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Image: Hello Games.

‘No Man’s Sky’ Is Like 18 Quintillion Bowls of Oatmeal

Emanuel Maiberg

Emanuel Maiberg

Sean Murray didn't lie about 'No Man's Sky.'

Image: Hello Games.

I know a game has captured the imagination of the mainstream when my mom asks me about it, and I know No Man's Sky is an exception in this rare category of games because she asked me about it twice: Once when Hello Games founder Sean Murray demoed it to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, and again when Murray and No Man's Sky were profiled in a big piece in the The New Yorker.

The New Yorker story describes how "the universe is being built" by Murray and his small team (12 people at the time) by creating mathematical rules that will procedurally generate 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 (18 quintillion) unique planets for players to explore.

"Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them," The New Yorker said.

The New Yorker story explains how these "laws" fundamentally shape No Man's Sky's universe with evocative examples. "Because of its algorithmic structure, nearly everything in it is interconnected: changes to the handling of a ship can affect the way insects fly," the story said.

Image: Hello Games.

This basic notion was repeated, practically unchallenged, in virtually every writeup of the game since it was revealed in 2013. Now that it's out, players are varying degrees of outraged that No Man's Sky is not as large, unique, or enchanting as they thought it would be based on what Murray said leading up to release.

An image of his face with the title "One Man's Lie" was on the front page of the r/gaming subreddit at the time of writing. On the r/games subreddit, a dedicated player has gathered a comprehensive list of grievances, comparing what Murray has said about the game versus the final product to point out where it fell short of what was promised.

Compton told me over the phone that she could see that No Man's Sky was about to get the same backlash as Spore.

No Man's Sky is not what many players hoped it would be, and while it does appear that a handful of features were cut or scaled back for release (which is common in game development), I believe that the outrage is less about lies or supersonic hype as much as it is rooted in a willful misunderstanding of procedural generation and its limits.

Yes, No Man's Sky technically has a quintillion planets, but they all start to feel the same after a while because they were created with a mathematical formula that only has so many variables to work with. By definition, you can not perfectly automate a process for creating special things meaningfully different than one another.

Image: Hello Games.

Kate Compton, who creates a lot of interesting procedurally generated things as a PhD candidate at UCSC and who worked on creating planets for Spore, knows all about this. There's a lot of parallels between Spore and No Man's Sky. Spore, which was headed by SimCity creator Will Wright, was another game that leveraged procedural generation to create a vast universe. It also generated huge buzz prior to release with an appearance on The Colbert Report and a feature in The New Yorker, only to fall short of expectations. Compton and other Spore developers felt such empathy for Hello Games, they even sent the studio a case of beer as a gift. Players expected Spore to be a vast, rich, procedurally generated universe, but that's not exactly what they got.

Compton calls this "the 10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal problem."

"I can easily generate 10,000 bowls of plain oatmeal, with each oat being in a different position and different orientation, and mathematically speaking they will all be completely unique," she said. "But the user will likely just see a lot of oatmeal. Perceptual uniqueness is the real metric, and it's darn tough."

Compton told me over the phone that she could see that No Man's Sky was about to get the same backlash as Spore.

"I could see it coming because I saw the exact same thing with Spore," she said. "We also said things that sounded like the right thing to say at the time, but it's hard when you're in the technical weeds, to explain [procedural generation] to someone who isn't technical."

We all wanted to believe that 12 game developers in Guildford, England could create a deep, believable universe, but that is a ridiculous thing to believe given even basic facts about video game development. More than 200 people are currently working on Gears of War 4, which is a linear, narrative-driven game most players will see end-to-end in a few hours. Many hundreds more worked on the last Assassin's Creed game, for example, which takes place in a large open world that is still smaller than one of those quintillion planets in No Man's Sky.

Image: Hello Games.

I understand how people got the impression that Hello Games was insinuating that it would be able to do what teams that were orders of magnitude bigger could not. You hear the number "18 quintillion" and your imagination goes wild, but when I asked Murray about what the number really means when he showed me a demo of No Man's Sky in March, he was honest about it.

"Even in our universe people will start to see the rules, that creatures can't have more than so many legs, creatures can't have that many eyes, but hopefully at that point they're really more focused on the game than the aesthetics of the game," Murray told me. "I struggle to get this across to people, when you're watching people play, and they played for 10 hours of whatever, they're as excited about a barren world as they are about one that is full of life, because they're going down and scanning for resources and mining them and they're excited because they found a new technology not because they found a new shape of tree."

"We got that the big challenge was technical, and we thought if all the procedurally generated stuff worked, we would win."

Players can go back to pre-release coverage of the game and pick nits until they find all the differences between what we saw in the years leading up to release and the final product, and they could do the same to every video game for similar results.

The difference here is what players allowed themselves to imagine these quintillion planets will look and play like. Infinite space does not equal infinite possibilities. This is a lesson I learned from Minecraft, or any other procedurally generated world.

Image: Hello Games.

At first I'm awestruck by the scale of the space, that I could go anywhere, and that I could play with the game's system to make my own fun. This is exactly what I do in No Man's Sky: I land, I look for the resources I need, and I use them to build upgrades. It's cool because I chose where to go and I chose what to build. But then there's the second phase, where I realize that these spaces aren't handcrafted. They're a mix of formulas that create an infinite number of situations that are only superficially different than one another. This planet is red. That planet is blue. I'm oversimplifying here to prove a point, but not by much. It's not like Star Trek, when you had no idea what to expect whenever the ground team landed on an alien planet.

"All the quotes from that time were similar, we were gonna have this many planets, content forever," Compton told me about the marketing for Spore leading up to its release. "We got that the big challenge was technical, and we thought if all the procedurally generated stuff worked, we would win … But after the technical challenge is complete there's this whole other challenge of making it meaningful."

"You're trying to normalize everyone's experience, but that's not what games are good at."

When Sony came to New York to demo No Man's Sky they also came with a demo for Uncharted 4, which is the exact opposite to No Man's Sky in terms of design. Uncharted 4, which is made by another studio of about 300 people, is one of the most beautiful, rich virtual worlds I've ever seen. Every leaf and stone in it was hand crafted and placed at just the right spot to create the desired effect. It's a highly directed experience, where the designers are trying to funnel me from point A to B in a way the feels like an exciting, unique experience, but that in reality is identical to the experience of every other player.

It's easier to make things feel meaningful this way because it's a much more controlled environment. Murray is fully aware that he's sacrificing some of that when he leans so heavily on procedural generation, but he believes that it's a worthy sacrifice.

"I think we've gone really far down that path [of directed experiences], and I feel like a lot of games—and I've done this before—they're grabbing the players' head and forcing them to look at something, you're leading them by the nose, look, here's a boss battle coming up, so have some extra health, that kind of thing," Murray said. "You're trying to normalize everyone's experience, but that's not what games are good at."