Hello Games rented out their own space for E3, a little bit out of the way of the convention center, but still within walking distance. Being the last day of the show, we cursed them, the hot LA sun, and our legs for failing us as we walked up to their spot, but we’re glad we did it.
Not only did we get a gameplay preview of the game, but we got a fantastic talk with Sean Murray, managing director at Hello Games, who stole the show despite David Ream, the creative director trying to chime in at some points.
We discussed multiplayer, open worlds, linearity, weapons, ships, trading, Star Wars, and most importantly, what the game is actually about – what the objective is. We felt as though they weren’t really getting it across in what they had shown, so when Sean explained the gameplay in detail, we were blown away. So, read on, and you might be too.
TSA: We were under the impression that it’d feature multiplayer… is that something you’re aiming for?
Sean: No, it’s not… you can come across other players, but it’s not like an MMO that we’re making, and actually space is so vast that the chances of you coming across someone is very slim.
TSA: But there will be other players existing in the universe?
Sean: Yeah, we all share the same universe, but we generally don’t want people to think of it in those terms, it’s not the core of the game.
TSA: So it’s kind of Journey style – you won’t know who someone is?
Sean: Yeah… bang on. That’s what I normally say: think of Journey, I really like the multiplayer in that.
TSA: The big question, from what we’ve seen so far, is… I don’t understand what the game is – to what end am I doing this? What’s the objective?
Sean: Well… on one hand I have the answer, on the other hand I don’t, right? I’ll tell you why I don’t have the answer, which is because you and I are probably the same in that we grew up with Mario, and we grew up with SNES, Genesis or Megadrive. And we’re used to missions, and quests, and levels, and story, and narrative. Who am I? How many levels? How many different amulets are there to collect? Or whatever.
We don’t have that; we don’t have the concept of levels or narrative, or anything. That’s… scary sometimes, for us, but there’s this generation growing up with Minecraft rather than Mario. And for them that’s super interesting, and they find The Last of Us really confusing.
There’s that side of things, and that’s one answer, the other side is actually, you know, we do have objectives, and we do have ways to play the game. They are just slightly different. So I can actually play the game just as a pure fighter: I can get in my ship and go into space and decide to play it like Elite. I’ll make a name for myself, and rank up. Just purely build my ship up to the point where I can attack space stations.
Now, you don’t get massive ships – you still stay in quite small ships – because we want to live out that kind of sci-fi fantasy, and for me that kind of goes away if you’re playing EVE and you’re in a massive freighter, it’s like driving a bus through space basically, and getting stuck in traffic. So for us we want things to be immediate, we want the player to feel empowered, we want it to be fast and fun and feel Star Wars-y basically.
So yeah, I can absolutely do that. I’ll find that I can’t just stay in space; that some of my battles are going to take place down over the planets, flying through canyons. Even though I just want to fight and shoot things, I’m going to want to upgrade my ship. I do that by buying new ships, and I start on the outside edge of the galaxy, and the space stations out there have relatively crappy ships. So if I want to get better ships, I’m going to have to fly further into the galaxy; deeper into where things are a bit more mutated and stuff. And I’m going to find the battles more difficult there.
There is a natural difficulty curve, and there is a reward for that. I could be purely combat-orientated – and some people will be – but it probably wouldn’t be the fastest way to upgrade things, the fastest way to get ahead in the game. I’d probably be smart to do a little bit of trading as I’m going, to either gather some resources or bring some from one station to the next, and if I was doing that, I’d probably want to visit some planets.
Basically fuel is really expensive – the fuel you use to travel from one solar system to the next, which is like a hyper jump – and I could just attack things and earn money that way, but it’s probably not the easiest way to earn, you’re going to be spending all of that money on fuel rather than upgrading your ship. A cheap way to earn fuel is to fly down to the planets and do some mining. That’s reasonably immediate, but if I want to survive down there, I’ll probably need to upgrade the weapon that I carry with me, I’ll probably need to upgrade my suit.
TSA: So you have weapons on foot?
David: It’s like a tool.
Sean: We need a good name for it, actually, but basically my big thing is – what we always talk about – is that weapons in games, sci-fi games, aren’t very futuristic. They’re like assault rifles, and battle rifles, you know?
