We Spent an Hour Talking to hello Games About Everything ‘No Man’s Sky’
We touch on everything you might imagine: the game's launch, harassment, crunch, cut features, how they've spent the last two years improving the game, and much more.
Image courtesy of hello Games
The launch of No Man’s Sky, one of the most anticipated games in recent memory, was rocky, at best. The infinite possibilities suggested by the game’s still-impressive 2013 teaser only snowballed, compounded by increasingly epic marketing materials, glowing impressions from the press, and interviews where the developers often promised the moon—and beyond.
Plenty of people, including some at Waypoint, loved what hello Games shipped in 2016, warts and all. It was big, audacious, and beautiful. People even used the game to memorialize loved ones. But the backlash to No Man’s Sky was swift, loud, and often hostile and angry. (I wrote about the backlash back then.) Some players began scouring the very same interviews and trailers that’d set their imaginations ablaze for “proof” hello Games had been tricking them for years, as if No Man’s Sky had been an elaborate conspiracy, rather than, perhaps, a game made by a small team who’d bitten off more than they could chew.
As the backlash played out, the developers at hello Games, including the face of No Man’s Sky, marketing manager and programmer Sean Murray, went dark. Most of the harassment and toxic commentary had been directed at Murray. But going “dark” has a very particular meaning. Sure, there weren’t any AMAs trying to explain what happened, or lengthy, apologetic press interviews about the future of the game. hello Games vanished from the public eye, not No Man’s Sky. This only stoked the flames for certain corners of the Internet, but for hello Games, it was necessary. Even still, the team was there, quietly listening.
The game was updated with performance improvements, bug fixes, balance changes, and the like. But simultaneously, hello Games was sketching out how No Man’s Sky would change in the future. A few months after launch came the first big update, Foundation, which allowed players to establish a home planet and build bases. The next update, Path Finder, came in early 2017, adding vehicles and the ability to share bases with other players. Later in 2017 came Atlas Rises, which completely revamped the game’s limited story elements with something completely new and added portals, allowing quick travel across the galaxy.
Many people understandably stopped playing No Man’s Sky when it stumbled out of the gate. But a lot has changed in the last two years, and perhaps the biggest update yet, Next, is due next week. Next brings with another slew of major changes to No Man’s Sky, including proper multiplayer, a third-person camera, revamped visuals, the ability to build bases anywhere on a planet (including underwater!), and a chance to build your own starfleet.
There’s another change, too: hello Games is finally coming out of the dark, both to fans and the press. Waypoint editor-in-chief Austin Walker and I recently had a chance to spend more than an hour speaking with Sean Murray about No Man’s Sky—the past, present, and future. Beyond walking through Next, we talk about the game’s launch, the harassment directed at the studio, whether No Man’s Sky might have benefited from Early Access, if they regret talking so much about the game before they’d fully realized what it would become, and much more. It’s a very long dive into the rollercoaster that was making, finishing, shipping, and evolving No Man’s Sky.
We felt the best way to present this conversation was in its entirety. It’s a long interview, and we didn’t cut much from it because A) Sean is an interesting speaker and B) We figured you would want to hear what hello Games—well, Sean, specifically—has to say in their own words:
A Developer Hiding in Plain Sight
Patrick Klepek (Senior Editor, Waypoint): You haven't really spoken publicly about the game since the launch and I'm curious what does it feel like to talk with us? I know you mentioned you did some other interviews. Going back into that world about talking about your game again. How was that felt so far?
Sean Murray (Managing Director, hello Games): Yeah. So… interesting. What you just said there was we haven't really talked about the game publicly, but we we have done that. We've talked very directly with our community or we've done—I mean, sometimes not directly, where we run ARGs and things like that. We've run these two ARGs, one in the lead up to Atlas Rising and now this one, which have been really popular—like 300,000 people playing the first one, 400,000 people playing the last one. And that's our way of communicating now with the community, or has been, right? And I used to joke when we started up that ARG [that] we ran those because we had been like banished to the astral plane? [laughs] And we could only talk to the community through like moving things on the table, or they would ask if a certain feature was in the game and we would like, kick the door or something.
Austin Walker (Editor-in-Chief, Waypoint): Like a seance.
Yeah. And it felt… I don't know what is a great word is but it felt maybe inappropriate to do that? And it was… I will be honest and say I think you guys are lovely, I'm sure. You guys are lovely, but I never really wanted to talk to the press. I didn't enjoy it when I had to do it. I think that was super obvious watching me doing interviews. [laughs] And I wasn't very good at. And so [not talking to the press] has been the easiest choice to make.
Coming out of the launch, it was like "Hey, we don't have to do this, right? In fact, it's not even a good thing for us to be doing." And there was a moment where lots of people advised me, and I could kind of see it myself—like, we can just focus on making games! That's the thing that we're arguably good at here, right? Just a handful of us have made this really big, ambitious, innovative, weird game. We should just do that. And so I know it's not a very nice answer to give you because we're talking here, and you know as I said: you guys are lovely! But it's been really nice. This is the happiest I think we've ever been, as a result.
