The Lingering Mysteries of No Man’s Sky

As usual The Game Awards, despite the re-branding, was really just another event for game trailers to try to hold up an awards show. I don’t actually know what games won what awards or what they did to celebrate 2014 gaming but we did get a great preview of what’s going on for the first half of 2015.

The most ambitious and in some ways divisive game shown there and at PSX was probably No Man’s Sky. It’s easy to be skeptical of a game that promises a galaxy with literally billions of life-sized planets to explore. Another source of skepticism however has been the content of the trailers. Many people still aren’t sure exactly what the game is or what you do in it.

It even makes sense to be worried about how NMS uses procedural generation to automatically create its galaxy based on an algorithm as opposed to hand-crafting levels. Minecraft uses it to create impossibly huge worlds that you can endlessly customize through building. A lot of other games however (like Proteus) use procedural generation to create unique environments where you kind of just walk around. That’s actually most of what we’ve seen in the NMS trailers.

From last weekend’s new trailers and Game Informer’s cover story we actually know quite a bit about this game but have seen painfully little. Despite what we know there are still some potentially very interesting things I’m curious about.

From descriptions like this, NMS sounds somewhat similar to the Elite series of PC space simulator games. Those games also put players in massive procedurally-generated galaxies where they have complete freedom to get into space battles, trade, or explore. They all kind of sound like “space life simulators” where you kind of just decide how you’re going to make a living in a virtual world based on a bunch of factors. NMS seems to have much more emphasis on surface exploration from the get-go and will have simplified physics compared to traditional PC space sims.

Honestly, even if NMS was a walking simulator I would be fine with it assuming it achieves want it sets out to do in terms of scale. By far the most impressive part about the game is that it achieves the supposedly impossible feat of letting a player walk around on the ground, hop into a ship, and seamlessly fly into space, having rendered entire explorable planets into the game space. Being able to explore that by itself has probably been an ultimate video game dream for a lot of people. If NMS does indeed let you choose a heavily specialized “way” to earn and utilize resources then I could definitely see myself devoting all my time to exploring without actually fighting anyone. Elite Dangerous is basically doing the same thing with much more intense graphics, but I want to want until they’ve added planetary exploration to it.

It’s that exploration aspect that dredges up the biggest questions I still have, and they mainly regard the kinds of features we’ll see in this galaxy. Basically, all we’ve seen evidence of so far are four features in space in NMS: Planets, stars, tiny asteroids, and space stations. What about everything else that occurs in space?

Are we going to see moons for instance? Essentially smaller worlds orbiting planets. Will we see gas giants with planet-sized moons orbiting them? The reason planets are so close together in NMS is because developer Hello Games wants to fulfill the sci-fi concept art image of huge colorful planets in the night sky. It would be great to see a Saturn-like entity up in the sky of a moon. Will we see asteroids large enough to land on? Game Informer recently revealed each system will have between five and 12+ planets, and they’ll all be the size of “something you’d find in our solar system,” but we don’t know more than that. We know every planet in NMS will have resources to gather, so potentially you could still harvest resources from gas giants even if you can’t land on them.

How deep will oceans be? Actually, the most important part of NMS will probably be the level of variety achievable through Hello Games’ algorithm. I’ve seen criticism for procedurally generated games like Starbound getting too repetitive, and it’s a legit concern for NMS. How much variation can you get based on these algorithms for the billions and billions of worlds in the game? So far we’ve seen forests, mountains, canyons, plateaus, deserts, blizzards, rain, caves, and bodies of water. While exploring will I end up in some Challenger Deep-type environment?

There’s a lot more to ask that likely wont’ come to light until much closer to the release of NMS. One thing I can say though is because of the inherent variety in something like this, it’ll probably get much more interesting once it’s in the hands of streaming consumers. Imagine it: there are supposedly so many billions of worlds in NMS that every streamer and YouTube channel could end up showing off completely different content, even years after the game comes out.

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