Sean: I want to feel really empowered; we want things to feel a little more like… if you’d imagine what the future would be like. What you have with you is like a good version of the Tricorder [from Star Trek], so it can do various different things: it can be used to attack things, and upgraded in that way, or it can be used to mine, or can be used to scan. So you upgrade that, which you can only do on planet, by finding trading posts, basically – you can only upgrade your suit on planet. You’re going to be doing some of that; you can totally avoid it if you want, but you’ll find that progress is going to be a little bit slower.
So yeah, if you decided “I just want to shoot things”, that is how you’d play. But you could play it loads of different ways: you could play it as a trader, entirely; you could play it as as botanist, or a zoologist, or going out to find things.
TSA: Sounds like the Han Solo simulator I’ve always wanted.
Sean: [laughs] Maybe… that is what we’re after. Science fiction books had a lot more than just… something like Halo is just Afghanistan in the future. It’s just non-stop future war, and it doesn’t feel that different from Call of Duty or whatever, really when it comes down to it. And it’s still just fighting in corridors. What I want is that freedom of space, just to kind of get into trouble and find my own way through. For a lot of people, they will just want to go deeper and deeper into space, and for a lot of people that will be their progress.
TSA: So there’s no sort of win condition, nothing to say “that’s the game over”?
Sean: No, there’s not. One of my favourite games growing up was Elite, and you would play that, and there was a win condition of ranking up to elite, but that wasn’t why I played it. In fact, when I’d get to elite, I would just quit and start again, because I just enjoyed the actual progress, and upgrading the ship and stuff like that.
I feel like we’ve gone too far down that route, where things are really prescribed, you know? Like The Last of Us was one of my favourite games, and I’m super excited for the PS4 version, I’ll buy it and play it again. But when I play it again, it will be the exact same experience I’ve had before. I’ll still enjoy it, like watching a movie again or something like that, but it’ll be exactly the same, I know that. If you’ve played it, we don’t even have to talk about it, because we’ve had the exact same experience; the only thing we can talk about is “did you see it to the end, did you finish it?” and “did you enjoy it?”
TSA: That is kind of the big thing over the past few years with games – you say things like Minecraft – but also, the more open world things, like Far Cry 3. The games where anything can happen, and you have your own stories, which doesn’t have anything to do with the narrative in the game that has been written out and plotted for you.
Sean: What’s interesting to me, as a gamer, is a lot of the Let’s Play videos and seeing how other people play the game, and you want a game that allows that, that has a bit of expression in it, so you can play it and go “I’ll do this funny thing” or “have you seen how you can do this?”
I think the key thing for me, you know how we were saying how it doesn’t have an end or whatever, what I always find with those games is that they have to guess – a designer now has to guess – like “how much content do we build? How long do people want to play this game for?” That just varies from person to person, I might find The Last of Us too short, you might find it the perfect length, you might find it just went on and on, and you hated the middle section or whatever. And that just feels like… why not leave it open to people to play for as long as they’re enjoying it?
TSA: Presumably you can play for ten hours one way, and say “I’m kind of bored doing combat now” and start trading some stuff?
Sean: Yeah, exactly. You’ll probably have the wrong type of ship, but you can trade in, buy a new one, and start playing that way. You might lose a little by doing that, than if you had just played as a trader the entire time, but that’s fine. We want your choices to have consequences, so that it’s not just flitting back and forth, where you think “I’ve made a stupid mistake in buying this ship. Why did I buy something with massive cargo space and no fuel?”
That might be a problem, but you’ve kind of done it to yourself, and it gives you a story, and that story actually, when you say it out loud, sounds kind of cool: “I just blew all of my money on this one big haul, and I was trying to bring it into this unknown space, and I’m an idiot so got shot down, I lost everything.” That’s kind of what it’s about – there’s that Han Solo thing.
That Han Solo reference – which Peter coined, I’m not taking the credit – has appeared all over the internet since we (presumably) first mouthed the words. It seems exactly as though that’s what we’re getting, and we’d just like to thank Sean and the team for taking their time to talk to us and inviting us to see No Man’s Sky.
We’ll have more on the game tomorrow, focusing on the procedural, technical side of things, but you can also read our preview if you missed it earlier.