No Man’s Sky is pushing the limits of what we know as a procedurally generated environment.
Science fiction games are all the rage lately, it seems. There are some very impressive space exploration games that are currently in development right now and not just from a gameplay standpoint either. Some of the technology and design choices that are being made for games like Star Citizen, Starbound, FTL and the recently announced No Man’s Sky are really amazing. While games like Star Citizen have been in the public eye for awhile and titles like Starbound and FTL are in a stage of early access and public testing, No Man’s Sky made a quiet yet absolutely stunning presentation at this years VGX show.
We’re going to take a look at No Man’s Sky, why it will be awesome and what this means for people who’ve always wanted to explore a galaxy, planet by planet and star by star. While there are plenty of things that can be found in others games that are out now, No Man’s Sky is still pairing these designs with some wonderfully fresh ideas.
"In the case of No Man’s Sky you just fly out of the planet’s atmosphere and into space with no stoppage, no waiting, you just continue to fly, hopefully uninterrupted. This alone makes the game design something worth taking note of."
The first thing that makes this game pretty awesome is that the universe is completely procedurally generated. While this isn’t necessarily anything new, games like Minecraft, FTL and Starbound are all doing this now. What is impressive about it is the scale at which it is being generated. The universe that’s being created can be completely explored and it is absolutely massive, with unique life forms, planets and environments.
The trailer of the game starts with your character submerged in a deep ocean, full of all sorts of life. From small fish, to Coral and even predators, like sharks. From there, the player slowly swims to the surface and steps onto the shore, moving towards what looks to be a small, single passenger spaceship or fighter. The player then boards the ship and flies into space. All this is in-game graphics and gameplay, according to the developers, Hello Games. There doesn’t seem to be any loading screen as players move from the ocean, to the beach then to their ship and finally into orbit. All of this exists within one instance of the game. Once more, what is even more impressive about this, is that there is no skybox.
If you’re unfamiliar with this term, basically it’s a theoretical limit to which a game’s terrain can be generated. Anyone who has played Minecraft or Terraria is most likely familiar with these little devils. Essentially, these skyboxes are invisible markets within the game that stops you from moving, well, up. In previous titles, you’d need to go through some transition to get into orbit or another part of the world. This transition is almost always in the form of some loading screen, whether it be progress bar, blank black screen or a convincing graphic that makes the player believe they are moving from one location to another very quickly. In the case of No Man’s Sky you just fly out of the planet’s atmosphere and into space with no stoppage, no waiting, you just continue to fly, hopefully uninterrupted. This alone makes the game design something worth taking note of.
"The planets themselves are vast, being able to explore a multitude of environments within one planet is impressive in itself, but to spread this across a galaxy, to potentially every planet in the game is a staggering feat in itself."
What is also exciting about this “lack of skybox” is that when the player looks up from the surface of the planet, the things that they see in their solar system, the objects that might be orbiting the planet like moons, space stations or large spacecraft are all really there. This is not some painted-on backdrop that will shift once the player gets closer to it. Hopefully this sort of thing also extends to distant stars and planets that players may see outside of the solar system.
What we also know about the trailer is that everything we’ve seen in it is all within one solar system. The simple fact that the player can move from planet to planet within the solar system without going through much waiting and without hitting those pesky height limits in game is stunning in itself. If the game had no loading screens whatsoever, we can only assume that the entire development team had made some shadowy pact with the dark one, damning their souls to burn in a fiery lake of molten hot sin, with only demons as company for eternity.
Anyway, back on track. The trailer only shows us a single solar system and this was something that Hello Games has done on purpose. Characters start out in the fringes of a Galaxy. The goal is to move your character to the center of this galaxy. As the players move in, the planets, ecosystems and life forms will become increasingly more alien. Some of them will be downright uninhabitable for whatever life form you may play as.
