"It's probably nothing, but you kind of have to be at Sean Murray's talk. If he says literally one thing, it will be an instant news story," a reporter from a prominent game site told me yesterday.
They were were referring to a talk that Murray will be giving about No Man's Sky—easily the most controversial game of 2016. His talk will be narrowly focused on the rather esoteric subject of procedurally generating planets. Nevertheless, pretty much every major outlet will be in attendance.
Granted, the fact that Murray is making a major public appearance for the first time since No Man's Sky's launch is itself news. Murray was a frontman for the game in the months leading up to launch, even appearing on major late night shows like Stephen Colbert. When No Man's Sky's subsequent launch brought with it a massive backlash, Murray dropped out of sight.
Since then, Hello Games' comparative silence has been the subject of breathless speculation, even in the wake of a major update that added a number of new features. Their absence at the Game Developer's Choice Awards earned a write-up from Polygon and was shared around Reddit (they were apparently at dinner and didn't expect to win).
In this environment, Murray's talk is being treated as a big event. Will Murray talk about what went wrong with No Man's Sky? Will he share his perspective on the backlash? Will he talk about the game's future? Well, given that the talk is titled "Building Worlds Using Math(s)" and is specifically aimed at programmers and technical artists, the answer is almost certainly no, no, and maybe (but probably not).
From the description, "This lecture will describe some of the most important technologies and interesting challenges behind generating both realistic and alien terrains without artistic input, using mathematics. It also focuses on creating and testing an infinite environment with small team, in particular programmer generated worlds and art."
It continues, "After this lecture, attendees will have the knowledge required to be able to generate, populate and render a unique looking planet. They will have a deeper understanding of pitfalls to avoid and be inspired by where these techniques can go in the future.
The "pitfalls" aspect sounds fairly interesting, if only because No Man's Sky's planets are famously barren. But by and large, this has the look of a deeply technical talk aimed at industry professionals. Members of the press who decide to attend will be regaled not with juicy tales of development gone wrong, but formulas and algorithms. This talk is not for the media.
That this is happening speaks to the fundamental tension of GDC, which has dueling identities as a trade show and a media event. At GDC, animation bootcamps and lighting talks mix with press-friendly Classic Game Postmortems. Developers huddle in corners with their laptops for coding sessions. Registering for the event brings with it an almighty flood of invitations to come and meet struggling indie developers, CEOs, and Swedish ambassadors, as well as triple-A publishers looking to share their wares. The talks are often fascinating and filled with interesting anecdotes; but in the hunt for nuggets for news stories, it can be easy to forget that most of the talks are meant for developers.
Murray's talk appears to be one of those cases. Much as I want to tackle him after the talk and ask him a million questions, I think the spirit of the event should leave him free to engage with other developers about his game's algorithms. I have no doubt that it will be a fascinating talk for programmers, and that I will have literally no idea what he's talking about.
If there's news, of course, we will report on it. That's what we do around here. But given what the talk is clearly intended to be, I'm more than happy to leave the math to the rest of the press.