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No Man’s Sky And The Art Of Designing A Universe Within A Video Game

No Man’s Sky And The Art Of Designing A Universe Within A Video Game

You are flying your spaceship through a vast star field, and you spot a glowing planet in the distance. You fly a little closer, examining the atmosphere and the mountainous rose-hued terrain. You decide to land. Sky turns to soil and you’re in a strange, new ecosystem—where red grass grows wild and dinosaurs roam free. This is only one planet of countless more and there’s a moon in the sky beckoning you to visit. Like our own universe, the universe of No Man’s Sky is seemingly limitless.

At the E3 conference, small and mighty indie game studio Hello Games, unveiled their latest trailer for No Man’s Sky, a first-person sci-fi video game of an epic interstellar odyssey. Every player will start off on a unique planet. From there, players will face unknown challenges—from animal predators to space pirates—as they venture further and further into the space frontier. Lead developer Sean Murray promises that every atom in the game is unique and their universe is truly open: “If you see a mountain, you can trek there. From that mountain, if you see another planet hanging on the horizon, that’s a real place, with its own ecology. You can get in your ship, fly into space and it’s yours to explore. Not just that, but every star in the sky is just the light of a sun, with its own solar system waiting for you to discover and adventure in.” The ability to choose your own adventure is especially tantalizing.

Most games have an illusion of choice and free will, but few are actually open in the same vein as No Man's Sky. The tremendous expanse of No Man’s Sky’s universe and unlimited exploration of it are possible because of procedural generated systems, a way of generating content algorithmically instead of manually.

Algorithms are the rules that determine what the planet will look and feel like, knitting together the topography, the atmosphere, the creatures, the trees, the rocks into a unique seamless creation. There are algorithms for how quickly a tree will grow over time. For the color of the sky. For how a mountain erodes. An algorithm for a planet or star to prevent it from being too similar to another. It’s like building Ikea furniture: The developers are not designing the parts, but rather they are designing directions and the framework for how those parts come together. The visual tapestry is being created before your eyes, unfolding as you are playing the game and nothing in a procedural generated game “exists” until you, the player, set your gaze on it.

Examine the huge open world of Grand Theft Auto 5. Unlike the boundless No Man’s Sky, the player’s fate in GTA5 is determined and the world has constraints. Each aspect of the game—from how the car’s wheels turn to how a body of a person bounces off the hood of your car when you run them over—has been deliberately, manually designed and planned. When you arrive at the edge of the GTA world, you’ll find yourself facing an invisible, impenetrable wall. 

It’s not the first time procedural generation has been used to create massive game worlds. The influential and highly successful Elite, a 1984 3-D space trading game from Acornsoft, originally had two to the power of 48 galaxies (billions on billions), before they decided to cut it down to eight, according to the creators. A current game in the works called Starbound is reported to have 400 quadrillion planets that players can search out. And world-building game Minecraft’s map stretches seven times the surface area of Earth.

That is the main perk of procedural generated games: the program does a lot of the heavy lifting, making it possible for even a team of four to create an almost infinite gameplay space. To create vast worlds without procedural generation, like GTA5, you would need an army of artists to create character, building and environment models. But the downside can be quantity over quality—environments can start looking quite unnatural, repetitive and boring.

And then there’s the question of artificial intelligence evolving to the next level. What if the world kept growing on its own while we weren’t looking or playing the game? What happens when the worlds start acting on their own, making their own rules? Even Murray and the Hello Games team do not fully know what they’ll find in their universe. Murray writes for Playstation, “Normally as a developer, your game doesn’t often surprise you, but I’ve just been grinning ear to ear as I’ve explored. Getting into fights with pirates, attacking space stations, discovering life I never knew existed. I guess I’m biased, but there are moments where my jaw drops, just seeing unexpected results emerge from procedural systems we’ve created.”

It makes creative sense for procedural generation to be the engine of No Man’s Sky, because it is the parallel narrative to the story—the endless depths of our curiosity, our relationship with space and our own quest for answers. “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them to the impossible,” said science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Murray, on the stage at E3, named Clarke along with other notable science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as the main influencers for the aesthetic and the sense of wonder and discovery in No Man’s Sky. The game is still in the works (to be first released on Playstation 4), and if the results are as jaw dropping as the teaser, we may find ourselves lost in their beautiful alternate future and never want to leave.

Find out more about the colossal world of No Man's Sky on the game's website here.

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