“No Man’s Sky”: If a Computer could play God

A virtual fleet in No Man’s Sky.

At popular video game conference E3 this year, game developer Sean Murray of Hello Games showcased some live gameplay of the studio’s new game, “No Man’s Sky.”  It featured first-person space combat and exploration of extraterrestrial planets. The graphics were state-of-the-art and absolutely gorgeous, and the space scenes were vast and almost life-like.  But more impressive than its graphics was the size of “No Man’s Sky:” It was described as being a “universe-sized sandbox” by the developers.  At its E3 demo, Murray navigated from a space battle to a map showing the solar system he was currently in.  He zoomed out of the solar system, and kept zooming out, and out, and out even further, to the audience’s astonishment.  The developers have made a game that took place in a infinite virtual universe.  

“No Man’s Sk”y utilizes the next iteration of a technique used in gaming called procedural generation.  If you’ve ever played with a book with pages that are divided into three sections so you can, for instance, create a person with Queen Elizabeth’s head, Blackbeard’s torso, and Sally Ride’s feet, you’re already familiar with randomly combining different elements to create a whole product.  Procedural generations in games is the same concept, just on a larger scale.  Games that utilize procedural generation will mash together different room layouts, bosses, and loot, rather than historical figures.

This process has been around since about the advent of making video games.  An early game with a huge impact on the industry was “Rogue,” which came out in 1980.  Over three decades ago, computers had much smaller memory that games actually had to generate their content as the game ran.  “Rogue’s” randomly-generated dungeon layouts and levels drawn with ASCII characters impacted the industry so much that even today, the term “rogue-like” refers to a specific genre of procedurally-generated games.  Another way procedural generation continued to be used was “Tetris,” with its randomly dropped shapes.  

A screenshot from popular sandbox game Minecraft, with forest and jungle environments visible.

A more modern example of procedural generation includes “Minecraft.”  “Minecraft” drops the player into a randomly-selected pocket of a particular climate.  When they reach the edge of their known territory, the game generates another environment.  In fact, “Minecraft” could also be seen as a spiritual precursor to “No Man’s Sky,” given that it has the same principles of fighting, sandbox-style building, and exploration.  

Coming back to the present, what’s so amazing about “No Man’s Sky” is the sheer scale of it.  At E3, Murray landed his spaceship on a planet, pointing out the robotic sentinels that guarded the fully-destructible environment.  The planets are mostly inhabited by animals and plant life, which are also generated to be unique for each planet.  Players can scan all of these different species and upload their data to a real-life server.  Murray notes that “many [places] never will be [visited]” in the universe of “No Man’s Sky” just because of how staggeringly enormous it is, but he encourages players to catalog every planet they explore to build up a universe-wide database.  

Flora and fauna on a planet in No Man’s Sky.

The possibility in what Murray presented is apparent.  Procedural generation obviously isn’t completely random; the programmers set up a group of things to be randomly chosen from, and the game selects rooms, environments, game pieces, or items as needed.  “No Man’s Sky” does this as well, just on a massive scale.  According to the developers, the way this game is set up, the game is “full of choices;” so many, in fact, that all the combinations produce enough planets and stars to populate a universe.  Think about that for a moment:  An entire virtual universe has been created.  You can own a copy for around sixty dollars.  

That being said, “No Man’s Sky” looks like it will be an interesting game to play on its own, with all the “trading, fighting, exploring, [and] survival” the developers promise.  Look out for this game when it releases, and definitely keep an eye on the technological developments that stem from procedural generation.  

To see more about “No-Man’s Sky,” watch the E3 presentation, or check out the official website.  For more about the recent rise of rogue-like games, check out this video from Extra Credits.

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Madeline is a Computer Science major with an interest in Art. She draws a webcomic and plays video games in her spare time. Madeline enjoys eating sushi and really likes socks. She hopes to eventually make videogames and own two cats while living on the West Coast.

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