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.
“THE GAME IS SUCH THAT UNLESS WE FAKE IT, IT WILL NEVER STAND UP TO THE STANDARD FIVEMINUTE HANDS-ON”
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
HAVE YOU DONE? THERE’S A MOUNTAIN RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CAVE’”
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
“I WOULD LIKE PEOPLE TO REACH THE CENTRE OF THE GALAXY AND FEEL LIKE THEY COULD PUT
DOWN THE PAD”
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
“WHEN SOMETHING LOOKS SUPERAWESOME, THAT NORMALLY WINS, TOO, SCIENTIFIC
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
“SOME PEOPLE WILL BE DISAPPOINTED IT’S NOT HALO. WE CAN’T ASSURE YOU IT IS DEFINITELY ALL GOING TO BE OK”
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?”