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No Man’s Sky: If everything is unique, how can anything stand out?

by Eric Frederiksen | August 6, 2016August 6, 2016 8:00 am PST

No two snowflakes are the same, they say. You are a beautiful and unique snowflake. But really, once you’ve seen a few, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

I might just be tired of the years of the ludicrous-speed hype train that’s accompanied No Man’s Sky, but as we bear down on its August 9 release date, I confess I’m worried about the game’s future .

No Man’s Sky‘s selling point is the 18 quintillion worlds that populate its universe. Each world is different, we’re told, and when you discover a world, you get to name it and the unique species that populate it. That sounds like fun, but I think developer Hello Games and backer Sony are overestimating how much life that concept has in it.

There’s another game that makes a similar promise. It may sound like I’m kneecapping my own argument by bringing it up, but stick with me: Minecraft.

I know, the most successful game in the known universe might not seem like the best argument for another game’s lack of potential. Truth is, the base Minecraft game has very little to do with its success.

The core of No Man’s Sky is exploration, but with Minecraft, the focus is on customization. Exploring is part of the fun, sure. Loading up a randomly generated world and finding the right spot to settle in is fun, but that isn’t what players are talking about years later. Instead, it’s the wild sculptures people have constructed and the Rube Goldberg-esque machines crafted by genius miners. As the game continues to age, the people supporting it have turned their focus to making the game more moddable, with a plan to make cross-platform play and cross-platform modding possible.

No Man’s Sky doesn’t seem to have any of that, though.

If the core of the game really is exploration, then it needs something else to stay interesting: Novelty. You can see this in games like Grand Theft Auto V where you have a huge open world that resulted from years of intentional, detailed design. There, the world is full of unique landmarks that imitate well-known real-world landmarks. Everything is crafted and curated to make the most novel, explorable world Rockstar could possibly put together.

When I think of other randomly generated game worlds that aren’t meant to be bent to the player’s will, I can think of two primary examples, both of which saw that aspect lost to time. The first is Daggerfall, the second game in the Elder Scrolls series. This was before Morrowind matured many of the concepts we still see in Bethesda-developed games today and before Oblivion blew the doors on the genre wide open. The other game is the first entry in the Mass Effect series.

Daggerfall‘s open world was one of the earliest fully 3D randomly generated worlds. It was huge and open, but also empty and lonely. It had little in the way of unique features to guide the player or give them something to look forward to. It was a sandbox with no digging toys or castle molds.

Mass Effect promised wide open space exploration, but what we ended up with were mostly-similar planets of varying colors, all of which were tough to navigate and most of which had the same damn worm to fight. The games that followed dropped the feature and, by and large, it was not missed.

For No Man’s Sky to live up to the hype, it’s going to have to have to present more than an endless parade of beautiful and unique snowflakes. It’s going to have to provide varied and memorable experiences, anchors to pull the player along, and reasons for them to explore beyond the simple and somewhat limited joy of exploration.

If Hello Games has indeed managed to pull this off, the game might live up to the hype. But they have a big, procedurally generated hill to climb ahead of them.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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