Assassin's Creed, Call Of Duty, Battlefield; these are the games that traditionally dominate an E3 press conference. But tucked between the expertly choreographed explosions and polygon-packed visuals of Sony's E3 press conference this year was a different kind of game, one that didn't just impress the thousand-strong audience of the show in LA and the millions watching at home, but for many stole the show entirely. And it came from a team of just 10 people, housed in a tiny, humble building tucked beside a concrete car park in Guilford. For Hello Games, its appearance at E3 wouldn't just remind people about its upcoming open-world epic No Man's Sky; it would turn it into one of the most highly anticipated games of the year.
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But No Man's Sky's success at the show was far from guaranteed. Six months prior to E3 at the controversial 2013 VGX Awards, the game made its debut. It was met with an extremely positive reception from press and public alike, but for Hello Games founder Sean Murray, that didn't mean an easy win for the game at E3. If anything, the studio was expecting far less.
"I think after the VGXs we had a really good reaction, and that totally took us by surprise", says Murray. "We thought what we were showing was quite niche, and that people wouldn't really get it, and we didn't feel like we showed that much. We thought that people wouldn't be that excited. But actually, it was the opposite, and people had a good reaction and loved it. But we just clammed up afterward. We should have done loads of press and stuff, but we actually pretty much did nothing after the VGXs and just went quiet for six months, working on stuff we wanted to get ready for E3.
"But then, I actually just expected it to just be a reminder for people about the game. We had that discussion as a group, that the amount of views the video would get would be less than the VGXs, and we should just be fine with that, and not take that as a bad sign, because people already know what the game is and we're not showing them anything more than that. But it was the opposite, and it seems to have been way more popular, which is awesome. The VGXs just meant for us that we have to go away and work on it. That's the right thing to do and that's what people want us to do."
And go away and work on it they did. For six months the 10-strong team toiled away on the game, trying to get it ready for a more personal showing at E3, not yet knowing it would be part of Sony's press conference. Without a publisher, the studio was free to explore the possibilities of its clever procedural generation engine, but with that came a lack of pressure, and deadlines. It's a problem that Murray is all too aware of, "a tendency to just go off on one" as he describes it. Like the VGX Awards before it, E3 would be a major milestone for the game, a date that the studio couldn't move and had to stick to--and, despite a flood-related setback along the way, it was on track to do so. Then, a week prior to the show, there was word from Sony.
"I know now looking back that we probably should have known earlier [we were going to be part of Sony's press conference]", says Murray. "There were these indications that we probably should have understood. There were these hints and things, but we didn't feel like we knew, honestly, until a week beforehand. We knew that we were under consideration, and we had been showing Sony what we were up to, showing them builds and things. And they seemed to be going down well and getting a good reception. But, what I found is that Sony is incredibly laid back and quite informal, and I don't expect that from some huge mega corporation. So, I would say to them, 'would we, maybe, be in the E3 press conference?' and they'd be like 'sure!' But because it was said in such a laid back way, I didn't think it could possibly be real...for me it didn't feel real until we went over and did a rehearsal."
While the studio had already prepped the game for a showing to journalists, the press conference was another matter entirely. A 10-minute demo of some combat in Call Of Duty is one thing, but how best to show a game that makes a grand, Molyneux-like promise of an infinite universe and exploration in the space of just a few minutes? Would anybody understand it? And would they believe that a tiny indie studio--one that hadn't even attended, let lone exhibited at E3 before--could possibly pull it off?
No Man's Sky isn't a game that naturally suits a three-to-five-minute demo. When we first started talking to Sony about it, that was its big worry.
"There was this series of bombshells leading up to the show, where we suddenly realised that No Man's Sky was going to be on stage, and it was going to be on a 120ft screen, and realising that there are problems associated with that, and even just realising that it's at a stadium. I've always just watched the streaming version, and you don't realise that there's actually 5000 people in the audience. That for me is my worst nightmare.
And No Man's Sky isn't a game that naturally suits a three-to-five-minute demo. When we first started talking to Sony about it, that was its big worry. I think we surprised them as it got closer and closer to E3. We were working very hard to create something that in some ways is very similar to other game demos, even though our game doesn't suit that at all, in that you've got a mixture of action and adventure and discovery going on in a really short time frame. We're one of the few games where in our demo you end up flying about 100,000 km, or something ridiculous. Most games don't have to cover those immense distances. So it is really complex from that point of view, to boil that down.
