Image: Hello Games

Hack the Planets: Modders Are Tearing Apart the ‘No Man’s Sky’ Universe

Amateur programmers are tweaking the game to their tastes. Could they end up making "parallel universes"?

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Aug 19 2016, 9:00am

Image: Hello Games

No Man's Sky is a game with over 18 quintillion unique worlds for players to discover, populated with untold numbers of weird and wonderful plants and animals. It would therefore seem safe to assume that players have more than enough to keep them occupied, at least for a few days, before looking to add their own take on the universe.

And yet, within days of the game being released on PC, hundreds of amateur programmers are hard at work tweaking the universe to their own tastes, or, as Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray would have it, "tearing your game apart."

Ahead of the release of No Man's Sky, it was unclear if it would be possible to hack the game's code to add visual and audio tweaks—and possibly even more significant changes to how the game works—but, within hours of the game being released for PC through the Steam platform, modders had ripped the game's code apart and set about bringing Murray's nightmares to life.

An image of No Man's Sky (not modded). Image: Hello Games

Modding is a long established practice in the video game world, where dedicated fans take apart a game's code before adding their own tweaks and making them available for everyone to use—sometimes for a price. Mods range in scope from replacing an in-game avatar with a picture of oneself to entirely reimagining the original game, as was the case with Black Mesa, the remake of Half-Life.

The mods created so far for No Man's Sky are not quite on the same level as Black Mesa, however. Among the 60 or so mods available for anyone to download are ones to change the look of your ship, add the ability to switch the heads-up display on and off without having to go into the menu, replace the system font with one from Star Trek, disable annoying audio warnings, and replace a "Units Received" alert with "the Rick 'Wubba Lubba Dub Dub' soundbyte from Rick and Morty."

In an interview with Game Informer back in 2014, Murray laid out his fears for what the modding community could do to his game. "I almost feel like we need to give them the [modding] tools; otherwise then they're just going to start making them, tearing apart your game. That's what I have more of a fear of."

"We don't have time to wait for official dev tools to fix what can be fixed by us"

Two years later and while No Man's Sky has been released, there is no sign of official modding tools. Murray and his tiny team at UK-based Hello Games have bigger issues to deal with at the moment, such as fixing the long list of problems already reported on the PC version of the game—something which has led to very average reviews for the game on distribution platform Steam.

In an email to one customer, Hello Games revealed that it will be releasing patches this week and next which will "help to improve the experience further for players" but it is unlikely that the promised official modding tools will be released in the near future.

As a result, the modding community has taken it upon themselves to make Murray's game better. "The [No Man's Sky] modding community is only a few days old and is already tearing the game apart," John, a 30-year-old modder from the US told Motherboard. "We don't have time to wait for official dev tools to fix what can be fixed by us. We definitely want the official tools ASAP but honestly, the players need a game that actually launches and plays at decent FPS [frames per second] first."

John's "Instagram Filter Remover" mod is among the most popular on the No Man's Sky Mods website promising to remove "the stupid Instagram filter from the game." Essentially the mod removes the visual filters Hello Games' developers have used to give the game its recognisable aesthetic, making everything sharper and clearer. It has been downloaded over 12,000 times already.

Image of the "Instagram Filter Remover" by John

According to Amit Shah, who runs the No Man's Sky Mods website, the interest since the PC release of the game has been huge with almost 800,000 views, 60,000 downloads, and the website temporarily knocked offline this week. "The interest in modding No Man's Sky is massive because since the initial announcement people have been imagining all the crazy things they will be getting up to in this game," Shah said. "Some of those things, imaginary or confirmed, didn't make it into the game and modders want to fix that."

Despite the almost unimaginable size of the No Man's Sky universe, where the chances of encountering another player are almost zero (though not quite zero), a lot of attention this week has been on what the developers have left out of the game based on what they previously promised. One Redditor has compiled an exhaustive list of promised features which didn't make it into the final release and it is these perceived gaps in the game which the modding community believes it can fill.

"Right now [modders] are busy working away on how to unlock key parts of No Man's Sky so that more modding possibilities can be opened up," Robin Scott, founder of Nexus Mods, another modding website, said. "If they suss it out, the possibilities for more complex and deeper modding increases."

"I think if they [modders] get in there and they just start disassembling it, they will end up creating parallel universes"

There is already a long list of requests for No Man's Sky mods, including one request to replace all the voice lines in the game with William Shatner quotes. Like this request, almost all of the mods available at the moment allow players to change the way the games looks and sounds, but so far we have seen nothing on the scale of what Murray envisioned.

"I think if they [modders] get in there and they just start disassembling it, they will end up creating parallel universes; like genuinely that's what would happen," Murray said in 2014. "They would change the numbers and then someone else would be playing in a different universe, but still posting to our servers."

The company has not responded to requests for comment on the burgeoning modding community.

While Murray and Hello Games are clearly worried about the impact mods will have on the experience of all gamers, the modding community believes the possibility of parallel universes and the ability to affect the way the game is played by everyone is not really feasible.

"If you can play the game offline without an internet connection then it's pretty safe to say the mods aren't going to affect it," Scott said. "So far no mods have been released that would or could do that, and I do not think that's going to be possible."

John agrees: "I don't think it's possible for people playing non-modded to be affected at all." Both Shah and Scott said that, should someone come up with such a mod that impacts all players, they would simply remove it from their sites.

No Man's Sky is a sandbox where everyone plays in the same universe, but due to the size of that universe, it's essentially a single-player experience. Only very limited elements are uploaded to the central servers—details such as the names people give to the planets and creatures they discover, so that other players, should they stumble across them, will see the name and who has discovered it (something that has already happened).

The fact Murray laid out his fears about modding may suggest the he and Hello Games have bigger plans for multiplayer options in the No Man's Sky universe, and it is widely expected that Hello Games will release significant updates for the game in years to come, just like almost every other major video game these days. It could be years before they get around to completing all the requests fans have for the game, but for now those wanting to hear the dulcet tones of William Shatner's voice as they explore the vast expanses of the universe may just get their wish anyway.