Rarely in indie game history has there been a game that has generated as much hype and excitement around it as No Man's Sky, but Hello Games space-based adventure has done just that. With a title as expansive and complex as No Man's Sky there are a lot of questions which spring to mind.
Thus we recently had the opportunity to catch up with Sean Murray, managing director at Hello Games and creator of one of this year's most anticipated releases, in two different interviews. The first, which took place at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, and the second, over the telephone, to see if we could get some answers.
Gamereactor: So, is this the sort of game you dreamed of making as a child?
Sean Murray: You can probably imagine that it feels a little bit abstract. It is like if you have exams, that's how I think about it. You gotta spend five years studying, then you have exams at the end and then you find out whether you passed them. That's the stage where I am. To stretch the analogy: I have been working on it for so long and then that builds momentum and you find yourself working harder and harder, you cram. That's been going on for about six months or something. And then it is going to happen, the game is going to be released and that's a strange feeling.
GR: Talking about exams, do you ever have moments were you wake up in the middle of the night and think you've flunked the whole thing?
SM: You know how people have nightmares, where they wake up and they are back at school. I think I am probably gonna be having that for the rest of my life, gonna be back working at No Man's Sky because there is some bug... (laughs). But yeah, at certain points we were definitely worried that the game wouldn't be what we want it to be. And at one point we delayed the game and that was just a very difficult decision for a small studio. There is a lot of pressure on the game, but we wanted to get it right. We want people to be happy with the game. And then there is the opportunity if people do really like it, that we can still do more on it."
GR: With a game as broad in scope as No Man's Sky, do you think it will ever really be finished?
SM: I don't think it will be and I think there is the opportunity for us to do more on it. On console you get that sometimes, but on PC it's much more common. And I think it's quite nice. It assumes, and this has got to sound strange, a level of intelligence on part of the gamer to understand what's going on. That's why often larger studios stay away from it because they are worried if they change things the player will be confused.
Most big publishers want launch day. They want everyone to buy it there and to move on to the next game. If you're Activision it makes sense to just bank the next game, then focus on it and to forget about the one you just released, to an extent. For us as a small studio, No Man's Sky is a really big deal and we just don't move on to the next thing quite so easily, we've put so much into it.
GR: With such a big publisher like Sony behind the game, is there pressure to finish it and move on to a sequel?
SM: It could be... well, I think, the reality is, Sony has been amazingly supportive, but actually, once the game is out, this is not necessarily Sony's game per se. We as an indie studio are incredibly grateful for the support, but actually once the game is out, the conversation is between the studio, the developer and the community, not necessarily the publisher or whoever. It is about the developer who can make changes, and the community who really understands the game now being a real thing and also want certain changes.
GR: Do you, as a developer, feel flattered that someone spent $1,300 US dollars to get a chance to play the game early?
SM: That actually makes me feel uncomfortable. I don't actually want people spending a lot of money on our game - I know that sounds bad - but we have never had Kickstarter or something like that. I always shied away from that, I hate the idea of those tiers that you have in Kickstarter where someone puts in $5,000 or $10,000 US-dollars. I feel a bit of guilt about that kind of stuff. I think we want to be fair to people for them to spend a fair amount of money for the entertainment they get. And that's what we try to provide, even if that might sound weird.
GR: So were you upset about the leaked copies that made it out to the public?
SM: You said about being flattered. Given that for No Man's Sky there were a bunch of people who have gotten early copies and leaked stuff, that hurts for sure. If you had written a book and someone was just gonna flick through pages and tell people what were on certain bits, make comment on it, you would be gutted and it would be really hard for you. But at the same time we can't be too upset, because ultimately it is born from people wanting to play the game and being excited about it. That's something that happens to all big games and we are somehow finding ourselves in that category, which is really nice.
GR: With the game having been in development for five years now do you feel like you need a break form it or do you have other ideas?
SM: I definitely want to support No Man's Sky if people wanna have us, that would be fun. I have lots of gaming ideas and I am a very driven person, I suppose - and I've had to do nothing but one game for five years, so there are ideas who I'd love to get out. They kinda stack up. For us it's a very cool thing because that technology we've built, you fly down to a planet and that planet just generates in front of you and has all its AI and creatures worked out. It is not hard to imagine other cool things you can do with that. Both in No Man's Sky, but in other ideas you can apply this too. So I am excited, though I probably have to take a little bit of a break. But I am the kind of person if you gave me a couple of week's holiday now I would be bouncing off the walls after a few days.
