If there's one comment louder than all the praise that No Man's Sky has been getting, it's got to be something along the lines of, "Wow, how is that even possible?"
Questions like that confuse Sean Murray and David Ream, managing director/founder and creative director of No Man's Sky developer Hello Games, respectively. For them, it's a no-brainer. Their trailers aren't pre-rendered in a separate build of the game meant specifically to be demoed at E3, they told me in an interview at E3 last week.
Early gameplay footage of the game was accompanied by promises from the tiny Hello Games studio that everything you saw would be procedurally generated, meaning that it was in some way crafted at random by a computer in real time. That trailer was an instant hit.
"The trailer, that's real-time," Ream said. "In order for that trailer to exist as it is we captured from real time. Everything in the game, that is the game functioning. In order to build that trailer, all the systems that we've been talking about have to exist otherwise it would be nothing. From the outside you go, 'Wow, how can that be true?' From the inside, in order to show anything it has to be true."
"We did build prototypes," Murray said. "We built prototypes for those creatures. On the fly I can change all those dinosaurs to be completely different. We come out and people say, 'How can it be real?' and it's just a really weird question to be answering."
Those systems Ream mentioned are indeed real. Murray and Ream showed me their toolset to prove just how infinite the creatures and objects in their game are.
Ream pulls up a blue-ish menu with lines of code written across the screen and quickly clicks across it to pull up a very specific menu within their engine. Before I know it, he's selected an option for trees and I'm staring at one. There's a blueprint for a fairly standard-looking tree off on the right. He clicks a button that says "view variants." Dozens of new trees — of different shapes, sizes, and colours — pop up on the left.
"This is our toolset," Murray says as we scroll through the trees. "We built our own engine. It's super crappy, but it's kind of like Unity or something like that. We've written it all around procedural generation. And that's kind of what we spent the first year, when it was just four of us, what we spent our time doing. And then the last month before the VGXs we built the trailer using that."
Murray is simultaneously proud and humble throughout most of our interview.
Murray: "[The artist on the game, Duncan] builds his prototype and you can click 'view variants' and it will generate, like, hundreds of variants. And you click it again, and it will generate more and more and more."
"So, you know when we started off on that first planet and it was like a jungle? And you saw actually kind of hundreds of different types of trees? All reasonably consistent within style and stuff," Murray asked me. "You know, say, Tony Hawk's — the analogy I was using this morning — you know 'Create A Skater' and you'd move all the sliders and just...height, weight, skin colour, clothes, all that kind of thing? We kind of try and do that and the technologies to do that to everything. And so actually Grant [Duncan] — who was our only artist for the first year — everything in the VGX trailer is his. He would just build a tree like this but he wouldn't texture it or anything like that because that's procedurally generated. We build it out of voxels rather than polygons, which is how things are normally built."
We go through a few other objects that are procedurally generated in the game. Rhinos, space ships. Ream clicks "view variants" on all of them. And then he keeps clicking them and, sure enough, new variants keep showing up.
"He [Duncan] builds his prototype and you can click 'view variants' and it will generate, like, hundreds of variants. And you click it again, and it will generate more and more and more. And you can actually zoom around in here and see his version and prototype, and then see it from all different angles."
Ream clicks on a spaceship and drags the cursor around to move it in a 360 degree view. Some of these spaceships are drastically different from one another. It's not just colours. They have different wing shapes and windows and other details.
Murray talks about the ships. "So this is like one ship model, with a variety of different kind of basically what we call grammar which describes how a ship is built. Which is, like, it has a core structure, it has a middle, it has wings, it's symmetrical, things like that. We built the basic blueprint for that and then that's formed the... OK just click through a whole bunch of them." He let the magical "view variants" button take over from here.
"So you get kind of infinite ships. And all of these are instantly pilotable and they have their own properties," Murray said.
Murray: "If you build a cat, you also get a lion and a tiger and a panther and things that you've never seen — kind of mutations beyond that."
"You're building a blueprint," Murray said. "And that's true of everything in the game. So say one of our artists will build something and that will take say a week. But what they get from that is every possible variant of that. So if you build a cat, you also get a lion and a tiger and a panther and things that you've never seen — kind of mutations beyond that."
We skip back to creatures and Murray explains that their engine registers the skeleton of each creature and builds on top of it from there. So the scale of creatures will vary based all the usual options like colour and size, but also on the muscular build that's placed on top. Front muscles, back muscles, etc. "But not only can we do that but we can have a male of the species, we can have it always be with a bunch of females, we can have little babies, we can have loads of different variation within that," Murray said. "In fact, something on that first planet that no one notices is that all the deer are slightly different colour as they would be in real life, which is just a thing we get a kick out of."
"When I was saying that we don't know what's out there...every time I play through this I'm seeing something that's new and often I'm seeing something I've never seen before. And that's quite cool," Murray said.
Some people might interpret this to mean that everyone's game will be different. Not quite. While your experience will be different, everything in the game is consistent with everyone else's game. It's simply a matter of what side of it you end up on.
Murray: "Something on that first planet that no one notices is that all the deer are slightly different colour as they would be in real life, which is just a thing we get a kick out of."
"Everyone gets the same universe," Murray said. "It's just a really big universe. It contains every possible variation but it is the universe and it's the same for everyone. None of this exists on the disc, none of it exists in the cloud. It's just generated on the fly. When you get there it's always generated the same way every time."
