Hello Games’ Sean Murray on creating and exploring No Man’s Sky’s procedural worlds

No Mans Sky concept


You can expect worlds alien enough to match all the unearthly colour palettes on display.

Having served as the technical lead on games such as Burnout 3 and Black, Sean Murray founded Hello Games in 2009, taking the title of managing director. But far from some abstracted overlord, he’s directly shaping No Man’s Sky’s worlds, building the framework that will generate the game’s procedural surprises. This Q&A is part of our exclusive look at the game in the new issue of Edge magazine, on sale Thursday January 16. You can subscribe now in print, or in digital form on iPadAndroid and Zinio.

What does a day of procedural programming entail?
I create all the planet shapes, the terrain shapes, the rivers, the mountains, the seas, that kind of thing. Previously, I used to write an engine and then I would pass that off to Grant, and then I would write tools and [do the same]. I would have no input into the shape or the style of an environment – that would then be handed over to Grant entirely… The difference now, for instance, is the other day I was introducing the idea of a cave system, and that means actually taking the input of layers of what is [essentially] random noise and passing that through a variety of different systems that think about stuff like laws of erosion, which are the same ones we use for our mountains, and that think about actual cave structures, which is the same thing we’ve already done for rivers and for seas, and [it] feeds off those things.

And I iterate on that, I run the game and I charge about an environment and find some caves and think, ‘They look good!’ Then I fly to another planet and see that they look terrible, and they’ve created some kind of crazy landscape. And then you fly to another and there are no caves, and then [on] another there’s water in the caves, because of where the sea level is on that planet, and you dive down and find that there’s actually some small bacteria-based life there, and it comes as a total surprise.

Does the topography of a planet have to be traversable by the player, or do you have areas where it’s not possible to go?
When we first started working on this project, I would say that the landscapes we created looked far more alien, [and] in some ways more interesting at times. But they had terrible gameplay, and that was our first moment of, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?’ And it has been one of the hardest problems on this project to make something that doesn’t just look traversable, but looks interesting to traverse, that looks in many ways handmade, but can go on for miles and miles and still keep providing you with something you haven’t seen before.

Sean Murray is Hello Games’ MD and handles the all of the procedural programming. Grant Duncan is the art lead, David Ream is responsible for gameplay programming and Hazel McKendrick is working on ecosystems and creatures.

The game has no tutorial, and you’ve suggested that players will be left to their own devices. To us, that sounds like Dark Souls, which lets you figure out its mechanics.
Right, and that is a very good reference point for some of the things we want to do in terms of multiplayer – in terms of progression as well.

But without that kind of direct interaction?
The thing that really interests me in multiplayer is the community, the social aspect of actually playing together, of sharing an experience with a lot of people. [For example], the best time for me in an MMOG is those first few weeks, where everything is in flux and everyone is just trying to figure out the rules and the lore of the game. It’s like you’ve landed in this universe that’s just been created for you and you’re all going to figure out how it works. And that is exactly what we want to create.

So if someone’s coming into the game at a later time, when most things have been discovered, how do you ensure they’ll have a similar experience to when the game started?
There are two things in that. The first thing is that you probably underestimate the size of the universe. If all of the people on Earth right now had very powerful spaceships and were to visit every corner of every planet in the universe, we would not do very well in our lifetime of mapping that out. The second thing is that the outer edges of the first galaxy will begin to be more explored, but as more and more players come into the game there are mechanisms we’re bringing in that will keep everything in flux, and that ties in with things you can do that are of significance.

How does information sharing work?
You’re all in the same universe, and when you [discover something] you can upload what you found to what is effectively a star map and an encyclopaedia of knowledge. And people would then be able to find those things much more quickly and progress forward.

Hello Games wants to replicate that “feeling of responsiveness, of bounciness, of what I would call ‘console gameplay’,” that Joe Danger had, says Murray. “that’s how we want No Man’s Sky to feel: responsive, immediate, running at 60fps.”

Will you be able to share false information?
[Laughs] That is just the way the human mind works; it’s unbelievable. And I do love that in Dark Souls. We’re not doing that, so you can’t share false information, but you could choose not to share information. And you could also choose to share information in a way that was beneficial to you…

How do you discourage malicious behaviour?
We’re trying to create a set of systems that will create emergent behaviour, but we would be silly to think that some of that behaviour isn’t going to be dickishness. And we would be wrong to try to curb or control that. The greatest thing about something like DayZ is that it creates these real stories of human nature. We similarly want to create stories that feel real, and that have an element of human nature. Having said that, I do think dickishness is a problem in DayZ and hurts the experience when it happens. We want cooperation to be rewarded – not by the systems we put in, but because that’s what feels right for the universe.