Is No Man’s Sky “No Man’s Game”?


No Man’s Sky came out amid an uproar of hype that felt truly astounding. The developers were open-minded, earnest, and proud of their product (not just its revenue). They kept a dialogue going with NMS’ potential players during the development process, and took criticism seriously. The game itself looked gorgeous: beautiful beyond compare, with procedural generation enough to make even the most battle-hardened Minecrafters shed a blocky tear.

It’s amazing how quickly everything can go to shit.

Negative reviews popped up like daisies on a fresh grave. It’s impossible to play because it crashes too much, but that’s okay because the game itself is boring and same-y. The only thing that changes is the color palette. Players expect a working game for sixty bucks!

But you know what? Screw those people, it’s time to throw down a little knowledge.

First, let’s talk about the “working game” concept. It’s a goddamn indie development company. They have a staff of FOUR main people and about 8 others. Go beat Mass Effect and start an egg timer at the beginning of the credits. I could go to BevMo, grab a 6-pack, head home, and knock a few off before “THE END” pops up on the screen. The Zimbabwean translation team of that game has more members than the entire staff of Hello Games! Developing for PC is one of the most challenging things a game developer can do, and I’ll explain why. PS4, XBone and redheaded stepchild Wii U all possess an incredibly standard set of hardware. They have memory chips, CPU cores, motherboards, power supplies, graphics cards, control systems, I/O, BIOS and a whole heap of other technical crap that is the exact same across every single system ever made. Go to Fry’s Electronics and look at the computer parts section. There is a truly staggering number of different choices for each of these, and even if we’re only looking at premade computers by Dell, HP, etc. (which are forsaken by a larger number of gamers every year who instead build their own), there’s still a gigantic number of PC’s to code for and test. And I can bet you my bottom dollar that a development team of FOUR PEOPLE doesn’t have the budget to go and build a bunch of computers for the sole purpose of testing. They’re probably living off of top ramen already!

Since No Man's Sky came out, none of them have been photographed smiling.

Team Hello Games. Since No Man’s Sky came out, none of them have been photographed smiling.

So is it surprising that a massive, procedural, online 3D game came out poorly optimized and buggy? Not at all. If you were surprised, you’re completely ignorant of how the development process works and therefore have no right to comment on whether or not they are a good studio or not.

Let’s talk more about the studio, shall we? We have many major studios that leave huge, egregious errors in their code, put crippling DRM on their games, make players use a dedicated launch platform (Origin much?), or commit incredibly insensitive acts that throw players under the bus to protect their profit. They have long histories of doing this (and abusing their staff as well), but Hello Games has a very short history, and a history with exactly ZERO games of this magnitude. Individually, they’re all seasoned developers, but we as players have no idea what the culture of the company is like, and how beholden they feel to the people who play their games. Yes, they released a buggy product. It’s a strike against them. But to lump them into the garbage pit with EA and the other terrible triple-A tyrants is to ignore the fact that you have no idea how they’re going to proceed from here. Their game has problems! If they fix them, then it becomes really difficult to make the argument that their heart isn’t in the right place.

They’ve done a bang-up job being open, honest and hardworking up until this point. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

On to the game. Let’s talk “procedural”. A lot of people are bitching about how “procedural” the game is, like they have some idea what they’re talking about. As far as the average gamer is concerned, “procedural generation” simply means “using random numbers in some way to generate the world and its denizens.” But to be surprised when worlds look the same or have similar creatures on them is a testament to how terrible our math education is in America.

Instead, we're solving problems like this on Facebook! Just remember PEMDAS: Please Excuse My Deeply Aggravating Stupidity

Instead, we’re solving problems like this on Facebook! Just remember PEMDAS: Please Excuse My Deeply Aggravating Stupidity

Let’s get into it: There are 16 million different colors. We can’t perceive the difference between fine shades of a lot of them, but that’s how many our computers can produce. There are EIGHTEEN QUINTILLION PLANETS in this universe, which means that for every color, there are slightly more than a TRILLION planets that use that color as its base. And since many of those colors are close to white, black, or an ugly shade of brown, the reality is that there are probably significantly more than our estimated trillion planets with each main color.

How about denizens? Let’s say we have a procedural animal made up of different heads, arms, chests, legs, tails, wings, eyeballs, horns, and extras (Hypothetically). That’s nine different categories to procedurally smush together and get different creepy crawlies. If their artists are really good, maybe it’ll take them an hour (super conservative estimate) to make one part. If they worked nonstop for 10,000 hours (enough time to become a master at something, presumably), they would have JUST ENOUGH parts to make a single unique creature for every planet. Let’s not talk about other creatures… or plants, geography, terrain, biomes, resources, or anything else. I forgot to mention: at a 40-hour-work week of doing nothing but designing alien body parts, it would take them almost five years.

Getting further: how does NMS compare to the biodiversity of our Earth? Pretty darn peachy, in fact. If you think the creatures in the game are boring, look beneath your feet when you go on a walk. There have been more than 350,000 different species of beetles discovered, and many more that haven’t been. Sure, you have bombardier beetles and goliath beetles, but most of them are different shapes and sizes of the little brown bugs you know (and probably don’t love). How boring, how same-y. “1/5 This beetle feels like a remake of that other beetle.” That’s how life evolved, and to expect it to be simulated with more variety than exists on earth is simply ridiculous.

And the universe at large? We have scanned millions of exoplanets with telescopes and satellites, and only found a rare few that wouldn’t immediately murder us if we set foot on them (if we could even set foot on them at all!). We haven’t found any that harbor readable signs of life. So for you to somehow feel like the wool has been pulled over your eyes that things aren’t incredibly original with 18 quintillion (mostly) inhabited planets… well, you just didn’t do your math.

I want to be clear: I’ve never even played No Man’s Sky. All this information was readily available before it was released. It’s not surprising, it wasn’t a bait-and-switch, you shouldn’t be disappointed that it didn’t live up to the hype. The game was never the problem; the hype was. And for those of us who have been paying attention, it seems like a pretty darn cool game anyway.

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Isaac Smith is a lifelong gamer and musician. He is deep into the indie game scene, and is a dabbling programmer who enjoys making games and writing music for them. As a writer, he began at Another Gamer's Blog, a blog dedicated to the discussion of video games, their history, construction, social impact and artistic merit. He does much of the same at his new home, here at Last Token Gaming!

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