Austin: So what drew you into being in front of the camera so often ahead of release, and why do it again now? What's special about Next or about this press cycle or whatever, that you’re [willing] to talk to us? Why not just continue releasing the sorts of trailers you did for past updates, like the Atlas Rises trailer.
So I'll answer your last question first. Atlas Rises was an update for a game that had been out for a year, right? In any normal situation, when a game hadn't gotten updated six months, one would expect—I would expect—that wasn't necessarily going to be very popular. We had we had over a million people playing on the day it launched. It was popular. No Man's Sky is still a popular game. We, at launch, I think did the right thing, even though it wasn't ideal. We did the right thing I think in just focusing on development. But it feels kind of wrong to [be] almost neglectful of that community, right? To to have a million people playing your game one day and you're not saying anything to them? And then you leave them for a year you're not really talking to them?
And we're changing what we're doing. After the release of Next, we're going to start communicating directly with the community loads more, and we're going to start dropping weekly content, weekly community missions and rewards and stuff like that. Really catering to them, which is something we've always wanted to do, but it just didn't feel like we could.
The way I would describe it is: After launch, we could see that there was a really large number of people playing the game. No Man's Sky was played on average for a far longer time than most AAA games are, right? We skew really high in terms of the amount of time people play the game. There were always stories about like "Oh, we have a really deep drop off," but I think it was like PC Gamer came out and said "No look at their chart vs. all these other games? Actually, lots of are still playing No Man's Sky. This is doing really well, as a single player experience, compared to the single player games." We came out just after Far Cry Primal and just before Deus Ex [Mankind Divided]. We had far more people playing you know than than those games would have had. And it feels kind of like like there is this big group of people—this community who cares about the game—and [what] stood between us and them was a group of people who were really angry—like an angry mob—that's really hard to talk to.
And even some of that community that's behind them, that I wish I could reach over to, even some of that community is angry, right? But they're angry for reasons we care about. They're angry because they don't like something about the game or they wish they could do something in the game or they have some problem with the game or whatever. Some technical problems. We really want to help those people, and that's what we've been doing, [we’ve] been focusing on that.
But we haven't communicated with them, and that seems a shame. I would enjoy talking to those people. We are listening to them, but we're not talking to them. So feels like we need to. We've agonized over this, whether we should ever talk to the press again. [laughs] Not because the press is the problem, but I just mean talking to the larger world, right? People who aren't just our core community. It was like, "No, I feel like we owe it to people to be able to address a bunch of questions that they have, and then maybe, hopefully have the ability to talk more openly with our community." And kind of address a whole bunch of questions that people have.
Right now, I think a whole bunch of people have questions about No Man's Sky Next, and what's in it, and functionality, and they're making up their minds about whether to buy it or not and jump back in. And I want to be able to talk freely with them. I do think we're just ripping off a band-aid, where we talk to the press like right now, and we've got to get that out of the way. And then I don't think you're going to hear from me loads.
I was saying before, I don't think it's something that we need to do. I don't think it's something that we're particularly good at doing.
Austin: So you mention new functionality in Next. Should people go into it thinking there might be something different about the basic loop of the game, or is it an extension of that same sort of cycle of resource gathering, checking out a planet, and moving on to a new one? I think about someone like Patrick specifically, who did not have the same [very positive] relationship with No Man's Sky that I did partially because of that resource loop, partially because he needed to go get fuel every time he took off with the ship.
Yeah, I could totally get that. I mean, what we actually found was… if I go back through our updates: Foundation. When the game first launched, like I was saying, there was the average amount time people were playing the game for what was quite long. Even at launch [it] was much longer than the games that were coming out around us. But Foundation massively increased that. One of the reasons for that is something so simple, it was us introducing a creative mode, and a lot of people—I'm not necessarily saying this is for you, Patrick [laughs]—but a lot of people just totally gravitated towards that. And they were like "I just want to have my own little exploration fantasy."
The thing that I've gained in perspective is like, maybe Patrick won't like the game. And maybe it won't be for you. I would be super clear about that. This is a sandbox type of game, and it has a set of loops that I think really ground you. We're not trying to fulfill power fantasies or anything like that in the game, and we don't have a lot of the traditional kind of compulsion loops and things. So the core, normal game is something [where] there are a lot of people who already really enjoy that side of the game, and that hasn't changed. But there are other ways to play it.
I am not… How can I put this? In the olden days, I would probably would have been trying to convince Patrick to buy the game and that it was brilliant, and now I'm like… I don't care! [laughs]
Patrick: I see how it is!
[Laughs] There's loads of information. The thing I would say is that what has expanded is there are more ways to play the game.
Patrick: The weeks and months after the original launch, one of the things the more hostile elements of the community did was comb through every interview, every appearance, every piece of text or audio and squaring that with the game that was out there. There was this whole community of people scouring through things.
I'm curious, given that experience and response from certain segments of the community, how did that play into how you thought about talking about the game, what you say about the game, how liberally you are speaking about the game? And related to that, if you can take us inside the feeling of the studio in those weeks and months afterwards, where there was like a very hostile community calling hello Games liars and thieves, all sorts of really escalated rhetoric.
