No Man’s Sky Interview: Sean Murray Vs The Hype Train

Cake versus pie. Pie versus cake.

Whilst at E3 I spent an hour with Sean Murray, managing director over at Hello Games. We were talking about No Man’s Sky [official site]. Well, we were mostly talking about No Man’s Sky. I had to cut a surprisingly lengthy discussion of whether cake was better than pie (it isn’t). The thing about No Man’s Sky which is most interesting to me right now is how Hello Games – Murray in particular – are trying to deal with audience expectations, shifting them from hype and projected desire to excited realism.

I want to find out more about the game too, but in doing so I’m aware of my own feelings towards No Man’s Sky realigning. A loss of wonder accompanies the discovery of human-scale game systems which I recognise from other games. In broaching the subject I bring up the No Man’s Sky presentation during Sony’s E3 press conference. Instead of a pre-determined show planet Murray took to the stage and opted to pick a location and showcase whatever he ended up with. For me that felt like part of the adjustment process, tempering hype with realism. I ask how Murray thinks it went.

I feel that pie will always win the cake versus pie discussion because of its versatility

He calls me on my tone almost immediately – laughing at how unimpressed I managed to sound and winkling out an assurance that I’m interested in the game as a game as well as any other angles I might be pursuing.

I am. But I still want to know how he thinks the Sony showcase went (“Okay”) and whether he was pleased with the planet he found.

“It was a really difficult thing to do and to convince people it was a good idea to do it onstage,” Murray says of the showcase. “I personally think it was and I personally think it’s representative of the game. We had loads of hype around the game and what I would prefer is excitement, you know?

“I could have made it so that every planet had a scary monster creature that would come out at the end we could fade to black and be like every other game. There were discussions like ‘Should we do something like that with a big bombastic end?’ Instead I flew down to a planet and that, to me, is really cool. Then I went over to the beacon and uploaded the information and that was cool. Then the demo peters out and I put the controller on the floor and, y’know… Every other demo had way more explosions. It was like explosion, explosion, explosion, monster jumps out and screams, fade to black before it does anything. What could possibly happen afterward? You’ll have to play the game to find out…”

Murray is not denying that approach can be effective but he wants something different for No Man’s Sky, something more representative of the experience.

I mean you can have savoury pies and sweet pies. I don't think I've ever had a savoury cake. Certainly not a nice one.

The first ever trailer for No Man’s Sky was an exhilarating watch, but it was also mysterious – the parameters of the actual game yet to be defined and so it was tempting to imagine what No Man’s Sky might be while waiting for concrete information.

“When you put together the trailer you want the world to be excited about your game and you think it’s going to go down so well,” says Murray. “Christ, [with] Joe Danger I was like ‘It’s such a cool trailer and people are going to love it and they’ve been waiting for this type of game!’ The reality for most developers any time you talk to them is disappointment when it comes out and an acceptance after.

“Joe Danger was like that and other games we’ve worked on in the past have been a bit like that. But No Man’s Sky? You wanted that and then it achieved it and you’re like ‘I don’t know what to do now!’ We launched at this trajectory – it’s like the team are on a rocket and they’re trying to build the rocket as it’s launching into space.”

Reading interviews Murray has done more recently it has felt like he’s wanted to push back against that hype or at least say ‘This is the reality of procedural generation and you’re not always going to find something amazing’. “Has that been difficult?” I ask. “Because a lot of trailers are to do with evoking that sense of wonder.”

Murray responds that he doesn’t actually think that’s true of many trailers but it’s something Hello Games have discussed when creating their own. “We had big discussions about our VGX trailer which was the very first kind of announce and the idea was you come out of the water, you walk along the beach, you fly out into space. Describing that on paper it sounds like nothing but there’s something about the world and the worlds that we’re making that seem a bit more real and a bit more like a real place and it’s also really cool and ambitious and a thing we’ve always wanted in games, to just be able to fly and not have a skybox, just fly into space.

