It’s incredible to chart how far Hello Games has come in just over a decade – even if, geographically speaking, it’s really not so far at all. From one corner of Guildford to another, with sprouts from EA’s now partly abandoned offices where Sean Murray first began tinkering with what was then known as Skyscraper, via the ramshackle building they shared with a taxi rank down by the banks of the Wey which tragically burst just as No Man’s Sky was in the depths of development to the new space the team finds itself now.
It’s even more incredible to chart just how far No Man’s Sky has come in just over three years. The latest trailer for next week’s Beyond update, cut neatly to 65daysofstatic’s driving soundtrack, invites comparisons to our very first glimpses of No Man’s Sky – boldy so, you might say, after some of the controversies around the launch as expectation and reality didn’t quite match up for some. But it goes to illustrate how No Man’s Sky has evolved, surely surpassing anyone’s expectations of what it would be.
The Beyond update pushes No Man’s Sky further still, introducing features and improvements that might come as a surprise even to those who’ve been following its progress since Hello Games announced it earlier this year.
There are mounts – rideable aliens! – denser and more varied biomes, new construction and crafting, tameable creatures, milkable creatures, cooking and recipes, a new galactic map, a new discovery menu, a new word-learning system, all-new NPC races, NPC encounters on planet surfaces, improved base building that introduces logic and electricity systems and can allow for bigger bases. It can even allow, as Hello Games’ founder Grant Duncan mocked up before our visit to the studio, for a fully functioning game of Rocket League to be played out within No Man’s Sky, complete with a working scoring system.
It’s truly dizzying stuff, so no wonder that Hello Games has simplified the messaging around it to three core pillars. You know VR as one of them – and it’s the one that’s been most explicitly detailed, thanks to previews that took place at GDC earlier this year. Going back to No Man’s Sky in VR, this time on a fully kitted out Valve Index, is just as staggering as before, and it’s tempting to say that in this deep, rich space sim the medium just might have found its killer app. It’s the ultimate way to play No Man’s Sky, and could be one of the ultimate experiences on VR – though of course, that experience is there for just a fraction of No Man’s Sky players, even if some of the numbers Murray alludes to are pleasantly surprising.
“There are some weird stats on that,” he says. “We don’t talk about numbers of copies, but there are more copies of No Man’s Sky out there than VR headsets, but there are about a million people who have No Man’s Sky who have headsets. On PSVR, it’s almost one in four. It’s bigger than we expected, which is one of the reasons Sony’s very keen for us to support PSVR. And it’s a nice moment for people to get a free update and suddenly have a VR game in their library. And also VR at the moment tends to be a little bit short-form, so there are a lot of headsets that are gathering dust – so it’ll be nice to have a stab at being the game that gets people turning on their headsets.”
VR is the way to play No Man’s Sky, and it presents plenty of ways to play too, supporting all major headsets as well as their various control methods – be that PlayStation Move, Valve Index Knuckles or Oculus Touch. There are teleportation movement options, if you desire, or more direct movement, while in the ships themselves – which now boast fully-modelled 3D interiors – you can grab the flight stick in one hand and the throttle with another, making the whole experience brilliantly tactile. It all conspires to create one of those great VR moments, not just when you’re entering your ship for the first time – reaching out to lift the cockpit up, in a neat little theatrical flourish – but when you escape a planet’s atmosphere for the first time and the scale of No Man’s Sky hits home in a whole new way.
Or it’s when you’re flying through purple skies, your friends up in the air with you and buzzing past your cockpit. Online is the second pillar of the Beyond update, delivering on the wishes of many since No Man’s Sky was first revealed. “There’s a big online component,” says Murray. “I was trying to think of a word that’s not massively multiplayer, I think that draws a lot of genre connotations that I don’t want, and I don’t think we deliver on. But you can go anywhere and bump into people. There’s a big social hub, you can take on one of our community missions – if you’re on PC you can go on one of those missions and see 32 people. Generally, depending on platform, you’re seeing 16 to 32 people.”
There’s no cross-platform, sadly – “maybe one day,” says Murray, though his tone suggests it’s unlikely – but there are plenty of features that make the multiplayer now feel fully-formed. “The universe is online, you can come across people quite easily,” Murray explains. “There’s a big social space called the Nexus, it’s got shops, you can hang out, share ships, emotes, weapons.
“The base teleporter – you can go, see featured bases from us and then explore them. And you can also go and see anyone else’s base from the Nexus, anyone in your fireteam. You can see how many times they’ve been visited, who’s playing them the most, which builds your motivation to build something cool. It brings all of No Man’s Sky’s universe that little bit closer together. For me it’s still about going out on your own and exploring, but you can do that sci-fi thing of going back to your base.