Yeah, I mean, there's still plenty of people who will say that. The reality is... a perspective that I've gained, I think, and gained in this first few months is [pause] the Internet is often really, really good at figuring out when someone's made a mistake, right? Or messed up in some way, done something that they would regret. [But] I don't necessarily think they're the best at deciding what appropriate action is or exact proportional reaction to take.
But if I look back on the interviews that we did and one, why did we do those so early? Well, you know, we were a small, scrappy studio, and people seemed really excited about our game, and we were really excited about it! People that we really admired wanted to talk to us about the game. We were like "Great! We like talking about our game!” Looking back, that was naive, and it was naive to talk so excitedly about the game, and it was naive to think that we could talk about features that were in development. We were showing people demos, they were playing them, and we were talking about things that they had just seen that we knew, as developers, were like "Oh, this is like a five-year development on this game. Obviously, some of the detail of this will change, some things big and small." This is a really innovative game. Obviously, it's going to change.” And that is not obvious, right?
At that point, when you were talking to press, you were... in our naive mind, we were chatting with friends excitedly about a game and showing things off. But really, we should have been in a much more scripted mindset. I look back on those interviews and they are vague and rambling, kind of like this. [laughs] That's my natural way of talking. I can feel that I'm already rambling. This is why I shouldn't talk to anyone. [laughs]
We would talk to press, we would talk to people like yourselves at E3 or whatever, and they'd be like "Oh, it's so nice to sit down with developers and just chat about things and chat about games in general." And the communities react really well to it! "Sean's cool! He just talks about games, seems like a normal person. It's so nice that it's not those scripted PR." And you guys would be like "Why don't publishers just have this?" And I'm like "Yeah, I don't know!" Now? I 100 percent get it. I've got some advice for past Sean.
Austin: One of the [negative] comments that came out after the game’s launch from Sony, who published the game on the PlayStation 4, was about that PR strategy, about you being out in front of people making too many promises, basically. I'm curious what that relationship was like. Were you at Colbert because Sony would like you to be at Colbert promoting the game? How did it feel to read that response from [Sony Interactive Entertainment’s President of Worldwide Studios] Shuhei Yoshida, who kind of went along with those criticisms?
Yeah, I mean it's it's interesting, isn't it? [chuckles] Sony is this big, huge organization, and we chose to work with them. That brings a whole set of things with it. That is a huge company working with… [laughs] Like, let's just put this in perspective. That is a huge company that answers to analysts, and that cares about E3 and things like that in a totally different way. [No Man's Sky] became one of their key titles the moment we stood onstage at E3, and they were dealing with the company that, at the time, had like five people working on [the game].
The average team size of No Man's Sky over the five years of development was six people. We were 15 people when it launched. Normally, Sony as a company is dealing with companies that are no smaller than 300 or whatever. Where you look at the kind of lineup that we were a part of—if you look at Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen or whatever, we keep getting mentioned in the same sentence. We were six people vs their 300 or whatever. They've got 50 people for every one guy on No Man's Sky situation. That's an insane situation.
"The moment we just showed at VGX [Video Game Awards] and got the kind of reaction that we did, and a whole bunch of stuff was set in motion, I think. It's easy to look back on it now and go—it was almost inevitable about how things would play out."
So I read this thing all the time, [where] people blame Sony. Like “Sony brought all of the hype to the game!” or “Sony put loads of pressure on them to release!” or whatever. I mean, that's just an obvious thing that Sony would do. That's what a publisher does. I mean, they wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't do that.
I don't know what a good way to say this is, but like, we worked with Sony, and we didn't have to. We didn't know what it would be like, but also, [laughs] maybe we should have understood? I've said to people before, if a kid gets into the cage at the zoo with the gorilla...
Austin: Where is this going, Sean? [laughs]
I don't blame the gorilla, right? That's what the gorilla does. The kid does what the kid does. There is there is an obvious mismatch between a huge company and this tiny, tiny company [that has] suddenly become important.
Shuhei said stuff that he then later rolled back on, and has been really, really complimentary of the game. The situation was an interesting one, but the reality is, the moment we stepped on stage at E3, and the moment we just showed at VGX [the Spike Video Game Awards] and got the kind of reaction that we did, and a whole bunch of stuff was set in motion, I think. It's easy to look back on it now and go—it was almost inevitable about how things would play out. The moment you got that excited about the game and the spotlight that we were under and how far out we were from release, there was just a whole load of factors that came into play.
Just to give you a super long answer to your straightforward question: After we launched, it was actually someone that I really respect who was high up at Valve said to me, "You know, the things that you got right—in terms of this tiny team making this huge game, and it being innovative, which is a thing not very many games are, and it being really ambitious technically, and doing stuff that no one had done before—those things are really hard, and they're really hard to learn, and you know very few can do them." And then they were like, "The things that you messed up are things that are just really easy to learn. And a lot of them are kind of things that, if I'm honest, they're not largely in our control, right?”
