Written by Mikel Reparaz
Since the latest demo reel for No Man's Sky was highlighted during Sony's E3 press conference, I've heard lots of talk about it on the show floor. Talk like "What is it, anyway?" and "It looks awesome, but what do you do? Do you just fly around and look at things? How is that fun?"
After seeing a little bit of No Man's Sky in action and chatting up the developers at Hello Games (previously of Joe Danger fame), I can answer some of those questions. I can't say if the game is fun, but it certainly sounds that way.
Described by Hello's managing director, Sean Murray, as a "Han Solo simulator," it'll start you out on a little planet around the edge of its procedurally generated galaxy. Things on the galactic edge are easier, but maybe less interesting and/or lucrative. You can stick around and explore, scanning for useful materials and mining them for cash, or you can jump into your "life pod," a small starter spacecraft that can't venture beyond your current solar system, and start visiting other planets.
If you want to be a soldier, says Murray, you can take your life pod to a spaceport, buy a sturdier weaponized spaceship, and start hunting for enemies or protecting friendly ships, all with the goal of eventually becoming an unstoppable interstellar warrior. If you want to make money more quickly, you can start mining materials and selling them, eventually buying your own freighter to truck them across the cosmos. Or you can spend your time exploring and cataloging new species. The plan is to make it as free-form as possible, with no narrative but the one in your head; imagine Skyrim with spaceships, no quests, and the make-your-own-fun ethos of Minecraft's survival mode, and you'll have an idea of the vision here.
It's important to note that "procedurally generated" doesn't mean the galaxy will be continually randomized, like in Minecraft, but instead refers to the way it was created. The game's flora and fauna share a handful of basic models that were then randomly tweaked with a system similar to character-appearance sliders in an MMO, creating hundreds of different variations. Even spaceships are randomized, created using a wide range of parts and assembled with what Murray refers to as "a grammar" of how they should fit together.
By the time the game ships, however, the planets, systems, and creatures you'll discover will be more or less set in stone—but beyond automated tests to make sure everything works right and meets certain other criteria (i.e. a good per-planet diversity of resources and fauna), it's all undiscovered country. The galaxy you explore will be the same one everyone else explores, and the things you discover will—just like in the preview video — be visibly credited to you when other players visit them. (And yes, you can give the things you discover obscene names if you want, although those will be secondary to their randomized Latin names.)
Does this mean No Man's Sky is an MMO? No, says Murray, although you will meet other players. He compares it to the PlayStation 3 game Journey, where players can drift into your game unexpectedly, making such encounters a potentially more special experience. It's not clear yet whether that'll be through behind-the-scenes matchmaking or just by dint of players' starting planets being so spread out, but it certainly sounds intriguing.
In any case, Murray wants to avoid the bustling feel of conventional MMOs, in which players tend to cluster and shout at each other—which is also why you won't find cities in No Man's Sky. The emphasis here is on being a lone wanderer exploring a frontier, and while it's possible to spend all your time with the game exploring, exploiting, and never leaving your starter planet, you're not someone who builds things, or settles down, or starts with one little ship and creates a trade empire.
I ask Murray how complete he feels the development is, and he refuses to answer because I might try to extrapolate a possible release date from that. Here's hoping they're far along, even after a flood last year impacted the team's work.
If you demand structure and clearly defined goals from your games, it may not be for you—but if No Man's Sky can live up to its promise, the same players who sink endless hours into Minecraft, roll bears down mountains in Skyrim, and love Grand Theft Auto just for its physics might find the prospect of a full-scale virtual galaxy to use as they see fit irresistible.