"No Man's Sky is a game about exploration and survival in an infinite procedurally generated universe," it says on Steam, and setting aside your personal feelings about how successfully that vision was ultimately realized, Hello Games can at least point to the fact that its algorithm did indeed spit out a gazillion planets (for people to grouse about).
More astute analysis of how it all happened can now be found at 3DGameDevBlog, which has posted an in-depth breakdown of No Man's Sky's procedural generation. The report gets bogged down in detail fairly quickly with code snippets and whatnot, and there's a certain amount of guesswork going on as well. But what emerges is a picture of a game that may have fallen short of its pre-release billing, but is nonetheless a remarkable technical accomplishment.
"It is a very elegant and clever procedure because it is very easy for artists to add new content for the procedural generation. And in fact for every new part they add the new number of total combinations is increasing exponentially (if the part will be available in all tree paths)," author, site founder, and lead programmer Greg Waste says, explaining how the game's models avoid coming together in random jumbles of skin and bone.
It's a subject he's in a position to know something about: He's created archive explorers and exporters for FIFA, NBA2K, and Shadow of Mordor, and he's got a few "scientific projects" listed on the page as well, including a gravity simulator, fractal generators, and a "Pokemon Battle Revolution importer." He also created the No Man's Sky model viewer, available at the No Man's Sky Mods site.
"From what I know they got two or three artists working on the models. The mindblowing thing about this generation procedure is that if they had double the number of people working EXCLUSIVELY on that part, the game content (just for the creatures) would be hundreds of times larger. And this fact alone shows me the capabilities and the potential that [the] NMS game engine has."
Similar praise is directed toward texture rendering and animations, although the author said that he hasn't researched animations to the same depth he has the other aspects. He also acknowledged that while No Man's Sky "is a real gem" from a technical perspective, as a game it's undeniably lacking—although he lays its shortcomings squarely at the feet of Sony, who he says quite clearly rushed the release.
"The game that we got is not even close to a finished game, and obviously not even close reaching 80 percent of the capabilities of the underlying game engine. From inspecting the files this is CRYSTAL CLEAR. Its closer to a tech demo than a game. Trying to deliver the same stuff over PC and PS4, simply butchers the game and probably trying to make it work on lower end specs and as high framerates as possible, butchers the game even more," he wrote.
"Personally I’m expecting updates and LOTS of them. I can forgive lots of HG’s mistakes on the game release, overpricing, lack of communication, even the lack of features (like multiplayer, which honestly I don’t give a sh*t about), BUT what I can’t forgive is that, considering that pre-release [was a] pretty messed up and pressured situation, they didn’t at least deliver an overall ingame engine configuration. What modders are doing right now is to dive into the files and try to find ways of making that VERY SAME ENGINE, create richer and more diverse content, and most of the time they succeed on that, simply because it IS capable of delivering way better stuff that it is doing right now."
Even without digging down into the technical side of the analysis, the conclusions are interesting, and I hope the author is correct when he predicts that Hello Games is "sooner or later going to deliver." But ahead of that, as we said last month, Hello Games founder Sean Murray needs to start talking again. The Twitter account has been silent for a month, and the last development update was posted at the beginning of September. It seems clear that there's something here to be salvaged, but the longer Hello Games allows No Man's Sky to look like an abandoned project, the less anyone is going to care about what it's able to do down the road.