So if you're angry at No Man's Sky because it became a lightning rod for things like pre-ordering games and stuff like that, or the price that we [launched at], or the release timing, or releasing early, or not being early access or whatever... I can be okay with you being angry about that because those aren't super in my control. It's like you being angry at the film director for the price of like cinema tickets or whatever.
I'm not just totally saying they're not our fault, because once we stood on stage at E3 and got a great reaction those things were almost set in motion. I've described it as, there was a rocket ship launched towards the sun, and we were just building the rocket ship on the way up.
The Future of No Man's Sky
Austin: One of the things that I noticed over the course of the updates is that you found new ways to change the procedural generation, and in fact, to augment it with content that wasn’t procedurally generated: Stuff like the story in Atlas Rises . Going into Next , how has the procgen—the heart and soul of No Man's Sky—shifted?
It's such a weird game to work on. I've worked on games before this, a whole bunch of games. I worked at the EA before this and stuff, and this game is so weird. You know, to do it update and have almost the entire content of the game change, right?
If you watch that the Next video, you'll see that there is much bigger draw distances. That normally wouldn't be possible because that geometry just wouldn't exist. Normally your draw distance is what it is and you can't really change it that easily because you're hiding stuff. Our worlds have just kind of gotten bigger because of that, our vistas. We have a new cloud system, which people seem really excited about, and a new water system that makes water look much better.
But I think that what's strange about No Man's Sky is because you're exploring worlds, those changes are the game in a lot of ways, and that's a weird thing. We're providing almost like space tourism or something, and changing the world, being able to see bigger vistas or clouds overhead and they're casting shadows on the ground... for me, that’s super impactful to the game. I think this time around it's incremental improvements, but I think our creatures are much more interesting and have better behaviors.
Austin: That's a huge shift. I think one of the big things people said at launch was "These [creatures] are all cool looking, but they don't do anything that's that interesting for me."
It's subtle stuff. It's not the core of the game or anything like that, but there are just these moments. When you have creatures that flock together or behave a bit more as birds— No Man's Sky, for me at least, is all about those moments.
There's a certain amount of balance that we find in terms of the effort involved in going to a new planet, of earning these things, for people who play in normal mode and not creative. And then getting over that top of the hill, surviving, and seeing a cool vista. There's just something really meaningful about it, if that's what you're into.
Austin: One of the things that came in Atlas Rises was the whole new mission system—the mission board—gaining faction reputation, jumping from system to system and solving problems. Is there an expansion of that stuff in Next ? And how do you decide which features to bring into any given expansion?
You're right that that was a weird thing to bring in. We always planned it. We laid out a roadmap of the core big things that we wanted to do. If you look at each update… like bases, we knew we wanted to do that. But scroll down, everything below bases pretty much came from the community feedback of things that we felt answered problems that they had, or things they were asking for. The same with Path Finder. It's like "Vehicles!" We knew we wanted to do that, and then everything else, as you scroll down, is from the community. Atlas Rises is a similar story. We knew we wanted to do that.
But it was weird. Atlas Rises was weird to work on because we were bringing this more authored element, and more traditional gameplay elements. There's an extension of that in multiplayer; you can do multiplayer missions together. We've built out what you can do with freighters. You can build up, basically, a fleet or an armada of like up to 50 frigates that ride along beside your freighter, and you can send them off on missions, a little bit like you would assassins in Assassins Creed.
Austin: That is literally the touchstone I was going to bring up. [laughs] Is that something that's all just done through a UI, where you're saying "Hey, go get me X number of minerals?"
What’s cool about it is the way they go about it is they actually go to those places and they warp out, but if you warp out out after them, you can follow along with them. Sometimes, they will call you with major decisions. They will be sending back reports. They can get destroyed, or they can come back damaged. And you can fly over to them, land on them, you can walk around inside them and repair them.
Austin: Is that something—and again, I hate to use Patrick as the test subject here—but Patrick, you see this trailer, you go "Whoa, look at all those cool frigates! But I'm in hour three. How long is it going to take for me to get to that stuff?"
We've brought a lot of that game forward. We're much more stats-based [now], and what we found was "Okay, we're doing these cool updates, but a lot of the things we're adding, people just aren't seeing them until hour 20, hour 40 or whatever."
That's okay because actually the average play time is really high on No Man's Sky. But how many people just never get to experience that, and that would have been a cool thing for them? So now, when you start the game, within the first hour or so, you're taught base building and actually given the opportunity to just focus on that if you want. And then, around hours six or seven, you get introduced to freighters and you get given your freighter. You're seeing that much earlier on. We brought forward vehicles and things like that.
Austin: So there’s a “new player experience” here for people who maybe played a bunch at launch and just want to jump back in.
But just to be okay...[pause] I will say my sales-y thing, which is like "It is a good time to reboot No Man's Sky if you haven't played [in a while]." People who are joining from Xbox, hopefully we're giving them the best experience possible. But fundamentally, this isn't a completely different game, right, and it's not supposed to be everyone's perfect game and so on and so forth.
