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The infinitely boring No Man’s Sky

The infinitely boring No Man’s Sky

Touted as the biggest video game ever before its release, “No Man’s Sky” has failed to live up to the hype. The story offers two lessons for the games industry

Touted as the biggest video game ever before its release, “No Man’s Sky” has failed to live up to the hype. The story offers two lessons for the games industry

Tim Martin | August 19th 2016

Limitless discovery: that’s the dream that sold the video game “No Man’s Sky”, released earlier this month. In the infinite black of space hangs an unknown planet with an unpronounceable name – Zelovorcin Arcorr, Troyggdramniabl. You steer a virtual craft towards the surface, dodging asteroid belts and fellow spacefarers. You power into the atmosphere, the edges of the cockpit glowing pink and red with heat. Beneath you the planet spreads out in washes of colour like something from the cover of a science-fiction paperback, and a landscape shimmers into being: a waterworld studded with tiny islands, a mountain landscape of snowbound forests or a barren purple wasteland with rocks twisted into wormlike tubes. You land with a whine of thrusters and a hiss of hydraulics. A musical score begins its distant throb. You step out of the spaceship, into a new world.

During the three years of its development, the 15-person team behind “No Man’s Sky” (who work out of an office in Guildford) promised that they would use a technique called procedural generation to create a galaxy of 18 billion billion planets, each with its own lifeforms and ecosystems. Procedural generation uses algorithms to create automatically new parts of a game as you play it, as opposed to the entire game being defined in advance. This makes them potentially endless. In “No Man’s Sky” landscapes and weather conditions, caves and buildings, the size and behaviour of native livestock would be made for each planet you landed on. From the moment that its first trailer was shown at a trade show in 2013, the breadth of the game’s ambition prompted delirious excitement. There were profiles in Time magazine and the New Yorker for Sean Murray, its creator. Elon Musk, Stephen Colbert and Steven Spielberg phoned him up to chat. One of the executives at Sony, which struck a distribution deal for “No Man’s Sky”, described the game as “potentially one of the biggest in the history of our industry”.

Since the release of “No Man’s Sky”, however, players have finally been able to measure the game against the hype. The results, perhaps inevitably, have not been wholly positive. Within days of the game’s appearance, a vast thread on the Reddit messageboard was cataloguing, with merciless prolixity, all the features that had appeared in promotional material but hadn’t made it to the finished game. Planets didn’t rotate. Creatures barely interacted. Players couldn’t meet. The flight model seemed to have been altered. Equally notable was a certain downbeat air to the developers’ pronouncements in the weeks before release, which looked like attempts to limit expectations. As though foreseeing a backlash, Murray took to his company’s website. “It’s a weird game,” he suggested, “it’s a niche game, and it’s a very very chill game.”

The more I played “No Man’s Sky”, the more these weird and niche qualities became apparent. The first of them was a peculiar sublimity, as I wandered alien landscapes in a haze of psychedelic colours and swooshy, trance-like music. The second, after 20 or 30 planets, was a creeping feeling of boredom with the vistas and creatures: another goat-shaped being, another grey chain of islands. I became frustrated that there were so few ways I could engage with the glorious worlds. I reflected on the comment that Ricky Gervais attributed to his mother: “Why do you want to go to Paris? There are bits of Reading you’ve never seen.” You could say the same of Zelovorcin Arcorr.

The intermittently wondrous but ultimately shallow world of “No Man’s Sky” offers two lessons. The first has to do with the tortuous nature of video-games marketing, which has evolved ways to separate customers from their money that are unmatched in other areas of popular culture. Pre-ordering, which allows players to reserve copies of software by paying ahead of time, is encouraged with the offer of exclusive treats and in-game items. Products are trailed years ahead of their actual release, with miniature demonstrations, supervised previews and tight-lipped interviews parcelled out to eager journalists and YouTubers. It’s entirely possible for a game to sell vast numbers of copies ahead of release on a few airy promises alone, so it’s hardly surprising that consumers reward poor faith with extraordinary levels of hostility. Like any creative project, games will always change between conception and release, but until a more honest and equitable way is found to signal these changes to the market, the kind of blowback that “Now Man’s Sky” now faces is inevitable.

The second of problem with “No Man’s Sky” has to do with its central technology, which has proved both exciting and difficult to manage since the earliest days of gaming. In the 1980s, when David Braben and Ian Bell were developing their space-exploration game “Elite”, they discovered a method that would let them make 282 billion planets from a few interacting algorithms. But their publishers, Acornsoft, encouraged them to trim the number for the finished game. As Francis Spufford wrote in his book “Backroom Boys”, such a vast figure would make it clear to purchasers “that some sort of mathematical concoction was involved. And it exposed the underlying sameness of all the star systems, generated as they were from only a handful of varying qualities.” The creators of “Elite” only paid temporary heed. The first game in their series included 2,048 star systems. A successor, “Elite Dangerous”, released in 2014, contained some 400 billion.

This prospect of limitlessness is an attractive one in both a narrative and a financial sense. But unless players have something to do, a game can feel like a pilgrimage through sterile mathematics. “Minecraft”, the most successful contemporary example of a procedurally generated game, is a good example: the game uses algorithms to give players one world after another, but it then hands over responsibility for building and crafting them to the players. Without the interactive, Lego-like possibilities that its developers weaved into it, “Minecraft” would, like “No Man’s Sky”, be an endless passive wander through an infinite virtual garden.

