How to Build a Life-Sized Universe Using Math

'No Man's Sky' creator Sean Murray walked us through the algorithms that rule the most anticipated game the year.

by Beckett Mufson
08 October 2015, 7:15pm

Images courtesy Hello Games

Like Neo in The Matrix, all Hello Games founder Sean Murray sees when he looks at the world of No Man's Sky are algorithms, patterns, and equations. With something like 18 quintillion procedurally-generated planets to explore (that's a 1 followed by 18 zeros, by the way), the sci-fi video game's universe would take 5 billion years to explore—but it was created by a team of only 10 developers. How is that possible? The answer lies in the aforementioned algorithms, patterns, and equations, and Murray gave an in-depth explanation of how they work at the New Yorker Festival this weekend.

"We wanted to create the feeling of landing on a planet and knowing that no one had ever been there before, that somebody hadn't constructed it there for you," he told the audience as we waited for the live demo and hoped for No Man's Sky's elusive release date. "That was the key emotion that we wanted to get. That's the one thing that's been there since the very start of the game." The near-infinite textures, plant and animal species, and real-time generative formulas that build each planet are products of that spirit. This weekend Murray revealed that even the music is procedurally generated from a library of notes. This means that rather than having bulky pre-rendered environments that take forever to load, the computer just needs to know the math equations for each planet and it can build them on the spot.

These equations aren't the arcane stuff of magic that led Stephen Colbert to compare Murray to God (and Morgan Freeman) on The Late Show last week. A formula so simple it's taught in high school pre-calculus, the sine wave, can be input into the world-building software and it will still make a whole planet—albeit a simple one, covered in the uniform hills and valleys that a sine wave describes. In the video below, Murray explains that adding a some higher functions and few variables for of plants, animals, water, and the unique table of the elements his team, Hello Games, created just for No Man's Sky, leads to a whole new universe just a few orders of magnitude smaller than our own.

Unlike Halo, Call of Duty, or World of Warcraft, the objective of No Man's Sky isn't as simple as leveling up or killing all your enemies. More akin to Monument Valley creator Ustwo Games' upcoming VR puzzler, Land's End, it's all about stopping to smell the roses. "I can't see a cave and just leave it there—I have to see what is in that cave. Especially an underwater cave," Murray says. While Minecraft is about shaping the environment to your will, No Man's Sky is focused on the act of discovery. "It's always a thrill when you see something has come out of it, or find something down there." 

One of the biggest thrills we've seen so far, since Hello Games is being so secretive about actual gameplay, is the ability to name the things you discover. Find a star, planet, or species no one's seen before, and you can call it anything you like. On The Late Show, Murray "discovered" Colbert Prime, home to the Molebert, the Codbert, and the Colbison. But at our demo, he explained the very core of the game: the actual generation of the planets. Walking around a simple landscape, covered in minor flora, fauna, and water, he says, "Hopefully for people here now, this looks like hills and mountains and stuff. I, personally cannot see that. All I can see is a maths equation. This just looks like a graph to me... And the cool thing for me is when you imagine that you're walking through that mathematical fractal. That's when I think it's really interesting... and I can't help but see that." 

It's hard not to think about the descending green text in The Matrix that gives Neo special information about the world around him. In No Man's Sky, Murray is just as knowledgable. With access to the source code of a universe nearly the size of our own—plus the suspicion that we all just live in a simluation anyway, who's to say Colbert's joke wasn't spot-on?

At the end of the presentation, one audience member stood up and promptly asked what the point of playing No Man's Sky really is. At first, Murray restated the "worth your while" goal of reaching the center of the universe, but then delved into a longer and more complicated reason. "Why do we play games, y'know?" he began. "You collect coins. You collect jigsaw pieces. I've collected so many different things in so many different games, I would hate to add them all up. Was that why I was playing games?"

After the rhetorical questions, he said something that everybody who reads about video games on our site can probably empathize with. "I find a lot of games right now very predictable. I know from the moment I start the tutorial exactly what buttons it's going to be teaching me, exactly how long this game's going to take because I've done it before, like a million times. And I think it's interesting if there's a game that you can express yourself in."

Keep up to date on No Man's Sky on the official website.


No Man’s Sky And The Art Of Designing A Universe Within A Video Game

Mind-Bending Architecture Photos from a World Inspired by Escher

'Monument Valley' Designers Adopt VR for Upcoming Game

This Man Is Using Math To Create An Impossible 4D Video Game

stephen colbert
the late show
no man's sky
Hello Games
Sean Murray
Procedural Generation
generative art
New Yorker Festival