505 Games [No Man's Sky's Xbox One retail distributor] launched a pre-order for their retail version of the game because they have to do. On digital, we're just like "Nah, whatever." If you look at the comments about the Next trailer, they're just like "Why isn't the digital pre-order up???" [laughs] Just get it on launch day if that's your thing. Let other people play it and tell you about it. We are so far from that world now, where we're just like "Yeah, hopefully, Patrick will like it, but I'm okay if he doesn't." [laughs]
Austin: It's not even that! [Even me,] I don't have as much free time as I would love to right now, but it's cool to hear that at hour six I’ll get a freighter, because last time to get a freighter meant to go to a bunch of different planets, and get the farming stuff, because I needed to get my base’s economy going, so I could get the amount of money and blah blah blah.
Patrick: To be clear, that is more indicative of what I'm talking about here, too. As a parent with less time, the quality of life improvements are huge.
I think that's been a real choice for us. If I look at the launch of the game, it was broad, but there were only a few, core ways that you could play the game. A lot of those were probably more grind-y or took longer. And loads of people reacted well to that and enjoyed it or would describe the game... The thing I keep hearing from people who played it for a long time is they play it ambiently, or they would call a meditative, or relaxing. And you hear that a lot. That's why we have the No Man's High or whatever subreddit. [laughs]
Austin: Welp, gotta go check that out. [laughs]
Which is fun! And it's cool that exists, this chill game that people can play for a long time. But actually, we start back with Next, and we're like "There's so much in the game now, and we want people to experience it." And it's been weird adding updates because you just focus on the people you're adding the update for, so you're you're thinking about that person who's played for 100 hours.
This time around, we've thought a bit more about the person who has never played the game before or just wants to start a fresh save. They can't even remember two years ago when they picked it up at launch. And we're like "Cool, you'll have a, hopefully, much nicer experience, and you'll get to see some of these things earlier." With No Man's Sky at launch, I think a bunch people after about 30 hours were cool with the game, but were like "I'll just put this down, and I have seen the things that I would want to see within the game, and I've done the things. I'm not sure I want to continue."
With Next, I think there's a moment reasonably early on, within the first 10 or 15 hours, where I hope the player feels overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that there is to do. They're like, "I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to be doing base building right now, or whether I'm supposed to be building up my fleet that I just started, or whether I'm supposed to be doing this story, or whether I'm supposed to be hiring NPCs or whatever." If people feel overwhelmed like that, it's a lovely complaint to get about No Man's Sky, if they're overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they can do. You saw that in comments a bunch about like Atlas Rises when it came out. We that to be more true now.
"Hopefully people can understand, we were under just ridiculous pressure, as in from the fans, from external forces, from running out of money. We just had deadlines that we couldn't move."
Austin: Sean, am I going to get killed by pirates, by human player pirates who hate me and my freighter? Is that a thing I am opting into? Sea of Thieves came out this year, and that was a game where there was big conversation around it.
You can opt out of it. You probably don't need to worry about it as much as you would in something like Sea of Thieves. The galaxy is very big, and the player base is big but spread apart. People can choose to jump into other players' games, and there are shortcuts, to do that. We want to bring people together.
Also, PVP isn't the focus of the game, it's it's not very… like, this sounds bad but it's purposeful, it’s not very rewarding. That was a very conscious decision. If you were doing that, you're not having necessarily a super exciting time. It actually started with no PVP in, and it felt weird to have a ship and not be able to shoot your friend or whatever, or have a gun and not be able to shoot them. And also, it makes the universe feel more real. People are worried about it! You're sitting there. Am I just going to get shot by another human? You can already can get shot by pirates, but it's just a nice feeling to thinking that guy who's attacking me might be a real person. That's a neat moment.
Austin: There's that old Chris Livingston blog series called "Hey, are you cool?" that was about the moment in games like DayZ when you see another player and you're like "Are you cool? Is this going to happen?" So I'm excited to have that experience.
I had this [happen] playing the other day, and this is probably a reflection of how No Man's Sky is and the sedateness of it all… When you go to the space station, there's this new marketplace, which makes buying ships and upgrades a lot more clear, and it's much more open and there's a lot of NPCs around. So I'm walking up, and there's this NPC at the shop, I go to talk to a shopkeeper, who is also an NPC, and then there's NPC at the shop who is a real fucking person!
I'm just losing my shit over this. [laughs] In any other game, that would be nothing. “What am I doing? You're a real person!" Maybe this is just me, and it probably is, but no part of me wanted to kill that person, and that person didn't try and kill me. It's too cool a moment, you’re like “Ahhh, fuck! What do we do!?”
And we actually had a weird, "Uhhh, so what do we do?" moment. We're like, "Let's just go down to the planet and build a base to commemorate this." And then we did that and then it felt a bit awkward and went "Anyways, see you." It was a cool moment, it was a cool story. That's the kind of thing that [where with] occasional multiplayer, I see that bringing, not "Oh my god, I'm just being attacked constantly." I think that is reasonably indicative of what you'll see at launch.
Austin: There is all that community stuff in terms of people building the galactic hub, and I just I just read the news about Cafe 42 being overrun by a terrible streamer. So there will be, I imagine, player-organized hubs of activity where that stuff could be more and more.
