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No Man's Sky Interview: "People Want Crazy, Innovative Games"

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Sean Murray discusses 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets, loneliness in a shared universe, and "the perfect fit for virtual reality".

If passion is infectious then Sean Murray is patient zero. Prior to our interview, the Cork-born developer confessed his team worked overnight making last-minute changes to a No Man’s Sky demo for the media. Any doubts I had about this claim fell away after making eye-contact with some of his colleagues, who were polite and capable but appeared held together by energy drinks.

Murray is media-savvy insofar as he reads interviews and knows what resonates best is people who are just themselves. Certainly the sheepish manner in which he discusses No Man’s Sky--often as though he is making a cheeky confession to the police--has helped frame his project as a galactic endeavour by a modest team with enormous ideas.

But since it was first announced at the 2013 VGX Awards, No Man’s Sky has proven to be an enigma, perhaps even a frustrating one considering the lack of hard facts. For those who need a more factual analysis, do take a look at this new explanation of how the game actually plays. For those who are still interested in the people and passions putting this dauntless project together, our interview with Murray is posted beneath the video below.

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GameSpot: So, name one of your favourite games...

Murray: Okay, impossible question, but I'll say I've got a real soft spot for Quake and Mario 64.

Perfect, so the through-line in Mario 64 is “save the princess, and perhaps get all 120 stars.” One of my favourite games is Streets of Rage 2, and the through-line in that is “kill Mr X.”

Yep.

So here's the thing: I don't know what the through-line in No Man's Sky is. I don't know what I'm doing.

Hmmn. What do you think the through-line is in Stranded Deep, or for Salt, or The Long Dark, or Starbound, or Terraria, or Survival Mode in Minecraft?

Okay, so in Minecraft I would say it's build things until you are bored with building them.

That's the interesting thing. Minecraft started out as a survival game, and has become way more popular as a creative game.

If you go to the Steam top ten, at least three of the games I mentioned will be in there, whether it's DayZ or Starbound or whatever. They're not largely reported on, but most of them are multi-million sellers--but quiet ones. Stranded Deep is such a small oddity, but it's one of the most popular games on Steam.

If you discover one planet every second, it would take 500 billion years to find all of them. By that point our sun would have burnt out.

Sean Murray, Hello Games

So the short answer to your question is, the through-line in No Man's Sky is your journey to the centre of the universe. But I think that's nonsense. Take Mario 64. No way did I play that game to save the princess. I played to enjoy the game. I didn't even play to get the stars. I played that game start-to-finish four times, and there was no way I wanted to do that to get 120 stars. I was playing it because I was enjoying it.

Take a game like Destiny. People found that hard to review, because there is no through-line with Destiny either. Why are you playing Destiny? Do I really care about Gauntlets? Why am I up at two in the morning playing this game?

I suppose it's because people like shooting and jumping.

[Laughs] That's genuinely a lot of it, right? It's the same with Stranded Deep; there are YouTube videos of people chopping wood in that game for four hours straight. That's not what No Man's Sky is, but there's an element of that to it. You are just fighting to survive.

Do you think you are exploring new ideas with this game?

Little bits, yeah. I can see how we've taken a pair of scissors, cut out various ideas, and stuck them all together.

If you look at Joe Danger, there's 100 levels in that game, and I sat there placing a bunch of coins in each one. I was thinking, “Oh that one will be hard to get, that will be tough.” And there's a part of your brain that's thinking, “What on earth am I doing? I'm actively wasting people's time.” I'm looking at the coin arrangements and thinking, “That'll get them.” Isn't that a weird mindset to have?

I grew up with that type of game. The generation that exists now, they're growing up with Minecraft. That's their Mario. They think Mario is a bit weird. They think Assassin's Creed is a bit restrictive. People want crazy, innovative games on Steam that give them something way more open.

By the most recent count, No Man's Sky features some 18 quintillion planets to explore
By the most recent count, No Man's Sky features some 18 quintillion planets to explore

"The generation that exists now, they're growing up with Minecraft. That's their Mario. They think Mario is a bit weird. They think Assassin's Creed is a bit restrictive. They want the crazy, innovative games on Steam that give them something way more open."

Sea Murray, Hello Games

That's really interesting. I think No Man's Sky is going to create some friction with old media--as in, GameSpot and others--because it's a game that, in my opinion, is impossible to review. One critic goes down one path during their review, and it's completely dull, another takes another path, and it's scintillating.

I totally agree. I also think we've set up controlled demos for the press that allow you to get a feel of the game in half an hour, but I think that hinders the experience a little bit. I would prefer five people playing this game for like three hours. I actually think those three hours, from the start, would be a real struggle, and that's what these kinds of sandbox games are supposed to do from a pacing perspective. It would be hard work, and challenging, but that's what makes it more meaningful.

What design steps have you taken to make sure things don't become repetitive?

If you built a whole universe--or 18 quintillion planets, or whatever--it's actually impossible for that to not have some things that repeat, right? Depending on how ingrained somebody's going to get.

Are they going to say, "Oh no, I never want to see two leaf shapes that are the same," or whatever? Because there's only so many different shapes in the world. There's only so many different colors and things like that. If you went and explored our universe you'd find a whole load of things that repeat. You'd find a lot of brown planets for instance. Because of the way atmospheres are built, you will find a lot of blue skies for instance. The universe we're building for No Man's Sky is similar in that you will of course find things that are similar.

