Ever heard of Joe Danger? That's okay, you're not alone -- most folks haven't heard of the motocross-based platformer, despite it receiving glowing praise from critics and earning healthy sales from gamers. That said, if you followed last week's annual game industry trade show, E3, you've likely heard of No Man's Sky. The same small team of scrappy Brits that created the cartoony Danger series, Hello Games, is applying its years of game industry experience to a much more ambitious project in No Man's Sky. This is how Hello Games lead Sean Murray described the game at Sony's E3 2014 press conference:
"We've created a procedural universe. It's infinite, and it's one that everyone can share. We're gonna start every player on a different planet so no two people will have the same experience. This universe we've created...it's so vast, it's so boundless, it's actually infinite, and we don't even know what's out there."
So, how in the world did a team of four game developers transition from indie hit makers to triple-A rogues? We asked Hello Games just that, late last week in an evening demo session for No Man's Sky.
" I couldn't picture myself turning around and working on a game that's the same scale of Joe Danger."
The last time I saw Sean Murray and David Ream, they weren't quite so serious. The previous games from their 10-person studio, Hello Games, are great in their own way, but not anywhere near the scope or scale of No Man's Sky. Not by a long shot. Let's run a quick comparison, just so you're clear. Here's Joe Danger for PlayStation 3:
Here's No Man's Sky for PlayStation 4:
Pretty major difference, no? Murray says it was an intentional move to go bigger, but not their only intention. "We were really pleased with the success and stuff, but our ambitions were much bigger, I think. I couldn't picture myself turning around and working on a game that's the same scale of Joe Danger," Murray says.
Beyond that, Murray and co. wanted to break out of the game-development formula. They were tired of beginning development by asking, "What type of game are we making?" and going from there. "You start to have conversations like, 'We'll make a platformer next! We'll make a point-and-click adventure,' or something like that. And you're not pushing yourself as a developer. We wanted to try and do something really landmark," Murray says.
Sound arrogant? That's a measure of text not conveying tone. Every time Murray made a statement like that during our half-hour meeting, he'd couch it with a statement like, "But we didn't talk about it [in] that kind of arrogant way or cocky way," abashedly looking away. Even in his statements above, he can't help but add caveats like, "I think," as he goes (I've cut out most, for your sake). This is a man with grand ambitions and, thankfully, a sense of self-awareness.
I begin our piece on No Man's Sky with this profile of Murray and co. for good reason: There's pedigree, heart and passion backing up the seemingly too grand plans for the space-exploration game. It's important to understand not just the background of the team in terms of resume -- Criterion, Kuju, Sumo Digital -- but also the people that make it up. These are the kind of guys who appear on a podcast late at night after a long day of showing their game on a loud convention hall show floor. It's for all these reasons I have tremendous faith in their ability to pull off No Man's Sky as they describe it.
"Can I see myself doing this on that indie circuit? Going to PAX every year and killing myself on something that long-term isn't ... am I gonna look back on it? Will they all blur into one?"
Hello Games is an indie studio. There are 10 staffers. Four of them went dark internally to concept No Man's Sky (including Murray and Ream), and even now, the four-person team that initially created the project works closely together. They're not scaling up for No Man's Sky, either; the game was built around the concept of a small team creating a massive project. It's procedurally generated and it's made of voxels. But what does that mean?
For one, it means that the usual army of artists required to create the artwork of a massive game aren't required. Murray explains: "Our artist, just like on any normal game, builds something like this: a tree. And he would have to build dozens, or maybe a hundred of these, to create a forest. And then if you had another forest with a different type, then you have to build a different type of tree. Another several dozen."
All of those trees take time and money! While third-party solutions like SpeedTree exist (which creates a whole bunch of virtual trees), small teams aren't exactly flush with cash for extra software. So, instead of the standard operating procedure for game development, Hello Games built a system to create all that time-intensive stuff -- known as "assets" -- for them. Even better, that system creates on the fly, based on a variety of parameters, meaning no two planets/creatures/ships/trees are exactly the same. The system solves two problems at once: producing all the assets of the game (music included) and making the game infinitely explorable.
If no two planets are the same, then the world is infinite -- there's no reason to stop exploring, which is exactly what Murray wants. There aren't defined goals or conflict in the game just yet, nor a quest log or some form of points/scoring. He's only vaguely hinted at the gameplay of No Man's Sky beyond exploration; your ship has a weapon to fire, and the dinosaur-like creatures in the E3 demo could absolutely stamp you out with a single step. There are resources to gather, and Murray sent out a pulse to scan for said resources in the demo we were shown. What you'll do with those resources is another question; there are many, many questions about the game of No Man's Sky, though we've got a pretty clear picture of what its world will be.
"If you play it, I want you to play it not because you're interested in indie games. I want you to play it because you prefer it to Call of Duty, not because it's more 'legitimate' or 'credible' or something like that, but because it's more entertaining."
No one I spoke to at E3 2014 said, "No Man's Sky looks pretty great for an indie game." They all just said, "That game looks crazy!" This is an important distinction, and one that Hello Games says it's glad to hear. This was also intentional. "That's really meaningful to me," Murray says. "I wanted to make games, and have spent a long time being 'the indie dev.'"
Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. Indie devs make great games, and even some of the world's most popular. Minecraft was created by a single man. Rovio was a small studio when it stumbled on a hit with Angry Birds. Hell, Oculus VR mostly exists from Palmer Luckey tooling around in his spare time.
But there's still a separation. The three aforementioned indies all broke out of that world into the mainstream, and Murray's aiming to repeat that success for Hello Games. It's not the only goal, of course, but it is a concern to Murray personally with No Man's Sky. "We don't actually want the story to be, 'Oh they made it with a handful of people,' or whatever. We just want it to be good."
The good news for Murray and co. is that all of us -- the folks who play games -- also "just want it to be good." With an unannounced release date and only a PlayStation 4 release named thus far, Hello has the flexibility with expectations to impress us all. Now all they have to do is do it.
Correction: This piece originally stated that No Man's Sky is heading to PlayStation 4 and PC. Hello Games tells us, "We've so far only announced that No Man's Sky will be available on PS4, where it will make its console debut."