Maths Ef­fect

How Hello Games is build­ing an in­fi­nite uni­verse on pro­ce­dural foun­da­tions for the as­ton­ish­ing No Man’s Sky


Ex­plor­ing the pro­ce­dural fron­tier in Hello Games’ au­da­cious PS4 and PC project, No Man’s Sky

As we take our first steps on the sur­face of Oria V, out of the cor­ner of our eye we catch Hello Games’ Sean Mur­ray fid­get­ing anx­iously. We ig­nore him and fo­cus back on the screen. Fire­flies are float­ing lazily in the air, the only signs of life in the cave we’re ex­plor­ing as we weave our way – need­lessly, it turns out; the col­li­sion is switched off – be­tween clus­ters of sta­lag­mites. We fire up our scan­ner with a jab of Square, emit­ting a loud sig­nal that fizzes out­wards, high­light­ing any nearby re­sources. With noth­ing par­tic­u­lar of use in the im­me­di­ate vicin­ity, we ad­vance, emerg­ing into a world of daz­zling colour.

Be­neath the light of a lime-green sky, we make our way slowly through the bright orange grass, brush­ing past blue­fronded ferns, and look­ing up at palm trees with crim­son leaves. It’s fa­mil­iar ground in one sense: this is, after all, where the game’s E3 demo be­gan. But there are none of the di­nosaurs, rhi­nos or deer you saw on­stage. We’re tak­ing a de­tour, strid­ing forth in a new di­rec­tion. “You are lit­er­ally the first to come here,” says pro­gram­mer David Ream. Not the first out­side Hello Games; the first ever. This is un­charted ter­ri­tory.


Dur­ing his time on­stage at Sony’s con­fer­ence, Mur­ray ac­tively in­vited play­ers “to help us dis­cover a lit­tle bit more” about No Man’s Sky’s bound­less uni­verse, but it’s clear he’s not en­tirely com­fort­able with our de­sire to press on. This isn’t the kind of man­u­fac­tured demon­stra­tion we’ve grown ac­cus­tomed to, be­cause the de­vel­oper isn’t con­trol­ling what we’re see­ing, be­yond turn­ing the min­imap off (“It’s a bit ugly right now”) and equip­ping us with a jet­pack that we wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily have earned at this stage of the game. We press X on the DualShock 4 and hear a gen­tle hiss as we’re lifted up to higher ground. We find a shal­low stream, but there are no fish un­der­wa­ter. We’re quite happy just spend­ing some time in a world that feels at once fa­mil­iar yet won­der­fully alien, but it’s clear this isn’t enough for Mur­ray. He wants us to see deer, a build­ing, some re­sources to mine. “It’s not as ready as I want it to be,” he mut­ters. Even­tu­ally, re­luc­tantly, we hand back the con­troller.

No Man’s Sky is, quite ev­i­dently, a dif­fi­cult game to demon­strate. “Ul­ti­mately, the game is such that un­less we fake it, it will never stand up to the stan­dard Gamescom five-minute hands-on,” Mur­ray ad­mits. “We’ve been try­ing to ex­plain this to Sony, that some peo­ple would have a very bor­ing ex­pe­ri­ence some­times. Yes, I would love it if you could walk around for five min­utes and it knew when the demo was go­ing to end and this amaz­ing beast sud­denly jumped out of the woods. But you would in­stantly know it was a fake, so that would also just make you wor­ried about the game. Ul­ti­mately, peo­ple will just have to wait.”

The game has changed sig­nif­i­cantly since its de­but at the VGX 2013 awards, but not in the ways that a game would tra­di­tion­ally evolve dur­ing a stan­dard devel­op­ment process. For its E3

demon­stra­tion, Hello Games didn’t have to just build a new level, but an en­tirely new uni­verse. “What we showed at the VGX was like a pro­to­type,” Mur­ray ex­plains. “You could fly around and have some fun in it, but it wasn’t nearly as deep or in­ter­est­ing as the uni­verse we have now. And the one we have now, and why I hated giv­ing you the con­troller, is not nearly as deep or in­ter­est­ing as the one we will ship with.”

