Imagine a landscape so vast you stand no chance of exploring it in its entirety. As you walk across the world’s surface, there’s always a taller mountain, darker cave, or deeper ocean to find. After you’ve accomplished what you initially thought impossible and explored the entire world before you, a new path opens up. You step into space for the first time, and every star you see in the distance has planets, similar to your home, ready to be explored.
This is what No Man’s Sky promises, and is perhaps the reason it stole the show at SpikeTV’s VGX awards. The trailer opens by declaring that every cloud, rock, and atom is procedurally generated. The ratio of truth to marketing in that statement remains to be seen, but it is a bold claim. The camera begins underwater, observing the wildlife of an unknown planet. It pans out of the ocean to display an autumn-esque scene with harsh orange-leafed trees and red grass. The viewer is lead to a spaceship, that is then piloted toward a station outside the atmosphere. This pseudo-narrative is intercut with action scenes reminiscent of other sci-fi FPSs and space shooters. It’s easy to see why this announcement created such a buzz.
Response to the trailer has been divisive, with detractors balking at the limited staff of the developer, Hello Games. As a studio of only four people, how could they possibly create such a massive universe? As gaming has grown over the previous decades, so too have the development teams. You need only take a glimpse at the credit rolls of games like Assassin’s Creed 4 or Tomb Raider to understand the number of people required to get those games functioning. With this knowledge, why should one believe that a 4-person studio can deliver on a promise of this magnitude?
We’re not talking about any 4-person studio, though. It’s Hello Games, the minds behind Joe Danger. It's the team behind a game that included a lengthy career, multiple goals throughout said career, a separate multiplayer mode, and an in-depth level creator that allowed players to upload and share levels. A game of that magnitude would be a significant task for any studio, and yet this small team pulled it off. No Man’s Sky sounds like an impossible feat, for sure, but Hello Games has a history of performing beyond their limitations.
So how can a 4-man team produce a universe of this scale? Procedural generation. The promise inherent in No Man’s Sky’s pitch is a universe that builds itself. Not out of nothing, mind you. The trailer shows a consistent style throughout each landscape, but that style, as the opening suggests, is more a result of how objects grow and exist in this universe and less a result of an omnipotent designer. A tree exists in No Man’s Sky because that world provides the proper conditions to grow a tree, not because an artist placed it there.
With a playfield this massive, some wonder what you can accomplish in No Man’s Sky. For this, I turn to other optional goal oriented games like Minecraft and Terraria. Both games have a progression that culminates in one or multiple boss fights, but that’s not the only joy those titles have to offer. Many people’s fondest memories of those games are simply scrounging for items, building a house, and surviving. Though the No Man’s Sky trailer doesn’t boast the level of creation of Minecraft, it’s easy to imagine a similar flow of gameplay. A freeform, do-as-you-wish approach alongside a progression of common accomplishments may be what No Man’s Sky is aiming for.
As the buzz of the VGX trailer wears off, we are left with more questions than answers in regards to No Man’s Sky. Because of that I can't blame people for being skeptical of the trailer. It is true that we still are not sure what limitations this universe holds, but that will not stop me from being excited. Even in its most stripped down form, No Man’s Sky promises a new gameplay experience. In a year that saw Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4, Saints Row 4, Grand Theft Auto V, and many other franchise sequel releases, “new” is worth getting excited about.