“What we didn’t have was lots of shots of you killing a thing and the thing exploding and stuff like that. That, generally, is trailers and when we showed it to other people – developers and friends – their recommendation was generally to have lots of much shorter clips and lots of slates – like the slates you put inbetween, like ‘Forge allegiances!’, ‘Explore the universe!'”

But then we started talking about tarts and flans and quiches

He’s talking about running up against players’ trailer literacy. How without those slates or a clear narrative or familiar set pieces prospective players can get a little lost. “Their reaction is like, ‘I’m excited by this but where are those slates to tell me what I do in that game?'”

CCP had a similar issue when they ran a competition for EVE Online. The idea was to get players to try to express what EVE Online was via video submissions. CCP didn’t stipulate any format and the goal was simply to show other people what it actually feels like to play EVE but the understanding of how a game trailer is typically structured proved pervasive and lots of the submissions took on that format. Murray enthuses about the This Is EVE trailers – the ones which make extensive use of voice capture from real players “It sells the experience much more as to what the actual game is.”

So has that been the hardest aspect? Communicating No Man’s Sky faithfully to other people?

“No. Making the game is the hardest thing, definitely,” he laughs.

Okay, so onto the game itself.

We start with the central mystery and one of the methods by which Hello Games how to keep players moving – what’s at the centre of the galaxy. “How is that different to the Curiosity cube?” is what I want to know. “Am I going to find Peter Molyneux’s disembodied head?”

“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” replies Murray.

“I think that would be a lot of work for one joke.”

“For a joke? This isn’t a joke!” He’s mock-affronted at this point.

“Imagine if that’s what it was and now I have to answer this question awkwardly – like ‘Hahaha, imagine…’ No,” he continues, “It’s going to be like the end of Star Wars and you have Braben, Molyneux, Levine…” He tails off giggling then adds, “Good job, Sean. Good job on the hype.”

And then I was really hungry because it had been hours since dinner and America didn't really have anything by way of pies in the vicinity

The game as demo-ed showed sentinels guarding planets and beacons for upload of information and so on. I ask about constancy across the planets. For example, will these sentinels protect every planet you can land on?

“No. Planets are different and we want them to be as different as possible so there are different things across different planets. There aren’t standard rules like that. There are things like every system has a space station, just because you need that if you want to refuel but some systems don’t even have planets.”

(Apparently the sentinels are pretty prolific though.)

We go back to the central mystery (Peter Molyneux and his cadre of ghostly gaming personalities). Presumably, if you’re always supposed to be heading towards this central point, No Man’s Sky resists the idea of setting up a home?

“That’s also true. At least, when the game releases the main focus for us is going on that journey. I think there will be people that will still spend quite a lot of time on one planet and try to explore it fully or enjoy that process or get up to crazy things because you can. There will be people who try to walk around a whole planet on some stupid Twitch stream or something.” He laughs. “They’ll probably get more views than all our videos put together!”

The Molyneux ghost conclave (or whatever) is more of a gaming gravity well, it feels like, pushing people away from a static experience, keeping them adventurous. It’s also a kind of starter goal which gives focus while you figure out what you want your experience of No Man’s Sky to be.

“It was a thing we discussed in the real early days and it helped us define how there could be aims within the game but for a lot of people that won’t be what they do. They’ll just be – I hope, otherwise we’re in trouble – they will be playing as a trader and really they’ll just become focused on that. ‘I’ll upgrade my ship so it can store more cargo and for that I’ll need more money and to get more money I need to do more trading…’ You get caught in that loop and they’ll be enjoying it (hopefully!) so much so that really that journey becomes secondary. But it’s a nice thing to give people as an aim.”

In fact I've made myself hungry now. I'd really like a slice of cherry pie and some ice cream.

Also intended to keep players in motion is the difficulty slope of the galaxy and its risk and reward progression. “The outside of the galaxy where you start is a bit safer but the resources you get there aren’t worth that much in the grand scheme of things and the technology you can find is not advanced. If you want those things – which most people will – for most people the aim is to progress. That’s the well-defined way to do it.”