The planets themselves are vast, being able to explore a multitude of environments within one planet is impressive in itself, but to spread this across a galaxy, to potentially every planet in the game is a staggering feat in itself. The developers plan on populating these planets with unique life that fits their surroundings, like sharks and fish that we’ve seen in the trailer, for instance. For gamers who love to explore, and have had a long time love affair with the open world environments and space, No Man’s Sky is something that dreams are made of.
"You can also just cruise the stars, discovering planet after planet, making a name for yourself with other players who are looking to take advantage of all the hard work you’ve done exploring the galaxy."
The game also appears to be geared towards the many facets of exploration. Let’s say you’re the completionist-type. You can discover a planet and spend all your time on that one craggy, cold rock, floating in space. You can reap the benefits of it’s rare natural resources and delve deeper into that planet than a majority if any other player has done. You can also just cruise the stars, discovering planet after planet, making a name for yourself with other players who are looking to take advantage of all the hard work you’ve done exploring the galaxy.
Now comes a game mechanic that many gamers who have played a survival sandbox may be familiar with. You will need to explore the galaxy to find resources and materials so that you can upgrade your character as well as your ship. Things like weapons, armor and shields will be upgradable. They will also affect how far your ship may be able to travel in a single jump. Hello Games is certainly keeping this bit of information under wraps, but they have mentioned that we’ll be able to advance our ship. Another great thing about the exploration system that the developers have planned is that any planet you discover will mark it with relevant information for others.
This makes the planet’s information available to not only you, but anyone else that you might be playing with as well. Things like atmosphere, environment, location and name should all be plotted for everyone to see, not only that but you’ll get credit for it’s discovery. If you’re playing with other people and as they explore, your map becomes populated. This is a great way to share the load of exploration and discovery so to speak. This also allows players to fly to a very awesome discovery so that it can be shared, which is a pretty new idea when compared to other exploration games.
The fact that other players can see what you’ve discovered is curious as well, since No Man’s Sky is not a multiplayer game, not in the classic sense and how most gamers identify with a multiplayer experience anyway. The game is persistent, in the sense that everyone is looking at or discovering the same planets. Something that would be considered a monumental moment or even that shakes up the galaxy, or forever changes it is something that is share amongst players. For instance, if you kill a being in the game, it most likely won’t be reflected. However, if you were to say, commit some horrific alien genocide on a particular race and species, well there is a good chance that that entire race will just be wiped from existence for every player. That’s pretty awesome, in a really irresponsible and destructive way, but awesome.
"Changes made in the game affect everyone. If a player clears an asteroid field of mineral, then they are gone. If you happen to crash into a planet, or destroy your ship in that very same, mined out asteroid belt then your wrecked spaceship may be there, as somewhat of a warning for all those to see."
This game is very heavily dependent on it’s user base, even if we cannot expect the players to directly interact with one another, which is an interesting thought. Changes made in the game affect everyone. If a player clears an asteroid field of mineral, then they are gone. If you happen to crash into a planet, or destroy your ship in that very same, mined out asteroid belt then your wrecked spaceship may be there, as somewhat of a warning for all those to see.
As beautiful, captivating and interesting as this game universe is though, it is also dangerous. These dangers come with consequences as well. Hello Games has said that your character themselves will not die. But that’s not to say you will not be affected. If you’re shot out of the sky by a rival race of sentient, space traveling life, or need to abandon your ship for whatever reason, that’s it. The ship you spent time upgrading and all the resources you’ve mined are forfeit. You will be left floating adrift in a lifepod, waiting for rescue. This aspect of the game seems to come from the roguelike games, where your character, at least to some degree needs to start over from square one. If you’re big on risks, you may want to weigh your options carefully, because there is no quick and easy way to right a mistake as drastic as having your ship destroyed while playing No Man’s Sky.
There are still a lot of questions that gamers have about No Man’s Sky. There will more than likely be many more questions that will remain unanswered or ambiguous up until the game’s release; where players can hopefully expect to find the answers to all their questions first-hand. This is, indeed a very exciting project and if you find yourself not wondering more about this game as it’s being developed, give it time. It sounds like Hello Games has some surprises for us, probably both good and bad.