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Sean Murray isn’t creating just one new world. He’s creating a whole universe of them in his sci-fi game No Man’s Sky, which uses a clever technology to mathematically generate new worlds for players to explore.
This “procedural” technology has been around for a while, but it hasn’t been used on this scale before. And the remarkable thing about it is that it is so efficient at generating random worlds that Hello Games, Murray’s studio in Guildford, England, in the United Kingdom, doesn’t have to have massive data centers to store all the data associated with the worlds. It may sound geeky, but these algorithms will enable Hello Games to create enormous worlds with a team of just 10 people.
That’s important, because Murray doesn’t want to raise a ton of money or create a gigantic team with money from big publishers. He wants to be independent and keep control of his own creation.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Tell us about No Man’s Sky.
Sean Murray: I’ll start by explaining the HUD, which gets to some of the things you do in the game. It has the name of the planet you’re on. It’s procedurally generated. Two people fly down to this same planet, they’ll see the same thing. Everyone’s in the same shared universe. But the universe is really big. You’re not likely to visit the same planet as somebody else.
If you’re the first person on that planet, you’ll be the one who discovered it, but you don’t claim it until you go to a beacon. Then you upload that discovery. You can also name it at that point. Then you’d name it – probably something rude – and the next person who touches down sees the name you gave it instead and sees that you discovered it.
If you make a discovery, you get money for it, what we call units. Money buys bigger ships, better ships, and better weapons than the weapons on the ground. This is your compass here. Here’s your currently selected weapon mode. You have one ship and one weapon that you carry around with you, plus a multitool. You use that for scanning and mining and combat. You can switch between different modes.
The easiest way to explain this here, it’s a bit like Grand Theft Auto. You have a wanted level, so to speak, which you get for causing mischief on a planet. If you start mining too heavily or killing creatures or shooting down ships, attacking traders or police or military in space — all that kind of thing. It’s a little bit like GTA, even though the rest of the game is nothing like GTA.
The planets are planet-sized. I can walk in any direction for days and days, weeks and weeks. Eventually I’ll come all the way back around to where I started. You can see my jet pack, which helps with that.
GamesBeat: Once a planet is discovered and named, does it exist forever like that? You’re creating it procedurally, but once it’s created, is it persistent?
Murray: When you’re standing here, what you see around you is generated around you. If you fly away, it’s thrown away. If you fly back it’s generated again. Everything will always be the same, though. It’s a formula where the input is where you stand and the output is what you see. Since the input is the same, the output is the same.
Based on what we’ve shown so far, the think people have picked up that’s most different about the game is the exploration. That’s one way to play the game. If I explore around and I find some fish and scan them, I can discover them. I can go to a beacon and upload that discovery and get money for that as well. If I find something rare, quite difficult to find, when I upload it at the beacon it’ll be worth more.
GamesBeat: What are those little cubes?
Murray: Kind of like random loot drops. They’ll give me money sometimes or technology. Once I make these discoveries they stay with me forever. This is my galactic Pokedex, so to speak. If I’ve been exploring for days and weeks, that becomes huge. It’s collections of screenshots of every planet I’ve been to, every planet I’ve discovered, the tallest mountain I’ve been on, and the creatures I’ve seen and named. It becomes really meaningful.
That’s one way people can play. Even when you’re an explorer, though, for one, you still need fuel. You still need to survive. Things will attack you in space, like pirate ships. There are also things that can attack you on a planet. Another way to play the game is to be a trader. You could start as a miner and gather resources, like these.
If you look at your weapon, your backpack, and your ship, they all have an inventory. That inventory has chemical elements that I was mining. They appear down at the bottom there. You can craft elements together to create something more valuable. If you’re a trader you might go to two different space stations, gather two different resources at a cheap price, combine them, and sell them at another station that buys the combination at a high price. You might also just gather those resources by flying down to a planet, if you know the right planet to mine them.
