No Man’s Sky Hands-On and Talk With Sean Murray

No Man’s Sky has been a gaming enigma since it was revealed at the end of 2013. The procedural universe exploration title — heavily influenced by the likes of Issac Asimov and other science fiction writers — left players with a sense of wonder that few games have ever provided before, but also started a deluge of questions. Will pseudo-randomized procedural generated content get dull after a time? Can this little team pull off something so ambitious? More than two years, and multiple new trailers and showings of the game later, I finally had an opportunity to get my own hands on the game in addition to another chance to talk to Sean Murray and the Hello Games team.

I wrote two separate No Man’s Sky features for E3 2015, one featuring the technical side of how No Man’s Sky actually works, and one focused more on the exploration and gameplay elements. Sean loves to talk about how the game works, so much that he explained where we see terrain, rocks, trees, and creatures, he sees “maths” — the charts, graphs, and data points coming together to form the universe. He led us through a presentation of how altering the algorithm and adding to its complexity deepens the natural feel of each planet.

The Answer Is 42

To shorten it for anyone who may not know, the game is generated using a formula where the player position in the universe is the input, and the things you see around you are the output, with things nearby being generated with high accuracy and detail, fading off to lower accuracy and detail in the distance. The formula pulls assets such as textures and objects, so instead of having the estimated 18 quintillion planets in the game’s file, the area is created when you are present, and thrown out when you leave, but because the solution for the formula is based on the specific value of the coordinates the player is in, the same coordinates will always generate the same things, making the game not inherently random, but rather built by the solutions to what I’m assuming must be a monstrously complex algorithm. 

The brilliance is that nothing is technically loading. There’s no need to load an open world and render out pre-built objects. The formula takes care of all of that, meaning there are no load times in No Man’s Sky. Even as Sean was essentially teleporting around a few different planets — an ability that moves him to new coordinates far faster than players will ever be able to travel — the world generated extremely quickly around him, within less than a second. But all the maths in the world won’t matter if the game isn’t fun to play, so they put a controller in our hands and told us to make our way in this brave new world. 

Your Tauntaun Will Freeze Before You Reach the First Marker

I started out on a snowy planet. I quickly noticed a temperature gauge indicating that I am freezing and would die if I didn’t find shelter soon. The weather effects on different planets will require you to upgrade your suit in different ways to survive, though for the demo I was already outfitted with a thermal shield that helped to slow an icy demise. Down on the d-pad sends out a scan around me to highlight important objects and waypoints. There’s no mini map in No Man’s Sky, so this and my binoculars are the only methods I had to get my bearings. Just over a ridge ahead of me was a building with a landing pad outside and I instinctively made my way towards it. 

No Man's Sky Creatures

Inside the building, I was treated with something that we’ve never seen in No Man’s Sky before now — an alien NPC. This particular being was from a race called the Korvax, one of three distinct races (including the Gek and another as of yet unnamed race) in the universe. Instead of each individual being a unique “character” that you could build an individual relationship with — which would break the feel of the game — NPCs represent their entire race, and your words and actions will affect your standing with them across the universe.

“We were actually trying to make that kind of stuff work,” Sean tells me when I ask him how long there had been NPC characters in the game. “It added a lot to the game, but for a long time it didn’t quite fit, it didn’t quite mesh with the game.”

It’s Alien to Me

The aliens each have a distinct language that you will need to learn in order to better converse and increase your standing with them. Much like the resource gathering, this can be done in a few ways, from talking with NPCs and trying to get them to teach you the dialect, to finding monoliths that reveal translations for some words. 

“It’s actually been things like learning the alien language and them speaking to you in alien, getting that to work well and have a standing with each of the races has kind of made it mesh with the game a lot better,” Sean says as he explains his hesitation with revealing this feature before now.

“For me, what it does is give a sense of scale to the game. Maybe this is just me, but there’s something really nice about being in a space station talking to a guy, and then getting in a ship and flying out and turning around, and now that space station is a little dot in the distance. And in that dot you know that there’s a little window, and there’s a little guy staring out of that window. And it just gives the whole thing scale, right?”

No Man's Sky LandingPad

The alien characters also provide a deeper incentive to explore. Building a relationship with an entire race may help you improve your tech or provide other benefits that will help you in your journey, and while there’s a general goal of reaching the center of the universe, the team stressed that it’s not a game where you will be pushed into any one way of playing or doing things. 

