Have you heard about No Man’s Sky? Currently in development at Hello Games, it is an exploration game involving space travel between colorful worlds. Players will be able to travel between and explore different planets, solar systems, and galaxies within an infinite universe. There will be countless creatures and terrains to discover and explore. The possibilities within this game are theoretically infinite.
Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Creating a space exploration game would traditionally involve imagining, coding, and designing every star, planet, creature, and everything in between. The possibilities within the game would be limited by the imagination, time, and budget of the development team. So, what makes No Man’s Sky different? Procedural generation. I’ll embed an IGN video interview with Sean Murray, Founder of Hello Games, in which he discusses the technology that makes this infinite universe possible. The short of it is that they have developed an algorithm that creates the universe using mathematics. Rather than creating each planet and creature individually, they have developed base assets that the game draws from and morphs into seemingly infinite variants.
The possibilities of this excite me to no end. I recall my brother and me playing Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity on our Windows 95 PC back in the 90’s. That game gave the player free will in terms of what destinations to set for the Enterprise. However, these destinations had no gameplay behind them unless they were connected to the main story. I remember understanding then that it was limited by what the developers could program into the game and wondered at the possibility of going beyond this limitation. I wanted so badly for each of those random new worlds to which I traveled to offer a new and unexpected adventures and alien races. It looks like twenty years later, No Man’s Sky is going to offer that!
I am left wondering what else this means for the advancement of game design. Clearly, levels and worlds can be left to the system to generate according to the rules set. No Man’s Sky has even found a way to alter and mutate creature design so that artists do not have to design 1,000’s of individual creatures. Is it possible procedural generation (or a process like it) could advance to a point where designers provide even smaller building blocks (think atoms), and the system practically generates the art (according to the rules set, of course)? Even more of a challenge: could procedural generation move beyond level and creature design and revitalize the stories and AI we encounter in our games? That may be a “square peg in a round hole” -type of issue, so who knows what innovations in game design will bring. All I know is I am eager to see what comes and extremely excited to experience the seemingly endless possibilities of No Man’s Sky.