No Man’s Sky: how a four-person team from Guildford strode forth to create an entire universe

From left: Sean Murray (MD, procedural programmer), Grant Duncan (artist), David Ream (gameplay programmer), Hazel McKendrick (programmer, ecosystems/creatures).

Hello Games’ big reveal of No Man’s Sky almost didn’t happen. Whether you watched Spike’s VGX awards show live or caught up with it after the event, the reaction to the surprise announcement was impossible to miss online. Yet had the studio’s founder, Sean Murray, got his way, the two-minute teaser trailer that prompted such a rapturous response would never have been aired. “I showed the video to about ten people before we went live with the VGXs and eight of them told me to not show it, that it wasn’t good enough and that it was a very strange game that people wouldn’t understand,” he says. “And I agreed with them, and I was actually trying to get them to not show the video.”

In the end, an unlikely ally saved the day. “[VGX co-host] Geoff Keighley fought for us to have a place there, and really stood up for us and told us it was something we should show,” Murray says. Not that he was appeased by Keighley’s enthusiasm, explaining that his overwhelming emotion on the flight to the event was “complete dread”. Murray was convinced that the trailer didn’t look as good as he wanted it to look, and that it didn’t effectively convey how the game played. Admittedly, that was partly down to the response of a handful of members of the UK press who’d seen the footage. “They met it with complete silence, and then we had to go and get [our] flight,” he remembers. “We asked them what they thought and they just sat there and said, ‘We’re not really sure what to say.’ And we said, ‘Well, got to go!’ We sat in silence in the taxi, in silence on an 11-hour flight, and then we got up the next morning and went to the VGX [show]. The four of us were there, and I went on.”

That unveiling was a crucial turning point in a journey that began many years ago. Murray spends several minutes relaying the story in a room with his three co-workers. Enthusiastic, animated, and occasionally descending into a quiet, almost conspiratorial, whisper, he tells his tale to an audience in rapt silence. You can see how he was able to sell them on the idea.

“This is a game that’s been in my head for a very long time,” he says. “Not because I thought I was going to make it, but just because I thought, ‘Someone is going to make this game at some point.’ And my explanation coming to the guys was… I had a very strange upbringing and eccentric parents, and we moved around a lot. For a good part of my childhood, we lived in the Australian outback on a massive farm on a ranch that was a million-and-a-quarter acres, [with] seven air strips and a gold mine. And it basically meant that we were a few hundred miles from anyone else. As a kid, you would spend probably more time than most in the middle of nowhere, the true middle of nowhere, where if something went wrong you were told to just stay where you were and light a fire at an exact time every day, and hope that someone would find you, because you were so far from everywhere else.

No Man’s Sky is deliberately named to “split the twittersphere” with its tricky-to-hashtag title.

“I think that a big part of that experience, when I think back, is that you get this amazing night sky. And when I say that, people picture the best night sky they’ve ever seen, but it feels close. I mean you can see absolutely everything – more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life and they’re there every night. As a kid, I spent an inordinate amount of time with my Amstrad CPC, playing computer games; [I was] starting to program at that stage and looking up… I always thought that’s where videogames would go, that we would create videogames that just contained the whole universe, and you’d be able to visit it all and it’d be amazing.” His eyes light up at the thought. When he says NMS is “the game we’ve always wanted to make”, we believe him.

That same sense of wonder, that yearning to head towards the stars rather than look up at them, is evident in the trailer. Yet it’s difficult to gauge from it exactly what No Man’s Sky is – how it’s structured, how it plays, how it feels. If at times Murray seems somewhat cagey and unwilling to expand on such details, it’s nothing to do with “playing a coy, clever PR game”. He’s adamant that he has no interest in that, and that his reticence is a case of not wanting to give too much away. “[The industry is] obsessed at the moment with parcelling everything up so you know everything about a game before it releases. And we want to allow people to make that decision on their own. When the game releases, people will put it up on the Net or whatever, but it’s their choice as to whether to discover all of that themselves.”

It’s an ethos that extends to the game’s design, too. No Man’s Sky will not have a tutorial. It stems from a desire to show, not tell, and while Murray expresses a distaste for the ’Minecraft in space’ tag that’s been attached to his game, Mojang’s phenomenon has been an inspiration in one sense. “One of the nicest things that’s happened over the last few years in terms of game design has been Minecraft not telling you the rules and formulae for crafting,” he says. “That was a really bold move, and it’s not something that happens very often. For me, it made the game – and when I think of Minecraft, that is what I think of as the game. It just wouldn’t have been the same without [that].”

The Minecraft comparison may be inaccurate, but it’s not an unreasonable one to draw, given the trailer. It soon becomes clear, however, that the cleverly edited teaser is far from the full story. “It has been really fascinating to see that people are just interested in exploring that universe, and we will probably make steps to accommodate that more,” Murray says. “But we aren’t making an ambient or passive experience. We will allow people who really want to have that to have that, so [the reaction] has shaped that side of things, but what would probably surprise people is that we are making a core gameplay experience, and that is where a quarter of our time has been focused at least.”

