There’s never been a game like No Man’s Sky. It’s not just the vast, practically endless universe, full of rich colors and promising mysteries, or the bootstraps story of four guys who left their jobs making blockbuster games to forge their own path and craft a true work of art. More than anything, what makes No Man’s Sky amazing is the feverish crescendo of hype it built over the last three years since its announcement—and the fact that developer Hello Games was able to actually complete it with a small team of 15 people.
Players are discovering this week whether the sci-fi adventure lives up to that hype. The game promises to let players explore, gather resources, trade and upgrade their equipment in a virtual universe so large that it’s unlikely two players will ever see the same point. Every planet, every system, is your very own, to name and share as you please.
As with any game of great ambition, though, No Man’s Sky’s launch didn’t go as planned. The game was leaked to players, and initial impressions haven’t been as positive as many had hoped. Despite those headaches, Hello Games co-founder and No Man’s Sky creator Sean Murray took some time to chat with Playboy.com just two days before the game’s full release. We talked about Murray’s path to game-industry fame, the double-edged video game hype cycle, his hopes and regrets for the game and much more. Read an edited transcript below.
This is the crunchiest of crunch times for you. Will you have some breathing room once the game comes out, or is it just on to the next patch?
Once it’s out there’s going to be some influx of people—probably a million or millions people suddenly playing the game. And that will bring its own set of problems with it. But there will probably be some initial firefighting, and then hopefully, hopefully, it’s going to calm down and I can take a break.
Let me try to take your mind off it a bit. When did you start making games?
I got my first computer when I was five. It was for Christmas, and our family got it and we were all going to use it. I totally wasn’t interested before we got it, and then it just appeared and like—it’s weird, I was obsessed, you know? I had an older brother and he was just starting to program because back then you would get like a computer—this makes me sound really old—you would get a computer and you had to type stuff into it, you know? It just wouldn’t work unless you typed stuff into it. He knew how things worked and so he kind of started doing a little bit of programming, and I guess I was copying him and started doing the same. I made my first game probably when I was five, maybe six. It was like a little text adventure.
So when did you start Hello Games? You co-founded the company with Grant, right?
It was with three friends, actually: Grant [Duncan] and [David Ream] and a guy called Ryan [Doyle]. We had all worked together a little bit before and we were all quite close friends. Dave and Grant went to school together, they were my best friends in school and stuff like that. Me and Ryan have been friends for like seven years or something.
I had worked at bigger studios before and worked with those guys there. I had worked at a company called Criterion, which when I joined was really super small, like 10 people, and then that became really big. I left there four years after I started, and they had gone from like 10 people to like nearly 400. They then got bought by EA, which is kind of a big games publisher. And so at that point I decided I wanted to go and do my own thing.
And I guess it had really changed when it had gone from quite a small—like, I don’t know what it’s like for most people, but when I picture people working on video games I picture, you know, some kids in their bedroom or a small group in a basement somewhere.
And that’s not what working at EA is like.
Yeah. EA was like, 200 people in one room, rows and rows and rows of desks. And it just felt strange, you know? Nothing bad, necessarily, but it wasn’t what I’d had in my head when I was a kid. Like when I was a kid, my heroes were id [Software], who made Quake and Doom and stuff like that and was this small group. That felt really real to me. That was what I’d always wanted or looked for or whatever.
Joe Danger was your first game right?
And then there was Joe Danger 2, and then you guys decided to just go in an entirely different direction. You never imagined that No Man’s Sky would become the phenomenon that it is, right? But what was that progression like for you guys at the time?
We did Joe Danger and we’d done it for a couple of years, and it had been successful and we had grown a bit, a really good thing. But for me it was I guess starting to feel like a company rather than this fun, crazy thing that we had been doing to begin with. And I kind of missed that. I missed the kind of start-up feeling of doing something and not quite knowing how you were going to pull it off type of thing.
And so instead we were having lots of conversations about how we were going to do very similar type games and what size of studio we would grow to and things like that. And like making indie games, it can be really struggling, so like often press or publishers won’t really care about your game so much—totally understandably, [because] you’re not the most important thing. I guess I felt like the things that we were making were cool but didn’t really have much impact. I just sat down like, now, five years ago, and started to write some code. No one else was in the office and I stayed overnight and just started writing something. And the next day some of the guys came in and I was showing them. I was really excited, like “This is what we’re going to do next.” And it was nothing—it looked like crap, you know? I was really excited about it, and I kind of—like, “My mojo’s back” type of thing.
People who like video games fucking love video games, you know?
So you set out to make something that you felt would have a greater impact.
Yes. This is hard to describe: You’re having this kind of mid-life crisis, and you’re not actually thinking, “Oh my god this is going to blow people away.” What you’re thinking is like, “I don’t know whether I’m a good programmer. I don’t know whether I would actually be capable of doing something like really different.” You know, it’s like challenging yourself. I wasn’t thinking “This will be some crazy like commercial success” or “this will be some big hit with people.” I was thinking “I want to do something really cool that I’m excited about,” you know? And that was what drove it.
We actually, when three of us, the three others joined me and we like sat in that room, the pitch to everyone was like: We have just spent a few years making Joe Danger and we made some money from that, and we have to take that money and get it out of us—like do something crazy and burn through this and not worry about ever having commercial success or whatever. Let’s just do something that we really enjoy for the next year and see what we get to.
I don’t know how often you go on the subreddit—hopefully not that often because those people are crazy. I think anything that builds to this level, it’s inevitable that there is going to be some backlash, and No Man’s Sky is no exception. How do you guys deal with that aspect of it?
