Exploring the Sexy Maths of ‘No Man’s Sky’ and ‘Elite Dangerous’
The sci-fi adventure of this summer, and Frontier's similarly ambitious epic, both use procedural generation. But what does that really mean?
This article originally appeared in Volume 23, Issue 2 of VICE magazine (UK).
Video games have used the vastness of outer space as a setting for action and adventure since day one – originally, because the black void was an easy background for the interactive action. When MIT students Steve Russell, Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen set out to realise a gaming use for Digital Equipment Corp's PDP-1 computer in 1962, they produced Spacewar!, where two spaceships exchanged missiles while combating the gravitational pull of a star. Since then we've played Space Invaders (1978), R-Type (1987), Super Metroid (1994), the Mass Effect series (2007 onwards) and many more.
One of the most influential games to have ever placed the player inside a spacecraft is 1984's Elite, developed by David Braben and Ian Bell. It invited gamers to seek their fortune in the vacuum, far away from Earth, mining asteroids for minerals and undertaking military missions to earn credits. With no real narrative to proceedings beyond the one your actions alone could craft, its universe having been created using procedural generation (where algorithms – sexy maths, basically – take over the world building using limited developer direction), the game's ambition was incredible. Its legacy can be felt in every open-ended, free-roaming video game to have come out since, right up to the high-definition violence of Grand Theft Auto V.
'Elite: Dangerous', 'Horizons' launch trailer
Despite its revered status today, Elite was an entirely alien proposition in the 1980s, and struggled to find support amongst games publishers. "Games were really regimented, back then," Braben says. "The playtime was a small, single-digit number of minutes, and if you could last for five minutes, you were doing incredibly well. And that was based around the ethos of the arcade, which was driven by the coin drop. Success was measured by how many coins you were getting in per hour."
In 2011, Braben confirmed that a fourth Elite series entry was being worked on at his studio, the Cambridge-based Frontier Developments. In November 2012, crowd-funding site Kickstarter carried a new campaign: pledge your money, £1.25m of it in total, and you can play Elite: Dangerous. The game easily met, and surpassed, its target, and had sold over half a million copies by the summer of 2015, even before making the leap to console platforms.
Elite: Dangerous is one of the biggest indie games of all time, both in terms of its commercial success and the endless possibilities open to the player – like its 1984 forefather, it doesn't shackle you to a to-do list, and the universe is again as close to bottomless as its parent technology can allow. Like the first Elite, Dangerous uses procedural generation in producing its array of constellations, but everything is grounded by what we know, for real, about the heavens above.
"The term 'procedural generation' is so misused now, that I've been wary of using it," Braben explains. "In Elite: Dangerous there are some 160,000 worlds, which we've manually typed in. All of the exo-planets we know about are in the game. This is as real as you can get it – everything you can see in the night sky, every single star, is real. If you look from Earth in Elite: Dangerous, the night sky matches ours. Procedural generation really just means you're using a clever piece of code."
Elite: Dangerous is an indie game, with no massive publisher taking a substantial cut of the profits. But it's an indie game with a team of, says Braben, "250-odd" people behind it. "We are independent, and we truly believe in what we're doing," he confirms, "but we are a big company." The same can't be said for Guildford's Hello Games, makers of another great space adventure, No Man's Sky.
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Hello Games' team doesn't stretch to the hundreds, instead comprising just ten full-time employees, give or take the occasional fluctuation, headed by managing director Sean Murray. Debuting at December 2013's VGX Awards, No Man's Sky captured imaginations from the word go. Its retina-popping visuals didn't look a thing like the grim greys of most contemporary sci-fi games. Murray had sent the VGX footage to Sony ahead of its public airing, and the company was instantly on board – No Man's Sky was locked in as a PlayStation console exclusive in a heartbeat.
No Man's Sky, like Elite: Dangerous, uses procedural generation to produce its mind-boggling number of planets, each with their own eco systems, each part of wider system. It can't promise an infinite amount of environments ripe for investigation, but the mathematics behind the game can realise planets enough for gameplay lasting 500 billion years, assuming the player spends a single second on each world. To place that within some context, the universe as we know it is "only" 13.82 billion years old, which makes No Man's Sky perhaps the biggest video game ever made. No small feat for a studio that can buy a round on a Friday night out for less than the cost of a premium-priced boxed video game.
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'No Man's Sky', "I've Seen Things" trailer
"That's actually why we do all the procedural stuff," explains Murray. "We can't possibly make this game with this small team. We might not even be able to make it with a really large team. But even though so much is procedurally generated, the game drips with our artist Grant Duncan's personality. When I stand on a planet, and look at a lot of the imagery – the ships flying overhead, and the style of those ships, and the planets on the horizon – I know the arguments that Grant and I have had to reach those decisions.
"Elite was procedurally generated, and so were lots of games at the time, like Star Control and Freelancer. It's almost like we've gone back to those games. We're trying to explore ideas about openness, and vastness, and freedom. We're more about feelings of real exploration."
This is an edited excerpt from Indie Games: The Complete Introduction to Indie Gaming, by Mike Diver (MOM Books, out now, hardback, £17.99). No Man's Sky is released for PS4 and PC on June 21st, 2016. Elite: Dangerous is available now for PC, Mac and Xbox One, with a PS4 version due in the future.
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