“We’ve talked a bit about a seed value that we can gen­er­ate ev­ery­thing else in the uni­verse from,” pro­gram­mer

Hazel McKen­drick says, “but ac­tu­ally we’ll change the rules a bit. We’ll change some tech, and then, when we start again with the seed value, we’ll cre­ate a com­pletely dif­fer­ent uni­verse that uses our new rules, new tech, new crea­ture AI and things like that. And the uni­verse will change fun­da­men­tally. So the one we have now is fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent and more in­ter­est­ing and more var­ied than the one we showed at VGX.”

It’s a uni­verse un­der­pinned by a se­ries of math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­lae whose out­puts will be the same each time. This al­lows Hello Games to build a world that is en­tirely con­sis­tent, but which doesn’t have to be kept in mem­ory. Once you fly away from a planet, that in­for­ma­tion is cast aside, but fly back to the same spot and noth­ing will have changed, even down to the tini­est clus­ter of rocks by your feet.

From a devel­op­ment per­spec­tive, this al­lows Hello Games to make in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments that ap­ply uni­ver­sally. It can be dif­fi­cult to con­trol, how­ever, par­tic­u­larly since each of the devel­op­ment team is work­ing on a dif­fer­ent uni­verse at the same time. “I can be work­ing on my

ma­chine and in­tro­duc­ing a type of tree and say­ing, for ex­am­ple, this tree grows on slopes,” says artist Grant Dun­can. “And I set the an­gles [of slope that] it grows on and the di­rec­tion the sun has to be for it to grow, and I can then check that in. But, ob­vi­ously, if I haven’t checked my ma­chine to get an idea of how that might look in dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments, ev­ery­one will sud­denly have all these trees on dif­fer­ent plan­ets.”

“That is the most com­mon thing that you do: ac­ci­den­tally swamp­ing the en­tire world with some­thing, like an en­tire sur­face of a planet that is just solid trees,” says Mur­ray.

This caused a num­ber of prob­lems in the build-up to E3, Ream re­calls. “‘Sean! What have you done? There’s a moun­tain right in the mid­dle of the cave!’”

“That did hap­pen quite a lot,” Mur­ray ad­mits sheep­ishly.

At the same time, these pro­ce­dural foun­da­tions have made pos­si­ble what would be an un­fea­si­ble task by hand. We’re given a rare be­hind-the-scenes look at the tools that al­low this to work, with a tree used as the first ex­am­ple. “Nor­mally, if you were work­ing on Far

Cry, say, you would cre­ate maybe ten dif­fer­ent tree mod­els,” says Mur­ray. “You’d copy-paste it a load of times and



that would cre­ate the Far Cry for­est, and they would look bet­ter than ours, prob­a­bly – far more de­tailed.”

Mur­ray likens Hello Games’ ap­proach to an MMOG char­ac­ter cre­ation tool, which al­lows you to pick from a se­ries of pro­to­types or ad­just slid­ers to make vis­ual ad­just­ments. “We have that, but we have it for ev­ery prop. And we have what we call a gram­mar that de­scribes this. For a tree, it’s quite sim­ple: it’s got leaves at the top and a trunk, and the branches al­ways split in two. And this sys­tem cre­ates dif­fer­ent gram­mars for dif­fer­ent things.”

With a sin­gle click, Ream brings up about 20 dif­fer­ent vari­ants of the pro­to­type tree. An­other click re­veals as many again. Each still re­sem­bles a palm tree, but each is dif­fer­ent in colour and de­sign, from their leaves to the bend on the trunk. In other words, Hello Games needs only cre­ate one tree to po­ten­tially gen­er­ate an in­fi­nite va­ri­ety of the same. “We can cre­ate a for­est [where] ev­ery tree is slightly dif­fer­ent,” Mur­ray adds. “But we can also cre­ate thou­sands and thou­sands of forests that are each unique. And we won’t cre­ate just one tree as a pro­to­type, we will cre­ate hun­dreds.”