[laughing] Yeah, it’s a tough one. There’s a thing in video games, I think more than any medium, where this is excitement, and excitement’s really good, but for some reason, for some people, that turns into hype, which is a kind of an unrealistic, intangible level of excitement kind of thing where it’s unattainable. I am always nervous and terrified about people getting hyped about our game. I definitely have always tried to just show great gameplay, stand on stage at E3 and just play the game and be reasonably open and honest about what the game is or what we’re doing, you know, and be open as a studio. And when the game comes out, yeah, there will inevitably be a backlash of some sort, because some people have been waiting for like three years! And it’s actually really hard to wait for anything for three years and feel like justified. You want it to be perfect, you know?
And you’ll have seen that around lots of good games. Destiny had loads of hype around it, and then it was actually when it came out it mildly disappointed people, which I really didn’t understand. But two years later, I’m still playing Destiny and all my friends are still playing Destiny. It does happen, you know, and it’s kind of an unfortunate side effect of the fact that people who like video games fucking love video games, you know?
You weather whatever comes and then the people who are still around are the ones who like it, right? So you get that positive community ultimately.
Right. There is that for sure, but there’s also a thing—and this is really weird. Nobody on reddit will understand this, or on neogaf or any of those places, right, but we do play tests every now and then where it’ll all be anonymous and it’ll be NDA’d and we will get people in to play our game. And it will just be like, 20 people at random from people who are buying games at game stores. We just pick people at random and get them in to play the game. Of those 20 people we will be lucky if one of them has heard of No Man’s Sky, and that’s happened like, time and time again.
And everyone forgets that. No one realizes that the majority of people who buy games, they don’t necessarily go on game websites, and the thing that is amazing for me is to watch these people play the game, and they play for three hours, say, and they think they’re playing what in their mind is a sort of survival sandbox game where they’re trying to repair a spaceship, and they do that, and then they get in that spaceship, and they take off from that planet. And they were never expecting that to happen. It blows their mind! [laughing] And there’s that priceless reaction where they’re turning each other around like, “What’s going on?!” We make the game for them as much as for anyone, you know?
If you were going to try to be less humble, what would you say that you guys have done to get you here?
We just put aside being afraid of failing, I think. At every point, when we had to make a decision, we would talk about that decision and somebody would point out something being risky or having not been done before or being problematic, and it’s become almost a joke within the group: As soon as somebody points that out, that is the thing we’re going to go and do. As soon as somebody says “We can’t possibly get it ready for that date,” it’s like, “Oh no. Well, you’ve said it now. The challenge has been laid down and now we have to do that.” [laughing]
And I know that sounds cheesy, but that is–we had already achieved like I would say mild success [with Joe Danger], and it just felt kind of empty and kind of like a failure. And we were like, I would rather kind of be an actual proper failure or properly do something different than how this feels right now. I don’t want this to be our normality.
You didn’t think you’d peaked.
Yeah, like I thought—I can tell you what I thought. When I was a kid, what made me want to get into games was reading about a guy called John Carmack, who worked at id, who’d done Quake and stuff like that. And I like, I saw him as like a great programmer, right? And it would have been my dream to work in games, but I hadn’t thought I’d be good enough to do that; I thought it was only for like, for gods like John Carmack, you know? I didn’t even apply for jobs for ages. And then I did, and I got a job, and I felt like an impostor. “I’m not good enough to work here,” or whatever. And then as I did, I felt like I fit in OK kind of thing. But I just felt like, “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything.” I’d worked on a bunch of games and they’ve done alright and stuff like that, but it didn’t feel like I’d done anything really impactful or really worthwhile. You reach that point where you question whether you were ever going to do anything like that, you know?
So what is the next goal?
I know this sounds weird again, but we’d have made this game because we have been—and this is the thing most people don’t realize, because we’ve self-funded it. I think most people would assume that because No Man’s Sky is a thing that most people know about, I guess, or that some, within the gaming industry people know about, you would assume that Hello Games is already in some way “well off” or well-funded or has grown. We haven’t! We’re still really small, we’re self-funded, and we’re really constrained.
There’s so many things that have been positive that have come from that, because we’ve had to make really clever decisions, but there’s so many things where you’re like [sighing] you know, I wish we could have done this, this or this to a way higher standard. And there is a shot, if the community doesn’t go too crazy when it comes out, that hopefully we’re going to be able to work with them and talk to them, and everyone’s going to keep their heads and we’re going to continue to update the game and make it approach the higher standard that I’d really like.
But like, aside from that, what’s going on in the back of my head is if we weren’t on this shoestring budget, if we weren’t this tiny, tiny super constrained team, if we just had a little bit more, just let me show you what we could do. Every other studio with like 400 people, and just like, 12 or 15 of us. For every one of us, they have our whole team size again. And like if we only had half of that, if we had a quarter, an eighth, there’s so many cool things we could have done.
Do you have a call to action for fans or players or anyone reading this? What would you say to people? What can they do?
We all just play and buy the same kind of triple-A first-person shooter every year or whatever, and that’s cool, you know, that should exist for sure. But there’s so much more that games can be than that, and there’s so much more to get excited about. And right now publishers think that that is all that people want, and they think that the average player is actually like probably not the most refined and intelligent and well-rounded person. But I actually think, when I get to game shows, there’s people from wide backgrounds who are really interesting. And them getting excited about things that are a bit different—that is the most powerful thing in the games industry.
Yeah, more of that. More No Man’s Sky.
[laughing] No Man’s Sky 2, here we come.