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September 13, 2015 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

When Plato Met Frank Herbert

In 2024, the private enterprise Mars One is scheduled to land on the red planet. In 2026, the Sagrada Família will be finished. By 2050, half of the Amazon rainforest will have been wiped out. In 2640, the Halberstadt performance of John Cage’s musical piece “Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible)”, which began in 2001, will finish. On New Year’s Eve 2999, Futurama’s Philip Fry awakens from cryogenesis. By 3117, humanity could have made the six-light-year trip to Barnard’s Star, our closest neighbour. By 5200, we will become a Type II civilisation, capable of harnessing energy levels equivalent to the total output of the Sun.

In 50,000 years’ time, the average global temperature on Earth will drop by around 6°C. In a million years, Betelgeuse will explode. In 50 million years, Africa will collide with Eurasia and turn the Mediterranean into a mountain range. In 800 million years, carbon dioxide levels on Earth will drop to a point where photosynthesis becomes impossible; oxygen and ozone will leave the atmosphere and multicellular life will die out. In 2.8 billion years, Earth will have lost its magnetic field and atmosphere, and the average surface temperature will reach 147°C. In 7.9 billion years, the Earth will fall into the Sun and be destroyed.

In 450 billion years, the 50 or so galaxies in the Local Group will have coalesced into a single, giant galaxy. In 100 trillion years, the universe will run out of free hydrogen and no new stars will be formed. Around that time, give or take a few dozen trillion years, you may have finished exploring No Man’s Sky.


No Man’s Sky, an upcoming video game from indie developer Hello Games, is vast. In fact, “vast” doesn’t do justice to it; any description invokes the kind of numbers that, when they don’t bring on a sense of crushing nihilistic ennui, are literally incomprehensible. Try this: the Milky Way contains an estimated ten trillion planets. No Man’s Sky—with eighteen quintillion, four hundred and forty-six quadrillion, seven hundred and forty-four trillion, seventy-three billion, seven hundred and nine million, five hundred and fifty-one thousand, six hundred and sixteen of them—is two million times the size. You can land on and traverse every planet—many are Earth-sized, or bigger—and interact with an infinite variety of flora and fauna. We will never see it all, ever.

We are very small. And No Man’s Sky is very, very big.

Yet graphically, the game isn’t some poorly-rendered zeroes-and-ones cop out. From the trailers and gameplay demos, No Man’s Sky—featuring the bright, utopian palette of 1950s sci-fi book covers—is totally immersive and absolutely gorgeous. If you took just one two-megabyte high-res photo of the surface of each planet, and stored all the photos on DNA (the most efficient storage medium known to humanity), you would need some 77 million metric tonnes of the stuff—a small lake’s worth. Yet No Man’s Sky is set to be released on a single disc, and will be playable on a Playstation 4 or gaming PC. How the hell is this even possible?


The answer is procedural generation.

Procedural generation rests on a logic of which Bishop Berkeley would be proud: the game’s universe is only called into being when there is someone around to observe it. The universe doesn’t exist as an immanent backdrop; rather, the game gives the player’s PC or console highly detailed instructions about how to construct any given corner of the universe on the fly. If a tree falls in No Man’s Sky and nobody is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound because, unless somebody is there, the tree doesn’t even exist.

The game is able to be stored on such a small space because its content is produced almost entirely through code. For centuries, mathematicians have been discovering algorithms that closely model natural phenomena: terrain, musculature, bones. By drawing on these algorithms, and plugging them into the game’s code, developers can create rules that, in effect, act as laws of nature within a game’s virtual universe. For instance, Hello Games made extensive use of the “Superformula”, an algorithm discovered by plant geneticist Johan Gielis in 2003. The algorithm can describe a large range of natural forms including starfish, spiderwebs, diatoms, shells, snowflakes, and crystals. Where big-budget, or “triple-A” games would manually create each of these elements and store them in gigabytes’ worth of files, No Man’s Sky does it all through a few thousand lines of code. Hello Games made the rules that govern the universe, but that’s where it ends—many of the universe’s details remain, and will always remain, unknown to them. Who said God had to be omniscient?

In a procedurally generated game, the content is created by the hardware running a series of calculations. What you see in the game is the “solution” to those calculations. To get these solutions, the hardware requires seed numbers—raw inputs that plug into the formula. For instance, for a basic equation  x + y = z, the game can only determine the value of z if it is provided with values for x and y. Traditionally, this process is random; the game’s software includes a random number generator that creates the seed numbers that go into the equations. After all, the theory goes, if the developer has to manually generate every seed number, the game once again becomes finite.

For Sean Murray, co-founder of Hello Games, this posed a problem. His vision for No Man’s Sky—which he had held since he was a child playing Elite on his father’s Commodore 64—was of a gigantic, shared universe. Although encounters between players are extremely rare, an essential part of the game experience is that life is out there somewhere—players can come across already-discovered planets, find information left behind by other players, and, every now and then, they may just come across another human. For this to happen, every player needs to inhabit the same, identical universe. But if the seed numbers are random, this vision would be impossible—no one player’s universe would be the same.

Instead, every seed number in No Man’s Sky is itself procedurally generated. For one thing, many of the seed numbers are created through algorithms based on real-world physics. “We create algorithms that decide if, for instance, a planet is the right distance from its sun,” Murray told GameSpot. “If it is then, it would have water, and so we generate water on the planet, and that creates rivers, and lakes, and oceans. But then it also creates moisture in the atmosphere, and that will affect the colour of the sky, because the wavelength of light is being diffracted in different ways to create different colours, just like in our world.” Indeed, the skylines are beautifully diverse: bright reds, pale yellows, deep, inky purples.

