No Man's Sky: Hands-on with the massive upcoming space exploration game

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Mar 3, 2016, 12:25 PM EST

If you're a gamer, then you're well aware of the more than three years of intense buzz revolving around a revolutionary new sandbox exploratory game called No Man's Sky. The brainchild of HelloGames' co-founder Sean Murray, it was created by a handful of his developers tasked with creating a game that uses math fractals, sine waves, biology, etc.. to create unique planets with individualized environments that exist in real time as the player fills any space they explore. With no load screens and no cut scenes, No Man's Sky unfolds around you with all the trappings of reality, including temperature, times of day and rotating planet axes.


Last summer, HelloGames finally debuted gameplay footage at E3 and melted everyone's brains -- not because of the cinematic look or photo-real details (No Man's Sky looks good, but it doesn't match some other modern games in that arena), but because of the sheer scope of what was being created. If your usual expectation is maybe 20 to 30 hours of gameplay for a title, try the rest of your life for No Man's Sky.  I'm not kidding. The game is like NASA handing you the keys to your own private spaceship as they pat you on the rump and tell you to have fun exploring 18 quintillion undiscovered planets. And yes, that is the actual number of what's explorable in this open world game. In 30 minutes, I made it to two and explored about a postage stamp worth of square footage.

I was lucky enough to get invited, with a few other select writers, to play No Man's Sky this week and talk exclusively to Sean Murray about what his ambitions are for a game that, if you really wanted, you could play to your grave in an attempt to explore every planet generated.


Murray opened up the event by walking us through the basic structure of the game, which consists of layers of maths (Murray is British, so keep the s). Each planet starts perfectly spherical and flat, and then is layered and adjusted with sine waves, textures, erosion, sea levels, adding height with shapes, trees, rocks, grass and uniquely indigenous creatures.

"It's a maths fractal that we're exploring," Murray enthuses about Colbert Prime, a planet recently revealed and named on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  "[This game] is different and there's something nice about knowing an artist didn't create it that makes it feel more real. At E3, we focused on showing huge dinosaurs, but the thing we haven't really shown yet is the typical half-hour experience. So, we've chosen a typical planet that is more normal. It's super exciting to me, but a little more normal. " We have to admit, looking at Murray's normal is pretty outside everyone else's box.

Like a psychology test via console control, No Man's Sky exists to be played depending on the player. Murray reiterates that you can "trade, fight, explore and survive." He calls it a giant sandbox, but the mechanics are recognizable.

He demos a new planet, playing the game for exploration, and shares that, "if you land on this planet, nowhere out there is a YouTube channel or a FAQ. I am essentially lost. There are scans that show resources nearby and binoculars that are upgradable. There's no mini-map, which we took out, because we want people to explore. You are creating it yourself."


A brand new aspect of game play comes with a 2001-style monolith that just appears as he walks.  Murray explains, "It's a relic of an ancient race, and you find them on different planets left by different races. They are interactive. They are in alien languages and will teach you new words, which is important. Learning new alien languages improves gaming. And new resources allow you to build new technology. If you hang around planets until night, predators come out. In space, you have pirate ships and military ships. Plus, a lot of planets are occupied. There are buildings, and bases with alien species."

"You'll need to gather resources," he continues as he collects elements from the landscape that put together with other elements allow for shield upgrades, tech upgrades or even to survive extreme temperatures. Everything is upgradable, like a non-linear RPG.  Some upgrades let you edit the world, like creating craters or caves. "The more you steal from the planet, you'll draw Sentinel attention and are drawn into conflict," Murray also warns.


After Murray's walkthrough, we were each put into a '60s like pod and handed a controller to start exploring. I started on a cold planet, and it took a bit to get the hang of doing anything with no prompts, cheat titles, or directional navigation. I figured out how important it is to scan the terrain and find elements needed to build upgrades for my body shields to keep me protected from the elements. Yes, I died finding that out, but why complain when profound and/or witty title cards with quotes about death from Douglas Adams or Isaac Asimov welcome you to the fade to black?

I did talk to an alien species, as the game provides a Choose Your Own Adventure style of text answering that, per your choice, impacts your success with said alien as you proceed in the game. I confused my alien, which earned me nothing. No title card quotes for me! From there, I went out and found a species to name to my liking. That's a great function of the game: When you experience anything for the first time, a tree, creature, rock, get naming rights forever. So, look out for the random Bennettdactus roaming around. And yes, potty mouths, there is a profanity filter.