Hello Games wants No Man’s Sky’s worlds to feel handcrafted, despite being procedurally generated.

Hello Games is aiming for a more handcrafted feel than you might expect from a game in which, as the trailer’s intro text proudly states, every atom is procedural. As the studio’s artist, Grant Duncan, explains: “The procedural [code] to us is just a tool we use to try to create this interesting world, and Dave [Ream, gameplay programmer] deals entirely with how you interact with that world to make it feel good. That, to us, is way more interesting than all the stuff that we have to go through in making this a living, breathing world. That’s not the game.”

“There’s a misconception in terms of what people think of as procedural,” Murray adds. “They’re used to it meaning ‘random’. They’re used to the concept of [something that’s] like a lottery, so one in 100 skies will be blue, one in 100 skies will be red, or whatever. And then they probably picture tools that control that, [with a] percentage chance of this or that thing happening.”

Instead, the studio is building a base of layers, using simple systems that Ream affectionately calls “a magic black box of maths”. Random numbers are fed in, and the box makes sense of them before spitting out something that Murray claims “feels naturalistic”. There’s a strict set of rules underpinning it all, in other words, and the biggest self-imposed restriction is that any new rule that is introduced to the game has to be explicable in a single sentence of plain English. Not only does this lead to a more efficient codebase, but it also allows each of the three programmers to retain all that information. For a veteran like Murray, who worked at Criterion before setting up Hello in 2009, it’s one of the many benefits of working in a smaller group. “I’ve worked on games like Burnout and Black, where we had 100 people working on the team, and no one person even had one-tenth of that codebase in their heads. So when a bug would occur, it would actually be somebody’s job to track down whose fault it was before they could fix it.”

Which isn’t to say that a project like this, with so many variables involved, hasn’t thrown up its fair share of strange bugs and glitches. “If you introduce a new AI behaviour for creatures, then suddenly that affects fish, birds and crazy squid creatures,” Murray explains. “It affects the ways fireflies work, and you find it also affects the way ships fly in space. It has this massive knock-on [effect]. If a lot of systems are sharing the same simple components, then the work that you do is kind of magnified as well. You can get yourself into horrible situations and horrible problems, but what we’re trying to do is to actually simplify the process in as many ways as possible.”

Hello Games hasn’t made any decisions on No Man’s Sky's price, but it won't be free-to-play, that’s for sure. “I would love to explore interesting ways of releasing the game, so whether that’s beta access or what, I don’t know,” says Murray.

These problems might range from birds being found underground to the discovery of “some sort of cow animal trapped in a hole”, and yet scenarios naturally occur during testing that invite the three coders to attempt to reverse engineer them – to dig into the code and to create systems “that result in those scenarios happening in an emergent way”. Murray explains how he accidentally dropped a fish onto the shore of one planet and watched as birds began to flock around it. Unfortunately, the birds happened to pass over a large group of carnivorous plants, and a feathery bloodbath promptly ensued. As much as Hello Games is training its game to behave in certain ways, No Man’s Sky’s procedural universe also teaches its coders something new every day.

It is, Murray explains, all about creating individual stories for players; stories they can share with others. In that respect, he likens it to Dean Hall’s celebrated Arma II mod, DayZ. “I don’t think we’re similar to it, but it’s a good example of a game that delivers experiences that are unique, but when you experience them, they’re [also] very representative of what you might see in a zombie comic book or movie or TV show. The experience you have when you describe it out loud sounds like that kind of scenario. But it is emergent. And that’s the key to what we’re trying to do for science-fiction stories.”

Stories won’t be the only thing you’ll share with other players: while No Man’s Sky is predominantly a singleplayer game, it’s a universe you won’t be charting alone. You and all other players will start at its very edges, using planets as stepping stones as you steadily work your way inwards. There’s a reason for heading towards the centre of the universe, although Murray isn’t yet prepared to say what that might be. Again, he insists this isn’t about being wilfully secretive, but about deliberately keeping players asking and wondering.

Despite an element of interaction, No Man’s Sky is in no way a traditional multiplayer experience. “It would really hurt the [game] to have my most hated thing in the world: lobbies. And, ‘Oh, come and join me on my planet – it’s only 7,000 light years away,’ or whatever. We didn’t want to have that. But we still want people to really feel that they are playing together and that they are part of a community.”

There's plenty more No Man's Sky concept art in our gallery.

To this end, certain significant things you do in that world will be persistent across everyone’s game. The first player to bring up his or her galactic map will see all the planets and the stars within No Man’s Sky’s universe, but they will all be tagged ’unknown’ or ’unexplored’. “And as you, or I, or anyone plays the game, we will discover certain things,” Murray says. “[Such as] space stations, resources, creatures, or whatever those planets hold, and we can choose whether or not to upload that information. So one person on their own will not be able to make a dent in terms of exploring that universe, but hopefully millions of people playing together will be able to start mapping this [space] out in such a way as to help each other along and make new discoveries, and that’s part of the excitement and the thrill of the game.”

