems that can merge and meld those blocks into something that always makes sense. That’s been the challenge for Hello Games; masses of content creation and refining the code behind the game so that it can keep creating interesting worlds.

“It’s like organised chaos,” is the take of Paul Weir, audio director at Hello Games, who also has the challenge of developing a soundscape for these worlds and creatures that, chances are, he’ll never get to see. “A lot of what we do is within these inherently chaotic systems, but you can contain them and make them meaningful. That’s what you want. You want something to feel purposeful.”

“I guess, with audio as with the art, with the procedural system it’s really easy to make a huge variety of random things,” adds Duncan. “It’s [technically] easy to produce a million different sounds, but to make all of those sounds relevant, to have them make sense in context? It’s the same with the visuals I can make. I can make a thousand creatures, and they can all look a little big ugly, but to get them looking all feeling like they’re real creatures, that’s where the real hard work comes in, the trial and error.”

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Walking along the development floor of Hello Games’ two-storey studio we get to see some of this process unfold. A small art team (about four people) is building the animals you’ll meet piece by piece. They’re using a generator to constantly change their height, length, weight and more and each time you can see it’s kind of the same animal, but also very different, as if the evolutionary path of the species was affected depending on the planet. When you land on a planet, just as the hills, mountains and seas are placed, so the game is asking itself, ‘What animal life could survive here?’ and ‘What sort of characteristics might it exhibit?’. Then it begins applying skins, it gives the animal a voice, which is completely synthesised by Paul Weir’s programs and adapts to the size and variety of creature, and is even given an animation style for how it walks dependent on its skeletal makeup and proportions. You won’t be seeing any speedy mammoths, or at least you probably shouldn’t.

“I almost think of working with the procedural systems like working with a weird collaborator that is a little bit unpredictable but is like a mad genius,” is Duncan’s rather excellent way of looking at it. “Sometimes they do amazing things, and I’m just journeying through the game with them, pumping out bizarre artwork.”

There are a lot of misconceptions still about what No Man’s Sky really is and what procedural generation can do, though. “I think, especially as it’s in a sci-fi setting, people almost assume it’s a game that contains every game,” says Duncan. “A lot of people, they think we’ve created this infinite game generator.” So what is No Man’s Sky when you break it down? What do you actually do?

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It begins on the outer edge of the universe. You have a small ship and limited technology, but your overarching mission is to get to the centre of the universe. What’s there? That’s yet to be revealed, but you can be confident it’s the one spot in the universe where you actually have a fair chance of meeting another player since they’ll be heading there too. So, in the meantime, you journey and you survive. What took us a little by surprise, as we explored a small star system, was how much of a survival game this really is. On extreme hot or cold worlds you’ll need a thermal shield to keep you going, but the rewards might be great. You could even upgrade this feature of your explorer to specialise in resource gathering on the outer worlds of star systems. It’s not unlike Minecraft, in a way, as you’re dropped with little knowledge and little instruction into a procedural world and you need to craft and explore in order to get further and achieve greater things.

Mojang’s Minecraft was in fact a major influence on the team, but not for its gameplay; more as a touchstone for what can be achieved. “It’s great to have Minecraft because you can use it for everything,” Murray tells us. “There are all these rules that people thought existed such as ‘People will only buy Call Of Duty’, and it’s just really nice to say that the best selling game in the world is this. It proves that you don’t need photo-realistic graphics, it proves that you don’t need massive cutscenes, it proves that you can be really creative and innovative and different. You can see people in the industry using it all the time as an example, ‘this disproves loads of the things that you were saying and thinking about gamers and how people play games’.”

And so Hello Games has made a space survival game so vast that getting to the centre of the universe will be a Herculean task, while just meeting another player among so many planets will be such a rare occurrence it will be electric. You’ll search and discover, earning money for everything you find and earning greater riches the rarer the creature (nocturnal animals, for instance, are worth more). You’ll gather resources and craft new gear for yourself and your ship. And you’ll trade, but not necessarily with other players because, as mentioned, they’re not going to be easy to find. We got to take a look at one of the four alien races you’ll interact with in No Man’s Sky and each has its own history, language and lineage you can learn about. Each individual you meet is also procedurally created in terms of their body proportions, clothing and voice so just like in the real world every individual should look pretty unique.

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The monoliths you’ve probably spotted in some images and videos are actually Rosetta Stones for alien speech, giving you single words that will be translated for you the text time to speak. Over time, through finding more monoliths and just having successful conversations, more words will unlock until hopefully one day you might even be fluent in an alien tongue. Of course, these languages will remain consistent so in theory someone could just translate them and post a handy dictionary online sometime after release, but even so it’s a lot of fun. Chatting on the ice world with one alien on a base we could only make out one word, but figured he might want to sell us a gun for some resources. In making the deal we now had a weapon that would allow faster entry to the factory just a little further along, in which we could unlock a new technology to be crafted.