But just to be super clear, when you're playing No Man's Sky, this is not an MMO. You are not meeting hundreds of people. There's four people on the cover of the box. It's teams of four that you gather up in. Most of the time, if you play multiplayer at all, you will be playing with your three other friends—in a crew, join together and you play together. That's where it makes the most sense. You're playing, building a base, all that kind of stuff. You are not all congregating in the one place, and having some sort of mass experience.
You will occasionally come across other people, and that will more than likely really happen when somebody teleports to your base, or they choose to jump into a random player's game and meet up in that way. They purposely choose, "I want to meet someone random."
Austin: But there are hooks for that in the game.
Yeah. Otherwise, it just doesn't happen. But we are doing community events. Post launch, we're going gonna start doing weekly updates with content and community missions and things like that. But that's more supporting something that you've probably seen the community already doing. There's a website that we're launching that will show people where hubs and factions are, and how much they've explored the game and stuff like that. That's mainly if you are interested in that side of the game. We're supporting that loads more. But not through, you know, some sort of MMO or something like that. Multiplayer is really about you and your buddies playing, or as you're just playing normally, ambiently, occasionally jumping into a game.
A Game Is More Than a Single Person
Austin: You are the face of No Man's Sky, or you've been thrust into being the face of No Man's Sky? Maybe orange skies and blue trees are also the face of No Man's Sky , but as far as people on the dev team go, it's Sean Murray. But I know that team is bigger than Sean Murray. I take it as a personal project to make sure that we don't just think one person makes a video game.. or a lot of people think no people make a video game, as if video games game just appear on store shelves. So I would I would love for you to speak a little bit about the team.
When we started hello Games, there were only four of us, and we had this conversation that was like "We don't have a front man. We don't really have anyone that likes doing that. Maybe we should have a front man and get in front of that." And I remember saying to the other guys, "Maybe I could do it?" And everyone laughed. [laughs] They were like "It would be Dave [Ream, co-founder of hello Games] if it was anyone." I was like, "Oh, I didn't know that about myself but okay, I'm cool with that." [laughs]
Then it just sort of has weirdly happened, and the team watching that happen has been like, "We want no part of this." The team watching what I've gone through around launch and stuff like that, whatever chance we ever had of interviewing any of the rest of the team, that's gone. They are like, "Why are you even talking to the press right now? Why are you even putting yourself through that?" We had a discussion, where we're like "Maybe someone else wants to do it his time?" And everyone's like "No, I'm not touching it!" [laughs]
Actually, as a team, that's something that is really common amongst us. I think we're just a bunch of friends who really like making games. We're quite a humble bunch. I don't know if that comes across or not. But we are people who just want to get our heads down and enjoy development. Just to put that into context, when No Man's Sky started, it was just me for the first year, and I was doing stuff in my spare time. I came up with the engine and showed some of the things that we could do, and then three more joined. We did that for a year. When we announced, we were like four people. When we came out, we were 15 people? But the average team size was about six during development. Crazy small.
Now we're about 25? And we're crazy small for doing Xbox, adding multiplayer, third-person locomotion, all of that kind of thing. Big problems! And adding those into a big, broad game. That's that thing that I see. I know I am biased, but talk to the people here, everyone is a developer. Everyone loves making the game. Going way back, lot of that stuff we messed up is where we tried to do the things the publishers do, but we did them badly. Part of what I was able able to say to the guys after launch was, "Maybe we just make the game and focus on that." Everyone on this team needed rest. "Yeah, let's do that." That’s the part we enjoy.
It's been like a real learning experience, for what we like doing as a group. And I know I'm talking for the guys here, but it annoys me that we end up with frontmen like me, and people associate the game with just one person. But Austin, this fucking team! They're so good at what they do. They do it so well, and I hope it is clear from the updates that we've done, and the way we've expanded the game. You hear this thing—it drives me crazy—where people are like "Oh, they just had to do the updates," or "They're cleaning up some mess." Look at those updates. There's so much passion in there. It really over delivers. No game has changed that much since launch, as a small team that just makes stuff under huge pressure every time.
And it's because we have found that like underneath it all, we just really like making games, the craft of it. So we don't care that Patrick doesn't like our game. [laughs]
Patrick: Alllllright. You know what! [laughs]
"The bingo card of all the things the Internet can do. It ticked all of them. We did them all. It got as bad as it can get. And I still really love our community."
Austin: All that passion, all of that love for what you're doing. How do you make sure that you don't crunch, that you don't burn out, that you don't mess up work life balance?
I think we did [mess up] coming up the original launch. I hope people don't get too mad at us about that because I know lots people get mad about that. Hopefully people can understand, we were under just ridiculous pressure, as in from the fans, from external forces, from running out of money. We just had deadlines that we couldn't move. We used to have conversations: "What would you give right now just for an extra day? What would you give for an extra week?" We would have done anything, and we were really invested in the game. We'd worked for years. That is super regrettable. We will never put ourselves in that position again.
