No Man's Sky PS4 Preview: Procedurally-Generating the Final Frontier

No Man's Sky PS4 Preview: Procedurally-Generating the Final Frontier

Hello Games' open-world title shows off its vision of the future and becomes Mike's favorite game from E3.

And so we come to the end of the line. As you've probably read my other previews, this all stemmed from my previous look into the history of open-world games. Developers are now beginning to explore what they can do with the additional power found in this new console generation. This series of previews has covered a number of other open-world titles, including Batman: Arkham Knight, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Assassin's Creed Unity, and Sunset Overdrive, but today I'm going cover something with a broader scope in mind. It's from a smaller team, but what I've seen has been nothing short of amazing.

I'm talking about No Man's Sky.

No Man's Sky is a title from Hello Games, the small team behind Joe Danger and Joe Danger Infinity. They're not just looking to expand their scope beyond Joe Danger. They're looking to build an open-world game where you can explore not only a city or a whole planet, but an entire galaxy filled with other intrepid players like yourself. It's pretty awe-inspiring to see the game in action, though you'll have a similar effect if you just watch the hands-on PlayStation 4 gameplay shown at Sony's E3 presser.

I had a chance to look at No Man's Sky far away from the pomp and circumstance that was E3 2014. A condo that was all straight lines in steel grey and brown. There I met Hello Games managing director Sean Murray, who walked me through something a bit more colorful and organic than the stark space we were sitting in.

Murray explained that No Man's Sky is intended to evoke the feelings found in classic science fiction like Dune, the Foundation Trilogy, and the Lensman books. That feeling that you can go anywhere and do anything, that there's an infinite cosmos to explore. That's the core of the No Man's Sky experience for the Hello Games team, but instead of trying to deliver that idea via a huge development team, they're trying to do it with only 10 employees (not all of whom are working on NMS).

A new world for you to explore.

So how are they doing it? Procedural generation. When you load up No Man's Sky on the PlayStation 4 for the first time, the game drafts up a world just for you. The world has its own overall look, topographic map, flora, and fauna. It has its own resources for you to mine and harvest. The world will receive a name and you'll get the credit for discovering that world. Where you go after that is up to you. The full scope of the gameplay seems to be in flux, but Murray told me there will be mining, harvesting, hunting, combat on the ground and in space, trading, and much more.

The problem with procedural generation is while you get something different every time you play, after a while it all starts to look the same. Minecraft provides infinite variations, but veterans know every block by heart. It's different, but it's all within the same narrow range. Games like Starbound and Terraria stretch the formula, but that's because they only have to worry about two dimensions. Hello Games is trying to expand that idea with the technology behind No Man's Sky.

See, No Man's Sky doesn't just make up a world and then populate it with trees and animals pulled from a set library. Murray showed me a behind-the-scenes look at Hello Games' engine for the game, with a focus on how worlds are built. He explained that the team's method for populating planets with life is similar to a character creator in an MMO or a game like Skyrim. You have all these different presets and facial sliders allowing you to create your own look, but you're still largely seen as humanoid.

No Man's Sky's engine works the same way. Hello Games has created a few tree/animal models and then the game extrapolates endless variants on those original models by stretching them, skewing them, changing textures, and adding bits like fruit, horns, and more. Murray opened up a development window on the E3 build of No Man's Sky, showing a around 20 variants on a single model of a basic four-legged creature. Then he clicked "more" to show another 20 variants. He clicked again and again, more variants. Murray explained that he could do this all day without seeing the same thing.

Those aren't rocks.

And these aren't just small differences, these creatures all looked vastly different. One looked like a blue komodo dragon, while another was a cross behind a rhino and a ram. This one has fur, that one has scales and horns. On and on, in endless variation. All mutants descended for a single core. It's pretty goddamn amazing.

This also extends to ships, which start with a few core parts like the wings, cockpit, and thrusters, and then expand outward. Each ship in the dev menu looked completely different and Murray could draft up a host of new ships at the click of a button. To show me how real these variants were, he picked one at random and just dropped it into the world. Then he got in the cockpit and flew away from the planet!

When you're flying out into the solar system, No Man's Sky remembers everything about your planet and its place in the universe. Pick up a rock on a planet, move it somewhere else, get in your ship, fly away, and come back... the rock will still be where you left it. The game remembers everything, even if it doesn't save the entire planet on your PS4 console. According to Murray, when you leave, the entire planet - down to the single rock - is saved as a formula, not an object. When you return to the planet or someone else visits, the game rebuilds the planet on the fly from that formula.

He gave me another peek behind the curtain to show me how that works. The game is currently optimized to rebuild an existing planet fast enough so most players will never notice what's happening behind the scenes. If you're in a ship cruising over a planet, you can only go so fast and the game knows that. Murray raised his speed with developer commands to show that the world can't keep up; if you're moving too fast, the illusion of a living world breaks down. You can see the game struggling to build everything below you in real-time.

It was interesting taking a look under the hood, because at many events (especially at E3) developers and publishers are keen on what they show or don't show. Part of that is marketing, controlling the message; if they know what we're seeing, they can predict what we're going to say to you. Hello Games allowing me and other journalists to see the underpinnings of No Man's Sky points to a lot of trust in what they've built.

Come sail away.

No Man's Sky is early and I'll need to see more structure in the "game" part before I give over my undying love; things like multiplayer interaction and the overall gameplay loop are still undefined. That said, the technology and what Hello Games has built so far with it is rather compelling. At the very least they're not just showing off pre-rendered demos; they have a beautiful running build of the game and are probably busy back in the UK adding more to it. I'm madly looking forward to seeing how the game turns out before its undisclosed release date, because right now it's my number one game to watch out for.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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