We also have technologies that can take up a slot in your inventory. That’s how you upgrade your ship, your suit, and your weapon. If you buy a new ship, suit, or weapon, those technologies are effectively gone and you’ll have to build them again. To build technologies you need a blueprint, which you can find in buildings on planets. If you have enough resources as well, you can build those. Now I’ve upgraded my weapon. I have this plasma grenade I can use.
Over here you can see this trading post. You can see ships landing and flying out into space, ferrying goods back and forth. That’s one of the jobs I could undertake to earn money and buy a better ship, probably a bigger and better cargo ship if I’m a trader. If I’m flying a fighter, I can hang around here and take these guys out. They’ll drop their cargo and I can steal it, but then the police will chase after me. This guy’s decided to attack me first, so I’ll kill him. I don’t feel too bad about that. Now you can see that wanted level go up, because a sentinel is hanging around.
I won’t survive long against most guys right now, but I can upgrade my ship and my suit to survive more battles. Here I’m going to die. Now the discoveries I’ve made, but haven’t uploaded, will be gone, and I’ll lose any resources I’ve gathered.
GamesBeat: Going back to how this is different from an MMO — most MMOs the world are designed in advance and everyone sees the same thing, shares the same space. Is it a lot more efficient for you guys to do this mathematically and not have to store all that stuff?
Murray: We’ve had a lot of people interested from the Chinese market and the Korean market, because we have a lot smaller content size. We have a planet-sized planet generated from practically nothing. You download the executable, put it on your PC or PS4, and it will generate everything that you see. It just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Effectively, our algorithms generate gigabytes of data on the fly when we enter a new solar system.
On the side here, you see a fight breaking out. Some pirates walked in and started attacking a freighter and got wiped out. Those random events just happen. If I swoop in, I can steal the things they’ve dropped. They shouldn’t normally attack me, but they’re in a state of alert because they were just attacked. They don’t know I’m not a pirate too.
Here’s the system I’m currently in. These lines join to systems I can reach from there. Every one of these is its own solar system with its own randomly generated name, but as the game goes on, they’ll get explored and have the names people have given them. They’ll also have much more information underneath that you can pull down from the network – how many hospitable planets are there, how many trading posts and space stations.
GamesBeat: Are you still just three people?
Murray: It’s about 10 of us now. We all flew over for E3. We’re based in Guildford in London, where Media Molecule is. Here in a new system you’ll see different types of freighters, different space stations — both graphically different and functionally different.
GamesBeat: How long have you worked on this?
Murray: We’ve been working about two and a half years.
GamesBeat: What’s most of the work left to do?
Murray: It’s all sorts. The team is very small. Something that’s different compared to — I used to work at EA. A team at EA would work on things in big groups, mostly. No one person had responsibility for one thing. Here we have a team of five or six coders, of which I’m one. At EA, working on Burnout, there would be five or six coders just on the HUD. We all work on everything, but we have our own areas of expertise. We each have a major problem to solve.
GamesBeat: Back to the procedural generation, that means you don’t need 100 artists, right?
Murray: Exactly. That’s a big difference.
GamesBeat: Do you have a target ship date?
Murray: We’re not able to talk about a release date yet. We wanted to announce one, but we can’t. It’s very frustrating.
GamesBeat: Did you get any particular goodness out of Sony?
Murray: Sony have been good to work with, very supportive of the title. Probably the biggest thing is that they put us on stage at E3. That’s a huge boost for us. It opens doors that we couldn’t get through otherwise.
I think one of the best things Sony does is, they don’t get that involved. It sounds strange. Most indies would say that they’re very supportive of indies, but what they mean is that they will allow indies on their platform and then be really hands-off. You expect that a great thing for an indie would be Sony helping upload the build and test it and market it or whatever, but most of the time what you actually want is just a platform who’ll just trust you and make things as easy as possible.
