It’s hard to think of a game that got more prerelease hype in this decade than No Man’s Sky. There was a 6,500-word write-up in The New Yorker a full year before its release, multiple pieces on The Atlantic’s website, and, of course, the breathless coverage from the video-game press every time another game-play trailer dropped. The game’s creator, Sean Murray, even went on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where Colbert joked that Murray had replaced Morgan Freeman as God.
Why the hype? Size. Sean Murray and his team at Hello Games used an algorithm and procedural generation to create a universe of 18.4 quintillion unique planets — that’s 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets, if you want to be precise — and you can travel to, and explore, each and every one. If you have 600 billion years to spare.
The basic concept of procedural generation is simple, even if the execution can be mind-bendingly complex. Instead of handcrafting each level, like, say, how legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto carefully planned World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros., developers using procedural generation will set up rules and certain probabilities for things to happen, and then let their computers do the rest of the work. Procedural generation has been around in video games for decades — 1984’s Elite used it to create its own (very primitive) galaxy to explore, and ancient UNIX dungeon crawler Rogue used it back in 1980 (in the process spawning an entire genre of games with unique, procedurally generated levels). Most recently, it’s been used to great effect in Spelunky, creating digitally bespoke platforming levels that are maddeningly hard yet always fair.
The benefits of procedural generation are obvious: You can generate enormous amounts of stuff (“assets,” as they’re usually called in video-game development) without any human intervention. The downsides are equally obvious: Without a human at the steering wheel, the only way to control what’s being created is by fine-tuning the rules of procedural generation. And since Murray and his squad have created 18.4 quintillion planets, the best they could hope for were spot checks along the way — no QA tester was going to be able to check 18.4 quintillion planets. A single player visiting a new planet once a second without rest would reach his or her final world a shade under 585 billion years from now. (Our actual, real-life sun will have expanded into a red giant, destroyed Earth and most of the solar system, and then shrunk back down to a white dwarf 579.5 billion years before that.)
So, it’s a big fucking game. But what do you do in it? In practice, it’s a game of exploration and resource collection. You start off with an okay ship and an okay mining laser and an okay spacesuit. Your goal is to get better versions of all of them, mainly so you can have more pockets to carry more stuff, which then lets you get better ships, guns, and spacesuits. In effect, you become something like a space prospector and/or scrap collector, shooting off to some undiscovered planet, seeing if there’s anything that you can mine or take, and then eventually jetting back to a space station to sell your haul. There are very loose game mechanics pushing players toward the Galactic Center, but the game seems fine with you just bopping around, doing as you please. And those core game mechanics — go to new worlds, strip them of their resources, and then rocket off into the next new world — works remarkably well.
Not only is every planet procedurally generated, but every plant and animal is as well. (Per Murray, within the first night of the game’s release, players had already discovered over 10 million species of living things — more than we know about on our own planet.) Sometimes this works out to stunning effect — playing the other night, I came across a herd of giraffe-ish reptiles moving slowly across the landscape, gently lowing to each other. My own little weird Jurassic Park moment. And then sometimes you find this.
And when comparing the game’s prerelease footage to what you actually find, you can see there have been some downgrades on that front as well.
The procedural generation can also be a letdown in some other ways. While the geography of each planet is unique, there’s only a set number of types of planets, so you’ll quickly find yourself on another ice planet, or tropical planet, or rocky moon, but with slightly different ’70s sci-fi Day-Glo colors lighting everything up. After visiting enough planets, they start to blend together. Same ball of rock, different coat of paint.
And, after a while, exploring the planets themselves can become a bit of a grind. There are various ancient monoliths to discover, alien languages to learn, outposts to claim, and wrecked ships to grab for loot or try to fix up. But these events start to repeat themselves pretty quickly. There are small variations written into all of them, but it’s window dressing over the same basic experience. So the player quickly falls into a rhythm: Find the most interesting bit of any planet, usually spottable by doing a quick flyover of the planet; land; grab the loot; and take off for the next world. Try to avoid space pirates while you travel.
You can procedurally generate 18.4 quintillion unique planets, but you can’t procedurally generate 18.4 quintillion unique things to do. No Man’s Sky is a very, very large universe that gives you less to do than something any 10-year-old could put together in a decent afternoon of Minecraft.
Which, despite all of that, if you care at all about video games (and maybe even if you don’t), I highly recommend No Man’s Sky. I think a few years from now, No Man’s Sky will be looked back at as the same type of breakthrough game that Grand Theft Auto III was in 2001.
Grand Theft Auto III’s smeary graphics and sneering humor haven’t aged well at all, but it crystallized a lot of what would become the open-world genre, and would later result in Red Dead Redemption, one of the best games of the previous generation. I firmly believe that by combining the ability to create vast worlds with relatively little resources, No Man’s Sky is going to result in a new type of game breaking through the mainstream; games where the player largely wanders where they choose, watching as interlocking systems create their own unique moments of game play. In the 20 hours I’ve played No Man’s Sky, I’ve seen exactly one other planet someone else has been on. That means everything else I’ve seen has been something only I have seen, and I likely will be the only person to ever see it.
The real bottleneck in video-game creation right now isn’t the technology — it’s that it takes massive teams working together to create anything of real value. A game like this year’s critically acclaimed Uncharted 4 — a beautifully crafted linear game with a smart script and a world where teams of designers carefully placed every piece of fruit, every book, every rock — took well over 200 people to create. Sean Murray and Hello Games created a universe with 16 people.
Murray and the team may have fallen slightly short of the mark on their first shot, but it doesn’t mean they — or another team — won’t find a way to nail it with another go-round. With No Man’s Sky, Murray and his team have proven you can create an entire universe from scratch. The next question is: Can you use that same complicated math to create an entire universe filled with more interesting things than trading posts, loot boxes, and the occasional space pirate?