No Man’s Sky And The Patented ‘Superformula’

No Man’s Sky And The Patented ‘Superformula’

With just under three weeks before the launch of No Man’s Sky — which I personally delayed back in May — a new potential controversy has emerged, this one revolving around a Dutch scientist’s patent. In order to generate the geology of its billions of procedurally generated planets, No Man’s Sky relies upon a mathematical equation called the Superformula that was developed by botanist Johan Gielis. The game’s director, Sean Murray, was open about his use of this Superformula in an interview with The New Yorker last year, but what wasn’t clear until now is that Gielis and his team have actually patented it.

Gielis’s research company, Genicap, has not expressed interest in blocking the release of No Man’s Sky or suing developer Hello Games, but they’re now going public, sending over a statement over to Eurogamer that has a whole lot of subtext:

It would be great to exchange knowhow with Hello Games. We believe No Man’s Sky is the beginning of a new generation of games. What Hello games did with the formula is very impressive. Johan Gielis, the founder of Genicap and the one who discovered the superformula, is extremely proud.
If Hello Games used our technology, at some stage we will have to get to the table. We have reached out to them but understand they have been busy. We trust that we will be able to discuss this in a normal way.

It’s not clear whether Gielis would have a solid case against Hello Games, or whether his patent can apply to this particular use of the Superformula, but any sort of legal complications could cause major headaches for the studio behind No Man’s Sky, which is very small.

I actually got a tip about the Superformula in early June, and had reached out to both Genicap and Hello Games at the time, but didn’t hear back. The tipster, who did not share his or her real identity, said that Murray was aware of the patent. I reached out to Hello Games again to see if they want to comment but had not heard back at time of writing.


  • Oh bloody hell… It’s looking like the Creator or the Singularity or the benevolent alien zookeepers are really trying their best to throw spanners in the works for this game.

  • Looks like the owners allowed the patents to lapse over a decade ago, making this entirely a non issue.

    • Unfortunately, it seems in the US you can. Heck, some people have managed to patent gene sequences that they’d discovered.

    • Cant patent maths… but you can patent the application of maths in computer code or engineered products. But it has to be specific on the application.

  • Why didn’t they bring it up when Murray first revealed he used the Superformula? Instead they bring it up when the studio is about to make huge amounts of money. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did actually take legal action.

    However as another Kotaku Reader mentioned above, if the patent has indeed lapsed – Well, good luck with that.

    • Even with a lapsed patent, I’d have thought a consultancy arrangement with some credit-sharing would’ve been a really great way to gain the benefit of the expertise that came up with the formula.

      But it’s probably WAY too late in development now to do much with it. Best I can think of in five seconds is some kind of expansion pack or update that expands on the principles behind the universe generation to overlay galactic empires or some other spreading, cosmic phenomena.

  • Genicap vs Hello Gamed… thats going to be bit one sided. Genicap’s broke and cant afford the legal battle and Hello Games is going to be getting a big royalty check from all its sales very soon. Hello Games just fought a two year battle over the trademark word for “Sky”… they aint go being stand down or settle quickly.

    • It’d actually be nice if Hello Games became a patron for Genicap. It’d sidestep the whole issue of legality, and the patronage would help continue the work that this organisation has done.

  • From what I could find the patent was granted again in april 2016 and has been continuing for a while (
    The patent is actually heavily detailed and most of the maths went over my head.
    I hope they come to some sort of agreement and move on, the fact it’s been left till the last minute to do this strikes me as more of a bluff than anything else.

  • Didn’t know using a formula in calculation and patented the product that was made based on the formula is a thing.

    Newton must be rich af right now if he is still alive and sue everyone in the world using his formula.

    • This is an algorithm, not a simple equation. Newton wouldn’t have been able to patent his equations because they’re simple and ‘obvious’. This thing definitely isn’t, it’s super complicated.

  • They should just cancel the game because you know it’s only going to disappoint,

    • Disappointment is actually guaranteed. It will be either from some people playing the game, or from the people claiming the game will disappoint.

        • Then some players will be disappointed. Hence my statement stands.

          Other players though, like those I coin the “mmorrrpgh masochists”, will love it.

  • They are biding their time, waiting about 6 months after release so to sue and maximise the amount of money they can get out of Hello Games.

    • hello games should just quietly change the coding enough that the patent doesn’t apply then sue in return for defamation and potential loss of income.

        • not re coding the entire game. Just a few small changes to make it different enough from a legal point of view. Obviously I’m saying this without knowing how the formula is structured so this might not even be possible, but it could be.

  • Well in this case all painted art should rightfully should pay royalties to the person that invented paint.

    The company used a mathematical concept as a base for something totally unexpected.

    • If the patent’s valid, then it definitely covers No Man’s Sky; from the patent, first claim:

      A method for creating timewise display of widely variable naturalistic scenery, including simulated plants, simulated other organisms or simulated landscapes, on an amusement device with minimized data storage and processing requirements…

  • Soooo…. Jason gave the patent-holder the heads up by ‘reaching out for comment?’

  • I gotta say, that formula is pretty efficient and amazing for generating so many different and complex shapes without needing specific formulas for it. It is a “superformula” indeed. I can see why that would be patented, it’s very powerful.

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