I ask how these core loops and progressions work in relation to other players being present in the galaxy. Will there be any scope for interaction? A sense of community?

“No. We really try to play that down, I think. And you’ve said about us playing down the hype, right?” says Murray. “We could sell that aspect of it and it’s a very appealing thing – it’s a giant MMO! – but it’s not. Even if it is, it’s a terrible one. It’s a really terrible multiplayer game. If you want that experience, if you want deathmatch and that MMO progression there are so many more better games for that. For us what we’re after is a more Journey-esque experience. Even if you come across somebody you won’t even know if they were AI or if they were a player. We just want to create some moments but that’s all. The universe is so big it would be really rare.”

Possibly custard instead of ice cream if that's what's on offer

This description puts me in mind of Minecraft so I ask if there’s going to be a peaceful mode, but the thought runs on and I end up explaining that the moment I really loved in the Sony demo was when Murray pulled back to show the vastness of the galaxy, knowing each planet was a place to be visited. It took me back to the wonder of the first trailer in a way that discussion of resources and upgrades can’t. “You’re going to take this totally the wrong way…” I grin as I try to explain.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “I can be totally offended by that.”

He does give me a serious answer, though.

“It’s an interesting thing. I personally think that we want people to get lost in our universe but we want it to feel real and we want it to be entertaining. There are a whole bunch of indie games that are procedural generation of beautiful worlds you wander round and get lost in. I won’t name any so no-one can be insulted but in terms of play time after a few hours that can lose some of the engagement. It can be a beautiful thing and make you feel something but beyond that it’s not necessarily that engaging, or not necessarily something you want to keep coming back to. Or perhaps only a small niche of gamers would want to.

“We’re unashamedly quite ambitious with No Man’s Sky. We want it to be something that a bunch of people enjoy and we want to work so hard to make this game that we want people to really spend some time in that universe. So there are rules in the universe and there are game loops and we’re – I think actually there’s a whole bunch of gamers right now from our earliest trailers who are just excited about the game even if it was nothing more than what we’ve ever shown. If it was walking – almost on a spline – through the worlds we’ve created and that would be exciting to them. I think they might not be excited for that long afterwards – they might find that that wasn’t that engaging after ten hours or whatever. We want to create something that feels more real and people have stories from, rather than just an ambient experience. We want people to have real experiences and that means making choices and feeling like this is you, your character and what’s around you is real and the adversity of the world. Even though you will say it’s less appealing to have that, you’re wrong!

“It loses that sense of wonder – I totally get it – I have to upgrade my ship, I have collect money and I’ve done that before. But, one, we think we’re doing it in a way which really fits with the world and two, we think it gives real meaning to that discovery because you’ve had to fight for it. You’ve had to make clever decisions. That’s what we want to deliver. You’re living out your sci-fi fantasy and when you tell me your story of what you’ve done in the game it sounds like a legitimate science-fiction story.”

68 Comments

  1. Syme says:

    Umm, I think you’ll find cake is better than Pie.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Right, but the cake is a pie.

    • Ross Angus says:

      I hope Pip wasn’t mocking Marsh with that alt text.

    • Premium User Badge

      teije says:

      Heresy. Pie is incomparably superior.

      No other food stuff has an entire organ devoted to its delectation – the appendix. (Spleen will do in a pinch).

    • Ejia says:

      I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the two. I feel cake is more delicious, but pie has versatility.

      Ultimately, I’ve decided that the best compromise would be a savory pie followed by dense, moist cake.

    • Spacewalk says:

      Pie and cake are too different to compare and even if you could cake has it hard going since pie is one of the greatest inventions ever.

    • Vacuity729 says:

      This really depends on whether we’re talking savoury pie or sweet pie, which Pip carelessly fails to state. I believe the correct order of greatness widely acknowledged across the galaxy is savoury pie>cake>sweet pie.

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        Harlander says:

        Meh. Comparing a savoury pie in the same continuum as sweet pies and cakes is like judging a ladder on how well it serves as a door.