The same ap­plies to ships, crea­tures and ev­ery­thing else that pop­u­lates this un­fath­omably vast uni­verse. To check that all the changes are work­ing, Hello Games has built a sys­tem that sends out AI probe droids across the uni­verse. Each of these vis­its plan­ets to cre­ate an­i­mated GIFs of their sur­round­ings, which the de­vel­op­ers will then view on the main server to make sure all is go­ing to plan, and to look out for any un­pre­dictable con­se­quences of the ad­just­ments they’ve made to the al­go­rithms.

Hov­er­ing above a sec­ond planet, So­leth Prime, we spot some small is­lands float­ing above the sur­face, an ad­di­tion made be­tween the VGX build and the cur­rent ver­sion. You can land on them, of course. “We’re con­tin­u­ally im­prov­ing the uni­verse and mak­ing it more di­verse,” says Mur­ray. “We start out by cov­er­ing the ba­sics – so at one point I put in ero­sion and vol­canic for­ma­tions and glacial for­ma­tions and things like that – and now I’m onto more weird and crazy for­ma­tions. That’s a di­rec­tion Grant pushes me in more to just do things that are unique and in­ter­est­ing. You’re work­ing back­wards from the kinds of things that are in sci-fi art and think­ing, ‘How would that oc­cur?’ So now I’m do­ing what I’d re­fer to as ‘heav­ier mu­ta­tions’, more alien things. It’s hard to de­scribe, be­cause you don’t ac­tu­ally make a sys­tem to make float­ing is­lands, you make a sys­tem to make [their ex­is­tence] pos­si­ble.”

Part of that en­vi­ron­men­tal di­ver­sity comes from us­ing an al­ter­na­tive pe­ri­odic ta­ble, though this cre­ated fric­tion. Mur­ray fought at first to keep the el­e­ments the same as the real world, but even­tu­ally gave in when the im­pli­ca­tions for



game­play ended up lim­it­ing the game’s scope. This ties di­rectly into the game’s use of re­sources, which are used to im­prove your avatar’s suit and your weapon, and can be traded at space sta­tions to earn money to up­grade your craft, or buy a new one (per­haps with an in­creased cargo ca­pac­ity to trans­port larger num­bers of re­sources). Even the most bar­ren planet can be a lit­eral gold mine, Mur­ray says, though you’ll only find rarer, more valu­able ma­te­ri­als as you get closer to the cen­tre of the galaxy. “You can com­bine dif­fer­ent re­sources,” he says, “but a planet gen­er­ally only has one type, so to max­imise your [profit] as a trader, you might visit a few dif­fer­ent plan­ets, then com­bine [re­sources], then go to a space sta­tion and sell it. And that is based on this pe­ri­odic ta­ble that we won’t tell you any­thing about.”

That ‘show, don’t tell’ ap­proach ex­tends to the game’s lore. Hello Games has a nar­ra­tive writ­ten down on pa­per, with a rea­son for the player’s pres­ence and their ac­tiv­i­ties, and de­tails of var­i­ous races that pre­ceded you. There will be an an­tag­o­nist of sorts – some­thing Mur­ray terms a “malev­o­lent force”. And there will be a com­pelling rea­son to head to­wards the cen­tre of the galaxy, as well as an end­ing that Mur­ray sug­gests will pro­vide the player with a sense of clo­sure. “I would like peo­ple to reach the cen­tre of the galaxy and feel like they could put down the pad, that they had com­pleted the game. Be­cause it both­ers me with games that go on for­ever. In an ideal world, at that point, others would feel like con­tin­u­ing to play and we will give them a rea­son to do that.”

