Feature Article

Making Sense of No Man's Sky's Massive Universe

Trillions of Earths.

If you've been looking forward to the upcoming space exploration game No Man's Sky, chances are that you've heard about its absurdly big procedurally generated universe. But just like when talking about the actual universe, the size of the playable area of No Man's Sky dwarfs our normal conceptions of the world so completely that it's difficult to actually comprehend.

When developer Hello Games talks about the number of planets that you can visit in the game, it's challenging to wrap your head around it. 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 really doesn't mean much when written on a page, even when spelled out as eighteen quintillion planets. It's just an absurdly large number that doesn't have any immediate analogue.

But even though 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 is so huge that it's silly, No Man's Sky's universe still has limits. It's not infinite. You can hit the edge of the game's galaxy, or reach the center. So to make that number--18 quintillion--a little more understandable, and to better contextualize No Man's Sky, let's take a look at how this compares to other video games, the Earth, and our real universe.

These calculations are based on my own speculation and the handful of details that Hello Games has shared. We'll have to wait for the official release in August to confirm that the universe is as unbelievably large as the studio says it is.

Eighteen Quintillion

There've been other big space exploration games before No Man's Sky that claim to have galaxy-sized worlds. To be sure, some of them are massive:

Even if you estimate Elite's star systems as containing a handful of planets--let's say 10, for ease of calculations--that would amount to a paltry 4 trillion planets. You'd need 4.5 million copies of Elite's galaxy to equate to No Man's Sky's.

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In the real world, you probably hear huge numbers being discussed most frequently in the context of the economy. National economies work with massive amounts of money, and so we are used to hearing about sums in the billions or even trillions. The gross world product--essentially the monetary worth of all the work done per year--is about $107 trillion. If each No Man's Sky planet was worth a dollar, the total value of the game's planets would be 172,000 times the amount that the world produces every year.

It also helps to compare the planets of No Man's Sky to incredibly small things, such as grains of sand or gallons of water--both measured in quadrillions and quintillions. Back in 2012, researchers at the University of Hawaii estimated that there are 7 quintillion 500 quadrillion grains of sand on the Earth's surface. No Man's Sky's planets beat that by about two and a half times.

But No Man's Sky finally meets its match when compared to the gallons of water in the world's oceans. At around 350 quintillion gallons, the volume of water in the oceans exceeds the number of planets in the game.

Here are some other real-world comparisons:

  • Books published--130 million
  • People on Earth--7.4 billion
  • Cells in a human body--37 trillion
  • Highest-denomination banknote of Hungarian currency printed--1 sextillion (one thousand quintillion)
  • Atoms in a .1 mL drop of water--10 sextillion
  • No Man's Sky planets--18 quintillion

Of course, a single instance of each of these is dwarfed by one planet-sized planet in the game. If you start considering the amount of planet surface explorable in No Man's Sky, the numbers get even more ridiculous.

How Many Earths Can You Fit in One Game?

Hello Games has claimed in the past that the planets you'll visit will be actually planet-sized--meaning that it'll take you hours or days to circumnavigate. However, the studio's been unclear on exactly how big the planets are, so I'll use the very conservative estimate based on pre-release demos in my attempt to contextualize the size of the game.

No Caption Provided

As helpfully explained by Reddit user Rossmancer, the E3 2015 demo of the game can be used to calculate the diameter of the planet visited. Since this is an E3 demo, the planet is heavily modified. This also means that it would be quite a bit bigger in the final release. With that being said, Rossmancer figured out that the diameter of the planet would be about 5 miles across.

Knowing this, we can find the total surface area of one of these planets. Using the demo planet's radius of 2.5 miles, its surface area would be 78.5 square miles. This is minuscule compared to the Earth, which has a surface area of 197 million square miles. But it makes more sense when compared to other games:

It's also comparable to a small city, like Boston, which has a land area of 90 square miles.

