No Man’s Sky: Procedurally Generating the Future of Gaming?

As some of you may have guessed by now, I’m a “bit fond” of the upcoming game No Man’s Sky. And when I say a “bit fond”, I of course, mean “absolutely besotted with”, and in a way I’ve not been besotted with anything since Data’s gadget belt in The Goonies. I’ve spent quite a few nights since first seeing No Man’s Sky, dreaming about it (last night for example, I’d tamed me a massive purple Brontosaurus thing, and was riding around on it like some kind of cross between Luke Skywalker and Fred Flintstone), and have spent a lot of my waking hours looking for information about it too. Here’s the thing though, everything I’ve found so far makes me love it even more.

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Anyway, I promised that I’d keep you informed too, so here’s one of the more fascinating things I’ve found about the whole ‘Procedurally Generated’ thing. Many people initially reported on this, but didn’t really expand upon it (quite possibly because, like me, they were all like, ‘Yeah, it’s all procedurally generated, mate, how cool is that!?’ without even realising exactly how cool it was), but now, thanks to an interview Hello Games’ Sean Murray (Managing Director) and David Ream (Creative Director) did with Kotaku, I’m now in a position to give you more information on what it means.

(Here’s the science-y bit, so pay attention at the back….)

Perhaps a good analogy for how the “procedurally generated” aspects of ‘No Man’s Sky’ work in practice is evolution, or more specifically, the relationship between evolution (the process), and biology (the rules).

In the real world, for example, evolution continually acts as a process, whereby tiny variations/mutations can be continually built upon (should they initially work, or prove advantageous) as long as they ‘play by the rules’ of biology – ie, no immediate jump to having a massive arm growing out of your head like in Stick It To The Man.

So, when we look at, say, a tree, we’re essentially looking at one possible outcome amongst thousands of how that tree could look, and at the result of a mahoosive number of tiny changes that were built upon over millennia, eventually making that particular tree significantly different – size, shape, leaf colour – from another type of tree. Different trees, therefore, have different characteristics, but all retain enough essential “treeishness” to be, undeniably, trees.

So, to continue with trees, in No Man’s Sky, a tree on any given planet is a representation of a tree, which conforms to “treeishness”, but which has been allowed to vary amongst the many different possible outcomes via the process of “procedural generation”.

In most other games, when you see a tree, it’s the result of a very specific process of coding, rendering and designing etc, and consequently that tree, in that place, will always look the same – there’s no variation (it’s also why you’ll see that same tree dotted around in different places in the game, because to save time, the creators will have used it over and over again). In No Man’s Sky, however, the coding was done in such a way that a tree will be a tree, but there are variations, and variations of variations, which mean that tree could look like any tree you could possibly imagine. In other words, the core biological structure of a tree has been “planted” in the game, but how it specifically manifests itself as a tree is open-ended, and could be one of around a gajillion (to use the mathematical term) possibilities.

Pretty freakin’ cool, huh!?

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The same applies to animals too. Rather than program all the different variations of an animal, Hello Games have instead created the base of these animals (say, skeletal structure) but then built into their game the facility for that to be added to in any number of ways. So, for example, a slightly different muscle structure, or whatever, and you end up with a different looking animal being “created”. On one planet, that might just mean that a particular type of animal is bigger than on another, but explore a different solar system, and that animal may have “evolved” into something almost unrecognisable from its “genetic” cousins.

In this respect, Hello Games have taken the process of evolution, and the rules of biology, and essentially hopped them up on PCP, and set them out in the wild where millennia of possibility and changes can unfold right before our very eyes.

Also, they’ve done a similar thing with physics and aerodynamics too, because the same process will apply to spaceships and the like as well. Each variation will conform to the rules of aerodynamics, and contain core characteristics (symmetry, wings/propulsion etc), but will be able to manifest these characteristics in a myriad of different ways! So, essentially, you’re likely to find something resembling every spaceship you’ve ever seen in any movie ever, plus many more besides.

And, if all of that wasn’t enough, it appears that Hello Games have done a similar thing in relation to ecology too. The ecosystem of any planet, or part of a planet (in real life) is a combination of thousands of things being in balance – from the composition of the atmosphere, to the climate, to its position in the solar system – and slight differences in any of these can have spiralling consequences: Hot, tropical places become rainforests, but hot dry places become deserts. In No Man’s Sky, even just looking at preliminary footage, the variations in eco-systems promise to be as numerous and exciting as those in the flora and fauna that will inhabit them.

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Many people will be familiar with expressions along the lines of ‘In an infinite Universe, anything is possible…’, and in many ways, No Man’s Sky will be the closest thing we’ve come to seeing how this might actually play out, at least in a videogame. And for that, we should all be truly thankful, because even if No Man’s Sky isn’t your “thing”, it’s almost impossible not to consider Hello Games iconoclasts and the game itself an epoch-shattering, paradigm-shifting moment in the history of games, and gaming.

In that respect, therefore, it’s quite fitting that we’ve been discussing evolution; because I don’t think it would be overly premature to predict that No Man’s Sky will come to represent the next “great leap” in gaming. In fact, in gaming terms, it’s quite possible that we, lucky few, are witnessing the pixellated version of the exact moment a slightly mutated fish-type-thingy crawled out from a pre-historic swamp, and in doing so, changed everything forever.

By creating an intriguing and ingenious combination of voxels (think basic modelling clay for programming), and throwing on layers and layers of math, probability and an almost intrinsic knowledge of what would make a game really, really great, the relatively small team at Hello Games may very well have just changed the world of gaming irrevocably.

Plus, if for whatever reason, that’s not quite enough for you, there’s still the aforementioned purple brontosauruses to ride around on, right!!??


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