At some point during our interview Murray laughs. He's proud that they have created a system that would give them infinite variants of one creature. He muses that no other game would do that because "why would you bother, I suppose?"
"So why do you guys bother?" I asked.
"It's easy with this technology," he replied. "We're not bound by content anymore. And that's really freeing."
"But it's because of the engine that you guys built that made this easy," I said. "So how difficult was it to build that engine?"
"It's a weird thing. It took time. To me, it's not difficult. But having said that, no one's ever done it before, so presumably it IS a bit difficult," Murray said. "I guess there's an element to which, and this might sound really cocky, we wanted to prove something, I think. To ourselves. We wanted to do something quite ambitious. I actually had a conversation where I was like...I grew up loving John Carmack and admiring that kind of thing, just being like, he's a great coder. And we had a discussion about Joe Danger and it was like, will I ever do something really interesting or valuable or whatever? Just push the boundary. What do we do next? A car racing game, a platforming game or whatever.
Murray: "People don't really make custom games or custom technology. They make what they can make easily within Unity. Game designers are actually hampered by that, I think."
"There is this craft that goes into it and you can feel this warm feeling and that craft is being lost, I think, because of things like Unity and stuff like that. People don't really make custom games or custom technology. They make what they can make easily within Unity. Game designers are actually hampered by that, I think."
Given the ease with which Hello Games is able to create infinite variants of one rhino — both male and female and baby — I asked Murray if he had heard Ubisoft's recent statements about why they nixed female assassins in the upcoming chapter of the Assassin's Creed series. At the time of this interview, Ubisoft had reasoned that production costs and time were a considerable factor to this decision. (Ubisoft has since modified this explanation.)
"There's been this thing for ages: Content is king. Which is probably true," Murray said. "But, I actually think it's kind of everything that's wrong with...not that I'm not in love with games, but it's part of the problem with the industry at the moment. Assassin's Creed's gotta have like 800 people working on it. So, if you're going to have 800 people because you have to make all this content then everything's going to be built in blueprint. You need to have 800 people go in the same direction.
"And so you have to go with the tried and tested game format. And it's going to be so expensive to make that. You can't take any risks, you've gotta make it exactly the same as all the other games out there. And Ubisoft do take risks and things, but the broad spectrum is pretty risky for some games. And it's all because it's so expensive to try something and the bar is so high to do that that I think, and actually it's kind of an easy solution for developers to think 'we're going to make this big racer, we'll put so much money into content.' And that's what you see at E3, it looks amazing."
"But it's easy for you guys to do it," I wondered out loud to him.
"They leave that open for us, which we're glad of," Murray said. "Not using very many colours and things like that. They leave it all to us. The palette that we're using is, to me, the palette of, like, sci-fi book covers. And that's how the game looks. Like, when you look up at that dinosaur and there's a planet there and there's some birds flying past and stuff. It looks like a book cover and that's what we always set out for. We started out with four of us prototyping it. We actually covered all the walls with book covers and just sat there...it was almost depressive. But it was really good."
"It's really art-directed," Ream chimed in. "Some people think a lot of this procedural stuff is going to be boring and bland because it's not generated by people. And that's the whole difference here. Grant, the art director, he's recreating things that we love. Palette schemes, shapes and forms that he loves. Which means every creature here is interesting."
Ream: "Some people think a lot of this procedural stuff is going to be boring and bland because it's not generated by people. And that's the whole difference here."
"The demo that we did was concept arted six months ago and then we looked at that concept art," Murray said. "So I described the overall flow of the demo from things that I knew could happen in the world. And then Grant concepted it up and then we looked at those concepts and said, these things don't exist in the world. Like caves or whatever. But also looking at them like how would the rock formations work, that kind of thing.
"And then we generate a system to make that and that system is making caves throughout the universe, following a set of rules and adding flowers at the base of trees across the universe, creating waterfalls or whatever it is. And then we built all those systems and then over the last month we've tried to find the place to stage it and stuff. And that's just totally different to the way I used to work. Like larger AAA studios you build a set of rooms. You know that we're building this exactly for E3 and this will make for a good demo and it will also be the first two minutes of our game.
"Why we're doing it is because it's interesting to us. My attitude has been, 'Let's just do something crazy and go bankrupt doing it.' That's what I've always said. But I don't wanna just make games at the same scale as Joe Danger and still be doing that in 10 years. I just want to try one big thing. So that was the attitude and that was really freeing. As a genuine thing, not like we went into it like, 'Sure! We'll try this and this with the mindset of and it will probably go horribly wrong but we'll go out with a bang,' which we still might."
Murray and the rest of Hello Games are trying to make a very different kind of game. When I asked Murray what string of various genres might come close to explaining their game, he said he hadn't even thought about it. He reminisced about old school games and how "wild and open-ended" they were, even if they did look terrible, according to him.
"People are just so used to that type of game that it becomes hard for them to go back to something that's a bit more free," Murray said. "For us, perhaps we're the generation who grew up with Mario and so we understand levels and missions and quests. So a lot of the questions we get from journalists are about that. How does the mission structure work? How does your rank work? That kind of thing.
"The main people that I talk to who are fans are often the generation that's grown up with Minecraft and they don't have those preconceptions. They don't ask any of those questions. They actually assume that it's just all gonna be there and have that freedom. It seems really outdated, almost, to get that question. How many levels? Or, how do quests work? Well, we won't have any quests."