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Programming Games Technology

Building the Infinite Digital Universe of No Man's Sky 100

An anonymous reader writes: Hello Games is a small development studio, only employing 10 people. But they're building a game, No Man's Sky, that's enormous — effectively infinite. Its universe is procedurally generated, from the star systems down to individual species of plant and animal life. The engine running the game is impressively optimized. A planet's characteristics are not computed ahead of time — terrain and lifeforms are randomly generated on the fly as a player explores it. But, of course, that created a problem for the developers — how do they know their procedural generation algorithms don't create ridiculous life forms or geological formations? They solved that by writing AI bot software that explores the universe and captures brief videos, which are then converted to GIF format and posted on a feed the developers can review. The article goes into a bit more detail on how the procedural generation works, and how such a small studio can build such a big game.

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Building the Infinite Digital Universe of No Man's Sky

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  • Sigh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ledow ( 319597 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2014 @05:43PM (#47319063) Homepage

    Definitely feel a Peter Molyneaux coming on - before you know it the hype will go so mad, you won't even notice that the game's actually been released, and then we'll find out it's as dull as hell as a game.

    But aside from that, a team of 10 isn't exactly tiny. A lot better games have been written with a lot less people.

    And front-page of Slashdot before release? I'm guessing at least one of those people works in marketing...

    • Didn't they already do this with Spore?

      • I feel like this game is making the same promises that Spore did (cellular to universal scale). But then Spore was kind of a huge let down as far as I'm concerned. Much less a game of continuous scale as like 5 separate games packaged together. This one, from the little glimpses so far at least, seems more likely to deliver.
    • Re:Sigh (Score:5, Informative)

      by Guspaz ( 556486 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2014 @05:55PM (#47319183)

      It's actually a team of just 4 working on No Man's Sky. The other 6 people are working on other things (not everybody at the company is working on this one game).

    • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

      I for one don't care if it's dull. I spent an awful lot of time in Noctis, which had one of the worst control schemes ever, no combat, and no interaction with other players whatsoever besides naming planets and posting short notes (the database was updated every few months and made downloadable), but boy did it have a gorgeous infinite universe in its day.

      • by Smauler ( 915644 )

        Wow, another Noctis player :). I remember logging in every day after work to see whether there was any news about Noctis V.

    • by Onuma ( 947856 )
      Papers, Please was created by 1 guy. It's not "infinite", but it is really damned good.

      The quantity on the dev team is obviously not indicative of the quality of the finished product or the enjoyability of the game play. Otherwise, how could we explain the dismally disappointing nature of Diablo 3 or Call of Duty: Whateverthehellthey'recallingitnow?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      well aren't WE a negative nancy

    • It does initially feel like Spore, but when Giantbomb were talking/hanging out with a some of the developers (E3 Day 1 GiantBombcast, at around 30min in or so), they pushed the devs about what the hell you do besides exploring and they didn't go too far and promise too much. They did mention some ideas that haven't been completely fleshed out yet: combat - space and planet-level, exploring (sharing? ugh), resource mining, ship upgrading. I would personally like it if they created some giant ship-design tre

    • by Nemyst ( 1383049 )
      Somebody pissed in your cereal this morning? Their previous games, Joe Danger, were pretty good and didn't try to oversell. They're obviously trying to hype their game so they get a fanbase, but that's nothing special. It's also quite a bit more understated than Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen in terms of bling.

      Also, a team of 10 is tiny. I take it you stopped following games around 1995, where two guys in their garage could make a solid game in six months. Expectations have changed, believe it or not!
    • It's the buzz of the gaming world right now so I'm surprised it took this long to reach Slashdot. Even as early as last year it had a ten-page feature in Edge.

    • The devs are being so cagey anytime someone asks about the actual gameplay, I would be surprised if this were any good to be honest. It's probably gonna be a really nice tech demo.
  • by jenningsthecat ( 1525947 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2014 @06:00PM (#47319215)

    ...and I'm generally not interested in games. But this could turn me into a convert - the concept seems really awesome, and the sample video looked very cool.

    Just now I've slipped off my armour of techno-jadedness, and I'm amazed at the wonders we humans are capable of creating when we're not busy engaging in pillaging, war, and petty bickering. Off-topic perhaps, but what the hell.