You shouldn’t, how­ever, ex­pect cutscenes, dia­logue or even much text within the game, out­side the bare min­i­mum for the UI, and de­tails of the flora and fauna you’ve dis­cov­ered. The

nar­ra­tive back­ground, says Mur­ray, is a means for Hello Games to build a con­sis­tent world, and for ev­ery­thing within it to have a log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for its pres­ence. “When you find, say, a build­ing,” he adds, “we’ll have had dis­cus­sions about why that type of build­ing is there, the type of architecture, what kind of ma­te­ri­als it’s con­structed from. We fully ex­pect when the game re­leases that no one will pick up on it, or make any sense of it, but hope­fully they won’t think the op­po­site, which is that it’s a mish­mash of styles. Even things like see­ing cer­tain in­signia on ships and then again on build­ings, and also some el­e­ments of that be­ing in the UI when you in­ter­act with those things, is nice. I don’t re­ally feel the need as a player to know ev­ery­thing about that; it just feels a bit more like this uni­verse is a real place.”

As such, you won’t see any check­lists of ob­jec­tives or UI pop­ups. You won’t be told your moral­ity has shifted, or that you have de­stroyed four out of six freighters and earned a ship up­grade. “Ex­actly!” laughs Mur­ray. “But we laugh about that, and yet that’s what nor­mally hap­pens. Even in Bat­tle­field 4, where you’re in this in­cred­i­ble sim­u­la­tion of war. The au­dio in that [game] is just amaz­ing and it feels re­ally real. And then you shoot some­body and you get like a combo or what­ever and it pops up. So [in No Man’s Sky] you won’t get a mes­sage say­ing that there is a bounty on this per­son, go and at­tack them, find them in this area. That’s some­thing we want to avoid. It’s not like I hate those games – there’s just enough peo­ple do­ing it that we don’t need to.”

With no ex­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tors and lit­tle by way of tra­di­tional di­rec­tion,

Hello Games is hop­ing that your nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity – and the rich­ness of the worlds pre­sented – will be enough to keep you in­ter­ested. While Mur­ray in­sists that the stu­dio’s com­mit­ment to the plau­si­bil­ity of its uni­verse will never get in the way of how the game plays (“When some­thing looks su­per-awe­some, that nor­mally wins, too, sci­en­tific or not,” says Ream), No

Man’s Sky is a game that dares to ra­tion out its big­gest mo­ments. The ma­jor­ity of plan­ets will be empty and un­in­hab­it­able, and the chances of you find­ing several new species, as seen in the E3 demo, in one place are slim. It’s a fine bal­ance that the stu­dio is clearly ag­o­nis­ing over, its de­sire to not de­mor­alise play­ers in con­stant fric­tion with its hope to am­plify the sense of dis­cov­ery when some­thing sig­nif­i­cant hap­pens, such as your first sight­ing of a di­nosaur.

“This is some­thing that’s been on my mind a lot,” says Mur­ray. “Es­pe­cially since E3, now that we have a lot of in­ter­est. If the main­stream gamer plays our game, which is some­thing I didn’t re­ally ex­pect that they would, will they be at a bit of a loss? Maybe they’re not quite as jaded with Call Of Duty as you or I might be, or don’t find it quite as pre­dictable. I mean, I would per­son­ally love to see Call Of Duty with more empty cor­ri­dors and ten­sion build­ing, and that could make it amaz­ing, but maybe other peo­ple don’t think that.” Yet the suc­cess of the likes of

Minecraft and DayZ give him hope that pub­lish­ers do in­deed play it safe too of­ten, and that the av­er­age player is far smarter and more open to new ideas than per­haps the in­dus­try gives them



credit for. “Yes, there will be some peo­ple who pick up a pad or a mouse and key­board and start out on a planet that is rea­son­ably bor­ing and not much hap­pens on, and they may be to­tally at a loss. But I think for the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple it’ll be in­ter­est­ing. It’ll be a bit of a cul­ture shock, but it will ac­tu­ally be in­ter­est­ing.”