But, once again, there's that eighteen quintillion number. If you take just one planet in No Man's Sky, it's easy to contextualize. But take the whole game, and the explorable surface area becomes nonsensical, even when using the conservative estimate of planet size. If we assume that every planet is the same size, then the game would have over 1 sextillion (that's a 1 with 21 zeroes) square miles of planet surface area. Now we're getting to even more absurdly large numbers. So let's try to make this a little bit more comprehensible.

Considering that the Earth's surface is 200 million square miles, No Man's Sky has the equivalent of 7 trillion Earth surfaces. If you added up the surface area of every planet and the Sun in our Solar System, you'd need 400 billion Solar Systems to match No Man's Sky.

In other words, this is truly a galaxy. Recently, NASA's Kepler Observatory has discovered dozens of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system). As a result of these findings, scientists have estimated the number of terrestrial (read: not gas giants with solid surfaces you can stand on) planets in our galaxy at 40 billion. No Man's Sky's total number of planets obviously exceeds this, but it does give a bit of helpful context for understanding its scope.

The Creatures You'll Discover

This game would be pretty boring if all those 18 quintillion planets were uninhabited and uninteresting, but luckily Hello Games is designing them to be both diverse in landscape and in life. Don't expect to find life on every planet, or even most of them, though: Hello Games has confirmed that there'll be simple life (plants, maybe small animals) on about 10 percent of the planets. Complex life will show up less frequently, on about 1 percent of the planets. But very complex life--civilizations, perhaps--will only appear on roughly 1 in 100 million planets.

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Even this extremely rare chance of finding incredibly complex life, though, means that there is still a massive amount of those kinds of lifeforms out there in the galaxy. 100 million sounds big, but it's really tiny relative to the entire game: if that probability is accurate, then there's roughly 180 billion planets out there with complex life. Unfortunately, chances are high that you'll never find one of these planets. 1 in 100 million is like winning the lottery. To provide a very morbid comparison, you're about ten times more likely to die in a plane crash than find a species of super interesting creatures on any one planet you visit.

Speaking of extremely unlikely possibilities...

Finding Other People

No Man's Sky has a shared universe, and Hello Games has said that it has a matchmaking style similar to Journey's. You can stumble across someone else working their way through the galaxy, or happen upon a planet already discovered by another explorer. But Hello Games makes it clear that you almost certainly will not find another person during the entire time you play the game. It's not even entirely clear how multiplayer will work at all, or even if there'll be multiplayer in the traditional sense.

But since this is a shared universe, there's a chance that two people might be on the same planet at the same time, even if they don't see each other. This can be estimated using the same formula as the birthday problem. If we assume that 1 million people will be playing the game at the same time--which would be a pretty impressive number of concurrent players--and all of them are on some planet, then the chance that at least two of them are on the same planet is extremely small: .00000271%. For there to be a 1% chance that at any moment two or more people are on the same planet, about 600 million people would have to be playing simultaneously.

No Caption Provided

The goal of the game is to get to the center of the universe, so as everyone journeys closer to the middle, the chances of meeting someone else will undoubtedly go up. This is probably your best bet for running into another player: a more limited space, with much fewer planets, means that it's likely that you'll see another explorer out there--or at least, you'll see the planets they've already discovered. In the Milky Way, for instance, scientists have tracked a group of 28 stars closest to the galaxy's center, which allowed them to discover signs of the supermassive black hole holding the galaxy together. If No Man's Sky follows this model, then it's a good bet that you'll see signs of other players when you finally reach the middle.

The insane number of planets is only one element of the game, and it's unclear yet how No Man's Sky will tie it all together into a cohesive, engaging experience. It will have several other mechanics besides exploration to keep players interested, such as crafting, trading, combat, and deciphering alien languages. But ultimately we'll have to wait for its release on August 9 for PS4 and PC to determine whether or not we'll want to explore more than just a handful of planets in No Man's Sky's massive galaxy.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com


Alex Newhouse

I'm a news guy, a student of international relations, and I've put way too many hours into Steep.
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Avatar image for jtrory

As much as I like the idea of this huge galaxy, if I never come across another player I'm hoping it will be an interesting enough game to make up for the total lack of social interaction. Because let's be honest, a game without a narrative AND no multiplayer is going to struggle to make sense or be any fun. I know the article compared this to Journey but Journey was a fraction of the size and only lasted 3 hours from start to finish.