“Shadow of Mordor”, released two years ago, is in many ways an unexceptional fighting game set in the “Lord of the Rings” universe. But it had one unique feature: a player’s enemies had distinct vendettas and ambitions created ex nihilo for each game. If the player wounded them, they’d come back with a new stratagem for ascendancy. This provided, in video-game parlance, “emergent gameplay”, where the player’s stories would emerge as much from the interactions between systems as from progress through a pre-designed plot.

The sense that procedural games should create permutations not just of places but also of stories runs through several of the more interesting independent projects in contemporary gaming. “Dwarf Fortress”, begun in 2002 by Tarn and Zach Adams and still in development today, uses procedural generation to simulate many epochs in the life of a fantasy planet. The Adams brothers have created a world whose characters marry, write poems, train animals, steal from each other and succumb to fits of euphoria or depression; they also develop ambitions, go to war, get PTSD or retire rich. Then there’s the fascinatingly incomplete “Ultima Ratio Regum”, which features a world with millions of inhabitants and cultures, each distinguished by its own speech patterns, politics, religions and artworks, through which players travel in pursuit of a global secret.

None of these games has quite the same aspirations as “No Man’s Sky”, and, importantly, none of them has been subject to the crushing weight of three years’ frenzied anticipation and grandiose marketing. But each has its own contribution to make to a debate about whether players and developers are better served by a human deus or a machina whose possibilities are growing all the time. For every disappointed player who jets through the endless cosmos of “No Man’s Sky”, cursing themselves for swallowing another deft piece of corporate spin, there will be many who saunter through its mathematical panoramas, glimpse the depth of its thwarted ambitions – and dream of a better future.

3 Readers' comments

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ElBiggus - August 20th 2016

Acornsoft were right with their "that's too many" diagnosis, and MMS takes it to extremes - the more planets you visit and the more animals and plants you see, the more it becomes obvious that they're just variations on a theme. 18 planets, all vastly different (and with some sense of internal coherence) would have provided far more of a sense of wonder than 18.5 quintillion: landing on yet another planet with those arches that look a bit like someone buried a doughnut and finding yet another animal that looks like a lizard with a fly's head becomes tiresome. Elite also did the galactic trading better; it may just have been lists of numbers, but you got a sense that supply and demand was at work, and the easier navigation meant you could establish trade routes, return to specific locations if you stumbled across somewhere that had an abundance of something they wanted, etc. - it may have been artificial, but it felt like a real economy. In MMS it's a random jumble - you can just stand in a station hangar for a few minutes and you'll find one alien with stacks of some item going cheap and another who'll buy it for vast sums. Adding the terrible navigation system of the galactic map just puts the nail in the coffin - if you run across someone who wanted to buy gold at double the going rate then make a couple of jumps and find a planet covered in it, good luck finding your way back to sell it. Overall I get the sense that this is a tech demo with some poorly implemented game mechanics thrown at it rather than a coherent finished product. Maybe it'll get better with future updates, but game publishers are doing the "release a broken game and fix it later" trick too often these days, and I think people are starting to get tired of it.

Bill Coffin - August 19th 2016

I wasn't really caught up in much of the hype, save for a few promo videos I saw that made me instantly want to buy the game. I played Elite, and loved it. This was my new Elite, and I think that it's a fine game. Players get hung up on narratives in their game; they do not always need one, and if you play a game looking for one and not finding it, it will disappoint. But if you just want an infinite saunter through an endless galaxy, then this game delivers, and it delivers big. I'm quite happy with it.

rdr0b11 - August 19th 2016

Unfortunately, the game was placed on a pedestal so high that even near-perfect implementation of the things they did bother promising would be a letdown. No Man's Sky suffers not from being an unexceptional game - in many way, it is exceptional - it suffers from the completely valid delusions of its fans. The game was often described in relatively broad strokes by a developer that has become notorious for being cagey about specificity regarding the title's features. Certainly he described the game, showed off gameplay, discussed the experience - but he always left just enough to the imagination that fans can be completely forgiven for expecting there to be something more there. What did they expect? I suppose it's a bit like one of those old Holywood western "facade" towns: we all saw the vision. We saw the possibility of what could be, what the glossy and finished universe would look like as we gazed into it, just contemplating our digital lives there. When players arrived, they found nothing behind most of the facades - just a few 2x4s holding up the vision. What they had seen WAS the game, they just hadn't realized it. Where they expected a rich, deep world, they found all too often nothing beneath it: the surface was the whole of the thing. And while there have been some things that reach a bit deeper and go a bit further than what was teased, they generally aren't what players expected. What people seemed to really want was a sort of universal sandbox with endless permutations. Players expected that sandbox to be the engrossing, limitless source of entertainment in which they could construct their own personal story. Build their own understanding of a galaxy and a life in it. Instead, we've got a not particularly excellent survival exploration game with a thoughtful, though slightly light, story. It all just happens to take place in this preposterously large procedural galaxy that never possibly could have hoped to live up to the fantasy so many gamers had created in their minds. It's a bit sad, and I don't think anyone particularly is to "blame." Unlike so many forms of media, the vision of the creator versus the constraints of his means and medium are far less apparent in a video game to the average fan. This endlessly diverse - and to a human mind, not obviously algorithmic - universe teeming with truly believable differences between worlds and life, meaningful interactions, and never-ending urge to explore was always an impossibility. Unfortunately, it doesn't make discovering it any less disappointing.