Early playtests have yielded promis­ing re­sults that seem to back up Mur­ray’s the­ory. Play­ers will, he says, nat­u­rally ad­just their mind­set when they’re not given ex­plicit in­struc­tions, and in­stead at­tempt to test the bound­aries of the world. They will fly into space and land on an­other planet, or pull low above the sur­face and climb out in mid-air, be­fore re­turn­ing to the cock­pit and fly­ing around some more. “They will al­most try to break the game, and then find, hope­fully, that it doesn’t break and it’s quite a nice feel­ing of child­ish ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Which is how I felt first play­ing Minecraft – there’s an awe­some mo­ment where you first dig into the ground and find some cav­erns. Ev­ery­one has that and you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s real!’ That was some­thing I hadn’t had that much in games since I was play­ing on my Am­strad or Amiga, where games were of­ten much more open and just left it to the player to fig­ure out how the health sys­tem worked or how just even how to progress.”

Yet for all the loose­ness of No Man’s Sky’s struc­ture, the space it gives you to ex­per­i­ment, im­me­di­acy is key when it comes to core in­ter­ac­tions in its uni­verse. You won’t have to wit­ness a la­bo­ri­ous an­i­ma­tion when climb­ing into and out of your ship; press Tri­an­gle and you’ll en­ter and exit the cock­pit al­most in­stantly. And while the jud­der­ing whine of the en­gines, the noisy rumble as you de­ploy the land­ing gear, and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing screen shake might at­tempt to con­vince you oth­er­wise, land­ing your craft is a sim­ple, straight­for­ward af­fair. Space com­bat, too, has a sim­i­larly ar­cade-like ac­ces­si­bil­ity. It might not be en­tirely au­then­tic, but em­pow­er­ment is the aim.

“We want to get you go­ing on that jour­ney as quickly as pos­si­ble,” says Ream. “We don’t want to mess around with the in­tri­ca­cies of get­ting into a ship or how long it takes to fly out of an at­mos­phere. It’s more: ‘Wow! Now I’m in space! That is cool!’ The im­por­tant fun bits are the bits we want to stretch out and high­light.”

“Some­thing that I think peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily get or ex­pect is that ul­ti­mately we are try­ing to make a fun game!” adds Mur­ray. “It should take hours to get [be­tween plan­ets] at re­al­is­tic speeds, but that would be mo­not­o­nous. It is ex­cit­ing to have this uni­verse where you can see some­thing and just go there. At E3, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist said, ‘Oh, I get it now – it’s a Han Solo sim­u­la­tor’, and that is what we want. Han doesn’t sit there for ages like you would in Elite, wait­ing ten min­utes while The Blue Danube [waltz] plays as this dot slowly be­comes a cir­cle. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the fun of ex­plo­ration, like if we all had space­ships right now and we could get in them and just fly off across the uni­verse. We want that feel­ing.”

Hello Games’ big­gest chal­lenge now may be know­ing where to draw the line, and not just in terms of what it’s pre­pared to give away, but how the game it­self de­vel­ops. Mur­ray has said that when No

Man’s Sky is re­leased, not ev­ery­thing it


hopes to in­clude in the longterm will be pos­si­ble, but dis­misses the idea that this will be any­thing like Early Ac­cess. “A lot of the fun of mak­ing games for me is the craft of it, and we’ve al­ways had this set of… it’s not that we have Nin­ten­doesque val­ues, it’s [more] like we as­pire to Nin­tendo val­ues. So the idea of re­leas­ing some­thing that’s half-bro­ken or halffin­ished does not ap­peal to me at all.”

This isn’t an ex­am­ple of that dreaded term ‘games as a ser­vice’ (“That phrase scares the life out of me!” laughs Mur­ray), but some­thing more like after-sales care. “Games like Minecraft, DayZ, Star­bound and Ter­raria have shown this new way of mak­ing games where there is a core ex­pe­ri­ence that is bril­liant and is fun, but ev­ery up­date brings some­thing new.”