Following on from our meeting with Mr Murray in Darmstadt, we also had the chance to talk to him over the phone (we also interviewed at a preview event, which you can watch in the video above).
GR: No Man's Sky has ended up being one of the most anticipated games of the year, how do you deal with that pressure as a developer.
SM: It has been strange, I never predicted that that would happen. There has been as much focus on me as there has been on Hello Games and I think I've been really closely associated with the game and that's probably a terrible idea; I am not the charismatic frontman the company needed and you're lovely and everything, but I don't particularly enjoy talking to the press, so it's been a bit of a crazy ride.
GR: How has working on No Man's Sky been different to other projects your studio has tackled in the past, and have you learnt anything from the process?
SM: Yeah I think Joe Danger was a very different project, nobody would have cared if we would have leaked Joe Danger, we had a whole different problem set. We were begging people to play our game, but day to day it's not that different, the team is actually a similar size, we had twelve people on Joe Danger, we now have fifteen, you know the team is small for an indie studio.
We had to announce No Man's Sky when we did, three years ago, if we hadn't I think we would have given up on the project, just because we were working on something that was really weird and really different and I think at the time we thought was very neat and you know we had a bunch of ups and downs that meant we might not have persisted if we didn't have the support in the community. That made a huge difference to us and made us really determined to stick to our vision.
Sometimes I just think how nice it would be if no-one had heard of No Man's Sky until like yesterday, just release our first trailer and then for the game to come out. I think it would have just blown people away, no one would know what to think, I dream about that alternate reality.
GR: Even though there's an end game to reach the centre of the galaxy, do you find it hard selling No Man's Sky as an idea, what with its open ended structure?
SM: Minecraft, for instance, is the most popular game in the world, pretty much, and certainly one of the best known. It has sold more than Mario, it's the biggest game of all time, but actually it isn't covered all that much in the press and a lot of hardcore gamers don't really talk about it and maybe never even played it, but actually I love it as a game and I love a lot of kind of sandbox games and these games aren't goal orientated and they attract a totally different kind of player.
So when we were making No Man's Sky it is that kind of sandbox experience where people go and make their own rules, their own objectives, there is the centre if you want that, but actually I'd really love people to go out and explore and play with systems, you know spend five hours just trying to raise enough money to just buy a new ship or trying to find all the words in an alien language. That kind of thing really excites me. I love watching streams of people doing that right now. I think No Man's Sky will be a little bit polarising in terms of people who enjoy those type of experiences versus people who want a really linear story you can play to the end of and feel a sense of satisfaction that I have 100% completed that game.
Yesterday I saw on a forum someone had played a leaked copy and was saying how he summed it up for everyone else who was asking what it was like 'as Minecraft for adults', and I'm totally happy with that.
GR: Do you think more games should dare to present themselves as just enjoyment or wonder, as something without quests and tasks and all the hand holding that normally occupies the modern gaming space?
SM: We originally had that in mind for No Man's Sky and when press were on it we said 'well you could try to reach the centre of the universe', but we personally never saw that as the point of the game. But a certain set of gaming and media press, and also some gamers, that made them just feel a lot better, they were like oh there is a goal, okay that's fine then, but actually for us we didn't set out to make the perfect game, like maybe through updates and stuff we can approach that but we didn't set out to do that. We didn't set out to make the game that you could play forever, again maybe in two years' time, after we've updated it loads it will feel closer to that.
What we did set out to do, for just one moment you play the game, you land on a planet and you feel embedded there, that this is a real place. It's something you've discovered for yourself and you have a moment of wonder, and for me that is unique to games that we can do that and I think totally justifies the game. The game doesn't need to do anything else than that and I would be happy.
You can read our Review Impressions of No Man's Sky to see what we thought of it after several hours spent exploring the stars, and if you're after a few hints and tips to get you started on your adventure, check out our Explorer's Guide. Below you can check out two hours of the game via our launch day livestream.