Avatar image for glenwatson54

How could you forget Starbound, which will have 422.22 quadrillion planets on final release in the next couple months.

Avatar image for grbolivar

This game will bury me deeper on to my basement without seeing the precious sunlight for weeks or months. I HAVE to find one of those complex civs.

Avatar image for conaar2

@silversix_: Race you there, you only have a .00000271% chance of ever seing me beat you!

Avatar image for jazhaz

Problem with comparing Elite Dangerous and No Man's Sky's planets, is that Elite's planets are much, much bigger. Yes there are a lot less of them, but the planet in NMS having a laughable 78.5 square miles is tiny. Planets in Elite are full size. EG Earth in Elite is Earth-sized - ie 197 MILLION square miles. So don't make me laugh trying to compare Elite to NMS.

Avatar image for jtrory

@jazhaz: Okay ED fanboy, answer this then.... What exactly can you do on life-sized planets in ED? **** all, that's what. I played ED and Horizons until I finally realized Frontier have no scope or imagination. Star Citizen is already better and No Man's Sky is more interesting. You could waste more of your time playing that garbage and trying online to defend its lack of ambition or you could come with us to the future.

Avatar image for jazhaz

@jtrory: One word, explore, proper landscapes, that look real. Not cartoon bumps and insane colours that aren't based on real elements. ED is a simulation, based on real science. The only made up bit is the frame shift drive.

Then there are expansions coming to add more content. The Feds and the Empire are going to go to war over the barnacle sites. Aliens are going to appear very soon, there are already whispers about them in the game right now. And later on planetary landings on atmospheric worlds including earth-likes.

As for Star Citizen, it's not out yet and there is no word on when it will be. Plus 1000 planets or whatever just doesn't cut it for me.

Avatar image for MattLambertson
Avatar image for jazhaz

@MattLambertson: ??

Avatar image for NbAlIvEr10000

I really hope this game will eventually utilize Playstation VR (and Rift for that matter) at some point.

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Avatar image for snugglebear

My main complaint is that I have to wait til next month, now. I wish to perform sciency things!

Avatar image for profchrisk

Solid piece Alex, very well thought out and written, not to mention great attention was paid to math on this. Already have this pre-ordered for my PC

Avatar image for dogpigfish

Bought Elite Dangerous out of excitement for this and, while ED is an interesting concept, was very difficult to manage. I'm very interested to see this talented group take this genre to a new level. What's most interesting is how different it really is to an open world adventure or story. It's truly exploration at its best. So excited!

Avatar image for deactivated-57f149464394d

@dogpigfish: Sorry mate, its survival then exploration

Avatar image for iluspook

I'm thinking the reviews for this will be all over the place, with each score being a combination of the reviewer's stance on the survival exploration genre mixed with what they were able to discover during their time with the game. With everyone starting on their own unique planet mixed with the randomness of discovery elsewhere, it sounds like there can be vastly differing actual experiences with the game.

I'm looking forward to it! :)

Avatar image for GunEye

I would prefer having 1000 or even 100 handcrafted planets with coherent multilayer, than 18 quintillion similar looking patterned worlds with very little to do.

But I will still keep an eye out for this game. However 60 $ is way too much for this kind of game.

Edit: I am starting to agree with others that it is very likely that there is no multiplayer at all... it might just be a ruse. Trolling.

Why? Because it makes no sense to develop a full fledged net coding / server system to host so many players and take int account 18 Quintillion planets and distancin between.

Most servers will just crash. You would need massive loading screens and background loading every second. Maybe frequent connect/disconnect computing.

Heck it could be possible but hard to imagine they would go for such an hassle and spend so much money (keeping the server maintained) - for a close to nonexistent chance to meet other players.

Final thoughts - I have that feeling that if 2 players will meet - after arranging this for days/hundreds of hours of gaming - that the whole session will last for a few minutes and will be mostly underwhelming... You know what I mean right?

