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No Man’s Sky Sean Murray interview: Releasing the world’s biggest game is ‘terrifying’, says creator

Interview by Andrew Griffin

Published 09/08/2016

No Mans Sky creator Sean Murray puts the game's success down to luck fittingly, for a game so based on chance creation and encounters
No Mans Sky creator Sean Murray puts the game's success down to luck fittingly, for a game so based on chance creation and encounters

Sean Murray, who runs the studio that created No Man's Sky, seems sometimes to have become the world's most important game developer by mistake.

He might have created the world's biggest game – both in terms of its huge world and also the huge amount of interest it has generated – but he mostly puts it down to luck.

No Man's Sky is a game that itself relies on chance – not luck, strictly, but possibility and probability. The game's world and its inhabitants are created by a kind of accident, generated procedurally using an algorithm; and meeting those inhabitants – real as well as virtual – relies on chance too, since people can travel through the practically infinite worlds of the game without meeting a single other person.

It's that huge world and stunning concept that has made the game so famous, and led to perhaps the most hype ever generated for a game and appearances on American TV shows. But the game began small: with just a few people, working secretly at a British gaming studio.

We caught up with Mr Murray at Sony's offices, days before the game finally arrived.

It must be a very exciting time - exciting week - after ages of getting ready to put it out.

Years.

How are you feeling, first off?

Excited, as you would imagine, but also terrified... if that's alright to say? Not because I'm aware of some problem or anything like that, but just because it's an overwhelming amount of pressure. The team has been working on this game - I've been working on it for like five years, most of the team have been working on it for like three years, and since we announced it three years ago, I think it's fair to say we've been under a reasonable spotlight that's just gotten brighter and hotter the whole time!

And the team hasn't got that much bigger. So yeah, it's scary. Whilst it's not coming to an end - I hope that we still get to work on No Man's Sky after this comes out - it's the end of something, you know what I mean? It's the end of a bunch of years of work, which is cool. I'm not sure how I'll feel the day after - probably a bit lost - but it's gonna be good.

I almost feel like the strange thing about hype - like, I presume three years ago you would have killed for this amount of interest - it's a blessing and a curse, right?

Yeah, that's very perceptive of you! I mean, you've probably talked to game devs, things like that. If you're Naughty Dog or whatever, and you're doing The Last of Us, it's safe to assume people are going to be really excited about your game - and you'd be gutted if they weren't - but it's safe to say this is a big deal, anything that comes from you is a big deal.

For the guys who did Joe Danger, that isn't an assumption - your assumption is actually whatever you're doing is not going to be that well known. My story about this is that, when we were doing the VGXs and we were announcing for the first time, we were sending the first trailer to Geoff Keighley to have a look at - he was hosting the show, and gave us the first audience for people to see it.

The trailer originally started with like, "from the creators of Joe Danger", you know...I remember Jeff at the time being like, "you should move that." We were really hurt! We were like, that's the best thing we've done. He was like, "no-one will understand that this is coming from those guys. You want to just pretend you're not those guys."

So yeah...what can I say? You engineer it and you work as hard as you possibly can to present your game in the best possible light, of course you do. And it feels good if it goes down well, but then afterwards you're like - oh my god, now we need to deliver on that. That is a crazy cycle that we've been in.

And it feels almost unique in gaming recently, and as far as the reason that hype has come is because people are excited about the game - which shouldn't be a strange thing but it's not the fourth in a series (not to do down Uncharted or whatever) that everyone loves, it's not the latest from a huge studio that everyone cares about, which must make that pressure even greater.

Yeah...like when I've been working on it really hard - and I've been working really hard on this game - and I've had to explain to friends and family that this will come to an end in terms of the amount of work that I'm doing, but also...this is my one shot at this, you know what I mean?

We will do a game after this and probably no-one will care! This is a unique set of circumstances where for some unknown reason the stars have aligned and Hello Games is doing a game that people care about, and there's these standees and posters in this room, and that kind of thing.

So I really don't want to then mess that up, I want to get it right and I want people to appreciate what we're trying to do, or give it the best shot at that. I think it's unique for a bunch of reasons, it's unique because it's such a small team - I think everyone's aware of that! I keep reminding people that it's a really small team. You know, you're here and this is Sony offices, who are lovely, but we're an indie studio.

If you were here for Uncharted or whatever - any of the big Sony titles - it'd be Sony-owned probably, and there's probably a protective shell that goes round that. If we mess this up, then it's definitely on Hello Games.

Also you're from the UK, which is again shouldn't be surprising but it is. Is that another pressure that you feel? Do you feel like ambassadors for the British gaming industry?