But I think what really matters is that the gameplay experience is really varied and the world you're in feels really varied. More varied than other games. And that's what's important to us. Actually, for one player, they're seeing a really wide, huge variety of stuff and they're constantly surprised. That's the thing that's really important I guess.

It's a unique journey, but it is within a shared universe. The chances of you meeting up with your friends are zero, pretty much.

Sean Murray, Hello Games

So is this an online shared universe?

Everyone starts on the outside edge of the universe. Everyone actually starts on his or her own planet, pretty much. From the moment they boot up they are actually seeing a different image on the screen. That's a cool, unique thing. As in, I hope that people share that. They're like, "Oh my god, check out where I started!" or whatever. And it means that your journey is kind of unique. If I start on a really toxic planet or radioactive planet or something I'd feel really unlucky. I hear people talking about that kind of thing. They say, "Typical for me! I started on a radioactive planet. That's my life in a nutshell." Then there's other people who are like, "I started on this beautiful utopia! That's quite nice."

So yeah, it's a unique journey, but it is within a shared universe. The chances of you meeting up with your friends are zero, pretty much. But, we are all in the same universe, and if two players were to fly to the exact same planet in the exact same place then they'd see the same thing.

Do you have a final estimate on the number of planets?

We were saying it was 2 to the power of 64, which is this really big number. So it's like 18 quintillion, which is an impossible number to wrap your head around. If you discover one planet every second, it would take 500 billion years to find all of them. By that point our sun would have burnt out. That happens in about 5 billion years or so. Our sun will have consumed the earth, none of us will exist, we'd all be dead. [Joking] So it's a particularly difficult platinum trophy to get.

Click image to view in full screen gallery
Click image to view in full screen gallery
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So is it possible to arrive at the centre of the universe?

It is, and it seems really daunting. When we show the game off some people are really daunted by it, and they look at the galactic map and they are like, "How would I..." I quite like this. People feel really insignificant, and that's how we want them to feel. We want them to feel vulnerable. We want them to feel like a tiny part of this universe. But, actually, as you upgrade your ship and upgrade your suit and your weapons and stuff, you can travel much further, much easier, and you can take shortcuts as well. Suddenly that galactic map seems less daunting, but it's still a really significant challenge. It's hundreds of hours of gameplay if a player did nothing else.

People feel really insignificant, and that's how we want them to feel. We want them to feel vulnerable. We want them to feel like a tiny part of this universe.

Sean Murray, Hello Games

Do you plan on immortalizing players who make it to the centre?

Well there's a reason that you’ll want to make that journey, reasons that we haven't really talked about. There are reasons why you would want to continue playing. Afterwards [those reasons] change the game a little bit. I also could see why, for many players, that would feel like a really good point to put down their pad and to kind of say, "I feel like I've completed No Man’s Sky."

Do you see No Man's Sky as a platform that you would maybe iterate on for years to come?

I would love to do that. For people who are buying the game, I would love to think that they are buying-in to not just the game as it is right now but also things there could be in the future. I think a lot of the really good sandbox games have done that. Even though I've been working on this game now for 3 or 4 years, which is crazy ... and I don't even want to admit to ... I still feel really passionate about it, and if people were out there and enjoying it I would love to add more.

There's so many things that ... I'm biting my lip ... that I'd want to talk about. Things that we could do that I think would be really fun. It'd be really nice to just kind of have the game out and have it be a real thing, and then be able to talk to the community and just have a conversation about it, like, "Hey, you're enjoying this. What things don't you like? What things are really annoying you? What things do you wish you could do?" That kind of stuff.

If players do bump into each other, how will they interact?

I guess we've always downplayed multiplayer because it's not really a multiplayer game. Actually, the experience is reasonably solitary. But we want you to feel like you're playing in a shared universe, and I think it's important to have those moments.

We're trying to not say exactly what happens, but it's not one ... it's a thing that very rarely occurs, so the chances of you landing on a planet that somebody's actually been to before is pretty rare. It's a nice thing when it happens. The chances of you being in the same space, the actual same planet at the same time as somebody, is something that might never happen. Certainly for an individual player, it might never happen, and it won't be your friends for sure.

So when you do, we want you to be aware of it, and we want you to have a sense of it, and we want it to be a real moment. But it's not like you go off and play deathmatch together, or call Julie, or start meleeing together and tea-bag each other. That is not what the game is about. It's more of a Journey-esque experience, or Dark Souls-esque kind of thing.

The chances of you being in the same space, the actual same planet at the same time as somebody, is something that might never happen.

Sean Murray, Hello Games

Finally, I think this game is a perfect fit for virtual reality.

I think it's perfect fit for virtual reality.

I think it could be the flag bearer for PlayStation VR. This is the game that can sell that technology.

I think that No Man's Sky, which is this infinite computer generated universe, and PlayStation VR, which is a headset that you put on and enter a VR space is like, it's like you've asked me when I was five what the future would look like. But that's as far as I can comment.

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    Rob Crossley

    Rob Crossley was GameSpot's UK Editor between 2014 and 2016.
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