No Man’s Sky Treads New Ground In Game Design

Arriving June 2016

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It’s been a big month for one of the biggest game worlds ever planned. No Man’s Sky, the mysterious and long-anticipated space exploration game, has released a trailer, appeared on The Late Show, and set a release date of June 2016 for its huge, untested universe-sized experience. And the more we see, the more questions we have.

For starters: What kind of game is it?

It’s not quite Destiny, nor is it Spore or Star Wars Galaxies. It’s bigger than all of those, and less defined. Hello Games‘ Sean Murray told Stephen Colbert during a recent appearance on The Late Show that, “We’re constantly surprised. We’ll find creatures and things like that that we never knew existed. We’ll find life places we didn’t expect it.”

The release date has started a countdown to the largest scale game in all of history. Sure, there’s precedent for creating an entire universe in, say, seven days–including one for rest–but while Hello Games came to the idea rather quickly, it took time to plan out.

And time it has taken. The game, which was initially announced in late 2013, has been in the shadows for nearly two years. This month’s Colbert appearance was the biggest preview the studio has really given–at least since E3 this past summer.

Here’s a brief look at how it started.

Senior producer Suzy Wallace says it’s been on the drawing board since the early days of the studio. “We were [sitting] around thinking of what would be a good idea for a game and were running through all the dream jobs you have as a kid,” says Wallace. “If you wanted to be a soldier, you’re already pretty well catered for, so that was definitely out. But what about that fantasy that surely every kid has about being an astronaut? Not in the real-world sense of spending months adrift in zero-g and conducting experiments, but rather in the sense of exploring new and unknown worlds, and living out the dream of the adventurers silhouetted on the front of those old 70s sci-fi book covers.”

The problem with creating an entire universe is obviously the shear scale. “When development eventually started,” says Wallace, “we collected together huge piles of reference material, with everything from sci-fi illustrations, through pictures of nature’s weird and wonderful creations, to imagery and information from NASA.”

This was only part of the larger process of defining the limits of the game–and they wanted as few limits as possible. “We wanted as much variety in our game as was in our imaginations. We started out by making our own systems to recreate some of what we’d collected together and then, once we had something working, [we] started to break some of the rules to create more alien worlds.”

Other studios spend years creating single, finite sprawls for other games, so Wallace says that the thought “of creating a near infinite universe should pretty much make a game developer have a nervous breakdown.” However, back in 1984, a game called Elite (a childhood favorite among the team) used a technique called procedural generation to create a number of galaxies, each with their own solar systems to explore.

Wallace says that’s how they decided to go about No Man’s Sky. “Procedural generation,” she says, “means that the system uses an algorithm to create content, rather than having each piece created manually by hand.”

The problem with procedural generation is that it’s often ugly. But No Man’s Sky seems to have been able to work around that with its unprecedented innovation: A system that knows how to alter content to fit the world’s reality. Traditionally, a game relies on blueprints and rules that define terrain, physics (gravity, for instance), light, and all the things that make up an open world. No Man’s Sky has to build a system that randomly selects different criteria for each defining trait, then construct them using an algorithm, and at the same time make them visually appealing.

They seem to have done it though, at least from initial footage. “Our systems enable our artists to create a ‘blueprint’ for what they’re creating,” says Wallace. “That might be defining how light filters through certain gases in the atmosphere to give a sky color, or making a template for how different types of buildings would be placed on the terrain. The artist can then feed in high-quality components and the system will create a huge number of variations from this to create a range that would take months to do manually. “

There have been some complications along the way. The team initially didn’t solicit input from the scientific community. “Although we did reference a lot of papers about scientific topics, such as light scattering,” Wallace says. “And we did talk to a lot of fellow game developers about our idea for the game though and the general consensus seemed to be that we were all mad to try and create something of this scope.”

But once the team released the first trailer, it opened a floodgate for comments from scientists to hardcore fans. “We found our inbox full of contacts from a huge range of people,” Wallace says. “Our first trailer prompted a response from one scientist who was keen to point out that it was incorrect for us to have stated hydrogen dioxide as one of the chemical constituents of the sea [that] the video starts in – we thought we were being clever by including it as the chemical makeup of water but we were quickly corrected.”

So here’s what we do know about game play. It is technically a MMORPG (a massively multiplayer online role-playing game), in that you have the ability to run into other players. Murray told Colbert the possibility of that is low, simply because of the shear scale of the game.

However, your mark will be left on worlds where you are the first visitor, so if you find a new world, you can name it, as well as the creatures on it. Next time someone visits one of the planets from the Colbert segment, they’ll see a Colbison, and a Molbert.

The weapons system is by no means as complex as something like Destiny, but you’ll see a variety of pickups from what you kill and destroy. Space battles, predators on the ground, and resource collecting are all part of the experience, but from everything we gather, the real joy of this game is the endless enormity of explorable territory.

Let’s put this in final perspective. If all 6 billion people get equal shares of planets to explore, we’d each have 3 billion planets to ourselves. If you explored every one of your planets in a minute, it would take you more than five and a half thousand years to see them all.

Like players of No Man’s Sky, the design team is still exploring uncharted territory: an entirely new world with new rules. So until we really get our hands on No Man’s Sky, the game is just as unknown as, well, a randomly generated world.