    • by RyoShin ( 610051 )

      I'm a long-time gamer, and I was astounded at the demo as well. It doesn't claim otherwise, so I assume the video is not from in-game footage, but just the design and suggestion really riled my inner geek. If their final product can reach even 70% of what the video suggests, it will be amazing... ...and that's the problem. As beautiful as the trailer is to me, there is a lot being promised and I doubt they can deliver on that, much like Fable. Fable (at least the first one) was still a good game, but it was

  • I remember a text dungeon game in the 1980s that had a dynamically generated map. If you set the seed to the same value, you always got the same map.

    Seemed kind of revolutionary in 1984 for some reason because you could have a huge map without actually having to create a huge map.

    • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

      Played around with (and wrote extensions for) an implementation of this on a MUCK 10+ years ago. So, basically online text adventure with a somewhat procedural map. Wound up with procedural cities and cultures and stuff too.

    • Elite did something similar as far as I recall.

      • by bombman ( 87339 )

        Yeah i think it has 8 galaxies with 256 star systems in each all in 64K

        • Only 48K on the ZX Spectrum!
        • Yeah i think it has 8 galaxies with 256 star systems in each all in 64K

          Errr.... no. The BBC Micro had 32K, but in the mode Elite ran in the screen was eating about 20K of that. So it had 8 galaxies with 256 star systems in each - each with names, systems of governance, markets, et cetera - about twenty different ship types, and the physics and rendering engines - all in less than 14K.

          I still think that's awesome. And, while I'm very impressed with what I've seen of No Man's Sky, the procedural universe of Elite Dangerous [] looks even more spectacular.

          Full disclosure - I spent mo

    • elite had it's procedural universe, frontier expanded on it vastly... and now there is going to be frontier deadly, which oddly enough is going to be much like this 'no mans sky'... except David Braben has been doing this for decades.

      • Frontiers core systems were not procedurally generated (there was even a map included in the box), but once you got off the map it was all procedural after that - you could literally go forever (or at least on the "exploring" save game I had I never reached the edge of the universe despite hyper jumping for a full day in one direction).

  • While I'm not really looking forward to this game specifically, I am glad to witness procedural content generation technologies advance as they have. From TES: Oblivion's foliage to Starforge's infinite terrain demo, things are becoming very interesting.
    • I'm imagining ten thousand different players exploring in ten thousand different directions, and every time something is procedurally generated, it either needs to be remembered for the next player to come along to that same location, or the generator has to be super-well-done, to reach a given point from ten thousand different directions, and the same landscape/space-scape/whatever gets generated every time.
      • I don't think you get what procedural generation is all about. The point is that you DON'T have to remember anything except the seed for the planet, and the seed itself can be procedurally generated.

        In essence you can build a complete universe from one seed alone.

      • all you have to remember is what changed, no different than differencing disks in the virtualization world.

        Take a look at this, a 'text mode' version of elite. []

        Elite was of course a procedural universe on a 6502 back in the early 1980s.

        And if you want to be 1990's wowed, check out Frontier Elite II... []

        This time Elite grew up to include multiple planets, star, even asteroids... It's amazing! and ran on a 68000 or 80286 without a maths coprocess

  • Back in my day, we had 800 planets that were procedurally generated, [] AND WE LIKED IT!

    But really, the concept that you can procedurally generate an infinite universe is not that ground-breaking. I understand a lot of people are falling for the hype-train. And hey, it might be a really fun game. As long as there's something meaningful to do with all this PGC, and the game play holds water. But just because it's procedurally generated doesn't sell me on a game.

    (Also, side-note, where the hell are the procedura

    • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

      God, Starflight was a thing of beauty. Alien Legacy (1994) had a pretty gorgeous mix of procedural and hand-tweaked, too. If you want a procedural FPS, I think what you're looking for is Tower of Guns--I haven't played it but it definitely fits the bill.

    • (Also, side-note, where the hell are the procedurally generated maps for the FPS genre? Why hasn't this happened yet?)

      I have a suspicion that in that context, procedurally generated is a synonym for "boringly symmetrical," "unfair and exploitable," or both.