The detailed physics also lead to the creation of complex ecosystems. For instance, many modern open-world games feature “day-night cycles”—the sun rises and sets in a realistic fashion, creating striking variations in lighting and mood. In No Man’s Sky, day-night cycles are controlled not by an in-game timer, but by a planet’s literal rotation in space relative to its sun. At night, nocturnal species of animal emerge, and these animals look and behave differently to their diurnal counterparts. Planetary rotation has other effects: a player might leave a space station, say, descend to a planet’s surface, and then ascend some time later to find that the space station is no longer where it was—the planet’s rotation has changed the station’s position relative to the planet’s surface.

For any factors not governed by these rules, No Man’s Sky uses arbitrary (as opposed to random) seed numbers derived from the planet’s coordinates within the universe. Meanwhile, the planet’s coordinates are themselves created by one super-seed number—the phone number of a Hello Games employee. The upshot is that the procedural generation is completely deterministic—not random. Every player’s universe is generated in the exact same way—meaning that every player’s universe is identical, and therefore able to be shared and inhabited simultaneously.


Large open-world games usually require huge teams—Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, was created by over a thousand people, and cost a quarter of a billion dollars. But Hello Games is a small team of about a dozen, best known for mobile games like Joe Danger. Murray wrote the basic engine for No Man’s Sky himself in secret, part-time, over the course of a year. When the engine was complete, he brought three more colleagues on board; the four worked in a separate room, hidden from the other programmers behind a two-way mirror.

The secrecy was motivated by a fear of failure, and the four kept their colleagues as out of the loop as possible. “When people from the rest of the team asked, ‘Really Sean, you really need to give us something on what this game’s about,’ I’d say, ‘I was really into sci-fi, and you never feel like you’ve ever been an astronaut in a game before, so that’s one idea I’m thinking about’,” Murray told Game Informer. “I think probably what people—if they had to guess—would picture is some kind of cute little astronaut dude running around. That probably made things even worse.” The rest of Hello Games only saw the game a few days before its unveiling at the 2013 VGX Awards.

By that point, a small number of gaming journalists had been invited to view previews and demos of the game. They did so in silence. Later, when Murray pressed them for a reaction, they expressed skepticism—they doubted the game was, or could be, all the developers claimed. Those doubts were buried after the game’s debut at VGX—No Man’s Sky quickly became one of the most anticipated games of the past decade.

But in many quarters, the doubts persist. From the little we’ve been able to glean about the gameplay, No Man’s Sky seems to involve flying around space, robbing intergalactic convoys, and landing on planets to check out Dune worms and day-glo alien dinosaurs. But therein lies a worry for many fans—there doesn’t really seem to be a story, or even much to do. As pretty and varied as the universe might be, simply flying around admiring it is bound to get tedious pretty quickly. In the industry’s lexicon, the gameplay looks shallow.

Murray admits that Hello want the game to be as non-prescriptive as possible. “There’s a big part of us that doesn’t want to say ‘this is what you must do’,” he told GameSpot. He’s confirmed that No Man’s Sky contains some type of antagonist, but has refused to reveal more, and is cryptic about the overarching aim of the game. “You start at the edge of a galaxy, and you try and get to the centre of that galaxy, and when you do, something happens that is worthwhile seeking out, but it doesn’t end there,” he said.

Coming up with scripted missions would be a double-edged sword. While it would assuage many fans’ concerns about a lack of things to do in the game, it would also represent a concession to mainstream video-game sensibilities and would run counter to the whole ethos of the project. Filling a virtually infinite universe with a relatively miniscule amount of narrative content would feel jarring and undercooked. On the other hand, Hello could stumble upon an endlessly profitable sideline in downloadable content (DLC) for the game. Put that way, it’s perhaps predictable where this will end up.

A deeper fear, though, is that No Man’s Sky will simply be the next Spore or Destiny: a game that promises the kind of sprawling sci-fi epic of fans’ wildest imaginations, then crushingly disappoints by being, merely, quite good. Destiny, released last year, was billed as the most epic space opera in history. It ended up being a lazy and repetitive knock-off of Halo and Borderlands, described by one critic as “the video game equivalent of a beautiful mansion filled with cheap Ikea furniture”. Spore, meanwhile, closely mirrored No Man’s Sky in its ostentatious claims—the game purported to involve guiding a species from a single-cell organism, through to multicellular life, civilisation, and eventually colonisation of space, all in an infinite procedurally generated universe. In reality, Spore was four or five unremarkable mini-games jammed end-to-end.

So in what ways could No Man’s Sky fail to deliver? The much-touted alien biodiversity could be more or less limited to what we’ve already seen in the trailers—and most of this has, to be blunt, been fairly derivative of Avatar, Dune, and, well, just dinosaurs. Similarly, most planets could end up falling into one of just five or six generic archetypes—a “sandy” planet, a “jungle-y” planet, and so forth. The promised “reward” for reaching the centre of the universe could be a massive letdown. And the processing power required to procedurally generate the content could simply be too much for many consoles to handle, resulting in visual glitches and poor levels of detail.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a train driver in the mornings, and an astronaut in the afternoon. For the sake of my inner afternoon-five-year-old, I’m going to keep hoping.


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