No Man's Sky: How 2014's most ambitious game creates a complete working universe in your console

In No Man’s Sky, Guildford’s Hello Games is creating a virtual universe with rules learned from our own. But how do you replicate the Big Bang with a next-gen console?
No Man’s Sky

Considering there’s still about 96% of our universe that we know nothing about, it could be considered a little premature for Hello Games to make an entirely new one.

That’s precisely why No Man’s Sky is so exciting, though: “We want to give the player that feeling of being the first person to discover something new,” says founder and one part of the game’s development quartet Sean Murray.

Given that the game has an infinite number of procedurally generated planets, each with its own unique ecosystem, a sense of virgin exploration should be inevitable. “Most people think procedurally generated means random, and when we first started to make the game that’s exactly what we were doing,” he says. “It turns out that’s a terrible idea. It results in too many planets that have the same colour sky and ground. It’s chaotic, messy and totally unplayable.” 

Instead Hello Games has written its own set of rules called procedures, which the in-game universe must abide by when creating each planet. The process starts with an atmosphere, within which elements are created in line with recognised atomic laws. “There are only certain elements that would make atomic sense for each atmosphere,” explains Murray, like the excited science teacher you never had. “For example, there are only about 20 or 30 compositions for water that would ever make sense as a liquid on a planet. That’s what defines the properties of the water, including things like the colour.”

These procedures are layered on top of one another until a planet is formed – and from what we’ve seen so far the results are believable and complex, with everything from arid desert to mountain peaks and snowy tundra.

To boldly go

All we’ve seen of No Man’s Sky so far comes from a trailer unveiled at the VGX awards, and while the game’s intergalactic intentions are clear, much of what was seen could easily exist on Earth. That was a conscious decision made by Murray and the team to avoid alienating viewers, but also an inevitable result of the game’s processes: “Everything in the trailer is from a bunch of planets in what’s known as a Goldilocks zone, which means they’re a bit like ours.

“You do see more weird and wonderful things out there but what’s interesting about the rules of the universe, both ours and No Man’s Sky’s, is that common things tend to arise. The number of eyes living things have, or just that they have eyes at all, is a really common thing.

“All of this happens in real time, so without wanting to get too philosophical about it, a planet doesn’t really exist until someone visits it,” laughs Murray. “We want the universe to feel crafted, but by a set of rules rather than a person.”

Galaxy Quest

No Man's Sky
No Man's Sky
No Man's Sky

When you start the game you’ll be plonked somewhere on the edge of a galaxy. If you want, you can set up camp on the nearest planet and never leave, exploring the land and sea looking for caves to plunder. Planets will vary in size, with Murray describing some as “earthlike” in scale, requiring “an awfully long time” to make a dent in everything there is to see.

By looking further afield you’ll be rewarded with things such as the ability to upgrade your ship, although Murray is keen to stress this will be limited: "We’re trying to create a game about exploration, we don’t want people flying around on a Death Star laying waste to planets."

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