We're one of the few games where in our demo you end up flying about 100,000 km, or something ridiculous. Most games don't have to cover those immense distances.
To give you an example of some problems, we planned out what our demo was, and then we had to find somewhere in the universe to set it. So I flew around for quite some time, a couple of days, looking for a planet that particularly suited it. So I had to pick that planet, but also find another planet that was nearby that I was going to fly to, and kind of engineer this situation where there was going to be things to fight in between. And then you actually end up having to deal with really weird things like the time of day on the planet it starts from, and what animals are going to be out at the time of day, and what time of day it is on the planet you land on. We wanted that to be daytime, and that's really hard to plan, and it just doesn't happen that easily. It was quite a fun little problem to have. Whereas, for any other game, you would be constructing something for months especially for E3. When Ubisoft shows off what Assassin's Creed is like, it has specifically made that entire demo for that show. We don't have that control, which is really good, but also really crazy."
As for whether or not people finally understand the mechanics of the game, well, the jury's still out on that one (if you're still at a loss, be sure to check out our Next Big Game coverage). But it's not something that's troubling Murray. If anything, that mystery is exactly what he's after.
"I think we in games have gone too far in this direction, which is that I find games incredibly predictable, especially AAA retail games. I can tell when a game is about to end, when I'm at the middle or filler section, all of those things. And I'm not jaded of those games, I still enjoy them, but I'm really interested in making something different...at E3, almost everyone we saw asked us 'what is the 30-second game loop?' And we try and explain how that can be, but there's a real part of me that just wants to go 'you know what, why do you need a 30-second game loop? And why do you need quests, and amulets, or whatever? Aren't we really tired of that?'
I also think that gamers are smarter than people think. I think that's been proven time and again. Call Of Duty is the number one seller, and it's incredibly popular. But you go to any gaming website and you will find gamers who are not that excited about it. We as a group are just making a game that we're interested in. And you absolutely take a risk by making something different, and I'm just really accepting of that. It's good news if you're worried about things. If there's no one to say that your game will be successful, because it's like these other games, it's better, because we would be competing with those other games and we're a tiny indie studio. We don't have a marketing budget or anything like that, so we have to do something different. You're probably right; [No Man's Sky] isn't necessarily going to be market tested as a console-friendly game for the person that plays FIFA or Call Of Duty, but we're kind of OK with that."
With three Game Critics' Best of E3 awards for Best Original Game, Best Independent Game and the Special Commendation for Innovation, and numerous awards from the media--including GameSpot's own Best of E3 2014--the press is certainly enamoured with Hello Games' work. And, having seen the game in action, and having learned what makes it tick, I find myself being just as infatuated with the grand ambitions of No Man's Sky too. But there's always a worry that with such early success, and with such support behind it, the game can't possibly live up to anybody's expectations. That, or the studio cracks under the pressure.
I think we in games have gone too far in this direction, which is that I find games incredibly predictable, especially AAA retail games. I can tell when a game is about to end, when I'm at the middle or filler section, all of those things.
"I'm the guy--and I think there's a few of these personalities at Hello Games--where they might be 100 positive comments, and all I will see are the negative ones", says Murray. "And that's just kind of human nature, but I have that problem to the Nth degree. The positivity, and I know sounds really bad, but you almost do your best to avoid it, and filter that out and not let it get to you. All I can take away from that is the same message, which is that I need to go away and make this. I think that we strayed into this area that is not just excitement, but kind of like hype, and hype is your worst enemy as a developer, because it's that thing that's really impossible to deliver against. It's great that people have that excitement, but all it makes me want to do is actually go quiet and go and make the game.
I think it is just pressure, you know? But I think the way we work we're happy with. I'll give you an example. Every other developer I meet keeps saying 'oh, how many is Hello Games now post-E3, it must be, like, 50 people? You must be hiring like crazy!' But that's not our attitude at all. We definitely don't want it to affect us. And I think it would be this ludicrous mistake as well. You could almost write it out that Hello Games would come back from E3, hire loads of people, go crazy, and never be seen again. But it's also quite nice that we have enough interest, because it allows us to just focus on making the game. Every publisher that I meet would advise me to keep doing more and more press or whatever. Like, Watch Dogs, had 16 different gameplay videos or something like that. And, in theory, we should be doing something like that, but we're not going to. We're just going to make the game, and finish the game. I think that's what people want. No amount of videos will change whether our game is good or not."
For more No Man's Sky, head over our Next Big Game hub.