        As for savoury cakes, will a fishcake do you? It’s got to be the Yorkshire variety, though.

        • Vacuity729 says:

          Pip’s Alt-text seems to imply she classifies sweet and savoury pies together. I think we agree that this is just unreasonable?

          And proper Yorkshire fishcake is fine, I just can’t stand those monstrosities of dry, chopped-up, leftover white fish bits in shoddy breadcrumbs purveyed as a ‘fishcake’ by numerous well-known large companies.

    • Gap Gen says:

      In France “cake” is a savoury loaf thing with stuff in it like cheese and tomato, or ham: link to fr.wikipedia.org It’s pretty nice!

      • April March says:

        In Portuguese, pie and cake both translate to ‘torta’, and as far as I am aware there’s no conceptual diference between them.

        Quiches are a different thing, though.

    • dreadguacamole says:

      Cheescake vs Lemon Pie

      Hmm. I’ll throw in with Cake. But it’s very very close, and depends on the cook (baker?)

  2. NotToBeLiked says:

    I think the fact that there are Sentinels on almost every planet takes away much of the feeling discovery. So there you are, flying across a vast unexplored universe, being able to be the first person to set foot on a planet…. except for those robots who are pretty much everywhere and should have reported all those species ages ago…

    • Darth Grabass says:

      He just said in the interview that there aren’t Sentinels on every planet.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        True, but every system has a space station. Personally, I’d rather have a starting point (or, as players probably don’t start at the same points, places which are potential starting points) with a space station and such. And then the palyer would be able to buy starmaps (or have one, or make one by scanning or otherwise detecting) listing available space stations (and other such things) within their vicinity.

        At some point you could have player-made space stations or totally autarky by, say, having efficient solar-power cells and being able to go wherever. And then you might be able to go further and construct things on planets.

      • falconne says:

        Even so, it takes away from the immersion.

        It’s like being the first person to reach the top of a treacherous peak, only to find a camera crew already waiting there to broadcast your triumphant arrival.

  3. Captain says:

    This game is an engineering marvel but for the love of me I cannot see the long term appeal of it as a game.

    • Xzi says:

      It’s a game with crafting, exploration, combat, and billions of unique planets. I cannot see how you cannot see the long-term appeal of that for a lot of people. It’s basically a Freelancer in which you’re actually free. Clearly there’s a player base to be had for something like that, as neither Elite: Dangerous nor Star Citizen have shaped up to be everything people want them to be yet, but people still play those games by the thousands.

      • Geebs says:

        Hello Games have two PR problems here. First one is that it seems highly improbable that a game this big isn’t going to be repetitive and shallow, just because the galaxy will take up so much in terms of resources that there won’t be room for detail or variation. Second one is that NMS caught on so fast, before they’d actually put any gameplay in. They now have to indicate that there will be stuff to do without having anything to show yet, which seems to veer dangerously close to Molyneux country.

        Very impressed by Murray’s extremely tactful attempt to avoid indicating that procedural walking simulators are inevitably deadly dull.

      • Captain says:

        I haven’t seen any crafting so far. You can buy/upgrade your suit/ship and weapon but I wouldn’t really consider that crafting.
        If you could actually build structures I could see appeal, but that isn’t the case.
        You also have no proper interaction with other players unlike in the games you mentioned. There aren’t any systems to really play together with other people, there is no player trading or player organizations/clans and no focal points for players to get meet up at and interact.
        Other then exploring all you can do is break stuff to get mats to upgrade your suit/ship/armor. And trading is in from what I heard but since we haven’t seen much of it so far I assume it will be very simplistic, similar as every other gameplay aspect that’s been shown so far.

        Again I marvel the technology and engineering behind this and it’s a landmark game in that sense, but to me it looks more like a beautiful artbook than a game that would challenge you mentally, intellectually or skillwise.
        And many people will adore that I’m sure, I just personally don’t see it holding my attention in anyway.

