Following the conclusion of the New Yorker Festival's [email protected] panel Cyber Privacy: Who Owns Your Information? (which I covered for TechRaptor here), I had about an hour to grab a bite to eat and see the area around the World Trade Center. When I returned to the Vesey Street entrance to get my ticket for the next event I was surprised to see a much longer line of people waiting.
These people were, like me, here to see the No Man's Sky panel. I had arrived 20 minutes before the start and found about a hundred people standing in line in front of me. I chatted with some of them about No Man's Sky, the upcoming game from Hello Games whose previous work consisted entirely of the Joe Danger series of games. Hello Games' Sean Murray would be joined on stage by The New Yorker staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian while he talked about his studio's upcoming title.
TechRaptor's Robert Grosso talked at length about No Man's Sky and echoed many of my concerns about the game. It's ambitious, but it still lacks a release date. It promises a lot of features, but Hello Games haven't expanded very much on the details and mechanics of those features. I was hoping that this panel would allay some of those concerns and curiosities of mine.
Unfortunately, it didn't. I went in with a bare bones knowledge of No Man's Sky—the game has a whole bunch of procedurally-generated planets you can explore (more than 18 quintillion) filled with procedurally-generated flora, fauna, ships, and more. I left having seen a short exclusive demo, which you can see on The New Yorker's website here, and no firm answers to any of the questions dancing around in my mind.
The panel itself opened, strangely enough, with a low-res, pixelly trailer for the 2006 video game Black. It was then followed by a static image from the Burnout series of racing games. I soon found out that this was to show some of the history of the founders of Hello Games prior to their leaving Criterion Games. The entire first half hour of the panel was spent talking about how the company came together.
“We wanted to create the feeling of landing on a planet and knowing that no one had ever been there before. That is the one thing that has been there since the very start of the game." — Sean Murray
Sean Murray then segued into talking about the general design philosophy of games. He described both Peggle and Journey as "the epitome of style" and as choice games for people who have never played a video game to try. During most of this portion of the panel, a picture of Spacewar (one of the earliest video games ever made) was on the screens in the background. Sean waxed poetic about covers of sci-fi novels of the 60s and 70s and how much those influenced the style of No Man's Sky.
The last third or so of the panel was talking about the game itself. We were treated to images of barebones planets that had only minimal procedural generation applied. We first saw a completely flat and barren world. Sean then warped to a world shaped by a "Sin wave" (as he explained it) filled with rolling hills and not much else. We were then jolted to yet another world that somehow took a Fourier Transform and turned it into an alien-looking environment. Planet after planet, Sean Murray used a developer warp cheat to get across the idea of how procedural generation affects how a world is created in No Man's Sky. Sean Murray may very well have used the term "procedural generation" more than the name of the game itself throughout the entirety of the panel.
There was quite a lot of talk about aesthetics and design during the panel as a whole. Sean Murray frequently used the term "juiciness," a concept that he feels is admittedly difficult to describe. He noted Peggle as a game that "has juiciness" and showed a video of an Extreme Fever from the game—upon clearing all of the pegs, you're treated to a cacophony of sounds, exploding fireworks, and finally a colorful rainbow arcing across the screen.
The one thing I had hoped to see (and didn't) was what exactly players are meant to do in No Man Sky's vast galaxy of over 18 quintillion planets. The video I linked above omitted one mildly interesting moment, a message of "Discovered Beacon Hyne #########" appeared on the screen after Sean Murray walked around a bit on one of the planets during the demo. Aside from that and the Points of Interest that were wholly bypassed during the demo, nothing particularly interesting was shown. Yes, we were seeing a planet that has never been seen before filled with creatures and an environment that have never been seen before, but that's merely the setpiece.
"I've just done a scan and those are some points of interest. A bunch of that we haven't really shown off and I don't know that we will. I don't think that we want to spoil things for people. But it's things like—I think these ones down here are depots where you can mine resources and bring them." — Sean Murray
Sean Murray talked at length about emergent gameplay and exploration. He talked about bugs, such as fish springing out of the water and flying, as unintended events that he enjoyed. He talked about some technical points, such as how the pop-in when instantly warping to a planet wouldn't be noticeable when you're simply flying there in normal gameplay. Indeed, there was a noticeable wave of pop-in after the warp to a new planet completed during the demo. Even with this caveat, you can see little bits of pop-in far in the distance in the portion of the demo shown on The New Yorker's website.
So far, the impression I have of the game is a very wide sandbox with very few toys in it. I have played more than my fair share of games that have promised the world and fell far short of that promise. No Man's Sky promises not just a world, it promises 18 quintillion of them. But what exactly there is to drive players to explore those worlds and traverse the galaxy is something that I've yet to see clearly explained even after hearing Sean Murray talk about his studio and his game for over 90 minutes.
The one thing that did come across very clearly throughout the entire panel is that Sean Murray and Hello Games are very passionate about game design, aesthetics, art, and emergent gameplay. The question of whether or not they can turn that passion into a compelling video game experience is one that I still do not yet have the answer to.
The ticket for this event was provided courtesy of The New Yorker.
Are you excited for No Man's Sky or are you waiting to see more about the game before making a judgement about it? Let us know in the comments below!