As we shot at the door and then switched to the alternate fire of a laser-cutter (better for mining), sentinels started to take an interest in us and attacked. These small robots float around and defend planets from resource thieves like us, but it can’t be helped. If that journey to the centre is going to happen, we need whatever is behind this door. Acts of theft and space piracy are open to you if you’re ready to face the consequences and we were assured that there are other ways into that factory via stealth if we could have found them, but the sentinels are always watching, even off-planet. Shoot too many cargo ships and you’ll start building a wanted level and just like in GTA, your criminal activity will attract greater and more forceful retribution the longer you persist.

And, of course, the world persists. This is a gigantic universe so large that meeting another player is mathematically going to be a rare and special happening, but it is a shared world. The discoveries you make will affect other players; what they find will affect you. And with it all being made from the building blocks this team has been making for the last three years, you can’t help but appreciate the craftsmanship of it all, allowing some space between different animals, plants and even sounds so that every world sounds unique instead of just a little turn of a dial different to the last, and that’s taken some time and some challenging questions.

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“How do you create a sound that sounds organic and could belong to a creature?” asks Weir. “How do you perform that, and how does that interact with the game mechanics? In designing that whole pipeline, we’ve ended up with a really interesting solution for interactive sound design for computer games. In a way, it’s totally different to what anyone’s ever done. It’s a combination of computer performers and human performers and having that work in real-time in a game. There’s lots of interesting ways we can take the tech from this project… It’s really fascinating.”

So there’s a lot going on with No Man’s Sky. There’s survival to consider, crafting and trade to enjoy. There’s space combat and plenty of it too if you want to get into that. Space stations can be landed on – all procedurally designed, although from a slightly more limited number of base elements as we understand it. And at the centre is something to chase after. But even then, Murray seems a little uncomfortable putting everything on a chase to the middle of the universe.

“I never know if it was a good thing or not to say you have to get to the centre of the universe, because it helps people to understand the game and that’s why we said it – it is an important part of the game – but what I want to scream at people is you’ll just be able to play lots of different ways,” Murray insists. “I’m actually pretty sure when they pick up the controller, a lot of people won’t care about the centre anymore.”

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And when you think about Minecraft, do you think about the Ender Dragon or just living in its world and playing within its boundaries? If the world is rich enough and it offers enough discovery and possibility, you can just exist in the world and enjoy it. You play just to play. As you begin to see just how much there is to find and do in a good gaming universe, that really clicks into place.

In this respect, No Man’s Sky is part of a wave of games that builds on sandbox experiences in a purer form. Murray reflects on another touchstone game as he explains his vision for a new form of triple-A experience. “Red Dead Redemption is a real favourite game of mine,” he tells us. “I used to just go camping and stuff like that and it sounds ridiculous. Most people think there are triple-A games over here and then over there is this niche of PC gamers who enjoy games that are on Twitch and YouTube that none of us really understand. The kind of concept like The Long Dark: ‘Not really sure why anyone plays it, but there’s some kind of niche and they enjoy that and that’s where it will stay’. I think there’s this slow erosion taking place right now that’s happening and people aren’t really noticing. It’s going to come crashing across triple-A, where I am sure we’re going to see Assassin’s Creed having much more sandbox-style play. That’s something that I would be really excited about.”

So what about No Man’s Sky post launch? Having seen what the team has already achieved, it seems churlish to demand more, but the potential for further expansion is so clear and the references to Minecraft hint at future support. “There are things that we don’t find core to the game, but we’ve obviously thought about,” Murray reassures us. “And after the game comes out, once the core is out there and we have people out exploring there are things like that that we can potentially support that would be really fun. What we’re trying to build is the base for the game.”

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And what of hopes for the game and how it will be received? Apart from everyone enjoying and coming to understand what it is that Hello Games has actually made, Duncan has a rather simple yet ambitious hope for the influence this game might have. “I remember reading a study on NASA scientists on what percentage of them had watched Star Trek when they were younger, and it was a ridiculously high stat,” he begins. “My highest ambition is that at some point in the future, I want people, children now, to play No Man’s Sky and be so enthralled by the experience that they make it their mission to go to Mars.

“Basically, I think the human race is pretty doomed on earth right now, and really we need a generation to get us off this planet,” laughs Duncan. “I see it as my mission.”

[Originally printed in games™ 172]

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One Giant Leap - hands on with No Man's Sky