It's a luxury that we have that the game's been successful, and we're in a much better position and we're much smarter now. Much more stable. We have a bit more power in things, due to the success No Man's Sky that [helps us to] avoid that. But it is a hard problem to solve, and I don't think we have solved it yet. But every update we've done has been better managed than the last one, and that was one of our big things coming out of launch. We need to do this better because this team—it's a small team. They are super talented, and if they all left, if we all left, then hello Games is nothing. That's that's all we have. That is the company.
My job, the company's job, is to protect those people—protect them from harassment, protect them from overworking, all of that shit. Try and manage things well. You will know this from talking to lots of different developers, the reason it's a problem is because it's a hard problem to solve, but we're, as much as anyone, we're trying to work on it.
Patrick: You mentioned No Man's Sky became a lighting rod for discussions of other things, but one thing Sony didn't have and still doesn't have is an early access program like Steam or Microsoft. Had you done something as simple as launched in early access even under the tagline and changed nothing else, do you think that would have been useful?
I think I saw Charlie Brooker, who I really respect and played the game a lot and liked it, saying that if it had come from nowhere, he felt like it would have been the toast of the town, or whatever. No one had heard of it before, it was this weird crazy game. And I think there's probably some truth to that.
So I look back on the press and interviews and stuff we shared way too much information. We shared it too early. We didn't need to do that. But do I look at No Man's Sky and think "Oh, it was early access or something like that?" I don't actually think so.
When we talked to the press, we always painted it as this weird experience. We painted it as being a little bit lonely. We definitely aligned ourselves towards something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather than like Star Wars. And it was this kind of meditative, relaxing game. And when we released, that was a lot of the reaction that was positive that we got was “Yeah, that's what it is and that's kind of what I'm after and that really resonates with me, and as a sci-fi fan, that really delivers on that.” And I'm super, super proud of being able to deliver that. I'm super proud of the team doing that. There's this tiny team and they pull that off, and they pulled off something which had been the vision like day one.
But would it have been better if we had, then, spelled out "Here is this very accurate roadmap of how we're going to update the game after this, and how we're going to cater for loads of other people?" You, person, who isn't into that weird 2001 experience and who looks at the game and is so frustrated because you're like "They should have put multiplayer in this! It would have been so good! Or they should have a base building! Or vehicles! Or I don't like this particular type of game!" But so much of the response that we got from people was like, "This is my perfect game… if it only had this." That's what made people angry, and that's why, a year after launch, we end up with a million people playing it on the day of the launch of an update that has no press around it and no marketing. Because there's so many people out there who are like "I fucking want this game to be the the game that I want it to be!" They care passionately about it.
And you were asking me earlier and I didn't really answer what those first few weeks were like. There was, I'm not going to lie, they weren't super pleasant or anything like that. But there was a moment where I realized "Okay, there's all these people shouting." And we did some like kind of surveys on smaller groups and stuff like that, and we realized "Okay, about 70 percent of the people talking to us—we became very stats driven—don't own the game and don't care about it. Okay, cool, let's ignore those people." And now there's 30 percent of people, and of those, some of them definitely will never like this game. This isn't their type of game and they just they got swept up in hype or thought it was Star Wars or whatever. Okay, cool. We may not be able to help those people, but they weren't the majority by a long ways.
Actually, the vast majority of people were saying really simple things to us. They were saying "Oh, I love the game" or "I want to love the game, but I don't like your inventory system or I don't like the way launch fuel works or I want a creative mode. I want base building! Or I want this other thing from this game. I want this way for the discoveries page to work or whatever." It's like, oh my god, that sounds fine. I can do that! [laughs]
Austin: Those are actual criticisms.
Murray: Let's just do that. Let's stop talking to the press. We enjoy making games and there's people who really want this game, and we want it to be better. We wanted to expand it.
In answer to your question, when you're like "Should have been early access or whatever?" I will take some sort of small sort of small insult at that because it's my baby. [laughs] But I will take your point that, at launch, the game was broad. It was like just phenomenally broad in a way that games generally haven't been, especially on console.
But over the last two years, and now especially with Next, every part of it's becoming deeper. That's really exciting. And it's becoming broader, as well. It's weird. When you see multiplayer, and you see the scale of it, and you see we've got unlimited base building and you can command a set of frigates. You can live out so many different science fiction fantasies all within this universe sandbox that we've built. That's really exciting. And for more people, each time we update the game it, becomes their, hopefully, perfect game or the game that they wanted to play or whatever it is. That's the fun thing to do.
Austin: Do you think that statement you just made though is the sort of thing that maybe gets people's hopes up? I think, as a creator, I completely sympathize with the ambition: you want to make the “perfect game” for someone, you want to be able to fulfill their sci-fi fantasy. And, you know, I'm excited about Next , but isn't it statements like that—”Do you want to be a space pirate? Do you want to command freighters?”— I know those are specific features that you've already talked about regarding Next , but where people's ears will perk up and say, "Well, l maybe this won't be the lonely thing for me this time, maybe the action will feel more like Elite: Dangerous or like Call of Duty ," or whatever the thing is that they will fill in the gap for?
I think so, I totally take your point and you're probably right. I should never talk to the press! [laughs]
Austin: I would rather stay that now and let you respond to it, because two weeks from now, someone will point to this interview and say "He did it again!"
