As I sit down with Sean Murray, managing director of Hello Games, to interview him about No Man's Sky, he asks me whether I've played the game. Having just finished a hands-on session with it, I nod.
"What did you think of it?" he asks.
"It's intimidatingly huge," is my immediate reply. "Indeed, my first question to is, how the hell did you conceive of it?"
He laughs and pauses for a moment. "The tone in your voice there is almost like, you're idiots for taking this on."
As I protest and apologize, Sean laughs. He's having me on, and quickly says, "Well if it was, I'd very much agree with that sentiment."
He continues, "I sometimes wish I could go back in time and see me pitching this idea to the rest of the team and just be like, Sean, shut up. What do you think you're doing? The truth is that it snowballed. It sounded like an impossible aspiration – that we're going to make this whole universe. It didn't come from us having tech that we wanted to use some way, it came from us having an idea for a game: We want you to explore the vastness of space and land on a planet and have a feeling of ownership – that you're the first person to get here."
"In order to get that, you have to build something that's huge. You can't just have 10 planets or 50 planets or whatever. So the thing I first started to make was a procedural planet generator. In the early days when we talked about the concept, I think everyone assumed that we wouldn’t go through with it, and at some point we'd tone back the scale, and it would become 10 planets or just one planet. But we thought, let's just dream and do something stupid."
"We’d just come off doing a number of games one after the other. I think the team felt that I needed a break, let him do it, and at some point we'll reign it all in. But it snowballed and we just went for it. I felt like we were at a stage where I was driven by the thought about how many games will I make? I hope this doesn't sound arrogant, but I wasn't sure how good of a programmer I was, and I wanted to explore that. Let's just experiment for a bit and see where we get to."
Did you have the procedural math for executing the idea originally, or did that come later?
"The idea and the emotion we wanted to get across definitely came first. There were only four of us working on it, so we thought about how do we make something like this? When we first started off, the game initially looked very basic, and then it became more and more realistic. When we showed it for the first time, I remember saying to journalists that it was really basic, but we didn't realize that it had slowly grown, because we were so close to it."
"The concept for the game was very much borne from the shared experience the team had growing up as kids and reading sci-fi novels. I don't think games do sci-fi particularly well. Well, they do, but it's a more modern sci-fi, not one that I think of. When I close my eyes and think of sci-fi, I think of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. Not zombies, and dystopias and stuff like that."
So the inspiration for No Man's Sky is classic sci-fi from the 50's and 60's?
Sean nods. "Yeah. I was handed down a lot of those books. I was the weird kid who loved sci-fi and video games. And I think for me, that's the golden age of sci-fi. The space race was going on at the time, and people were really optimistic about the human race and technology and what it could do. Now, if you watch a film from the last 10 years, and there's a scientist in it, he's either evil, or he's inadvertently going to cause the decimation of humanity. He's going to spill a vial and destroy humanity with a virus. There's no such thing as a good science in the modern world."
"In the 60's and 70's, by the year 2000 they thought we'd cure every illness and we'd all be in flying cars and exploring the galaxy. I have a real soft spot for that. That's how I feel about science and technology – a really positive feeling, not that it's scary stuff and is going to kill us all."
Does that mean the underlying nature of No Man's Sky is optimistic and good in principle?
"Yeah," says Sean after thinking for a moment. "I hope people get that from it. You can see the game is very vibrant and colorful. We wanted the universe to have that feeling – and I hope this doesn't sound too pretentious – but there's hope. To have utopias in the same way that if you visit a planet in Star Trek, they were always quite beautiful. It always turns out that there's some kind of dark hazardous secret beneath, but the overall feeling is one of optimism, and that's what we want. We want this to be a positive game."
"It's definitely a challenging game, and one that sets players against the environment, but we give the player lots of tools, and we hope that players will have lots of positive feelings while playing the game."
"I guess the way I'd describe it is that I love video games, but often when I'm playing a game and someone walks in, I feel embarrassed. I feel like I have to quickly hide it away. I remember my sister walked in while I was playing Gears of War, and she mentioned that she hadn't seen a video game for a while, and she wondered where they were at. I finished chainsawing this guy's head off, and she took one look and said, they haven't changed at all," says Sean, laughing.
"I'm someone who's always defending video games – let me show you how interesting they are. But I hope people would play our game, and would want to show it off to people. Look at this new planet I've found. Or look at these creatures. Or I've found this cave network. Or whatever. I'd like that kind of feeling for the game from players."
In that sense, is this a game where what you put into it, you get out of it.
"I think that's definitely true. A lot of games tend to lead you through by the nose right now. They tell you exactly where to look, and where to go. They have you in a sort of a corridor, effectively. A classic thing is that you're running down a city street being chased by something with explosions going off behind you. There are no options. You just run and hit the beats that you have to as you go along, shoot the things that you need to, and it says level complete at the end. That's very linear, and you can sit anyone down with it and they'll basically have exactly the same experience."
"I think that's cool, and I play games like that all the time. But there are other games that are more sandbox in nature. That allow the player – this sounds pretentious – but they can express themselves in the game a bit. If you see two people playing Minecraft, they will be having very different experiences and will likely be playing for totally different reasons."
"I want that for our game. That's what I hope we're trying to engender. We tell people that it's a journey from the outside edge of the galaxy to the inside, but how people go about that is up to them. They can do that by building up their ship by trading, or by taking out other AI and ships that are trading. They can be a space-jerk basically – or a good citizen. That's very purposeful for us. That might not be for everyone. A lot of people might want a game that's effectively a movie that they're playing through, but ours is very much focused on interactivity."