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.
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.
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!'"
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."
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."
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."
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."