Maybe they will. But I think, in all honesty, what the problem was was us pointing to features. Saying "Hey, look at this cool thing" and then us, through the course of development, those things changing, or us not delivering on them. I think that's a really different situation.
I think it is impossible to talk to me [without me sounding] happy and excited about the game. But also, No Man's Sky has always had this weird magic, where me, as a person, who should be so sick of it, who has worked on it for like years now, like seven years… I watch the trailers and I get like excited. There's something about the world that it gets across emotion. And I think that's fine. I don't think we should shy away from that.
I will be super clear, though, just to go back to what you were saying because I was going to say this: We are not trying to make the perfect game. We have definitely learned that is impossible and that in this hyper, kind of critical, hyper-polarized world, that is not a good path to go down. But what I'm talking about specifically is people who see the potential in the game, and then us listening to them and realizing that potential for some more people each time we do an update. And it's really simple, because for the vast majority of them, that's just a free update. That's a really simple thing.
And if you want to know about the game, there is so much information out there about it now. When we launched, maybe people could have said "Well, there's been like vague interviews about it or whatever and it's unclear," but oh my god, this game has been streamed so much. It's out there, it's so well covered, it's well written. You should know exactly what it is. We're definitely going to keep updating it, but you should make your choice based on the wealth of information that's out there already out there.
Patrick: No Man's Sky is a game about discovery, where you're not sure what's going to be around every corner, you're not sure what's procedurally generated and what's dropped in there by the designers. This lead to No Man's Sky being one of those games where people got obsessed with finding certain things, especially stuff they'd seen in trailers. One of them was the giant, Dune-like worms in the desert. People would fan out, wondering if there was a single planet that might have them. What did you make of people exploring the game like that?
There were lots of things that we were watching like that. Recently, they discovered a beetle that no one else had ever seen. It was really fun moment. And they've created loads of in-game obsessions around things, and some of them were purposeful and some of them totally weren't.
There was a time where they were obsessed with this one texture in the game that had a pattern on it. What does it mean?! [laughs] It means nothing! I wish I could tell them, but you don't at that point we're not communicating. This is a dead end! As an example, and there are loads of examples I could give you like this: it's very hard to explain this, but in one of the early videos, we show this giant kind of sandworm, and it turned out, as we went through development, that wasn't very fun.
I don't know if this is obvious to everyone else. Maybe it should have been. But people would hate them within the game. They would be totally overpowered to the player. It would just come from nowhere, and it just wasn't very fun. And it didn't make sense within the scale of the game. We had a whole bunch of models for these snake-like creatures, and they ended up as a thing that we moved into the sky, and they fly around. There's enormous worms, so you've still got the spectacle and stuff like that.
And in development—I know this sounds maybe naive of us, it definitely was naive of us—you're like "Cool, that's made the game better." We're playtesting it. People are like "Oh, I really like that now." You don't think, "I'd better have a press release that announces there are no more worms and they're now in the sky or whatever?" [laughs] You don't like think that way, but it becomes a like a weirdly significant thing within the community.
Austin: Well, there's just this optimism throughout the whole game. The color palette, the touchstones of sci-fi of the 60s and 70s that has a sort of futurism in it. There is a belief that "Hey, there is something out there in the stars for you, whether that's a sandworm or an AI, or whatever your heart's content." But also, the first trailer to this game hit in 2013, eight months before GamerGate, years before huge political shifts in both of our countries. What does it feel like be making a game with this bright color palette that suggests a sort of optimistic view of the universe,—or maybe you think it doesn't—in a different psychological and emotional moment in the world now than when development began.
Honestly, I mean I hope this comes across talking to me, as it's something that people always say to me in real life: I think it's it's such a reflection of us as a company, it's such a reflection of me. I am an optimist. And you can tell, hopefully… We're talking about some real fucking shit that we went [through] post-launch. You can use your imagination. You were aware of some of these things, you've written about some of these things. The bingo card of all the things the Internet can do. It ticked all of them. We did them all. It got as bad as it can get. And I still really love our community. And I'm still like really excited about the game, having gone through all of those kind of things. We're still working on it, and we're the happiest we've been, and the game is like that. We are those kind of people.
We made Joe Danger before this, which is a happy, smiley Nintendo-y game. No Man's Sky is optimistic about technology. It's filled with with prettiness, which I know sounds weird to say, but there's very few games that are like just constantly pretty, and very few sci-fi games that aren't gritty. And I'm that type of person.
When I look at our community, the people who are still playing… it's two years since we came out. It's been a year since the last update. The last fortnight, like 100,000 to 150,000 people have played No Man's Sky. It resonates with people, and they're a larger group than what they realize. And those people, when I listen to them talk on like reddit or whatever, a lot of it [I realize] we have gathered together this weird set of dreamers and optimistic people. They're like "Oh my god!" The stuff they're into, I'm into that stuff.
I think we we have a lot in common, and there's something about the game that the people who love it and people who get it—and I'm specifically here talking about you Austin and not you, Patrick [laughs]—the people who get it are my type of people, generally. We have a lot in common because this project is a super personal project.