When Sean Murray was very small, his parents picked up their five young children and moved from Ireland to a million-acre ranch in the Australian outback. It was so vast and isolated, the only viable form of travel was light aircraft (the ranch had seven landing strips); Sean and his brother and sisters had to be taught what to do if they were out in the bush with an adult who collapsed or died. “You stay with the body,” Sean explains, brightly. “You light a fire in the morning and at night, and you just stay.”
He pauses for a second. “It was an odd childhood.”
Thirty years later, Murray is working on the game he says he has always wanted to make; a game that has received reams of ecstatic press coverage since its surprise announcement at last year’s Spike TV Video Game Awards.
No Man’s Sky is a gigantic space exploration adventure, set in a persistent online universe populated simultaneously by every participating player. Whenever a new planet is discovered, a complex algorithm automatically generates its landscape, flora and fauna. You may land on a barren wasteland with a lethally toxic atmosphere, or an Eden swarming with exotic wildlife – and once the planet is discovered and generated, it is available for all other players to explore. The universe builds around its inhabitants.
The stars, my destination
The concept of No Man’s Sky was born in Murray’s childhood, out on that endless, sun-baked ranch. “I was trying to live and survive in a world that was as close to alien as you can get on Earth,” he says. “At the same time, I had my first Amstrad computer, and I was playing Elite – I could go outside and see these amazing night skies, then I would play this game and see thousands of stars that I could actually visit – and I wanted to visit every one of them.”
Five years ago, Murray left Criterion, where he had been working on the blockbusting Burnout series of knockabout racers. Taking three colleagues with him, he set up Hello Games in a single-room office in Guildford and began work on a comparatively modest debut; the motorbike stunt sim Joe Danger. Released on PlayStation 3 in 2010 it was a success, eventually making its way to Xbox 360, iOS and the Vita.
“I’m incredibly proud of it,” says Murray. “We poured a lot into Joe Danger … but it’s not what we started Hello Games for. We started it for No Mans Sky – this game is everything to us.” So with a manageable debut out of the way, and some stability behind them, the team moved on to its grand design.
Every player enters No Man’s Sky in the same way – at the circumference of the galaxy with a crappy spaceship and hardly any money. How they cope is up to them; they can become traders, touching down on planets and gathering resources to sell; they can be pirates, blasting space freighters to pieces to steal their stock. With more money, pilots can visit space stations (there’s one in every solar system) to purchase upgrades like the hyperdrive, which allows interstellar exploration; or they can buy better weapons and more durable spacesuits. There are no missions, there is no structure. There is just space.
In many ways, No Man’s Sky owes much more to the science fiction of the 60s and early 70s – when the space race engendered a sense of fascination with the possibilities of galactic exploration. Its planets, with their vibrant colours and hallucinogenic skylines, reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of Star Trek, Barbarella and 2001.
There are, of course, other massively ambitious multiplayer space games in development – Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen being the key contenders. But these seem to be much more conventional in their emphasis on power, status and combat. You buy better ships so you can blast other players out of the sky; you rank up; you shoot more stuff. No Man’s Sky certainly has AI-controlled spacecraft to fight, and no doubt there will be player-on-player skirmishes, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about discovery. Although Murray doesn’t want to give the wrong impression about that.
“There’s a tendency, when you hear the word exploration in games, to think that it will be entirely ambient – that you’ll just walk around looking at flowers. That’s not what No Man’s Sky is,” he says. “Space is full of life and danger and you are an alien in that scenario – not everyone wants to be friendly. That’s how the universe is.
“It’s also dangerous on planets. Each one has an ecology, and you’re not always at the top of the food chain; we’ve shown large creatures that attack you. There’s also something else we haven’t shown. There is a malevolent force in the universe that does provide a lot of combat and more core gameplay at times. We wanted that; we wanted players to wander around exploring planets but never to feel entirely safe.”
The big question right now, is about how social the game will be. Players exist together in a shared universe, but as Douglas Adams once wrote, space is big. Really big. Murray told reportersat Gamescom in August, that the program behind No Man’s Sky is capable of generating “billions of planets”.
How often will we meet other players? Apparently, it will be possible for participants to leave their mark on the planets they visit – is this how communication will work?
“We don’t know,” says Murray. “We don’t know if people will spread evenly out across the universe, or whether they’re going to corral into areas that have already been explored, whether they will form little trade routes, little strips of familiar worlds, going from the outside edge like the spokes of a wheel toward the centre of the galaxy … or whether it will be totally random.”
He does know however, that players will be encouraged to venture deeper into uncharted space. The best ships and weapons are only available as you head in toward the heart of the galaxy. However, the further you go, the more dangerous the worlds, and the more aggressive the computer-controlled space ships. No Man’s Sky may be unconventional in its emphasis on exploration and experience, but it still has the structure and mechanisms of a game; there is intelligent design rather chaos.
Hello Games has a larger office now, a converted workshop with rough wooden floors and its own meeting room. Last year, the building was flooded, destroying much of the company’s equipment – the team simply moved upstairs and redecorated. This is the game they formed the company to make – nothing is getting in the way of that.
“When we’ve come to events like Gamescom before, we’ve had to drive our own van, and bring our own sofas – it’s things like that that push you,” says Murray.
“You think, ‘one day it’ll be different. One day we will make something huge.’”
Once upon a time, a little boy looked out over a vast nothingness to the teeming stars above. Now he and his friends have made a universe, and we will all be able to visit.
No Man’s Sky will be released on PC and PlayStation 4 in 2015.