Further Tales of Space Exploration

My continued travels took me to new and exciting locales. Our ships were outfitted with a high end hyper jump drive to help us get around faster during our play session, but even that was prone to running out of fuel. One of the Hello Games team indicated that I could shoot asteroids to harvest the fuel I needed to recharge my jump drive and continue on to the next planet. There’s no tutorial or anything that directly indicates that the player can do that, but Sean shies away from hand holding in games and wants to make the player feel intelligent, while always providing a means of progression in No Man’s Sky.

The next planet I came to was a water covered planet, speckled with islands. I land safely, mine some of the local resources, use my scan to discover new wildlife, and take off again as there is nothing inherently interesting in my immediate vicinity and the clock is running. My next rendezvous point is dismal, a rocky planet devoid of foliage, though it does have a local ecology of wildlife that seem accustomed to the harsh terrain. Here I take out my mining laser and dig into some rocks to collect more resources, things that can be used to upgrade parts of my suit, ship, and weapon, if I have the proper recipe.

The best part of the tech upgrade system is that there is a limited inventory for new tech. You are free to fill out those slots however you want, but you can never reach a kind of god mode status where you are great at everything. You can change out your equipment to customize the way you want to play or the places you want to visit, and that kind of system will go a long way towards making each player’s journey feel unique.

The final planet I got to was in stark contrast to my starting environment. Sandstorms and sweltering heat threatened my survival and after discovering some truly terrifying tyrannosaurus type creatures with long arms, I was forced to dig a cave straight down into the ground using my grenades to escape the extreme heat and end my time playing, but not before one of the local creatures fell into my cave in front of my face and died. 

Planetary Alignments

Planets in No Man’s Sky will take the Star Wars approach, in that each planet has a singular environment. For right now, you aren’t going to be finding anything with icy caps at the poles and sunny beaches on the equator. What will differ for each celestial orb is the day-night cycle, which is achieved through rotation and its literal position to the sun. Day and night will change the ecology, and you may find that predators roam during different hours, or perhaps temperatures drop if you find yourself on the dark side of the planet. 

Sean describes No Man’s Sky as a survival game almost as much, if not more than an exploration game. The challenge is that the rules can change from planet to planet, and tactics for surviving one environment’s weather and wildlife may not suffice for a planet a few systems over. 

Despite my ability to see all of this in such a short time, Sean Murray says that he expects when players start out they will be stuck on their first planet for a few hours while they mine resources and gain the ability to even leave the local system. There will be planets just out of reach that players will not be able to get to with their early technology. Even with as much as I saw and as happy I am that I had a chance to get hands-on with it, I couldn’t help but feel that the session was far too short to really grasp the scale and depth lying beneath the surface.

And before you ask, the entire session was played on a stationary screen, with no mention or hint of No Man’s Sky potentially coming to PlayStation VR. 

From Concept to Reality

Sean’s coy answers to all of my questions toy with the idea of something more at play to learn and figure out. When I asked him about listening to the community ideas in the time leading up to release, he effectively told me that he would not begin analyzing community feedback until there was a completed and released game to have a conversation about. 

“Imagine you were writing a book, but people saw some pages from the book, and got excited about it. And now they’re just shouting at you like ‘Don’t kill that character!’ ‘I think this should happen in the end,’ ‘I think you should do this,’ You’d find if you read that for enough time, you couldn’t write the book anymore. All those voices would be in your head and you’d be like ‘I can’t remember what I was trying to do!” Sean’s analogy effectively drives home the point that he has a clear vision, and he wants to make sure he meets the original vision of the game when it finally releases. 

No Man's Sky Walkers

No Man’s Sky harbors a lot of potential in its final release, and the biggest thing that this play session told me is that it’s impossible to get a real sense of what this game will be until I’ve got the final release in my hands. There’s only so much discovery that can happen in a limited time, especially when you’re trying to hit a few main bullet points about core game mechanics that will likely be spread out over many hours of gameplay in the full game. Some things like the alien NPCs have me excited, and other things have tempered my high expectations, but I’m eager to be able to sit back, play this in my living room, and make a full and fair judgement based on the full experience when the No Man’s Sky release date arrives on June 21st.

I would like to thank Sony and Hello Games for bringing me out to LA to check out the game and talk with the team. Travel and accommodations were provided by Sony.