I eventually found my spaceship and left the planet into space where finding your horizon is a lot harder than you might think. I might have accomplished the first leap into space sideways. Out in the black, I found lots of angry space pirates who, in my defense, I did not incite. I'm sure my poor flying annoyed the hell out of them, but I doubt it was attack-worthy. So, I read some great Asimov and then decided to hit the thrusters to another planet, where I almost smashed into a trade vessel entering atmosphere. Watch out for that, people. You've been warned. The new planet was hot as hell, like 300F, and was full of very angry dinosaurs. If they disliked me in the sun, let me tell you they don't get nicer after dark. I found a hidey-hole and inventoried my elements, and by then, my half-hour was up.

Less-than-stellar piloting aside, No Man's Sky is almost overwhelming in its endless options. There is no right way to play, and that, more than anything, takes some brain adjusting. You can come out with guns blazing if that's your jam, or feel really bad when you accidentally shoot a crab-like critter and feel like an intergalactic jerk. Fun thing is, no one cares (except the Sentinels) and I was shocked by how quickly a half hour went by, which proves what a rabbit hole this game has the potential to be. The experience was almost analog in its simplicity, playing a beautiful game that is just about the spirit of discovery. It will completely mesmerize the adventurers, the science-minded and those who don't mind that a clock isn't ticking down.



Post play, we sat down for an exclusive chat with Sean Murray about how he envisions players experiencing the game.

In this current world of gaming, players embark on a game to complete a story or a campaign and then it's done. Have you built No Man's Sky with subtle breadcrumbs so those kinds of players can follow a throughline?

I'm reasonably against the breadcrumb trail. We have sort of a linear progression. You start at the outside edge of the universe. Your goal is to get at the inside. One of the things driving you is not just that goal, but the fact that the coolest tech is towards the inside. The best resources and the most different ships drive you ahead if you are that type of player. No one says to you at the start that you have to rescue the princess. I don't think that's why I play games. I didn't play Mario 64 because I needed to collect all 120 stars because I wanted to rescue the princess. If you removed that, I still would have played it. I'm sure some players do play for that, and want the cut-scene at the end. For us, actually, that's a reasonable traditional structure. There is this journey to go on and you have to level yourself up in order to make that journey. You can compare your progress with your friends and share the crazy things you've seen as you get closer to the center. So, there are those elements but I say that to put people's minds at ease. Actually, it's a big sandbox and we see people playing loads of different ways. Some people are just traders, like almost doing the equivalent of a day-to-day job trading. I'm fine with people doing that.

Co-op playing is a huge part of gaming experience now, but that's not how this game operates. You explore alone. Do you see the game ever catering to group exploration teams?

It's definitely play alone, especially as we launch. It's the vision we have for the game, as a game of exploration. We really mean that, and want to push people as far apart as possible. Loads of the decisions we make are about you not setting down roots. Things like allowing people to build their own buildings; we don't support that. We want them to keep traveling. We don't want them to cluster together. We want to be different. If you want to play a deathmatch experience, then Call of Duty has you really well covered. I don't say that in a dismissive way. I think games are best when they focus on what they are doing well. It's always tempting to tick boxes of all the different features. Nobody wants No Man's Sky 2 but I think people will start playing and they will say, hopefully, 'I'm enjoying it, Sean, but I want to do this and this and this. I want play in different ways and just do exploration.' I would be cool with supporting that further down the line.

So, you and the developers will listen to the players for how to adapt the game to their experience of play?

I'm sure lots of people will experience it and visit a few hundred planets and think, 'I'm enjoying this but I feel like I've done the whole exploration thing. I've leveled up my character. Can I do this or that?' So,Hand yes, I think it would be cool.

As the developers, do you have internal tracking that will show you how deep players are getting?

There's a whole bunch of stats we have and I think it will be quite fun for us to watch pretty graphs of places being discovered. I don't know how that will happen, like if spokes will form towards the center or how spread out people will be. There are some of that we will want to share with people. I think it will be cool for people to know how many planets have been discovered so far, or how many different life forms.

No Man's Sky is available on PS4 June 21, 2016.