“There are multiplayer missions – I’m saying fireteam, but it’s basically groups within the game. Fireteam is too masculine and aggressive for our game… There’s a meeting point, you can be paired up with people and stay together. You can do things like go and fight some pirates, or you can do more No Man’s Sky things like going on an archaeology mission, and you’ll have to go and dig up bones. There are ones where you have to collect fiend eggs, and they’ll spawn fiends with waves that come out.”
I got the smallest sample of what it’s like to play alongside people in a quick 30 minute session from the very start of No Man’s Sky, though really the purpose of the demo was to show off Beyond’s mysterious ‘third pillar’. It’s the most nebulous of the three, though also the most important especially if, like me, you’re something of a lapsed player. “We’ve created something that’s quite a beast,” says Murray. “It’s very broad and there are loads of different ways of playing it, and it services loads of different types of players. But it’s quite disparate because of that – it’s had this weird birth, which we’re hopefully trying to resolve a bit.
“The third pillar is, and has always been, a huge number of key features that are put under the house of version 2.0. It’s to try and make the game feel more cohesive, and some key features to deepen things. We run ahead with our updates painting everything in these big broad strokes, and then we come along afterwards looking at the detail. This is really us painting in a lot of detail into features we’ve added previously.
“Part of it’s making easier for people to come back to the game, easier for people joining the game – we had a few million people join for Next, and it’s hard to see them going through things and seeing all the little problems, we wanted to resolve those. But really it’s about deepening the game in a lot of key ways – people who are traders, people who are fighters, explorers or whatever. When you look at our Next range of features, it’s a lot. And this is probably twice as many.”
There’s more, too, in the shape of at least one season of post-launch events with community missions – and the intention for them not to peter out quite as quickly as they did last time out. “We did this for three months after Next, and lost the run of ourselves,” says Murray. “Having much more meaningful community missions, we’ll have this always online multiplayer so you can do a community mission and it’ll send you to a planet where you go and dig up bones, and you go there and there will be up to 32 other people also doing that.”
And beyond that? There must be a point at which Hello Games’ transitions away from No Man’s Sky, though it’s not coming any time soon. “I think you asked me that last year and I said Next was our last major update,” says Murray. “The team just kind of ran with certain ideas, though. I don’t know whether that will happen again. If it doesn’t we’re not going to try and force it. When we talk about doing a season of updates, we’ve got a plan of stuff we want to get in, there’s a bank of stuff on the cutting room floor that we didn’t have time for. After that, it doesn’t do us any favours to tie into anything.”
Indeed, it feels like No Man’s Sky still has years ahead of it – and given the richness of the Beyond update, and what it gives to the community, they could be some of its best years too. So how will No Man’s Sky bridge the gap between console generations that’s about to open up? Murray’s non-committal, though given some of the occurrences in his past you really can’t blame him.
“We’re lucky enough to be able to be at the cutting edge of things. But I don’t think it does us any good to commit to anything. Honestly, there’s a real battle that goes on in my head between still being excited about No Man’s Sky, but also being excited about other things we’d like to do.”
There are other things that Hello Games is doing, and there’s no escaping that, while this is still a relatively small team, it’s not the miniscule one that ran out of ramshackle offices just a few years ago. The core No Man’s Sky team is around 25 developers – “I think that’s still impressive,” says Murray, “it’s effectively seven platforms now. We support more players than there are people on the team! – while beyond that are other projects, such as The Last Campfire and another that’s being kept under wraps but has been alluded to as another ambitious undertaking.
And No Man’s Sky isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Murray himself was drawn away from his other commitments, and has spent the last three months working solely on the game – and after all these years, and after all the associated dramas, you can still sense that same spark of excitement that was there from those early days.
“There are certain things, like I alluded to, like doing a round of press, or the stress of releasing, and I think why am I doing this to myself,” he says. “I want to get a time machine and tell past Sean to rein it in a bit more. But definitely, I get a real kick out of this, and real excitement. VR’s been a real pet project for me. The thing that people should know about us, hopefully by now, is that we will launch on day one, on August 14th, but we’re in that for the journey. I imagine on the 14th we’ll launch a good VR version. Three months after that it’ll be even better, three months after that it’ll be even better, new headsets and controllers and things like that will come out. When you buy No Man’s Sky, you’re buying into that. That’s the way we see it – we’re in this with you.”