Avatar image for iluspook

@GunEye: Interesting perspective! A couple things to ponder: first, whether true or not, Murray did state that it is possible to see other players, and that it's the only way to truly know what you actually look like. Next, regarding the universe needing to synch with everyone, he stated that since the game universe and everything in it was entirely proceedurally generated, there's never any need to load anything...it's all simply a proceedural algorithm stored on each player's hard drive.

Naturally, it's easy to state things, but we'll soon see how well (hopefully) it all comes together!

Avatar image for theblueberry123

Holy crap. I'm actually thoroughly ecstatic for this game now. I was excited before, but now.................... I don't know if I've ever longed for that feeling of wonder and discovery as I have now.

Avatar image for csward

Interesting, so we'll never run into another player most likely. Heck, it's possible but improbable that no one will find a planet with advanced life.

Hopefully, aliens will tell you the location of their civilizations so we get to see them and the devs efforts don't go to waste.

Avatar image for NbAlIvEr10000

@csward: You'll probably most definitely never run into any other player, but even if you did it wouldn't be "legitimate". If theory suggests in the development of this game, the chances of running into another player would be like getting struck by lighting 10 times in your life and winning a major jackpot lottery 5 times (~estimated). However, even if some crazy-diabolical chance you WERE to run into someone at the exact time, exact star system, exact planet and exact mountain top......I don't believe you would even actually SEE the other person, because this game is based off a registered mathematical algorithm based solely on what the player discovers rather than what the player sees. All-in-all, this isn't like an MMO so no multiple amounts of players exist in the same game at the same time; only what they have discovered exists.

Avatar image for IJONOI

Very very well written. Even if it I speculation. I think I'll be getting this game just for the effort and out of curiosity.

There will almost certainly be something guiding you to do quests / find civilisations etc otherwise what's the point.

And it wouldn't surprise me if they included something as DLC where you can warp to another location. For the social side of it.

I am skeptical about a lot of it just being color palette changes. Unless the actual assets are procedurally generated as well. If that's even possible.

Can't wait.

Avatar image for cherub1000

@IJONOI: same views as yourself. Really looking forward to this. Despite a few niggling worries. I'm sure I'll love losing myself in this universe though haha!

Avatar image for deactivated-58a78a043e9d4

@IJONOI: https://youtu.be/h-kifCYToAU?t=1305

Avatar image for electu

And if, against all odds, you find another explorer; it will be a kid of 13 who will try to kill you.

Avatar image for snugglebear

@electu: And will then name everything on the planet a variation of BEWbeez.

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@electu: hahahaha that could very well be true

Avatar image for Smackpwn

I feel whill the planets will have some variations they are not going to be very noticable and all you are going to notice is diffrent color pallets between planets, i forsee it geting really samey after awhill even with the 18 bajilion planets they are heavily buzzwording about

Avatar image for smokeless_0225

Keep in mind this article is mostly based on the author's speculation (as stated). I bet there will be other factors in play that guide players to the planets with civilization and so forth...overall I think the game sounds fun and I'm looking forward to it's release

Avatar image for Dieknochenblume

Interesting to see so much skepticism around this. There are thousands of games with tried and true formulas out there, as well as hand-designed worlds and highly-detailed environments.

It's refreshing to see what this game may offer when so much else is already covered, and honestly, many games out there are as repetitive as the 'different color-palette planet' assumptions here. No need to bother about finding nothing in NMS and dying out of boredom when you can just do that by buying and playing most games out there.

Avatar image for sunbrodan

The only question I have relating to the sheer size of this game, is why? Why does it need to have 18 fucktillion planets? Elite: Dangerous is incomprehensibly vast to the point where there is no possible way that you can fully explore the game in one lifetime, even more so with the totally brilliant Horizons DLC. Don't get me wrong, I love space. It encapsulates me, I am obsessed with astronomy and the discovery of new planets and stars, but I believe this is just going to feel hollow after a few hours due to you barely scratching the surface of the game.

