(Almost) No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky might be the biggest (literally) game this summer, but it almost didn’t come to be. Robin Wilde takes us through the weird and wonderful story of this weird and wonderful game.
Guildford, Surrey is not known as a hotbed of thrilling ideas. Situated just outside London and home to 66,000 mostly comfortable suburbanites, it’s most well known for being home to Britain’s ugliest cathedral and long-forgotten band The Stranglers.
But not if you ask the games industry. Behind the ordinary Southern exterior, there’s an engine of creativity that’s lain here for well over a decade, faithfully churning out games you’ve probably heard of.
It was Guildford, for good or ill, that brought the world Peter Molyneux. The world’s greatest salesman, known for promising the earth and delivering a disappointing globe, he made his name back in the early days with Bullfrog Studios, the creators of Theme Park, Populous, and Dungeon Keeper. The recently deceased Lionhead Studios called Guildford home for a long time.
In more recent years, the town has played host to Media Molecule, the brilliant brains behind the enchanting LittleBigPlanet series. EA and Ubisoft have offices there too.
But the stars of the show right now are the charmingly named Hello Games. Founded by four UK industry veterans (and friends) in the long summer of 2008, this tiny developer has suddenly found itself at the centre of the gaming universe.
They’re the studio behind No Man’s Sky, the procedurally generated universe simulator with a planet count in the quintillions, and a fan base shooting up to follow it.
No Man’s Sky is the brainchild of Sean Murray, an Irishman by way of Australia and a childhood Amiga enthusiast, who previously served as a Technical Director at Kuju, the studio behind Singstar, Battalion Wars and House of the Dead: Overkill. That tells us they’re not for employees averse to colour and charm, which certainly holds true for Murray.
The studio’s first game, Joe Danger, was an eye-popping PSN release which saw the titular stuntman take to his bike to clear 50 levels filled with ramps and other obstacles.
The game received positive Metacritic scores, but was nothing compared to the anticipation enjoyed by No Man’s Sky when it debuted at the 2014 Sony E3 conference He told the BBC in 2015:
“Hype is different to excitement. It’s almost scary to a developer. Hype is an unattainable level of excitement. It will always lead to disappointment.”
Murray didn’t have an easy time when hype got too much. In an interview with Polygon in May 2016, he reported receiving death threats after the game was announced to be delayed.
“I have received loads of death threats this week, but don’t worry, Hello Games now looks like the house from Home Alone #pillowfort”
Despite some nastiness, Murray has come out of his latest release with a massively increased profile, and eyes fixed on whatever move the company makes next.
The procedurally generated space simulator is not exactly new. Nor is science fiction – Murray cites Frank Herbert’s Dune among his influences. But – after half an hour hunting for resources to repair your ship during the tutorial before blasting into space – the easiest comparison is with Elite.
Elite was an extraordinary game. Not only did it take place in a vast, algorithmically-generated world back on the BBC Micro, it was the first game to ever use 3D graphics. Black and white, wireframe, incredibly crude 3D graphics, but the achievement still holds.
In late 2014, it received a serious update in the form of Elite: Dangerous, not so much a remake as an entirely new game based on the same ideas. The beautifully-rendered vistas of space played host to a galaxy in which players could fly, fight, trade and steal their way to the titular highest rank.
It’s Elite: Dangerous which has drawn the most comparisons so far with No Man’s Sky, and it’s not hard to see why – even Murray acknowledges the inspiration – but a direct comparison doesn’t hold up entirely. No Man’s Sky is orders of magnitude bigger, for one, with a playable universe of 18 quintillion different planets, all with their own terrain, weather and ecosystems able to be scanned, harvested and explored. It makes Elite’s 400 billion star systems look comparatively tiny, and whatever its merits as a game, it’s technologically jaw-dropping.
In an interview with Engadget, Murray described his inspiration from the game while living in Australia as a child:
“You’re playing Elite and you’re looking up at this incredible sky that you get in Australia at night, and you’re thinking, Surely these two are going to merge, and I’m going to be able to visit these planets in Elite“
The winter of 2013/14 was not a kind one for Guildford. British winters are not harsh – it doesn’t snow so much as it rains. And therein lay the problem.
On Christmas Eve, 2013, an underground car park next door to Hello Games’ offices began to fill with water – and it didn’t stop. When the water burst, it wiped out the studio’s entire office, including all equipment, furniture and existing work.
No Man’s Sky was some way into development, and there’s no denying the cost of rebuilding – particularly given the studio wasn’t covered by their insurance – could have been catastrophic. But the developers soldiered on, and in a new location rebuilt the game – and their office – to what it was before.
If they had taken a different path then – taken some cheaper, quicker jobs to pay the bills and rebuild – No Man’s Sky might still not be out.
Murray developed the engine for No Man’s Sky completely separately from the rest of the team. After about a year, during the development of Joe Danger 2, he expanded out the team to a core group of four, while still covering up what they were doing.
It wasn’t until a teaser at VGX 2013 that the public were shown the scope of Hello Games’ ambitions. Afterwards, interest from press and industry alike rocketed – and suddenly, Joe Danger didn’t seem like the highest priority for anyone.
Though a six-planet demo was developed for E3, it was the procedural aspects which took longest to perfect. With a team in the low dozens rather than a major studio, it’s impressive they had it done so soon.
The procedural generation is based on seeds, with a single number being used to generate the location of stars and their planetary systems. Each of these then generates their own terrain, flora and fauna in turn, as well as the behaviour of its creatures.
Some ideas were played with and never used, such as base building and land vehicles, but these were dropped from the release game – the temptation to feature creep and wanting to encourage players to explore being cited as justification.
No Man’s Sky launched this week to tremendous fanfare and some disquiet. Review code was withheld even to major outlets. The PC port suffered badly from bugs and crashes. Some complained that the game was too repetitive. But whatever it is (watch out for the Cubed Gamers review) it’s been a long time coming – one man’s journey to No Man’s Sky.