Not particularly. I think that would be cool is people thought that, but it doesn't particularly cross my mind. The fact that anyone would be looking at Hello Games as some sort of success story is bizarre to me. That still hasn't sunken in, and I just want to deliver the game and see where we go from there.

The reality is I feel more - this is going to sound pretentious - I feel more proud of being an indie studio, as in when we were fighting to be on stage at E3, I feel like this is a really cool thing for indie games. There aren't that many...whatever, you know, that feels...an important barrier to the retail release like that is a cool and important barrier to push up against, and if that is successful then that's a really good thing. Even the fact that it exists is already a successful barrier that has been broken down.

As we've said, it feels so exceptional - do you feel like you are kind of the first troops arriving to take down those barriers?

You mean the ones on the front line?

But I mean...did you feel like front-runners or something? I mean, the game is clearly exceptional; is its release and its reception so exceptional that you guys stand out? Are there things that other indie studios could learn?

I think that we've been extremely lucky in lots of ways. The timings of things, and stuff like that. Say, we were on the Colbert Show, which is a unique thing that games don't generally do, we were on the Late Show, and they showed like eight minutes of gaming on prime-time American TV!

That's a really big deal, as people keep pointing out to me - not just for indie games, but for games, just to have that there. That was a cool thing. That, to me, just feels like luck. Hello Games has had a series of lucky things. The fact that we were on the VGXs in the first place was just luck, it wasn't that Geoff Keighley organising it saw the game and thought, "it's gonna be amazing" or anything like that, it was just a happy set of circumstances.

You are selling yourself slightly short. When you hear these pitches, it's the idea and it's how the game is built, and all those things. It's not a quirky accident. It's a meaty reason that everyone's turned to it.

Yeah, I get what you're saying. It seems like luck from my point of view because I didn't set out to do that thing. I think we could have gone back in time and the two of us could have sat in a room and I could have played you the very first trailer before anyone saw it...I'm not sure?

Obviously, I don't mean specifically you, but I'm not sure that people would have looked at it - individually, on their own - and thought, "this is gonna go crazy". I'm unconvinced of that, because I did show people at the time and they did generally kind of think that..."I like the look of this, but I'm not sure everyone else will", you know what I mean?

So, conceptually it's easy to look back now and go, oh this was really appealing, but at the time when I was showing it to people...I don't know why I'm arguing against the idea that it's a really good concept! But I think we've done a bunch of things that are different and I think that's worked out, and it's totally possible to do a bunch of things that are different and it not work out.

 From my point of view, actually it's been really risky what we've done, we've taken big risks, and the only reason we've taken those risks is not because we thought it would be really successful but because we felt like we were already in a failure state. We felt like Joe Danger had done well, but we didn't really want to keep making that type of game. So we weren't worried about not creating the next big thing. If you're Naughty Dog you would be terrified at the idea that your game wouldn't be as big as Uncharted, or whatever - you'd be measuring it against that kind of success. We weren't particularly successful, so we weren't thinking like, "oh no, the risks involved!"

That's kind of the awful thing...well not the awful thing, it's not awful, the domination of big studios, but it's depressing in one sense, which is they can't make a game that they aren't sure won't fail. That's why your game is so exciting, because it could have gone wrong.

I think that is totally fair, and a reason that it's resonated is just because...if you play games the best thing that you can say to me is like..."new". New ideas, new IPs and stuff like that. New games, not just sequel after sequel. As a gamer - somebody who just plays a lot of games - that's the most exciting thing for me. I don't even care if those games are perfect or the beginning of some new genre or whatever, I just like the medium and I like playing and consuming new ideas.

Even though I will play the next Call of Duty and I will enjoy it, I'm definitely going into it aware of the kinds of things that I will encounter doing that, and I'm definitely craving more new and crazy ideas. You're right...if you are a publisher right now and you're starting a new IP and you're signing off on a new game idea, you're going to have to sign up, what, 200 people to work on it for like three or four years?

Think about that! They're going to have to start work and effectively blueprints to work from, and this really well-defined game idea. It's all ready before you even start. You can't just find your way through it, you've got to look at another game and go like, "let's make the Assassins Creed but in the Star Wars universe"!

You have to play it reasonably safe, and I think - going back to that luck thing - we've been lucky, loads of other people are doing that and so when you have an E3 and it's a two-hour show of everything that's coming out in the industry, and most of it looks amazing - better than our game - but people are not super surprised by it, then you get so much more credit for just having something new to show.

Independent

Independent News Service

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