They are calling it the indie mega-release. The biggest project any indie game developer has ever dared undertake and successfully complete with great appraisal. Yes, I am talking about No Man's Sky, the sci-fi space exploration game that was released to Microsoft Windows and PlayStation 4 this month, not to mention with record-breaking reception from gamers across the world. Offering over 18 quintillion planets to explore across a near-infinite universe that would take the average player 584 billion years to explore, No Man's Sky is a meticulously crafted procedurally generated title with breathtaking visuals, adrenaline-pumping combat and over-the-top surprises that await an astronaut who takes up the impossible job of discovering the entire universe. Thanks to my friend Jake Jones at Sony America, I was able to gain an hour of time from Mr. Murray's busy schedule, which he took to diligently describe what players should be going looking for as they explore the world of No Man's Sky:
Me: Hi Sean. It's a pleasure to be talking to you.
Sean Murray: Hello! Really nice to sort of meet
Me: I cannot begin to tell you how hyped up we all have been about this wonderful game that you guys have built!
Louise Murray: Awww - thank you. Today is a pretty crazy day - I'm feeling pretty fragile, sort of terrifying to see it out there in the world.
Me: I am sure it will do great. From what I've played so far, it seems amazing. I just wanted to have a tête -a-tête with you before I formally began my journey into the game. I may want to quote some of this conversation in my article on HuffPo.
Sean Murray: Sure - of course. By the way - Aram said you wanted to do text chat like this, but please shout if talking on the phone would be easier
Me: Text chat is usually more comfortable, easier to quote and all. So, my first question... We have had space exploration games before. Starbound and EVE online have been experimenting in this genre for quite a while. But never in this scale. It is said that it would take an average player 6 billion years to discover the whole game world. How did you build something this big?
Sean Murray: Well - its actually much bigger than that. If a new planet was discovered every second, it would take 584 billion years for them all to be discovered. But you are talking to someone who is sat watching the servers right now... We're at 1 million discoveries being made an hour and its increasing. So for instance, in the next hour, there will have been more species of creatures discovered in No Man's Sky... than currently have been discovered on earth. We'll pass that 9 million mark, at the current rate, in the next hour or two. Which is pretty insane
Me: Insane is an understatement, really.
Sean Murray: But that wasn't your question! sorry! I'm rambling
Me: Well, it is always great to know more.
Sean Murray: How did we create something so big? So really, normally everything is hand built by an artist - everything you see in a game, every tree in a forest is placed by hand, every tree is made painstakingly... and its sort of more like a film set really - a playable area, surrounded by a sky box.
For No Man's Sky - we were this tiny team and we wanted you to feel like you were discovering things for real - going to places that in a very real way, no one had been to before. So we are teaching the computer, or the PS4, some rules, rules about rivers and mountains and rocks and trees and creatures. And we're then allowing the computer to generate everything you see in the game. I isn't loading from disk, it isn't pulled down off the cloud. Its generated by maths when you visit somewhere and its thrown away as soon as you leave. If you fly back to the planet it will all be regenerated exactly the same again - because its just some maths. The input is where you are stood, and the output is what you see.
Me: Normally, when we say procedurally generated, we mean that a new map will be created for every player every time they start a new game, but in an online world, all maps must coincide. How does that work here actually?
Sean Murray: So - for us, everybody is playing in the same universe with the same seed. If two people fly to the same planet, the input to the algorithm is the same - their position - and so the output is the same - everything they are seeing. If you see a tree stood alone on a mountain, and another player goes to the same place, they'll see the same thing...
Sorry - this probably isn't making any sense!
Me: No, it is actually. So the algorithm remains constant for all players instead of refreshing every time.
Sean Murray: Right. The maths, the code, the algorithm never change. They create the entire universe. We could re-run that, and we would get a new universe. If we were to talk about it in those terms - it being like the map in a normal proc gen game, the map is the universe - not just one planet.
Me:In such a huge world with so many things to explore, how do you avoid awkward glitches, say an arctic polar bear roaming a desert? Is the algorithm that flawless?
Sean Murray: No - no its not! There is always the potential for weirdness, but that for me is part of the charm. In fact - people right now on streams seem to be most excited by the most strange things they find, and there's something quite sci-fi about that experience - about weird, wild and vibrant discoveries. However - we always say its procedural, and not random. So we apply rules - we try to have creatures match their climates. Its not just random.
But we can't test every possible thing - we try - we have a set of bots that go out and explore the universe for us, and post back pictures to a server. So we can try to see if anything has gone "wrong". But some of my favorite things are the mistakes we purposefully left in there, the weird emergent things - oddball creatures in the water, who look like they should never we able to swim - trying their best to do so.
Me: Sounds really cool.
Sean Murray: its fun for sure, and different too. Its certainly a very weird game, made in a very different way.
Me: Let's talk gameplay. From what I've seen, there is combat, resource gathering, trading, crafting and exploration. Which of these would you say plays a primary part? Or is it more of a choose your own adventure?
Sean Murray: Interesting question! I would say, I want people to have a mixture of all of those things. But really - we want people to play the way they enjoy. Its a sandbox - like Minecraft, like Don't Starve, like Stranded Deep. There is a draw - which is to reach the center of the universe - for some people that's the goal. But for lots of others - its about becoming a rich trader or a space pirate.
Me: The game is so huge that the possibility of players meeting each other is minimal. Why did you decide to make online a feature?
Sean Murray: Well - you are right - this isn't really a multiplayer experience. We've spread people as far apart as we can because we want them to explore, to see as much of the universe as they can. Sci-fi is that for me, creating your own story, out on the edge of known space.
But! We want certain Easter egg moments out there, and a feeling, an awareness of playing with other people. So we've tried to make sure that's there - so some of those moments will happen.
Me: What kind of interactions can players have with each other? Is there trade, combat?
Sean Murray: In future - we may try to nurture that more core multiplayer experience through updates and things, but at launch - we have some surprises for people, but it's not what people should be going in looking for. In other words - we don't talk about it - don't go in expecting it, and if you have a cool moment, or someone does - then awesome!
Me: Does every planet have life? Or just some?
Sean Murray: Not every planet has life. Normally just ones in the "goldilocks" zone.
Have you ever heard of the Fermi paradox?
Me: Yes. How does that apply here, exactly?
Sean Murray: I think people are going to experience that in a very real way - even with millions of players playing for hundreds of hours, even in just one galaxy - its quite possible you would never visit a planet another player had been to. It's kind of melancholy, but also sort of great.
Sean Murray: Do you have any remaining questions?
Me: Think I've got everything for now. Really nice to talk to you.
Sean Murray: Nice talking to you as well. Have a great day!
Me: And thanks for making such a great game.
Sean Murray: Thanks Harold, have a good day!
When you see a small, independent team of developers venturing into territory not even the big guns of the industry have dared step into, and do such a marvelous job of it, you have to give them credit! Stay tuned for my complete review of No Man's Sky on the Huffington Post.