I'm talking to Sean Murray, one of Hello Games’ four co-founders, at our E3 PC Gaming Show in LA’s Belasco Theater. He’s just announced that No Man’s Sky is coming to PC at the same time as PS4. We always had an inkling his game of procedurally generated space exploration was coming to our platform—the team letting us see it at gamescom last year was a big clue—but now it’s confirmed. I can’t think of a better match. It’s a space game with clear shades of Elite, mixed with elements of the survival games that have become such a phenomenon on Steam. It’s so us.
“I think it's really exciting,” Murray says. “Any programmer, any developer, grew up with PCs and PC games so it’s really nice to do that. If you’re doing a gigantic sandboxy space sim game, then it seems like PC should be part of that.”
For Hello Games, this year’s E3 was about showing people that No Man’s Sky is a real thing, and not just a pocketful of cheese dreams. Throughout last year it seemed like each trailer was a demo of the tech that enables players to explore the game’s 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 procedurally generated planets, but not the game itself. Each planet that popped up in the videos looked colourful and pleasant, and came with its own local species. We could discover and name these planets, we were told. The grandeur and extraordinary backdrop were there – what was missing was the reason to actually play. Hello Games is now being very specific about that.
“[At E3] we tried to show space combat, combat on the ground, sandbox elements, resource gathering. You can play as a trader, a fighter, an explorer, or kind of a mixture of all three. It’s a sandbox game—there are no missions, no quests. In some ways it’s very much in the genre of game that has become very popular on PC, particularly in Early Access.”
I ask if he means survival games, such as DayZ. “Yeah, but more than that, kind of sandboxy games, like Terraria, Stranded Deep, Salt, so many now... The Forest. It’s generally in that genre. There’s more of a focus for us on being a huge world, so you’re not under such constant pressure, and you are able to explore, and survive for a little bit longer, but you are vulnerable and you are under threat in that world.”
I'm certainly getting shades of Elite: Dangerous from Murray’s description of how the economy works in relation to progression. You won’t be able to go everywhere and do everything at the start: it’ll take money and better ships, so don’t expect to make your ten-year journey across the universe within ten minutes of booting up. There are various ways to earn money, and discovering new places and naming exotic species is part of that.
“In terms of exploring, you need to have an upgraded suit to be able to survive in toxic environments and various different types of liquid. You need an upgraded ship so that you can have a bigger hyperdrive and travel to more far-flung places. For all of these things you need money—and you can earn that money as an explorer by exploring. So there’s a core loop there. It may not be a loop that you've had in a game before, because really, most games have never been about exploration before—previously it’s always been, ‘I need to find a puzzle piece. The designer has placed a puzzle piece somewhere for me, I have to find that’, and it does'’t feel like real exploration.”
You aren't just exploring for the sake of having Space Feels, then, but following an Elite-like progression curve of getting better vehicles, equipment and so on. Exploring isn't the only way to make money—you can mine the destructible worlds and trade, too. “You fly to a planet and you discover that planet, yes, there’s a nice buzz that you can go to a beacon and name that planet, but the real reason you do it as a player is you get money for doing it. If you discover new creatures, you get money for doing that. And if you get more money you can buy and improve your weapon, which is really called a multitool. The multitool is used for mining and combat, but it’s also used for scanning. Scanning defines how wide a range you can scan into to discover new creatures, and how many different types of discovery you can actually make. So there’s a loop there where you’re earning money to be able to explore more. But then as you go between planets, you find that they are hostile at times, so even as an explorer you can’t just be passive or ambient.”
The progression systems sound as simple as any you’d find in a survival game—dying in space costs you your spaceship, while dying on a planet just costs you your resources and recent discoveries. These systems being so familiar make No Man’s Sky seem very real to me, now, which is quite a shift from last year, where it looked very cool but seemed so ethereal. “I think that’s a way we've misled people, in that... our trailers are often nicely flowing, and you walk around and people go, ‘oh, it’s a walking simulator,’” Murray says with a smile. “And that’s nice, some people are really happy with that, and that is a lovely part of the game that is pretty and beautiful to go and explore. If our game was a dystopia, then I don’t think I’d want to explore it nearly as much. As so many sci-fi games are dystopias, it’s not appealing to explore a universe full of wastelands.”
NO MAN’S SPY
I ask Murray how Hello gets feedback from players and watching them play. I don’t want to say they spy on their playtesters, as such, but I can’t think of another way of describing their process. “Internally, even with Joe Danger and everything we've done, we tend to get people in and really scrutinise and watch them playing. We actually have a room that’s got glass on the outside. People can sit in and play, and we can watch them from where we sit, basically. We don’t interact with them, we just watch them play. We don’t want their feedback or anything. We just watch how they get on with the game. And we do that reasonably regularly.” Hello isn't into the idea of community feedback—there are secrets to this game that are worth protecting. This process makes more sense.
And from their research, they've learned that even when they have an entire universe to explore, players are really attracted to the idea of menial tasks. “One thing that amazes me about how people play is trading. You can trade between space stations, between space stations and freighters, you can trade between freighters and freighters, or freighters and trading posts, and you can fly down to planets and mine some resources yourself and then sell those. So that’s trading. Trading in our game is closest thing you can have to a real-life job, right? It is, for me, on paper, quite boring. It’s how a lot of people play. It amazes me. And you almost can’t explain it. They’re earning money, units in our game, to be able to buy bigger ships, to be able to trade more, to be able to make more money, to be able to buy bigger ships to protect themselves, to be able to carry more expensive cargos.”
The way Murray describes it sounds a lot like the way I play Elite—but that’s a simulator and this isn't. If someone’s willing to just be a trader, it’s a sign that No Man’s Sky really does feel like a sandbox game.
WORLD OF DIFFERENCE
I think the long-term challenge Hello Games face is making sure that the hundredth world players discover has the power to amaze in the same way as the preceding ninety-nine. It’s not an unattainable feat. Finding an oddly-coloured planet in Elite feels special if you’ve never seen it before—imagine how impressive it could be to have that as a repeatable experience with entire worlds, every time you push through the atmosphere and a mysterious new landscape appears. Exploration in games should always be about surprise and No Man’s Sky is being created to facilitate that.
“I watch players get lost,” Murray tells me. “And that’s not something that happens so much in games. People turn to me and go, ‘I can’t find my ship. Where did I leave it?’ You can scan, and you can find a little marker for where your ship is, but people are often amazed. ‘I got totally turned around and I didn't realise that was there’, and about an hour or two into the game, you’ll find people playing it in a different way. They’ll actually put their ship somewhere where they can remember where it was. And they’ll keep track of there being some trees to the left, how they went down a mountain to their right. What we’re used to in games is something like Far Cry where you have pathways everywhere. They’re pre-built in and the designer has thought about you being able to see landmarks from where you are, and they've playtested it—and [our worlds] don’t have that. They feel much more like real places.”