        • PancakeWizard says:

          “I haven’t seen any crafting so far”

          The crafting is meant to be Minecraft-like, and they’ve created their own version of a periodic table for it.

      • schlusenbach says:

        The billions of planets are the reason why I see no longterm appeal in this. You can explore the universe, but it’s like exploring the Mandelbrot set: it’s fascinating to watch and you can explore endlessly, but after some time it’s all the same.

        In NMS you can’t build anything, so you can’t make a part of the galaxy ‘your own’. You can fight, but it seems pointless in the long run, because if you win or lose doesn’t mean anything if there are 18 quintillion other planets with generic enemies waiting.

        The game looks great, their tech is fantastic and I’m sure it will be nice for some hours, but I don’t see any longterm appeal.

        • Xzi says:

          Crafting hasn’t been in videos, but it is in the game. You have to find resources and blueprints of sorts, or you can just take a stab at crafting things without using blueprints. If people can entertain themselves with Elite, which is far more empty save other players crashing in to you and killing you instantly during takeoff/landing, I don’t see why people wouldn’t be able to entertain themselves with NMS.

          • Walsh says:

            I think that’s the point. Elite ended up boring as hell, don’t see how this will be any different.

          • Xzi says:

            Well there are a lot of differences. Neither planetary landings nor walking around on foot are in Elite: Dangerous, so exploration isn’t as diverse or rewarding. Elite is also far more spread out, so it takes a long time to go anywhere or accomplish anything. You could probably hit ten planets in ten minutes in NMS, making even shorter play sessions enjoyable.

    • badmothergamer says:

      I’m not trying to be cynical but I’ve wondered the same thing watching and reading the news on this game. It reminds me a lot of Elite Dangerous. Its big and beautiful, but unless there are in depth quests or a storyline I’m missing I see myself doing the same thing with this game I did with E:D. Fly around for 10-15 hours admiring the beauty, realize there is nothing else to do, then stop playing.

      Like E:D it’s a technological marvel and I have great respect for the team building it, but I haven’t seen anything that looks like it would actually be fun for a long period of time.

      Best of luck to them though. I hope I’m wrong and this game surpasses the insane amount of hype and buildup it has received.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    Pip – suggested edit on this line:

    “For us what we’re after is a more journey-esque experience.”

    I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the game Journey, and the way it handles multiplayer/player interactions, so that should probably be capitalized :)

    • Kreeth says:

      He probably means that every time you meet another player the game plays “Don’t Stop Believin'” at maximally-obnoxious volume.

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      Philippa Warr says:

      As it goes I tidied that up pre-publication. Must have forgotten to hit save. Thanks.

  5. Syphus says:

    In interviews like this, or when talking about procedural-generation and exploration, I feel the need to bring up Space Engine. It isn’t even a game in the traditional sense, it is nothing but a vast procedural universe, and to this day I have still not tired of going to random planets in random galaxies and landing on them. If that has held my interest for years now, I see no reason to think that a game like this can’t.

  6. Krazen says:

    Oddly the more I see of this game the less excited I become. There doesn’t seem to be any depth to the gameplay except a nice to look at sandbox. Where’s the fun?

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      Harlander says:

      At the very least, you can derive the same degree and type of enjoyment from it as you did from Noctis.

  7. Jayson82 says:

    The best thing about space engine is that it uses existing astronomical data first then procedurally generates the rest of the universe based on how planets and stars are actually formed.

    For example go to Sirius and it shows you a trinary system which it actually is.

  8. Baltech says:

    I’m calling it now: When you reach the center of the galaxy, you’ll ascend to a higher plane of existence which’ll allow you to jump around the whole universe.

    • Xzi says:

      That’s a really cool idea, actually. I hope they implement that.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      I’m guessing that that will be part of it, but it’s kind of incumbent on them to do more than that, seeing as how players will have spent 40-200 hours exploring the galaxy already. That’s more than enough time for the repetition of exploring a procedurally generated universe to set in. Personally, I’m hoping for a way to manipulate the universe on a larger, more cosmic scale… and then fly into the mess I’ve made and enjoy the pretty colours.