Avatar image for BuyaPC

@sunbrodan: so you want 100 planets? Would that be better. anything much more than that and individual people aren't going to be exploring them all Anyway so what does it matter if it's 1000 or 18fucktillion? The whole point of the game is a universe sim to show how incomprehensibly vast the universe is and your not going to accomplish that with any number that people could ever put a dent in or even conceptualize so if you want something you can fully explore this is NOT the game for you .

Avatar image for deactivated-58a78a043e9d4

@sunbrodan: I already answered this earlier, so here's a copy.
It's mathematics. Computers only perform efficiently in certain multiples, so the choice was either 2^32 (4.2 billion) planets or 2^64 (18 quintillion). Any other exponent would have been inefficient.

Avatar image for cjtopspin

@pongley: YEAH!

*whisper* I have no idea what he is talking about but he is obviously smarter than I am so I'm on his side *whisper*

Avatar image for deactivated-58a78a043e9d4

@cjtopspin: Do 2x2 32 times and you get a number around 4.2 billion. Do 2x2 64 times and you get a number around 18 quintillion.Since computers work best in multiples of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128) The next step up from 2^32 can only be 2^64. So when the game uses a seed number to generate planets in the universe it can use anything from
0 to 4.2 billion or anything from 0 to 18 quintillion.

So having 18 quintillion planets isn't some marketing ploy or gimmick to cover up weak gameplay, it's just the next number available. 4.2 billion planets wouldn't take very long to cover with a regular player base even as small as 10,000 people.

P.S. Just for fun, if they went up to the next number (2^128) then the game would have 486 trillion times more planets than the observable universe is estimated to have (which, assuming an average of around 10 planets around each star, comes out to 700 sextillion), but the current number in No Man's Sky (18 quintillion) is 38,000 times less than that estimate.

Things get big when you're dealing with exponents.

Avatar image for cjtopspin

@pongley: You lost me after 2x2...jk. But seriously, why do computers work best in multiples of 2? I mean, I never really thought about it until I looked at it and realized 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 264 are all numbers that pop up constantly in the computer world. Why 2s? Just curious.

Avatar image for deactivated-58a78a043e9d4

@cjtopspin: It's just because computers work in binary (most of them). How that's implemented gets pretty complicated and varies from system to system. It's mostly homogenised in modern computers, so a bit will store 4 binary values as 00 01 10 11. Because it's binary 01 = 1, 10 = 2, 11 = 3.

Most programs don't mind if you do something in other multiples because computers are fast these days, but you'll be wasting space and it will be less efficient, especially if you're doing it dozens of times every second like a game would have to.

Avatar image for pixelstuff

@pongley: The next step above 2^32 is 2^33. Written another way that is 4.2 billion and then 8.4 billion.

In software there's no hard rule that they have to move to 64 bits after 32 bits, but since the OS is already designed to support 64 bits then it would end up wasting resources to go to something like 48 bits because you would then have an extra string of zeros tacked on for no good reason.

I think the AMD64 architecture actually uses 48 bits in a few places for memory management or something. Not an expert on that though.

Avatar image for deactivated-58a78a043e9d4

@pixelstuff: Using 2^33 would introduce a lot of inefficiencies in their engine though. Simply doubling the length of the key allows them to increase the complexity without having to rewrite the whole thing.

Avatar image for cjtopspin

....so...since complex life will only show up on 1 percent of the planets in the game...will you have a 1 percent chance of having fun? I mean - I am amazed at the vastness of this game (it seems like a breakthrough in video gaming design) but if you have a 1 percent chance of experiencing something really cool aren't you then spending most of your time flying around looking at giant rocks in space?

Am I missing something here?

Avatar image for toffifee

@cjtopspin: This is exactly my thought. Thank you.

Avatar image for silversix_

I will be searching those 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets to hopefully find one where the Xbox One isn't as bad as it is on ours.

Avatar image for peterhorner1867

@silversix_: im sure a sad obsessive like yourself will try to find it

Avatar image for silversix_

@peterhorner1867: I will do my best, no matter the time it takes.