  • by Rinikusu ( 28164 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2014 @06:12PM (#47319301)

    Frontier Elite 2 [], for instance. Ken Musgrave [] literally wrote the book [] on procedural generation and is the brains behind MojoWorld, a procedural world generator that's great fun. If you liked Bryce back in the day, MojoWorld is Bryce on steroids.

    Not knocking these guys at all, btw, it looks great. Just giving some background.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I get how you can procedurally generate an environment on demand. What I don't get is how do you save the state of the procedurally generated environment after it's created, so that when you go back again, it still looks the same? Sure, everything is parameterized, so you're not saving nearly as much as you see, but if this is universe sized, and you get many thousands (or more) of people playing it for a while, wouldn't the size of the data set grow exceedingly large?

      • by heson ( 915298 )
        You only need to save the seed for the pseudo random number generator and the world will look exactly the same every time you re-generate it.
      • by Salgat ( 1098063 )
        You save the initial values that created it then any changes to it must be saved separate and appended after its creation each time.
    • I'm happy to see a mention of Musgrave here. He was doing procedural landscapes and atmospheric effects back before "fractals" were well known as anything other than the Mandelbrot set or a Koch snowflake.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Reminds me of Elite of old past. While fun for a while, the similarities got boring and tedious pretty fast.
    This is true for all current procedural games. Eventually there'll be enough similarities to make it boring.
    Even a game as beautiful as this. Random critters and landscapes just ISN'T CONTENT.

    It's a never-ending chase: Maybe if the gameplay become procedural as well, it might be interesting.
    However, you'll have difficulty creating something with the longevity of L4D2, without narrowing down content an

    • Reminds me of Elite of old past. While fun for a while, the similarities got boring and tedious pretty fast.

      Thing is, although Elite used procedural generation, the game was about space combat, trading, piracy and smuggling with cutting edge (for the time - kids today won't understand) graphics. Things like the planet names and descriptions, and the fact there were a gazillion systems, were part of the atmosphere, not the Unique Selling Point.

      Same with Minecraft - when you get fed up of exploring your effectively infinite world, there's building stuff, playing with redstone circuitry, fighting, potions, railw

  • needs more linux

  • So they're making Spore 2? Or maybe Minecraft: Corporate Sellout edition? We've heard this song and dance before.

    Of course, since I've been playing Roguelikes for decades, literally nothing in the hype train up there really gets my attention. Wake me when they have something with 1/10th the complexity of Dwarf Fortress.

  • I was fascinated by the idea of Spore when it was in development, and not so much when it was released.

    Replays might be more interesting, but you're going to have to make a game pretty damned good for me to want to reply it -- and you're going to have to hope that the procedural generation the second time around makes for an interesting game.

    If I play it once, I can't tell the difference between on-the-fly generation and static worlds.

    • I get the feeling that EA forced Will Wright to make all sorts of stupid changes to make it something "anyone can play." There are videos (link) [] from early versions that show a much more "realistic" look and feel. No cartoonish dancing, googly eyes, or happy singing penis creatures in evidence.

      At some point during development some upper management types meddled the game into the pitiful thing that was released. If you look at the information about the development of the game, there are all kinds of cool

      • Surprisingly, no; during development the studio gradually split into a team which had been designing the low-level stuff and creatures, and a team which had been responsible for the large-scale procedural gameplay and space exploration. Because the two teams were essentially not talking to each other, the aspects wound up diverging massively in graphical style and it was a bit of a mess to try and bring it all back together into a shippable game. It's just the usual story of an overambitious idea, poorly ma

    • by Smauler ( 915644 )

      If I play it once, I can't tell the difference between on-the-fly generation and static worlds.

      Except for the fact that a game with static star systems will have at most a few hundred, rather than a few billion. There is no way to simulate the universe without some kind of procedural generation, there are just far too many things in it.

      • The likelihood of me visiting a few billion star systems, in any play-through, seems unlikely.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    From the summary:
    "A planet's characteristics are not computed ahead of time — terrain and lifeforms are randomly generated on the fly as a player explores it."
    From the article on Eurogamer (and reality):
    "We do start everyone on a different place on the outside edge of the galaxy," says Murray, reiterating his grand statement from Sony's conference. "It is the same for everyone, but they are actually not just hundreds of miles apart, they could be billions of miles apart."

