The 13 things you need to know about 'No Man's Sky,' the most ambitious (and crazy?) game at E3 2014

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Every year, the major videogame companies convene in Los Angeles for E3. They show off big games with familiar names, games that represent untold thousands of man-hours and untold petabytes of graphical power. And every year, there is one videogame that represents the complete opposite of that: A game made by a small team, with a distinctive vision, that isn’t a sequel or a spinoff or a spinoff-sequel to a reboot-prequel.

This year’s High Nerd fixation is No Man’s Sky, a space adventure game produced by English studio Hello Games that will debut on the Playstation 4. But unlike past breakouts like Braid or Limbo or Journey, No Man’s Sky isn’t really something you could easily describe as “retro,” and it certainly isn’t “smaller” than the AAA titles. Far from it: Through a process of procedural generation, the developers of No Man’s Sky promise a basically infinite universe of exploration.

Here are the 13 things you have to know about No Man’s Sky, plus the trailer for a brief refresher:

1. You can play it any way you like. When No Man’s Sky begins, you’re on a unique planet, with its own ecosystem, its own animals, its own opportunities for interactivity. Eventually, you find a spaceship; you fly through an asteroid belt, towards another planet, beyond the stars. The developers promise that everyone’s experience will be different. When Hello Games director Sean Murray showed me the game, he flew past a convoy in space. “I can defend the convoy or attack it,” he explained. (He flew past it.)

2. The game’s working title was Project Skyscraper. And it reflects the developer’s past working in the mainstream videogames industry. “We used to work on AAA games at much larger studios,” says Murray. “We used to refer to those games as skyscrapers.” When they founded Hello Games, their first product was Joe Danger, a side scrolling racing platofrmer. “We talked about Joe Danger being boutique. A lot of indie games are: They compete with skyscraper by being more interesting.” No Man’s Sky is something different: “We wanted to make a boutique skyscraper. Which sounds very pretentious.”

3. No Man’s Sky could reflect a greater shift in the videogame industry. Noting the rise of non-narrative games like Minecraft, Creative Director David Ream says, “It feels like there’s a big sea change coming. The AAA content is getting so rarified. You need to put in so much to get out something that’s competitive.” Murray agrees that there’s an arms race between the major companies. “I used to work on Burnout, and we would just be competing with Need for Speed over minute things. ‘They’ve got alloys now? We need to have alloys?'”

4. But No Man’s Sky is not meant as some kind of anti-industry critique. Murray is quick to point out that he enjoyed his time at Electronic Arts, and talks about how much he enjoyed The Last of Us. If anything, No Man’s Sky an attempt to beat the big boys at their own game.

5. Still, in a year when every videogame is becoming a massive online multiplayer game, it is notable that No Man’s Sky is speeding off in the opposite direction.  Although everyone who plays No Man’s Sky technically shares a universe, it’s a big universe filled with big planets. “Even on one planet, if we had a million players, they would all start quite far apart,” says Murray. “We’re pushing people miles apart. We’re doing the opposite of what every other game is doing.” Instead, Hello Games wants people to think about how their actions impact other players. “If you shoot a bird, we won’t share that. If you destroy a space station, that seems really significant, so that space station is destroyed for everyone.”

6. Or maybe No Man’s Sky is just going for a different kind of connection between players. “If you and I play The Last of Us, there’s no conversation to be had,” says Murray. “‘Did you enjoy it? Did you finish it? That’s it. We saw exactly the same things when we played. Whereas with Minecraft, there’s so much to talk about: How did you express yourself in that game? Even something like BioShock Infinite, that’s what people talk about: How do you express yourself in that game, what weapons you use. That is really interesting to me.”

7. This is a universe built by a skeleton crew. The original team that designed the technology behind No Man’s Sky was four people. “We’ve grown a little bit,” says Murray. “There’s six or seven of us now.” (Hello Games’ staff numbers a mere ten people, or roughly the amount of people who worked on animated Snake’s eyepatch in the new Metal Gear Solid.)

8. And the skeleton crew understands the universe they’ve built, to a degree. In order to develop the blueprint for the procedurally generated universe, the developers figured out basic foundational structures: Why some freighters look a certain way, where the player-character comes from. “We have an idea of the story, we have an idea of why you’re there and what you’re doing,” Murray explains. “But we’re never gonna tell you that.”

9. The developers are aware that No Man’s Sky sounds dangerously ambient. And they are quick — perhaps too quick — to assure you that the game contains plenty of action. There are guns to shoot and spaceships to fly. Murray playfully describes the most passive way of playing No Man’s Sky — what he terms a “botanist,” someone who would just want to fly around cataloguing flowers. Even the botanist will need to “level up” in order to fly more places, and learn to defend themselves from the various creatures they meet along the way. Still, there’s no denying the fact that this is a game without an obvious story, without an ending.

10. Not coincidentally, it is impossible for the developers to talk about this game without sounding a little crazy. “Every tree in that forest can be unique if we want it to be,” says Murray. “We also have an infinite number of forests.” The urge towards infinity is nothing new in the videogame industry. One thinks of Will Wright’s Spore, a game that allowed the player to control the entire sweep of a species’ existence, which earned a glowing write-up in The New Yorker two years before finally arriving on shelves and then disappearing from history. Also, there’s still no release date for No Man’s Sky. Also also, Murray is a genial and friendly and thoughtful person who nevertheless vibes a bit like Francis Ford Coppola mid-Apocalypse Now.

11. But it’s worth pointing out that this is still a game made by a small team well ware of their limitations. “We went for a game with the most ambition that a small team could build,” says Ream.

12. It’s also worth pointing out that Apocalypse Now is awesome. Even when it’s terrible.

13. And if No Man’s Sky works, it could be extraordinary. “I personally can’t wait for people to start discovering the universe,” says Murray. “Not for them. For us. People will post pictures of creatures, and we won’t have seen them before. Even though we sort of created the blueprint.”

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