GamesBeat: Did you ever experience, in the past, more interference from a publisher that made you want to go the indie route?
Murray: I was at Criterion, which got bought by EA. As Criterion, we were fiercely independent. We had publishers like Acclaim and EA, but they were never allowed in the building, basically. Criterion just worked on its own games. Most people were totally shielded from it.
After we were bought, it did become more difficult to do something more innovative. A big publisher really comes into its own when it’s doing a sequel, something like that. Doing a new IP is twice as difficult with a large company worrying about it. You just never know. When we first announced No Man’s Sky, there was no way to know whether it would resonate or not. The more people you have involved, the more second-guessing comes about. Are people going to like the name, the style, the content?
This is a very hard game to make with a small team, but it would be even harder to make with a large team – Ubisoft putting 400 people on it or something like that.
GamesBeat: Something like Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Murray: Right. Without a large IP behind it, it would be very difficult. There wouldn’t be as much faith in the tech. We announced, which launched this rocket ship that we’re all in, but the rocket ship wasn’t really built yet. We were still building it as it fired off into space. Even at escape velocity we were still screwing things on. We had to make the game in order to prove it works.
We can’t just build a level for this and demo it. Or we could, but it would be a fake. We could build a single planet and say, “Sorry, you can’t go anywhere else,” but nobody would believe the concept. Every time we show it, we have to have everything working, all the systems. In particular now, handing someone the controller and letting them pick a star and having what they see be different from all the other places everyone else has seen, it’s a difficult thing.
GamesBeat: Even though it’s challenging in a lot of ways, there’s a nice renaissance now for indies.
Murray: Absolutely. In the 8-bit days, or 16-bit, a decision was made to go down a certain route, a more cinematic, filmic route for games. The industry really chased after that. Indies have almost gone back 10 or 15 years to explore the alternate realities that could have existed. That’s what I think about Braid. Braid could have happened 15 years ago. So could Limbo and Retro City Rampage and a whole bunch of other games. They’ve gone back in time to the Amiga or something and said, “What if things had gone this direction?”
For us that’s sort of true as well. This kind of game existed more back then, even on the Amstrad or the C64 – games like Freescape and Elite. It was procedurally generated, a huge open universe. We were using the computer to make things, rather than artists. If you look at Ubisoft working on Assassin’s Creed, there will be 1,000 people working on it, and 90 percent of those are artists, just churning out more and more content.
GamesBeat: On the art style, how far do you have to go to define it before these algorithms take over?
Murray: People think that if you’re randomly generating everything, it’s out of your control, or that everything already exists out there that can possibly be created. That’s not true. You won’t accidentally come across planets that look like Fallout 4. We instill a style into what we’re doing.
Our artists build prototypes. They build silhouettes of creatures, effectively. Then we take those and morph them and texture them. But they make the basics of that. They define what a face looks like and so on, the stance, the animation style. They do the same for trees and grass and everything else.
GamesBeat: This planet here isn’t ultra-realistic. Could you have a planet that looks ultra-realistic, though?
Murray: We could, but No Man’s Sky won’t have that when it releases. We want our style to look a little bit painterly. We want you to take a screenshot and have it look like the cover of a sci-fi book – something out of the ’60s or ‘70s – with the quite saturated colors. The way I picture all those old book covers, you have the desolate landscape, the lone explorer, his crashed ship, and a planet on the horizon. Crazy colors in the sky and on the ground, weird shapes of flora and fauna, but still reminiscent of Earth, still with a touch of how Earth looks. It’s almost like the style of Star Wars or Star Trek, their alien worlds. That’s what we’re going for. That’s sci-fi for us. You won’t come across planets that are photo-real, or that are the standard postapocalyptic wasteland you see in so many video games.
GamesBeat: It seems like a natural for VR. Are you guys looking that way?
Murray: I think it would be a good fit for VR, but we’re a super small team. It could be a killer app for VR, actually. It’s a very futuristic idea.
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