    The game universe is the same

    • That differs from my understanding: I got the impression that once a player explored a world, the parameters for procedural generation on that world were fixed and uploaded (this is an MMO, whether or not the game designers want it to be thought of as such). That's why in the gameplay videos, you see onscreen tags identifying which player discovered a species or world.

      I've worked on my own idea of a procedurally-generated universe, and the idea I've come up with is you generate a random list of stars and a

  • Procedural generation of outdoor scenes has been done for years. Decades, even. Works fine. Most of nature can be simulated with fractals, and basic terrain generators are simple. Speedtree turns out really nice trees and vegetation.

    What's really tough is procedural generation of cities. There are programs that build a skyline, but so far, nobody has been able to procedurally generate a convincing city at high-detail level. There are systems that tried, like Introversion and Instant Architecture, but the

    • I followed the development of Introversion with great interest, particularly the procedural city generation. I look forward to the day when someone writes the all-encompassing MMO that incorporates multiple game types in a single universe. It'll happen eventually, and one of the versions will probably even be worthwhile.

  • by Indigo ( 2453 )


  • The cat won't even be a cat until somebody looks at it.
  • that's enormous — effectively infinite

    What does "effectively infinite" mean? Is it a) really, really, really big, so big that you'd never be able to explore more than a minuscule fraction of it in a lifetime (but not infinite) or is it b) infinite?

    • Define infinite. There are no infinite things in observed reality and there obviously can not be any in a computer game. Infinite simply means that you can always come up with more of whatever object is under consideration. For example no matter how large a natural number you name I can always name a bigger one. In this case it probably means that when you reach a "border" of the world some more "world" is generated. Given that they claim it is procedurally generated.

    • "Infinite" means "without bound", so I take "effectively infinite" to mean you'll never encounter a boundary. You'll never run out of new space, every world will never be explored; it might as well be infinite because there's no discernible difference.

      It couldn't be truly infinite, because at some point you're dealing with computers which have fixed-length integers, so your seed value space is actually finite; but 64-bit integers means that 7 billion players could each have their own unique million-star sk

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Another space game that is being based on procedural generation is Infinity: Battlescape. The company behind it, I-Novae Studios, consists of a couple developers and a couple artists, many of whom are working part-time. The lead developer, Flavien Brebion, has been working on the thing part-time for the last decade. He's very good and very much the perfectionist, but hasn't gotten around to building an actual game yet (other than a fun little combat game intended to test networking code).

    They have put ou

    • My understanding is that they realized they needed to make money, so they shifted their dev efforts to completing a marketable game engine to get some income before completing their game idea. I really look forward to this game, and its more realistic scale. But I'm not holding my breath.

  • I've always assumed this might be how the real universe works.
    Atoms only exist upon detailed inspection. If noone is using a powerful microscope, no need to populate that detail.
    The moon only physically existed once we landed on it and most of the stars will never need to physically exist.
    It makes the whole "universe is a simulation" much more computationally feasible. It might even be able to explain
    things like the double slit experiment and definitely helps explain why we seem to be alone.

  • Just a note that if you are a PC gamer, the game may not even release on that platform. It will initially release on PS4.

    I'm bummed. For the longest time I thought this was a PC game.
  • Haven't seen Limit Theory [] mentioned yet. It's an infinite space sim, all of the universe is procedurally generated, and coded by a single guy. Looking darn pretty too!

    Though, it's not down on a planet level, it's only in space.

  • Even if the game is bad... this kind of tech is much needed and could fuel much deeper gameplay down the road.
  • Starbound is a 2d side-scrolly infinite universe procedural game.

    A couple weeks ago, I noticed a post by someone who had seen a randomly-generated mob of a specific type on a certain planet, taken it for a pet, and then subsequently lost all of his data, perhaps due to a patch, I forget. He wanted to find that exact pet again because he liked its looks, but in a very large (not technically infinite, but impossible to explore for one person before the heat death of the universe) game universe, the chances of

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