In other words, the No Man’s Sky you’ll play at launch will be quite dif­fer­ent to the ex­pe­ri­ence you’ll have planet hop­ping a year later. And while Hello Games doesn’t want to change too much about the core game, it isn’t short of ideas about how it might de­velop. For ex­am­ple, in the game there are al­ready grenade-like plasma balls, and your weapon – a util­i­tar­ian mul­ti­tool, which, like much of No Man’s Sky’s tech­nol­ogy, has a won­der­fully retro-fu­tur­is­tic look – will al­low you to “blow holes in things”, but Mur­ray and Ream hint at more ex­ten­sive ter­rain de­for­ma­tion, ground ve­hi­cles, and a more tra­di­tional mul­ti­player mode to come later.

The stu­dio is cer­tainly not shy of ideas, then, and in­deed Mur­ray sug­gests that there are so many that could be ap­plied to the core of the game that it’s dif­fi­cult to know where to stop. “There are con­tin­ual ideas that we have to put in a box and not touch right now,” he says. “We’re this small team al­ready mak­ing an im­pos­si­ble game. Hope­fully, if the game is a suc­cess, we’ll go and open that box a lit­tle bit and dip into it. That is more ap­peal­ing to me right now than mov­ing on to an­other game – to take this game and to fully ex­plore it.”

It’s hard to imag­ine that Hello Games’ ideas chest will re­main sealed, be­cause this is a uni­verse that pos­i­tively in­vites ex­plo­ration. For some play­ers, No Man’s

Sky will in­deed be that Han Solo sim­u­la­tor, but others can in­stead adopt the role of in­ter­stel­lar At­ten­bor­ough, doc­u­ment­ing rare crea­tures, which can be viewed in an in-game en­cy­clopae­dia once up­loaded. Both ap­proaches will be equally valid. Play­ers will have the free­dom to hap­pily tinker about at the fringes of the galaxy, even as others are sub­tly en­cour­aged to­wards the cen­tre. “We’re not mak­ing Pro­teus in space,” says Mur­ray, be­fore in­stantly ad­mit­ting that for some play­ers it will be a sim­i­larly am­bi­ent, even med­i­ta­tive, ex­pe­ri­ence. “Some peo­ple will be dis­ap­pointed that it’s not Halo,” he says. “We can’t as­sure you that it is def­i­nitely all go­ing to be OK. We can’t [guar­an­tee] that you, as some­body who maybe plays only FIFA and Call Of Duty, are go­ing to like it. But isn’t it good that it ex­ists?”

You are equipped with the equiv­a­lent of a whis­tle to call your ship over, though your ves­sel needs to be close by for it to work

FROM TOP Hello Games man­ag­ing direc­tor Sean Mur­ray; cre­ative direc­tor David Ream

Points of in­ter­est will be marked on your min­imap, such as re­source-rich ar­eas and land­marks that you or other play­ers have up­loaded. Each ob­ject is marked in a sim­i­lar fash­ion, though, pre­serv­ing the sense of mys­tery – you won’t know what a way­point de­notes un­til you get there

After a while, the wear and tear on your craft is clearly vis­i­ble. Hello Games is hop­ing some will form an emo­tional at­tach­ment to their beaten-up old ships

RIGHT Your sta­tus and af­fil­i­a­tion de­ter­mine whether or not you can call on AI wing­men with PS4’s D-pad.

BE­LOW RIGHT Fly­ing beasts are just one of around a dozen crea­ture types, each of which has an end­less num­ber of vari­ants

FROM TOP Hello Games’ sole artist, Grant Dun­can; pro­gram­mer Hazel McKen­drick

Suit up­grades will al­low you to breathe un­der­wa­ter for longer, or sur­vive in toxic en­vi­ron­ments. Cer­tain types of aquatic life­form may present more press­ing con­cerns, though

cap­tion num­ber one please cap­tion num­ber one please cap­tion num­ber one please cap­tion num­ber one please cap­tion num­ber one please cap­tion num­ber one please cap­tion num­ber one please If you’re not the most ac­cu­rate shooter – and you’re equipped for it – a gen­er­ous tar­get­ing sys­tem only re­quires you to point your nose near a bogey to loose off a mis­sile or two

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