We press Murray for examples of these shared significant events, and he sighs deeply before asking himself a rhetorical question: “What am I allowed to say?” He pauses, picking his words carefully. “In every solar system there is one core thing that you can do which is of great significance to that solar system. And that is shared among everyone, and fundamentally changes that solar system, and people can choose whether or not to do that. And there are a number of mechanisms like that, which create emergent gameplay.”

If No Man’s Sky’s planets are stepping stones, then what of the leaps between them? In a universe so vast, how will Hello Games keep the journeys interesting? Murray insists that space in the game is much busier than you might think, with space stations, pirates, NPCs and more to distract you, while your ship will be powerful enough from the outset to make interstellar travel more of a short hop than a trek. “If you’re on a planet and you see another on the horizon, it’s not a chore to get there,” Murray says, before wryly nodding to Wind Waker’s “hours of boat travel”. Realism is a secondary concern: “I don’t want a game where we are restricted by the speed of light and it takes days to travel between planets. It’s a process that should be very empowering for exploration.”

And yet at the same time you’re vulnerable: “We want [players] to be a speck, to be infinitesimal.” This is not, it seems, the time nor the place for thrilling heroics, although you will be able to assist others. How the game balances a feeling of empowerment with a sense of fragility will go a long way towards determining whether or not No Man’s Sky succeeds.

David Ream (left) is responsible for No Man’s Sky’s ‘gamefeel’, the studio's way of describing a variety of complex systems that can determine whether a game immerses you or leaves you with an intangible disconnect.

Empowered yet vulnerable: it’s a description that seems to fit Hello Games rather comfortably at the moment. Now the world knows of its plans, is the pressure beginning to tell? After all, three coders and an artist working in a modest Guildford studio have suddenly found themselves creating one of the most talked-about games in the entire industry. “I don’t think we believe it,” Ream says. “It’s a weird thing to say, because you can look and you can see all this evidence, but there’s not thousands of people just stood outside the office. That would definitely make you feel like, ‘Oh my God.’”

And yet the moment he left the VGX set, leaving behind Geoff Keighley and a faintly incredulous Joel McHale (“You’re just four people making this game?” may have been the Community star’s most honest contribution of the night), Sean Murray found himself in a room with several other developers, including Double Fine’s Tim Schafer, all congratulating him. “They were shaking my hand and patting me on the back, and then we came down and all had a hug, and it was like this big Mighty Ducks moment. Somebody shouted, ’You’re trending on Twitter!’ and we all said ’Yeah!’, and I really don’t remember much of the rest of the night.” It was then that the pressure really took hold.

“I’m ten times more nervous now,” Murray admits. “I feel much more comfortable being the underdog that no one expects to deliver.” So if he had his time over, would he show the trailer again, or would he redouble his efforts to get it pulled from the show? “The positivity has been amazing, but all I want to do right now is to go into a very tiny room or hide under my desk with my laptop and just get back to development and really deliver.”

Besides, it’s the scepticism the trailer provoked that inspires Hello Games more. Although Murray dislikes the word ‘ambition’ (“It always sounds driven by a commercial undertone. But a drive to create is something we absolutely have”), being told theirs is too large is having a galvanising effect on the team. “Every tenth comment is, ’I don’t think they can deliver on that,’ or ’It’s too ambitious.’ And I love that,” he admits. “All of us [do].”

Doubts over whether a four-strong team really can create a game of this scale and complexity has only served to harden the Hello Games team's resolve to deliver exactly what's being promised.

“We’ve created a monster!” Ream cries in mock terror, laughing heartily. And it’s clear that while Hello Games may be feeling the weight of expectation, it’s also confident it can deliver on its brave, spectacular vision. The advent of a new generation of hardware has given this team the perfect opportunity to do so. “There is a feeling of elation at being this small team and having those constraints lifted from us of everything having to be hand built,” Murray explains. “Now we have the power to create something huge in size and really expansive.”

Clearly, there is plenty we still don’t know – how No Man’s Sky will be priced, for instance, Hello Games’ release plans, how the game really plays on a moment-to-moment basis, and, perhaps more crucially still, how it feels to spend time in this universe. But leaving it vague is part of the plan for now.

“We said we were going to make a game about exploration,” Murray says. “And I mean true exploration, real discovery, not just some breadcrumbs that a designer has laid down previously for you to discover. Something where even we don’t know the outcomes. And no one does until they begin playing the game.”

Isaac Asimov, an acknowledged influence on Murray and especially on No Man’s Sky, would approve. After all, as the sci-fi author once concluded, “The true delight is in the finding out, rather than in the knowing.”