There is a remarkable achievement hidden in the story of No Man’s Sky NEXT and you won’t be able to see it on any of its 18 quintillion worlds. It happened on Earth. Sean Murray, the reluctant public face of the game, has come forward after two years of near silence with some explanations and apologies, but he hasn’t mentioned the most remarkable thing he’s done.
A little context first: Until this week Sean Murray hadn’t spoken to the press for nearly 2 years following a controversial and problematic launch. It seems he was boxed into a corner by promises and the tightened deadlines one can infer came from partnering with a large corporation. A small, independent product was turned into a major, spotlit release and the reaction grew out of hand. The Hell Games team suffered death threats and crowdsourced harassment. Murray’s says it was “as bad as you can imagine.”
The worst bits of humanity sent Murray and his team into isolation for their own safety and probably the safety of their families. In that context, it’s no wonder information wasn’t forthcoming about things like the orbits of planets or the whereabouts of a space worm. Murray’s most recent statements have cleared up a lot of the mystery concerning the lack of communication, but mystery remains.
How has Sean Murray, and his team, worked tirelessly for the past two years past launch without any appreciable source of income? Initial sales for the game were great, but beyond that there has been little or no income coming in.
The answer, I think, is hidden in those early sales, which vastly exceeded expectations. Murray has stated that he expected 10,000 concurrent users at launch, but the real number was 500,000. That meant bad news for server-load, but financially Hello Games was benefiting from astronomical sales — and with a team vastly smaller than games which have sold in similar numbers . 8-15 people were at the core and the full crew never exceeded 30. This is in an industry where AAA titles are routinely staffed by 200-500 people across continents.
This is where things become fascinating. Most folks would have taken that small fortune and run. Given the vitriol and threats so bad Scotland Yard was involved for months, it would have made sense to retire, or, at the very least, patch up the game and move on to the next. Instead, what is remarkable and rare, is that this story isn’t about money. It would appear Murray and his team are positioned to do as they like — and what they want to do is make this game what they dreamed.
If you don’t see what is unique about this, you probably don’t have a handle on just how much games are objects of commerce above all else. They are made primarily to enhance shareholder value to such an extent that popular gaming sites report on how stocks fare. For two years, Sean Murray and Hello Games haven’t been treating No Man’s Sky that way. They have nurtured it and improved it, step by step, until they had something so unassailably beautiful that Murray felt it was safe to speak again.
And to be clear, what this game has become is astonishing.
The first time I hopped in my spaceship in No Man’s Sky NEXT, I flew up through the atmosphere and was stunned by the clouds. In the game’s previous version, clouds were nothing more than flat white smudges that encircled most planets, but these new clouds had volume and took on light. They are a huge improvement, and a remarkable technical feat because they are actual objects you can fly through, not the distant sky box other games can employ. This may sound like a little thing, but it speaks volumes. This wasn’t something that was ever promised, even if players asked for it. Like rings around planets, it simply makes the game more stunning to look at and enjoyable to wander in.
The look and animations for the creatures that populate planets and moons have been vastly improved, as have their behaviors. While the variety hasn’t been been increased in a noticeable way, what is there is more interesting and there is hope that more can be added later.
From a technical point of view, I can’t entirely understand what has been achieved here. Out of nowhere, the game now supports base building that is described as “unlimited.” While this can’t possibly be true, those limits are very hard to find. And I tried. I sat down with my daughter and we proceeded to build a hallway that extended so far that it exceeded the curvature of the moon we were on. The passage was flat, but the by the time we walked the full length of it, gravity was no longer directly beneath our character’s feet. The only thing that stopped us from continuing out into space itself is that there is a limit to how far you can build from a base — but you can build as many bases as you please on the ground and link them together. In theory one could cover the entire surface of a planet and I’m certain that players will try.
Not everything is perfect — nor, I guess, should it be. Suns still travel their strange paths. The orbits I longed for at the start as a teaching tool are unlikely to be realized. My home was lost, again, as the universe updated and the logic in it upended. My jetpack and warpdrive were downgraded. My ship was stripped down. The terrain beneath the game’s newly improved skies has also been updated, both on the continental level (continents exist where really it wasn’t a feature before) and down to the ground. It all looks a little more complex and “real” though there seems to be a little less diversity with more than enough plateaus for my taste. The flora and fauna could all still use more diversity.
One lingering concern is how this sort of thing might be updated without resetting the universe again. I don’t see how. And I do think there is some likelihood of the universe changing again. This suggests there is a real danger to the hours or days of work some players are putting into those stunning “unlimited” bases. I speculated last week that the game seems to be filled with a message of impermanence and I’ve begun to wonder if that is why I feel so compelled in this game to drop into “Photo Mode” and capture some of what I’ve seen (see gallery below.) As a photographer I’m constantly aware of how photos frame the ephemeral. Intentional or not No Man’s Sky seems to want us to remember, always, nothing lasts.