    • P.Funk says:

      Yes, what better way to reward players than to eliminate all semblance of challenge in exploration. Become a god, view the universe, then like a Q who’s seen it all log off into oblivion.

    • Baines says:

      When someone reaches the center of the universe, the game starts over with a different seed value.

    • PancakeWizard says:

      They have hinted that’s a whole new endgame if you get there, so possibly more than just omnipresence.

  9. wyrm4701 says:

    It looks absolutely lovely, and I’d like to play it, but no-one seems to be able to say definitively what the online aspect entails. I understand the space is impossibly huge, but if I do run into another player, can I interact with them at all? Is it always-online? Can I play this without connecting to a central server?

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Offline play has been confirmed, and as Sean Murray says in this interview, “We could sell that aspect of it and it’s a very appealing thing – it’s a giant MMO! – but it’s not. Even if it is, it’s a terrible one. It’s a really terrible multiplayer game. If you want that experience, if you want deathmatch and that MMO progression there are so many more better games for that. For us what we’re after is a more Journey-esque experience. Even if you come across somebody you won’t even know if they were AI or if they were a player. ”

      So from the sounds of it, the online components are relatively minor… a la Dark Souls.

      • Xzi says:

        Worth noting of course that you can use Skype or something like that to find your friends and go exploring with them. I prefer this minimalistic approach to multiplayer, personally.

  10. cannonballsimp says:

    What actually is a flan? I always imagine it is a sort of light fluffy pudding, like a souffle.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Picture a festering, pus-covered wound, then add sugar. Flan.

  11. welverin says:

    ” Well, we were mostly talking about No Man’s Sky. I had to cut a surprisingly lengthy discussion of whether cake was better than pie (it isn’t)”

    You cut the best part!? What the hell, Pip!

  12. Universal Quitter says:

    You like pie better than cake!? Such a lonely path I’ve trod till today, a pie-lover living in a world of birthday cakes, and wedding cakes, and urinal cakes. There have been months-long stretches where I haven’t even seen or smelled a beautiful, crispy pie, much less enjoyed the taste of one dancing across my tongue.

    I know your pain, Pip.

  13. SuicideKing says:

    “Am I going to find Peter Molyneux’s disembodied head?”

    So that was YOUR joke? He used it in that IGN First video!

    • Viroso says:

      Maybe it isn’t a joke.

    • KillahMate says:

      You should charge him for copy, Pip. That Peter Molyneux crack killed with the IGN staff.

      • president_koopa says:

        Possibly meant to be read as skeptical, “*Am* I going to find…” which would make it a reference to the video (most definitely seen). There’s journalistic reasons for that being a good idea.

  14. GallonOfAlan says:

    This seems like FUEL to me – an amazing tech demo with some sort of game bolted on. I look forward to being proved wrong though.

  15. kentonio says:

    I’m surprised they haven’t added the ability for players to join the game at the location of a friend. While it may not be a multiplayer game in any real MMO sense, I can’t really see any disadvantage to letting people travel around in small groups of friends, discovering and having adventures together.

  16. flibbidy says:

    Wouldn’t it be cool if the closer you got to the centre/finale, the more you started to encounter other real-world players..
    Hope that does happen though not sure it would organically given the scale of the thing.

  17. notcurry says:

    My letter to Santa about what I’d like ending: to be able to go and watch any other player, where they are and what they’re doing.

  18. ersetzen says:

    I still think the game is brimming with promise but I am not sure how much of that will turn into reality. It feels like the ship ai would have to be akin to limit theory if they don’t want the whole cohesive world feel.

    Anyway, might be interesting if there was some other options that were more quest like. Going hunting/poaching against big monsters on certain planets, doing smuggling runs or stealing certain tech while being hunted down and so on. Even if they were rare-ish and hand crafted they might break up the monotony that the 2 or 3 ways to progress look like.