“The game is about exploration and actually taking hours and hours to fly between planets isn’t that much fun,” says Murray. “If I had to choose what’s technically correct and what plays well from a gameplay point of view I would definitely pick gameplay and I would definitely pick things that encourage you to explore more, but I like that now in the game there can be places that take you an hour to get to or whatever. I really like that and that’s your choice to go and do that.
“Some people get a real kick out of that. Elite has completely realistic scales but ultimately because of the way drives work, which is quite unrealistic, effectively everything is close together. Ultimately it wouldn’t matter if you pushed everything far apart but what you would lose is the really nice sci-fi backdrop of having a planet on the horizon.”
The landing on this moon is not my finest hour, although the game ensures it’s not a disaster. I actually end up approaching a tree at high speed but I press the square button and No Man’s Sky takes care of the landing. Instead of crashing in a fiery explosion of foliage and metal the ship is intact and standing on the ground, grazing the trunk of the tree I’d initially landed in.
This moon is temperate so I can stop worrying about my thermal shield for a while. Instead I decide to go for a swim. My suit has oxygen so diving isn’t a problem, but not all liquids in No Man’s Sky are safe for players so you’d need to gain different tech to be able to explore some areas.
Underwater is a cave system populated by fleshy yellow plants so I head inside. The cave network turns out to be a lot bigger than I’d expected and pretty soon I’m lost. This lostness comes up in a later conversation as a part of the game.
“Watching you play and get lost when you’ve only got a limited time with the game, maybe that’s frustrating or whatever but I like seeing that,” says Murray. “People do that stupid thing of losing where their ship is or getting turned around and suddenly starting to think about landmarks and thinking twice before they go somewhere. Because we’re so used to games just taking care of us. You go down a corridor and somebody will have played this a thousand times before and [the developers will] have laid all this out for me perfectly – I have no problem going down this cave because obviously I’ll be able to find my way out. [Whereas here] you would have started thinking ‘I will think twice before I go in a cave otherwise I might get lost.'”
“You have far too much faith in my ability to walk past a cave,” is my response to that.
Eventually we surface and head back to land to end the preview. Murray has the controller at this point and starts clambering about, looking for a pretty vista to end on.
“Pretty” is actually a key part of how Hello Games keep No Man’s Sky a manageable project instead of spiralling out of control.
“The aesthetic’s very purposeful – what a plant looks like in No Man’s Sky, what a creature looks like… In some ways that makes the pot of variation smaller because you’re choosing generally that things be vibrant, you’re choosing that you want… Actually a word I always use is ‘pretty’. You’re using the generation to make things that are pretty to look at and that’s really purposeful. It rules out a lot of things that are grotesque and that are more photorealistic.”
The game mechanics are also a point where the team needs to keep tight control. They’ve gone with a core set which are all geared around getting people to move and to explore. You can’t build because that encourages you to set down roots, there’s no multiplayer (encountering another player would be more akin to Journey, perhaps, and is expected to be an incredibly rare event) because multiplayer encourages people to cluster and stay.
Encouraging players to move is also the reason the game currently doesn’t have temporal aspects like seasons or the deaths of suns or different biomes on a planet. “I don’t want [players] to be just staying on one planet. I think some people will but I don’t want people being like, ‘I can’t leave this until I’ve gone to the North Pole!'”
That’s not to say ideas and mechanics beyond the core set haven’t been discussed. “It kills me a little bit because we had to cut a lot of those ideas. They’re not gone but they’re kind of in a box,” says Murray. If the game is successful the team might be able to look into the box and reassess some of the ideas but for now it’s the core set of survival, exploration, trading and combat.
There’s also supposed to be this low-level encouragement to head towards the centre of the universe. It’s kind of an aim in the game, although not one that that team are pushing hard. Moving towards the centre you’ll find a reasonably linear improvement in terms of better tech, better ships, more valuable resources so that rewards heading inwards and I’m guessing most players will start to drift that way even if they’re not deliberately racing towards the point.
Murray adds that the idea of heading to a particular point is sometimes a way of explaining what you could do in the game to someone while they can’t play it. Once it’s out, he says “I would be disappointed if all anyone wants to do is go towards the centre as soon as possible. I would be happy if some people wanted to explore a single planet. I don’t want everyone to do that, it would be such a shame, but it would be such a shame if one person didn’t feel that way about one planet. And I want some people to just be traders and just try to level up their ship or character or earn the most amount of money. There isn’t necessarily an end point there and there isn’t a cut scene once you’ve become this really great trader or whatever but that’s the nature of a lot of sandbox and survival games. The reason for playing and the obviousness of why people play isn’t necessarily as clean cut as you must rescue your mum from space prison.”
Because I know I’ve been playing a slightly tweaked version of the game in terms of resources and because the two places I have encountered seemed to have a comparable amount of life and activity I ask how representative my experience has been of the game. Is there a base level of “interest” on each planet or will some be emptier?
“The person playing just before you did not have that experience. I must admit,” says Murray. “I sat there watching, feeling really pained because it’s somebody walking around quite a barren planet, then we were really lucky at the the end that he came across this crazy, weird-looking creature and that made his playthrough. If that hadn’t happened he probably would have walked away and written about how No Man’s Sky was dead boring. It kills me – it’s a really hard game to demo.”
My last question is about the more philosophical responses to No Man’s Sky. The development team are creating a digital universe, thus coverage and interview questions can end up being about the things we don’t have answers for in our actual universe. My question is whether any of those responses or discussions have changed how Murray has thought about the game or whether that side of it is mostly external to the studio.
“Yeah, the game has remained really simple in my mind and what we’re trying to do, and everything else seems to be a little bit crazy. I find it really hard – I naturally cringe a little bit when people do ask the more philosophical questions. I always get this thing of, like, ‘Do those planets exist when they haven’t been discovered?’ and stuff like that and you’re like… I want to say “Does the third level of Uncharted 4 until it’s been streamed in?’ It’s a bunch of polygons, it’s fine guys! [he laughs] But obviously I would think that because I’m knee-deep in it.
What is has been useful for, he says, is getting to know how people talk about games and what they want from them.
“It’s been really interesting to watch what people get excited about and I guess my summary would be how amazingly diverse people who play games are, and how they like to be treated and what they’re interested in and what they’re looking for from a game and why they think they play a game.”
No Man’s Sky will be released 21 June, 2016. It’ll be available for PC on Steam, GOG, Humble etc at £39.99 ($60)